December 1, 2019
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Is it just me, or do any of you find it a bit odd and maybe even a little unsettling that Jesus seems to be suggesting that we should remain in the same set of preparedness for an unexpected appearance in our lives by the Son of Man . . . and a common thief? Because that’s the precise example that He seems to be using here. I have to tell you that while I don’t consider myself to be a coward by any means, if I somehow knew the precise hour a thief was planning to show up at my house . . . personally I’d make darn sure that me and my loved ones were nowhere near the family dwelling. I’d let the police be the welcoming committee!
Have any of you here this morning ever been the victims of a home burglary? How many of you were home at the time? Given the choice, would you have maybe preferred to be somewhere, anywhere else? Terri and I were burgled a few years ago in a snatch and grab that cost us most of Terri’s jewelry, including her wedding and engagement rings. This terrible experience sprang to mind as I read today’s Gospel in which Jesus speaks to His disciples of the coming “Day of the Lord.”
While a superficial reading might leave one with the impression that Jesus is suggesting that we should be there to prevent the break-in, I don’t think that’s at all what He’s about here. In fact, as we take a closer look at this Gospel, we discover that when it comes to Jesus returning, the so-called “Day of the Lord,” often referred to or equated with His “Second Coming,”—erroneously in my opinion, as we’ll see in a moment—the only clear and unequivocal message that we find repeated several times, is that no one, except the Father, knows when that day will come: not the Son, not the Angels in heaven, not the Holy Spirit, and certainly not you or I. As an aside, should any of you have the unfortunate experience of being burglarized while you are away from home, please don’t make the mistake I did in assuming that your call to the police will produce, you know, an immediate response of a team of detectives and forensic experts from one of those CSI teams popularized by television and HBO, who’ll show up with all their cool gadgets, like ultraviolet flash bulbs to expose critical evidence invisible to the naked eye, resulting in your case being solved in about 47 minutes, with all your property being returned. In fact when I mentioned to the sheriff’s deputy that they might want to take plaster casts of the footprints in the flowerbed outside the window that was broken into—I think it took all of his willpower not to laugh in my face.
But getting back to our Gospel, despite how it looks on the surface, I don’t believe for a minute that Jesus is advising us to live in wait to confront the burglar. What he’s doing is employing a device quite common to rabbinical instruction among first century Jews. In order to make a point, the Rabbi would pose an improbable, even impossible, scenario and then proceed by saying that, since this is unlikely ever to happen—like knowing eactly when a thief is coming—the next best thing is always to be in a constant state of readiness and preparedness. “Be ready,” says Jesus, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
We also must not allow ourselves to be distracted by Jesus’ reference to Noah and the flood. It’s being used only as an illustration to demonstrate just how suddenly the end will come—be it the end of all civilization or what we refer to as the Final Judgment, or the end of our lives, or our particular judgment, our personal encounter with Jesus when our journey here has ended. Either way, it is likely to come suddenly and unexpectedly, just as the great flood when the people had no idea and no warning that the Day of the Lord was even coming; no chance to get their lives in order as God was angry at humankind’s wickedness and had resolved to wipe them from the face of the earth. So it was, that we hear Jesus telling the disciples that “In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking and giving in marriage until the days when Noah entered the Ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and wiped them all away!”
In the days since Noah and the great flood, things had changed in God’s relationship with, and God’s intentions for, His creation. This time around, people would be forewarned that someday a final judgment would be coming—for the world in general and for each individual in particular--when his or her life’s journey had come to an end. Not only had there been many warnings from the prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and others, but also from His only Son, Jesus, whose Incarnation through the Blessed Virgin Mary had opened the door of God’s Heavenly Kingdom to all of humankind, offering them eternal salvation.
And yet, there was a catch: Salvation is freely offered to all, but the door to the Kingdom, opened through the Incarnation and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is a very narrow door. Those who would seek entry having lived their lives on earth apart from God, not heeding His commandments, not walking in His way, while leading self-centered lives, turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the plight and the cries of the sick, the friendless, and the needy, and to widows and orphans in their distress—such people will find themselves unable to enter the narrow door of God’s Kingdom. Nor will they be able to plead ignorance as an excuse as they stand before God’s throne because, as we say in one of our Eucharistic Prayers, “Through prophets and sages you revealed your righteous law; and in the fullness of time you sent your only Son, born of a woman, to fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom of peace.” In other words, to open for all the faithful that narrow door to the Kingdom.
All God asks of us in return is that we prepare ourselves during this earthly journey by seeking to live every day here on earth as if we were already citizens of that “Kingdom yet to come.” Of course we will stumble off that narrow path God has set before us. What matters is that when, not if, we do, we stand up, brush off the dirt, come to our senses like the prodigal son, open our eyes, repent of our sins, and take the hand of God which is always extended, allowing God to set us back on the only road that will lead us to salvation through that narrow door.
But one thing we do know is that whether we are talking about the end of the entire world, or the end of our individual lives on this “fragile earth, our island home,” we are likely to find ourselves standing before the Son of Man to give an account of our lives at an “unexpected hour.” What we don’t want is for that hour to arrive at a time in our lives when we are unprepared, a time when that outstretched hand of God remains invisible to us because we have been living our lives as our ancestors were in those days before the flood. Which brings us to that phrase we hear a lot with reference to Jesus. I’m speaking of His “Second Coming,” which carries with it the unfortunate suggestion that our Lord comes to earth only twice: once at His Incarnation in Bethlehem through His mom, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and at the end of time when Jesus “comes again to judge the living and the dead,” as we will soon be saying in the Nicene Creed. Since the entire world has now been waiting nearly 2,000 years for His final return, it makes it kind of hard to feel any real sense of urgency as we go about our daily lives. And yet, the Bible never says that Jesus comes to earth only twice. The term “Second Coming” is just an unfortunate creation of Christianity, having to do only with His birth and His promised return at the Final Judgment. In fact, if we take the Doctrine of the Trinity seriously, the Lord’s first coming was in the Garden of Eden when God confronted Adam and Eve with humankind’s “Original Sin.” Later, in Genesis, the Lord came again to put an end to us humans trying to reach the status of God in building the Tower of Babel. God keeps on “coming” throughout the “Older” Testament—to Moses through the burning bush, to visit and to redeem the people of Israel; through the Psalms in response to the cries of King David and others who were in trouble; and, finally, in the New Testament where we find Jesus coming to Paul on the Road to Damascus, to the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, and to those frightened eleven in the upper room, to get them out of their hiding place and into the world—and that’s only a few. Jesus is still coming! Many of us here this morning can remember Jesus coming to us in our times of greatest need. At our passing He will also come, as He did on Thanksgiving to Larry Dunphy and earlier this year to Bob Kustom, to take us by the hand and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Lord.”
And so, not only is it unhelpful to our state of preparedness, but also untrue to imagine that Jesus comes only twice—at the Incarnation and at the world’s Final Judgment. We need to remember that God is intimately aware of every aspect of our daily lives: watching over us as God the Father, helping us to redeem ourselves daily as God the Son, and guiding us into all truth as God the Holy Spirit.
This ultimate truth is expressed in a prayer that is our opening collect every year on the fourth Sunday in Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation. It goes “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son, Jesus Christ, at His coming may find in us a mansion prepared for Himself.”
To help us all focus on that important truth and less on Christ’s so-called “Second Coming,” allow me to leave you with a slightly altered seasonal song, but one which I recommend we might be better off humming to ourselves whenever temptation rears its ugly head: “You better not sin; you better aim high; you better watch out; I’m telling you why. Jesus Christ is coming today. He sees you when you’re sleeping; He knows when you’re awake; He knows if you’ve been bad or good; so be good for goodness sake!
So you’d better not sin; you’d better aim high; you better watch out; I’m telling you why.
Jesus Christ is coming . . . today!
December 8, 2019
“He went into all the region around Jordan, preaching a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
There’s a story, attributed to Plato, which some believe served as an inspiration to J.R.R. Tolkien for his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. It concerns a young shepherd by the name of Gyges, who was in service to the king. One day an earthquake plummeted Gyges down into a great chamber beneath the earth’s surface. It was filled with amazing treasures, including what appeared to be a gold ring on the bony finger of a skeleton. Ignoring the other treasures too obvious to carry out, Gyges took the ring and climbed out of the pit. Later, he discovered to his amazement, as he was idly twisting the ring, that when he twisted the ring to the left, he became invisible to those around him; and that when he twisted it in the opposite direction, he became visible again. Having made this discovery, Gyges began using the ring to steal treasures from the king, knowing that he would never be caught and would therefore never have to face the consequences of his actions.
On this second Sunday of Advent and given the theme of John’s preaching repentance, this fable raises for us, I believe, this question: While we’re not likely to come into possession of any rings that render us invisible, if it were, however, possible to remove all consequences or fears of punishment for those things “done and left undone” in our confession, would there be any reason left to repent? Any reason to ask forgiveness and to seek honesty, virtue, and character? While I believe this to be an important reflection for all human beings, since in Genesis, God pretty much places us at the top of the pecking order while entrusting His creation to our care, it is a critical question for those of us who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ. Since along with putting us humans in charge, God also gifted us with free will, I have to say that looking at the world we all wake up to these days, I fear that the answer of a fair number of Christians might well be something like, “Hmm, no consequences for our actions and therefore no need for repentance? I don’t know; is that such a bad thing?” Because, whether or not we care to admit it, many Christians, including, quite possibly, some of us here today, have at times struggled with the concept of repentance, which figures so prominently in the ministry of Jesus and especially of His wild and wooly cousin, John. Why? Because in the very act of saying that we repent, we are also acknowledging that we have done something wrong, something worthy of repentance—and quite possibly something sinful in the eyes of God. That’s heavy stuff. And, if you’re thinking about now, something like, “Sure, but this is just a hypothetical situation—removing all consequences of our actions, this would never happen in the real world,”—let me offer just two words: “Nazi Germany.” Just over 80 years ago, in the 20th century, a civilized, industrial, “God-fearing” nation, the birthplace of Martin Luther, experienced the horrible consequences of removing the consequences for “man’s inhumanity to man.” For twelve horrible years, it was as if Hitler had somehow found a ring to turn which rendered Germany invisible to the rest of the civilized world and while under that cloak of invisibility, Hitler gave to the German people, primarily low-level bureaucrats, absolute power with no consequences, over Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others considered not pure in Hitler’s warped mind. The result: twelve million human beings, tortured and murdered under circumstances that made the Inquisition look like a fraternity hazing.
We’ve all heard the saying that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The saying conveys the opinion that, as a person’s power increases, their moral sense diminishes. Add to that no consequences and no repentance; and what you get is an Adolph Hitler and another Nazi Germany. There’s a reason, I suspect, that one of the first powers that the Risen Christ passed onto His disciples on that first Easter evening, was the power to forgive sins, what we what we now call “Absolution.” But this forgiveness can never be given unless a sinner confesses his or her sins and repents of them. Bottom line: In any society, in order to guard against chaos, the abuse of power, and worse, there must be some system, some method, some safeguard, if you will, that encourages all members of that society to regularly acknowledge wrongs done to others, to ask forgiveness for these wrongs by repenting of them, and to be given a clean slate by someone that they acknowledge has that right and that power. I believe that I just described Christianity—or at least what it was supposed to be as Jesus envisioned it.
It has been said that reconciliation, which requires repentance, lies at the very heart of the Christian Gospel; and so, instead of cringing at admitting our wrongdoings, at repenting and asking forgiveness, we should be thankful that God has given to us a way to wipe our slate clean, at least once a week, and has encouraged us to make that wonderful, freeing gift available to others by spreading this good news. But before we can effectively share the soul-cleansing gift of repentance through confession and absolutioln with others, we must first embrace it ourselves. Trust me when I say that the confession, especially the “we humbly repent” part is not a big favorite with us of the Episcopal persuasion. Oh, we do it; don’t get me wrong. But do we like it? Let me ask you a question; and please, don’t come to me later wanting to know where I obtained the information I’m about to share with you because I don’t recall and I’m asking that you just trust me on this one.
There are eleven different forms of confession sprinkled throughout our Book of Common Prayer. While I wouldn’t use the word favorite when it comes to confessions, what do you suppose might be the preferred form of confession among the faithful? Actually, this is kind of an unfair question, since this form I’m thinking of isn’t located where you would normally find the confession in a service of morning or evening prayer or the Eucharist. So let’s try this; please take a prayer book right now and find page 395. Look over the confession that you find there. I have a liturgical gold star for whoever tells me in what way it differs from the other ten confessions in the prayer book. “Bingo!” No confession and no repentance—just a request to be “forgiven for sins known and unknown and things done and left undone.” Now I’m not sure how this form made its way into our prayer book in 1979; and I will concede that its brevity might also be a factor in its being the preferred form of confession, but, Hey! No confession? No repentance? I rest my case. So, while we merry band of Anglican/Episcopalians might be light years removed from those “fire and brimstone” churches, I’m thinking of 19th century preacher Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermons about “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” neither are we at the opposite end of the spectrum—those new age, happy clappy, no denomination churches that end up creating their own list of sinful behaviors to manipulate and frighten their members, while giving them no opportunity for confession, repentance, and absolution. What that creates are sheep ripe for the plucking.
I think that when it comes to sin, to repentance, to absolution and forgiveness, we Episcopalians tend to land somewhere in the middle, which is why Anglicanism is often referred to as having adopted the “Via Media”—the middle way, or the way between the two extremes of 16th century Catholicism and Puritanism. I guess this explains why our Episcopal Church remains the largest church of “second choice” in the United States--a church where one spouse who was raised Roman Catholic and the other Protestant often find a comfortable home to worship and to live out their faith. We started today’s message with repentance and many church goers’ natural aversion not only to confessing sins, but then having to repent and ask forgiveness. We then discovered, however, or at least I hope we discovered and now agree, that confession, repentance, and absolution are non-negotiable when it comes to living a Christian life on earth and aspiring to continue our journey after death in God’s Kingdom. I want now to share with you all, hoping you may find it helpful, a personal revelation that I had about five years ago that has changed, not only my daily prayer life, but also any reservations I may have had about that trinity of confession, repentance, and absolution. It all started innocently enough on my daily morning walk in San Diego. Since I didn’t particularly enjoy getting up early to walk two or three miles five days a week—especially before coffee and when the temperature would occasionally plunge into the mid 50s in the winter. One day, to help the time go by, I started using my daily walk to say my daily prayers. A few months later, for no particular reason, I started throwing a confession in there. It was simple; but, unlike the one we do in church, I tried hard to recall and to name those things “done and left undone,” for which I was asking God’s forgiveness. Say, for example, moving this now to Dixon, having uncharitable or judgmental thoughts toward that person in the express lane at County Market who, you know, has more than the eight items allowed in their basket when you’re in a hurry. And, please, don’t tell me you’ve never counted someone’s items who’s ahead of you in an express line, or you’ll just have another sin to confess. I mean, we all sin, daily, in one way or another; and to deny it, as I said, just adds one more to the list. A daily confession with repentance not only wipes your slate clean, but brings a smile to the face of God.
Whether it’s done, as mine is, during a walk or while exercising, doing the laundry, washing dishes, or driving around—doesn’t matter. I now look forward to it, not only as a spiritual discipline, but because I’ve found that somewhere between the opening admission, “I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,” and the closing petition, “Have mercy on me and forgive me,”—somewhere in there my soul begins to feel lighter, unburdened, cleansed, and ready to face whatever the day might heap on my plate. I don’t need the absolution that comes on the Sabbath, and I know God has already forgiven me and wiped my slate clean. And so, with humility, I offer this spiritual practice to all of you this morning and ask that, if you accept the challenge, please let me know how it went for you.
On this second Sunday of Advent with John’s cries of “Repent!” ringing in our ears, urging us to “turn our lives around by doing a “180”---I offer you a modern parable about “Wabush,” a town in a remote part of Labrador, Canada. Wabush was completely isolated, reachable only by air, as it has a small airport, until a road was built—the gravel packed Trans-Labrador Highway. It’s been called one of the loneliest roads in the world. If you were to travel this road for six to eight hours to get into Wabush, there is only one way for you to leave—at least by car—and that’s by turning around, by doing a “180.” Because of our God-given free will, we have all arrived at a town called Sin in our lives, and we will no doubt be visiting that particular place many more times before we end up standing before God to face our particular judgment. The only way to get back on God’s road, leading to the Kingdom is to do as people must do in order to get out of Wabush—Turn around!
But that’s where the analogy ends, because as Christians, even when no one else knows, even if we had a ring that renders us invisible, we have only one way to get back on that road that will lead us to salvation. It’s called repentance; and without it—there’s just no way out of town!
December 15, 2019
Several years ago in the Reader’s Digest, a lady reported finding what she thought was the perfect birthday card for her husband. On the outside it read, “Sweetheart, you are the answer to my prayers.” But when she opened the card, on the inside it read, “You’re not exactly what I prayed for, but apparently you are the answer.”
I can’t help but wonder whether a similar thought might have been running through the mind of John, as he languished in a Roman prison from which he would never leave alive, but believing that he had at least accomplished the mission that he was born for: To prepare the way for the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth. And yet, as reports began filtering back to John of what Jesus had been doing, he began to have doubts about whether he’d been backing the right Messiah; or, to paraphrase the greeting card, I wonder if John might have been thinking something like, “Well, cousin, you’re not exactly what we’ve been praying for all these years, but I guess that maybe you are the answer!”
For thousands of years the Jewish people had been waiting patiently for the Messiah predicted by their great prophets like Isaiah. But they had been praying for and expecting a warrior-like Messiah, cast in the image of the legendary King David, who, as a young boy, had brought down the Philistine giant Goliath with nothing more than a sling and a rock, before growing up into a fierce warrior king. And so it was that during those missing years in the life of Jesus, from age 12 until he reappeared at the Jordan River at around the age of 30 to be baptized, John had been doing his thing to prepare the way of the Lord. It must have been a terribly difficult and lonely life—roaming around the wilderness of Judea, dressed in animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey. And yet, when Jesus appeared at the River Jordan, John believed it had all been worth it, until, that is, he started hearing exactly what Jesus had been up to. Jesus, he learned, was going to weddings with His friends and turning water into wine. While John was screaming at sinners in the wilderness to “Repent,” and preaching fire and brimstone, Jesus was dining with sinners in comfortable homes and telling everyone to love one another. John might have hoped things would change, after he was thrown in prison for accusing King Herod of adultery—probably not John’s smartest move—but, no, Jesus still continued His pattern of consorting with sinners, healing lepers and the lame, and preaching good news. And so, like the woman searching for that perfect birthday card, John sent his disciples to ask his cousin, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
I don’t know about you, but I find the answer sent back to John by Jesus kind of interesting. I mean, Jesus never comes right out and says, “Yes, John, I am the one who is to come.” Instead, Jesus goes for more show and less tell in his response. “Go,” says Jesus to John’s disciples. “Tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive their sight; the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed; the deaf hear; the dead are raised; and the poor have good news brought to them.”
If these words sound familiar, they should; as we all heard them just a few minutes ago from the great prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament reading. Isaiah’s words would have been even more familiar to John because all Jews knew of Isaiah’s prophesies to an oppressed people—prophesies which assured them they were not alone; that God was with them, and that better times lie ahead. And so, in a gentle and oblique, but nevertheless a firm way, Jesus was reminding John of just where John fit into God’s grand design for the salvation of all humanity. He had fulfilled his calling, and he had done it well; but his work was over, and it was not his place to start questioning plans which God had formed before creation. John’s questions, born, no doubt, out of frustration, revealed that he and his disciples had been looking for the Messiah “in all the wrong places,” for God’s Messiah was not to be found amidst the sounds of battle, the angry voices of a violent uprising, or sitting on the golden throne of a ruler. God’s Messiah, Jesus reminded John, would be found wherever the blind receive sight and the lame walk; wherever lepers are cured, and wherever good news is brought to the poor. The only earthly throne to be ascended by the Messiah sent by God would be a wooden cross.
For all of his good works, as he sat brooding in a Roman prison, John had allowed his vision and his agenda to blind him to the signs of Isaiah’s prophecies that were breaking out all around him. As many are doing to this very day, John had been looking for a Messiah, for a Savior of his own design; and as a result, found himself questioning the true Messiah sent by God. The subtext of the question John sent to Jesus, asking if he was the one “who is to come,” went something like, “Because you sure aren’t acting like the Messiah I was expecting and had been praying for.”
And so it is that John becomes for us kind of an every-person that each of us can relate to whenever we find ourselves locked up in prisons of our own construction—those prisons we are all familiar with, built with the bricks of doubt or despair; with bars of illness or a crisis of faith. Places where we sit, as did John, 2,000 years ago behind real bars, crying out in anger and in anguish to God, “I’m sick and tired of waiting for the deliverance you promised or the Savior I expected. So, Lord, are you the one, or should I start looking around for another?”
And what gives rise to such questions today is the same thing that prompted John’s question in prison. We grow impatient with God, wanting God to act on those things that we see as important and the sooner the better. In that, we’re no different from many 1st century Jews, including Bible Hall of Famer John the Baptist, who clearly did not see in his cousin, Jesus, what he wanted and expected in a Messiah.
The result was that while the Jewish leaders feared Jesus, and the Romans killed him, many Jews of the day simply began to resent him—angry and disappointed that he wasn’t meeting their expectations of what a real Messiah should be—someone that they could cheer and applaud from the sidelines, as he single handedly threw the Romans out of power, making all of their lives better.
These wild expectations of Jesus which, in different ways, are still around today, help us, I believe, to explain the rather strange comment He makes to John’s disciples. At least it seemed a bit strange to me when Jesus ends his list of examples of prophesies being fulfilled by saying, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” I truly had no idea what that meant until I was able to find a more accurate translation from the original Greek. It comes out like this, “Blessed is anyone who does not find me an obstacle to their faith.” As strange as that may sound—Jesus, the object of our faith, becoming an obstacle to our faith—that’s exactly what was going on back then, and it’s still going on today. Here’s how it happens. John and most 1st century Jews had taken all the words of prophets like Isaiah and then created in their minds a Messiah sent by God, who would meet all of their expectations of what a Messiah should be. Think for just a minute about the rash of wildly popular superhero movies these past few years—Batman, Captain America, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, Spider Man. If there had been Superheroes back in the 1st century, I suspect that the Messiah they were expecting would have been something like all of our current crop of superheroes rolled into one. “Hey, got a problem with those Romans? Just flash that Messiah signal in the sky and quicker than you can say, ‘Shazam,’ He’s there singing, ‘Here I come to save the day!’—coming to fix things to your expectations!”
Of course, once they are fixed, he would conveniently return to his Savior Cave, making no demands on our lives until he was needed again. If we’re being honest, that’s pretty much the kind of God that many people today would prefer to worship: “Come when I need you. Do what I want. And then, please, just leave me alone until next I call for you.” But God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, has a slightly different scenario in mind. Here's where that strange quote from Jesus comes into play. Those who want that “Superhero Savior,” who swoops in to solve all their problems and then just leaves them alone until the next crisis—it’s that group who “takes offense,” to quote from our Gospel, at a Savior who wants something from them in return, who wants them to be a part of His team as disciples to carry out God’s work in the world. That group finds the kind of Savior sent by God in Jesus Christ to be an obstacle to their faith. But that’s exactly the kind of Savior that God sent in Christ, and that’s the kind of Savior we must accept and follow if we expect to inherit the fruits of God’s kingdom. Staying with my theme, let’s just imagine God explaining how it must be as He welcomes us into the “League of Super Disciples”: “So, my children, here’s how it works. I’ll be handling all the Heavenly stuff—Resurrection, Salvation, Eternal Life, as well as the occasional miracle. You, however, with my help, are responsible for bringing the Kingdom to earth to all those blind to the love in the world that they may receive their sight. To those paralyzed by fear, to find new hope; to help free those who are locked in prisons of hopelessness, despair, and loss of faith. The list goes on, but you get the idea. You all signed on for this at your Baptism; and those vows—to me—are renewed every year. If you’re looking around for the Messiah these days, don’t make John’s mistake by looking in all the wrong places. If you’re looking for the face of my Son on earth, then look each morning in the mirror and ask yourself three questions. ‘What did I do yesterday? What will I do today? and What am I going to do tomorrow to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to free the prisoners, give sight to the blind and bring light to those in darkness? What am I doing, what will I do to make straight His path to fulfill the ancient prophesies and to prepare the way of the Lord in this generation?’”
Now, get to work, “Times a wastin’”
December 22, 2019
There’s a courthouse in Ohio that stands in a unique location. Raindrops that fall on the northside of the roof go into Lake Ontario and the Gulf of St. Lawrence; while those falling on the south side go into the Mississippi River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. At precisely the point at the peak of the roof, just a gentle puff of wind can determine the destiny of thousands upon thousands of raindrops—whether they end up in the Gulf or in the Atlantic Ocean, a difference of more than 2,000 miles. Hearing of this courthouse, with its random raindrops phenomenon, got me to thinking about whether in our lives, there may have been a single decision which might forever have influenced our destiny—even our salvation, sending our lives into the Gulf or into the Atlantic. I would certainly hope not; and yet, as we hear today the story of a young Jewish carpenter some 2,000 years ago struggling with a personal decision which would not only change forever his life, but also the future of the entire human race, it’s clear that such things can and do happen. It’s been Joseph’s fate, of course, to have his story forever overshadowed almost to the point of invisibility—by Mary’s unforgettable “Yes” to the Angel Gabriel, making her the “Theotokos,” or “Christ bearer,” the earthly mother of God’s Son, Jesus. While this is as it should be, we tend to forget that had Joseph followed through with his original intent to “dismiss her quietly,” as Matthew’s Gospel reports—who knows what would have happened in the course of human history. Because while Mary’s much more famous, if that’s the right word, “Here I am, servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” spoken to Gabriel—gets all the press, if Joseph had exercised his legal rights as a first century betrothed Jewish man to dismiss his mysteriously pregnant wife-to-be, we all might not be here this morning. While I’m quite sure that God had a Plan B, in case Joseph or Mary had chosen to exercise their free will with a different answer—it’s unlikely that God’s alternate plan would have us all here today in exactly the same circumstances that Plan A has led us to. We’ll never know. But let’s get back to Joseph and what happened after his first inclination to dismiss Mary quietly, upon learning of her sudden pregnancy. While today a pregnant teenage bride-to-be would cause hardly a ripple among her family and friends, things were just a little different under 1st century Jewish law. A betrothal—equivalent to our engagement—was then considered to be as binding as the marriage—which was a mere formality. Any public disclosure of Mary’s condition would bring not only disgrace to Mary and her family, but could also be life-threatening. Joseph wanted to spare her that; but at the same time, was not inclined to go through with the marriage.
As Joseph was pondering these things, there came to him suddenly in a dream, an Angel of the Lord with some startling news: Joseph had been chosen to play a role in a long-awaited Jewish prophesy. But he could not be forced to accept his role as essentially, the step-father of the Messiah, any more than Mary could have been forced into the role of being the “Theotokos” or “God bearer.” Can we even begin to imagine how this proposal must have sounded to poor Joseph?
I can almost hear his thought process and response to the Angel in his dream:
“Okay, let me see if I’ve got this straight. My intended bride, Mary, is now with a child that was conceived by something called the Holy Spirit. I am supposed to accept this child as my own and to name him Jesus because he’s actually God’s Son. When little Jesus is all grown up, he’s going to save people from their sins and offer to them eternal life? How am I doing so far? I suppose when He’s grown up, you’re going to tell me He’ll start performing miracles as well? Don’t tell me; let me guess. Walking on water? Turning water into wine? Healing lepers? Hey, why not just raise the dead back to life? What? Really! You cannot be serious! You know what? As honored as I am at being selected, I think I’m just going to pass. “
While that is how I, or any logical, rational person might have responded, instead we read that, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the Angel of the Lord had commanded him.” And actually, that’s an unfortunate translation, as it seems to negate Joseph’s free will. The Greek word “Piostasso,” is better translated as, “He did as the Angel of the Lord had bid him.” Have you ever thought about how completely impossible and far-fetched some of God’s plans for us appear if we’re looking at them only through the lenses of our human experiences? I mean if any one had told us, when Terri and I were married in October 1986, that one year later I would be a seminary student in Berkeley, California, and we would be living in a student apartment with our combined family of three children, surviving on about one fourth of our 1985 income, we would have laughed in their face before suggesting a visit to their closest psychiatric hospital. And yet, that is exactly what happened! So it is, to our glazed expressions of disbelief, to our wide eyes and dropped jaws, God just smiles and says, “With humans, this would be impossible; but with me, nothing is impossible.” This divine assurance echoes across the centuries, freezing us humans in the tracks of our doubts, our uncertainties, and our fears—from Eden to Mt. Sinai, from Noah to the Exodus, from Bethlehem to Calvary . . . to Dixon, Illinois—just as they did for a confused, obscure Jewish carpenter called Joseph so many years ago.
But hear this. In the months preceding the birth of Jesus, we find four separate angelic appearances to those who would play a part in God’s game-changing, unfolding drama. To Zechariah, father of the unborn child who would grow up to be John the Baptist, to Mary, and to Joseph, and finally to those shepherds tending their flocks not far from the stable where Jesus was to be born in a manger. All four appearances share a common theme as well as a common message to those who would play critical roles in the historic event. What is that common thread, weaving all of these angelic visits together? “Be not afraid!” Comforting words to them 2,000 years ago; comforting words to us today.
Fear not; when, like Joseph, we face turning points, crises, or feel those winds of change blowing in our lives. Fear not because we are in very good company. All we need do is to offer up in prayer our questions, our fears, and our anxieties; and then invite the Lord’s presence into our lives. Then cast our memories back in time until, “Behold!” The same hands that might today dance across a keyboard, wield a paint brush or a hammer; that might drive a car or help to build up a business—those same hands—our hands, will find themselves clasped firmly in the calloused hands of that young Jewish carpenter facing a personal crisis so long ago. To Joseph, to us, God whispers through the Holy Spirit, “Be not afraid.”
Are there turning points, critical decisions facing you or a loved one? Do you sometimes feel, as I once heard someone say, that God spoke only to people in the Bible and has been silent for nearly 2,000 years? Or that if God is still speaking to us today, He’s sure taking His sweet time getting around to you? If that’s how you feel, have you ever considered the possibility that God has been trying to get through, only to find that your line is always busy, or that you’re the one doing all the talking? Several years ago, inspirational speaker and pastor, Tony Campolo offered his take on this, likening the prayers of many people to a very one-sided phone conversation: “Hello, God? Please grant this; do that; give me guidance; heal Tom, Dick, and Harry. Amen and Goodbye!” Call ended! The truth is, and I confess being guilty of this, often people are never quiet long enough for God to get a word in edgewise. And then we hear them cry out in frustration, “God never talks to me or answers my prayers! He only talks to people in the Bible!”
Maybe if we all spent more time listening instead of making lists, we would be in a better place to distinguish and to hear the small, still voice of God seeking to give us some advice or guidance or maybe calling us to open some new door, even as another is closing. Surprisingly, those doors revealed to us by God often turn out to be ones we once may have considered, but never opened, fearful perhaps of what awaited us on the other side.
Joseph serves here as a good example for us because what the Angel asked of him was likely something he had already considered while wrestling with his dilemma. Before deciding to just dismiss Mary quietly, I’m sure Joseph at some point must have considered just going ahead with the marriage ceremony, before backing off, fearful of the consequences. It was then, on the quietude of his dreams that God sent to him an Angel with new information, saying, “You have nothing to fear, Joseph; God is with you.” But here’s the problem, and I’ve heard this a lot over my years in the priesthood—just how do we sort out God’s voice and His will for our lives from all of the other