1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
King Abdul Aziz, often referred to as Ibn Saud, was the founder and first monarch of modern Saudi Arabia. He died in 1953. His many accomplishments include having sired at least thirty-seven sons by over twenty wives.[i] The current monarch, King Abdullah, is the sixth king of Saudi Arabia, and like all the others since 1953, he is a son of King Abdul Aziz.
In other words, since 1953, all the kings of Saudi Arabia have been brothers, half-brothers. Each brother who ascends to the throne must designate a successor, a crown prince, from among the remaining brothers. Eventually, when all the sons of King Abdul Aziz’s have died, then the monarchy will pass to the third generation.
This merely hints at the royal family’s complexities, and these complexities are rapidly multiplying as there are now about seven thousand princes, each getting a cut of the national budget.
I assume that King Abdul Aziz, the founder, set up this system of succession, and it suggests to me that he had some significant unresolved issues about his own mortality.
For Christmas, a friend gave me a new fascinating book by Andrew Solomon called Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. On the first page, he argues that our longing for immortality makes having children so alluring. That’s why we speak of people engaging in “reproduction.”
But he points out that having a baby really is an act of production. Two people are not reproducing themselves, but making a new and different person. Solomon says, “it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own… We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die.” It’s a fantasy of immortality through our offspring, vicarious continued existence.
Most parents, however, are probably conflicted because as far as I can tell most parents would also like their children to grow up and mature and become three dimensional, distinct and independent people. This requires parents to separate themselves from their children and to learn to love their children as they are, not for the best of themselves in their children, not for the best parts of themselves they see in their children.
King Abdul Aziz’s succession system looks to me like a grasp for immortality, and not surprisingly it didn’t satisfy him. Indeed, shortly before his death, as his sons fought for position, King Abdul Aziz said, “Verily, my children and my possessions are my enemies.”[ii] I can think of little more depressing. Most parents long for their children to be successful and devoted and to share their values. For a parent, few things can be as painful as a child who rejects them or feels like an enemy.
Before Israel had kings, before the first Temple in Jerusalem, over a thousand years before Christ, Eli was the Jewish high priest at Shiloh, a shrine where Israel gathered for sacred rites, worshipping God, offering sacrifices. Eli had two reprobate sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Jewish scripture calls them “scoundrels,” which means “worthless sons.”[iii] They stole offerings dedicated to God, and lived in dissipation and infidelity, womanizing and ignoring filial obligations. Eli was passive and ineffectual. The corrupt sons were the presumptive heirs, expected to administer the worship once Eli died, even though they had contempt for him as well as for God. They rejected their father and his values.
Another family. Elkannah married Hannah, but Hannah could not have children. Hannah prayed and vowed to God that if she could bear a son, then she would give the son back to God. God enabled her to conceive and bear a son, Samuel. Hannah loved her son, her precious son, but she gave her son to God by sending him to Eli so that he could serve at the Shiloh sanctuary. As Hannah dedicated her son to God, she sang a great song of praise, a song that provides the basis for the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise to God.
Samuel grew up in Eli’s home, and Eli trained him to minister in the sanctuary. Hannah and Elkannah loved Samuel and continued to support Samuel. Each year Hannah made Samuel his coat, his robes, so that he could help Eli at the altar. In this life, Samuel grew and matured. He became respected by people.
Today’s reading from Samuel ends reminding us that a life of faith is about continued growth, always learning and developing. Luke used Samuel’s story to shape his telling of Jesus’ childhood. Like Samuel, Jesus was brought up in a family that cared for him and that worshipped God. In an act of significant devotion and sacrifice, Jesus’ family traveled to Jerusalem to participate in the Passover festivities. Like Samuel, Jesus was formed by his religious tradition and community. Like Samuel, Jesus grew and developed his faith; he had to find his place in religion; he gradually became aware of his relationship with God.
In today’s gospel, twelve year old Jesus has an age appropriate, adolescent conflict with his parents. They had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with extended family, friends, acquaintances, and as they returned home, Mary and Joseph had assumed that Jesus was traveling members of their extended family. After a day of travel, they became aware that Jesus had not joined the group as expected, and they anxiously rushed back to Jerusalem and searched for him. When they found Jesus in the Temple, their fear left them, but anger replaced it: “What are you thinking? Your father and I have been frantic searching for you?”
Jesus had been in the Temple talking to the teachers and astonishing them with his understanding. He was immersed in his own thing, and his parents – typical boring, dim-witted, out of it parents – interrupted him. Annoyed, he rudely replied to his mother, “Why are you searching for me? Of course, I’m here in my Father’s house.” It’s not just his tone. Mary had just referred to Joseph as Jesus’ father, and now Jesus is calling God his father and ignoring Joseph. He was tweaking them. I expect that it was very painful for Mary and Joseph.
I love today’s gospel because serious engagement with it means that we can’t sugar coat Christian family values, bible values. Life isn’t all sweetness and crystal clarity, but includes conflict, and that’s healthy. Throughout time, adolescents have questioned parental authority, challenged it, “dissed” it. This conflict is often essential for both the parents and the child as they learn new roles and responsibilities, as they re-define their relationship and behavior toward each other. The Commandments say, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Conflict is painful, but it may be part of honoring mother and father because conflict is essential to growing and maturing. The issue is how to engage in conflict. There are positive and negative ways.
This theme of familial tension is not just in Luke’s gospel. John told of Jesus at the wedding in Cana getting exasperated by his mother. (Jn 2:4) In Mark’s gospel, Jesus ignored her. (Mk 3:33). There are so many saccharine and sentimental pictures of the Holy Family, and they make it difficult to be real about the Holy Family. Like every family, they had points of tension and conflict as well as points of harmony and warmth.
Today’s gospel might also help us appreciate Mary and Joseph, how challenging it was to be a parent to Jesus. He was different. Many parents experience a child who is different as an affront. Jesus was different, an aberration – mystifying, dazzling, even frightening. It is a huge challenge for families to tolerate, and then to accept, and hopefully come to celebrate a child who is not like themselves, not what they expected.
Solomon’s book describes the identity challenges of children, people, who are different, be they autistic, psychopathic, dwarfed, disabled, gay, or genius. He explores how many parents, through the power of love, learn happiness with their child’s differences. He writes, “To look deep into your child’s eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood’s self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon.” A zealous attachment to every aspect of him… a very high goal.
Solomon has written seven hundred pages of stories of people struggling to become intimate with differences and to accept of differences. It’s the work of empathy and compassion. These stories, he says, are a way for us to expand our definition of the human family. That grabbed me because that was clearly what Jesus wanted for all of us.
During his ministry, his mother and brothers came looking for Jesus. The crowd told Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are looking for you?” And Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and brothers?” And he looked at the crowd surrounding him and said to them, “Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mk 3:31-35)
Jesus tried to redefine and expand our sense family. It lies at the heart of communion, making us brothers and sisters. Jesus shares blood with whomever does the will of God, and the will of God is to love one another. The good news: despite our differences, despite our conflict and irritation and animosity, despite the way we may deviate from others, we’re all of the same family. We’re all members of the Holy Family.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spi
[i] Hugh Eakin, “Will Saudi Arabia Ever Change?,” The New York Review of Books, January 10, 2013, p. 38. Some sources indicate King Abdulaziz had 45 sons.
[ii] Wikipedia article on Ibn Saud, King Abdulaziz: Hertog, Steffen (2007), “Shaping the Saudi state: Human agency’s shifting role in the rentier state formation,” International Journal Middle East Studies 39: 539–563.
[iii] Samuel E. Balentine, article in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Year C, Westminster John Knox Press (2009), p. 149.
A Sermon for Christmas Eve
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s a delight to be with you this evening, to share glad tidings of great joy in this holy place, to enjoy and be inspired by the beautiful decorations and music, to connect with the story and hope of Christmas.
Next to my desk I’ve got a stack of holiday catalogs, a couple feet high. Since early November, the mail most days has dumped at least an inch. Last year, I’d spent hours on the web unsubscribing from the catalogs, but it made no difference – they sent them anyway.
So I’ve received thousands of pictures of Christmas cheer, glossy pages selling me joy and happiness. Here’s an inch sampler: MoMA Design Store with artful cutouts of dancing, happy children; Sundance, a woman with a big smile, presumably happy because she’s feeling cute and cuddly in her Sundance outfit; a Lafayette 148 woman looking pretty happy with herself; a Jockey couple looking happy together; and another underwear company, a Victoria Secret woman looking like she wants to make you happy.
A lot of promises about happiness. Do you believe that they’ll deliver? Well, sort of. Hard as it is to admit, they work… on all of us. They are enticing. They sell. If they didn’t work, we wouldn’t get them. They look like a way to joy and happiness.
There are two basic ways we can try to have a merry, happy Christmas, indeed to have a merry, happy life. One way: we orient ourselves to external things, to accumulating things, to winning praise and position.[i] We put our energies into getting money and developing an attractive image and attaining high status with lots of power and influence. It’s assumed that if we have wealth, a winsome appearance, and popularity, we will feel important, special, happy.
And there’s another way, one that directs us to find joy and happiness internally. Following this way means we focus on our own personal growth, our character development. Or, we focus on our relationships, being connected, being close to some other people. Or, we focus on serving others, helping the world be a better place, developing community spirit. Or, some combination of those three.
Surveys show that people extrinsically oriented have less satisfaction with their lives, enjoy less energy and vitality, and feel more depressed and anxious. They’re primarily worried about getting more and discontent with what they have. That’s part of what the catalogs are doing – suggesting dissatisfaction with what you have.
On the other hand, surveys show that people who orient their lives mostly toward intrinsic goals – growth, relationships, service – report more vitality and joy and less depression and anxiety. They focus not on what they don’t have, but on what they do have, being grateful and considering how they can share it, how they can be part of something bigger than themselves.
I doubt that surprises any of us. If we can slow down, breathe, be still: most people know this, and most of us have some awareness of an inner conflict between these two different visions of where joy comes from. We’re mixed up. There’s a war in ourselves, and it heats up around Christmas. We get two different and intense messages, and if you’re like me, you kind of follow both of them, sort of hedging our bets.
Luke’s Christmas story lays out the two different ways. Luke wrote his gospel to convince us that Jesus is the Lord, God, the Son of God, God of God, Redeemer, Savior of the World.[ii] Those are the very same titles people in the ancient world used to describe Caesar Augustus. In fact, many, many more people talked that way about Augustus than about Jesus. The birth of Augustus in 63 BC was called “gospel,” good news for the whole world.[iii] There were stories of him being fathered by Apollo, the god of light, and being born of human mother. To the ancient world, Augustus was the light coming into the world.
Luke trashed all of that. Instead Luke gamely proclaimed that Jesus was the light in the darkness, and that Augustus was the darkness. Luke presented a choice: do you commit yourself to Augustus or to Jesus? Whose way do you follow? Where’s your heart?
Augustus was a remarkable man. Among his many accomplishments, he had ended a brutal, decades long civil war, and began the period known as Pax Romana, or Pax Augustana, a couple centuries of peace… well, a sort of peace, a peace that included war for those who rebelled against Rome or for those who lived on the border of the empire and became victims of Rome’s violent expansion. Rome wanted more, and Roman peace came only after conquest; it was peace and joy through violence and victory. This is the way of accumulating wealth, power, and status; the way of external validation.
The Christmas gospel says that true peace and joy come not from a sword, but as a gift from heaven, a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes, heaven in a baby whose life is anything but money, image, and control. The gospel declares a tiny baby to be the king of peace, a peace and joy that comes from love and justice and non-violence, a peace and joy available to all people. The angels sing: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace throughout humanity with whom God is pleased.”
The angels announced the good news not to kings in palaces, but to shepherds in a field, despised shepherds, among the lowliest, like the smelly tanners, and camel drivers, and sailors – the bottom rung of the social pecking order. Shepherds were considered to be disreputable, like thieves, because they grazed their flocks on the property of others; dishonorable because they were not at home at night and so couldn’t protect their women.[iv] They lived moving from place to place, on the margins, the people not counted in a census. Shepherds were oppressed, exploited, and scorned, and they received the good news.
The good news: God is pleased with all, God delights in every person. Jesus would later teach, “Love your enemies, and help without expecting a return… you will not regret it… you will be children of God; for God is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish.” (Lk 6:35) Christmas shows us that God embraces all humanity, not to control and exploit, not to make himself greater.
God does not come in power and splendor, but as a meek baby, hungry and cold and vulnerable and seeking human care and comfort. He’s not aloof and distant, but close and needy. He, who would give his life and give us life, first came receiving life and sustenance and strength from us. God desires mutuality between us and him, giving and taking, working together, collaborating. It’s what makes us close.
What’s the first thing an infant does?[v] He sucks milk. The mother provides care and gives not out of following some rule or law or teaching, but out of following her very being. She offers herself: food, affection, warmth, tenderness, intimacy because it is natural, what she is. It’s in our blood, what we’re made of. It’s always there in us. We just don’t always connect to that part of us. There’s that war going on within each of us.
Luke contrasts Augustus and Jesus, two ways of being in the world: live to make a big name for ourselves or live to be part of something much bigger than ourselves. It’s a decision we’re making all of the time, sometimes pushing away from God and other people, and sometimes drawing closer. Christmas is a moment to renew and to choose the way we want to go.
You may have some gifts awaiting you, but let’s take a moment and think of five gifts you’ve already received, anything: it could be a Sundance sweater, a job, health, a moment of beauty or inspiration or emotion, a friend, a warm home, a task to do, a bottle of wine, a change in your character, something you’ve learned, a compliment or kind word spoken to you, perhaps you may even be grateful for a disappointment or a dissatisfaction… Let’s not judge them as to how holy they are. Let’s just accept them, acknowledge how much we have,… [Silence].
Let’s be thankful. Count them again tomorrow, and then again. Gratefulness moves us toward growth, and connection, and service. Real joy comes from being grateful, from an awareness of how God has blessed us, how he has come to us, how he always comes to us.
The Rev. Lane Davenport
[i] Happy, a documentary film directed by Roko Belic, 2011, interview of Professor Tim Kasser, Knox College, who makes the distinction between “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” ways to happiness.
[ii] Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, HarperOne (2007), p. 165.
[iii] Ibid., pp. 190-91.
[iv] Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press (2003), p. 232.
[v] Much of this paragraph from a brief clip of the Dalai Lama in Happy.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Bureaucracy is one of humanity’s great accomplishments. I’m not joking. It’s essential for a civil, complex, and prosperous society, but it is almost a four letter word…, even in Washington, the headquarters of some of the most emblematic bureaucracies in the world. These days most highly talented, interesting, dynamic, imaginative people work in governmental, corporate, academic, medical bureaucracies. Most of us know and love and admire people who are, or have been, part of bureaucracies. You may be one of those people. But I know of few people who have expressed delight in being part of a bureaucracy, and I know few people like to think of themselves as bureaucrats.
Why do we feel negatively about bureaucracy? I think that we associate it with what is ordinary, common, drab, routine, deadening; with hierarchies where too often brown-nosers and mediocrities rise to the upper levels. The conventional view is that it rewards conformity and places the highest premium on keeping the routine going, whether that routine serves any worthwhile purpose or not.
In an address to West Point plebs, William Deresiewicz lamented the crisis of leadership in all parts of American society. He argued that we are training people: “Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place.”[i]
He said that bureaucracies encourage: “Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be… Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keep the routine going.”[ii] Just keep the routine going.
Can you imagine anyone more antithetical to that kind of behavior than John the Baptist? Just keep the routine going. He was about breaking up the routine. Can you imagine John the Baptist emerging out of a bureaucracy and rising up in the ranks of one? Someone like John is not beholden to, or trying to please, the powers that be; he takes risks, demands things be done differently, and remains undeterred despite intense resistance.
Deresiewicz told the plebs:
It’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within – without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.[iii]
In solitude. Deresiewicz’s main point: solitude is absolutely essential to be effective in offering leadership. He told the plebes that solitude was an antidote to the negative influences of bureaucracy. John was a man of the wilderness, a man of solitude, used to being alone with his thoughts and feelings. In December, the world is all hustle and bustle, stress and obligation. But Advent encourages quiet and rest, waiting and watching. It might help us value solitude and introspection and concentration, and that those habits are essential to discern what’s in our hearts and minds, what we believe, and what God calls us to do and be.
John’s ministry was in the wilderness, and Jesus repeatedly returned to the wilderness to be alone. Their time in prayer, in rest, in reflection, in solitude gave them clarity about themselves – who they were, what mattered to them – and clarity about their purpose and vision. They developed a new way of looking at things and offered a whole new direction.
Both of them repeatedly attacked the status quo and threatened those in authority. They were offering leadership. People, then and now, judge: we can choose to be part of it, or not.
Today’s gospel has three sections. First, John spoke about the urgent need for repentance. Then, he described what repentance, turning around and re-orienting your life to God, looks like. He concluded by talking about the Messiah, Israel’s long-awaited savior.
John called people to a baptism of repentance, a call to re-align themselves and their behavior with God’s purposes, to renew their allegiance to God. He called them to leave their homes and routines and to come out to the wilderness, and once he got people out there, incredibly, he abused them: “You brood of vipers.” It’s like calling them “snake bastards:” snakes as evil, bastards as illegitimate; it’s about as insulting “as one could imagine in a society in which honor is fundamentally a function of birth.”[iv]
To the people, it was their birth pedigree, descendents of Abraham and Jacob, that assured them they were part of God’s chosen people. They assumed that their well-being depended upon their bloodline. Their smugness appalled John. He thought that they’d be better off if they thought of themselves as bastards.
John insisted that they make a personal decision, an act of will and intent. He told them that their ancestry was not sufficient to avert God’s judgment. God cares about the way they lived, not about their lineage. God had made human beings from dust; he could surely make a faithful people, a renewed Israel, from rocks.
John insulted them and bashed their cherished beliefs about themselves, about their identity. Still, the crowds asked, “What should we do?” John explained that the fruits of repentance didn’t come from religious heritage or ritual or observance and didn’t come from status or wealth or power. The fruits of repentance came from the way they treated others.
John told the crowds to care for their neighbor, to share with those in need. He gave an example: a person with two coats should give one of their coats to someone who didn’t have a coat. As now, and perhaps even more so then, one’s clothing indicated social status, ethnic origin, and political position. It conveyed who you were, your identity, how people in the community treated you.[v] If you gave one of your coats to someone without a coat, in a way you were sharing your identity and status. John was flattening hierarchies, equalizing position. Every person has equal dignity. To those on top, it was a threatening teaching.
In Judaea, the Roman tax collection system was notoriously corrupt, essentially institutionalized extortion. John instructed the tax collectors to be fair and honest. He gave a similar message to soldiers, who could use their force to intimidate and threaten people. Like the tax collectors, they were often shake-down specialists. John said, “Don’t be greedy. Be content with what you have.”
“What should we do?” John’s answer: be socially responsible, be outward looking, be engaged, be fair, don’t be selfish. That’s the true fruit of repentance; that’s spiritual health; that’s the primary mark of being part of God’s people, not your ancestry.
The conviction and charisma and force with which John delivered his message, his courage in speaking against the powers that be, provoked hope that John himself was the Messiah. People expected the Messiah to bring judgment, and John colorfully spoke of judgment and prepared for the dawning of a new age. John’s vision of the coming of God and judgment was fierce and fiery and catastrophic: wheat and chaff, reward and punishment.
I suspect it is not coincidental that we hear about John in December while we are simultaneously focusing on Santa Claus, who is checking his list to see who’s naughty or nice. We make Santa a judge. We imply that some kids may not be worthy to receive gifts, that they’ll be left out. It can be hardly surprising that we saddle our children with projections of our own worries. But despite our fears, part of us knows that Santa doesn’t ever give coal and switches.
That truth is evident in most of what Jesus has to say about judgment. I’m grateful that Jesus had a different emphasis than John in speaking about the coming of God, the in-breaking of his rule and dominion. John prepared the way for Jesus, but Jesus refined John’s vision.
Jesus had a greater sense that God’s coming would free humanity, that he would liberate us from evil and destructive forces. Jesus’ sense of God drawing near meant people were healed of infirmities and buoyed by hope and freed from darkness. God’s Kingdom drawing near meant even the despised and unattractive, sinners and the abandoned, were accepted and embraced.
But I am grateful for John’s sense of the urgency of judgment and his insistence that everyone must make a personal decision. The judgment is urgent, imminent, because it’s here and now. The judgment, to me, seems to be one not made by God, but rather one we make. God allows us to judge and choose: open to him, or not. We make the judgment month by month, day by day, moment by moment – sometimes welcoming God, and sometimes not. The good news is that he has come and is always there for us, even when our judgment fails.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son. Amen.
[i] William Deresiewicz, “Solitude and Leadership: If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts,” The American Scholar, Spring 2010, pp. 20-31, quote on p. 24.
[ii] Deresiewicz, p. 24.
[iii] Deresiewicz, p. 28.
[iv] Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press (2003), p. 236.
[v] Douglas R. Edwards, article on ‘Dress and Ornamentation’ in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol 2, David Noel Freedman, Editor in Chief, Doubleday (1992), p. 238.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Six gospel verses. First, Luke set the time, the historical context: Tiberius was the Roman Emperor, Pontius Pilate the Roman governor of Judea, Herod Antipas the Jewish ruler of Galilee, and Herod’s brother Philip ruling some lands nearby, and in Jerusalem Annas and Caiaphas ruling the Temple and the religious establishment. It’s a list of the urban power elites, those holding authority in the years just before and after 30 AD.
Second, Luke set the place, telling us that John went out to the desert, the wilderness around the River Jordan. In the Jewish scriptures, the wilderness is the place where human beings often encounter God. It is a place retreat and prayer, but also of testing and danger and learning and challenge. It is a place of suffering, growing, and rebellion: where God engaged Israel, where God formed Israel, where Israel learned of God’s care, where Israel’s identity was forged.
People often think of their lives as wandering, especially when we feel lost and alone. If we feel more connected to God and other people, then it might be easier to associate our life as a journey, as having more purposeful movement. Perhaps, we can see some similarity between our own life and Israel’s in the wilderness. In her journey, Israel had a variety of trials and consolations, and at times Israel was close to God and other times falling away from God, and then Israel repented and turned back to God. Eventually, Israel came to the banks of the Jordan, and she victoriously crossed over the Jordan to the Promised Land, the Land of Milk and Honey. To me, it describes my own experience and my ultimate hope.
Luke started by giving us time and place, and then he told us two things about John’s mission at the Jordan. First, this obscure, ordinary man had received a message from God to preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, to call people to change their lives, to re-orient their lives. Then Luke quoted the prophet Isaiah.
The quote from Isaiah refers to Israel in the sixth century before Christ. A mighty empire, the Babylonians, what is now Iraq, had conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the city and the Temple (the first Temple, King Solomon’s Temple) and forced the most able, talented, educated Jews into exile in Babylon. The Babylonians understood that power comes from human capital, human ability. They brain-drained Israel. Most assumed it was the end of Judaism.
In the bleak, grim rubble of the Jerusalem ruins, few literate people remained, but one of those was Isaiah, and he offered hope. His message: God hasn’t abandoned us, our suffering will come to an end, all will be well. He looked to a rising power in the East, the Persian Empire, what is now Iran, and he declared that the Persian King Cyrus would be God’s tool to defeat the Babylonians, and the captive Jews would triumphantly return home. Isaiah’s message: trust God; his salvation is imminent. The Lord, he said, is about to act decisively, and the whole world, all flesh, shall be amazed as they see Israel’s triumph. Israel will be the envy of the world. It is a message of hope and restoration.
Indeed, Cyrus did conquer the Babylonians and did release the Jews, most of whom did go home, but they didn’t return in triumph or astonish the world. For Luke, Isaiah’s prophecy was truly fulfilled over five hundred years later in John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness. John had prepared God’s way out in the wilderness.
John called the people of Israel to come to the Jordan and to receive a baptism of repentance. This is not Christian baptism, but like Christian baptism it was about turning from an old way of life and committing to a new way of life. Repentance means turnaround, change your mind, re-orient yourself to follow God’s way. John asked people to align their lives with God’s life, to make their goals consistent with God’s purposes, to close the gap between their reality and what God called them to be.
A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In Palestinian Judaism, forgiveness of sins would have been just as intelligible as forgiveness of debts. While the urban power elite lived relatively well, the ordinary people were oppressed, deprived, barely making it, subsistence living. Among Jewish peasants debt was pervasive. Debt threatened loss of land, livelihood, family, one’s sense of belonging. It made people unable to keep their place in the community. Forgiveness was about restoring someone to community, a return to self-sufficiency and belonging.
Consequently, many among the masses longed to hear John’s message. They wanted God to help them, and John’s message and his baptism stoked hopes and challenged the status quo. But it angered those with an interest in maintaining the status quo. John’s message annoyed the powerful. He met much resistance and hostility. Herod Antipas arrested John, and although Herod feared riling up the masses and their pitchforks, he went ahead and killed John.
Looking back at John’s career, he did not seem to have had much influence in closing the gap between Israel’s reality and its ideal, what God called Israel to be, but he did generate some expectancy for the Messiah. Was John a failure? John certainly seems to have some question about it as he sat in Herod’s jail wondering if Jesus was really the one who would restore Israel. (Lk 7:18-19)
We now recognize John as the opening act, the overture, setting the scene for Jesus by getting folks ready to hear the gospel, to engage with Jesus. The part I usually overlook is how he prepared Jesus, that his greatest “success” might have been the influence John had not on Israel, but on Jesus.
A few days ago, I saw a documentary about Lincoln, and it noted that during his one and only two year term as a Congressman, he was for the first time at odds with his district. The point of difference was the Mexican War, the biggest issue of the day. Lincoln opposed it. When his term ended in late 1850, Lincoln did not run again, but went back to Springfield. He was forty-one. He began a period of reflection and reassessment, a time of retreat from public life, even a time in the wilderness. It became a period of transformation. Some might call it a mid-life crisis.
(Incidentally, mid-life crises are normal and often helpful, part of growing and maturing. A true story: a friend of mine went to his spiritual director and told him that he was having a mid-life crisis. The spiritual director responded, “Oh, that’s okay. I’m on my fifth or sixth.”)
Like many men, Lincoln had spent his young adult years establishing himself, knocking himself out to please the community, to get ahead in his profession, to start a family, to gain status. As he came back from DC, he probably started asking himself, “Is this all I want to do?” “What’s really important to me?” He was about the age many people first start to feel mortality, where it’s not simply an abstract fact, but noticing mild signs of decline.
Lincoln kept a low profile for several years. Then, in 1854, Congress enacted legislation allowing slavery in the west. His chief rival, Stephen Douglas, had introduced it, championed it. Lincoln rose up, now clear about his priorities, committed to strictly highly principled behavior, and returned to public life, renewed. He helped to form the Republican Party to oppose the expansion of slavery. He became clear about what he wanted to do, and he was willing to risk everything for his purpose. He was willing, and able, internally strong enough, to disappoint and upset people, even his supporters. He would accept grief for his cause.
I wonder if Jesus also had a period where he experienced a significant internal transformation. I bet he did. Before Jesus encountered John, we hear nothing of his adult life. Possibly – we can never know one way or the other, possibly John was essential to Jesus getting ready for his own mission and ministry. In a way, Jesus repented, re-oriented his life after hearing John.
Jesus was probably about thirty when he went out to see John at the Jordan – perhaps not too young for mid-life crisis, especially in a world with a much shorter life expectancy and poor medicine and nutrition, where mortality becomes visible earlier.
What awakened Jesus’ religious passions and energies? What made the gospel and the spiritual life become the center of his life? What provoked the development of his understanding of who he was and what God was calling him to be? What inspired him to accept such grief and suffering? What led him to become a public figure? What helped him to become aware of what was most important?
John might have been the inspiration. Jesus had to see in him a courageous man willing to risk all and even to die for what he believed God wanted. He said of John: “no one born of woman is greater.” (Lk 7:28)
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus only began his ministry after John was arrested. It’s as if once John left the scene, Jesus discerned God calling him to step up to fill the vacuum. He became a public figure and, like John, challenged the status quo, upsetting convention, demanding change, provoking fury.
As Advent focuses our attention on John and his call to re-orient our lives, to re-align ourselves with God’s purposes, to renew our commitment, let’s appreciate how John might have inspired Jesus, and so might inspire us. The good news: what feels like the wilderness is often a step toward renewal and new purpose in life.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, Vol. 2, The Anchor Bible, Doubleday (1985), p. 906.
 Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press (2003), p. 364.
 History’s Mysteries: Lincoln: The Untold Stories, The History Channel. This point made by Michael Burlingame.  Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, HarperSanFrancisco (1994), pp. 27-28.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
“Then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and glory.”
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For at least a couple hundred years, American religiosity has been fascinated, even obsessed, with apocalyptic literature, writings about the end time, speculations about God’s plans for the future; this curiosity runs deep in our culture. It may be intensifying. The fastest growing churches are typically non-denominational bible churches, and many of them emphasize the near-ness of the Second Coming and stoke an expectancy of intense tribulation and punishment before Jesus returns. The fastest growing Christian denomination in the U.S. is the Seventh Day Adventists. They emphasize the imminence of the Second Advent, that we’re on the cusp of the Second Coming of Jesus and living in the end times.
Our culture deeply influences the way we hear things. So when I read in today’s gospel of Jesus talking about signs in the sun and moon and stars, saying that there’ll be great distress and panic, roaring seas and chaos, my instinct is to assume Jesus is talking about the end times, when history will end. In my experience, that’s what most people assume.
Today we heard Jesus speak of the Son of Man, a phrase he often uses to refer to himself. He said that the Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and glory. It’s typically understood to be a portent of the Second Coming of Jesus, and of divine judgment, separating sheep and goats, punishment and fury.
Today, Jesus also said that just as we can discern the season by observing the leaves on a fig tree. By looking at signs, we can tell when the end is near. And millions of Christians speculate and consider this question closely, expending much energy, and since we’re supposed to be able to tell by signs around us, many even come up with dates on which the end will arrive, except that no one has ever got it right. That is our first clue that Jesus is not talking about fire and brimstone, God’s wrath unleashed. He’s not talking about the end of time or his Second Coming.
It’s possible to find in today’s gospel passage and others like it all kinds of reasons to be afraid and to despair. Perhaps, if I were feeling crankier and grumpier today, if I didn’t have an exercise machine to metabolize my anger, if I felt upset about myself, I would be warning of impending judgment and punishment. I’d engage in some fear-mongering, warning that we’d all better get our act together if we didn’t want to be left behind, abandoned, suffering, cast into Hell.
When we read scripture, we have some control over how we understand it, whether we want to find any hope, consolation, and encouragement, or whether we want to find darkness, trembling, and vengeance. What we choose to find tells us a lot about ourselves and about what God is for us, and what other people choose to find tells us a lot about them.
We could choose to see today’s gospel as predicting the collapse of the created, physical world as we know it. It could mean to us that Jesus will return on a cloud in power and glory to judge the world, and especially our enemies. It is ignorant literalism, but we could choose it, and many fine people do. The problem: it’s not at all what Jesus meant.
When we read scripture, the context, the setting, is vital to understand the meaning of what’s being said. Imagine someone saying, “It’s going to rain.” What does that mean to you? To me, I have pleasant associations of listening to rain fall on the roof and enjoying the greenness it brings. But rain also gives me a bit of headache, worrying about leaks and flooding. So it depends.
If I were planning on going to a picnic, rain would annoy me. But if I were living in drought stricken East Africa, I’d welcome it, celebrate it, dance to it – I’m going to eat. If it were October and I were in Nicaragua, I’d think, “Of course, it’s going to rain. That is what happens every day.” If I had told you last Sunday that it was going to rain today, and you doubted it, but it rained today, then I would be vindicated. I could say, “I told you so.”
In the Bible, when it rained during Noah’s day, rain showed God’s anger and punishment. (Genesis 6:5-8:22) Likewise, one of the plagues God sent upon Egypt and Pharaoh was hail and pounding rain. (Exodus 9:13-35) But when Elijah went up Mount Carmel and it rained, it showed that the Lord was the true God who ruled the heavens and that Baal was a false god. Here rain was not punishment, but vindication. (1 Kings 18:41-46)
The context for what Jesus said matters. Today, Jesus was teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. The day before he had cleansed it and had called it corrupt. But today he was back in the Temple and had just predicted its destruction. It was two days before his last supper. He was about to be killed. Remember he had repeatedly told his disciples that he was going to suffer and be killed and be raised again, and his disciples didn’t understand. So if his disciples haven’t understood his prediction of his suffering, death, and resurrection, to me, it’s absurd to conclude that Jesus was now talking about his return from heaven after his resurrection.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus never talked about his return to earth, about his Second Coming. He didn’t predict the destruction of the physical, time-space world as we know it. Two points:
First, the image of the Son of Man coming on a cloud comes from the seventh chapter of Daniel, an Old Testament prophet. In the first six chapters of Daniel, pagan rulers challenged Jews to compromise their faith. Despite persecution and suffering, the Jews rejected this temptation and remained true to God. To Jews living in the first century, the Son of man coming on a cloud was an image describing Israel’s vindication after suffering at the hands of pagans. It was a colorful metaphor to describe God’s care for Israel in history; it symbolized Israel’s victory over its enemies. When the Jews had suffered oppression and persecution, God had been faithful to them.
Jesus borrowed this imagery of vindication and exaltation. It describes what is going to happen to Jesus in the coming days. He is about to suffer and die, but he will stay true to God and he will be vindicated and exalted. The image, the metaphor, of the Son of man coming on a cloud points to Resurrection, not to a Second Coming.
One more point about this image, this vision, of Daniel. In Daniel the Son of Man rose up into the heavenly court, moving from earth to heaven. Jesus associated himself with Daniel’s Son of Man going up into heaven. The Second Coming folks, those all hot and bothered about the destruction of the world, describe the Son of Man as going down, moving from heaven to earth. They’re going the wrong direction. They’re confused, not knowing whether they’re coming or going.
Second, thy Kingdom come, the coming of the Kingdom of God, the consummation of history, does not mean the world will be utterly destroyed. Jews did not believe that. Some Greeks did. The Stoics thought the world would come to a fiery, dramatic end. For Jews, the hope was the restoration of their land, their Temple, their law. They hoped for peace, justice, and prosperity. They did not look for God to wreck his creation. He had declared his creation to be good, very good. They didn’t expect him to demolish it; they didn’t long to escape from this world; they did not want to be separated from their earthly bodies and to live as ethereal spirits. That’s NOT biblical hope. They hoped for the end of suffering and defeat.
Jesus spoke days before his suffering and death, and Jesus spoke about the Son of man coming on clouds to refer to his vindication after suffering. He was telling the disciples that they could hang in there with him because later events would vindicate him. He would be raised from the dead. The Temple would be razed to the ground. The religious establishment which had opposed him would lose. After the Resurrection, again like Daniel’s Son of Man, Jesus rose up into heaven on a cloud. That’s the way Luke described the Ascension. (Acts 1:9)
In today’s gospel, Jesus predicted the end of the world order, the end of the Temple and the power of the Jewish authorities. He did not predict, and never did predict, the end of the created world. The world would not be destroyed, but transformed, healed, renewed. Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruit, the first new fig leaf of a new season of renewal.
God’s judgment is not to cast people away from him, not to destroy his creatures or his creation, but to set things right, to fill us with life and love. It’s about joy and completion and wholeness. Today’s gospel is not a message to provoke fear in us about God’s wrath, but to give us strength and hope in God’s love for us. What awaits us is not punishment, but greater intimacy, closeness with God.
The good news is that this glorious and splendid future is already beginning to become present and to take shape in the world. Jesus’ resurrection is the 8th day of creation, the beginning of renewed life. Eventually heaven and earth will come together as part of God’s creative process. It’s what happens at the Eucharist, the coming together of heaven and earth, God entering the world, spiritual and material coming together: some now, everything later. It started on Easter. Resurrection is the sprouting of the fig leaf.
Jesus will return. There will be some kind of Second Coming. But the bigger, more immediate truth is that Jesus is coming to us now and always, be it from the pulpit or the altar, in the love of family and friends, in prayer and music and dance, in the poor and friendless. It’s not the fullness that will be, but God is breaking in now and transforming you, me, the person next to you. He is bringing life and light and trampling on death and darkness. God is becoming all in all.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 “The American obsession … with the second coming of Jesus,” N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, HarperCollins (2008), p. 119. I read much of pp. 117-145 and relied upon it for this sermon.
 N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Fortress Press (1996), p. 198
 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 125.
 N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Fortress Press (1992), pp. 291-93. I read much of pp. 180-199 and relied upon it for this sermon.
 Ibid., pp. 285-86.