Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Sermon for January 1, 2023: My Eyes Have Seen 2: the Christmassing based upon Luke 2:25-38
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
On Tuesdays, I usually pick out the title of my sermon. I pick something based on what catches my attention on that day. This is often the part of the scripture that I feel speaks to the present moment best. On this, our final Sunday of the Christmas season, when we are remembering the stories of Anna and Simeon, the prophets who offer a final confirmation for Jesus’ parents that the message they heard from God was true... that this child before their eyes was the answer to their nation’s prayers... Simeon’s song caught my attention. He was so moved by the sight of this child that he broke out in song! And, these days, it would be good to see something so powerful that we would be reminded of God’s power to keep promises. So, on Tuesday, I decided that my sermon would be called “My Eyes Have Seen.”
Then, I sat down to write my sermon. I went to look at the last time I preached on this text. And, I was very surprised by what I saw. Guess what I named the sermon the last time I preached on this text? I named it My Eyes Have Seen. Apparently, that phrase often catches my attention. Now, maybe it’s because I know that hymn, the one that says “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” (it was written by Julia Ward Howe who spent a lot of time just down the road in Gardiner). Or, maybe it’s because, at the turning of the year, I appreciate a story of someone witnessing something grand and divine, a fulfillment of something long hoped for. And, this story is about past promises’ current fulfilment leading to a loving and just future. I, personally, would like to see more of that.
In his commentary on Luke, Fred Craddock notes that “Luke’s Gospel begins and ends in the temple.” Today’s reading is the moment when Jesus is taken to the temple for the first time as an infant. And, we are reading about this moment because it is important. Both Craddock and a professor named Shively Smith encourage us to pay attention to how devout Jesus’ family is. We must remember that this great religious devotion is happening among common, poor people, not royalty. Mary is responsive to the movement of God in her life. She knows that God stands with the lowly and will use her family to lift up the downtrodden.
After Jesus is born, his family remains devout. As a symbol of their commitment to God, Mary and Joseph fulfill the ritual obligations of their people. They have their son circumcised and named according to what God said to name him. They also presented him at the temple and offered a sacrifice in thanksgiving. Dr. Smith points out something interesting about the animal that the family sacrifices. If you remember from other readings, the devout were instructed to bring animals to sacrifice. Importantly, if you were someone of limited means, you were not required to bring in the same sacrifices as someone who was quite wealthy. In fact, there are lists of appropriate sacrifices for poorer people to make Leviticus 5, 12, and 14. If you were to look at these lists, you would see that one of the offerings is two turtledoves. This is an offering set aside for those who are the poorest. When the author of Luke shows us Mary and Joseph bringing turtledoves, they are showing us that God is doing what Mary said God would do, lift up the lowly and downtrodden. This child is a part of that lifting up.
Why would it be so important to emphasize to the reader that Jesus was both rooted in his religious faith and also from simple means? For Smith, this small detail is a bit of foreshadowing. In the book of Luke, Jesus will spend much of his time advocating for the poor. In chapter 4, when, as an adult, he spells out his own mission statement, he will read out the words of the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." A couple chapters later, in the sermon on the plain, he will assert, like his own mother once did, that God takes special note of, and care for, the hungry, the poor and the excluded. He will go on to assert that part of serving God is tending to the poor and that God's kindom will welcome most quickly those who need the most help.
In my preparations this week, I read a poem by Howard Thurman. It’s called “Christmas is Waiting to be Born.”
When refugees seek deliverance that never comes,
And the heart consumes itself, if it would live,
Where little children age before their time,
And life wears don the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly to death,
Where fear companions each day’s life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed.
CHRISTMAS IS WAITING TO BE BORN:
In you, in me, in all mankind.
Thurman believes that God’s promise salvation is not most clearly seen in the halls of power or wealth. But, instead, in the places of strain and upheaval and need. We would do well, then, to remember that when God chose to raise up a savior, God did so from among the ranks of the impoverished. Now, imagine the difference that makes in this story. A prophet named Simeon sees a poor family with an infant just more than a week old. Against all odds, Simeon sees greatness in this child. He sees God in this child. He is so inspired that he sings about it.
Simeon calls Jesus a light for the whole world, “for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to the people of Israel.” It is important to realize that Simeon saw, in this child, not just a leader for his own people, but a gift for the whole world. This shouldn’t be taken as a justification for the idea that Jesus came to coerce people into faith. But, instead, this is a confirmation that the world is connected and that God cares for the world, and that God is invested in a mission for love and justice for all of creation.
Simeon also offers this family a blessing and a warning. “This child is destining for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed- and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” A second prophet, Anna, then comes up to this small family. She, too, praises God for this child. She will go on to become one of the earliest preachers in Luke. It says that she spoke about the child to anyone who was concerned about the redemption of Israel. It is too bad that none of her sermons seem to have been preserved to this time, at least as far as we know. At least we have this account of her, praising God and preparing to tell everyone what she has seen.
In his commentary on the text, Fred Craddock says that “God is doing something new, but it is not really new, because hope is always joined to memory, and the new is God’s keeping an old promise.” I hope on this New Year’s Day, you will remember, with hope, these elders who greeted young Jesus with joy and wonder. I hope that memory inspires you to see Christ at work in this very present time and to be like Anna and share the story of God’s love and justice into the future.
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
Shively Smith: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3526
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5035
Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 2011)
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Luke 2:1-20 The Birth of Jesus
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The Shepherds and the Angels
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
When telling the stories of Jesus’ birth, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both want to teach you something about God’s leadership by comparing it to Caesar’s leadership. Matthew contrasts God’s Reign from the King’s Reign by showing us a king who is frightened enough by a baby that he will try to harm the baby. Luke shows us that God’s Reign is different than Caesar’s Reign by showing us how very different Jesus’ birth and life are from the lives of the powerful in the era. Jesus’ very pregnant mom has to travel to a whole other town when she is almost ready to give birth, not because she wants to, but because the emperor has the power to force regular people to do things he wants when he wants them done, not when is convenient for them. He wanted them to go to Bethlehem to be counted. So, they had to go. Dr. Melinda Quivik in her commentary on this text, reminds us that royal Roman leaders would have had everything they needed. Jesus wasn’t even born in his own home and he slept in an animal trough in his first hours of life. He could not be more different from Caesar. Thank God for that.
Jesus’ life and the way he wields power will be different, too. Whomever wrote Luke is an excellent storyteller because they pack in a lot of foreshadowing that tell us that Jesus will be different than the military leader many people expected the Messiah to be. One more bit of this foreshadowing is showing us who is entrusted to celebrate his birth. It will not be the wealthy and the powerful. First, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, is entrusted with the good news of the pregnancy. She has been similarly blessed with an unlikely pregnancy and Mary knew she could relate to this level of Divine Intervention. Then, after the birth, the shepherds are brought into the story. There are few people farther from Caesar than the shepherds in the fields. The shepherds are the first people outside of family to learn that there is something special about this child who has been born. They will end up not only hearing divine confirmation of the gift of his birth but also become a source of holy affirmation for Mary and Joseph. They received a gift and become a gift in the same night.
According to Dr. Fred Craddock, Roman poets and well-known speakers were known to create works in celebration of a child who was to become emperor. In Luke, it isn’t the well-known and articulate who celebrate the Christ child, but the Divine Wild and common shepherds. The heavens themselves sing forth in celebration. Their audience is not the wealthy patrons, as would have been true of the artists, but the very ordinary shepherds in the fields. Dr. Wesley Allen reminds us in his commentary on the text that these shepherds are likely not the people who own the sheep or own any of the land. They are either slaves or employees who are working the night shift. That’s why the author pointed out that they lived in the fields. They stay with the sheep, guarding them, either because they were ordered to by the people who owned them or because they were paid to do so. They are regular people with a demanding job that required a fair amount of skill to keep animals alive. It was a job that was utterly necessary as sheep provided food and clothing material. It was also a job that wasn’t necessarily well-paid or well-respected. Shepherds don’t usually get to hear the good news first, but they do in this story. They don’t usually hang out with the powerful. But, they will, in this story because God’s power will make space for them. We heard the first inklings of that in Mary’s song, with the lowly lifted and the powerful sent away. In inviting the shepherds to the manger, we are seeing God lift of the lowly as one of the first signs of the presence of the Messiah in the world.
I wonder what the angels looked like for them to have to tell the shepherds that they didn’t have to be afraid. Were they bright enough and loud enough to scare the sheep? Were the angels aware that, in the dark of night, any surprise visits could be interpreted as a possible danger to the flock? Was the instruction “be not afraid” more of a gentle way of preparing them for the incredible next words? “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” What a message to tell these hard-working, poor men! And, how wonderful it is that these men believed and traveled to find the child.
In reading up on this passage, I noticed that several different scholars are quick to point out that the life histories of Roman rulers never place them near common workers like shepherds, much less show them doing the work of shepherds. It is interesting that ancient Jewish leaders weren’t always so separate from this important and undervalued work. King David was a shepherd long before he was king. Luke tells us that Jesus was part of the line of David through his stepfather Joseph. Jesus was also born in Bethlehem, the city of David. In today’s reading, men who shared David’s earliest work would come to celebrate Jesus and confirm that his parent’s own angelic visions were true. The shepherds told Mary and Joseph what they had heard from the angels about their child. They would confirm the Divine future ahead of him. Everyone who heard the testimony of the shepherds was amazed. But, in particularly, Mary treasured all their words and pondered them in her heart. That means she thought about them, a lot. She considered the words the angels said to her, to her cousin, and now the shepherd, and what it means for her family and the world’s future.
Dr. Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero noted that, in leaving their sheep, the shepherds, too, are transformed, becoming God’s messengers alongside the angels. And, of course, poor, common people would do the work of God. In a couple chapters, when Jesus, as an adult, tells us about his mission with his own words, he will say that the poor will be of special concern for God and for him. Jesus himself comes from a poor family, despite having a royal lineage. God comes into the World through the margins of society, the homes over-full of relatives forced to travel and the darkened fields full of smelly sheep. Maybe you do work that is hard and often unappreciated. May you know that work is good, and that God can move through you, too. On this Christmas day, maybe you can consider what God is revealing to you while you work. And, may you see clearly how you can shepherd Christ into this world anew, in this time and this place. God called the shepherd and is calling us. May we sing out with joy.
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
• Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-day-nativity-of-our-lord-ii/commentary-on-luke-21-7-8-20-9
• Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990)
• Melinda Quivik: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-eve-nativity-of-our-lord/commentary-on-luke-21-14-15-20-18
• O. Wesley Allen Jr. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/shepherds-visit-2/commentary-on-luke-28-20
Sermon for December 11, 2022: Generations of Bravery based upon Matthew 1:1-16
Rahab and the Spies, Frederick Richard Pickersgill, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57023.
Ruth: Swanson, John August. Story of Ruth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56561.
Mary: Wesley, Frank, 1923-2002. And the Word Became Flesh, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=59238.
Matthew 1:1-16 The Gospel According to Matthew
The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
Genesis. The title of the first book of our Bible and the second word of the book of Matthew in the original Greek. βίβλος γενέσεως ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ υἱοῦ δαυὶδ υἱοῦ ἀβραάμ. In her commentary on today’s reading, Mitzi Minor notes that a translation of this first line of Matthew could be “The book of the Genesis of Jesus the Christ.” Genesis is a Greek word that means “origin.” The book of Genesis is about origins: origins of the universe and our little corner of it, of humanity in general, and of the family of Abraham in particular. David Carr calls this the “primeval history” and the “ancestral history” in his introduction to Genesis. The author of Matthew takes great care to situate Jesus in relationship to the ancestral history in particular. In so doing, according to Minor, Jesus is also connected to the primeval history... to all of creation. Because God promised to renew all of creation. And, Jesus, who’s origin reached to David and to Abraham and through Abraham, to creation. The book of the Genesis of Jesus the Christ.
A colleague of mine, E. Carrington Heath, recently pointed something out. The Messiah is supposed to come from the line of David. If we believe what happens in the verses just after today’s reading, the ones where Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant with a child that is not his, then Jesus is not a biological descendant of David and Abraham, but adopted in through Joseph’s love and faith. Dr. Heath says, “In an age when we argue so much based on ‘biology,’ it’s amazing how God’s truth and love sometimes choose other routes.” The genesis of Jesus the Christ is a story about bringing someone into a family as much as it about tracing the origin of one specific family.
I don’t know how often you read the first 16 verses of the first chapter of Matthew. I’ve preached about this genealogy enough that I hope you have decided to read through it at least a few times. As I have said before, many folks skip over the first 16 or 17 verses to get to Joseph’s call story in verse 18. Please don’t skip these names, even if you don’t remember who everyone is. Because the names are here for a reason. Because Jesus’ story is very much about one who is brought into a family, we should likely pay attention to not just the fathers and their biological sons that make up this family tree. We should also attend to the women who are named in this list.
In a genealogy that is nearly all fathers and sons, the inclusion of four women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, stands out. Why would these women in particular be included when so many other women weren’t? Let’s turn to their stories for a moment. While there are a couple of different Tamars in the Hebrew Bible, the one who is mentioned in this genealogy is Tamar from Genesis 38. Tamar was a widow reliant on her father-in-law Judah for care. As was their custom, when her husband died, she married his brother. The first tragedy of her story is the death of her first husband. Then, she marries his brother, who dies. Then another brother who dies.
Judah, upon losing three sons, refuses to allow his fourth son to marry Tamar. This is a different kind of tragedy. In addition to the grief of losing her husbands, Tamar would have been left with no financial or emotional support because Judah refused to live up to his familial responsibilities. So, she devised a plan to save herself, a scandalous plan which implicated Judah in unrighteous behavior. The plan was risky and could have hurt her reputation, leaving her with even fewer options than before. Her plan ended up working. She survived and rebuilt her family, ending up in this list as an ancestor to David.
The second woman listed is Rahab whose story is in Joshua 2. She ran her own business, in the world’s oldest profession, out of her home that was built along the city wall of Jericho. She hid some of the Hebrew leader Joshua’s soldiers when enemy soldiers came searching for them. She even helped them escape to return to their army. Her actions helped Joshua to win the battle for the city and saved her own family from being destroyed in that same battle. She would go on to marry Joshua and convert to his faith. She is still remembered as one with a deep faith in God and as a righteous hero to the faith that she married into.
Ruth was a Moabite married to an Israelite man at a point when Israelite men weren’t supposed to be married to Moabites. Upon the deaths of her husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law, rather than return to her father’s home, Ruth creates a new family with her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi and Naomi’s distant relative Boaz. Their atypical family helps the women survive in an era where widows had few social safety nets. Ruth, who once said that Naomi’s God had become her God, who risked traveling to a foreign city where the men weren’t even supposed to marry her, would eventually bear her little family a son, Obed. In this act of trust and faith, in building new relationships and bearing new life, she becomes known as a renewer of her family’s hope.
And, Bathsheba? It is not clear when we first meet her in 2nd Samuel if she hoped to become the wife of King David. Kings were pretty free to do what they wanted with women in their vicinity, so her intent may not have mattered to him at all. David sent her husband away and took Bathsheba for his own purposes. While it isn’t clear if she wanted to be in the relationship where she was, but, once she was there, she would take great care of her son, Solomon. Solomon would become king, one of the most famous and wise kings of his people, as a direct result of the intervention of his mother. Her strategic forethought, especially in the face of the nearly unchecked power of King David, would change her people’s history.
I read a quote once by the author Linda Hogan, who was talking about the spiritual practice of listening to nature while out walking. She said, “Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands." We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood. And, all we know about his mother Mary’s is that it was likely disrupted by an unexpected and likely scandalous pregnancy. When Joseph decided to make them his family, to bring them into the line of David and Abraham, did Joseph remember these four women, his forebears? Did the Holy Spirit say, “look at where you came from. This pregnancy does not have to be the end of your and Mary’s story. It can be the beginning.”
And, Mary, knowing the stories of her people, was she bolstered by the intelligence and resilience of these women? Did they help her know that she could fight for a better future? If the love of thousands wasn’t clear to her, was the love of four? Would that help to her be unafraid to become the fifth woman in this genealogy? Maybe it did. Or, maybe that one angelic voice was enough. Perhaps this is one of the lessons of this story. You never know what the origin of your bravery will be. But, renewal is at hand, and each of us has the opportunity to be brave enough to be a part of it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mitzi Minor: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/genealogy-of-jesus/commentary-on-matthew-11-17-2
David M. Carr, "Genesis," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Tikva S. Frymer-Kensky, "Rahab," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Phyllis A. Bird, "Tamar," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Phyllis Trible, "Ruth," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Yehoshua Gitay, "Bathsheba," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
A Greek version of Matthew: https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/matthew-1-parallel-kjv-greek/
E. Carrington Heath: https://twitter.com/echeath/status/1598365528258641920?s=20&t=aOIJdj07cPdxRn-reITu4w
Linda Hogan: https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/23701
Luke 1:5-17 The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
Zechariah has gotten what should be good news. Zechariah is also terrified. It doesn’t even matter that the angel told him not to be afraid. He is still concerned about this whole situation. In this way, Zechariah is one of the most relatable figures we read about in the lead up to Jesus’ birth. Because he was afraid of this wild visitor from God and also couldn’t quite believe that what he was praying for would come true.
Zechariah is a priest. You’d think he’d be primed to recognize God doing a new thing in what is a pretty familiar pattern in the Bible. Can we remember anyone else who got told they would be parents years after they thought they would be able to conceive? Abraham and Sarah! That’s right. In her commentary on this text, Aubrey West notes that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth have much in common with their ancestors in the faith, Abraham and Sarah. They are faithful. They want children. And, they have reached their elder years without them. According to the scholar Elizabeth Johnson, during the era in which they would have lived, childlessness was often blamed on a woman’s barrenness, as though only her body could be the problem. Some might even take their childlessness to be a sign that God was angry with them. And, yet, even as they certainly grieved their infertility, they also seemed to find comfort in their faith, following the commandments, with God's help, to the best of their abilities.
The Incarnation shows us a vision of God rooted in relationship: the relationship between God and humanity but also relationships among people. Wil Gafney, in her commentary on this text, says that “Luke demonstrates that the Advent of Jesus is a community affair.” And, we know that God is happy to work through folks that the community doesn’t expect. The community might have expected Zechariah and Elizabeth to be faithful. They would have never expected them to have a child. Shoot, Zechariah and Elizabeth likely didn’t expect to have a child. But, the Incarnation will need a community... will need people to let everyone know they were on the way. Who better than this faithful couple to begin making a path in the wilderness that Jesus will one day trod?
Zechariah was already having a meaningful day, even without the angel showing up. He had been chosen to give the offering of incense in the temple. According to Marion Soards’ notes on this text, lighting the incense was a great privilege that was granted only once in a lifetime. This would have been a high point in his calling as a priest. And, then the angel waltzed in or flew or appeared or however they show up. And, his life and Elizabeth’s life was forever changed.
Do not be afraid. That is easy for you to say, Gabriel. In the dark inner room of the temple, with incense smoke swirling around them, the angel Gabriel looked at Zechariah and said, "Do not be afraid... for your prayer has been heard." Do not be afraid for God will keep God's promises. God will provide for you what you have needed. You will have a son and that son will have a great calling. Gabriel tells Zechariah that his boy would be a prophet, following in the footsteps of the prophet Elijah, provided the world with what they needed: a prophet to make way for the Messiah.
That’s where our reading stops for the day, but it is worth considering what else happens to Zechariah, father of John called the Baptist. Because I imagine others might recognize some of their own story within his response to the news that the angel brings. Rather than just say, “I got it from here Gabe! We’re ready for this baby,” Zechariah asks a reasonable question, similar to that of Sarah and Abraham: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” Gabriel will not appreciate this question. Rolf Jacobsen, in a commentary he wrote about parts of this story, describes what happens next as “Gabriel... point[ing] the angel clicker at Zechariah and hitting the mute button.” And, Zechariah will not be able to speak again until he really sees and really believes that God has done what God promised.
It must be noted that Elizabeth takes the good news and runs with it. Though she went into seclusion upon realizing she was pregnant, it doesn’t appear that it was to hide or because she was unsure what was happening. It seems like to was to care for herself and revel in the pregnancy that she thought wouldn’t come. In her solitude, she spoke words of thanksgiving, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” All the while, Zechariah is silent, unable to say aloud whatever was on his heart and mind as he waited to see if his son would be born.
In case this is a new story for you, I’ll offer a few spoilers. Elizabeth’s pregnancy will go well. A healthy boy will be born and she will come out of labor healthy. But even after seeing the baby born safely, Zechariah still will not speak. His fatherly fear will still be too strong, even with his son in his arms. For 8 more days, he will be silent. But, he will perform his fatherly responsibilities, even in his fear and silence. They will take the boy to temple to be circumcised, as was their custom. The officiants will attempt to name the child after his father. Elizabeth says to name the boy John, as they were told. They ask Zechariah for confirmation, and in that moment, Zechariah will live out a faith he hadn’t been able to find nine months earlier. He’ll write on a tablet: “His name is John.” And, at that very moment, his mouth opened and his tongue was freed and he would sing a song praising God.
Zechariah likely knew that a prophet is a difficult calling but he also finally remembered that God empowers humanity to do difficult things all the time. In being faithful through his fear, he could finally believe that God could even do a difficult thing through his family. What a powerful reminder that even as we are afraid, the divine can and will still move within us, connecting us to one another, making way for that which is Holy to move in this world in unexpected ways. Zechariah and Elizabeth made the way for their son. John will make the way for Christ. Thank God Zechariah’s fear couldn’t stop Emmanuel from being with us. May we remember that we can be faithful through our fear, too, even if we aren’t able to sing a song to God just yet. May we be able, just like Zechariah, to find our voice when the world needs it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Audrey West: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=460
Rolf Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2703
Elizabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/zechariahs-song-2/commentary-on-luke-15-13-14-25-57-80
Wil Gafney, "Advent 2" A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2021)
Marion Lloyd Soards' introduction to Luke in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Sermon for November 27, 2022: “Waiting in the Shadows” based on Matthew 24:32-44 (Written by Becky Walker)
Matthew 24:32-44 The Lesson of the Fig Tree
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
The Necessity for Watchfulness
‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 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 also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Happy New Year, Church! This is a new year! The journey through Advent begins today. You might think the year would begin with trumpets and fanfare, or maybe the softness of Christmas Eve....But instead, we begin in the shadows of war, despair, sorrow, and hate. And it’s precisely here that the God of grace will arrive. It’s precisely here that the church is called to light candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. You are invited to listen, watch, remember, and wait...It’s a season that holds the certainty of the past and the predictability of the future with the choices we make.
The biblical story we heard this morning from the Gospel of Matthew, like most biblical narratives, was written several decades after the fact. Jesus is nearing the end of his public ministry and in this passage, there are signs that the current age is coming to an end.
The disciples have been asking Jesus questions all through chapter 24 in Matthew. When Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple, they ask him when it will happen and what are the signs of his coming. And we hear in this passage Jesus finally offering a direct answer to the “when” part of their question. But, it’s not the answer they’d been hoping for.
After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, there would be times of great suffering, but then, slowly, new signs would appear and Christ will arrive and make things right. But when? When will this happen? Not even Jesus knows. He stresses that only God knows the answer to when this will happen. “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Then, Jesus reminds the disciples about Noah, and how the people went about life as usual, right up to the moment when the floods came. Noah only knew the great flood was coming and prepared the best he could by building an ark and gathering a variety of animals before the sudden devastation happened. There would be no warning, no alert to let them know what was coming. “...and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away...”
“Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Watchfulness or wakefulness is not a defensive posture. It’s having heightened awareness to the signs of God’s presence. The power comes from preparing, preparing for the coming of the Lord even though we don’t know “when”. We are not supposed to know “when the Lord is coming”, like the disciples keep asking. Jesus tells us to stay awake and watch.
The season of Advent is a time of actively waiting for Jesus to come by entering the shadows of despair, conflict, hate, and sorrow. We light the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. Today’s passage helps us look forward without anxiety because we can’t be afraid to look back. As we look back on the time of Noah, we learn he prepared for the great flood. When we do that, we see what God has done and can have confidence in what God will do, in God’s own time. The beauty of the power of scripture is that it provides the stories that foreshadow what God is doing in our own time and will do in God’s time.
This morning, listen and hear what Jesus, and the writer of Matthew are saying. Enter into the shadows, the places where all hope seems lost. Listen to the desperate refugee, the lonely prisoner, the heartbroken addict, and the homeless. Once you’ve entered the shadows, you can proclaim the good news, and spread hope that God is on the way.
Keep awake! Be ready! Jesus is calling us, inviting us to repair the world, little by little, one person at a time, changing this anxious world to one filled with hope, hope of things to come...Peace, Joy, Love.
Jesus tells his disciples that the Son of Man is present healing the sick, standing with the broken and suffering, bringing sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. This is where we, too, go to see what God is doing.
Challenge yourself this Advent season to find the joy in turning toward God, walking humbly, to loving mercy, and doing justice. We have the power and the invitation from Jesus to change our lives as we learn from the past. So, keep awake and prepare as you wait in the shadows.....be ready! Amen.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week 1: “Be Ready”, Matthew 24:36-44, 11.27.22
Cheryl A. Lindsay: Sermon Seeds: “Stay Alert”, Matthew 24:36-44, First Sunday of Advent, Yr. A, 11.27.22
Stanley Saunders: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent/commentary-on-matthew-2436-44-6
David L. Bartlett, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, Westminster John Knox Press Louisville, KY: Matthew 24:36-44, pg. 20-24
The New Oxford Annotated Bible NRSV, Fourth Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press 2010) Matthew 24:32-44; Pg. 1783.
Hebrews 1:1-9 Letter to the Hebrews: God Has Spoken by His Son
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
The Son Is Superior to Angels
For to which of the angels did God ever say,
‘You are my Son;
today I have begotten you’?
‘I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son’?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’
Of the angels he says,
‘He makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire.’
But of the Son he says,
‘Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever,
and the righteous sceptre is the sceptre of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.’
One day during my chaplain training, I found myself in the neonatal intensive care. I was talking to a nurse I knew well. She had pulled me aside and pointed to three very tiny babies, each in an incubator. They were all very early... born at 24 or 25 weeks. The nurse was worried, not just about their health, but also about their families. Being a parent is already hard, even if your baby is healthy and full term. These little ones were going to need months of expensive and time-consuming medical care. After spending time with these families, who were just beginning to wrap their heads around caring for their babies, and looking pretty overwhelmed, the nurse told me that she was so unsure about how things were going to go. Looking at the scary and hard present, it was difficult for her to be optimistic about their future.
I don’t remember everything I said to her that day. We only talked about 10 minutes. But, I talked a little about my own life and the lives of people I know and care about. I said, “look at us. We are here. We have good lives. You have to leave a little room for grace. You have no idea what can happen that will end up being good for them.” I assured her that even though she was likely right in assessing the difficulties these families were facing, she couldn’t predict the good that would come into their life and wouldn’t know how they and their parents would mature into a family that cared for each other. Leaving room for Grace means being hopeful that there is a more healthy and hopeful future than you can see right now.
At some point, the nurse also asked what kind of cookies I liked. I told her chocolate chip. A few days later, I stopped in the main chaplains’ office and Steve, one of the staff chaplains, asked me what I had talked about with that NICU nurse and I told him the story. He handed me a bag of cookies. He said he’d never had anyone make a chaplain cookies before. I guess what I said was the encouragement she needed at that moment.
I don’t tell this story to brag on my ministerial skills. I mess up plenty, as I am sure you are all aware. But, I remembered this encounter as I was reading up on the book of Hebrews. According to the scholar Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Hebrews is best understood to be an anonymous sermon written for an early Christian community to encourage them during a hard time. When times are difficult, it can be challenging to imagine a hopeful future, especially if you are an astute judge of the present. I mean, you don’t always even need to fall into dour pessimism to worry about the future. The concern we have about the future in the midst of the hard times of the present is often realistic, not pessimistic. Despair and concern are often reasonable responses to the world we are witnessing and the world that we fear might come. And, yet, even our wisest assessments of the future cannot possibly take all things that might happen into account. We don’t know how the Spirit can move in surprising ways. So, even while things are hard, we can live in faithful ways because of the potential we know is possible with the Spirit.
The preacher who wrote Hebrews begins with a reminder of how God engaged with this church’s religious ancestors. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways through the prophets.” We know because we have shared the stories of our past that God spoke to us. This is a reminder and a promise. God has spoken and is speaking. The preacher goes on to talk about how God is speaking differently in what they refer to as “the last days.” Remember, people have often thought they were living through the end of the world. And, also, worlds end all the time. Even if the world is ending, you still have to figure out how to live through the end. This preacher says we live through this end knowing that God is capable of doing brand new things because God’s word was no longer simply spoken by the prophets but came alive in the Incarnation of Christ.
“The Son is the brilliance of God’s glory and the reproduction of God’s very being, and the Son undergirds all there is by his word of power.” That’s how Wil Gafney translates part of today’s reading. Jesus is the brilliance of God’s glory and the reproduction of God’s very being and undergirds all there is by his word of power. Craig Koester, in his commentary on this text, says, “The writer will not let the readers’ imaginations remain impoverished with a Christ who is too small.” Over the course of nine verses, this preacher quotes five different parts of Hebrew scripture to try to capture the radical and wild and new iteration of God’s Spirit that was Jesus called Christ. Verse 5 is Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7. Verse 6 is from Deuteronomy. Verse 7 is Psalm 104. Verses 8 and 9 is from Psalm 45. It takes the genres of prophecy, poetry, and history to even come close to describing the Jesus. And, the preacher is clear, faith in this Living Word of God who loved righteousness across time and space will be what carries this church through the hard days, through the end of all things, and into a future that they can’t even quite imagine yet.
Last night, I read a little bit of a conversation that the activist Mariame Kaba was having about hope being an essential part of her faith and work. Someone else in the conversation offered up these words by Rebecca Solnit:
“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with, in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal... To hope is to give yourself to the future - and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
It strikes me that this is the kind of hopeful faith that the writer of Hebrews was calling the church to. Yes, times are difficult. Yes, this feels like the last days of something vital. And, yet, the Word of God is alive as a reminder and a promise. Jennifer Vija Pietz describes the promise in this way: God is committed to pursuing relationship with creation, God is faithful, Jesus is dealing with sin and leading us on our journey, and God is greater than we can see. So, we must leave room for Grace, the Spirit, to move in ways we can’t yet see. We must wield our hope ferociously, cutting through our despair, making room for a healthy and thriving future to grow with the Spirit’s help. Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors and God still speaks today. May we have enough hope to keep listening.
Sermon for November 13, 2022: The Very Best Wedding Guest based on John 2:1-11
John 2:1-11 The Wedding at Cana
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Today’s reading is from the Gospel of John. In John, Jesus regularly does things to prove that he is a particular, special incarnation of God. John’s primary tool for proving Jesus’ identity are seven key stories, usually called seven “signs.” I have been grateful for the work of scholar Karoline Lewis who says it is better to think of the miraculous events in these seven stories not as neat magic tricks but as particular revelations that are crucial for demonstrating who and what Jesus is. Four of the seven are healings, including the resurrection of Lazarus. One is walking on water. One is feeding thousands. In those six stories, Jesus is stronger that physics, has access to more food than a hundred Hannafords, and is more powerful than illness and even death itself. The seventh sign, by which I mean, the first sign, is Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding.
At this wedding, nobody is dying or sick, that we know of. Jesus is just hanging out with his mom at a wedding where everyone seems to be having so much of a great time, that they run out of wine. Even though there’s not a story of Jesus’ miraculous birth in John, Mary, Jesus’ mom, is still vital to this story. Dr. Wil Gafney, in her commentary, notes that it is Mary who pushes her son to help out this couple. How he helps will become the sign that begins his entire public ministry.
At first, Jesus tries to decline his mother’s request. He says “my hour is not yet come.” She does not care and that is maybe my favorite part of the whole story. She’s already decided he can and will help them and has even gone up to the servants, telling them to “Do whatever he tells you.” Because Jesus is a good son, he does what his mom wants. The servants line up 6 big jugs of water. Lewis says in her book about John that each one of this particular kind of jug held 20 to 30 gallons of water. So that means that Jesus was looking at somewhere between 120 and180 gallons of water. The servants are the only ones who see he does next.
Jesus tells them to draw some of the liquid out and take it the head waiter. Sometime between the moment that they draw up the water and the moment the head waiter tastes it, it becomes wine. And, not just any wine. Very good wine. The head waiter just assumes that the groom had good stuff socked away and did the weirdly generous move of bringing it out after everyone was probably too drunk to appreciate it. He would have never guessed that Jesus had simply made the wine appear. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t explain why he decided to make all this wine. He will go on to explain why he does every other sign. This story simply says this was the first of the signs and “revealed his glory.”
A question that you might have: In the face of the life and death... illness and health... walking and drowning... hunger and satiation... why on earth does making a ton of wine at a wedding get to be the sign that introduces us to Jesus? Remember: this is the very first of the seven signs. First, let’s talk about why the wine is important. In her commentary on this text, Lindsey Jodrey notes that there was not a lot of clean water around, so wine was the safest drink for most folks most of the time. And, the wedding celebrations of this era would often take several days. To run out of wine when hosting many people for many days was to run out of a basic provision of life. And, it was just rude. You don’t have a bunch of people over and not make sure they have enough food and drink that is also safe.
Jodrey also notes that, in many cases, family and friends helped provide food and drink at weddings. If this couple ran out of wine, it may mean that they didn’t have enough community support to host the kind of wedding that was expected of them. Given how insistent Mary is that Jesus help the couple, we can assume that she had already made sure they brought their fair share of wedding food and wine. Given that his family had likely already contributed, isn’t it interesting that Jesus decided to be more gracious than necessary?
In her commentary, Jodrey reminds us that feasts are important metaphors for divine generosity throughout the Bible. She also reminds us that a key metaphor for God’s Wisdom in the book of Proverbs is that Wisdom is like a woman who builds a house and sets a rich feast and invites everyone to come eat and drink. And, Jodrey reminds us that the beginning of John tells us that one way that we can understand Jesus is to think of him as the embodiment of God’s Wisdom. The Word became flesh and lived among us, it. While it might not be as flashy as walking on water, in helping this couple more extravagantly host their friends and family, Jesus embodies God’s Wisdom, becoming the One who fills cups until they overflow and fills bellies until they are full. This is not the abundance of the rich, who can just send out servants to scoop up whatever wine they can find in town. This is God’s abundance... taking what is already there and using good will and skill to make sure everyone has more than enough. This is the abundance that is the core of Jesus’ ministry.
Karoline Lewis points out that abundance is part of several of the other signs, too. When Jesus healed the man in chapter 5, he was responding to the man’s request for help being put in a healing pool. Jesus gave him enough grace that he didn’t even need to get in the pool. In chapter 9, when people responded to his healing of the blind man with fear and anger, expelling the man from their community, Jesus invited him to become a sheep in his fold. After bringing Lazarus back to life after three days, a feat miraculous on its own, we truly know that Lazarus has been restored when we read, a few verses later, that he is eating with his sisters. These actions, actions that go above and beyond, actions rooted in abundance, not scarcity, rebuild relationships among people and relationship between humanity and the Divine. By the end of John, Jesus will be so clearly associated with reckless and extravagant acts of abundant grace that, after the resurrection, the disciples will be assured that it is truly Jesus on the beach when he tells them where to fish and they catch so many that they can barely get the net back to shore.
We are introduced to Jesus with a sign of extravagant hospitality so that we know that God's love, God’s wisdom, is most clearly seen in abundance and reconnection. We are given this story of water being turned to wine so that we know God is offering us more than the bare minimum, and we are called to offer more than empty jars to our neighbors. In a world that tells us that there isn’t enough, this story reminds us that there can be, if we listen to the person pushing us to share it. Some people benefit from us believing that there isn’t enough and fighting for scraps among ourselves. May we know that Jesus doesn’t call us to fight over scraps or to hoard necessities away from our neighbors. Jesus, the very best wedding guest, shows us that water can become wine. May we take this good wine and share it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Lindsey S. Jodrey: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3946
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5276
Wil Gafney, "Proper 28 (Closest to November 16) Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
At the beginning of worship, I invited you to remember some events you might have attended in this sanctuary or over zoom in worship. Now, I’m going to invite you to close your eyes and think of Jesus. What kind of picture of Jesus first pops in your head? Maybe it’s Jesus knocking on the door. I preached about that a couple weeks ago. Or, maybe it’s Jesus sitting down at a dinner table. I preached about that last week. Maybe it’s Jesus praying in the garden or Jesus on the cross. Now, I’m going to invite you to open your eyes and look at this image of Jesus. In this picture, Jesus is pretty mad.
This story is one of those that is important enough that it’s in all four Gospels. We need to pay special attention because each Gospel writer had an idea about who Jesus was and picked stories to share based on what they thought were important. All of them thought this story was important. In her commentary on this text, Karoline Lewis points out that John does use this story different. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all put it towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, just after he returned to Jerusalem for Passover but before he was crucified. That placement makes it seem like this story might be part of the reason he was arrested. John changes it up though, putting it right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. In fact, flipping over tables and whipping people is Jesus' second public act. This is quite the introduction!
At this point in John, most people didn’t know who Jesus was and he had no reputation as a public teacher that would help people understand what he was doing. He was just one more Jewish guy at the Temple for Passover (though a few people might have remembered that he was a good wedding guest in Cana who made sure they didn’t run out of wine). Karoline Lewis notes that as a pilgrim, he would have been expected to take part in the rituals and purification required for temple worship. He was just expected to be a regular guy... not the kind of person who would have the authority to make any changes to who was present in the temple or what kind of business they were running in service of worship at the temple.
Because it’s not how we worship, it might be strange for us to imagine all these animals and people crowded onto the temple grounds. Other than Buddy the dog and the neighbors’ cats, you don’t really see animals here at church. But the animals and the people selling them and people offering money exchange services were actually supposed to be there. People were required to make sacrifices and needed to have access to animals and to the proper kinds of coins in order to make these sacrifices. Travelers bought their sacrificial animals at the temple, instead of dragging them from home, and everyone traded the Roman money for half-shekels, the kind of money you had to use for your offering. These merchants had an approved role at the temple. It would have been unheard of for someone to get mad at them.
If somebody ran into our church and knocked over the communion elements and flipped over the offering plates, would you be surprised? Would you be mad at that person? Would you wonder what is going on? I think all the people who watched Jesus run the animals and merchants out of the temple would have been surprised and maybe mad at what he did. And they probably would have been confused when he said, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" Because the temple, at least one part of it, kind of needed to be a place where people could buy and sell things. The things they were buying were necessary for them to do the rituals God told them to do.
To understand this story better, in her commentary on this text and some others she paired with it, Dr. Wil Gafney states that Christians need to work hard to remember how important the Temple in Jerusalem was. She wrote, “It may not be an overstatement to say that the temple represented the physical manifestation of Imannu-El, God with us.” The building of the Temple and the destruction of the Temple, and taking of the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple by Babylon, were two pivotal events in the national life of Israel. Rebuilding the temple after the exile was a significant undertaking for generations of Judeans. There was what Dr. Gafney called a “deep national cultural investment in the splendor of the temple.” Jesus’ wild and raucous rage would have been a scandal!
Other pilgrims asked Jesus, reasonably I think, what on earth could justify running the merchants out. Specifically, which kind of sign from God he could show them to explain why what he did was right. His response... his response was not a placating one. It was just about as wild as running the merchants and sacrificial animals out of the space. He says “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.” That’s right, he said destroy the temple... this most holy place that they had been trying for generations to get to feel like it did back in the heyday before Babylon.... this temple that Herod the Great had already been working on updating for 46 years. Destroy the temple! And he says that he can rebuild it in three days?! The nerve of this guy.
Three days... what else do we know happened in three days? Right. We who have read the rest of the story know that there are three days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Our reading from today says that after the resurrection, the disciples will remember this statement and understand that they have witnessed the fruition of a prophecy. We modern readers might also understand something else. If we remember that the temple was particularly important as special abiding place of God (though not the only place) and that Jesus seems to be comparing his own body to the Temple, it seems to be a fair interpretation that John believed that Jesus understood God to be dwelling within him, “every bit as much as [God] dwelled in their ancestral temple,” according to Dr. Gafney.
Alycia D. Myers, in her commentary on this text, notes that at the beginning of John, the author tells us that Jesus was the Word of God which became flesh and lived among us. And, Dr. Lewis notes that later stories, like the story of the woman at the well in John 4 and the blind man that Jesus heals in John 9, show us how people who weren’t even there at the temple still act as though they know God is with Jesus. In response to his teaching and his healing, they offer worship... worship much like that at the temple. And, that worship is good because God is there, like God would be at the temple. It is vital for the followers of Christ to be reminded that God is present in the disruption of routines as well as in our most beloved rituals... that God is present in the demand for transformation from institutions that work very hard not to change as well as the systems that keep these institutions functioning. This story reminds us that God is not apart... God is with. May we feel God with us at the tables that must be flipped, in our temples, and by the wells where we will worship anew.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2377
Alicia D. Myers: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-5
Wil Gafney, "Proper 27 (Closest to November 9)," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Rev. 3:14-22: The Message to Laodicea
‘And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:
‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’
As someone who was raised surrounded by more Fundamentalist versions of Christianity than the one I currently practice, the book of Revelation has a somewhat conflicted place in my faith life. I encountered this book most often as a threat in the broader culture. I remember reading religious comic books at a friend’s house about the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. That story is part of this book. Also, I heard lots of talk of the End of Days. When people talked about the Ultimate Judgment of Humanity by God, they nearly always referenced Revelation. For anyone who wanted to scare people into following Jesus, Revelation always seemed to be the book they hauled out to do it. Because that wasn’t how I understood my faith, I ended up avoiding the book as a whole, preferring to stick around with the Jesus I encountered in the Gospels. I wonder if any of you have had a similar experience with this book of the Bible?
Here are some things I have learned that have helped me more fully engage with this strange and also foundational Christian text. It matters that we take the era in which this book was written into account. In his introduction to this book of the Bible in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, Jean-Pierre Ruiz says that the book was likely written sometime between 81 and 96 CE and was shaped by Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In a very similar way to how the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE shaped later Jewish ideas about exile, mourning, and the centrality of Jerusalem to communal worship, Rome’s destruction of the Jerusalem, which was distinctly tied to wiping out rebellion in the city, shaped how the prophet John would come to understand a Christian’s role within an empire that would do something so cruel. According to Ruiz, the prophet John, who had been exiled to Patmos and who’s prophetic visions were recorded by someone else, offered this instruction to Christians living under Rome: when living in the midst of a regime that is callous and cruel and interested mostly in maintaining its own power, the only proper response is resistance. There can be no compromise and no accommodation with the evil empire.
According to Dr. Ruiz, the prophecies that John received vary widely in style and content. Some parts are hymns, much like the Psalms. Some parts describe bloody battles. They also deploy a style of argument that is dualistic: there are two ways of doing things, the right way and the wrong way. All behavior seems to be able to be sorted into one of those two categories. Our reading for today is from the part of Revelation that is a series of messages to seven different churches in seven different cities in what we know call Turkey. This is the particular message to the members of the church in Laodicea. According to Mary Milne, Laodicea was a wealthy trading city, important enough to Rome to have an aqueduct. Milne also thinks that it is possible that John’s accusation that they were “lukewarm Christians” was a reference to not only their passion for Christ, but the only warmish water they had compare to neighboring Hierapolis, that was known for hot springs.
Regardless of actual temperature of the water, the accusation of lukewarmness was damning. I know that I quoted a Little Richard song in my sermon title, but I think another song might have been more appropriate. During what was known as the Harlan County War, a union activist wrote a song called “Which Side Are You On?” One of the verses goes:
They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there
You'll either be a union man or a thug for J. H. Blair
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
This song, born of the crisis of mining companies taking advantage of their employees, sounds much more like Revelation than that fun song about rejecting a romantic partner who messed up. Sorry, Little Richard. Whomever wrote “Which Side are You On?” understood the power of dualistic thinking in a crisis. There are only two sides: miners or bosses. There was no room for lukewarmness.
In her book about Revelation, Adela Yarbro Collins spoke of Apocalyptic literature, in general, and Revelation in particular, being literature that arises out of a crisis. She also notes that sometimes the feeling of being oppressed is as important as actually being oppressed. I read an article this week by historian Diana Butler-Bass who pointed to the rise of some apocalyptic preachers in the ever-growing Christian-Nationalist movement in our country. People who are drawn to Christian-Nationalist prophecies feel a crisis, but the crisis is mostly one of them losing power they had traditionally held. They become drawn to religious images of God, and eventually them, doing battle with unjust rulers in order to justify themselves hoarding power and money.
While the instability they feel is real, our country, and maybe the world, has been shifting, pushed really, to allow more and different kinds of people places of dignity and leadership. This shift is only a crisis if you believe you benefited from the system that had been in place. If we want to make good and proper use of the book of Revelation, we must tend to our own impulses in reading it and making use of it. If we are looking for justification for our most desperate and fearful inclinations, we will find it here. On the other hand, if we are looking for an example of moral clarity and a clear example of siding with Christ on behalf of the oppressed, regardless of the cost, this is here, too. And, I think that reading is closer to the spirit in which the prophecy was offered. In his commentary on this text, Ron Allen argues that the primary goals of this text are to provide the faithful with encouragement to stand against a powerful Empire, even when it would be easier to just go along, and, also, to remind those who are living according to the empire’s rules, and probably getting rich from it, that that kind of appeasement is not the life that Christ calls us to.
Notice that the imagine of Jesus in this story is not that of a flaming-sword-wielding warrior. It is instead, Jesus, persistently knocking and asking to be let in. Once Jesus is allowed in... notice that he doesn’t kick the door in, he must be let it... he sits down and eats with his friends. The presence of Christ is homey and domestic. This is not a battlefield... it is a kitchen table, a fellowship hall table, a communion table. Not that there won’t be conflict. There is conflict in all of our homes and in all of our sanctuaries. At the table in this prophecy, Jesus retains the right to rebuke those who stand with Rome. Conflict isn’t the antithesis of faith but a sign of a rigorous and trusting relationship... A relationship that is centered around the table. May we be good stewards of the table. Because they are where we meet Jesus and take care of each other. May we always pick the side where Christ is most clearly before us.
Resources consulted while writing the sermon:
Jean-Pierre Ruiz's introduction to "Revelation" The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994)
Mary K. Milne, "Laodicea, "The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996)
Diana Butler Bass: https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/on-prophets-and-politics?r=45vbf&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web
The lyrics to "Which Side Are You On:"
Adela Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984)
Sermon for October 23, 2022: What Makes a Good Meal? based upon Matthew 26:26-29
Matthew 26:26-29: The Institution of the Lord’s Supper
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’
Sometimes the internet is a steaming cesspool of rage and misinformation. And, sometimes it is a place of deep learning and joyful connection. This week, I learned something neat from the internet. I follow someone named Alexis Nicole Nelson on Instagram. Her handle is @blackforager. Her Instagram feed is sweet and silly and funny and so informative. She looks to forage for food and is passionate about teaching others to forage. She understands that foraging, particularly foraging what grows wild, is a long-standing and sustainable food tradition in many cultures and communities. On her feed, I’ve learned more about food elders where I grew up ate (like poke sallet), plants in my own yard (did you know that you can pickle tiger lilies), plants I’ve never heard of (pineapple weed!), and food I’ve only read about (she made pancakes out of flower made from acorns). I also appreciate how thoughtful she is about the ways that race and class affect the ways we eat and the kinds of food we have access to.
This week, I watched a video she made while out foraging for mushrooms. She titled the video: “The Honorable Harvest: A Rant.” I’ll share the link to the original when I post this sermon to the sermon blog. I’ll give you a little hint. When someone who’s work you respect starts a post with “I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed,” there’s a good chance that the post will be worth reading or watching. Why she is disappointed, in this post, is because someone chose to overharvest some chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms. From what she showed us, there were a couple really big patches of chicken-of-the woods on a tree, and someone cut off all of each patch nearly down to the bark of the tree. Nelson doesn’t think this is ethical harvesting. She goes on to explain why.
So much of Christian faith is about being attentive to how our values shape our actions. I heard something similar in Nelson’s description of the ethics that shape how she forages, even though she doesn’t talk about Christianity at all. She has values and those values shape her actions. She began to describe those values. She talked about a concept called the Honorable Harvest, noting that other teachers have spoken of it, like the professor Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. For Dr. Kimmerer, a key question is “how do we consume in a way that does justice to the lives we take?” (page 177). That question seems important to Nelson, too. So, she has developed a set of ideas that guide how she forages. Dr. Kimmerer shares many of the same ideas.
The first is don’t take the first of anything you find. It might be the only one. You rarely need to take the only one of anything. Second, don’t take all of something. Dr. Kimmerer goes so far as to say only take half (page 183). If you leave some, other people and creatures can share it and there will be enough left to reproduce. Third, take only what you need. In her video, Nelson pointed to her own harvest for that trip, which was a good handful of another kind of mushroom. It was all she needed. She left plenty for other people, animals, and fungi back on the log. Fourth, say thank you. In her belief system, this means offering thanks to both the mushroom and the log. I know hunters who say thank to the deer that they take. This practice of gratitude reminds those who harvest that the animals, plants, and fungi have lives worthy of consideration.
And, the fifth practice is to ask for permission. Dr. Kimmerer speaks of the power of thinking of food and harvest in ways that restore relationships... relationships between people, relationships among people and the plants and animals we consume, relationships with the land, water, and air. Asking permission is part of any healthy relationship. This can look different in different situations. Nelson says that if something is surrounded by poison ivy or out of reach for her, she takes that as a lack of permission. Dr. Kimmerer described a process of seeking permission that mixes a scientific method of assessment (is there enough, are we in the right conditions, does it look healthy) with a spiritual sense that she prayerfully tends to. Does this harvest feel like “yes” in this moment?
It must be noted that tending to these ethics of harvest does not make the harvest go faster. In fact, they slow it down quite a bit. That’s part of the point. In slowing down, the harvester pays more attention, shares better, acts more justly, and has the opportunity to act with gratitude. These ethics are not built for a culture that prizes the efficiency of clear-cut forests, mountain top removal mining, and unfettered consumption. Nelson and Kimmerer would like argue that the world wasn’t built for those practices either.
The meal Jesus shared with his friends in our scripture for today wasn’t made for efficiency or resource-hoarding either. It should be instructive to us that a key ritual intended to connect us to each other and to Christ is a ritual rooting in sharing. In his commentary on this text, Ron Allen argues that this story is probably here in Matthew, written decades after Jesus’ ministry, to help explain to later believers where this practice of sharing bread and wine came from and how it was supposed to help them know something of Jesus.
Allen argues that Jesus wanted his followers to live lives shaped by the ethics he taught them. As I said last week, they were to live in this world as though God’s Realm was already here and now. The notion that God wants people to have what they need to survive meant that the disciples would live in ways that made sure they, and the people to whom they ministered, have what they needed to survive. When Jesus’ followers eat and drink together, they are reminded of the call to feed the hungry and give drink to those who thirst. Christians have long argued about what it means for the bread and cup to be the body and blood of Christ. The traditions we follow lean into the answer that they assure us that Christ is present with us, I think especially so, when we share what we have, simple though it may be, with all who would like to partake.
I have often talked about how I think church gives us a chance to practice our faith, in here, so that we can live out our values more fully beyond the church walls. I am grateful for the examples Alexis Nicole Nelson and Robin Wall Kimmerer give of how they put their values into action in the practices of harvest and cooking. I pray that we can take some time to discern how we are living out our values, particularly this call to find Christ in the act of sharing a simple meal, beyond our ritual life here at church. When I first started thinking about this sermon, I asked myself the question “What makes a good meal?” Now, I’m inclined to shift it a bit: “What makes a meal good?” This scripture gives us part of the answer. Is it shared? Can everyone eat? Are we remembering the Holy when we sit down together? I hope you’ll consider these questions whenever you eat and whenever you share this week, and that you’ll know that Jesus can lead you, too, to live as if God’s Realm of love and justice has come.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Alexis Nicole Nelson's post that I reference: https://www.instagram.com/reel/CjvoYtEjjhs/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013)
Ron Allen from the "Bread and Cup to Faith and Giving" resources
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.