Corrie and I lived on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere for five years. Actually, it was in middle Tennessee, and it wasn’t technically a mountain but the Cumberland Plateau but it was usually referred to as the mountain, and it had sacred significance for many as it was the home of Sewanee, the University of the South, a university affiliated with the Episcopal Church with one of the church’s theological seminaries. The Cumberland Plateau rises high above the countryside of middle Tennessee and when you are one of the bluffs on a clear day, there are spectacular views of the valley below. Having grown up on the flat land of Northwestern Ohio, I couldn’t get enough of those vistas. Continue reading
In a few minutes, after the prayers of the people, the confession of sin and absolution, we will share the peace of the Lord with each other. For many of us, that is a moment of fellowship time, to greet our friends and neighbors in the pews near us, to introduce ourselves to newcomers, to engage in a moment of conversation. But I wonder how many of you know what is really supposed to be going on in that moment, what in fact is taking place liturgically. Continue reading
Today is the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple. It’s a major feast in our calendar but one we observe at Grace only when it falls on a Sunday. It commemorates the events recorded by Luke in today’s gospel reading. Jesus’ parents Mary and Joseph brought him to the temple forty days after his birth to conform to Jewish ritual obligations—the presentation of the first-born to God; and the purification of a woman after giving birth. Continue reading
In our liturgical calendar, today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany. Saying that probably doesn’t help orient many of you to what is going on in our worship. The Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6. It brings the Season of Christmas to an end. It’s a feast that celebrates God making Godself manifest in the world and especially in Jesus Christ. Traditionally, the church has focused on three specific events in Jesus’ life on Epiphany: the coming of the wise men, Jesus’ baptism, and Christ’s first miracle in the Gospel of John—the transformation of water into wine at the Wedding at Cana.
The first Sunday after the Epiphany focuses on the second of these three events: Jesus’ Baptism. Each year, we hear one of the gospels’ versions of the story of his baptism by John. It is also one of the Sundays when it is especially appropriate to baptize and to bring into the body of Christ new members.
Reading the story of Jesus’ baptism on a day when we also celebrate the sacrament of baptism prompts us to think about what our baptisms might mean in light of Jesus’ own baptism. But Jesus’ baptism is not our only source for early Christian baptism. There is also Paul, for whom, as he writes in the Letter to the Romans: “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death”—so baptism is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If you were to set the three different versions of Jesus’ baptism that we are given by the synoptic gospels, it would be very easy to see the different ways the gospel writers shape the story to reflect their perspectives on the meaning of the event and its significance for the person and ministry of Jesus. They differ in many small but significant details.
Looking only at Matthew’s version, as we are today, we can still detect some important themes that we will note repeatedly as we work through the gospel this year.
One thing to note is the important role of John the Baptist for Jesus’ ministry. For Matthew, Jesus’ proclamation and ministry is a continuation of John’s. Both preach the coming of the kingdom of God. John the Baptist will make appearances later in the gospel. There are occasions when others think Jesus is himself John the Baptist.
Remember that this is the first time we’ve seen Jesus as an adult in the gospel of Matthew, the first time we’ve seen him since the family’s return from Egypt after fleeing Herod. So Matthew’s depiction of this story is very important. What first impressions does he want to give us of Jesus?
He tells us that Jesus came to John in the wilderness. Jesus wasn’t just wandering by. He had come a long distance. He had come to John for this, to be baptized by John. But John refuses to do it. He says Jesus should baptize him. But Jesus insists, and says something very interesting: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus seems to be bringing John into this event, sharing with him in its enactment, and together, Jesus seems to be saying, they are fulfilling all righteousness. We might even say that it takes both of them, willingly participating, to fulfill all righteousness.
Righteousness is a complex term with many meanings in scripture. For us, it’s one of those old “religious” words that we never use except when we’re in church or talking about church; if anything, when it is used in popular culture it’s a synonym for amazing or cool. So we don’t know quite what it means. Earlier, Matthew described Joseph as a “righteous” man when he plans on quietly ending his relationship with Mary—he’s acting in accordance with Jewish law. We might regard it as both inner disposition and a matter of outward practice. But perhaps the most important element in it is obedience to God. Jesus is signaling here that both he and John are obeying God, seeking to live according to God’s will.
In Matthew’s telling of the story, it is that shared obedience, the willing participation of both John and Jesus in the event that leads to the confirmation of Jesus’ identity. As he comes out of the waters of the baptism, the voice from speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
I’m not sure many of you know why we baptize people, especially infants. I doubt very many of you believe that unbaptized babies will burn in hell if they die—even the Roman Catholic Church has rejected the traditional doctrine of limbo. And we have so internalized American values of self-determination and freedom when it comes to religion that the idea parents might make a religious for their children has come to be regarded by many as parental tyranny.
Yet here we are. Out of some sense of obligation, or tradition, we will gather around the font again. Often, there’s a powerful bond of family that tugs us to bring our babies to the font, whether or not we quite believe in it all, we’re doing it for our parents or grandparents.
It’s tough to be a parent today. Young families are juggling jobs and daycare; struggling to make ends meet in a changing world and changing economy. We wonder and worry what sort of world our children and grandchildren will inherit from us—whether the planet we live on will even be inhabitable in 50 or 75 years. We can’t do it on our own. I’ve been fascinated to see how many people have come to Grace Church in the last couple of years, moving here to be closer to their children and grandchildren. That’s not just about being closer to family, it’s about helping out, providing childcare, helping raise the next generation. I’ve also seen the struggles of those parents, single moms especially, who don’t have other family members to turn to in difficult times.
For parents to bring a child to the font, is a recognition and admission that they can’t do it on their own. These beautiful children, miracles of life and of God’s creative power, are at the very beginning of their life’s journey. None of us knows what lies in store for them, what challenges and possibilities they will face. Baptism brings them into the body of Christ, the fellowship of the faithful, where we all commit to helping them grow into their full stature as children of God.
For those of us who are observing this rite today, baptism is also a powerful reminder of who we are. There’s a sense in which we are like these babies, brought to God’s grace by power beyond ourselves, our salvation dependent not on what we might do or choose, but only through God’s love.
We can’t do it on our own. We can’t make it on our own. Baptism reminds us that we aren’t lone individuals making our way in the world. We are enmeshed in a network of relationships, and baptism grafts us into the body of Christ. Baptism is the means by which God reaches out to us, draws us into God’s loving embrace.
In a way, all of us here are like John and Jesus today, coming to the waters of baptism in obedience to God’s call, trusting in God’s grace. And like Jesus, of whom the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;” in baptism we are all marked as Christ’s own forever, embraced as God’s beloved children. Thanks be to God.
Happy New Year! Was it only five days ago that we were celebrating the New Year, full of hope for what new possibilities a new year and a new decade might bring? Our celebrations may have been tempered a bit by the realities of all that is taking place around the globe and here at home—the horrific fires in Australia that have devastated the continent, its unique flora and fauna, and led to those images of people huddled near the ocean, waiting for transport away from the devastation. Continue reading
Today is the first Sunday of Christmas. You know that there are 12 days of Christmas, and that those twelve days begin, not end, on Christmas Day. Christmas continues right up to the Feast of the Epiphany—although in many places, Christmas decorations remain in the church until February 2, which is Candlemas, or also the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple. Continue reading
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”
I love the contrast between our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. The early service on Christmas Eve is full of noise and excitement. Last night the church was almost full, with families, and children who were full of anticipation of the presents under the trees back home. They could hardly contain their excitement. Each year, I invite them to come forward and join me at our lovely creche, and I engage them in conversation about the story represented by the creche, and its meaning for our lives and our faith.
Then, at 10:00 pm, there’s a very different mood. Excitement still, but the mood is shaped by the beautiful music provided by the choir, organ, and instrumentalists as people gather in the nave. Both services end in darkness as we sing “Silent Night” with candles lit in a darkened nave. Finally, the bells peal the joyous sounds of celebration and we go out into the darkness, our hearts filled with joy.
Christmas Day is very different. In some years, though not now, we might come to church in the glorious, dazzling light, of sun shining on snow. The brightness of the sun corresponds to the glory of the gospel reading we hear each year, the first verses from John’s gospel.
This gospel reading offers a vivid contrast to the story we read each year on Christmas Eve, Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus. While Luke moves us in panoramic style from the powerful center of the Roman Empire to one of its obscure and distant corners, the village of Bethlehem, as the characters mentioned change from emperors and governors to a pregnant woman and a band of shepherds. The story ends in stillness and quiet, with Mary pondering all that happened and the shepherds returning to their sheep.
John’s gospel begins with an even wider view than Luke’s. Instead of setting the context in the Roman Empire, John expands out even further, to the beginning of time and the origins of the universe. He draws our attention not to how or where Jesus was born, but to the God who created all that is, and the Word through whom everything was created.
John begins with a panoramic view of the universe: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. But from that vast eternal scope, he focuses in on us:
“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The incarnation is a great mystery of our faith, something that we should ponder and treasure in our hearts, something we should puzzle over, ponder. More than that. The Word connects us with God because our words, our thoughts are attempts to approach and understand the Word. By thinking, reflecting, struggling to understand the meaning of the Word become flesh, there’s a way in which our thinking itself makes Christ present in our minds and in our lives.
You may find all this very abstract. It is, but John doesn’t stop there. He goes on. The word became flesh and lived among us.
With this verse, John brings us back to Bethlehem, to the reality of the incarnation. Literally the Greek reads, “and the word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” While John likely wants us to think of the tabernacle that was the symbol of God’s presence to the Israelites in the wilderness, it’s also the case that we are to think of Christ being among us, “living among us” in a temporary, make-shift way, like a tent. That is to say, the word took on frail human flesh to be like us.
This paradox, this mystery is quite beyond comprehension. The Word taking human flesh. St. Augustine captures the paradox in one of his sermons on this text for Christmas:
“He so loved us that for our sake He was made man in time, through Whom all times were made; was in the world less in years than His servants, though older than the world itself in His eternity; was made man, Who made man; was created of a mother, whom He created; was carried by hands which He formed; nursed at the breasts which He had filled; cried in the manger in wordless infancy, He the Word without Whom all human eloquence is mute.” — St. Augustine, Sermon 188
John goes a step further. For John, this infant, this tiny human creature, incapable of speech, vulnerable, utterly dependent on others for life itself, this infant reveals God’s glory to us.
So we are back in Bethlehem, back in the confusing paradox that God became incarnate in a very ordinary way, in the poorest of circumstances, in the weakest of all human forms, a baby. And it is in that paradox, that we see God’s glory. For John, it is the same paradox as the cross, which he almost always refers to as the glorification of Christ. What he is telling us is that in these moments of weakness, we see God’s majesty and power.
To see and know Christ, the Word, in the babe in a manger, is to see and know God’s glory. To see and know Christ in the cross, is to see and know God’s glory. To see and know Christ, to taste Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast, is to see and know God’s glory.
May we experience, may we see and know the glory of God today, in our lives, and in the world around us, in the Christ made flesh in a manger and as we kneel at the altar. May we know and believe the mystery of our faith, the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of God’s love for us, today at Christmas, and throughout our lives. Amen.