Jesus said, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."
Gossip as its heart is a destructive force. We once played a game at EYC and summer camp called gossip. The game is simple. Everyone sits in a circle and one person whispers a word or phrase in the ear of the person next to them. They in turn whisper the same word, and around the circle it goes. When the last person hears the word they then tell the group. It never ends up being what the first person said.
I do not think it is any different for us at All Saints or in Clinton. Being conscious of what we say and how we say it is important, and Jesus in this passage reminds us of how we are called to deal with each other in and thru the love of Christ. It is a directive to talk to each other and not about each other. Jesus gives us a directive on how to deal with sin and to deal with it directly. This parish will grow and we will become more of what God intends us to be, only if we trust one another enough to be honest with each other. It is at the heart of Christian community and at the heart of what Jesus calls us to in faith.
I also hear something else. This passage is a call for humility. We must not only be open to confront sin in our midst but we must also be open to acknowledging the sin in our own lives. I think this passage is easy to hear when we believe that we have the truth for someone else, but much harder to hear when others see our sin and confront it.
Our Eucharist is an amazing thing. It was put together over 2000 years ago but at its heart is the worship that the first disciples did together. I also think that the patterns of worship we use are used by all or most all Christians. The essence of what we do is three parts of worship. We have the liturgy of the word, the liturgy of the table, and between them is something that we too often forget or don’t take seriously. Before coming to this table and after hearing God’s word proclaimed, we are ask to seek absolution with God and each other. At the heart of the transition between hearing and receiving is an act of humility.
I don’t know if you realize the importance of this moment. I think too often it is just what we do, but the reality of this moment is that we are to seek to know our own sin and seek God’s forgiveness. But we are also to seek each other’s forgiveness. It is that pivotal moment which transforms you from sinner to saint. It is that moment in which you become acceptable to come before God and offer your gifts and yourself.
Placing something in that plate and coming to receive communion is not how you become acceptable before God. I want to suggest it is just the opposite. Don’t put anything in the plate if you have not sought forgiveness. It is not your ticket for communion. Do not come to this table if you have not sought absolution. That is not how you get here. This is the only place in the world where you cannot buy your way in. No, it is through confession and absolution; knowing God’s love and grace; seeking out those you have offended and asking for forgiveness that makes what you offer acceptable. It is seeking God’s forgiveness which transforms you from sinner into saint.
How do you prepare for your confession? How do you prepare each week to come to this table? I would love for you to prepare each week for this moment. I would love for you to come to this service with a 3x5 card or in my case, a notebook, for which needs to be forgiven. I would love for you to have spent some time preparing for this Eucharist by recognizing your own sin and then seeking God’s forgiveness. Imagine what would change if when you came to the Offertory sentence and that moment was a response to God’s forgiveness. Imagine what would change if you came forward to receive communion and that moment was in thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness.
Religious zeal is not what you think it is. I place a title on each of the sermons I write. The title for this sermon is Religious Zeal and as soon as I wrote those words, I knew that it would not be understood. We have a very powerful Gospel from Matthew. In it Jesus says,
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.”
Well, that bothered me. You see I want to be a good Christian, but I am not sure I want the consequences of following Jesus. I want to do what good Christians want to do. I want to learn about the Bible. I want to be kind to others and do Bible studies and read and say enough prayers to be a good Christian. But, if those are really my hopes for my faith then I probably will get them and no more. If I do what good Christians do, I probably would be able to say “ look how much I have done”, but I would have no relationship with God. The God who has sought a relationship with me from the beginning.
I have been blessed in my life in many ways. One way is I have enjoyed the great example of my father, who has taught me and been present with me. My father has been and is an example of a man of faith who lives it out daily and is seen in what he does and not just in the words he says. I have seen it throughout my life. My father acts out his faith. There are moments in life that define us - not by what we believe, but instead by who we are and how we live out who we are. When I was 7 or 8 years old, we had a Chihuahua named Fi-Fi. Fi-fi was a small dog. She never got over five pounds. One of the things that my parents told me not to do, and they said it many times, was not to throw the ball in the house. “Chuck, don’t throw the ball in the house”. It was a Saturday morning and the rest of the family was doing other things. I was alone and I was throwing the baseball into my glove, over and over. Now, Fi-fi was asleep on the couch. On one throw, I missed the pocket and the ball skimmed over the top of my glove and hit Fi-fi in the head and Fi-fi died.
I had just killed Fi-fi. She didn’t move. I used both hands to pick her up and she was limp, her tail hanging on one side and her head off the other. I took her into my parent’s room where dad was working on something. Not wanting him to know that I was throwing the ball, I said “something is wrong with Fi-fi”. My father looked down at this little creature and took her from me. He laid her on the bed and knelt down beside her realizing she wasn’t breathing. He opened his mouth and put it over her head and breathed. After a moment, she began to stir; she sat up. I remember that moment so well as a child - watching this grown man care - watching him have compassion for this little animal.
After my father was ordained a priest, we moved to a small southern town. Dad was the priest in charge of two small churches. It was in the early seventies and there was still anger over segregation. Indeed, the small town was still segregated and racism was still strong. In the middle of town there was a hardware store, a drug store and not much else. Like Clinton, there were railroad tracks running through town. One fall afternoon, an old black man was crossing the railroad tracks in his car when he was struck by a train. The violence of the wreck threw him from his car head first against the brick wall of the hardware store where he lay dying. School was letting out and people gathered at the scene. Business men and women, children and ministers from the other churches in town stood at a safe distance and watched, waiting for an ambulance to arrive. When my dad arrived, he saw that group of people in the middle of town, watching this old black man die. My father went and knelt beside him, held his hand and prayed with him as he died. The sad part of this is that if he had stood and watched with everyone else, no one would have thought less of him. Indeed, the opposite was true. He was criticized for what he did.
I want to be a good Christian. I want to learn and do good things. I want all the trappings of faith, but do I really want God to change me? Do I really want my life to be different because I know God and God knows me? Do I really want the people I know to be changed because of my relationship with God? In our world, too often religion and faith are not connected. Too often it is easy to learn everything about religion and not have a relationship with God. Matthew’s Gospel is about how to live out our faith. Faith and the proclamation of faith is not about knowing the right things or even doing the right things. Faith is about a relationship which is transforming.
What a glorious building we’re in. We have everything we need here. You can study God’s word. You can come and hear God’s word. You can worship God in this place. Your priest is all dressed up in fine robes and there is beautiful music to hear and gorgeous stained glass to see. But if this is where your faith resides, then you only have religion. If you come here on Sundays and think you have done what you need to do to be a good Christian, then you have missed it. You see, all of this - all that we are, the Eucharist we share, the music, the stained glass, this building, the programs offered is meant to point to one thing. All of this is meant to aim you at a relationship with God that changes who you are and propels you into the world to proclaim the risen Lord to those who do not know him. All of this is meant to enable you to act out your faith.
That is what I witnessed as my father knelt next to a dying man to pray. How are you going to act out your faith today?
It was called “Bethlehem 2000.”
It was the largest public works project ever inaugurated in the “Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Starting in March, 1997, over 250 million dollars was invested in improving Bethlehem’s public buildings, roads, and utilities.
Millions more were spent on advertising and public relations.
It was all part of the preparations for the turn of the Millenium: 2000 years since the Birth of Jesus Christ.
Two million pilgrims and visitors were expected between Christmas 1999 and Easter 2001—but that turned out to be a serious miscalculation.
Over twice that many people came!
Even after 2000 years, Bethlehem was still a small town with a population of less than 20,000.
It was still a rest-stop on the road to Jerusalem.
With slightly more than 1000 hotel rooms, there was still a shortage of available rooms.
Visitors still had to be turned away—because there was “no room in the inn!”
Mayor Hanna Nasser best summed up the importance of Bethlehem when he said:
“Despite its small size, Bethlehem proves today that it is the most important of all cities in the world at this unique point in time.
“None other has what God gave us:
“The Birthplace of Jesus Christ.”
And it is that Birth—in Bethlehem—the most important Birth in all of history—that we celebrate tonight!
According to the accepted chronology, this is the 2016th Anniversary of the Nativity of Our Lord.
While it is certain that the Birth took place in Bethlehem, the date has been questioned by scholars.
It now seems that there may be a discrepancy of 4 or 5 years.
So, maybe—this is actually the 2021st or 2022nd Anniversary of Christ’s Birth!
Likewise—it now seems that there is another discrepancy.
The cover of tonight’s bulletin proclaims that this is the 64th Annual Christmas Eve Service at All Saints’ Episcopal Church.
But it has been brought to my attention that the first Christmas Eve Service in this church building—and the first service ever held by All Saints’ Church—was celebrated on December 24, 1952.
If that is true—then tonight is actually the 65th Annual Christmas Eve Service.
The only living persons who can verify that are Marcia Addison and Mike Turner—and maybe Harry Sullivan--for they were there!
So here’s the question:
Do the discrepancies matter?
The answer—in both cases—is not really.
The important thing is that Christ was born in Bethlehem—and that we are here tonight to celebrate that earth-shaking and life-changing event!
But that’s not all!
There is yet another anniversary that I need to acknowledge.
On December 24, 2006—ten years ago—I celebrated my first Christmas Eve Service at All Saints’.
It was one of my first services here.
And tonight I celebrate my last Christmas Eve Service—and my final service at All Saints’.
(Believe-it-or-not, I am the longest-serving priest in the history of All Saints’!)
So this Christmas Eve is a special one.
There is no discrepancy about that!
It marks a transition for me—into a blessed retirement;
And a transition for you—into a New Beginning for this parish—with a new priest that God will bring here.
For you and for me, then—God’s promise of New Birth and New Life will be fulfilled this Christmas.
Like any transition—including the Great Divide between B.C. and A.D. that took place on the First Christmas—this one is fraught with anxiety and uncertainty.
The Future—and the changes it will bring—may seem frightening.
But the angels’ song that we hear tonight herald’s God’s promise of “Peace on Earth, Good Will towards all.”
And we know we can trust that promise!
But—back to Bethlehem for a moment. Elizabeth and I have enduring memories from our visit to Bethlehem in 2008.
To see the Birthplace of Jesus, we left Jerusalem and traveled by bus to what is called “Manger Square.”
There, the Church of the Nativity is built over the grotto that is believed to be the exact spot of Christ’s Birth.
The Empress Helena—mother of Constantine the Great—built the first church on that location in the fourth century.
In that church, St. Jerome lived as he translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into the Latin Vulgate.
Then, in the sixth century, that church was destroyed—and re-built in its present form by the Emperor Justinian.
The curious thing about the Church of the Nativity is its entrance—which is less than four feet high!
It is called “The Door of Humility”—because one must literally “bow down” in order to get in.
And that is what Elizabeth and I did.
Once inside, the visitor descends one of two staircases that lead down to the Grotto of the Nativity—a rough cave that is about 10 feet by 35 feet in area.
A silver star on the floor before the altar bears a Latin inscription which reads:
“Here—Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.”
Through the centuries, pilgrims have worn the stone of the cave’s floor smooth—by kneeling to kiss the exact spot where the Savior became Incarnate.
“The Door of Humility” that I mentioned originally served a practical purpose.
It was intended to prevent horsemen from riding into the church—and thereby desecrating it.
But it also has a spiritual meaning.
As I said—it is necessary for one to bow down—almost upon one’s knees—in order to enter the church.
That is fitting and proper—because bowing down—in humility and awe—is the only way we can approach the Incarnate Lord.
On bended knee is the only way we can celebrate his Nativity.
Entering through “The Door of Humility” is
the only way we can “worship Christ, the New-Born King” tonight!
And while I’m on the subject of worshipping Christ the New-Born King, allow me say a word about incense.
Frankincense was present on the First Christmas—as one of the gifts of the Magi—and it has been used at Christmas celebrations ever since.
As the hymn “We Three Kings” correctly points out--incense points to the deity of Christ.
Incense has been used in virtually every culture and every religion to worship the Deity—however the Deity has been conceived.
The Old Testament, for example, asserts that God enjoys “sweet-smelling odors”—just as his human creations do—and it actually provides a recipe for making the scent that God prefers.
The New Testament Book of Revelation says that the prayers of the faithful rise up to God’s throne in Heaven—like the fragrant smoke of incense wafting heavenward.
So incense is symbolic of prayer and worship—and that is why the Church uses incense—especially at Christmas and Easter.
This year—for the first time—I decided to refrain from using incense on Christmas Eve.
I don’t know why, exactly.
Maybe I just didn’t want to mess with it.
Or maybe I didn’t want to hear the comments I always get.
In any case, many of us do have allergies.
So you can consider it my Christmas gift to you tonight!
But in so doing —I hope we will all remember the meaning behind the incense—and worship Jesus Christ as our God and King.
Finally—as I bid you all a fond farewell on this—my 11th Christmas Eve with you—let me remind you one last time of the most familiar—and perhaps the most important verse in all of Scripture: John 3:16.
Now let me un-pack that for you:
John 3:16 is the real “Good Tidings of Great Joy”—the “Gospel in miniature”—as Martin Luther said.
It’s the only reason we celebrate Christmas.
John 3:16 has been the key-stone of my ministry for 40 years--and I leave it with you tonight—as my final word.
(Say it again.)
It had been a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem—and Mary and Joseph were both exhausted as they pulled into the parking lot of the Motel Six.
Joseph went inside to get a room—just as the “No Vacancy” sign lit up.
The innkeeper said:
“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s no room here.”
“No room?” Joseph replied, “But my wife is pregnant!”
“I’m sorry again, sir,” said the innkeeper, “but that’s not my fault.”
“It’s not my fault either,” Joseph replied.
Today’s Gospel reading makes it clear that Mary’s pregnancy was not Joseph’s fault.
The child within her womb was “conceived by the Holy Spirit”—without male DNA.
And Joseph had no idea—until he was shocked into reality by an angelic visitor!
We can only guess what Joseph’s thoughts might have been before he had this revealing dream.
But we are told that Joseph was a “righteous man”—and wanted to avoid exposing Mary to the “public disgrace” of an adultery investigation.
Imagine his surprise--his utter amazement—to discover that Mary’s son would be the long-awaited Messiah!
Today is the fourth—and last—Sunday of the Advent Season.
Up until now—the Scripture readings have concentrated on the future coming of Christ.
But today the focus shifts—to the promises fulfilled in the first coming of Our Lord.
Those ancient promises include the fact that the Messiah would be a “son”—a “descendant”—of the great King David.
He would be “descended from David according to the flesh”—as Saint Paul would later put it.
Joseph was responsible for the fulfillment of this prophecy—since he was a direct descendant of David.
According to the Law—he was Jesus’ father—since he was married to Jesus’ mother—and that was considered more important than biology.
The other promise is what theologians call the Virgin Birth—or sometimes the Virginal Conception—of Christ (not to be confused with the “Immaculate Conception of Mary”—which is something entirely different!)
The Prophet Isaiah—living in the eighth century B.C.—had foretold that a “young maiden”--a virgin—would conceive and bear a son.
In Isaiah’s prophecy too—the child would be a member of the “House of David.”
This royal child would be called by a special name--Emmanuel—which (in Hebrew) means God with us.
Eight hundred years later—Mary’s son was born.
Although he was given the name Jesus—he would also be called Emmanuel—God with us in—human form.
As Saint Paul says—he “was declared to be Son of God”—with divine powers—shown most clearly in his “Resurrection from the dead.”
We are specifically told that Joseph took Mary as his wife--“but had no marital relations with her” until after the child was born.
Some wise person—a church-goer himself, no doubt—has said that the attentiveness of a congregation during a sermon is inversely proportional to the number of Greek and Hebrew words the preacher explains.
So I’ll give you a break—and leave it at this:
The name Jesus—given by the angel in Joseph’s dream—also has a meaning.
In Hebrew, “Jesus” means: God will save.
The child was given a name that said what he was destined to do:
Jesus—son of Mary—Son of David—Son of God—who was called Emmanuel—“God with us”—was born to be the Messiah—through whom “God will save.”
That is the Good News in today’s Scripture readings!
But what about Joseph?
I’ve always felt a little bit sorry for him.
Joseph seems to get the short end of the stick in this story.
He doesn’t get nearly the recognition—nor the adoration—that the Virgin Mary does.
As Jesus’ foster father—Joseph was also his protector—and presumably his teacher.
But—unlike Mary—he disappears quickly from the biblical narrative.
Tradition says that Joseph was much older than Mary—and that he died when Jesus was still a child.
Joseph must have felt somewhat humiliated by the events that unfolded in today’s Gospel—especially since it soon became publicly known that Jesus was not his biological son.
One of my favorite Christmas carols portrays Joseph’s humiliation very poignantly.
It’s a 15th Century English ballad—called The Cherry Tree Carol.
I won’t embarrass myself by trying to sing it to you—but the lyrics go like this:
When Joseph was an old man—and old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary—the Queen of Galilee.
Then Joseph and Mary walked through an orchard green,
There were berries and cherries—as fair as might be seen.
Then Mary spoke to Joseph—so meek and so mild,
“Joseph, gather me some cherries—for I am with child.
Then Joseph flew in anger—in anger flew he,
“Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.”
In this version of the story—Joseph is portrayed as ignorant of his wife’s pregnancy—until Mary reveals it to him—under the guise of a sudden craving for cherries.
Joseph’s immediate reaction is anger—and an implicit threat to terminate their marital relationship.
However—the Holy Child intervenes:
Then up spoke Baby Jesus—from in Mary’s womb,
“Bend down, thou tallest branches—that my mother might have some.”
The branches obey their Incarnate Creator’s voice—and bend down to drop cherries into Mary’s hand:
“Now look thou my Joseph (she says)—I have cherries by command!”
At this development—Joseph immediately recognizes his error—and repents.
In some versions of the song—the last verse says:
Then Joseph said to Mary—from down on bended knee,
“May the Lord have mercy—have mercy on me.”
It is interesting that the story told by this fanciful carol has the same basic elements as our Gospel reading:
Joseph is miraculously informed of the truth about Mary’s pregnancy--not by an angelic visitation—but by a cherry tree that is obedient to its Master’s voice.
As a result Joseph reconsiders his intention to end the marriage—and comes to accept his divinely-ordained role as foster-father and protector of the Messiah.
And so today—our Advent journey comes to an end.
The stage is set for the next act in the drama of redemption:
Our hearts and minds have been prepared for the Coming of the promised Messiah—whose birth was long-ago foretold.
I will give British poet—and fellow Episcopalian—W.H. Auden—the final word.
Auden says that dogmas—such as the Virgin Birth—should be understood “neither as logical propositions—nor as poetic utterances.
“They are to be taken, rather, as ‘shaggy-dog stories.’
“They have a point—but whoever tries too hard to get the point—will miss it.”
The point for us is about saying “yes” to God.
Both Joseph and Mary said “yes” to God—with a courage that makes the rest of us look spineless by comparison!
And because they did—they became part of the greatest miracle of all:
The en-flesh-ment of God as one of us!
What happened to Joseph and Mary must also happen to us.
Through our faith—Christ can be born into the world today—and become incarnate once again—in our flesh and blood.
All it takes is for you and me to do what Joseph and Mary did—and say “yes” to God!
Now let us pray.
You so loved the world that you gave your Only-Begotten Son—that whoever believes in him might not perish—but have Everlasting Life.
Open our hearts by the Grace of your Holy Spirit—that Jesus—Son of Mary—Son of David—Son of God;
Messiah—Savior—Emmanuel—may be born in us this Holy Season;
And that we may be born again in him.
Many of us have had the good fortune to visit the Great Smoky Mountains.
The area can best be described as breathtaking!
To walk the trails, and drive the roads, is to view mile-after-mile of spectacular vistas that literally cause one to gasp in awe.
And if you happen to be a person who views God as the earth’s creator, you cannot help but be impressed by this particular part of God’s handiwork, and stand in awe and wonder at God’s creativity.
The Great Smokies, like the many mountain ranges that are scattered over our planet, can cause one to feel as if she is standing on holy ground.
So it is disturbing to hear of the recent devastating fires which have so severely disrupted life in those mountains.
I find I am hesitant to consider returning there, in light of the destruction to property and the loss of life—both human and wild!
Because of this tragic fire, some things and some people who can never be replaced have been lost.
This is true of all tragedies that erupt on earth and interrupt our lives!
Yes, I know the beauty will return.
I know life will return!
But this is little consolation for those who are now suffering.
This is when people of faith wait for words of comfort, consolation and assurance.
This is when we expect to hear from God.
Perhaps some of you have heard one of the more poignant stories to reach us after the fires.
It’s about a young man named Isaac McCord.
As an employee of Dollywood, McCord was assigned the task of helping with the clean-up effort in the park after the fire.
As he was picking up burned material from the fires in the area, he noticed a page from a book floating in a puddle of water.
As he lifted the paper from the water, he discovered he was holding a page from the Bible that had survived the fire.
When he looked more carefully at these charred remains, his eyes landed on a verse he later identified as Joel 1:19:
O Lord, to thee will I cry:
For the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness,
And the flame hath burned all the trees of the field.
What Isaac McCord discovered in the rubble was a sign—that even in our modern and jaded age cannot be dismissed:
God is present, even in the suffering after a devastating fire.
I, for one, wish God were always so direct with his message.
But more often, God is more subtle when speaking to us.
While the images of fire in the mountains are difficult to witness in the news, the message of the Advent season comes through clearly in this story.
The residents of Gatlinburg must now wait for their lives to be restored and rebuilt.
In some respects, all of us are like that: People who must wait for our lives to be rebuilt after a disaster.
Advent reminds us that we are always waiting for God to act in our lives.
Today’s Gospel brings the issue of waiting into clear focus for us as well.
We fast-forward about thirty years from the birth of Jesus.
King Herod has thrown John the Baptist into prison.
In prison, John finds time to reflect on his situation, and he begins to ask questions—questions we might ask in similar circumstances:
“If I am on God’s side, why am I suffering this punishment?
“Does my life matter?
“Was I right about Jesus?”
It isn’t difficult to imagine John’s feelings as he ponders his situation in his imprisonment.
In prison we find a John the Baptist we can sympathize with—much more than the wild preacher in the wilderness.
But true to his nature as a man of action,
John sends a message to Jesus asking for an answer to his question.
Jesus responds simply:
“Look at the signs—the blind see; the lame walk; the deaf hear; the mute begin to speak.”
All these signs point to the truth that God’s Kingdom is being made real.
These signs represent God’s ongoing presence in the world.
The message to John is that God is present in all that is happening.
Jesus says, “Go tell John that God has not forsaken him, even in his dire circumstances.”
God’s signs are still here.
God’s message has not changed.
Maybe after the changes of the last 2000 years, we have grown more skeptical.
If you are among those skeptics, take heart. God is still active in our world.
And the story from Dollywood is one small indication of God’s action!
When Mr. McCord found his message from God, he shared it in the modern way—by posting it on his Facebook page.
Within hours, 50,000 reposts of his page had been generated.
A few days later, Dolly Parton herself announced that she would be donating $1000 a month to all the families in the county who had lost their homes in the fires—as an expression of her faith in God and her unwavering commitment to the community of her birth.
What we must remember is that what seems to be the end of the world has never yet been the end of the world!
We just figure out what to do next, and get on with it—while trusting in the God who speaks even in the midst of earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, and floods.
The world is not coming to an end.
The Apocalypse is not here until the Apocalypse is actually here!
There is still work to be done.
Many problems still need to be solved.
Injustices abound around the world. Conflicts continue.
People need to be fed.
The urgent needs of the world demand to be met.
Signs of God’s presence need to be interpreted for unbelieving and doubting audiences.
In some respects, we live in exactly the situation John faced.
We don’t yet know how impending changes will affect us.
It is easy when fears overtake us to question or to doubt, just as John did.
We should remember that even the last of God’s prophets, John the Baptist, experienced fears and doubts.
Even he needed a word of assurance from God.
To me, that is the real strength of this story.
Waiting is not easy.
Many difficulties arise.
Effectively, our entire lives are tied up in this task of expectantly waiting—and striving to live in faithfulness.
But the signs continue.
One other thing about Isaac McCord.
He freely stated that he didn’t see himself as particularly religious.
He did report that he read the Bible from time to time.
But after he found that page of Scripture, he said that he realized it was such a powerful sign from God that he made the commitment to turn his life around.
The page in the water became the turning point for his life.
I guess time will tell.
John’s questions were answered directly by Jesus.
And few of us have had so clear an answer as Mr. McCord received.
As I said before, God often answers in more subtle ways.
And so—may we seek and find assurances of God’s presence with us!
May we glimpse the signs of God’s presence in our lives—that our spirits, like John’s, may be re-kindled;
And—like Mary the Mother of our Lord—may our spirits rejoice in the God who is faithful to his promises!
A few years ago, I came across a Christmas card featuring John the Baptist.
You can imagine my surprise—since John isn't a character usually featured on greeting cards.
I can still remember the comical drawing on the cover—of John in his camel hair toga arriving at a Christmas party, casserole of locusts and wild honey in hand.
The locusts were trying to escape the dish, and the host was frowning with displeasure—at both John and his culinary offering.
Of course, I had to buy those cards, and I sent them too—mostly to Episcopal clergy, because I knew they would see the humor.
Recently, I read about a pastor who is toying with the idea of creating a "John the Baptist" line of Christmas cards.
So far, here is what he has produced:
Outside card reads: "From our house to yours this holiday season."
Inside reads: "Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers!”
Outside card: "Let's all pass the cup as we gather round the Yule log."
Inside: "which will burn like the unquenchable fire of hell that is soon going to consume you for all eternity.”
Outside card: "Season's greeting to you from across the miles.”
Inside: "Hey, who told you to flee from the wrath to come?"
These are not exactly tidings of “Comfort and Joy!”
And while they may not exactly put the receiver in the Christmas spirit, the words and sentiments are straight out of Scripture—from John’s lips to our ears!
John the Baptist is a perplexing figure at any time, but especially so when he insists on entering into the Christmas story—as he always does during the season of Advent.
He comes out of the desert to point us to Bethlehem.
He comes to make certain we know how important it is that the Son of God has been born.
Yet, John’s message collides with the thoughts Christmas generally brings to our minds.
John himself is the most unlikely character in the entire Nativity cast.
My hunch is that no one ever really wants to be bothered with John—given his wild appearance, his sharp words of admonishment, and his appalling manners.
Of this I am absolutely certain:
John is not an Episcopalian!
No one is ever tempted to place him in the Christmas pageant—or in the manger scene.
But come he will—each Advent—and we are required to deal with him.
We may want to shake our heads, and say, “Bless his heart.”
But we cannot be so dismissive of him, because he has come for our reclamation.
He is here for our good.
I mean this in a figurative sense.
John the Baptist is here to remind us why Christmas matters!
He points us to the reason for the celebration we are making ready—by reminding us that the coming of Jesus is nothing less than the central event of history, and the crucial act of God.
In Christ—God is with us.
He has come to his people.
He has sent a savior to reclaim us—from all those things that threaten us!
God has sent Jesus to live as one of us—and to die for all of us—and in doing so, give us lives that are purposeful and fulfilling.
John tells us that everything has been changed by the Christ event.
He puts Christmas into perspective.
He also brings us into the drama.
Well, if Christmas is as we say we believe, about God taking on flesh and coming to live among us humans, then John reminds us of our need to turn our lives toward the One who is coming—and follow him.
If, as we say we believe, Christmas is about God assuming the vulnerable form of a human infant, then John reminds us that being vulnerable to the promptings of the Holy Spirit—and open to the weak and vulnerable among us—is how we embrace this infant being born into our lives.
If Christmas is wise men traveling from afar, angels singing, and shepherds being astonished and afraid, then John reminds us that joining the cosmic celebration means confessing our failures, owning our weaknesses and seeking healing for our wounds.
He calls us to repent, and be baptized in Jesus, with the Holy Spirit and its refining fire.
If Christmas is about renewing our hope in the idea of peace on earth and goodwill among all people, then John reminds us that we are to be an integral part of bringing such an idea to fruition.
What John does for us during this Advent season is to focus our attention on what the most important item is—on our list of things to do to get ready for Christmas.
With laser precision, John calls us to look at our own lives, our relationship with God, and the ways that relationship impacts how we live.
For, you see—if Christmas is to happen for us this year, it will not happen in a far-away and long-ago stable.
No—if Christmas is to happen, it will happen in the lives of people—young and old—who invite and embrace the birth of a renewed experience of God in their lives.
A few minutes ago I suggested that John the Baptist is the most unlikely character to find at the manger.
But that is not quite so.
The most unlikely characters are us!
All of us!
How amazing is it that God has called us to be part of his plan?!
How amazing is it that God has blessed us through his son—giving us wonderful intangible gifts, including the gift of “peace that passes understanding?!”
God wants us in the Christmas drama!
John comes early to tell us, “Whatever you are doing, stop it—and get ready to receive the greatest gift ever given!
“Make a place for Jesus in your life!
“Receive the gift God has prepared for you!
Christmas will come.
What John wants to know—is whether or not Christmas will happen in you.
Are you getting ready?
“If not”—he says—“time’s a wasting!”
Advent tells us Christ is near;
Christmas tells us Christ is here.
Some of you may have been Episcopalians long enough to remember those words!
They are the opening lines of a hymn written by Katherine Hankey in 1888.
It was included in our former Hymnal 1940—but left out of the current Hymnal 1982.
What a shame!
For it served the useful purpose of teaching children (of all ages) about the seasons of the Church Year.
And we probably still need that!
Just in case you don’t know—we begin a new Church Year today—on the First Sunday of Advent.
Advent tells us Christ is near.
On these four Sunday’s before Christmas—we contemplate the Advent—the Coming—of Our Lord Jesus Christ—for He is near!
The Church Year—with which you can familiarize yourself by taking home a copy of our Episcopal Liturgical Calendar—is a gift that brings meaning to the secular calendar and its seasons—and enriches us spiritually.
It allows us—year after year—to walk with Jesus.
We are joined with Christ—by re-living the events of his life and ministry through the seasons of the Church Year.
It is as though we were there!
The Church Year also offers members of a congregation—and a denomination—a sense of shared identity—a feeling of community.
For we are not there with Jesus alone.
We are there together!
Celebrating the seasons of the Church Year can be thought of as holding a conversation with God.
The first half of the Church Year—Advent through Pentecost—represents God speaking to us—through the Incarnation of his Son.
It reveals the very Nature of God in the person of Jesus Christ: His birth, death, resurrection, and ascension—and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The second half of the Church Year—the Sundays and weekdays after Pentecost—is referred to as “Ordinary Time.”
It shifts our focus to our own personal response to God.
First—God speaks to us.
What will we do—in response to all that God has done for us?
In this season of “Ordinary Time” we concentrate on the mission and ministry which belong to those who profess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
Today—then—we begin a new Church Year—with the season of Advent—which tell us that Christ’s coming is near.
We must confess that the spirit of Advent goes against the grain of what most people think of as the “Holiday Season.”
Advent is counter-cultural—if you will.
While everyone else is decorating, buying presents, and getting ready to party—we are asked to be reflective.
Advent poses a profound and serious question:
Are we ready?
Are we ready to receive Our Lord when he comes?
The premise is that the way we are living now—the things we are saying and doing in our everyday lives—will determine our readiness.
“For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Advent reminds us that Jesus Christ “came to visit us in great humility”—some 2016 years ago.
After this “visit”—he ascended into Heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God the Father—from whence—as the Creed says—“he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
It is Christ’s coming again—on “the last day”—“in glorious majesty—to judge both the living and the dead”—with which Advent is primarily concerned.
And so the question for each of us is:
Are we ready for that day?
The time we are given in which to prepare is “now—in the time of this mortal life.”
And none of us knows how long that will be.
For those of us who are getting older—(and none of us are getting any younger)—the words of St. Paul say it all:
“Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep.
“For salvation is nearer now than it was when we first became believers.
“The night is far gone—and the Day is near!”
Advent tells us Christ is near.
Therefore we must be ready!
As the Apostle Paul says:
“Let us then lay aside the works of darkness—and put on the armor of light.
“Let us live honorably—not in reveling and drunkenness—not in debauchery and licentiousness—not in quarreling and jealousy.
“Instead—let us put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Only so will we be ready when he comes!
Jesus himself says that the Day of his Coming will take everyone by surprise.
No one knows when it will be:
Not humans, not angels, not even Jesus himself--but only God the Father.
It will be just like the flood that God brought upon the world in the time of Noah.
People went on with their lives as usual—knowing nothing until the flood came—and suddenly swept them all away.
Only Noah and his family were ready.
Advent tells us that we also must be ready:
“For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
I think you can see what I mean when I say that Advent is counter-cultural.
There is nothing here about holly, mistletoe, reindeer, or sleigh bells in the snow.
There is no Silent Night, no Christmas trees, no Nativity scenes.
Just the stark message of Christ’s Coming—and our need to be ready.
Advent tells us Christ is near.
But that’s not the whole story.
Remember what the Prophet Isaiah had to say concerning the “days to come.”
Isaiah had a vision of a New Jerusalem—built on the highest of all mountains.
In those days—the “last days”—all the peoples of the earth will be drawn to the Holy City—and will come streaming into its gates.
They will come to worship the God of Jacob—and to learn his ways.
The Word of the Lord will arbitrate all disputes between the nations—and will preside over a Peaceable Kingdom where there is no more war.
Isaiah’s vision shows us the positive side of Advent.
Jesus Christ himself is the “Word of the Lord”—the Word of God Incarnate—whose Coming will finally bring peace to the world.
His Kingdom will finally bring about the unity that has always eluded human efforts.
On that day, God’s people will “rise to the life immortal”—and reign with him forever!
Imagine all the nations of the world—finally at peace with each other.
Imagine all the peoples of the world—finally brought together in perfect harmony.
Imagine the joy of Eternal Life—to be shared by all in the very Presence of God.
(Even John Lennon couldn’t “imagine” all that!)
That is what Christ’s Advent will bring.
That is what awaits God’s people on the last day.
That is what we are called to be ready for!
Advent tells us Christ is near.
Today is the beginning of a new Church Year.
During this year—God willing—Christians who observe the Church Year will walk together with Jesus—through all the holy events of his life and death and resurrection.
We will enter into a conversation with God--listening to hear God speak to us—and striving to do God’s will in response.
Beginning with these four weeks before Christmas—while the world prepares to party—we will be engaged in a different kind of preparation.
We will contemplate the Coming of our Lord—and reflect on the question:
Are we ready?
Advent tells us Christ is near.
Only when we have heard the Advent message—and responded to it—will we be ready to say:
Christmas tells us Christ is here.
I hope you know the C.S. Lewis series called The Chronicles of Narnia, and especially the first book in the series: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
If you haven’t read the book, then perhaps you’ve seen the movie of the same name that was made several years ago, which is very faithful to the book.
In any case, if you consider yourself an Episcopalian—or indeed if you’re a Christian of whatever variety—you should read the Narnia books.
They’re very entertaining, but—more than that—they’re an allegory for understanding the world from a Christian perspective.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example, Lewis gives us an imaginative picture of life in the “real” world:
The Kingdom of Narnia has fallen under the power of the White Witch, who rules it with a heavy hand.
The Witch rules as queen, but everyone knows she is not the legitimate monarch.
She rules by virtue of her evil magic, and all the creatures of Narnia live in fear of her.
Even the land itself, and its climate, have succumbed to the Witch’s spell.
For “in Narnia, it is always winter, but never Christmas!”
Narnia is a land of little freedom and little joy.
But there is hope.
Even the evil Queen cannot eliminate hope.
There is an ancient prophecy that some day the rightful King will return.
On that day, the curse of the White Witch will be un-done.
The land and its inhabitants will be set free, and life will be joyful once again.
All will be well—when the rightful King is restored to his throne!
As I said, Lewis is deliberately creating an allegory: an imaginative way of understanding what has gone wrong in our world—and what it will take to set it right.
The world as we know it scarcely shows any evidence of being ruled by a benevolent power.
It is true that from time-to-time we encounter situations where good triumphs over evil, and right prevails over wrong.
Sometimes, justice is actually done.
And every day there are countless individual acts of goodness and kindness and generosity and forgiveness.
Thank God for the good that there is!
But just as often, the opposite occurs.
The forces of evil and corruption and selfishness and cruelty—along with widespread indifference to injustice and suffering—are evident all around us.
Everywhere there are “wars and rumors of wars.”
Crime rules the streets of our cities, while incompetence rules the halls of government.
Even the forces of Nature seem to turn against us, as tragedy and disaster claim millions of lives.
The evening news reveals a world that—as a whole—resembles Lewis’ Narnia.
There is little freedom and little joy,
and most of the world’s people live in fear.
It’s as if the good world that God created has fallen under an evil spell.
And that—of course—is precisely what Christianity says.
The world has fallen under an evil spell!
The Rightful King no longer rules His domain.
His throne has been usurped by an imposter.
His people are under the evil thumb of Sin, Death, and the Devil.
Even the goodness of the natural world has been affected.
That is what Christianity says has gone wrong.
But there is hope!
Hope that—by God’s grace—springs eternal in the human heart.
And there are ancient prophecies that feed our hope.
Scripture promises that some day the Rightful King will return.
On that day, the curse will be un-done.
All creation will be redeemed and set free.
Life will be joyful once again.
The burden of sin will be removed.
Satan will be banished from his place of power.
And the “last enemy to be destroyed will be death.”
All will be well—when the Rightful King is restored to His throne!
Today is the “Last Sunday after Pentecost”—the last Sunday of the Church Year.
And the Church Year goes out, not with a whimper, but with a bang!
Today is a celebration day, the “Festival of Christ the King.”
The collect of the day calls Christ “the King of Kings and Lord of Lords,”
under whose “most gracious rule” the “peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin,” are destined to be “set free and brought together.”
We acknowledge as we say this prayer that the day of unity and freedom is not now.
It has not yet arrived, but is still to come.
It is the day promised in today’s reading from the Prophet Jeremiah, when the “Righteous Branch” of David will finally “reign as King.”
On that day he will finally bring “justice and righteousness” to the land, and all God’s people will be “saved.”
It is the day all humanity hopes for, when finally all will be well.
But this begs the question of what we should do until that day comes.
In 1939, during the darkest days of World War II, the German Luftwaffe was bombing the city of London every night and every day.
The carnage and destruction was horrific, and the effect upon British morale was devastating.
The Royal Ministry of Information was charged with the task of creating a slogan that would galvanize the will to resist, and give the people hope.
A number of different posters were proposed to be placed in the subways and other public places.
The one they finally settled on was a stroke of quintessentially British genius.
On the background of the British flag, with a silhouette of the king’s crown above, were the following words:
“Keep calm and carry on.”
“Keep calm and carry on.”
That says it all in a nutshell!
That is what Christians must do while waiting for the return of our King!
We can “keep calm and carry on” because we can trust God.
Today’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus was crucified, his enemies mocked Him and taunted Him.
They said “if you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.”
But Jesus chose not to show His power in that way.
He chose instead to bear the suffering they inflicted on Him, and to die on a cross.
The King chose not to save Himself,
but to save us instead!
His prayer of “Father, forgive them,” was fulfilled for us by His death.
And His promise of “Paradise” will be fulfilled for all creation upon His return.
All will be well—when the Rightful King is restored to His throne.
Until that day, we are His witnesses and His servants in this troubled world.
He has commanded us to serve Him by serving the “least” of his brothers and sisters.
He has warned us not to be overcome by the evil in the world, but to “overcome evil with good.”
He has taught us to “pray always, and not to lose heart.”
And now—as we await his return—may Christ the King grant us the grace to “Keep calm and carry on.”
“It is a gloomy moment in the history of our country.
“Not in the lifetime of most men has there been so much grave and deep apprehension. “Never has the future seemed so uncertain as at this time.
“The domestic economic situation is in chaos.
“Our dollar is weak throughout the world. “Prices are so high as to be utterly impossible.
“The political cauldron seethes and bubbles with agitation.
“It is a solemn moment of trouble.
“No man can see the end.”
This statement sounds like it could be borrowed from a recent newspaper article or editorial.
But that is not the case.
It appeared in Harper’s Weekly in October, 1857—159 year ago!
All governments and societies face challenges that threaten their survival.
And every new generation faces the task of establishing and maintaining security.
What is it?
How much of it do we need?
Where can we find it?
These have become the questions of our day.
The people of the Old Testament put their trust in the one True God—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
They trusted in God for their protection and survival.
The symbol of their security was the temple in Jerusalem.
The temple was a concrete—(or rather a marble and gold)—representation of their commitment to the Lord—and of the Lord’s commitment to them.
It was the symbol of the covenant God had made with their ancestors.
To them alone—out of all the peoples of the earth—God had said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.
But over time the people began to confuse the temple with God’s own self.
They made an idol of the building and its worship system.
They forgot that their security was not to be found in a magnificent edifice—but in a relationship with the Living God.
By the time Jesus appeared—the Jews should have been cured of this tendency to confuse the temple with the Living God.
For the people of Israel had already seen their temple destroyed—not once, but twice.
The First Temple—built by King Solomon in 966 BC—was elaborate and richly adorned.
It was razed to the ground—and its riches taken as booty—when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 586 BC.
When the people were released from their captivity and allowed to return to Jerusalem, they began to rebuild the temple.
But it was such a poor copy of what had been before—that those who had seen Solomon’s temple wept.
When the next world power swallowed up Judea—this Second Temple was also destroyed.
In Jesus’ day a Third Temple was being built.
As it began to take shape, it was an inspiring sight.
In richness and beauty of design it was to rival Solomon’s temple.
Which is where today’s Gospel reading picks up.
One day—as the disciples were leaving the temple area—their attention was drawn to the massive and impressive appearance of the building being constructed.
Jesus called this place his Father’s House, and he understood that it represented the true worship of God.
The Temple’s piety, however, fell short of it magnificent façade.
Within its shining exterior were the seeds of its own destruction.
It had become a place where empty rituals were preformed—and no longer a place of true worship.
As his disciples looked in awe on this great structure, Jesus told them:
“As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
I think we can understand the disciples’ reaction to his statement if we consider how we would have reacted—if someone had told us prior to September 11, 2001, that the World Trade Center would be destroyed.
Jesus spoke these words of warning about widespread destruction and persecution around 30 AD.
He spoke the unthinkable.
But 40 years later, his words actually came to pass.
In 70 AD, not only the temple, but the entire city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.
The historian Josephus described the destruction this way:
“The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims—and owing to the height of the hill and the mass of the burning pile, one would have thought the whole city was ablaze.
“With the cries on the hill were blended those of the multitude in the city below.
“And now, many who were emaciated from starvation—when they beheld the sanctuary on fire—gathered strength once more for lamentation and wailing.
“Yet more awful than the uproar were their sufferings.”
All the disasters that Jesus predicted came to pass in the next forty to fifty years—including the persecution of his followers.
Jesus had taught them to trust only in God. He warned them that true security is not provided by any government, organization, or ruler.
Nor—as we have learned—can it be found in our mighty buildings—or our modern technology.
Pointing to the source of true security, Jesus spoke on—to provide instructions for navigating uncertain and dangerous times.
Above all, we are to remain faithful to that which can be trusted.
We are not to be led astray.
We must keep our focus on the Truth that is revealed in Jesus Christ.
Jesus warned that—in difficult times—some would be tempted to follow leaders who claim to have all the answers—leaders who provide a false sense of security, and easy solutions to difficult problems.
The other thing Jesus said was not to be afraid.
We need to heed this warning in our present crisis.
Our fears can easily stampede us into foolish actions.
If we allow fear to control our lives, then we are unable to let God control them.
We are assured that God is with us—and his message is to have no fear.
The final thing Jesus said was to bear witness to him and to his Gospel—in whatever situation we find ourselves.
This is not an easy assignment.
And even in our day—this act of faith results in martyrdom for Christians in some parts of the world.
But it is in steadfast faith—in remaining faithful—that we show the world the Source of our security—the only true security. Because we trust in God—we can face whatever challenges confront us.
Which brings us to today.
Some of us are pleased with the results of last Tuesday’s elections.
Some of us are disappointed—or even angry.
Some of us held our nose while we voted.
But regardless of how any of us may feel—the People have spoken—and our electoral system has worked as it was intended.
Robert Frost once wrote: “Something there is that does not love a wall.”
I think Our Lord would agree.
He gave his life to tear down the walls that separate us from our God—and from each other.
Now is the time for the disciples of Jesus to follow his lead.
Now is the time for us to become peace-makers—and bridge-builders—for his sake.
I pray that we will have the grace to do so.
And there is one thing we should all remember.
The walls of the temple may crumble.
Our governments and leaders may come and go.
Our riches and our technology may pass away.
But our ultimate security is assured by the Living God.
And God’s Kingdom is forever! AMEN.
I was watching one of the popular TV comedy shows last week—in which a new-born infant was baptized.
As the priest poured the water on the child—one of the spectators said:
“So basically—we’re water-boarding a baby!”
It was a funny moment that made me laugh.
It also made me think—about the upcoming baptism of Drake Bo Baker—which is happening today, on All Saints’ Sunday.
I started wondering what the un-initiated—the un-informed—might think about Christian Baptism.
Would they have any idea what it is—or what it means?
Would they be able to tell by watching what happens—and listening to the words?
“Water-boarding a baby” is not what we’re about today—although most of our young “baptismal candidates” scream as if it were!
What we’re about is making Drake Bo Baker a “Child of God”—and an “Inheritor of the Kingdom.”
That’s the way the old Episcopal Catechism puts it.
In biblical terms—Drake will be “born again—by water and the Holy Spirit.”
Without that—as Jesus said to Nicodemus—no one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
In Romans chapter 6, the Apostle Paul talks about baptism as well.
He says that all who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death.
Therefore we are buried with Christ by baptism into death—so that we might also be raised with Christ—and walk in newness of life.
For if we are united with Christ in a death like his—we will surely be united with him in a resurrection like his.
The water of baptism is a symbol of cleansing.
By baptism into Christ Jesus we are cleansed from our sins.
But it is also a symbol of death.
In baptism we die to sin—and are born again to Eternal Life.
That is what will happen to Drake today.
It is appropriate that Drake be baptized on All Saints’ Sunday.
That is one of the days the Prayer Book recommends for baptism.
It is also the Patronal Festival for this parish—which is dedicated to All the Saints.
And today—Drake Bo Baker will become a member—with all of us—of the Communion of Saints’—that Holy fellowship of all God’s People—in Heaven and on Earth.
And it is worth noting that Drake will be the third generation of his family to be baptized here at All Saints’.
The water that will be used to baptize Drake is from the River Jordan—where Jesus himself was baptized.
Elizabeth and I brought it back from our trip to the Holy Land.
And the olive oil that will be used to anoint Drake is from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
The same ancient olive trees that Jesus walked among are still alive there today—and the oil comes from them.
Both the water and the olive oil connect Drake closely to Jesus Christ, the Son of God—who will always be Drake’s Savior and Lord.
The rest of us owe a debt of gratitude to Drake—and to his parents Bo and Liza—this morning:
First of all—because it is a joy to once more hear a young child present among us.
And secondly—because most of us do not remember our own baptism.
We were infants ourselves—and cannot recall the occasion.
But seeing Drake’s baptism reminds us of what happened to us—and gives us a chance to renew our own faith in Jesus Christ—as our Savior and Lord.
Finally, let me remind us all of a beloved Bible Story found in Mark chapter 10.
There we are told that parents were bringing their children to Jesus to be blessed.
The disciples tried to stop them—but Jesus said:
“Let the little children come to me—and do not hinder them—for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Today—Jesus’ words are fulfilled for Drake.
By God’s Grace—he is becoming what we already are:
A Child of God and an Inheritor of the Kingdom.
And—by God’s Grace—each of us must become what Drake already is:
A little child.
For to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.