Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sermon -- 31 December 2006

1st Sunday after Christmas — 31 December 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 11:00 a.m.
RCL: Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Psalm 147:13-21 Gal 3:23-25; 4:4-7 John 1:1-18

(c) 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

At Christmas the passages of the Gospel of which we are most fond, I suspect, are the narratives of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus — St. Luke’s story of the Holy Family’s refuge in the stable of the inn in Bethlehem and the visit of the shepherds; and St. Matthew’s account of the visit of the mysterious Wise Men from the East and their extravagant and portentous gifts.

For many of us these are our favorite stories to tell, at least at this time of year; we love them, we know them, in fact we know more than is actually in the Scriptures themselves!

But also prominent among the Gospel passages for this season is another one, of a rather different character; one that is read on Christmas morning, and also on this following Sunday (this year coming a full six days later); one that also is familiar, and beloved of most of us I think; yet not exactly a narrative story of the birth of Jesus but more like the foundational presuppositions of the birth of Jesus: what we call the Prologue of the Gospel according to St. John. And I think it is crucial that as we celebrate God’s coming into the world in Jesus of Nazareth we hear, and read and mark and learn and inwardly digest these distinct, not to say different, “takes” on the incarnation of Christ.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.…”

“The Word.” “The Word of God.” Not just “a word,” or a set of words, but something far profounder, God’s own self-expression, God’s own creativity, the self-giving in which God spoke the universe into being. And this Word became flesh — God became a human being.

Granted, this from St. John’s Gospel is pretty heady stuff (not just the prologue, but throughout the Gospel!). And so it’s important that as well as having the theoretical foundations, we also have the stories (though we do tend to pretty them up) — Jesus was really born, as a real human being. In fact, he was born in a barn, and almost immediately he became a political refugee. His childhood and young adulthood was obscure and mostly unknown; his public career was relatively short and came to a bad end.

And why should this have been? We know the story of Jesus well enough, and we read it and tell it over and over, together in church, in our families, in our own meditations. The question that I’m not sure we ask very often is, Why would God do such a thing?

Here’s the deal: God created the universe. By and by we came along in our own corner of the world, and, to put it bluntly, we screwed up. And we can’t fix ourselves by ourselves. God isn’t willing to abandon his creation project and throw us in the trash, so God will have to do the fixing.

Okay. So why doesn’t God just do it?

Why this incredibly convoluted plot? What’s all this about coming and being born in an obscure backwater and growing up as a nobody and having a brief flash of fame (or notoriety, depending on your point of view), and then being gotten rid of, crucified by the local imperial authorities? How does this constitute “fixing” humankind’s problems? This isn’t very efficient! What’s the point of “the Word becoming flesh” at all? Why doesn’t God just appear in the clouds of glory and shout to the world, “You people just behave yourselves!” That’s what we’d do!


God created us human beings in the divine image and likeness, in order that we might respond to God’s love and to share God’s love with one another. The necessary condition of our being able to love is that we are free — free to love but also free to refuse to love. God always offers us the divine grace to enable us to love, but God does not force grace upon us. To reconcile wayward and perverse humankind to God’s love requires that God win us, not command us.

Well, that sounds just fine, but the fact is that we would rapidly run out of patience. God does not run out of patience. And we get very impatient that God does not run out of patience. But God will not reduce us to puppets, God will not make us robots, God will preserve our freedom even as we use our freedom to destroy ourselves.

So God does not appear in the clouds of glory and shout to the world, “You people start behaving yourselves!” God came to be one of us. Really. Not just looking like one of us. Being one of us. The Word became flesh, and lived among us.

And so Jesus was born in a barn. He grew up in obscurity and relative poverty. And when the time came he began to teach about the Kingdom of God, to proclaim God’s Kingdom, to enact God’s Kingdom, to challenge all the forces of wickedness that rebel against God, the evil powers that corrupt and destroy God’s children, the selfishness and greed that draw us from God’s love. And so they killed him.

But that wasn’t the end of it. It still isn’t the end of it. It’s just the beginning.

"The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Sermon -- 24 December 2006

4th Sunday of Advent — 24 December 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:30 & 10:00 am
RCL: Micah 2–5a Canticle 15 Hebrews 10:5-10 Luke 1:39-45

(c) 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

Despite the radio stations and the shopping malls and the office parties for the last few weeks, here on the Fourth Sunday of Advent we are finally actually getting around to close-to-Christmas. This year, really close-to-Christmas: hardly are we done this morning than we start getting ready to start the Christmas celebration itself this afternoon. And we need to get with it: a little later (in a little bit) we will proceed to the Hanging of the Greens. (I’m not sure we really ought to use that phrase — when a parish has a family named “Green,” and a great many do, they get a little fidgety when we announce the Hanging of the.…)

Anyway: on the Fourth Sunday of Advent our theme is the Annunciation of the coming birth of the Messiah Jesus: In the first year, St. Matthew’s story of the angel’s announcement to Joseph; in the second year, the story from Luke about the angel’s prior announcement to Mary; and in this third year, the story, also from Luke, about Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. (“Cousin” perhaps loosely; they may not have been first cousins, but some degree of relative. Bear in mind that Elizabeth was probably old enough to be Mary’s grandmother, and since Mary may have been like fifteen, Elizabeth may have been as ancient as, oh, perhaps even fifty.)

So anyway, what’s this trip up from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea all about? Why does Mary want to go up there? (Well, of course, we who are in on the bigger story, and read the previous page, know that Elizabeth is carrying the soon-to-be-born John who will grow up to be called The Baptist.)

Think about the just-previous story, after Elizabeth conceives her son — the story we heard last year, the familiar story of the Annunciation to Mary. The angel Gabriel comes and tells Mary that she is going to bear a son who will be the Son of the Most High and will be given the throne of his ancestor David, and furthermore her old Aunt Elizabeth is six months pregnant, ha ha, that’s the same trick God played on Sarah and Abraham two thousand years ago. And Mary says, in Latin translation, “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum,” or in the original Aramaic, “O‑kay…” And the Gospel goes on to say, “Then the angel departed from her.” Leaving Mary saying, “Uh, excuse me.…”

Now what? What does poor little Mary do now? “What’s this about Aunt Elizabeth? And what am I going to tell Mom?”

Well, we are obviously wandering off into the range of the amiably fantastic here, but, oh well! Mary goes back into the house and says, “What do I say now? That I’ve seen the angel Gabriel? And that he told me that I’m going to…that I’m having…I don’t think so!” So she says, “Mom? Can I go visit Aunt Elizabeth?” And St. Anne, being a good mother who fears the Lord, says, “Yes, dear.” Mary says to herself, “Well, I don’t know what’s going on around here, but it sounds like Aunt Elizabeth may be in on it, and besides, she’s a priest’s wife and she’ll know what this is all about! (No point in asking Uncle Zechariah, he never says anything.)”

So Mary goes up to the Judean hills to visit Elizabeth. And when Mary walked in Elizabeth said, “My goodness, this kid just gave me a kick! Blessed are you — and blessed is your child, the Lord whom you carry!” Mary said, “You do know what’s going on here, don’t you?” And Elizabeth said, “Yes, dear, I do.” And Mary began to sing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant!”

I think there are a couple of things to be drawn from this story, things which I’m not sure we usually notice given the relative familiarity of the narrative. First of all, this was not a solitary experience for Mary. We don’t know what she told her parents — presumably at some point she did tell them! But we don’t know what she told them. In fact, in the Gospels there is nothing whatever about Mary’s parents. All we traditionally say about them, including even their names (Joachim and Anne), comes from a legend, an apocryphal gospel, dating from the second century. And we need to understand, despite our neatly melded account of the events surrounding our Lord’s Nativity, that the authors of the birth narratives in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke do not know each other. (They share the common core traditional material, of course, but Matthew has never read Luke nor has Luke read Matthew.) Thus we do need to be careful about trying to sequence Joseph into the Lukan story. Nevertheless on its face it seems to be the case that Mary never told Joseph, at least not directly; in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph only finds out what’s going on from an angel in a dream. But Mary did not keep it all secret. all by herself: she went to a person whom she knew she could trust and from whom she could seek counsel, her older relative Elizabeth, who herself was also evidently a player in God’s plan of intervention in the world for its redemption. God does not work through lone rangers, God works through the community of God’s people. (Even when God starts with just two or three.)

And secondly, once Mary has confirmed with Elizabeth that she is not having pious delusions but that God really is at work in the world in her, she immediately recognized God for what God was doing: namely, God is overturning the very order of the world, as indeed the prophets of Israel had said for centuries (including such faithful women as Hannah, the mother of Samuel and the model for Mary’s song). God is overthrowing the powerful and raising the lowly; God is feeding the hungry and sending away the rich.

Christmas has become, as well all know and as we all say probably ad nauseum, a commercial glorification of greed. More dangerous is the deformation of Christmas into a simply a pious religious festival. What we must see, and live out, is that the Incarnation of the Word of God, of which Christmas is a central moment of celebration, is no less than the revolution, the utter overturning, of the human world. And at the center of it are a young Jewish girl and her old aunt.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Sermon (Evensong) -- 3 December 2006

1st Sunday of Advent — 3 December 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 5:00 p.m. Evensong
Psalm 18 Amos 1:1-5,13–2:8 Luke 21:5-9

For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statues, but they have been led astray by the same lies after which their ancestors walked.

And a Merry Christmas to you, too, ho ho ho!

One of the things that we all have begun fussing about in recent years is the growing custom on the local radio stations of playing Christmas music starting immediately after Halloween. Not just us stuffy old Anglicans, but even regular people were shaking their heads a month ago: “Can you believe they’re playing Christmas music already — 24/7?!” Although I noticed, on those rare occasions when I wasn’t listening to KSUI, that these stations were actually playing “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” and I don’t consider that those count as Christmas carols. And if they have to be played at all, I suppose November is as good a time as any.

But this brings us around to a time to reflect on the meaning of Christmas; and as a run-up, on the meaning of Advent. As I suggested a moment ago, in the Anglican tradition we make rather a Big Deal of observing Advent, and not keeping Christmas until Christmas, and everyone else thinks we’re a little loony, we and the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans. Ironically, there was a time when we got it from the other direction: the Puritans got after us for celebrating Christmas at all; they considered it a Papist and pagan festival, not fit for Bible-believing Christians. Oh well.

I am inclined to think that we ought to keep Advent with a little more intentionality than we usually do. We understand Advent as a preparation for Christmas, and it is. But we understand Christmas as a warm and fuzzy festival, and so Advent also becomes warm and fuzzy, and we get a bit off track. Christmas certainly has its moments of profound joy, but it really isn’t warm and fuzzy. (I am reminded of the race car driver Ricky Bobby in the movie Talladega Nights, who when he says grace before dinner always prays to the Baby Jesus; he doesn’t care very much for the adult Christ Crucified.) Christmas, despite its genuine joy, also has its dark side. And part of the Advent preparation is to call our attention to the dark side of Christmas. We say, or at least we have taken to saying, that “Advent isn’t like Lent.” Well, in a sense that’s so; but in a sense Advent is like Lent. At least one stream of the origin of Advent was to be a season of fasting and penitence in preparation for the Epiphany baptisms. And one of the major themes of Advent, especially this first week, is judgment.

In the first reading we hear from the prophet Amos, who was active in Israel and Judah in the middle of the eighth century bce. He begins by denouncing the surrounding pagan nations for their sins and proclaiming God’s condemnation: Damascus, and then the selection tonight leaves out Gaza and Tyre and Edom to reduce the tedium a little, and then the Ammonites and Moab. That pretty well boxes the compass: Syria, the Philistines on the Mediterranean coast, what is now Lebanon, what is now Jordan. (“For three transgressions and for four” is a Hebrew rhetorical figure that means “for a whole lot of transgressions.”) So much for all those sinful Gentiles! But then Amos turns his sights on Judah and on Israel. Oops. Being the chosen people is no assurance against coming under judgment.

Jesus is with his disciples in Jerusalem, after his prophecy-fulfilling entrance into the city, driving the moneychangers out of the temple, and tangling verbally with the religious establishment. The disciples are rubbernecking at the Big City, and the Temple — a magnificent structure built by Herod to try to curry favor with the Jews — most of them are Galileans and some of them may never have been to Jerusalem before — and they are terribly impressed. Jesus quickly deflates their balloon and warns them that although “Beautiful and lofty, the joy of all the earth, is the hill of Zion, the very center of the world and the city of the great King,” [Psalm 48] it is still not immune to judgment, any more in the first century AD than it was in the eighth century BC.

And neither are we. Advent, and the initial Advent theme of judgment, reminds up how utterly serious the whole enterprise of the Incarnation of God the Word in Jesus of Nazareth really is, and at what cost comes the redemption that we shall in three more weeks celebrate with such joy.

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead