The Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac:  Genesis 22

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

2 Timothy 3:16–17 (ESV): 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 

All Scripture — even the genealogies with their tongue-twister names, even the Proverbs that sound like unsolicited advice from a know-it-all uncle, even the self-righteous and error-filled speeches of Job’s friends, even the mind-bending and imagination-straining symbols of Revelation — all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for man.  But, let’s face it, not all Scripture is created equal.  If you honestly stick with the Daily Office Lectionary all throughout Leviticus, I am thoroughly impressed.  And the long slog through Job or the repeated litany of failed monarchs in I and II Kings and I and II Chronicles?  None of this is unimportant.  But little of it is particularly inspiring either:  inspired yes, inspiring not so much.

But other texts are holy ground; we sense, we know, that we are in the very presence of God.  We approach them with fear and trembling, with joy and wonder, with reverence and awe.  We put off our shoes, cover our mouths, and bow our heads.  Some such texts may rightly be described as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans:  a mystery that is at once so dreadful, fearful, and overwhelming that it repels the reader, and yet so beautiful, glorious, and redeeming that it irresistibly attracts the reader.  The binding of Isaac (Gen 22), our reading for the day, is one of these.  It horrifies me.  It thrills me.  It confuses me.  It blesses me.  It confronts me with the awe-ful demands of a righteous God and it reveals to me the awe-ful grace of a merciful God.  It asks questions that I don’t want to answer, and it won’t let me go until I do: mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

The text starts with this:  the God who tests man.  

Genesis 22:1–2 (ESV): After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

If that notion of God’s character — the God who tests man — doesn’t shake you, you haven’t been paying attention to the story.  It’s not just Abraham, but Adam, Noah, Job, Joseph, Moses, David, Elijah, Jonah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Esther, Mary, Peter, Paul — all tested by God.  Those whom God chooses, God also tests.  And the tests aren’t pro forma; they are profound, soul-shaking, demanding, costly challenges to the identity, to the essence of the one who would follow God.  We tell ourselves that God wants us to be happy, when God tells us that he wants us to be holy.  And the consistent witness of the story — Old and New Testaments — is that holiness demands testing.  So James writes:

James 1:2–4 (ESV): 2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. 

Do you want to be happy, or do you want to be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing?  Don’t answer too quickly.  Be careful how you answer.  But know this, if you choose happiness over holiness you may or may not achieve happiness, but you will never achieve holiness.  If you choose holiness over happiness, you will — in the long run, though not necessarily in the short term — also get happiness, joy, and contentment thrown in, as it were, for free.

There is a real counting of the cost that must take place in the life of a Christian; Jesus said as much.  When you sign up for this story in baptism, you take your place not in some sweet Winnie the Pooh like tale, but rather in a Lord of the Rings like saga of redemption, where not even the heroes emerge unscathed:  better, yes, but tried and tested and often broken first.  The collect that we will pray in just a bit reminds of this if we listen to the words we pray:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified:  Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.  Amen.

First the cross, then glory.  For us, first testing, then holiness.  There is no other way, no better way; if there were, God would do it instead.

Understand this:  everyone, Christian or not, will be tested by life.  Christians share in those common struggles of all men.  But, beyond those, there are unique tests that come to us from the hand of God or that are allowed in the providence of God, tests meant not to break us, but to re-make us in the image of Christ.  And even the ordinary tests common to all men we receive as from the hand of God, knowing that he can and will use these, too, for our sanctification, if we but submit them and ourselves to him.

So, the text starts with this:  the God who tests man.  But it doesn’t stop there.  It assures us that the God who tests man is also the God who provides:

Genesis 22:10–14 (ESV): 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” 

This is the heart of the story of the binding of Isaac:  that God provides the offering for the sacrifice; that God does not ask Abraham to plunge fully into the depths of this test, but that God himself goes all the way down into the abyss of human sin and misery not just to provide the sacrifice, but to become the sacrifice.  God tests Abraham, in so far as Abraham can stand it, on Mount Moriah.  God submits himself fully to the test, in so far as only he can stand it, in Gethsemane and on Mount Calvary.  What Father Abraham and his son Isaac could not do — what God would not finally ask them to do — God the Father and God the Son did fully.  Our God is the God who tests man, but he is also the God who provides.

The God who tests man, the God who provides, is also the God who blesses:

Genesis 22:15–18 (ESV): 15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

God’s tests are never capricious, never arbitrary, never cruel.  They are always the necessary means to the end, and the end is blessing.  God is not just Emmanuel, God with us; he is always God for us, too.  And while God’s blessings are always personal — to us — they are always instrumental, also — through us for the world.

Testing abounds in the morning’s Gospel lesson, too:  Jesus, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, the disciples, the Jews — all tested in different ways.  Among the riches of this text, there is this insight into the character of God:  the God who tests man, the God who provides, the God who blesses, is also the God who raises from the dead, the God who cries out to those of us in the tomb, “Come out!” — the God who is himself the resurrection and the life, our resurrection and our life.  And that is the purpose and end of all our testing:  resurrection and life.

We cannot, we dare not, diminish the life-shattering difficulty of the test of Abraham’s faith and obedience.  To do so is to diminish God’s sacrifice of his Son, his only Son Jesus, whom he loves.  We cannot, we dare not, diminish the difficulty of the tests that we and others may endure for the sake of Christ.  But we must remember that all such tests are for us and for our salvation, that we may become steadfast, complete, perfect, lacking in nothing.  We must remember that what we lack to enable us to endure the test, God will provide.  We must remember that the test results in blessing.  We must remember that the purpose and end of all testing is resurrection and life.  Does any of this make the testing easier?  Honestly, I don’t know.  But it does make the testing meaningful.  And for that I say, thanks be to God.  Amen.

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The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd:  Wednesday, 20 January 2021

(Genesis 20 / Psalm 50 / John 10:1-21)

Collect:  The Second Sunday of Epiphany

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world:  Grant that your people, illumines by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I am always heartened by these or similar words when reading Scripture:

John 10:6 (ESV): 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 

John writes this about the disciples’ confusion over Jesus’ good shepherd parables.  And the parables are confusing when you try to read them allegorically; they abound in symbols:  a sheepfold, a door, a gatekeeper, a stranger, a hireling, a shepherd, the sheep, a thief, a wolf.  Assigning each symbol a singular, particular meaning is difficult, if not impossible.  The disciples couldn’t do it.  The Church Fathers couldn’t do it.  I can’t do it.  Thankfully, we don’t need that level of specificity to understand the meaning of the parables.  But we do need some history, some familiarity with the story of Israel.  We need Ezekiel.

Ezekiel was among the exiles in Babylon when God called him to the prophetic ministry.  He was also a priest of a Temple that was no more, a priest of a God who seemed to have abandoned his people, a priest of a people in exile and captivity.  Why did all that happen?  So many reasons, but not least the failure of the shepherds of Israel.  So, Ezekiel writes:

Ezekiel 34:1–6 (ESV): 1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; 6 they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them. 

This is a damning indictment of the shepherds of Israel:  the kings, the priests, the elders of the people, the false prophets who claimed to speak in the name of the Lord — all those whose responsibility was to care for the people, to feed, to strengthen, to heal, to bind up, to seek out and bring back the wandering and the lost.  Instead of feeding the sheep, the shepherds fed on the sheep.  Instead of protecting the sheep from predators, the shepherds preyed on the sheep.  As a result, the sheep were scattered to the nations, taken into exile.  And the Lord came in judgment upon the shepherds:

Ezekiel 34:7–10 (ESV): 7 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. 

Here, God’s logic runs counter to ours; his thoughts are not our thoughts, nor his ways our ways.  Scattering the sheep into exile is a mercy, because it rescues them from the false shepherds of Israel who have been preying upon the sheep, who have been leading the sheep toward destruction.  Exile will destroy these false shepherds and prepare the sheep to recognize and receive the good shepherd:

Ezekiel 34:11–16 (ESV): 11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. 

So, God himself will become the good shepherd of Israel.  God himself will seek out the lost and scattered sheep.  God himself will create a new flock out of the nations.  God himself will bring back the strays, bind up the injured, strengthen and feed them all in justice.  “Good shepherd” talk is God talk.  The arrival of the good shepherd — the one who will do all these things — is the arrival of God.  And it is judgment upon any remaining false shepherds.  This is the context in which we must understand Jesus’ parables of the good shepherd.  When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” he is proclaiming the arrival of God, the end of exile, the creation of a new flock, all taking place in and through himself.  Was that difficult to understand?  Yes.  Was it outrageous and divisive?  Yes.

John 10:20–21 (ESV): 20 Many of them said, “He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?” 21 Others said, “These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” 

Jesus has damning words, words of judgment, for the false shepherds — certainly the Scribes and Pharisees, the Priests and Sadducees, and perhaps even the puppet king Herod and the emperor Tiberius:  strangers, thieves and robbers, hirelings — all of whom come only to steal and kill and destroy.

How are the sheep to distinguish between the false shepherds and the good shepherd?  Jesus mentions two ways.

First, there is the shepherd’s voice.  I am not really an animal person, though Clare and Mary Kathleen have forced a few cats on me that I have come to grudgingly respect and finally even to enjoy.  These cats tolerate me, but they know and respond to my wife and daughter.  The cats hear their voices, and they come running.  Sheep, too, know the shepherd’s voice and come running.  Speaking of himself as the good shepherd, Jesus says:

John 10:3–5 (ESV): 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”

That is precisely what happened in Jesus’ ministry.  He taught as one with authority.  He spoke as no man man had ever spoken before.  People recognized in his voice, in his words, something different, something genuine, something true, something powerful.  And though they might not have known precisely what it was, it was the voice of God:  the voice that had called all things into being, the voice that had called Abram into covenant, the voice that had called slaves out of Egypt, the voice that had spoken life-giving commandments, the voice that had called the straying people to return through the words of the prophets, the voice who had sought out the people in exile and had brought them home.  It was the voice of God speaking again in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Some recognized it and followed him.  Some recognized it and opposed him.  Others did not recognize it at all. 

For this latter group — the ones who did not recognize the good shepherd’s voice — Jesus offered another identifying trait:  self-sacrifice.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  A thief or robber flees, a hireling runs from danger.  But the good shepherd stands his ground and lays down his life to save the sheep.  This is the penultimate mark of authenticity.  One lies beyond it:  the good shepherd has the love to lay down his life and the power to take it up again.  The disciples who heard these parables of Jesus did not understand them.  But, they would when the good shepherd laid down his life on the cross and took it up again three days later.

So, that is how I understand the good shepherd parables of Jesus in John 10, in the context of Ezekiel 34.  But now I move from teaching to preaching, and from preaching to meddling.

There is only one good shepherd — the Lord Jesus Christ — and one flock made up of all those who hear and recognize his voice and follow him.  But, there are many false shepherds and false flocks out there calling to us and welcoming us to join up and follow.  Some false shepherds are subtle and look and sound, at least for a time, like the real thing.  How can we avoid their deception?

Get to know Jesus, deeply:  the timbre of his voice and the content of his words.  Immerse yourself in the Gospels.  If anyone speaks words that Jesus would not say, he or she is, in that moment, a false shepherd.  This applies to deacons, priests, bishops, politicians, pundits and to everyone with influence.  Do not listen to them.  Tune your ear only to the voice of the good shepherd.

Watch for self-sacrificial behavior; this is what you will see from a good shepherd.  A thief, a hireling, a false shepherd will be self-serving, fleecing the flock.  The early church enrolled widows; you see that in Acts and in Paul’s letters.  The church provided these women a daily distribution of food.  The widows wouldn’t get fat from this fare or rich from the contributions of the church, but neither would they starve or become destitute.  It was subsistence.  I have read — and it rings true to me —that bishops were similarly enrolled.  The church provided them subsistence to free them from having to earn a living so that they might devote themselves to shepherding the flock of Christ.  But it did not make them rich, and perhaps not even comfortable.  Contrast this with those megachurch preachers who are dissatisfied with the accoutrements of their current Gulf Stream jet and say they need the newest model to serve the Lord effectively.  And, being consecrated a bishop in the early church was often considered a death sentence due to ongoing persecution.  This is what it looks like to be a good shepherd under the Good Shepherd Jesus Christ.

In this limited sense, then, the good shepherd parables are not so difficult after all.  Listen for the voice of Jesus in the words of those who claim to be good shepherds.  Look for the self-sacrificial life of Jesus in the actions of those who claim to be good shepherds.  Follow only good shepherds, who themselves follow the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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How Will I Know?

ADOTS Morning Prayer: 15 January 2021

A Reflection on Genesis 15

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Twice before, God had spoken promises to Abram, and Abram had responded with obedience and worship.  In Ur of the Chaldees:

Genesis 12:1–4 (ESV): 12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 

4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.

This was God’s promise when first he called Abram.  Later, when Abram and Lot separated:

Genesis 13:14–18 (ESV): 14 The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, 15 for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. 17 Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” 18 So Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to the Lord. 

The third time is the charm, or so they say.  That’s what we have in today’s lesson, the third appearance of God to Abram, the third repetition of the promise, just after Abram’s rescue of Lot:

Genesis 15:1 (ESV): 15 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

But now, Abram’s response is different than before, more questioning than acquiescent.  I might paraphrase it this way:

“O Lord, you keep promising me great things, people and land and now a very great reward, but I’ve seen nothing of it yet.  I have just turned down a great reward for the sake of your honor.  I’m still traveling from place to place in this foreign land as an alien.  And not only do I not have a people, I don’t even have a single heir.  So, what exactly is it that you’ll give me” (cf Gen 15:2-3)?

Then, once again the Lord repeats the promise, this time addressing the heart of Abram’s concern:  “your very own son shall be your heir” and your offspring — from him — will be like the stars of the heavens (cf Gen 15:4-5).  And that, for reasons known to Abram and God alone, is precisely what Abram needed to hear.  Abram’s response is profound and reverberates through the whole of Scripture:

Genesis 15:6 (ESV): 6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. 

Abram believed the Lord.  He had not, in that moment, learned any new facts about the Lord; he had not given mental assent to any new theological doctrines.  But, for some reason, in that moment he grew to trust the Lord in a way that he had perhaps not done before.  That is the essence of what it meant for Abram to believe — the essence of what it means for any of us to believe:  to trust in the character and promises of God.  It is in that trust that righteousness obtains.

Paul makes much of this event in Romans; read the whole of Romans 4 in which Paul argues against a righteousness based upon fidelity to the Law, specifically fidelity to the outward Jewish boundary markers such as circumcision.  Abram’s righteousness preceded the Law by four centuries; it was not obedience to the Law, but trust in the character of God that was counted as Abram’s righteousness.  Likewise, it is trust — belief, faith — in Jesus Christ that is counted for our righteousness in the present moment:

Romans 5:1–2 (ESV): 5 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 

James takes this same verse from Genesis 15 and walks a different path with it:  not opposite Paul, as it often asserted, but parallel.  James insists that an Abram-like trust in the character of God will necessarily produce God-like character in the one with such faith, evidenced by works of mercy, and that if it does not, then no living faith is truly present, no righteousness obtains.

James 2:18–24 (ESV): 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 

Paul and James are refuting equal and opposite errors:  Paul that one’s works — specifically circumcision, Sabbath keeping, and dietary restrictions — obtain to righteousness, and James that faith which does not result in works of charity obtains to righteousness.  The synthesis of the two arguments goes something like this. To try to work your way into God’s favor because you do not trust his character and his gracious gift in Christ is futile.  Likewise, to claim to trust God without becoming like Christ is false.

So, Abram believed the Lord and it was counted to him as righteousness.  But then Abram’s dialogue with the Lord took an unexpected turn:  I believe you, but how will I know (cf Gen 15:8)?  Abram wanted — needed — something more than a voice or a vision, something substantial, something tangible.  It is then that the Lord cuts a formal covenant with Abram in a bloody ancient near eastern ratification rite involving the dismemberment of various animals:

Genesis 15:9–11 (ESV): 9 [The Lord] said to [Abram], “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 

Genesis 15:17–21 (ESV): 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” 

This sealed matters between God and Abram.  Their relationship is no longer like a man and a woman living together, but like a man and a woman bound together in the covenant of holy matrimony; at last, in this ceremony, God has put a ring on it.  This is Abram’s faith sealed tangibly by God.

The Twelve, and the others who followed Jesus, were not unlike Abram.  Jesus had made some grandiose claims and extravagant promises; just read John 14-17.

John 14:1–3 (ESV): 14 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

John 14:12–14 (ESV): 12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”

John 14:15–19 (ESV): 15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. 

18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.“

This is just a sampling.  For three years Jesus had been hinting and pointing toward these things; now he speaks more directly.  Thomas, Philip, Judas (not Iscariot) didn’t understand.  The others didn’t either, but these three were brave enough to speak up.  I suspect two questions were foremost in their minds:  What does this mean? and How do we know?  Like Abram, they needed something tangible, something to seal the deal — a rite of covenant and remembrance.

Matthew 26:26–28 (ESV): 26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

God sealed the covenant with Abram with the broken bodies of animals and their shed blood.  That was Abram’s touchstone going forward, his anchor in moments of doubt — the surety of God’s promise.  Jesus sealed the new covenant with all who would believe in him, in perpetuity, through his broken body and shed blood, made real to us in this meal, the Holy Eucharist, in which and through which he is present to us.  This is the tangible seal, sign, and Sacrament of the covenant, our touchstone going forward, our anchor in moments of doubt — the surety of Jesus’ promises.  There is more, of course, just as God gave other signs to Abram.  We enter the covenant through baptism.  We are sealed in the covenant through the Holy Spirit.  Yes, but it is this meal that is the ongoing, repeatable Sacrament of the New Covenant, the tangible reminder of and the yes to the promises of God made to us in Christ Jesus.

We believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.  We trust in his character and promises, and that trust is counted to us as righteousness.  And we are sustained in that trust by the rite of covenant he has given us, this meal, this feast of his Body and Blood through which he is present with us and by which he heals and nourishes us.  It is his proclamation to us and our proclamation to the world, just as St. Paul wrote:

1 Corinthians 11:23–26 (ESV): 23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 

Amen.

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Creation Stories

A Reflection on Genesis 8:1-9:1 — A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer (1/8/2021)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

You’ve almost certainly heard it said that the Bible is less a book than it is a library.  Like every generalization, this one is both true and false.  The Bible feels like a library because it has sixty-six volumes of varying genres by multiple authors written over millennia:  so, library it is.  And yet, we insist that all these volumes, all these genres, all these authors, over all that time tell a single story:  the story of God in relationship with God’s own triune self and with his creation — with all that is God and with all that is not God.  So, book it is, with all the volumes bound together:  leather and thin paper, gold edges and ribbon markers.

What evidence backs our claim that the Bible is a single story?  Much, in fact, but I’ll mention only one piece of literary evidence this morning:  the prevalence of various leitmotifs running throughout the Bible, recurring themes that bind the individual works into an integrated whole, into a single story.  One such leitmotif is the recurring theme of creation.

The Old Testament begins with the creation story:

Genesis 1:1–2 (ESV): 1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 

The New Testament — John’s Gospel — also includes a creation story, thus binding these two major divisions of the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament, together in a single story:

John 1:1–5 (ESV): 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

But, there are many other creation accounts in the Bible, too, accounts that continue to reinforce the unity of the story.  It doesn’t take great insight or imagination to see both the Annunciation/Nativity event and Pentecost as creation accounts.  One obvious “clue” is the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit:  spirit, wind, breath.  In Genesis, the Spirit of God was hovering over — brooding over — the empty earth, almost as if incubating it.  Then, in St. Luke’s Gospel, when Mary asks the angel Gabriel how she, a virgin, can conceive, he responds:

Luke 1:35 (ESV): “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 

It is the same imagery in both accounts, creation and Annunciation:  the Spirit hovering over, brooding over that which is empty, acting to bring forth life.

And, at Pentecost?

Acts 2:1–4 (ESV): 2 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 

There it is again:  the Holy Spirit hovering over, brooding over this small band of disciples, then blowing through the place where they were gathered, breathing into them and filling them, creating the Church.

All of these are creation accounts with John and Luke consciously echoing the theme from Moses to say that this, whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament, is one story, the story of God creating and relating to his creation.

And that, at last, brings me to the Old Testament lesson appointed for this morning:  Genesis 8, which I extended through Genesis 9:1.  This, too, is a creation account.  Just consider how the story is bracketed.  First, this:

Genesis 8:1 (ESV): 8 But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided. 

There he is again, the Spirit of God — the wind — hovering over, brooding over, the face of the deep.  Then, closing out this part of the account:

Genesis 9:1 (ESV): God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 

And we are right back in the Garden, with God blessing Adam and Eve, a clear connection between these two accounts:  Spirit and blessing bracketing the story of Noah, just as in the creation account.

So, let’s recap.  I’ve begun to make the case that creation is a leitmotif running throughout the Bible, binding the individual accounts together into a single, unified story of God creating and relating to his creation.  I have connected these several accounts:  the “first” creation in Genesis, Noah and the flood, the Prologue of John’s Gospel, the Annunciation/Nativity event, and Pentecost.  Now, let me take three of these accounts — Noah and the flood, the Annunciation/Nativity event, and Pentecost — and explore a deeper, common structure that might have some important implications for us.  I’ll speak specifically of Noah — since it is our appointed reading — and allude to the parallels with the Annunciation/Nativity event and Pentecost.

We can outline this structure of the account(s) in three points:

1. God remembers.

2. Noah (or Mary or the disciples) wait, watch, and worship.

3. God blesses.

This is the common, internal literary and theological structure of these creation accounts.

First, God remembers.  Now, that doesn’t mean that God had previously forgotten and then suddenly called to mind that he’d better do something.  When Scripture says “God remembered” it means that God has determined to act in this moment, that the time has come for God to create.  This is important theologically and practically:  creation begins with God, not with us.  Noah didn’t decide when the flood would end and the earth would be “re-created.”  Mary didn’t decide it was time to bear the Son of God.  Peter didn’t decide to create an organization called the Church.  The initiative in creation is always God’s and the operative agent in creation is always the Holy Spirit.

Genesis 8:1 (ESV): 8 But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided. 

Theologians speak of the prevenient grace of God, the grace that always goes before, the grace that always initiates, the grace that always makes human response possible.  That is precisely what we see in these creation accounts:  God initiates, the Holy Spirit acts, and we respond.  But, what is, or should be, the nature of our response?  The account of the flood shows us.

Noah waited:  what choice did he have, really?  He waited for the rain to stop.  He waited for the water to subside.  He waited for the earth to dry.  He waited for raven and dove.  But his waiting was a watchful waiting, a faithful attentiveness to see how and when God would act.  Here were his choices:  a drowsy boredom or an attentive watchfulness.  So, Noah waited and watched.  Likewise, Mary waited for nine months.  Peter, and the rest, waited for fifty days.  And, as they waited, they watched to see what God was doing.  They discerned his will.  And, they worshipped:  Noah by building an altar and offering sacrifice, Mary by saying yes to the angel and by singing her Magnificat, Peter and the rest by reflecting on Scripture and by praying.

God remembers.  We wait and watch and worship.  Then, God creates and blesses.

Genesis 9:1 (ESV): 9 And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

And, after this blessing, God created a new reality:  a covenant with Noah and his offspring that “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen 9:11).

With Mary, God’s blessing is spoken through the words of another, Elizabeth:

Luke 1:42–45 (ESV): “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” 

And what is “created” — let me say “brought forth” to avoid any theological confusion — is none other than Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, fully God and fully man — the ultimate act of blessing.

As for Pentecost, the blessing was the arrival of the promised Holy Spirit who created the Church:

Acts 2:41–47 (ESV): 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. 

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. 

So, there, in outline, you have the leitmotif of creation accounts that serves to unify the story of Scripture:  God remembers; we wait and watch and worship; God blesses.  Or, to expand it a bit:  God remembers; the Spirit acts; we wait and watch and worship, God blesses; and God creates.

Now, here’s what I want to suggest:  this is still a major leitmotif in God’s ongoing relationship with the world and with the Church, though we often fail to notice.  Instead, we write our mission statements or set our goals.  We devise our detailed plans of how to accomplish them and the metrics for how to measure our successes.  We organize and find the right people for the right tasks.  And then we set to work to bless the world and create the Kingdom of God.  It all sounds so reasonable, so proper.  But, that’s not how it works; remember Noah and Mary and Peter?  All these creation accounts say the same thing:  God remembers and the Spirit acts.  God initiates and we respond.  That’s the order; it doesn’t work any other way.  Our part is to wait, to watch, and to worship.  We wait for God to reveal his will and his plan.  We watch — attentively, prayerfully — for signs that the Spirit is at work, a fresh wind blowing away our self-sufficiency and our puny plans.  We worship as our primary work until God sends us out on mission, and we worship while on mission — still our primary work.  And the story promises that God will bless and God will create in ways we could not even begin to imagine.

In the novel Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, Siddhartha is asked by a merchant if he has any skills.  Siddhartha says, “I can think, I can wait, I can fast.”  These creation accounts suggest that if we were ever asked the same question, a good and proper response would be, “I can wait, I can watch, I can worship.”  It’s not a bad New Year’s resolution, if you’re still looking for one.  Amen.

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The Circumcision and Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ

The Circumcision and Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ

(Luke 2:8-21)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I am going to cheat a bit this morning, with a mostly pure heart and noble intent, mind you, but I’m going to cheat nonetheless.  It’s all because ADOTS offers Morning Prayer online, but not Evening Prayer.  Today is the beginning of a new calendar year, and the lectionary for Morning Prayer is spot on.  What better way to mark the beginning of the year than with both the Old and New Testament creation stories:  “In the beginning,” both Moses and John write — sublime words that, in every sense, transcend time and pierce the hearts of each successive generation.  I had the great privilege of preaching from this Prologue to the Gospel of St. John on the first Sunday of Christmas.  It was tempting to do so again today, but something else captured my attention instead.

This day we also observe a holy day in the church:  The Circumcision and Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  And this has led me to cheat this morning.  It is a reading from Evening Prayer that reflects this holy day, and it is on that theme I wish to reflect.  So, hopefully with your forgiveness, I read from Evening Prayer, from the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St. Luke, beginning with the second chapter, the eighth verse.

Luke 2:8–21 (ESV): 8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 

 14  “Glory to God in the highest, 

and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” 

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 

21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. 

The incarnation of the Lord — announced by an angel to a terrified band of shepherds — marked him out as the flesh-bearing son of Adam, a man subject to sin, though not guilty of it, in solidarity with all men.  The circumcision of the Lord — on the eighth day according to the Law — marked him out, in the flesh of his incarnation — as the covenant-bearing son of Abraham, subject to the Law. though not guilty of it, in solidarity with all Israel.  These two events, incarnation and circumcision, locate Jesus in a particular story:  in the Story of God’s redemptive purpose for all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve through this one, particular son of Abraham, through this one and only-begotten Son of God.  We cannot remove Jesus from the story to create an abstract Christ, some gnostic redemptive power or principle.  No, the incarnation and the circumcision will not allow that.  They root us in the story of Israel — the story of Israel for the world.  It is your story, and mine.

St. Paul weaves these two Christological themes — incarnation and circumcision — together with yet a third theme, baptism, which locates us in the same story:

Colossians 2:8–15 (ESV):  9 For in him [in Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Our baptism — a spiritual circumcision which removes not a small piece of skin but the entire body of flesh and sin — marks us as the Spirit-bearing sons and daughters of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in solidarity with the incarnation, circumcision, life, ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord.  In the Anglican Rite of Holy Baptism, the bishop or priest presiding may place a hand on the head of the newly baptized saint, mark on his or her forehead the sign of cross with Holy Chrism, call the new child of God by name and say:  You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.  Amen (BCP 2019, p. 169).  As Jesus was marked in his flesh as a son of Abraham, we are marked in body and spirit as sons and daughters of God in our baptism.  We enter and take our part in the ancient story, in solidarity with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Our Orthodox brothers and sisters sing this Troparion of the Circumcision of the Lord:

Enthroned on high with the Eternal Father and Your divine Spirit, O Jesus, You willed to be born on earth of the unwedded handmaiden, your Mother.

Therefore You were circumcised as an eight-day old Child.

Glory to Your most gracious counsel;

glory to Your dispensation;

glory to Your condescension, O lonely Lover of mankind.

And on that eighth day, when the son of Mary and Son of God was circumcised, he was also named in accordance with the word spoken by the angel:

Matthew 1:20–25 (ESV): 20 But as [Joseph] considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 

 23  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, 

and they shall call his name Immanuel” 

(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. 

Jesus, Savior, Immanuel, God with us:  The Circumcision and Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The circumcision locates Jesus in a story, in the redemptive story of God through Israel for the world.  In our baptism, it becomes our story, too.  The naming of Jesus proclaims that name at which every knee will bow and which every tongue  will confess — Jesus is Lord! — to the glory of God the Father.  Amen.

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A Reflection on the Prologue of the Gospel of St. John

THE FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS

(Is 61:10-62:5 / Ps 147:12-20 / Gal 3:23-4:7 / John 1:1-18)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

It is the Lord’s Day, and the elder John, exiled on Patmos for his faithful witness, is in the Spirit, and he sees and hears things — wonderful and awe-full things — things which are and which are yet to come.

Revelation 4:6b–8 (ESV): And around the throne [of God], on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, 

     “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, 

who was and is and is to come!” 

The Church — from as early as the second century — has associated these four living creatures, described first by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:1-21) and here by St. John in the Apocalypse, with the four Evangelists:  St. Matthew like a man; St. Mark, a lion; St. Luke, an ox; and St. John, the eagle in flight.  St. Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 AD), who was himself a spiritual “grandson” of John the Apostle, explains the particular pairings of creatures and Evangelists in his book Against Heresies. Three need not concern us now; it is St. John who captures our attention and imagination today, on this his feast day:  St. John the eagle in flight.

Why an eagle?  As beautiful and necessary as the synoptic Gospels are — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — John’s gospel soars above them all.  His eyes see, perhaps more clearly than the others, the broad sweeping landscape of salvation history — and not of history only, but of salvation future, too.  And with this keener vision, he sees beyond the small villages and dusty roads of Galilee and Judea.  He sees the entire cosmos as the venue and recipient of redemption:  Jesus of Nazareth, God from God; Christ from the Jews, Christ for all creation; Christ the son of Israel, Christ the savior of the world.  There is a “watermark” on every page of John’s Gospel, a faint text written behind all the others words:

Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,

who was and is and is to come!

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are faithful historical witnesses; they tell us what Jesus said and did.  John is the faithful theologian who reflects on what Jesus said and did and who then reveals the depths of meaning in his words and deeds.  It doesn’t take a scholar to see that John’s gospel is different; it just takes a faithful reader.  In fact, John’s gospel is written to create from nothing, to call forth, the very kind of faithful reader who is worthy of its message:  a reader who has been born again, a reader who is filled with the Spirit of truth, a reader with eyes to see and ears to hear.  Lord, grant us to be such worthy readers.  And you might, of your mercy, pray for me, that this gospel will call forth a worthy preacher of its message, too.

Matthew starts with Abraham and works his way forward through a string of “begats” all the way to Jesus.  Mark commences with John the Baptist, just as it was written in Isaiah the prophet, the voice of one crying in the wilderness.  Luke tells the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the Baptist’s old and barren parents.  But St. John?  He sees further, like the eagle in flight:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God (John 1:1-2).

In the beginning:  these words have nothing in common with the fairy tale opening line “once upon a time,” nor do they pinpoint a specific moment in time, say December 27, something BC.  Just the opposite, in fact:  in the beginning tells us that BC is a false orientation right from the start, that there is no BC, no time before Christ the Word was.  In the beginning means from all eternity.  It is St. John’s and the Church’s rebuttal of that great Arian heresy that claimed Christ was a created being, not co-eternal with the Father.  “There was a time when Christ was not,” said the Arians.  No.  “In the beginning,” John wrote and we orthodox Christians still say:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.

Matthew and Luke show us a baby, born in time and space:  in the days of Herod the King, when Quirinius was governor of Syria; in Bethlehem, the city of David, in this manger, in this house, in this moment.  John tells us that this baby — in a way John is yet to reveal; just wait for it — this baby is the eternal Word of God, who existed before space and time and who created both space and time.

In the beginning was the Word:  ο λόγος.  We live in a world and in a time where words are plentiful and cheap, where many words are mere distractions or, worse still, blatant lies.  But, not so long ago — in my father’s day — it was said that a man’s word was his bond, that the most important thing a man had was his word because it was an expression of his character.  If an honorable man said it, it was as good as done.  Words revealed character.  Words created reality.  That begins to get at what John means when he says ο λόγος, the Word.  The Word reveals the very character of God.  The Word affects that which it expresses; the Word speaks reality into being.  As it is spoken, so it is done.  As is the Word, so is the reality.

ο λόγος also expresses reason and order and purpose.  Ask these questions about creation — and about life — as we all do from time to time:

Does any of this — the world in which we live and the lives we live in it — make sense, or are we just muddling along the best we can until we die?

Is there any order, any direction to all this, or is it all just happenstance, just the product of random events?

In the end, does it all mean anything:  is there any purpose behind the joy and the suffering, the hope and the fear, the life and the death that we all experience, or are we just deluding and amusing ourselves as we dance toward the grave?

John answers these deepest questions of all men and women in just five words, six in English:  In the beginning was the Word.  The Word is the source of all reason, order, and purpose in the world and in human life.  Does any of this make sense?  Yes, the Word makes sense of it.  Is all this just random chance?  No, the Word gives order and direction to creation and to life.  Is there any meaning to life?  Yes, and the Word is that meaning.  In the beginning was the Word.

And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  It will take the Church three centuries and more to come to grips with these words.  It has taken me a lifetime to even make a good beginning of understanding.  How can the Word be with God, which implies difference and individuality, and at the same time be God which implies equality and identity?  It makes perfect sense for me to say, “I am John.”  It makes no sense at all for me to say, “I am with John.”  Difference or equality, individuality or identity:  take your pick, but you can’t have both.  But John insists that both are true when spoken of the Word and God.  The Word is with God; that is, the Word has distinct Personhood that differentiates the Word from God.  And yet, the Word is God; that is, there is nothing essential to the nature of God that is lacking in the Word.  Language is inadequate for this, even when we use it precisely as the Church has learned to do.  This is the truth that John begins to reveal here, the truth of the Trinity, as we say in the Creed of Saint Athanasius:

…we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.

The Persons of the Godhead are distinct in Trinity — they are with one another — and are yet they are united in Substance, of one nature.  The Word was with God and the Word was God, is John’s window into this great mystery of faith.

But, the Word was with God in another sense, too.  John is preparing to tell the great drama of salvation in his gospel, a story in which God the Father sends God the Son — the Word — into the world to bear the sins of the world, to suffer and die on behalf of the world, to save the world.  There is a caricature of this story that often parades as truth.  In it, God the Father is portrayed as the righteous judge who is poised to pour out his wrath on a sinful world.  God the Son is pictured as the loving savior who interposes himself between the wrath of the Father and the sin of the world and bears the punishment himself.  There is just enough truth there to make this telling seem plausible, when really a half truth is no truth at all.  What’s wrong with this story?  In it, the Word is not with God, not in agreement, not on the same page, not of one nature and purpose:  in it God has one nature — wrath — and one will — judgment, while the Word has a different nature — love — and a different will — forgiveness.  But John will have none of that;  the Word was with God.  They share the same nature.  They share the same will.  They share the same purpose, the same love, the same unflinching intent to save man and renew creation no matter the cost.  The drama of salvation is the joint venture of God and the Word. God sent the Word among us because the Word willed to come among us.  John’s word with keeps us from wrongly seeing any difference in nature and will between God and the Word.  For all our grand and precise explanations, John says it simply and best:

And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; this is John’s expression of the mystery of the incarnation.  And it is a mystery, it remains a mystery, no matter how deeply the theologians explore it and how prayerfully the faithful ponder it.  Whatever the incarnation is, it is not God-in-disguise; it is not the Word pretending to be man.  Nor is it the Word ceasing to be God to become man.  Both of these misunderstandings are classic heresies firmly rejected by the Church.  John has something different in mind — not a change in the Word’s divine nature, but the addition of a human nature to form a new and unique person, the God-man:  the uniting of two natures, human and divine, in one Person, without separation and without confusion.  

No image is sufficient for this, but perhaps this one will be helpful.  Imagine a sheet of paper; it would need to be infinitely long, but try to imagine it anyway.  Now, write on that paper all the essential characteristics of God; leave nothing out:  no matter that you can’t actually do that; we are imagining.  So you write characteristics such as uncreated, immortal, spiritual, omniscient, omnipotent, and the like.  Now, when you have finished that list, draw a line under it.  Everything above the line is the Word.  Now, below the line list all the essential characteristics of man:  created, mortal, fleshly, and the like.  This is something like John had in mind when he wrote that the Word became flesh.  Without ceasing to be God — without surrendering any of the divine characteristics — the Word assumed unto himself all the essential characteristics of man:  the two lists on a single sheet of paper, not separated by tearing, but not confused either by mixing the items of the two lists together.

Well, that is the best I can do, even though it’s a poor explanation, as are all explanations.  Really, the how of the incarnation is not nearly as important as the why of it.  Why would the divine, spiritual Word put on human flesh?  Why would the infinite Word accept human limitations?  Why would the immortal Word assume human mortality?  John tells us:  and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us — pitched his tent in the neighborhood — not as a foreigner, but as one of us.  From the beginning of the story in the Garden to the end-which-is-no-end of the story in New Jerusalem, God’s purpose is to dwell among us, to be our God and to transform us into his holy people, into his very image and likeness.  The Word is the prototype of all that, and not the prototype only, but the one by whom, through whom, and in whom it actually happens.  Through his incarnation and all that entails — his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension — the Word takes the paper on which our human characteristics are written, draws a line under them, and writes below that line in the boldest script:  Holy Spirit.  Just as he once united our humanity to his divinity, he now unites his divinity to our humanity in and through his Holy Spirit so that we might truly be called the sons and daughters of God, partakers of the divine nature.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that we might become the temple of the Spirit and dwell with God.

And we have seen his glory, glory as of the only-begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.  Glory is the visible manifestation of God’s presence; where God is, God’s glory shines:  in the burning bush, in the pillar of cloud and fire, on Mount Sinai, between the wings of the cherubim covering the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies, in a manger in Bethlehem, in a squalling firstborn son circumcised on the eighth day, in a twelve year old boy questioning the rabbis in the Temple, in a young carpenter planing doors and building walls, in an itinerant rabbi teaching and healing in the synagogues of Galilee, in that same rabbi standing on a mountain top in company with Moses and Elijah as they prepare him for what is soon to come, in a “criminal” standing before the seat of the world’s power as it chews him up and spits him out for convenience sake, in a condemned man carrying a cross and in a dying man crucified on it.  Glory, glory as of the only-begotten from the Father.

2 Corinthians 4:6 (ESV): 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 

We have seen his glory, glory as of the only-begotten from Father, full of grace and truth.  This one — this Word who became flesh and dwelt amongst us — is not only full of grace, but full to overflowing.  And,

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

What is this grace that we have received?  It is life and light, for in him was life, and the life was the light of men.  And, it is so much more.  It is not life as we have known it before.  It is the life we have always longed for in those moments of aching joy we experience in the presence of truth and beauty and hope and love.  It is the life we were made for, the life we sold so cheaply in the garden and in every act of self-destructive faithlessness since.  It is nothing less than the divine life within us:

To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13, ESV).

And now I borrow from C. S. Lewis.  Look around you.  These people amongst whom you sit are no ordinary people, no mere mortals.  “Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.”  These people amongst whom you sit and with whom you worship are immortals, everlasting splendors (adapted from C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory).  And all because they have received the Word, they have believed in his name, and they have been born again, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.  They have become the children of God.  And that is true of the one you see in the mirror, if that one is in Christ Jesus.

And so I stand before the Prologue of John’s Gospel this morning as the great scientist Isaac Newton stood before the mysteries of creation.  He wrote:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

There is a difference, though.  For me, for us, the great ocean of truth is a person, the Word who was with God and who was God, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.  And because we could not discover him, he revealed himself to us, full of life and light, full of grace and truth.  Amen.

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The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ

ADOTS Morning Prayer: Friday, 25 December 2020 — Christmas Day

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“We’ve turned the corner on Covid,” President Trump said repeatedly in the run up to the presidential election.  “We’ve rounded the turn.  One day it will just disappear.”  It was a lie, not necessarily malicious, not necessarily disingenuous — just evidently, obviously wrong.  He offered false hope.  To the contrary, President-Elect Biden warns us often that “we are in for a long, dark winter.”  That seems to be closer to the truth, but a lot farther from hope.  To give some sense of optimism, Mr. Biden reminds us that this is America, and that there’s nothing Americans can’t do if they just put theirs minds to it and work together.  That, too, is a lie: not necessarily malicious, not necessarily disingenuous — just evidently, obviously wrong.  As I wrote these words earlier in the week, Congress was still deadlocked over the Covid Relief Package and had just passed an emergency resolution to fund the government for two more days so they could do nothing productive for forty-eight more hours.  Find me a private business as dysfunctional as Congress and I’ll show you a business that will not be in business in six months.  Yet, somehow we keep paying salaries for work not done.  To their credit, they were able to finalize both a bi-partisan Covid Relief bill and an omnibus spending bill to fund the government through September 2021.  President Trump, who had earlier signaled his willingness to sign the bill promptly threatened to veto it instead.  Such is our government.

What I long to see from government is some hint of wisdom, just the merest glimpse of righteousness:  to know and to do the right thing for the good of all the people, to bring justice to bear, justice with peace for the good of all the people, especially for those who have for too long known too little justice and peace.  Is that too much to ask?  Apparently so, because the damnable truth is that government can likely be no better than those it governs, certainly not in a democracy.  We get the government we chose, the government we want, some say the government we deserve.  And we are a mess:  far from wisdom and righteousness, strangers to justice and peace.

That is why we so desperately need Isaiah’s words this Christmas morning, why we need to hear and see and share his vision:

Isaiah 9:6–7 (ESV): 6  For to us a child is born, 

to us a son is given; 

  and the government shall be upon his shoulder, 

and his name shall be called 

  Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, 

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

 7  Of the increase of his government and of peace 

there will be no end, 

  on the throne of David and over his kingdom, 

to establish it and to uphold it 

  with justice and with righteousness 

from this time forth and forevermore. 

  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. 

Let’s start with the end of Isaiah’s vision:  the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.  Not our democracy, not our Congress, not our President, not our we are Americans and we can do anything false sense of bravado.  These are human institutions and they are part of the problem, like the ark which saved Noah and his family was not the solution, but part of the problem, because it bore within itself human sin.  Let’s get this straight:  some human governments are better than others — far better.  Some leaders show greater human wisdom and better judgment than others.  Some administrations approximate righteousness more closely than others.  But Isaiah’s vision applies to none of them.  None of them will usher in an eternal age of wisdom, peace, justice, and righteousness.  Unless God breaks into history, unless the zeal of the LORD of hosts accomplishes this, we are without hope and without a future.

But this day, this day, proclaims that the zeal of the LORD of hosts has done this; this day proclaims that God has acted.  For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder.  This is no lie.  This is no false hope.  This is no failed hope.  This is no false optimism.  His name shall be called — his name is  even now called — Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace: Jesus.  We did not vote for his government; in fact, we have continually voted against it throughout history.  But — thanks be to God — this is no democracy.  God does not need our popular vote or even our electoral college.  The zeal of the LORD of hosts has accomplished this.

Now look:  human governments are still in rebellion against this divine government; read Psalm 2.  That is why they are all so dysfunctional.  We are — all of us — still in rebellion, more or less, against the righteous rule of the Prince of Peace.  That is why we still place our hope in the wrong parties, people, and policies.  We are all still part of the problem.  But God has acted, God is acting, and God will continue to act to accomplish his good purpose of wisdom, peace, justice, and righteousness.  Such a government is already, but not yet.  It is already a reality because God has acted in and through the incarnation of his Son.  It is not yet manifest fully among us because creation has yet to be fully restored and new Jerusalem has yet to come from heaven to earth like a bride adorned for her husband.  But, it is coming; that day is coming.  The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

In the meantime, in the time of God’s patient waiting and working, our task and our privilege is to live as people who know this, as people who have been brought out of darkness into light:

Isaiah 9:2 (ESV): 2   The people who walked in darkness 

have seen a great light; 

  those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, 

on them has light shone. 

This is us, those of us who are in Christ Jesus.  This light is the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, the one whose birth we celebrate this day.  For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.  Walk in this truth; live in this hope.

May yours be a holy and blessed Christmastide.  Amen.

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O Virgo Virginum: O Virgin of Virgins

The O Antiphons:  O Virgo Virginum

(Isaiah 66:1-2, 6-11 / Psalm 113 / Luke 1:26-38)

In the words of the angel Gabriel and Elizabeth, mother of the forerunner of our Lord:  Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  Amen.

I have no real homily to offer today:  no explication of doctrine from my head, but rather a reflection from my heart as we approach the nativity of our Lord.

For seven days — starting on 16 December — the Church has been singing or chanting or saying the great O Antiphons, the Advent refrains that frame the Magnificat at Evening Prayer.  These antiphons form the basis for the hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and they invite us to reflect on the Song of Mary — as we ought always to do —  through the lens of her Son, Jesus, specifically by invoking Biblical names or descriptions of the Messiah:  O Wisdom, O Adonai (Lord), O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of the Nations, O Emmanuel (God-with-us).  The O Antiphons are focused, laser-like, on Jesus.

But not today.  Today, the last of the O Antiphons shifts focus a bit:  O Virgo Virginum — O Virgin of virgins.  We sing today of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

O Virgo Virginum

O Virgin of virgins,

how shall this be?

for neither before thee was any like thee,

nor shall there be after.

Daughters of Jerusalem,

why marvel ye at me?

The thing which ye behold 

is a divine mystery.

I know that many faithful followers of Christ are wary of any devotion given to Mary lest the Church drift back into the medieval excesses of undue Marian piety.  While I understand and respect that, I think we need not throw out the baby with the bath, or in this case, the Baby’s mother with the bath.  God the Father honored Mary with the unique vocation of uniting humanity with Divinity in her womb.  The angel Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, stood in Mary’s presence and hailed her as “the favored one,” meaning surely “the one whom God favors.”  This is proper honor.  And, if it is fitting for God to favor Mary and for Gabriel to called her blessed, should we do any less?  Any love we show for Mary, any devotion to her, redounds to the worship and praise of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  Mary is worthy of honor only because Jesus is worthy of worship; we do not confuse the two.  We honor Mary; we worship the Lord Jesus.  We even see that right ordering of devotion expressed clearly in the antiphon itself.  Mary asks:

Daughters of Jerusalem,

why marvel ye at me?

The thing which ye behold 

is a divine mystery (emphasis added).

Mary is clear and we can be, too.  It is not about her, but about the divine mystery at work in and through her.

And we marvel at the mystery of what God did in and through Mary, the Virgin of virgins.  This excerpt from the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, one of the Eucharistic liturgies from the Orthodox Church, captures that mystery in two stunning images:

All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace,

the ranks of Angels and the human race;

hallowed Temple and spiritual Paradise, glory of Virgins;

from you God was incarnate,

and He, who is our God before the ages, became a little child,

for He made your body a throne

and made your womb more spacious than the heavens (Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great).

He made your body a throne.  The Logos, the Word of God, the Lord — God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father — this one reigned eternally, enthroned at the right hand of the Father.  And yet, when he entered creation he chose as his first incarnate throne the body of a virgin daughter of Israel.  In Morning Prayer we sing the Benedictus Es, Domine:

Glory to you, Lord God of our fathers;

     you are worthy of praise; glory to you.

Glory to you for the radiance of your holy Name;

     we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you in the splendor of your temple;

     on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.

Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim;

     we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever (BCP 2019, p. 19).

The throne of majesty.  Seated between the Cherubim.  Is Mary any less exalted when the Lord reigns from that throne, from the throne of her body?  No.  As we sing in the Te Deum:

You Christ, are the king of glory,

     the eternal Son of the Father.

When you took our flesh to set us free

     you humbly chose the Virgin’s womb (BCP 2019, p.18).

The Lord chooses his throne as he will.  He chose the body of Mary and, later, he chose the cross.  Both are glorified in his choosing and by his incarnate presence.  Why marvel at this — at her?  The thing which we behold is a divine mystery.

He made your womb more spacious than the heavens.  Solomon was granted the honor of building a temple for the Lord, the meeting place between God and man on earth.  And yet, Solomon himself knew the utter inadequacy of such a structure.  It is there in his planning:

2 Chronicles 2:3–6 (ESV): 3 And Solomon sent word to Hiram the king of Tyre: “As you dealt with David my father and sent him cedar to build himself a house to dwell in, so deal with me. 4 Behold, I am about to build a house for the name of the Lord my God and dedicate it to him for the burning of incense of sweet spices before him, and for the regular arrangement of the showbread, and for burnt offerings morning and evening, on the Sabbaths and the new moons and the appointed feasts of the Lord our God, as ordained forever for Israel. 5 The house that I am to build will be great, for our God is greater than all gods. 6 But who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him? Who am I to build a house for him, except as a place to make offerings before him?

It is there in his prayer of dedication:

1 Kings 8:27 (ESV): 27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!

Heaven, even the highest heaven cannot contain God.  And yet for nine months the womb of Mary did just that.  For nine months the womb of Mary became more spacious than the heavens, even more spacious than the highest heavens.  This is not geometry.  This is not architecture.  This is the divine mystery of the incarnation and the honored role of Mary in it.  Scripture names Eve as the mother of all living, as the life-giver (cf Gen 3:20).  In some sense, she held in her womb all mankind.  The Church names Mary as Θεοτόκος (Theotokos), the Mother of God, for she held in her womb the savior of all the sons and daughters of Eve, the One who was fully man and fully God.  

In one sense Solomon was right:

27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you.

But, in another sense he was quite wrong.  God did dwell on earth — Emmanuel, God-with-us.  And though heaven cannot contain God, the womb of Mary proved more spacious than heaven, and encompassed her Creator.  Why marvel at this — at her?  The thing which we behold is a divine mystery.

The Anglican Church places little emphasis on Mary in its worship, though some Anglicans do in their personal piety.  It’s a bit ironic then that most Western churches — the Roman Catholic Church and the various Protestant bodies — do not count O Virgo Virginum among the O Antiphons; it is found almost exclusively in Anglican churches and among the few Anglican religious orders that remain.  I like to think that this is because we Anglicans rightly order our worship, giving honor to whom honor is due, and worship to Whom worship is due:  honor to Mary, worship to God alone.  The undeniable truth which we recognize, the truth which we sing in O Virgo Virginum is this: Mary was unique among women, uniquely readied for her role in our salvation.  Neither before her was any like her, nor shall there be after.

O Virgin of virgins,

how shall this be?

for neither before thee was any like thee,

nor shall there be after.

Daughters of Jerusalem,

why marvel ye at me?

The thing which ye behold 

is a divine mystery.

Amen.

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O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)

ADOTS Morning Prayer: Friday, 18 December 2020

O radix Jesse

O Root of Jesse,

which standest for an ensign of the people,

at whom kings shall shut their mouths,

to whom the Gentiles shall seek:

Come and deliver us,

and tarry not (The New English Hymnal, The Canterbury Press Norwich, 2002).

This is one of the O Antiphons that precedes and follows the Magnificat at Evening Prayer from 16 December to 23 December; it is the antiphon for this day.  You can find a complete list of the O Antiphons on page 712 in the BCP 2019.  

From at least the eighth century onward the faithful have chanted these antiphons — prophetic titles for Jesus — as a musical introduction to and summary of the Song of Mary, or, to mix metaphors, as a lens through which to read and understand the Magnificat as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies and as a preview of the coming kingdom.  These antiphons have the Advent flavor of past, present, and future:  already, not yet, coming in fullness.

Today’s antiphon — O radix Jesse, O root of Jesse — draws our attention to that great Advent prophet Isaiah son of Amoz, especially to chapter eleven of his written prophecy.

The chapter begins with a promise:

Isaiah 11:1 (ESV): 11 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, 

and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. 

Because we are wont to read all Scripture through the lens of Christ, and because Jesus was, in human lineage, a son of David, son of Jesse, we might tend to identify this shoot from the stump of Jesse, this branch from his roots that shall bear fruit, as Jesus of Nazareth.  And that is, perhaps, the case.  But, I find that I’m drawn to Jerome’s interpretation instead:

But we understand the branch from the root of Jesse to be the holy Virgin Mary, who had no shoot connatural to herself. About her we read above: “Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son.” And the flower is the Lord our Savior, who said in the Song of Songs, “I am the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys” (Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah).

The Blessed Virgin Mary, the shoot, the branch, and Jesus the fruit of that branch:  it is a lovely image binding together Old and New Testaments with Mary being the bridge between the two and Jesus being the fulfillment of all that came before.

But, there is darkness in this image, too.  The branch comes not from the trunk of a great tree as we might expect, but from the stump, from the roots.  Jesse and his house, David and his dynasty have been brought low, the great tree felled until all that remains is a stump.  As Isaiah speaks these words, Ephraim, the ten northern tribes have fallen to Assyria and are no more.  The destruction of Judah and Jerusalem lies in the future, but is seen even now prophetically as a certainty.  A stump is all that remains:  a stump and a promise.

The promise is of restoration, not just of Ephraim and Judah — that is far to small a thing! — but a restoration of all creation:  a Kingdom of Righteousness to which all men, all nations, shall come, and a Righteous King and Judge, before whom all other kings will bow.

Isaiah 11:2–5 (ESV): 2  And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, 

the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, 

the Spirit of counsel and might, 

the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 

 3  And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. 

  He shall not judge by what his eyes see, 

or decide disputes by what his ears hear, 

 4  but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, 

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; 

  and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, 

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 

 5  Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, 

and faithfulness the belt of his loins. 

Can’t you just see Jesus here?  The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, Isaiah says, and Matthew writes:

Matthew 3:16–17 (ESV): 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” 

With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth, Isaiah says, and Jesus says:

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5 Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:3, 5, ESV).

This is the coming Righteous King and Judge.  And his kingdom?  Creation restored to newness of life, a return to the Garden with Jerusalem at its center:

Isaiah 11:6–9 (ESV): 6  The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, 

and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, 

  and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; 

and a little child shall lead them. 

 7  The cow and the bear shall graze; 

their young shall lie down together; 

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 

 8  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, 

and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. 

 9  They shall not hurt or destroy 

in all my holy mountain; 

  for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord 

as the waters cover the sea. 

Wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, calf and lion — all the ancient enmities gone, all fear gone, all danger gone, Isaiah sees.  And who reigns as King over this renewed creation?  

6 …a little child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6).

And St. Luke responds:

Luke 2:8–14 (ESV): 8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 

 14  “Glory to God in the highest, 

and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” 

Son of David, Savior, Christ the Lord — a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.  Glory to God in the highest, is right.  It is about all there is to say.  From the moment of this baby’s birth, the earth was indeed full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea, for in this child, the whole fullness of God dwells bodily (cf Col 2:9).  He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15).

Isaiah continues, and gives shape to the O Antiphon, O root of Jesse:

Isaiah 11:10 (ESV): 10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. 

And Matthew picks up the story:

Matthew 2:1–2 (ESV): 1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

The nations, in the person of these Gentile magi, have come to inquire after the king.  And when they find him, they make glorious his resting place with their gifts and their worship:

Matthew 2:9–11 (ESV):  10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

This is the first fruits of the great in-gathering when all kings and all people of all nations see the signal raised, the banner of the great King, and all God’s people come streaming to the new Jerusalem as Isaiah foresees:

Isaiah 11:11–12 (ESV): 11 In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. 

 12  He will raise a signal for the nations 

and will assemble the banished of Israel, 

  and gather the dispersed of Judah 

from the four corners of the earth. 

And here, Isaiah’s vision fails him a bit.  As grand as it is — the return of all Israel’s exiles — it is not grand enough.  That vision awaits St. John on Patmos:

Revelation 7:9–10 (ESV): 9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

These are the faithful martyrs of the nations standing under the signal, under the ensign of Christ the Lamb, the king of all creation.

And so, with this great vision filling our view, with this drama told by Isaiah, Matthew, Luke, Paul, John and so many others ringing in our ears, we sing this day the great O Antiphon, O radix Jesse:

O Root of Jesse,

which standest for an ensign of the people,

at whom kings shall shut their mouths,

to whom the Gentiles shall seek:

Come and deliver us,

and tarry not.

Amen.

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David and Whitewash: Sirach 47

O Lord, open my lips,

     and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Though it has been eclipsed recently in the public consciousness by news of the pandemic and the election, earlier this year our country was struggling mightily to come to grips with the ambiguous character and legacy of our history, of our founding fathers and of generations of civic leaders who followed them:  Christopher Columbus, “discoverer” of a new land which was not new at all, but which lay open for conquest at the cost of the indigenous peoples;  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, champions and defenders of freedom, who yet owned slaves;  Andrew Jackson, President of the common man, who yet signed the Indian Removal Act which led to the deaths or relocations of unnumbered native Americans.  The list could go on, and does — sometimes reasonably, sometimes as an exercise in over-reaction and self-flagellation.  Statues are toppled and monuments are defaced and peoples are divided.  It is a struggle.

When I was a child, things were much simpler:  not better, just simpler.  Heroes were heroes — period.  In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue to give us this great new land; a courageous and noble explorer he was.  George Washington was the founder of our nation and its first president, an honorable man worthy of respect and admiration.  Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the University of Virginia, a true polymath, a man deserving of honor.  These were the stories from the history texts — and the common imagination — of my youth.  They were — and even this expression is fraught now — they were whitewashed, sanitized of their inherent moral ambiguity and conflict.  I do not stand in judgment of any of these men, though critique of the educational historians who distorted their stories is perhaps appropriate.  We are, all of us, mixed bags of good and evil, virtue and vice.  Why should we expect our great historical figures to be different?

Unlike the history books of my childhood, the Bible — particularly the historical narratives of the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles — the Bible presents the leaders of Israel warts and all.  The biblical authors weigh these men in the balances of covenant faithfulness, and some come up wanting in spite of their otherwise positive contributions.  Saul beat back the Philistines and began to establish Israel as a sovereign nation, yet he was a disappointment, a failed, self-absorbed king; God repented that he had ever made Saul king and ripped the kingdom from his grasp.  Solomon started well, but didn’t run the race faithfully to the end; he became old and fat and complacent and was lured away from single-hearted devotion to embrace foreign wives and their idols.  His son, Rehoboam, was just an immature jerk from the start, and he alienated — lost — ten of the twelve tribes:  civil war in the time of the fourth king of Israel.  The united monarchy lasted no more than one hundred twenty years.  Jeroboam, Rehoboam’s rival, was given control of those ten northern tribes; he was the worst of the lot, with no redeeming graces.  He immediately drew Samaria into apostasy and things went downhill from there.  These are the stories of Israel’s “founding fathers” as the Bible presents them, without whitewash.

If you were paying close attention, you probably noticed that I skipped David in this lineage of Israel’s kings.  Well, how does he stack up?  David is the archetypal king of Israel, the exemplar against which all other kings are measured.  Put David on one pan of the balance scale and any other king of Israel or Judah on the other, and the scale comes crashing down in David’s favor.  And yet:  and yet if we refuse to whitewash the record, we must also note that David had his failures, and that they were not minor.  He was a headstrong and sometimes violent man whose pride and temper got away with him; if not for the intervention of Abigail, for instance, David would have murdered Nabal and all Nabal’s men just for boorishness — not really a capital offense.  Then there is the whole sordid affair with Bathsheba and her husband Uriah, one of the truly good men in all scripture.  And what did it get him?  Betrayal by his king and death by treachery, all to hide David’s adultery with Bathsheba.  And the end of David’s life was not without blemish.  Against his counselors’ advice, against God’s instruction, he numbered his troops, somehow forgetting that God was his refuge and strength.  Even on his death bed, David gave his heir and king apparent a hit list, acting more like a Mafia don than a righteous king of Israel.  That is David — the man after God’s own heart — warts and all; and it is all in the biblical record.  

But, it’s not here in our reading this morning, not in Sirach 47, which reads as a paean of praise to David:  chosen of God, faithful and brave shepherd, giant killer, mighty man of war, sweet psalmist of Israel, worshipper extraordinaire, head of an everlasting dynasty.  What about the reality of David’s sin?  Where is that?  There is one brief mention of it:  just one, but it’s all and everything we need to know.

11 The Lord took away his sin (Sirach 47:11a).

The truest telling of David’s life lies not in recounting David’s sin, but in extolling the Lord’s forgiveness.  We see in David something we never saw in Saul or Solomon or Jeroboam or Rehoboam, and it made all the difference:

1 Have mercy upon me, O God, in your great goodness;*

according to the multitude of your mercies wipe away my offences.

2 Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness*

and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I acknowledge my faults,*

and my sin is ever before me.

4 Against you only have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight,*

so that you are justified in your sentence, and blameless in your judgment.

9 Turn your face from my sins,*

and blot out all my misdeeds.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,*

and renew a right spirit within me.

11 Cast me not away from your presence,*

and take not your holy Spirit from me.

12 O give me the comfort of your help again,*

and sustain me with your willing Spirit (Ps 51, selected verses, BCP 2019).

David knew the destructive power of sin.  He was not spared its consequences; it ripped his family and the kingdom apart.  But David also knew the redemptive power of repentance:  of contrition (godly sorrow), confession, amendment of life, all of which we see in this outpouring of his heart to God in Psalm 51.  Most importantly, David knew the character of God:

17 The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;

a broken and contrite heart, O God, you shall not despise (Ps 51).

So it is that God himself “whitewashed” David’s story:

7 You shall purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

you shall wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow (Ps 51).

It is disingenuous for historians to whitewash the lives of their subjects.  It is disastrous for sinners to whitewash their own lives.  But it is the very essence of the Gospel for God to whitewash the life of a sinner who falls before him with a troubled spirit, with a broken and contrite heart.  Sirach’s telling of David’s story is a foreshadowing of the Gospel.

There is an old hymn from my childhood — and by it you will know immediately that I’m no cradle Anglican — an old hymn that sings of this holy whitewashing:

For nothing good have I

Whereby thy grace to claim;

I’ll wash my garments white

In the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb.

Jesus paid it all,

All to him I owe;

Sin had left a crimson stain,

He wash’d it white as snow (Jesus Paid It All, E. M. Hall and J. T. Grape).

That was as true for David as it is for you and me.  All the good that he had done – and he had done much good — gave him no claim on God’s grace.  All the evil that he had done — and he had done great evil — had left a crimson stain, a bloody stain on his life.  But, he embraced the Gospel insofar as he knew it:  Have mercy upon me, O God, in your great goodness; according to the multitude of your mercies, wipe away my offences.  And though David did not know it, though he could not know it, he was calling out for mercy to his descendant — the son of David, the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord.  All forgiveness is from Jesus Christ, from his sacrificial death; there simply is no forgiveness apart from him.  David was forgiven through Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God slain from the foundations of the world.  That is why it is possible to recognize the Gospel in the Old Testament — even in the Apocrypha when it appears.  Sirach’s record of Israel’s kings is the Gospel hiding in plain sight, if we have eyes to see; hence, the Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent:

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scripture to be written for our learning:  Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Advent is a penitential season, a time for examen, a time for confession, a time for us — as David did — to seek the mercy of the Lord, and not mercy only, but amendment of life.  May it be said about us, as Sirach says about David:  The Lord took away his sin.  Amen.                                                          

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