Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson at the Church of the Advent, January 12, 2020, the First Sunday after the Epiphany

Today the church asks us on the first Sunday of the Epiphany season to meditate on the baptism of our Lord.

The great puzzle about this event is why Jesus should undergo baptism at all. John the Baptist certainly seems puzzled. Jesus Christ has no sin to repent, so why does he need John’s baptism of repentance?

Well, for one thing, I think it reasonable to suppose that Jesus intends to share every part of our lives with us, to enter into every aspect of human existence, a fact that we celebrate in the incarnation that we especially remember at the recently passed Christmas season. In coming to John to be baptized, Jesus in yet another way identifies himself with us and follows a pattern that we need even though he does not.

For another thing, Matthew is at pains to show that Jesus and his family are perfectly adherent to the law of Israel. Jesus has not come, according to Matthew, to abolish the law but to fulfill it. By being baptized by John, Jesus shows his readiness to “fulfill all righteousness” as he puts it, to honor the requirements of religious life even though they are not in fact required of him.

Finally, and I think most important of all, our Lord’s baptism is an opportunity to establish with clarity and certainty who he really is and why it matters. In this moment the three persons of the Holy Trinity seem to align, together breaking into the horizontal line that is human history: The spirit descends upon Jesus, and the Father speaks those definitive words: “This is my beloved Son.”

So begins the drama of Christian salvation. And that drama continues today, here at the Church of the Advent, because we will baptize another young person, baby Keza, into the faith.

To appreciate how the drama of salvation continues through baptism, I want to turn to Peter’s preaching in today’s reading from Acts. I do so because Peter’s preaching ties directly to the baptism of Christ and shows us how the salvation that Christ offered was understood in the earliest days of the church.

You will notice that Peter says God sent his own word to Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ and that this process began in Galilee after the baptism offered by John. And Peter informs his listeners that it was precisely at that baptism that God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit, just as we read in Matthew.

Yet the consequence that Peter draws from this reminder is what I want to focus on. And that crucial consequence appears at the very beginning of his sermon: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality.”

Why does he say this? The context of this sermon from Acts chapter 10 never appears in our lectionary and yet is vital to our understanding, so I want to talk about it now.

The context is that Peter is in Jaffa, a seaside village close to modern-day Tel Aviv. He has been staying at the home of a friend called Simon who is a tanner.

Now a tanner works with leather and animal hide, and that means a tanner works with dead bodies, and this is unclean. That Peter is staying in the home of a man whose work makes him continually unclean by ceremonial law is proof that Peter is already loosening his attachment to the particular laws that govern ceremonial cleanliness.

But Peter’s attachment to these particulars is broken entirely when Peter has a vision in which God invites him to eat animals that are ceremonially unclean. When he resists, God tells Peter that what was formerly unclean God now declares clean.

This is a revolutionary change. And another one follows: Another man, in Caesarea, about 40 miles up the coast from Jaffa, has a vision at around the same time as Peter. In his vision an angel tells him to summon Peter from Jaffa and listen to what he has to say. That man is named Cornelius, and there are two strikes against him. He is a Roman centurion and a Gentile.

As Peter is pondering what to make of this new revelation from God, Cornelius’s men arrive at the house of Simon the tanner and invite Peter to Caesarea to meet Cornelius. And so he goes.

Finding Cornelius surrounded by family and friends at his home after the journey, Peter speaks these words: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”

Now strictly speaking, in the vision that God showed Peter in Jaffa, he learns that he should not call any animal unclean. But the further implication is apparently immediately clear to Peter. It’s not just the case that no animal is unclean. Much more is it the case that no person is unclean.

And that is why he says, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality.” This is the radical message of Epiphany, that Christ and his salvation is revealed to the Gentiles, and it is the radical message of baptism, that salvation through Christ is available to everyone today because God shows no partiality.

I have actually been to Jaffa.

Last year when I was in Israel I went to church at the Immanuel Church, which was founded by Lutherans in 1904 but because the Christian community there is so small, today the church serves basically all liturgical Protestants. Parts of the service were taken right out of the Book of Common Prayer, so it felt somewhat familiar.

Other parts were not so familiar.

For instance, they had a stained glass window that depicted a scene from Scripture that you hardly ever see: The baptism of Cornelius the Roman centurion. Here was a rare and remarkable image—the acceptance into the family of God the first Gentile. [See https://www.flickr.com/photos/39631091@N03/6035478353/]

Seeing that image made me think about where I was and the experience of these Christian people, who had been here for barely over a hundred years in a village that was already almost two thousand years old when Peter stayed at Simon the tanner’s house.

I thought about how few churches there were, how far I had to walk to get to this one, and how nobody took Sunday off from work.

And I realized that for once in my life I was in church in a country that was not organized around the Christian faith.

For once, I was the outsider. For once, I was the one who did not belong.

Now I did not get my feelings hurt by this recognition. Quite the opposite. I was grateful. And I think the people at the church in Jaffa were grateful. They remember Cornelius in their stained glass window because they and we are the children of Cornelius, who by baptism join in the great family of God wherever it may be found.

Epiphany is about gratitude for Christ’s revelation to those who are outsiders. And that’s us.

In a place where Christianity is everywhere, with a church on every corner, like where I grew up in Texas, it’s pretty easy to feel like God’s favor must amount to God’s favoritism. But just the opposite is true. In the words of the great Presbyterian preacher James Montgomery Boice, “God has shown favor to us precisely because he does not show favoritism.”

The lesson of the baptism of Christ that Peter understood right away is that baptism is the way to a salvation that lies open to all. Jesus comes into our world to identify with us. All of us. From Christ himself to Peter and throughout the chosen people of Israel and then, through the first Gentile, Cornelius the centurion, and from him to the rest of us down to little Keza. God does not show favoritism. Not even to Anglo-Catholics. And thank God for that. Because God does not play favorites, God shows favor to everyone. Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d George Truman Welch at the Church of the Advent, January 5, 2020, the Second Sunday after Christmas

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

The Lectionary can seem oddly out of synch sometimes.  Today’s Gospel, appointed for the second Sunday of Christmas, is Matthew, which starts, “Now when the wise men had departed.”  And yet tomorrow is Epiphany, and we gather tomorrow night to celebrate the wise men coming.   But in any case I find myself rather reluctant to let the Christmas season go.  I have two images from this Christmas season, two pictures.  Fr. James pointed out in last week’s sermon that pictures often carry a heavier weight of meaning than do words on a page, and that’s certainly true of Christmas.  You can see that in the way the birth narratives of Jesus are written, especially by Luke.  He lays it on heavy.   And when people complain about Christmas being sentimentalized, I think we can go all the way back to Luke and say, “You started it”:  the babe lying in a manger, in swaddling clothes; the shepherds watching the sheep, at night, having the birth announced to them by an angel.  Luke pretty much pulls out all the stops.   He wants it to be sentimental.  He wants those images to stick, and they do.  And so I am unapologetic for having this sermon be about two Christmas images:  one is about a child, that’s one image; and the other is a donkey.  The donkey’s right there [pointing over to the Epistle side of the Crossing].   In my more than 40 years of parish ministry I have never before as I can recall used a prop for a sermon.  But now at the end I guess I’m justified in doing so.

First of all, the child.  At the Family Mass on Christmas Eve, often called the “Teddy Bear Mass” here, children and their families bring up stuffed animals and pajamas and put them in the crèche over there, meant for children who may not have those things at home, or certainly not have them in abundance.  On Christmas Eve the Sacred Ministers were kneeling there as the children and their families brought the gifts to the crèche, and there was one child – I’m not good at estimating the age of children – maybe 5 or 6, who laid his gifts there but wouldn’t leave.  Don’t bring out your devices right now, but there’s an image on the Advent website of this happening, of a little blond-headed boy, standing between the Sacred Ministers, transfixed by what he saw before him.  And he wasn’t so much looking down at the teddy bears as he was looking straight at the crèche itself, and then up at the angel.  We don’t know who he was, apparently a visitor.  His mother was a little embarrassed and tried to drag him back, but he wouldn’t go.  He stood there for a very long time, not moving, but just staring.  In wonder, one has to think. One doesn’t know what he was wondering about, that’s the nature of wonder, not to be sure what one is wondering about, that’s what makes it wonder.  But the fact that he was awestruck and had been taken to another place of consciousness I think is irrefutable.  That child standing in wonder, in front of the crèche scene, is an image of Christmas I’ll take with me and remember for a long, long time.  Because wonder is one of the essential elements in the spiritual life, along with longing.  Longing is what starts you on a spiritual journey, longing for something you sense may be ahead, longing for something you know you don’t have, and which you really can’t even define.    And then wonder is arriving someplace, seeing that for which you’d journeyed and searched, but not understanding it, or comprehending it, but knowing that you’ve reached someplace significant, and standing before that place, that consciousness, that event, that person, in wonder.  Wonder is an essential component for the beginning of religious life, it’s an essential quality of religious life, of Christian life, from the beginning to the end.  And once you lose that, if you lose it, you’ve lost the essence of the faith.  We can have perfectly orthodox theology, our practice of the faith, of good works, can be correct and self-sacrificing in every sense, but unless we have with those beliefs a sense of wonder, then we’ve missed the point.  It’s rather like saying the Creed as if it’s a recipe book:  put all these beliefs together and then you come up with Christian faith, instead of seeing the Creed for what it is, a shouted hymn of praise.

What you should take away with you from Christmas is most of all a sense of wonder.  Because when you go through the tough times in life, when you go through your own Lent, Holy Week, Good Friday, unless there is that wonder you remember to sustain you, I doubt if you’ll make it through. 

So, that’s one image, that child.  The other is the donkey.  

The donkey made its appearance at the Christmas Pageant, on Advent III.  I was really touched by the donkey coming down the aisle, with a little tinkly bell, in silence, bearing Mary on his back, led by Joseph.  [By the way it’s the most impressive church donkey I think I’ve ever seen.]  But what really moved me – and one person at the 8 o’clock service looked at me when I said this as if I’d lost my mind – and let me talk a little bit about inanimate objects.    Inanimate objects, nonliving things, live when we give them a sense of meaning.  I can remember as a 16-year-old walking into Chartres Cathedral and falling down on my bottom.  I couldn’t stand up.  It was a building of stone and glass, but 800 years of people worshipping in that place had made it a living entity.  So I make no apologies for what I’m about to say about the donkey.

For some reason, I’m not sure why, the donkey has stayed here through the Christmas season, shunted into the vestibule just a few days ago.  It had sat for a long time right outside the Lady Chapel.   And when I would go to say my prayers in the Lady Chapel I would pet the donkey on the head.  And I did that increasingly with a sense of, of what, gratitude, I guess.   For what?  Well, there was something about the donkey’s presence which I found humbling and reassuring.   The donkey is brought out once a year, it performs its humble function, then it goes back down to the undercroft.  The donkey for me became a symbol of patience, which is a quality I don’t have very much of.  I want things to happen and I’m impatient when they don’t happen when and how I want them to.   I make myself miserable with my impatience, and I’ve been told that I make other people miserable, too.  Patience is a byproduct of an even more important Christian virtue, which is humility.  Humility is basic honesty, about yourself, and about life, about your limitations, about your range of experience, knowledge, and sympathy.  It’s knowing yourself for who you are.   Not who other people see you as being, or how you want to be seen, but how you are now.  Humility is what makes a person patient.  Because impatience is about assuming you know how and when things should happen.  Real humility makes you understand that you really don’t have the knowledge, the qualities, the depth of experience to know those things, how and when those things should happen    And so the donkey for me became a totem, an icon, of humility and patience.

One more thing about patience.  This isn’t my last Sunday, but it’s my last Sunday sermon.  So I would like to thank all of you for making me feel so much at home in this place for the past year.  And I’d also like to ask you to be patient during the next part of the transition, as you receive your new rector.  There’s a lot of joyful expectation and with it some anxiety, as there always is when this kind of event takes place.  I would like you to be patient with your new rector, get to know him, let him get to know you.  Don’t rush at him with a list of unnegotiable demands.  If you want to know him, let him know you, and not only your position on items, but why you’re here, what this place means to you, what you hope it will become, how you hope it will remain.  And then listen to him talk about those same things, what his hopes are for this place and for his ministry here.  And I pray that you will receive him with the same graciousness with which you received me. 

And now to God, with thanks for all that has been, and with prayers for ourselves, that our response to God in the days to come will be “Yes. Yes.”   Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Jay C. James at the Church of the Advent, December 29, 2019, the First Sunday after Christmas

No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

The Incarnation of Our Lord and His Resurrection to eternal life mark human history in a way no other events have or ever will.  One of the two big events in human history has just happened.  God Almighty has broken through space and time and come into the world.  Be careful, because if you look around you may decide that it’s not a big event at all.  You may come to the conclusion that it’s not as colossal and world-shaking of an event as it was supposed to be.   Here we have had the Birth of the Son of God and the world pretty much looks the same.  One would think that we should experience major differences in the lives of men and women.  At least there ought to be major shifts in the Earth’s crust, or some enormous changes in weather, or some loud noises, something worthy of a press release. We look around outside and see none of that. 

This is probably no different from the morning after the Birth of the Savior in Bethlehem two thousand twenty years ago.  When Mary and Joseph looked outside the lowly stable, or cave, after Mary had given birth to God’s Son, the world pretty much looked the same.  Shepherds had the dreadful episode with the multitude of angels and were directed to go and see the Child Jesus.  Some were made aware of the birth because the shepherds ran to tell them what they had seen.  Yet, all this was the night before, now the world looked the same.  The daylight dawns, Joseph, Mary, and the Babe need to keep moving.  Where is the dramatic difference? 

Are we any different?  After all of our preparations, and some of them frantic, for the great twelve-day celebration of Jesus’ birth, may now not notice much of a difference.  The decorations are coming down. The trees are appearing on the sidewalks.  It’s back to work or school, back to the routine, back to the way things were before what was supposed to be a huge event.  Each year I try to preserve the wonderfully warm feelings and sentiments that come every Christmas.  It is not possible.  Christmas comes quickly and goes quickly and the surroundings go back to looking and feeling the same.  Maybe that’s why there is this phenomenon of a kind of letdown or slight depression after big holidays.  The surroundings just do not let us hold on to the enormity and indescribable excitement of the Lord’s birth. 

This problem of not seeing a real difference after the Birth of the Savior is really the result of Christianity being a religion that has to be revealed.  Believing in Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God, the Word made flesh, has to be shown to us and perpetuated for us because all the action begins and ends in God.  To see it, to believe it, to act on the belief of the Word made flesh requires revelation to us by words and images.  These are the best way for the Christian religion to come to us.  They are the best way because they are the way chosen by God.  God comes to us by the words and images of the Bible.     

We know this quite naturally.  Don’t we rely on pictures to show us events all the time?  Pictures are so powerful and we know it.  How many beautiful Christmas cards do we receive with family pictures taken over the past year?  When they arrive at our homes we hustle to have them reveal what our families, friends, and loved ones look like now.  Consider how frequently we take pictures and consider them a blessing.  Especially now that picture taking, preserving, and sharing are so easy and expertly done with the sophisticated cameras on our mobile phones. Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright and director, first said A thousand words leave not the same deep impression as does a single deed.  This was later paraphrased into A picture is worth a thousand words and the truth of the adage is strong when considering religion that is revealed. 

We will not see nor remember the power of the Incarnation without the images of Scripture.  We will only know what Saint John proclaims in the Gospel when he writes,  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth;  John the Evangelist goes on, No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.  God must be revealed or we are not going to know Him.  We in fact do know Him, because He has been revealed by these images given to us by God.  Artists, poets, and writers understand and grasp this principle of receiving and giving proper imagery to convey truth.  C.S. Lewis, one of the most popular twentieth century Anglican writers, describes this necessity of using proper images to even understand the nature of God.  In a collection of his essays he writes,  ….we know from our poetical experience that image and apprehension cleave closer together than common sense is here prepared to admit.  How do we even come close to knowing the all powerful, all knowing, ever-present God without the proper images?  The images are important because they are the images chosen by God therefore they are inspired. 

Think of just some of the images revealed to us by the Bible:  Israel as a chosen nation and people;  The suffering servant from the Prophet Isaiah as Christ Himself;  Noah’s Ark as the Church; The Ark of the Covenant as a symbol of the Lord; The Church as the New Israel; The Church as the Bride of Christ and Christ as her husband;  God the Father from the Lord’s Prayer; or one not from Scripture, but from our own liturgy, the Babe carried to the creche this past Christmas Eve.  All these are images and symbols that convey to us the nature of God and how He loves us.  These images are essential to helping us understand something of the Word of God.  We will not know the difference in the world.  We need the words and images of our religion from the Bible to learn, live and pass on our religion. 

When the Gospel of John proclaims And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.  (John bore witness to him and cried, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”)  And from his fullness have we all received, grace for grace.  For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  There it is.  That is the difference.  That is how things are not the same for those who believe.  God reached out to the world by His Son in one of the greatest acts of love the world has ever known.  He reached out to us so we could share in His life.  He becomes part of humanity so we can have some part in His divinity even now.  John Henry Cardinal Newman, one of the founding fathers of the catholic revival in Anglicanism, when describing how the Holy Ghost comes into our lives, writes…He pervades us (if it may be so said) as light pervades a building, or as a sweet perfume the folds of some houourable robe; so that, in Scripture language, we are said to be in Him and He in us.  It is plain that such an inhabitation brings the Christian into a state altogether new and marvellous, far above the possession of mere gifts, exalts him inconceivably in the scale of beings and gives him a place and an office which he had not before.  He has ‘power’, as Saint John says,’to become the son of God’.  That’s how the world, the universe, our whole human state is different.  To finish Cardinal Newman’s Scripture quote, but to all who receive him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; That’s how things are changed now.  He came to us so we can get back to Him. 

The world, the universe, is different and that is Good News for us and all mankind.  The Good and Loving God who is all powerful, all knowing, and all present is with us and in us.  We are able to have Him in our lives and we are able to share in His life.  His powerful act of love in reaching out to us means that He is with us in every aspect of our lives.  All the conditions in which we live will have the love of God in them.  Are we battling loneliness?  Is a friend or loved one close to spending the last days of life here on earth?  Are we in a financial crisis from which there seems no end?   Is there a health problem that is medically unmanageable and draining all resources for treatment?  Jobs, neighbors, taxes, illnesses all try our patience and strain at our lives.  The act of love that is the Incarnation allows us the privilege of having God in our lives no matter what. 

Thank God for the perfect revelation He has provided in giving us the Christ Child.  Let us find Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem, in our hearts and minds by all the ways He reveals Himself to us, and the lives of all faithful believers.  We can now find Him and know Him and that makes all the difference. 

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

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson at the Church of the Advent, Christmas Eve 2019, Midnight Mass

I have some bad news: Much of what you think you know about Christmas is wrong.

But I also have some good news. In fact, I have the good news. Because the truth of Christmas according to Saint Luke is both more ordinary and more wonderful than what we get from countless carols and paintings about the birth of Jesus.

Contrary to our sentimental greeting-card notions about Christmas, straightforwardly Luke tells the story of Jesus’s birth quite straightforwardly. Joseph and Mary are an ordinary couple whose lives play out under the influence of the distant impersonal demands of Roman imperial power. They go to Bethlehem in all probability because they own property there, almost certainly not a house (otherwise they would live there when they arrive) but taxable agricultural holdings.

Upon arrival in Bethlehem at the orders of the occupation Roman government something quite natural comes about: Mary gives birth to her son. The word “inn” in our translation is a terrible choice. The Greek word Luke uses means a public room in a house. Joseph and Mary are not denied a place to stay by a mean innkeeper. They are neither homeless nor refugees: They are given a place to stay, possibly by relatives, but this space is not private and so not fit for a woman to give birth to a child. Jesus is laid in an animal’s feed trough because animals would have in most homes been kept very close by, and Joseph and Mary are improvising.

So in one way the birth of Jesus Christ is in fact an entirely ordinary affair.

But it is also wonderful. Because heaven itself witnesses to the historical importance of this birth.

You may have heard that shepherds were particularly lowly in the estimation of the time. This too is not really fair. Abraham, Moses, Rachel, and King David himself, with whom Luke already compares Jesus even in infancy, were all shepherds.

You also probably are picturing the angels being arrayed in the heavens, looming above these shepherds, but this too is unlikely. Luke simply says that an angel appeared, which in the Greek suggests that the angel stood on the earth, alongside the ordinary shepherds.

While we are at it you can also toss out your mental image of an angel. The reason in the Bible that angels always tell people “Be not afraid” is because an angel is not a glowing blonde candy-colored creature but rather is entirely terrifying.

An angel in the Bible always is terrifying because an angel bears a message from God. In this case the message is good news. And in fact the word here for “good news” is none other than what we call in English “gospel” so the gospel we go on about in church so much is in fact about to be revealed.

So what is this good news, what is the gospel at its very heart? It is nothing less than the very meaning of Christmas. In fact, it is the meaning of everything.

It is “Good news of a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

What is the good news? It is great joy.

Many people find it hard to be joyful at this time of year. Perhaps you come here tonight in great weariness. Or great despair. Or great fear. Maybe you are sick to death of a sentimental Christmas message, of being told that Christmas is about family or giving or some other sugar-coated nonsense.

Fortunately the great joy of Christmas is deeper than all that. And it is for all people. That means it is for anyone who is suffering right now. For anyone who is addicted or in pain or alone.

This day. Right now. This day is born “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” This is the good news for all people.

And no matter who you are, that includes you.

The phrase in Greek “for you” is used three times by Luke, a fact that is obscured in our translation. The angel says “I bring you good news” and “to you is born this day” and “this will be a sign for you.” All of them read the same in the original language.

Because the good news of Christmas is quite simply for you. Not just for Luke’s original readers. Not for the powerful, rich, or high-functioning. But for all people. And that means you.

The good news is for you.

The birth of Christ is for you.

The sign of his birth is for you.

This is the real meaning of Christmas: God entered into human life and loved every part of it from birth to death. God was born to an ordinary mother in an ordinary place at an ordinary time.

And yet everything about Jesus Christ’s life was wonderful. He is the Lord, but he spends his whole life serving others. He is the Christ, the chosen one of God, but he chooses to suffer and die for humanity. He is the savior, but he saves us from our sins by refusing to save himself from the cross.

Christmas is a cosmic, wonderful truth made entirely personal and ordinary. It is the coming together of the earthly and heavenly. So if we agree that on this day God became human, that the wonderful became ordinary, then together we truly can celebrate a very happy Christmas indeed.

Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, December 15, 2019, the Third Sunday of Advent

In traditional artistic pictures of John the Baptist and Jesus, John the Baptist is always shown pointing toward Jesus.
This traditional depiction reflects a deep theological truth about the relationship between the two men. John the Baptist’s whole message as recorded in the Gospels consists of pointing to Jesus.

It is John the Baptist who first hails Jesus as the Lamb of God who will take away the world’s sins.

It is John the Baptist who calls Israel to repentance because the kingdom of God is at hand, a Kingdom that Jesus will establish.

It is John the Baptist who says that he must decrease in favor of Jesus, who must increase.

John’s whole message is one that points away from himself and to Jesus, his and our Lord.

But all that was a long time ago. That was at the beginning of the Gospel story, and all of sudden here on only the third Sunday of Advent we are way ahead in Matthew—chapter 11. A lot has happened since those early days when John and Jesus were together in the desert.

In fact, things have gone very badly for John. He is in prison at the order of King Herod. He may know that he will die in this prison. And it’s from that prison that John the Baptist—who so confidently proclaimed Jesus the Messiah—now sends a question that suggests he is not so confident any more. “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

In the beginning John the Baptist seemed so sure. Now he sounds unsure.

And we can understand why that might be. John the Baptist prophesied the imminent arrival of the Messiah, the one who would save the world with a baptism of his own—a baptism of holy spirit and fire, as Sarah Coakley so powerfully preached to us about last week.

So where is that fire now? You can imagine that John is asking himself whether this is the way things were supposed to go. Herod is still king, John is in jail, facing execution, and maybe he could use a little reassurance.

Because John the Baptist has spent his prophetic career pointing to Jesus, and now he needs to know that it was not a waste to do so. Because doing the kind of work he does can be discouraging. There is a sense in which John the Baptist will always be second fiddle. He willingly takes a place of subordination to his Lord, and he devotes himself to pointing the way to the Lord Jesus, but in doing so he claims nothing for himself. And now that’s all he has left: nothing.

I said before that traditionally in artistic depictions of John the Baptist and Jesus John is shown pointing to Jesus. There’s something funny though about the Church of the Advent’s stained glass windows of John the Baptist and Jesus. You can see them in the baptistery. They are a little funny because John is pointing away from Jesus, which is backwards, but it also looks for all the world like Jesus is pointing at and blessing John. And that is odd.

baptistry windows depicting John the Baptist and Jesus

But I have decided that today’s Gospel reading makes it a little less odd. Because in answer to John’s understandable question, Jesus for once does in fact point back to John the Baptist, and he blesses him. 

In fact Jesus calls John the Baptist the greatest person who has ever been born.

So we would do well to try to figure out why.

What did the crowds find when they went out to the desert to seek John? A reed shaken by the wind? A guy in fine clothes? No, John the Baptist is anything but unstable; and he hates luxury and indulgence.

John the Baptist stuck to his message and to his conviction about who Jesus is, and even when things got tough and his confidence was shaken, Jesus reassures him that prophecy is being fulfilled. Just as Isaiah foretold, so now the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the sick are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are brought to life, the poor hear good news preached to them, and all thanks to the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus Christ, in whom Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled.

Jesus’s message to John is straightforward and strengthening: “Don’t waver now, John, everything the prophets promised is coming true. Everything you promised, John, is coming true.”

And almost as an afterthought Jesus adds, “blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” What does this mean? I think it may mean that Jesus is encouraging John not to be offended now at this late and desperate moment.

Because it might have been pretty easy for John to be offended at Jesus. We don’t know how long the two of them worked together in the desert before Jesus asks John to baptize him, but it seems that the call to repentance comes first from John and that Jesus is at the outset just another one of John’s followers. It would have been much easier for John to keep the spotlight focused on himself rather than share it with his upstart little cousin. Yet he does the opposite: He focuses all the attention away from himself and onto Jesus because he is not offended by who Jesus so evidently is.

Because John was himself a prophet and in fact the last and greatest of the prophets. And even more than that he is the greatest person who has ever been born.

Yet even if John the Baptist is the greatest person who was ever born, still, incredibly, Jesus says that “the least person in the kingdom of heaven is greater than” John the Baptist.

That means you and I, small though we may be in the kingdom of heaven, are in a way greater than John the Baptist himself. Not that we are saintlier than he. I am sure I am not. But there is a blessing available to us as members of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus established that is simply not available to anyone outside it, no matter how great they may have been.

To be perfectly clear, John the Baptist is not outside the kingdom of heaven because he does not enjoy its benefits. I am sure he does, and the church is sure he does, and that’s why we call him a saint.

But he is outside in that like all prophets he was graced to foresee the work of God on earth and yet was not immediately a part of what he foresaw.

Two things it seems to me follow from this recognition.

First, if we are in our small ways greater even than John the Baptist, we ought at least to strive to emulate his example and be worthy of our Lord’s words of praise for John the Baptist. Like John the Baptist, everything about our lives ought to point to Jesus Christ. We ought to make less of ourselves and more of him. We ought to have the stability and firmness of conviction that John the Baptist did, and like him we ought to embrace a life of self-denial and discipline.

Second, we must be prepared to accept the reality of how we will appear in the world’s eyes when we become nothing but a pointer to Jesus Christ. As I said John the Baptist will always be second fiddle. And that can be a discouraging role, even for one as great as he.

I had a mentor back in college who used to say that there is no end to the good you can get done for the church if you are willing to not take credit for doing it. There is a truth to that. Behind the scenes of any flourishing parish there is an army of mostly unrecognized workers who keep the place running. The same is true of the Advent. Our shared life is entirely dependent upon the voluntary service of many followers of Christ who dedicate their time and trouble to pointing to their Savior in some small or great but largely unappreciated way. The sacristan, the sextons, the kitchen staff, all those who serve on Tuesday nights, Sunday school teachers, the search committee, the wardens and on and on.

And sometimes those are discouraging places to be. But while it’s true that you can get a lot done for the church without taking credit for it, the larger truth is that nothing done for the kingdom of heaven really goes unnoticed. Everything you do, no matter how small or invisible in the world’s eyes, everything you do to point to Jesus Christ by word and by deed, all of it is precious and important. Remind yourself of that when you weary of working for him.

Just as John the Baptist pointed to Christ and Christ pointed back to him, so anything you do for Jesus he will bless, even if the world does not notice. I said a moment ago that John the Baptist is in prison and that he is left with nothing. But this is not really so. No one who works for the cause of Christ has nothing. Because if we have nothing else, we always have Christ himself. And blessed is anyone who is not offended by that.

Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Sarah Coakley at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, December 8, 2019, the Second Sunday of Advent

Dr. Coakley is Norris-Hulse Professor Emerita at Cambridge University and Assisting Priest and Theologian-in-Residence at the Parish of the Ascension and St Agnes, Washington, DC.

‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’
(Matt 3. 11)

In nomine …

I have not come here today to offer you sweet thoughts for Advent, even though I rejoice in your 175th anniversary and its happy ongoing celebrations.  On the contrary, I want to think with you this morning about the more discomforting topic of fire, and about that scary figure, John the Baptist, whose teaching seems to have been largely concerned with it. This is truly Advent ‘stuff’, and we need to muse on it.

Look closely at today’s gospel text from Matthew, then, and you will see that what John the Baptist offers us, in announcing Jesus’s imminent arrival, is first, of course, his own central call to the ‘baptism of repentance’ for the sake of the coming kingdom; and then a double threat of fire to come.  It’s important to distinguish the two references to fire going on here, and easy to conflate them too quickly. Peruse the text more precisely. First, there is the ‘unquenchable fire’ of judgement for those who merely feign repentance, but are unaware of its seriousness: they, the ‘brood of vipers’ go out to the Jordan and get their baptism, all right – they go through the motions of repentance – but their hearts are not in it, and it’s obvious because there are no spiritual ‘fruits’ to show for it. For them, there is to be a terrifyingly final, judgemental fire. Secondly, however, there is the more mysterious fire promised in virtue of the superior baptism that John predicts that his successor, Jesus, will bring:  he will baptize, says John, not with the water of John’s own baptism (which of course the Christian church actually still uses) but ‘with the Holy Spirit and fire’.

So what are we to make of this? And what is at stake for us this Advent?  Let me offer three, succinct, points to unravel the puzzle.

Baptism of Jesus, from the Rabbula Gospels

First, this very distinctive teaching about ‘baptism by fire’ almost certainly goes back to John the Baptist himself, as mediated by a very early ‘source’ that only Matthew and Luke share in common – termed by the NT scholars ‘Q’ (for Quelle, or ‘source’, in German). Whether there actually was a ‘Q’ text (and thus a ‘Mr Q’, so to speak) or simply an oral tradition with some rather particular theological interests, is perhaps neither here nor there; but what’s interesting is that it preserves this very striking dimension of John’s teaching on judgement, the Holy Spirit, baptism, and fire. Moreover, we find in later Christian tradition that only certain, quite spiritually demanding, writers and circles particularly take up this fiery theme seriously in relation to baptism and the Holy Spirit:  slightly outré monastic groups associated with fiery ecstatic prayer on the edges of the Greek Empire in the fifth century (represented in the so-called ‘Macarian Homilies’); or the wonderfully creative Syriac-speaking monk in the early 6th century who illustrated the so-called ‘Rabbula gospels’ with a picture of Jesus’s baptism by John with a sheet of flame descending on Christ alongside the dove; or – supremely and much later in the Western tradition – the teaching of St John of the Cross, that to aspire to ‘union’ with Christ, as all Christians should, in his view – is to be thrown into a crucible of purifying flames, to be burnt up in order for our sins to be spat out, just as imperfections in a log are gradually ejected in the fire, so that our one, imperfect chunk of wood may finally be fused into the consuming fire of God’s love.

So, secondly, why is this distinctive teaching about transformative, purgative, baptismal, fire-in-the-Spirit so hard for us to take on, even now? Let me suggest that it is because we have over the years concocted an idolatry which American Episcopalians are perhaps particularly subject to (though we are by no means alone); and that is the very subtle idolatry of enunciating God’s (so-called) ‘unconditional love’ as an easy and ‘cheap grace’ answer to all problematic theological questions relating to the profundity of our own sin; in short we cannot stand to acknowledge our overwhelming need for repentance and ‘fiery’ transformation-in-the-Spirit. So perhaps we should now code-name this subterfuge the theory not of ‘unconditional love’, but of ‘unconditional lurve’; and I think you know what I mean:  the idea has become a sentimental and self-deluding mantra, a refusal to face precisely what John the Baptist meant when he preached that the Holy Spirit of Jesus’s baptism is fire. ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’; and that is precisely because it cannot leave us unchanged, but burnt, moulded, chastened, reformulated, and purified … if, that is, we will cooperate with the fiery power of the Spirit in our lives. We need repentance, we need sacramental confession, we need deepened prayer, we need to be changed. William Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury in the WWII years, put it thus, in his celebrated and fearless book, Christus Veritas (1924), chastising those who, even in those days, underplayed the reality and destructiveness of sin: ‘there is a real antagonism of God’, he writes, ‘against the sinner so long as he continues in his sin. It is true, of course, that God loves the sinner while He hates the sin. But that is a shallow psychology which regards the sin as something merely separate from the sinner, which he can lay aside like a suit of clothes. My sin is the wrong direction of my will; and my will is just myself so far as I am active. If God hates the sin, what He hates is not an accretion attached to my real self; it is myself, as that self now exists. He knows I am capable of conversion … He loves me even while I sin … but it cannot be said too strongly that there is a wrath of God against me as sinning …. And therefore, though he longs to forgive, He cannot do so unless my will is turned from its sinful direction into conformity with His, or else there is at work some power which is capable of effecting that change in me’ (p. 258). Yet that power, of course, as we now see, is precisely the inexorably fiery power of the Holy Spirit, already given to us in our baptism.

Thirdly and finally, then. A thought now presses inexorably (or I hope it does for you too):  I started by making a rhetorical distinction, based precisely on today’s gospel text, between the final, judgemental fire against the ‘brood of vipers’ who were the Sadducees and Pharisees, and the baptismal fire promised to all Jesus’s followers in the Holy Spirit.  But now we begin to see that they are perhaps but two sides of the same coin.   Recall T. S. Eliot’s ‘Dove Descending Breaks the Air’, a poetic meditation precisely on John of the Cross’s teaching on mystical union, which ends: ‘We only live, only suspire, consumed by either fire or fire’ – that is, consumed either by the fire of divine judgement, or by the purifying fire of the Spirit. Both are the impress of the inexorable and eternal presence of God’s love, always on offer. But in the way of our response or lack of it this is experienced either as final divine judgement or as equally divine, transformative, grace. The Spirit is always there to lead and allure and enable us; but ultimately the choice is ours:  God does not bludgeon us, because our freedom is too precious to Him. Step once more freely this year, then, into this purifying fire, with courage, steadfastness and hope, for – if John the Baptist is right – it is your baptismal birthright.

My dear Advent friends, Advent is no time for sleep, as St Paul reminds us, no time for evasion from the extraordinarily demanding pressure of divine love that once again this season asks of us nothing less than everything.  Unconditional ‘lurve’?  No, not ‘lurve, actually’, in the sentimental ‘Christimas’-film mode; but ‘actually love’ – the consuming fire of divine love which beckons us this Advent once more into its purifying flames. The founders of this church 175 years ago were serious Christians, who wanted to be changed-in-God, and for society to change with them; and you are their inheritors in that quest for holiness that God ever holds out to us in all the particular vicissitudes, agonies and joys of our lives. For ‘he [has] baptize[d] you with the Holy Spirit and fire’. Amen.