The Fourth Sunday of Lent – Rose Sunday

The Rev. Steven C. Sterry, M.A./M.B.A.

Lessons: Sunday, Holy Day and Commemoration Lectionary — Year B
II Chronicles 36:14–23
Psalm 122
Ephesians 2:1–10
John 6:1–15

 Psalms 120 through 134 are known as the Psalms of Ascent and were sung by worshipers as they made their journey to the Temple in Jerusalem during the three most important feasts of each year.  Psalm 122, which we recited today, is one of four Songs or Psalms of Ascent that are attributed to King David.  It is said that he wrote them for the people to sing at those times of yearly pilgrimage, which were required of all Jews in the Book of Exodus.  

In David’s time, however, there was no Temple.  There was only the Ark of the Covenant inside the Tent of Meeting.   Oh, how David would have longed to worship in the Lord’s Temple.  But God had other plans, and David was a man of war whose hands were covered with the blood of many enemies.  But, ironically, his four Songs of Ascent were chanted for many years, even as the worshipers ascended the steps that lead into the Temple Courtyard that David’s son Solomon built.  Little could David also know, however, that this Temple would fall into ruin some 414 years later because of the sins that Solomon, his son and their sons committed in violation of the covenants made between God and His chosen people, the Jews. 

The opening words of today’s Old Testament Lesson from Second Chronicles provides us with the direct answer as to why the beautiful temple that David had prepared for Solomon to build, was suddenly and totally destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC: “All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the Lord that he had made holy in Jerusalem.”

God, then, as well as now, always remains in control.  During our Morning Prayer sessions, we spent several hours reading and talking about the prophecies of Jeremiah and the doom that he predicted for each of the kingdoms in the Ancient Near East.  Yet, God never abandoned those who followed and obeyed Him.  As long as there were good kings like Josiah and Hezekiah ruling over Jerusalem, God postponed the inevitable.  But eventually, time ran out for those stiff-necked peoples, the Jews, and, as a God who kept his promises, He used Babylon and their Chaldean Dynasty King, Nebuchadnezzar, to exercise His punishment over the Judean Nation. 

But God’s punishment of Judea did not last forever.  For, after God allowed the Chaldeans to ransack and burn the city of Jerusalem and its Temple, God took vengeance on Babylon, where the Persians, with their king, Cyrus, now ruled.  And, during his first year as King, Cyrus proclaimed to the Jews that God had charged him with constructing a new Temple in Jerusalem and that God’s chosen people could return to repair the city and rebuild their Temple.

Today we commemorate the Fourth Sunday in Lent.  It is different from all the other Sundays during the Lenten season and is thus given the title Laetare Sunday.  The word Laetare in its root form, laetari, is a Latin word meaning Rejoice.   And yet, why should we rejoice when we know that in just two weeks we will feel the pangs of Holy Week and its culmination in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ?

I would like to suggest that maybe it is because the lessons for today remind us that there is always hope for all God’s people.  In the case of Old Testament Judah, for example, they have just been told that they can return to their homeland with permission to rebuild both the holy city and its Temple.  People once more would be able celebrate God’s return to them, and they could once more sing those Psalms of Ascent during their pilgrimage to worship the one true God in His Temple.

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul offers the hope of God’s Grace.  As the author of the hymn, Amazing Grace says, “I once was lost, and now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.”  In other words, having been dead to trespass and sin, because of the free gift of God’s grace to us, we are saved through faith, and are now able to walk with God in His righteousness.  

In John’s Gospel reading, we are told that Jesus offered hope to his people by healing the sick and by ministering to the needs of the five thousand people who had followed him that day.  The miracle of the bread and the fish was a sign to them, as well as to his disciples, that here was a true prophet and in him, there was hope for the world.  In Jesus healing and feeding of the masses, we learn that through His grace, God will feed us with the spiritual food that we need to sustain our lives here on Earth, as well as in our eternity with Him in Heaven.

As you may have noticed, neither Linda nor I are wearing the usual color of purple that we have previously worn since Ash Wednesday.  This Sunday is known as Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, Mid-Lent Sunday, or Rose Sunday.  It is also known as the Sunday of Five Loaves, because we read the Gospel story about the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  Even before the development of common lectionaries, that same Gospel Lesson was read in the Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican churches on this particular day, exactly 21 days before Easter Sunday.  

In the Roman Catholic Church, it was also the day that a Golden Rose was blessed by the Pope and was then sent to Roman Catholic sovereigns.  Therefore, instead of the Lenten color of purple, rose colored vestments were also permitted on this special Sunday.  

Perhaps we should also call this Sunday Hope Sunday.  After all, it is because of our hope in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ that we are saved, and it is that hope which those who do not know Jesus need to hear.  And perhaps the symbolic color of the rose that we see today is appropriate to remind us that we see the world in a different way than non-Christians.  As Christians, we observe the world through our rose-colored glasses because the Bible and the sacraments give us the power to see the world as God created it.  Therefore, let us do God’s will and help others see God as we do.

Mark 1.9-13 | The First Sunday in Lent B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark

9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

The Gospel of the Lord

It was the 1st year of my formal biblical studies and I was a much more assured novice than I am now. I was enrolled in a Gospel’s class. The instructor framed the class around what is called a “harmony of the Gospels”. This is a presentation of the life/ministry of Jesus compressing the four Gospels into a proposed single, chronological/historical biography. Well I’ve always been something of an independent minded fellow. So enter stage right – my prodigal youth in rock’n roll music. We recognized that sound was everything to live and recorded performances. Which meant the monophonic and stereophonic of our parent’s listening had too many shortcomings. We discovered what at that time was called quadraphonic, that is, sound from four sources. And now you might be asking “how does this relate to the Gospel of Mark?” Well in this way, the “harmony” of my Gospels class was actually a reduction in sound from quadraphonic to monophonic. The unique four voice sound of the Gospels was reduced to a single, chronological/historical sound. In reflection, my all too frequent objections were all too insistent and annoying to be sure. My final grade wasn’t affected but I did get one of my many cautions from the academic dean.    

So ace novice that I am now, how does this relate to our lesson from Mark’s Gospel? Today is the first Sunday of Lent and for at least nineteen centuries, each Lenten year begins by joining the baptism/testing stories of Jesus.  Sentences from our 5 sentence text have been read already this church year – specifically Epiphany 1, “the baptism of our Lord”. Today we get the follow up to the baptism – wilderness. Now it’s not uncommon to hear explanations to what Mark means here by reference to Matthew, Luke. As I implied a few minutes ago, when you enter into the hearing of each of the Gospels you’re entering a world of special sounds, unique and emotionally moving sounds. What I am going to attempt is let Mark speak his theological song without cross referencing the others.  You be the judge whether I pull it off or not.

So please turn in your Bible to Mark 1. In the ancient world writers frequently prepared an introduction to explain the scope or purpose of a text, giving guidance how the hearers should listen as the story is read to them. Our Gospel lesson’s vs. 9- 13 conclude the densely imaged introduction. One of the things that is so compelling to me about Mark is how vocal it is. For example, the narrator proclaims his intention in a title “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the messiah, the son of God” (vs. 1). OK, Copy that. Mark then dials up some prophetic voices to proclaim after years of hoping and waiting the promised messenger is here. He’s at the Jordan wilderness preparing the way for a new Exodus, a new return from Exile (vs. 2-3 ). Mark then wraps his head around the intriguing messenger’s stunning humility in a sound byte “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (vs. 4-8). The next voice, from an ancient speaker – YHWH himself, is evocative, familial “It’s you who are my beloved son, it’s you I am well pleased with” (vs. 11). After this Mark speaks up to tell us about the wilderness testing of this “beloved Son” (vs. 12-13). So in a few swift strokes of his stylus, our attention is focused precisely on Jesus. And all this without Jesus speaking a word! 

In vs. 9 Jesus steps into the flow of the story in two brief scenes – a baptism and a 40 day wilderness stop over . Mark’s brief statement regarding Jesus’ baptism is a way of accenting Jesus’ association with the coming Kingdom. Notice how Mark has set us up. He told us the Baptizer told us to expect a change from water to Spirit baptism. Listen how Mark splits them. First the water. John’s baptism program was a first “faith” step for the arrival of the kingdom. Judean and Jerusalem folk were publicly committing themselves in anticipation of the coming king and his rule (vs. 5). In his baptism Jesus joined himself to these folk: acknowledging their change of allegiance, supporting their hope in looking for the coming king who has the authority to put right all that is wrong in Israel (vs. 9).  

Then Mark soaks up the baptismal water with the Spirit. Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit is the event identifying him as the messiah-king, the son of God, the one in whom the Spirit resides. Mark will give us three verifications of this identity:  the sound of the barrier to divine revelation being ripped apart, the fluttering descent of the dove-like Spirit and the verbal endorsement of YHWH (vs. 10-12).

Standing with John in the Jordan river wilderness, the borderland between Galilee, Judea, Jesus dips “into” the Jordan. Rising up out of the water, Mark makes us “insiders” telling us what only Jesus “sees/hears” not the Baptizer or the others. The sound of the water dripping off Jesus is drowned as the barrier to divine revelation is removed being heard as the sound of the sky above ripped ferociously apart. The ferocity of the scene is then tamped down. The renewal of revelation is now heard as the fluttering down of a dove-like Spirit “into” Jesus.  The return of the Spirit was a familiar Second Temple experience that begins the messianic age (Ezk. 10.15-19; 1 Enoch 49. 3; Ps. Sol 17.42; T. Levi 18.7; T. Judah 24.2; b.Hagig 15a; m Berak 3a). Mark wants us to take all this in: The Baptizer’s proclamation is true. The days of the Spirit famine have ended. Revelations’s barrier has been removed. Jesus is the intersecting point of revelation and the Spirit.

Voices from heaven aren’t everyday occurrences. The classical prophets’ “this is what YHWH says” was merely an echo in the Second Temple period, but the voice identifying Jesus as “my son, the beloved.” is unmistakably YHWH’s. May I suggest “well pleasing” or “beloved” is code for obedience, for messianic authority. The Wilderness test will be “proof” he is worthy of divine endorsement. 

YHWH doesn’t put bubble wrap around the beloved son. We’re not to be taken in by the seemingly docile dove-like image used to describe the Spirit (vs. 10). The determination to validate Jesus’ Messianic identity is verbalized for us. Jesus is yanked away from the Jordan river and thrown farther out into the wilderness! (vs. 12). Being the messiah will be a good thing. It just won’t be an easy thing. It won’t be a safe thing. 

A bit of a stretch about the Spirit from C.S. Lewis, if you will allow. “Susan Pevensie has just gotten a shock: Aslan is a lion, not a man, as she had originally thought. “Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, p. 72)

Notice Mr. Beaver doesn’t tell us Aslan is “safe,” rather he tells us Aslan’s power and authority aren’t intended to be safe but virtuous and just.  May I say to you, like the beavers, Mark imagines something similar in his wider Gospel regarding the power and the authority of the Spirit. The Spirit is not safe. The Spirit, however, is holy, just and good.

Mark writes no details about Jesus’s experience in the wilderness.  All he gives us are two abrupt sentences: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him”. We don’t learn what the specific tests over the forty days were or how Jesus responded to them. Although he names who is there we don’t know what is really going on, how the cosmic-earthly test is waged. The implication of the forty days is that it takes time to come to grips with it all. It’s not easy to work out identity and authority.

But naming Jesus, the messiah, the obedient beloved son closely linked by the words “forty” and  “wilderness” sets the hearers up to identify Jesus with Israel’s story. Like others of Israel’s story – Moses, Elijah, David and the Nation itself, “forty” and “wilderness” have strong associations with deliverance, revelation, faithfulness, testing and identity. For example, Israel could look back on its Wilderness experiences as sometimes high water marks and also sometimes low water marks. Especially in the Exodus-Covenant narratives, the wilderness was for Israel the place of revelation, identity, testing, sometimes obedience, sometimes disobedience. Looking back it could be said Israel had been tested and had failed the test. Looking back the prophets looked forward to another experience where YHWH would once again reveal himself and deliver his people. Israel would once again be obedient sons and daughters. For Mark, in Jesus, in whom the Spirit resides, obedience is revealed.

“The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.” is one of the phrases teachers use in the Sunday school program “Godly Play”. As for me, the “Satan” who opposes Jesus in the wilderness is a real person, a real evil person. We may not choose to personalise Satan in our time, in our secular world view, but, may I say to you, I believe we take a real risk by ignoring him and evil. It’s not a fantasy. Again C. S. Lewis “Evil is a seizure, an unjust tyrannical occupation. We are living in a part of the universe occupied by the Rebel. Enemy occupied territory that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say, landed in disguise and is calling all of us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage” (Mere Christianity, p. 36).  Unless terrorizing ruling powers are met head on, evil cannot be dealt with. The Lord doesn’t bring deliverance by remote control, pushing buttons and directing action from distant light years. What the Lord does through the Spirit in Jesus in the wilderness is mix it up with evil.  In Mark’s account, you hear no dialogue and that, in part, underscores the victory of Jesus. He has silenced Satan in principle at least.

It is now generally accepted that the center of Mark’s gospel is instruction about following Jesus or discipleship. In other words, how we are to be instructed emerges out of Jesus’ experience.  So I want to direct your attention to how Mark weaves ideas for his central theme into our Gospel lesson. I summarize his proposition this way: Jesus’ baptism involves an identity disclosure that engages the Spirit from which Jesus then engages both spiritual and environmental dangers in establishing the kingdom. I propose that sequence can be, is to be, ours also.

Baptism with the Spirit and wilderness challenge us to embrace a new way of living. In our society, -isms have arisen identifying individuals with groups/tribes: neo-marxism, genderism, atheism, neo-racism, christian nationalism, evangelical exceptionalism, political progressivism along with many, many others. These -isms, their platforms, their programs are incompatible with authentic biblical truth because they put people into categories based on political power. They reflect deep, deep conflicted antagonisms being sewn into our society’s tapestry. They are flawed politically, culturally, humanly but most importantly, for us, spiritually. They reject the Bible’s complex understanding of life and its moral scale of purity. Raised fists lack humor, scorn forgiveness, grace, hope, stopping well short of kingdom redemption.  Baptism with the Spirit is the only -ism that transforms identity making peace, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation and moral integrity possible. For the christian, then, there is no other -ism. Christians are not partisan players. We are listeners, advocates, reconcillers for the needs of all our neighbors in every community. Baptism with the Spirit allows us to confront spiritual opposition and cultural dangers in the wilderness with identity and purpose, up close and personal.

May I say quite boldly then – a believer’s identity, like Jesus’ identity, is grounded in baptism with the Spirit. It incorporates the truth of the vitality of faith, repentance, the active presence of the Spirit and the utterly revolutionary identity transformation of a person. It incorporates the Father’s voice: “It’s you who are my sons and daughters. It’s you who are my beloved”. We are set on the path toward holiness by realizing we are sons and daughters of a holy Father.

Becoming Christian through faith and baptism with the Spirit, we are transformed to have a different understanding of our place in the world. Why is Jesus at baptism and at testing so enormously important? It’s because in these two events Jesus divests himself of power, position and authority to stand compassionately in our place. The Lord in Jesus loves us so much that he stands with us in our place of repentance and forgiveness – baptism; in our place of everyday struggle – the wilderness and although we have yet to hear in this Gospel, Jesus stands with us in our place of redemption – the cross paying a priceless price for us. 

Lent has always been that period of reflection upon what contemporary life is about and where Jesus is leading us in our time. It makes Lent rather serious, don’t you think?

John 1.43-51 | Epiphany 2B

John M. Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” 50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you all, you all will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

The Gospel of the Lord

Welcome to the 2nd Sunday in Epiphany and the 3rd time in Year B our Gospel Lesson is from the 1st chapter of the 4th Gospel.  Are you still with me? Well our return requires some orientation to the place our eleven sentence lesson has both in theology and in the narrative.

Notice that the Lesson draws us in by referring to the “next day” (vs. 43). Well, this just isn’t the first time “next day” has been used in the first chapter to get us moving with the story line. It’s the 3rd time. This morning’s “next day” tells us about Philip’s witness to Nathaniel about Jesus in Galilee. In a previous “next day”, the Gospel’s witness about Jesus involved brothers Andrew and Simon Peter without a map reference (vs. 35-42). In the 1st “next day”, the Gospel’s witness about Jesus involved his baptism by John on the other side of the Jordan river (vs. 29-34 ). 

Now all this “next day’ in different locations is not merely putting x’s on a calendar and drop pins on a Google map. It conveys some brilliant theological thinking. Go back with me to the opening words of the first chapter: “In the beginning was the Word.The Word was with God. And the Word was God”. (vs. 1). This is the declaration of a divine relationship outside of the restrictions of the “next day”. It’s timeless, eternal. This is followed by an eye popping: “The Word became flesh and lived among us. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only son” (vs. 14). The timeless, eternal has become time bound.  The Gospel’s witness about the “Word became flesh” is that Jesus is bound into real time and real places. So these three “next days” move us forward in describing/realizing how this timeless divine person lives out a time bound life. The narrative conveys a sense of urgency – the hours on the clock are ticking off as Jesus gets on with his ministry. 

Not only will our Gospel lesson be influenced, as we have noted, by the first chapter, it will also be framed by a larger purpose. We will look at that briefly in ch. 20.31 where we read “but these (signs) are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name”. So it is no misreading of that purpose that we hear Philip describe Jesus as the messiah – the one who Moses and the prophets wrote about (vs. 45), followed by a flurry of titles from Nathaniel “Rabbi, Son of God, Israel’s King (dba “Messiah”)” (vs. 49). All these precede Jesus’ favorite description of himself “Son of Man” (vs. 51).  

We’ve already heard the Baptizer’s witness regarding Jesus “Look, the Lord’s Lamb” (vs. 36) and how Andrew went looking for Jesus responding to his “come and see” (vs. 39). He joins up, then goes off and brings his brother Simon Peter to the “messiah” (vs. 40-42). Now it’s Philip’s turn to respond to Jesus’ “Follow me” (vs. 43). Like Andrew, he joins up and brings someone – Nathanael to Jesus (vs. 44-46). Surely, in this Gospel, these are calls to discipleship and the function of discipleship “witness” dominates these two scenes. So here is the proposal I want to make to you about this theme in this Gospel. Discipleship begins at Jesus’ initiative (vs. 39, 43). Disciples who are called are to invite people to “come and see” Jesus for themselves (vs. 41-42, 46) and join up with others into a community.This text tells how it works: Christian faith and discipleship is passed from person to person. It’s always person-to-person.

The Baptizer, Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathaniel appear in the chapter with Melchizedek’s abruptness “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life” (Heb. 7.3). Philip will reappear in the Gospel (ch. 12.20ff). So here, he joins up at Jesus’ invite “Follow me”.  And then explained his choice to his friend Nathaniel. But his friend Nathaniel isn’t impressed with Philip’s identification of Jesus as son of Joseph,  “the one Moses and the prophets wrote about” or his neighborhood – Nazareth.  “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asks bluntly. With messiahs popping up here and there in the Second Temple period, Nathaniel is wise to be cautious. After all, “Jesus son of Joseph” doesn’t seem messianically Mosaic or prophetic at first glance. Likewise, why would any messiah come from prophetically meager Nazareth?

Philip responds simply to Nathaniel’s over the shoulder question, “Come and see for yourself.” Come and see. The words are both simple and warm, issuing an invitation not only to see something, but also, like him, to join with others. To come along and be part of something. In spite of his questions, Nathaniel goes off with Andrew and his life is about to be forever changed by an encounter with Jesus from Nazareth.

As Nathaniel approaches, Jesus comments  “Here comes a forthright person, an Israelite, who says what he thinks about messiahs.” In other words, Nathaniel isn’t prepared to take what seems to be false and make it seem like it’s true. Nathaniel voices his surprise in a question “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answers “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you”.  Referring back to ch. 1.31, the Gospel tells us the Baptizer explained his ministry as designed to reveal Jesus to Israel. Nathanael, in this scene, is representing Israel. On the one hand, reference to “sitting under a fig tree” highlights a traditional image for Israel’s “good” life – every person living in peace in the Land. On the other, Nathaniel is face to face with something “good” from a place as different from Nazareth as it could possibly be. He is face to face with the Word who came out of eternity to become flesh, who knows, sees and calls, presenting Israel with the only messianic way to the “good” life.  

So Jesus’ “knowing” Nathaniel (vs. 48) isn’t some “seeing around the corner smoke and mirrors” trick but an indicator of divine insight. Nathaniel gets it and quickly acknowledges Jesus to be a teacher – Rabbi. Not surprising! Then the flurry of significant titles “Son of God, King of Israel. Jesus is the messiah (vs. 49). Nathaniel is all in. By the end of the first chapter, the Fourth Gospel has piled on Jesus no less than seven titles: the Word, the Lamb of God, the Son of God, the Messiah, the one Moses and the prophets wrote about, the King of Israel and the Son of Man. Words convey meaning. In case anyone was wondering, this Gospel believes that in all his humanness Jesus embodies divine presence. He is the Chosen One who represents YHWH and will rule over Israel.

Nathaniel had seen Jesus do a great thing “divinely seeing him under the fig tree”. But “he ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”  Altering a Bible story that clearly would have caught the attention of anyone in Israel who knew their Bible from scroll to scroll, Jesus promises him “you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (vs. 51). Clearly a reference to the dream in which the patriarch Jacob saw angels moving back and forth between heaven and earth on what seemed like a staircase (Gen. 28.10-22). In this Gospel though Jesus pushes the staircase aside. “No one has ever seen God, but God the only son who is at the Father’s side has made him known” (1.18). Communication between the divine and the human is now realized fully and only in Jesus. 

My 2nd year of Bible school was also my 1st year of seminary when Campus Crusade launched its “I Found It!” national evangelism program. Messages for five chapel services the week before the program started lifted their theme “Come and See” from our lesson. It was honorable, well intentioned evangelism and as far as 4 naive seminarians were concerned it springboarded us into a church plant in SE Portland. The following years of study and American evangelism experiences slowly developed for me some perspectives on consequences that I believe were unintended at that time. It seems to me, brushing my thoughts in a wide splash, the invitation, in the words “Follow me”, “Come and see” has now spun off into an individualist, personal salvation slogan “accept Jesus so you can go to heaven” in revival stadium performances and/or the idea that a person can choose salvation as if it was a Souplantation buffet with a money back guarantee.  As the scene discloses, however, our entire perspective changes or should change when we read this scene both closely and in its narrative setting. When we do that we acknowledge that Jesus’ invitation to Andrew (vs. 39), then  Philip (vs. 43), his “before Andrew… I saw you, Nathaniel” (vs. 48 ) and his escalator of “greater revelations” (vs. 51) has the upperhand. In other words, the Lord made known in Jesus is the Lord who is in a position to judge, to test, to evaluate, to call to discipleship. It is to him, we are called to “follow”, to “come and see”.    

The “follow me” call from Jesus and the invitation to “come and see” are not marketplace slogans or lapel pins. Embedded in the narrative, “Follow me” and “come and see” are intended to lead to discipleship, not simply being saved. “Being saved” isn’t about individuals devoid of anything resembling the living Jesus in their lives. These are invitations to a life changing, life transforming encounter with Jesus. An invitation to come and see what the Lord  is still doing in and through Jesus and in the community of disciples who have chosen to follow him. Discipleship is an active recognition of Jesus’ identity, actively participating in his transformation of us in a community, actively seeing greater revelations of him. 

You probably know as well as I do that the key factor influencing someone to attend a church, a Bible study, a home fellowship meeting for the first time is a personal invitation from someone like Andrew, like Philip, like you or me.  So “come and see” would seem to challenge us whether we have anything to show people about Jesus in our words and practices and that we are able to name and share that. Well, we know our nation is broken – it’s not the pandemic only nor even partisan political/cultural  upheavals. It’s everything because Americans are just like all the rest of humanity–sinners. When we don’t live up to our own ideals, whatever they are, we should not be surprised, only a little amused at ourselves for thinking we would be able to. This broken nation is why Jesus is here. It’s why we’re called, why we’re here, it’s why we’re sent – “to do the work he has given us to do to love and serve him as faithful witnesses of Christ the Lord”. The observation that whoever marries the spirit of the age will be widowed in the next has a barb for faithful communities. Historically Christianity has stood the test of time. May I say to you, a church, any church that sought or seeks to engage in self-justification with the spirit of the age rather than stick to its character and integrity, such as found in our lesson has not/will not survive. I know the future of the church/ a church is without a doubt in the Lord’s trustworthy hands. The future of faith communities, our faith community, will, I believe, be greatly determined by a willingness, our willingness, to invite our network of friends personally and say to them “I found Him, Come and see. Follow Him”. 

Now Beloved by the Lord, Don’t ever assume that nothing good can come out of Tustin!

Luke 1.26-38 | Advent 4B The Annunciation

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

Good morning can I help you with something? I’m Miriam the owner and manager of this workshop. Hello Lukas. Theophilus sent you. I’m sorry I don’t know Theophilus and we don’t need any additional help at this time.

What’s that? You’re here to talk with me about Jesus. You’re writing up a narrative story about him for Theophilus and interviewing as many eyewitnesses as you can locate. Ok, Lukas. Well in that case you might say you have come to the right gate. As his mother some might consider me a reliable eyewitness. What if I tell you one of the first events that involved me.  It was a long time ago but in all honesty I can see/hear it as if it’s happening right now.

Like you, a man (it turns out he was an angel) appeared at my family’s gate. He was standing, like you, with his hands behind his back. Knowing now what he was about to say, to ask me I think I know why he had his hands behind his back – he had his fingers crossed. He said his name was Gabriel, a messenger sent from the LORD. He took a step forward. He held out his hands. Taking my hand off the gate, I took two steps back. He spoke “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 

Gabriel continued “You mustn’t be afraid, Miriam. You have found favor with the LORD. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

I took more steps back. What sort of greeting was this? I was stunned, perplexed. I couldn’t even begin to grasp why the LORD would speak to me. I couldn’t even begin to grasp why the LORD would want to use me – for something like this. For a moment, maybe even longer, I wondered why I had even opened the gate. That’s it. He’s at the wrong gate in the wrong village. This is Nazareth, for heaven’s sake. I’m Miriam betrothed to a craftsman from this village – Joseph Davidson.  

Then it occurred to me. Oh my! This might be a house-call. I know Israel’s  LORD is gracious, compassionate, faithful in shepherding us. The LORD is for Israel. If Israel’s traditional stories of experiences with the Lord tell me anything, they tell me the covenant LORD does come visiting. But having the LORD “with” us doesn’t much feel like good news sometimes. Was the LORD, the Holy One, coming to hold us accountable? Considering the conditions in Judah at that time, who could blame him?

And Gabriel kept using that word “favor”. I thought if this is “favor” then don’t do me any more favors. You can stop right there.  I can assure you being “highly favored” that involved information about me, a virgin, getting pregnant with and giving birth to the Son of the Most High, the Davidic king, the Messiah was not on my to-do list that day. Clearly this “favor” was not dependent on my circumstances. As long as I could remember I had simple dreams of marriage, raising a family, teaching our children Torah and it’s practices, a kitchen with good smells filling the air, living in a village I knew well and as often as possible going to Jerusalem’s festivals. Having any child outside of marriage would involve our families in shame, dishonor, and public disgrace in Nazareth. How would I behave in light of my position in the Davidson family in this village? What does my family, my faith expect of me?  My father and my mother would be deeply hurt. And I thought about when I would tell Joseph. Talk about a conversation stopper. Pregnant! I knew if I had to say that word I would be in the construction business building a wall between us. I thought “how could he not blame me?”  Our betrothal wasn’t going to go as planned, not as I had planned anyway, and not as things were supposed to go. Jewish religious traditions are strong. A pregnancy before marriage, well, it’s proof that the betrothal had been damaged, a violation of trust. A public divorce in this village was going to be messy. What would I have to struggle with beyond the gate of this courtyard?  Would I have to surrender honor to do this? Word of the pregnancy would burn like a wildfire through our village.  I wasn’t going to feel favored walking through the village with an unwed belly the subject of stares. 

With everything on the line, my reputation, my marriage, my very life I asked Gabriel “How will this happen?  I didn’t believe I was the ideal candidate for what seemed to me to be “mission impossible”. Gabriel crowded me. I backed away again. Angels can be most unwelcome visitors at times especially when they give a rapid-fire, mind boggling answer “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God”.  Although a virgin, the LORD’s sheer creative power would conceive a child with me who would be ‘holy’- set apart, special, mysterious. Could this “impossible mission” really happen this way? Was I going to be the bearer, the mother of the Son of God? The LORD will become human in this baby to be named Jesus. I was going to hold him in my arms, lay him in my lap, look into his face, feel him grip my finger as he took his first steps. 

The courtyard was silent. I closed my eyes. It seemed as though time stopped for an eternity as the possibility for me to say “no” hovered in the air between us. Saying “yes” will most certainly be a scandal, putting me between a rock and a hard place. Some wags might always call him “Joseph’s and Miriam’s son”. But looking out of the doorway, I opened the gate into my heart. I looked straight into Gabriel’s searching eyes and nodded “Let it be as you have said it will be.” This is it. Look no further. The LORD will fulfill the messianic promise he made to Israel through our ancestors Adam, Abraham, Moses and David. Gabriel stopped fidgeting, shuffling his feet. A smile formed as his face lit up. As for me, I was overwhelmed because the LORD chose me to have a share in his story. Yes I was confused, nervous. I was agreeing to something that seemed unthinkable in this village. I was accepting something without understanding fully why or how. Uncertain I could handle what was coming, I was overwhelmed, astonished by grace. But as Gabiel said “Nothing will be impossible with the LORD. Nothing”. 

Certainly, I am the woman who is the God-bearer bringing the Son into the world, but I have also had to learn how to be a disciple, a servant who hopes to embody faith and faithfulness. So Lukas let me explain because after years of reflection I’ve gained a more even-handed understanding of the purpose and events of Jesus’ birth. I had to learn my son was my Lord, my messiah and the family he would give birth to would need to become my family also. The Lord, the one God of Israel was his father and they have a unique relationship and I have had to work out my relationship with them.

As I said earlier I now understand that my so-called “favoring” was not, in fact, dependent upon or determined by the circumstances of life in Nazareth or Israel, for that matter. As it turns out  “the LORD is with you” was a promise of deliverance for individuals, for Israel and for the Gentiles. Like so many others in Israel, I too longed for the messiah’s arrival. In looking back to those years I expect there were very many people whose hope in the messiah sank very low indeed. Of course, there was a popular script for the Messiah – dazzling political/military victory, intimidating and showy. But rising out of the threads of Gabriel’s tumbling messianic announcement was a LORD mysterious, deeply wise who would only be discovered in the simplest of places, simplest of acts and simplest of human beings. May I assure you, Lukas Jesus was ordinary looking and ordinary acting. I didn’t anticipate the kind of messiah he needed to become. I didn’t realize that following him at times was going to be so difficult. Over the years I have subtracted so many parts from the common highlights of the triumph of the messiah. In other words, Lukas, I didn’t anticipate the messianic triumph would come from the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit after a crucifixion and a resurrection. Little did I realize that from his birth in Bethlehem to his cross in Jerusalem, how many moments there would be of joy and pain, confidence and uncertainty, clarity and confusion. O Lukas, how little did I realize that watching the One to whom I gave life spiked to a cross, twisting in pain, wouldn’t feel much like favor.  A disciple’s challenge of trusting the Lord overwhelmed me at times. A disciple’s way of the cross pierced my heart through sorrow, suffering. A disciple’s way of the cross confronted my Jewish expectations and through my struggles I came to terms with this reality – the Messiah’s mission was to die and be resurrected for the sake of others and for my sake.

But  back to the courtyard. Gabriel turned to leave. He paused telling me my elderly relative Elizabeth was six months pregnant with a boy.  And then with a twinkle in his eyes and a wry smile he told me he had another stop to make. Joseph Davidson has been doing a lot of dreaming in his sleep recently so he was going to pop in on one of them. He was going to wrestle with him, persuading him to accept this mind-boggling reality – and to marry me. 

John 1. 19-28 | Advent 3B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” 28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

The Gospel of the Lord

Please find a pen or pencil and a sheet of paper. Y’all knew it was only a matter of time before this moment when I succumbed to the dark side of my teacher-ly instincts. Well here it is. It’s time for a pop quiz. Question 1: fill in the blank: Who did Jesus mean when he said “truly, I say to you, among those born of women, there is not anyone greater than __________?” And Question 2: short answer: write about John the baptizer in less than 200 words.

By the time you reach the NT, there have been any number of strange characters in Israel’s history. Perhaps the strangest of all is John – the forerunner of Jesus. In a good cop/bad cop game plan, Temple officials sent Priests and Levites across the Jordan River to where John was baptizing folk. In a probe/jab interrogation, they were determining whether he was the Messiah or someone who could, at the very least, show them the coming Messiah (vs. 19-22). Notice he tells them who he isn’t.  John isn’t the Messiah, isn’t Elijah (Mal. 4.5) and isn’t Deuteronomy’s prophet (18.15).  He just isn’t the right answer to their questions. Perhaps, like them, we drift more naturally, looking for  someone like a Moses, the deliverer, or like a David the rugged, humbled king or a Daniel the statesman or an Isaiah with his vast prophetic landscape. Notice, however, he does tell them who he is “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord:.  They weren’t listening for Isaiah’s curious voice echoing across the Wilderness (40.3).

Now the Lord sent John as a witness so here’s the theme I want to propose to you in the Gospel’s characterization of John this morning-  like John, you and I are most successful and attractive when we attach the loyalty of others to Jesus rather than to ourselves. The only way for an increasing Jesus is a decreasing self. The Lord sent John to teach us this.

Let’s stretch out a bit and move to the other Gospels. Luke tells us John’s parents – Zachariah and Elizabeth- belonged to Israel’s priestly clan, living in a one stop sign village – Bethlehem.  They were elderly and childless. Can we not suppose that during their lifetime they held the children of others so lovingly, so longingly in their arms? Long past childbearing, suddenly, into the shadows of their unfulfilled hopes, their desires, into their barren arms came their own child sent by the Lord (Lk. 1.5-25, 57-59). Wonderful, miraculous, yes, but more than that. It’s overpowering. To hold your child in your arms for the first time is the kind of experience that brings a lump to your throat, that brings you to your knees, brings healing tears to your eyes. 

And that child was sent to Israel also. Luke tells us John spent his time in the Wilderness not the Temple. It wasn’t Palmdale or Palm Springs. It was rugged, a place of self-denial, sparseness not something sought out by most folk. Luke tells us John in the Wilderness “grew and became strong in spirit” (1.80). In that environment the Lord gave him the vision and words for his baptism ministry.  And Luke tells John’s Wilderness development was being paralleled by his cousin Jesus in Nazareth’s village “and he (Jesus) grew and became strong, he was filled with wisdom and the Lord’s favor was on him” (2.52). Matthew and Mark  tell us when this son of priests did appear, was he ever different from the clergy of his day. He was dressed in an itchy, three piece camel suit held together with a wide leather belt. He had a crunchy diet – locusts washed down with honey. He was lean, leathery like the Wilderness (Mt. 3.4; Mk. 1.6). And note this carefully, he could get away with beginning his sermons “you brood of vipers”. Y’all got off easy with a pop quiz! He spoke in images gleaned from the Wilderness. He came to Israel as a “voice” to announce the Lord’s coming (Mt. 3. 3. 7; Mk. 1.2-3).

Let’s return to the Fourth Gospel, especially to the first chapter. John was a man sent by the Lord to Israel as a witness (1.6). He had a common name but he was far from ordinary. Remember, although priestly, he was embedded in the Wilderness not the Temple. But he didn’t blend into either one. He looked like a survivalist more than a priest but he preached like a revivalist. John knew that no one received ministry except from the Lord (1. 31). He had a ministry – a repentance baptism done in the Jordan River. Now water is powerful. It can sweep over the land, wash things away,  break things down. So John’s water baptism, making a public repentant profession, was regarded as a sweeping away in order to participate in a renewed allegiance to the LORD’s kingdom. But Jesus was about to appear with something far and away more sweeping – a baptism with the Spirit that led to being born again (1.33). 

John did not have the first place but he did have a place. There would be no competition between him and Jesus. Light is coming. Darkness is already here. In the darkness we cannot see the Lord. We stumble around. To see Jesus in the light is to see the Lord.  Jesus not John is the light but John was going to hold out the light (1.6-9).

John would say clearly he was sent for a witness.  A witness is one who has personal knowledge and uses it as evidence. He declared of Jesus “ I have seen and I witness that this is the son of God” (1. 34). He came so that another might shine (1.7-8, 15). He said “I am a voice crying in the Wilderness….” He was not the Word who was with God in the beginning (1.1ff). The sound of his voice was limited (1.19-24). He was not Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet and he didn’t present his priestly credentials. Outside the traditional channels, he is just a “voice. John had no illusions. Too often people are attracted to a lamp or voice and not the Light or the Word. In her book “Through the Gates of Splendor”, Elizabeth Elliott reproduces one of her husband Jim’s prayers. In the spirit of the Baptizer, he prayed  “Lord God, forbid that those who hear me would confuse my words as though they are yours or take your words as though they are mine.”  

John never said he had no purpose. But he was not indispensable. He had a firm grasp on his ministry – Jesus must increase, I must decrease (3.30). He came to clear the path, remove the obstacles in Israel’s mind to the coming Messiah. He was a one man road crew filling in the potholes, picking up the litter, trimming the trees. All this so people could see the Messiah. And it is here we see the most significant aspect of his ministry – he needed to get out of the way. He wasn’t part of the procession. He stood to the side with stunning gracefulness. Advertising one’s ministry as a way to improve behavior or status just makes someone one more religious person handing out self-help flyers in the spiritual marketplace. Polishing one’s celebrity is nothing special. However, admitting as John does “among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” is.  You don’t have to look very far in church settings to see that very few people can handle success or planned obscurity like John (1.25-28).

His joy, satisfaction came from obedience to his ministry not from fame, honor, celebrity. Farther into the Fourth Gospel, we hear John draw on a familiar event – a  wedding – to develop further his supportive role as a witness. Weddings in the Second Temple period were mega-affairs – laced up tightly with honor codes. The “friend” of the groom was a “witness” for the couple and the community. It was an important and delicate job to certify that the marriage had been consummated. John’s humility calling attention to Jesus not himself is captured in this declaration “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete” (3.27-30). 

But remember, here’s the tension. He doesn’t look or act like we expect. Up close, we might not like him. And aren’t we sure we wouldn’t hire him as a managing editor or media image consultant. And don’t we have our doubts he’d fit in well on a faculty or be a rector. He probably wouldn’t get to a mission board’s discernment weekend. He just doesn’t fit the mold. We’re not convinced we can figure him out. When you can’t figure someone out you kinda want to hit the delete tab. But take note. This is the very person who preceded Jesus. (1.29-34). All this is to say he was balanced. He had both feet on the ground. He wasn’t the Light but he could hold out the light. He wasn’t the Word but he had a voice. He wasn’t the groom but he was the friend. He said “Look, the Lord’s lamb. He’s the One. Take a good look at him” (1.29). 

So let’s revisit the theme I proposed to you in the Gospel’s characterization of John –  like John, you and I are most successful and attractive when we attach the loyalty of others to Jesus rather than to ourselves. The only way for an increasing Jesus is a decreasing self.  Like John, you and I have been sent. We have a ministry. Like John, you and I, sent by the Lord, are not insignificant. We’re not the Word, but we have a voice, We’re not the Light but we hold out the light. We’re not the groom but we stand as a witness for the groom.  Like John, you and I, sent by the Lord, have a ministry of promoting Jesus not ourselves. Like John, you and I, sent by the Lord, should rejoice when Jesus has first place in our ministry.  Like John, you and I,  sent by the Lord, in committing others to Jesus should be committed to gracefully surrendering the spotlight. 

Thus endeth the quiz, Beloved

Advent 2 | Isaiah Chapter 40 As Seen Through the Eyes of Georg Friederich Handel

The Rev. Steven C. Sterry, M.A./M.B.A.

PLAY COMFORT YE (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlpl1OpE3qw_)

In Handel’s oratorio, the Messiah, 15 of the 53 sections are focused on the prophecies of Isaiah. There are more verses from Isaiah, twenty-one, than from any other Bible book.

“Comfort Ye”, is the first sung piece and immediately follows the Overture. These words, as well as the words of three subsequent pieces are taken from the eleven verses of Isaiah that we read in our Old Testament Lesson today. Handel calls the first four pieces “The Prophecy of Salvation”. By themselves, these verses present a powerful picture of what Isaiah said was to take place in the future:

  • The opening words of the Messiah are designed to bring reassurance to the hearer.
    • Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. They present us with a proclamation spoken by God, who tells us to relax, chill out, and be relieved. Everything is going to be OK, because God says so. What could be more comforting than that?
    • Next, we receive God’s instruction: Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins. Isaiah is speaking to the diaspora of Judah, and, particularly, about the city of Jerusalem. Many theologians believe that Chapter 40 was written while the Judeans were still in exile at Babylon. They are being told that once they have received that double dose of God’s punishment for their sins, God will end their exile and pardon them.
    • Finally, we are told about the coming of John the Baptist. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Yes. We must prepare ourselves for the arrival of God on Earth. And God is sending someone ahead of the Messiah, one who can be found in the wilderness. In the desert, by his words and actions, he will show us the way to one who is the Christ, the Son of God. This thought is a central core of the Advent Season. As John prepared the way of the Lord, we need to ask the Holy Spirit to prepare our hearts for this season that we are now in.
  • Next, we hear the Air, Every Valley, which reminds us that God is making things easy for us to reach and embrace the Messiah.
    • PLAY EVERY VALLEY (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPydOWczIQE)
    • Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: There are no hills to climb or canyons to traverse. God will make things easy for us. He will send John the Baptist to announce Christ’s coming, just as he sends His Holy Spirit to prepare us for this Advent season.
  • And the Glory of the Lord is a chorus, which is sung by the whole choir.
    • PLAY THE GLORY OF THE LORD (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4egNeuAf0Bg)
    • And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. The glory of the Lord will be revealed to men in the form of the Messiah, and all will see Him. He is God’s promise to those in Babylon who are serving their exile from Judah. They will return to Judah, and God will return to Israel to be their God. This actually is a double promise. First, God will return to Judah in the form of the of the Baby Jesus. Finally, at the end of the Age, God will return to the Earth to judge humanity.

The GAFCON Advent Devotional for Thursday, December 3 states: “During Advent, the Church’s two main themes are:

  1. Judah. They will return to Judah, and God will return to Israel to be their God. This actually is a double promise. First, God will return to Judah in the form of the of the Baby Jesus. Finally, at the end of the Age, God will return to the Earth to judge humanity.
  2. Prayerful anticipation of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ for the second time as the judge of the dead and the living.”

These beginning pieces of the Messiah, I believe, are designed to impart both ideas, since the Messiah traces the life of Christ from prophecy to his resurrection and beyond to the book of Revelation.

Now, Georg Friederich Handel was a German-born Baroque composer who spent most of his career in London. He was born in 1685. He is well known for his operas, anthems, concertos, and oratorios, like the Messiah. He is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era. By the time that Georg entered into formal training, he could already play the harpsichord and subsequently learned how to play the violin, organ, and, finally, the oboe, for which he wrote many pieces. He began composing at the age of 9.

After spending four years in Italy, Handel, in 1710, became the Kapellmeister (or court composer and performer) to the German Prince George who, in 1714 would become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1712 Handel settled permanently in England, where he became one of the most prolific composers of all time.

The Messiah was composed in 1741, during a twenty-four day period, as an English oratory, based on the King James Bible and Coverdale Psalter, from a text compiled by Charles Jennens. Messiah was first presented in Dublin on April 13, 1742.

It is a reflection upon Jesus as the Messiah called Christ and was written for a modest group of singers, choir, and orchestral instruments. The work since then, however, has been adapted for large scale performances with giant orchestras and choirs.

It was written as a commentary on the Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ. At the end of his manuscript, Handel wrote the letters SDG, or Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone the glory.” Some people take this to imply that Handel wrote the music in a fervor of divine inspiration, and, as he wrote the Hallelujah Chorus, it is claimed that he saw all heaven before him. The first published score was issued in 1767, eight years after Handel’s death.

Handel never married. In 1750, he suffered injury in a carriage accident. In 1751, he developed cataracts and by 1752 he went completely blind. He died in 1759 at the age of 74, and his body is buried at Westminster Abbey. Handel is honored with a feast day on July 28 by the Episcopal Church and is honored, as well, by the Lutheran and Methodist Churches.

Whether or not Handel wrote The Messiah as a God inspired work is unprovable. However, here was a man who dedicated his time and talents to music, much of it sacred and still used in the Church. One might even venture to say that his music is an act of evangelism, since so many people are familiar with this oratorio, as well as much of his other sacred music and listen to The Messiah at the two key times of the Christian Year, Christmas and Easter. Handel inspires us to look forward to these events, and his music encourages us, as did Isaiah, to use this Advent season to prepare ourselves for the Christmas that is to come. I therefore encourage you to listen to the first three sub-sections which contain the first twelve pieces of this marvelous work. It will help you to focus on the ideas and emotional meaning of this Advent Season.

Finally, let us look at the 9th piece in the Messiah, the Air and Chorus – O Thou that Tellest. Part of it is also taken from the 40th Chapter of Isaiah, specifically Verses 5 through 7. O Zion, that bringest good tidings,6 get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings,7 lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! In other words, let us shout from the rooftops and let the world know that God is here. He is with us as the Holy Spirit, and the Son, Jesus Christ will come again to be our judge.

PLAY O THOU THAT TELLEST (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXyKnaMi4bY)

Psalm 95 | Christ the King Sunday Year A

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

1    Come, let us sing to the LORD;
                   Let us shout to the Rock,  our Rescuer.
2                 Let us come face to face with a thank offering
                   Let us extol Him with song.

3    For the LORD is the great God,
                                      the great King above all gods.

4    His hand holds the earth’s caverns,
      The mountain peaks belong to him.
5    His is the sea,  He made it,
       His hands formed dry land.

6    Come, let us bow down in worship,
                   Let us kneel before the LORD our creator;
7    For He is our God
       and we are the people of his pasture,
                             the flock he guides.

      Here and now,  if you would…. Hear his voice:

8   “Do not harden your hearts as in the day of complaint – Meribah
                                                           as in the day of trial in the wilderness – Massah
9   when your ancestors tested me;
      when they tried me, even though they saw my mighty saving acts.
10 Forty years I felt frustration with a generation;
      I said ‘They are a people whose hearts wander,
                   they don’t know my itinerary.’
11 So I made an oath in my annoyance,
    ‘They will never come to my rest’.”

Psalm 95

Psalm 95 has been a regular visitor to daily prayer formation since the rise of monastic  communities in the 3rd century. If you have been a regular visitor to Anglican morning prayer since Cranmer you have heard the first seven verses said or sung as the canticle Venite, then during Lent, the psalm is heard in its entirety. 

In ancient Israel’s psalms, moods were united in impressive artistic expression.  The conceptually rich, precision in choice of words, tone and style – the agony of one psalmist; the sheer joy of another – draw hearers/readers into the powerful twists and turns of faith and practice. 

Psalm 95 stands within that tradition. Psalms like all poetry can be hard to button hole. Psalm 95 sometimes appears with psalms focused on the reign of YHWH as a Great King. Other times the Covenant lawsuit wording of vs. 8-11 sort it into the prophetic cubby. A number of years ago I made this opening statement to a gathering of psychologists and therapists: “When I read the Bible I hear voices. lots of voices”. Probably not the best way to start a conversation with a group of therapists!  But without doubt one of the best ways to approach the psalms and this morning’s psalm especially. On this, the last Sunday of the Year – Christ the King Sunday, I thought the theology spoken by the psalmist – the presentation of YHWH as the Creator King, Who becomes the Covenant-Shepherd King of the Exodus-Wilderness followed by YHWH speaking about the rejection of his guidance and care – might prove insightful.

The first thing we notice is the psalmist’s enthusiastic rush of words: “Come, Let us sing, Let us shout, Let us come face to face, Let us extol” in vs. 1-2. Translations can’t reproduce the lyrical sound of the Hebrew verbs but we still get the strong sense of the psalmist’s cadence pushing us to gather together.  Worship in the covenantal relationship is congregational, public, crowded together in groups that haven’t been quarantining, meeting in cautiously limited ways. Worship in the covenantal relationship is vocal, loud, not behind Lexan, muffled by a mask. Worship in the covenantal relationship has YHWH alone as its source and its subject. So in the covenantal relationship, worship is personal, practiced  in the phrase “face to face” (vs. 2).

When we hear the psalmist image YHWH as a  “Rock” we picture something along the lines of massive, strong, stable. This will certainly be supported in vs. 4. But words from a poet’s stylus are like chameleons to a psalm. They keep changing meaning from line to line. The phrase “Rock, our Rescuer” is a parade ground example, the first of many indications that this is an Exodus/Covenant/Wilderness themed psalm.  But not until we hear the words “complaint”, named “Meribah” and “trial” named Massah” in the Wilderness context of vs. 8-9 does the psalmist fully unpack the imagery. There he deliberately calls up the Wilderness “Rock” that gushed thirst quenching water rescuing Israel (Ex. 17.1-6; Num. 20.1-13; Dt. 32.13). Here the psalmist wants us to shout to the rock not strike it with a shepherd’s staff like Moses.

In vs. 3-5, the psalmist says his reasons for gathering folk together in the Temple: YHWH is an incomparable great God, great King. The Exodus narrative gives us the first scenery for the declaration. After YHWH’s defeat of Egypt’s “no gods”, Miriam leads Israel in song “Who is like you among the gods, O LORD? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders?” And the shouted answer “No one!” (Exod. 15:11). And the covenant at Sinai gives us the naming of YHWH as a great king (Ex. 19.3-6). But vs. 4-5 take us a step further back to another scene. In this scene,“hands” imagine YHWH engaging in a building project like all great kings in the ANE. But in the psalmist’s picture – it’s creation being formed. Playing with the “rock” image in vs. 4 YHWH’s hands form Earth’s unsearchable, deep rock caverns and it’s inaccessible, rocky  mountain peaks. Then looking around, the Psalmist sees other materials “sea and dry land” being handled in the building project (vs. 5).  It’s all hand made. The psalmist emphasises that YHWH has, in the words of the African American spiritual, “the whole world in his hands”.

In vs 5, the Psalmist’ poetic skill is at play in the reference to “sea” and “dry land”.  These words are a theological echo from the Exodus narrative – the parting of the Reed sea and its drying land so Israel could pass over “all that night the LORD drove the SEA back with a strong east wind and turned it into DRY LAND. The SEA was divided,  and the Israelites went through the SEA on DRY LAND (Ex. 14.21-22). YHWH handily created a way of escape for the Hebrew refugees. The psalmist sees YHWH exercising creative control and He becomes Israel’s Rescuer. But the theology of creation is about to take another turn.

At first, “Come” in vs. 6 sounds like repetition of vs. 1-2- the call to gather for worship. The imagery of YHWH as creator now spins off to YHWH as Israel’s creator (vs. 6). The psalmist is directing the Temple crowd to focus on YHWH, Israel’s great Covenant King. Notice the aerobics of posture – bowing down low, bending the knees -are characteristic of approaching royal presence (vs. 6). The psalmist further uses the theological echo in vs. 5 to swing us toward realizing that while creation is “hand made”, Israel is “hand guided” – we are the people of His pasture, the flock He guides (vs. 7ab). This is poetic code to say Israel through the Exodus deliverance and the covenant making at Sinai has been created into a mission community, a holy nation (Ex. 19. 4-8, Deut. 32. 6, 15, 18; Isa. 44. 2; 51. 13; 54. 5; Ps. 100. 3; 149. 2). The deep, resonant notes of the Covenant are heard in the shepherd imagery: YHWH, the Great Shepherd King, delivered Israel from the hand of a murderous Egyptian shepherd king. Israel will never be without his guidance and care.

In the third line of vs. 7, the psalmist makes a third call, an appeal, an invitation. Pause for a moment. “here and now, if you would….Hear his voice”. This is not mere hearing like when my parents said, “LISTEN TO ME!” btw, they only ever said this to my sister, never me. This is “hearing” that leads to obeying. Here, then, is another swinging door connecting Israel’s past to the psalmist’s present. The psalmist implies like ancient Israel, this Temple crowd gathered at worship is prone to indifference, blindness to what is in front of them, going through the motions day after day, week after week, year after year without real heart/head engagement. Oh, No. Not us. May it never be. Well listen to this.

The psalmist’s voice now gives way to the LORD’s voice speaking to those gathered in his royal presence ( vs. 6-7). His declaration in vs. 8-11 is a retelling of a crisis – a reflection from his past experiences told in words of frustration, anguish and distress captured in ….they tested me….they tried me….they saw….I felt frustration….in my annoyance….they’ll never. You get the point. All this is intended to be taken in by the Temple crowd. His past experience is arced – framed in two incidents: one at Rephidim shortly after the exodus (Ex. 17. 1-7) and the other at Kadesh Barnea some 40 years later (Num. 20.1-13).  Geography had changed, time had passed, a generation had drowned in the deep waters of disobedience but the problem has remained the same. Recognizing the mosaic of Israel’s lawsuit language in “complaint” (Meribah) and “trial” (Massah) (vs. 8) and the verbs “tested” and “tried” (vs. 9) is relevant. In both incidents Israel put YHWH into a courtroom trial, prosecuting him, preparing to pass a guilty verdict …. Listen to their words in Numbers: There was no water for the community so they gathered together. They complained to Moses saying, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this evil place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!” (Num. 20.2-5). Water has run out. As thirst turns into panic and panic into fury, Israel begins picking up rocks to build a road back to Egypt paving over  Moses— and by extension, paving over YHWH, the Rock, their rescuer.

Now listen to the LORD’s response at Rephidim.. “The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  I will stand there, face to face, by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah – trial and Meribah – complaint because the Israelites quarreled and because they tried the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex. 17.5-7).

The Lord sums up these two courtroom trials saying “even though they saw my mighty saving acts” (vs. 9). He implies, at the very least, their apathy and indifference to his rescue and sustaining provision. But the summation also highlights his response both times with displays of “Exodus power”. In the end, He will discipline them but not extinguish the covenant relationship. And now we realize “Rock our rescuer” in vs. 1 has been theologically enhanced to portray YHWH as satisfying as a “Thirst Quencher”(Ex. 17.1-6; Num. 20.1-13; Dt. 32.13). 

For the Temple crowd YHWH is worthy of worship because he is satisfying, trustworthy,  faithful and, importantly,  present (Dt. 32.4). The main message in vs. 10-11, then,  for the temple crowd can be stated as “Don’t repeat their mistake! There are consequences”. Notice the play on travel themes in vs. 10 with “whose hearts wander” and “ my itinerary”. It’s important to note that YHWH led Israel like a shepherd to Rephidim and to Kadesh Barnea. Israel’s misguided theology of prosperity, notwithstanding, the LORD who gave water also gave the Wilderness wandering. It’s not a matter of the living conditions in “this wilderness….this evil place” (Num. 20.4-5). “Hearts wandering from my itinerary” comments on a deep disorder – a heart dehydrated in the winds of rebellion, stubbornness and  preference for its own itinerary. The Wilderness places of courtroom complaint were holy places not evil places. And the circumstances they thought pointed to LORD’s absence were the very ones revealing his presence most richly. Only in following YHWH’s itinerary can they hope to be moral. They refused to stay on the faithful Covenant path and strayed.  On the one hand, the Temple crowd knows the reference to “rest” is Israel’s failure to inherit the Land promised to Abraham (vs. 11). But, on the other, “They will never come to my rest” replays the verb “come”from the psalmist’s invitations to worship (vs. 1, 6). The last line here plays out as YHWH’s closing caution to the Temple crowd “Be aware, heirs of the LORD’s saving acts. Don’t be on the wrong side of the road. I was offended then and still can be”.

In the wilderness, Israel’s complaint “Is the LORD among us or not? is answered by YHWH  “I will stand there, face to face, by the rock”.  At stake was his presence in the details of their lives: is the LORD with us here in the desert, in this temple? Is he among us when we thirst, when we bow down, bend our knees? Is the LORD still for us to guide us, care for us? “I will stand there face to face,” YHWH promises, knowing that what Israel and the Temple crowd needed wasn’t only water, but his real presence. In the frenzied mad dash toward the gushing waterfall, over the jostling knees and elbows, did anyone look, did anyone catch a glimpse of the Great Shepherd King? He says He was standing there.

I’ll end with this – one of my cherished Annie Dillard observations supporting the eloquence of this psalm: Why do people in church seem like cheerful tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may lead us to where we can never return.” Annie’s point, like the psalmist’s and YHWH’s, is: anyone who has experienced the saving acts, care and guidance of the LORD should tread lightly.

So Beloved, heirs of the great Shepherd King’s saving acts, care and guidance, Even here and now, the trek toward the LORD’s presence at this table passes by Massah/Meribah where hearts may wander. 

Matthew 22.34-46 | Pentecost 21 Year A

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” 41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
    under your feet.”’

45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.

The Gospel of the Lord

Now concerning the Gospel Lesson: Location, Location, Location.  This well-known real estate advertising banner has application to this morning’s Gospel lesson.  There are three distinct locations. So I have hired the wonderful Dr. Who and his English phone box time machine, the Tardis to take us to each one. For our first journey, he will take us back in time to Moab – modern day Jordan – on the eastern side of the Jordan river valley.

On our trip,  allow me to make some introductory remarks about interpretation. In the late 1970’s currents in Biblical Studies about Judaism that had been trickling since the early 1900’s suddenly gained volume flowing rapidly and bursting banks in some places. There was now space to develop the long sweep of  Israel’s literature and theology for its own message and meanings. This has been a game changer. My British education navigated the whitewater rapids of those currents, the outworking of this new perspective. Candidly, what I am about to say about Ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism reflects some of the leading ideas.

Location #1  Setting coordinates from the Gospel’s quotation, the Tardis sets us down at the Moab location and into the primary writings in Israel’s library – Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Together these documents describe for us YHWH’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt (Exodus), YHWH’s provision of a covenant relationship at Sinai (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) and YHWH’s  fatherly guidance in the Wilderness (Numbers) after Israel’s refusal to enter the Land.  Now 40 years after that refusal, the clans have gathered in Moab. Watching the Jordan flow past, expectantly preparing to enter the Land, they listen to Moses (Deuteronomy) retelling in prose and poetry, how they had uniquely experienced YHWH’s deliverance, the covenant ceremony at Sinai and the raw, visceral reality of Israel’s horrifying rejection of that deliverance and its covenant relationship. 

Some careful distinctions need to be made. Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s question comes from the central feature of the Exodus-Wilderness experience- the Sinai Covenant. In Israel’s perspective the Sinai Covenant is not some unbreakable tyranny, something clamped down on the neck of a prostrate Israel. Rather the covenant intends to build up Israel’s imagination to live a holy life, not an isolated one, through instructions, stipulations, precepts and commands that frame their society.  

The Sinai covenant names Israel as a community that is called upon to “Listen and Obey, Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength”. (Deut. 6.4-5).  The covenant calls Israel to exclusive allegiance, to a single relationship “I am the LORD your God. you shall have no other god in addition to me” (Ex. 20.3). No other path, no other value, no other authority can be substituted or require the same level of devotion to distract, deter or derail Israel from the unique relationship with the LORD who delivers. Clothed in the covenant’s ordinances, precepts, instructions and commands the stature of a person’s life is measured by “‘Love your neighbor as yourself”. (Lev 19.18). Close reading of Lev. 19 underscores the interpersonal dimensions of Israel’s conduct emphasising that individuals are to be holy as YHWH is holy. Note carefully the rich list of neighbors inhabiting ch. 19: widow, orphan, poor, immigrant, resident immigrant, hired servant, blind, deaf, etc. Covenant love, then, is having committed allegiance to the LORD, to holiness and to the well being of others.  In the covenant’s wider perspective, then, it’s not possible to imagine the One kind of love without the other. In short, the LORD has something to do with everything in Israel’s life. Or at least he should!

Now may I suggest to you the Sinai covenant’s intention concerns mission also.  It is a definitive salvo in YHWH’s program to redeem creation. Not as an aside but as a fact, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus the Messiah is the definitive salvo in YHWH’s plan to redeem creation and Israel. Back to the covenant, however. What do I mean by mission? Well, the Sinai covenant intends Israel to turn the Canaanite culture right side up, not affirm it  “you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 18.3b-4). And may I add quickly, any other culture Israel comes into contact with.  

A careful reading of the details of the covenant reveals it as an unblinking confrontation of cruel and ruthless indifference so clearly part of Canaanite society. In that ancient setting the covenant is a counter action against ideas that are known threats to life and limb. The Sinai covenant is a course of action and thinking for Israel to preserve its faith in an intolerant society, the groundwork for resistance to that culture’s progressive correctness in its streets, marketplaces, schools, temples. Without doubt Israelites are to be holy people embedded in an unholy society.

By remembering their own enslavement and by modeling the actions of their holy and gracious Deliverer, who was attentive to them in their time of need, Israel will extend covenant love toward everyone in their midst. The Exodus thus functions as a lens for understanding the requirements for societal flourishing in a broken world, generating concern by the covenant people for the needy or marginalized. The experience of the Exodus and the stipulations of the covenant ground Israel’s cultural/religious/political structures to properly function, protecting, providing for, and nourishing everyone.

Location #2 With this wider covenant perspective, lets’ pile back into the Tardis and zoom ahead to set down in Jerusalem’s Second Temple where Jesus has just ridden in for a bumpy landing – an unpermitted palm parade, a mostly peaceful protest against money changers and a change to the city’s landscape’s design (ch. 21.1-22).  Only a few days away from being arrested, Matthew winds up Jesus’ ministry over a single day recording challenges disputing his messianic handiwork from Temple officials-Sadducees, Scribes, Chief Priests, popular leaders-Elders, Pharisees and their disciples (ch. 21.12- 23.39) and the always unpopular Herodians (22.15). Matthew brings the day’s challenges to an end with  four questions: three by the various leaders – one about taxes to be paid (22.15-22); one about widows, remarriage and the resurrection (23.23-33), one about Torah’s premier teaching (23.34-40) – our Gospel lesson and then in a turnabout Jesus questions them about the Messiah’s identity (23.41-45) which discussion leaves the leaders speechless (23.46) – again our Gospel lesson.

We have learned in the last 40 years to reshape our understanding of Jewish leadership in the Second Temple period. It’s been all too routine to make Jewish leaders black-hat guys in an ancient hiss-and-boo soap opera.  What we now know is that they were—in the opinion of most people back then— the guys in the white hats, the good guys. Weaknesses and faults exposed in the Gospels specifically relate to their interpretations attempting to over-regulate the generalized and specific details in Torah’s varied contexts. They have come to regard their regulation as of the same cloth as the Torah itself. But Jesus in the Gospels regards these “regulations” for what they are – the teachings of men. Jesus’ scorching critique of the Pharisees in the next chapter (ch. 23) is about their imposition of regulated behavior to indicate faithful obedience.

The four questions collected by Matthew represent theological controversies across the various groups. Three questions are set forth as attempts to force Jesus to take a position for or against established answers. This would enable the leaders to identify Jesus as a follower of someone whose position on this or that question he supported. This would mean that his authority was derived from that school of thought.  The question of our Gospel lesson is not an unfair question.  This was a common question among the various charter schools. Some argued for equality across the Covenant’s stipulations; others argued for gradations. 

It is for these reasons Jesus’ answer is so important. Simply on the face of the question and answer, Jesus and the Pharisees agree that there is a kind of priority in the Covenant’s precepts. For him to answer wisely will be a confirmation of his teaching authority.  His answer draws all these leaders into recognizing and realigning themselves with the Covenant’s intentions. The Covenantal reference is Jesus’ attempt at bringing unity to the trenches, flattening differences among the leadership groups. It doesn’t deny meaningful differences but the quote is an indication there is a commonness across any divide. We stand together. Regrettably they do not. 

It’s subtle but notice when they ask him: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” “Teacher”–respectful, at a minimalist level, though clearly inadequate by Matthew’s theological standards. We know already the idea that Jesus is more than a teacher is gaining traction – he’s being evaluated as the messiah. 

The texture of Matthew”s theology appears as Jesus shifts from defense to offense directing a question to the Pharisees concerning cherished nationalistic hopes – the emergence of the Davidic messiah. Jesus wants to see who they’ll side with. These leaders know their theology; they understand what he has asked them.  Technically the Pharisees were not wrong to say the Messiah is “David’s son”. Matthew has called Jesus “David’s son” in the opening verse of the Gospel.  The Pharisees were “right” in the wrong way.  They call the Messiah “David’s son” because that was the theological orthodoxy.  Messiah is the definitive salvo in the LORD’s plan to redeem Israel and creation. But the implications of Jesus’ interrogation startle them. There is a moment of silence as it begins to sink in—  one of those bottomless, grace filled opportunities for profound reassessment.  Standing in their midst is the messiah – Jesus. The rejection of him is on the same scale as Israel’s ancient rejection.  Jesus is the Messiah even if he ends up looking different than the tradition had come to expect. Jesus did not make many obvious claims to being the Messiah.  But for those with eyes to see and with ears to hear, he did so here.

Location #3 One last time into the phone box as Dr. Who blasts forward through time’s corridors stopping at our Prayer Book’s eucharistic liturgy where we read again the words of our Gospel lesson. 

May I suggest to you by its placement following the Collect for Purity, the words of our Gospel lesson, called the “Summary of the Law”, intertwine the standards for self examination in preparation for communion. Certainly together they assert confession of sin, repentance, moral/ethical behavior are benchmarks for graceful participation in the community of faith. Certainly together they unite us in an act of humility admitting that we are not as we would wish. Certainly together they show us what we need to proclaim, where we need to act, ordering our values and priorities to remain loyal, faithful. 

The “Summary”, then, is as life shaping for us as for Israel, Jesus, Temple officials and Pharisees. The definition of covenant love Moses and Jesus are working with involves commitment, holiness, faithful, obedient behavior.  Love for the LORD and neighbor is demanding and risky. For Israel, for us, being holy, moral, ethical is learned when we develop the capacity to put ourselves into the neighbor’s place and that is a skill only learned by engaging with the neighbor face to face, side by side. This love is a lot more complicated because it’s interdependent not separated. It requires us to expand our whole selves – striving for holiness in all we think, do, say. The Summary “hangs” us together in fellowship, in common ground, in shared mission.  For us “love” is demonstrating to the society around us what matters, what is important and what makes our lives compelling so that others are drawn into that community. In the end, Covenant love is something you don’t want to be caught without.

Now my beloved the words of St. Paul to Galatian churches “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. For the entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Sermon About Faith

The Rev. Steven C. Sterry, M.A./M.B.A.

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This morning I was invited to preach the sermon at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church in Tustin, CA. The lessons for this Sunday that this sermon was based on are:

  • Isaiah 25:1–9
  • Psalm 23
  • Philippians 4:4–13
  • Matthew 22:1–14

Here is that sermon:

It seems like the creators of our Anglican Lectionary have, in the lessons for today, attempted to focus our attention toward our building and maintaining a right relationship with God through faith. Isaiah, in our Old Testament Lesson, for example, reminds us that

God has been faithful to those who have been faithful to Him. Those who follow and worship him will be strengthened, while those who oppose Him will do so in fear. We are God’s people and should rejoice in our salvation. In other words, those who have true faith in God will be rewarded.

The well-known 23rd Psalm reminds us that, like the good shepherd takes care of his sheep, the Lord always takes care of us. Those who loyally follow Him will dwell with Him forever. In other words, because of our faith in the Lord as our shepherd, we will be rewarded with eternal life.

The parable of the wedding feast then reminds us that when God invites us into a relationship with him, we must also be prepared to accept His call when it comes. Otherwise, we may find ourselves on the outside looking in. While many are called, few are chosen, says the Gospel for today. We are called to God, not on our terms, but through his grace and in his expectation of our obedience and faith.

Finally, like the Epistle cautions us, we should not be anxious about worldly things. The word “supplication” suggests that we humble ourselves, we are to pray, and we are to be content in all things and situations. We should always give thanks for what God has given us, even when it is less than we might desire or expect. If we practice what God teaches us, we will enjoy His peace. We can do all things through the Lord, because he will strengthen us in all things. In other words, we are saved through faith and our reward involves not worldly possessions, but, instead, God’s gift of eternal life.

During this past couple of weeks, I read several articles about the subject of faith. It was almost as if God had gifted me in advance with the materials for this sermon.

Faith is the complete trust or confidence in someone or something. And for our purposes, that someone or something is God. Faith is the basic ingredient to begin and maintain our relationship with God, and scripture defines faith as God’s assurance that all things revealed and promised in the Word, both seen and unseen, are true.

Faith comes from two sources:

  • Our observation of the natural world and
  • our hearing and acting upon God’s word.

As we live in this world, we discover that it is so well-ordered that a creator must have been present at the beginning. Molecules and atoms did not just happen to come together overnight to create complexity out of randomness. Everybody can see God’s creative actions, and they can experience the feeling of His presence as we observe the world around us. And, as we feel God’s presence, we are encouraged to learn more about Him.

Feeling God’s presence, however, is not enough to sustain our faith in Him. We also need the specific knowledge of God, which comes from Scripture. And, as Anglicans, we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. As we read the Bible, we learn who God is, what he wants from us, when and where we should worship him, how we should love him, as well as how we should love our neighbors, and why He cares so much for us—for mankind/His creation. Faith, then, comes from actively studying and committing ourselves to God’s Word, as well as our commitment to a loving obedience of His Commandments. That doesn’t mean we will be perfect. It just means that we are willing without question to allow his grace to work within us.

Lately, I have been receiving the nightly GAFCON Bible devotionals. GAFCON, for those who are not familiar with this acronym, stands for the groups that make up the Global Anglican Future Conference. In their devotional for Tuesday, October 6, Simon Manchester, in talking about faith, states,

“When are we in most danger? Is it when everything goes wrong and we are in danger of doubting God’s commitment to us? Or is it when everything goes well, and we are in danger of ignoring God’s Word to us? Believers have struggled with both situations but surely the difficult times are more likely to drive us to Him, while the easy times are more likely to drive us to a sense of (naïve) independence.”

It is obvious to us, as we read the books of Judges, Kings, and Chronicles, thatwhat this author states seems to be universally true for both individuals and nations. When we are fat and happy, we tend to forget about God, but when we are struggling, we remember to put on our virtual sackcloth and return to Him. This is not how we want to define our faith.

Revelation Media, an organization that produces religious movies, including The Pilgrim’s Progress, tells the following story about how real faith can change even the worst sinners: “George Muller had grown up the privileged, arrogant son of a lawyer. He drank, gambled, stole money, and skipped out on bills which landed him in jail at the age of 16. After his father paid his debt and rescued him from prison, George tried very hard to “be good” to please his father. But, he still lived a secret life of sin that lead him to become very ill. He was confined to his room for 13 weeks. During these early years, he tried to change his conduct, and though he would succeed for a day or two, changing his behavior was just too difficult—impossible even—without a change of heart.

But then, in a small prayer meeting, George Müller found Jesus, and everything changed.page3image46354944

“I gave myself fully to the Lord. Honors, pleasures, money, my physical powers, my mental powers, all were laid down at the feet of Jesus, and I became a great lover of the Word of God.”

Once a man that was corrupted with money, George had only two shillings (about 50 cents) in his pocket when God pressed on his heart to found an orphanage in Bristol, England. After a life of stealing money and asking for it from men, he was determined to rely on God alone. In every need, from building structures to food for the many orphans, he always presented his prayers to God, and never once to other people. In that time, over $7,000,000 was sent to him for building and maintaining these orphan houses. In all the years since the first orphans arrived, the children never had to go without a meal. Not once. Sometimes the meal time was almost at hand, and they did not know where the food would come from, but the Lord always sent what was needed in due time.

George Müller had complete faith that God was good, and he sought to do all that God called him to do. In his time, he built 5 large orphan houses and cared for 10,024 orphans. He began his life giving in to greed and self-satisfaction, but God transformed him to be self-sacrificial. His chief passion and aim of his ministry was to “live a life and lead a ministry in a way that proves God is real, God is trustworthy, God answers prayer.

It may seem easy to trust in the Lord when things are going well in our lives, but when things are uncertain, it can be hard to commit to prayer and trust in the Lord. George Müller exemplified in his life what the Bible calls believers to do: to serve others who need help, and to trust the Lord for His provision to do so. His faith did not waver when met with adversity. Instead, he continued to believe that God his Father would provide—and He did! May we all find this steadfast confidence in God, and may we encourage it in our children.”

Canon Mark A. Pearson is a Reformed Episcopal Priest who operates a Christian Healing Center, called the Institute for Christian Renewal, in Kingston New Hampshire. He visited my former Episcopal Home Parish, Blessed Sacrament, several times, and I always look forward to receiving his newsletters four times a year. In his Late Summer-Early Fall 2020 newsletter, Canon Mark discusses faith in the context of Mark 12, where Jesus tells his disciples, after they see the fig tree which He cursed, that if they have faith in God they can do anything in His name. Canon Pearson then goes on to define faith, and what we must do to maintain it. The following is my understanding of what I think that Canon Mark is trying to tell us. He first asks, “How do people define ‘faith’? He says that in the Bible, it means “The faith” or the body of true as opposed to false doctrine. These truths, as our faith is concerned, consist of statements that are objectively real and are propositional statements given by God which are valid across all ages, and apply to all different subcultures. Jude, for example, exhorts his listeners to contend earnestly “for the faith which was once and for all delivered unto the saints”. Therefore, our faith embraces the “truth” that is given to us by God. And, it is God’s “truth” that sets us free.

So, how do we establish our faith and make it grow?

  • We must embrace Scripture as God’s infallible Word to humankind.
  • We must honor both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as the definitive summary statements of our church.
  • We need to read classic books, like those written by C.S. Lewis, which hold to the historic faith, without compromise.
  • In order for us to properly grow in our faith, we must accept God’s truth before we understand it. As St. Anselm said, “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand…If I did not believe, I would not understand.”
  • We need to study and share our faith with other believers who, like us, are committed to the Christian faith.

Besides our faith being defined as the acceptance and application of biblical truths in our lives, it is also defined as our “trust” in what God promises to us, even though what we need seems to be impossible to achieve. Not only must we trust God in the small things, we must also trust him in the big things, as well. Whatever God tells us is truth is also achievable. God does not try to fool us. We need to trust Him even if we are unable to grasp the big picture.

We can only trust God by knowing about him— by reading about him in scripture, by understanding what he has told us throughout history, and by what he has done for His people. We can also learn to trust Him through the testimony of our Christian brothers and sisters.

In our faith-life, sharing is important. It strengthens us, as well as others. Our daily prayer lives enable us to deepen our relationships with God, and through our daily online prayer sessions, we are also learning how to pray with each other and to share our concerns about those who are less fortunate than us. Praying together also encourages us to share our own concerns with God. And, as we serve others in His Name, we allow Him to work through us, as well as in us. We grow in our knowledge of Him, and we begin to more clearly sense his presence and hear His voice.

As we grow in faith and the trust that it engenders, we begin to see God as He acts in the world around us. We also begin to recognize those special moments of divine intervention in our own lives.

Faith is, therefore, much more than just mild hope. As evidenced in the above stories, it is a commitment to something much greater than ourselves. It is a change of heart that makes us willing to accept the fact that God has a plan for us, and it encourages and prepares us for the obedience to what God both desires and expects in us. It inspires us to seek God’s Grace and accept a right relationship with Him; and as we grow in knowledge of God, we begin to see His works around us and then His work in us.

Matthew 21.(23-27) 28-32 | Pentecost 17

John Michael Guiterrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ 29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

The Gospel of the Lord

The first year Sunday lectionary lessons after Pentecost have focused on episodes from Jesus’ ministry providing us a compass in the direction of discipleship. As this lectionary year draws to a close, the Sunday lessons will feature Jesus’ most recognized teaching form – the parable. The point of view in Matthew’s selections gives us glimpses of Jesus’ thoughts about the transforming nature of the Kingdom at work in Israel, in the believing community and in the world. 

The literary/theological context for this morning’s parable begins in chapter 21 with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. It is set into the unfolding events that lead to his crucifixion.  Upon his arrival, Jesus made his way to the Temple where, in a messianic act, confronting the corruption, he flipped the tables of the money changers declaring the Temple to be a “den of robbers” no longer a “house of prayer for all peoples”. Note carefully, he is not arrested so he leaves the city to stay the night in the village Bethany

The next day, Jesus returns to the scene of yesterday’s unpleasantness.  Vs. 23 begins the context for our Gospel lesson. The Temple’s leadership, Chief Priests, Elders, ask Jesus the money question “By what authority have you done this in the Temple?”  The real questions they’re asking: “What right do you have to interfere with the Temple’s financial base and rulers”? and “Are you really claiming to be the Messiah”?  If this Galilean country bumpkin is going to engage in messianic actions, then he had better be able to prove that he has the authority. They’re ever so sure he can’t provide it, so they try to force him to make claims he can’t substantiate. 

Jesus moves the authority conversation to first and goal, asking about John the baptizer: “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from the Lord, or of human origin?” (vs. 25). Before his imprisonment and murder (ch. 14.1-12), John had been preaching a message of repentance and baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins (ch. 3.1-5). John was calling for humility.  Repentance is a visible “about face”, an obvious “change in direction”, an act of reorientation in the Sinai Covenant’s geography. And note this development, his message and baptism only set the stage. Something more powerful was on its way: a cleansing/filling/washing by the Spirit (ch. 3.11-12). In this Second Temple period both these ‘charismatic’ experiences were clearly outside the control of religious authorities.

Jesus’ redirected question puts the officials in line for considerable religious/political/financial embarrassment. On the one hand, cleansing ritual was ordinarily in the hands of the Temple’s priests. While there was technically nothing covenantally wrong with John’s ministry, in the eyes of the priestly elite, it amounted to a maverick enterprise. On the other hand, the question trades on the popular regard for John. It suggests there is something lacking in the Temple’s teaching/practices, something questionable.

So over their shoulders we don’t hear them discuss a genuine answer, only cost-benefit calculations:“If we say, ‘From the Lord,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we’re afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet”. (vs. 25b-26).  Clearly the costs are high. The problem is the Templars are not prepared to entertain that Jesus’ messianic act was done with the “Lord’s authority”. What began as an interrogative attack on Jesus quickly became an exercise in damage control. So they bluff:  “We don’t know” (vs. 27).

Jesus escalates the scene’s tension with a barbed “So what do you think”?(vs. 28).  He intends to call their bluff and to push them further. Quickly he recites a parable about a father, two sons and a vineyard. Images drawn from Israel’s cultural/ theological traditions. In first century Israel, family life rotates around the father who is responsible for the family’s well being. Children are dependent on the family and their active support is important. In this story, the father wants his sons to work in the vineyard. The father approaches the first son for his help. He refuses, “Forget it, Pops! I’ve got things to do, people to see, places to go. Then sometime after his father walks away stunned by the shame to his honor, the son’s sense of family obligation gets him to change his mind and he heads out to the vineyard. (vs. 29).  The father finds the second son to send him to their vineyard. This son says “You got it, Dad! I’m on my way”. The father walks away from this exchange feeling good that at least one son knows how to treat the old man with respect. But then, this son stops at the pub for a quick pint with his friends and never goes into the vineyard (vs. 30). 

Jesus questions the Templars again “Which son obeyed the father ”? The way the story is told we suppose the Templars will probably choose the son who said “no” but later obeyed. And we’re right but we also suppose they admit it through clenched teeth (vs. 31). They have played right into Jesus’ hand. Jesus is about to flip their tables identifying them as the second son – the religious authorities who said they would guard the way of justice in YHWH’s temple, but then did not. Jesus points to those who recognize and believe John’s “temple” work “Truly I tell you, the toll collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not trust him, but the toll collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you still did not repent and trust him (vs. 31b-32). These folk have made a genuine change of direction responding to the Lord’s grace. Notice the religious elite are not excluded. Only the order is reversed. They come in second.

This scene is framed to highlight the issue of the failure of religious authority and position in Israel’s temple. Their failure was maintaining the integrity of the temple’s intentions – “a house of prayer for all people” teaching people, leading them in obedience. Jesus isn’t just throwing eggs, rotten tomatoes. It takes real courage for the temple officials to come to grips with the way of justice and face-to-face with position, power, authority, choices and failures. That’s why this scene is grounded in covenant Wisdom literature. This parable’s characters and storyline have multiple points of resonance with Israel’s narrative. Fathers, sons/brothers is a theological storyline laden with shame/dishonor, envy, betrayal, disobedience, struggles for power, and sometimes reconciliation starting all the way back with Adam, Cain and Abel and forward through Abraham and Issac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Aaron and Moses, and David and his sons and on, and on. “Sons” of Israel” and “vineyard” are stock characterizations of YHWH’’s sometimes rebellious, sometimes repentant community. Jesus is, therefore, not asking the Templars merely to comment on fictitious brothers, but to locate themselves within Israel’s covenant story.  This parable is an attempt to show the religious leaders what they’ve done, giving them a chance to change, to repent, to restore the Temple’s covenant intentions.

Now parables present Wisdom in multiple ways. At one level, Wisdom involves intelligence or shrewdness. At another, it is about good sense, sound judgment, and moral understanding. At still another it is receiving instruction and responding obediently. This is Wisdom Literature so no one gets off the hook. In the parable both sons have made errors in judgement, violations of norms, acted disrespectfully and shown self willed arrogance. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Temple’s officials have made errors in judgement, violations of norms, acted disrespectfully and shown self willed arrogance.  

Now the scene might seem hard for us to believe it applies in a direct personal sense. Maybe we think of this parable as a handy moral tale parents can employ to make their boys feel guilty for not taking out the trash. But as good Bible readers we should step inside a scene to see what’s what. On the inside, the parable is about position and authority and how one responds. Although the chief priests and elders have been skeptical of John and Jesus, their continued rejection was their downfall.

So may I remind you what I said earlier that while this scene is framed to highlight the issue of religious authority and position in Israel, it applies also to the community of faith. And remember also in Wisdom literature no one gets off the hook. Wisdom always wants to know “Am I teachable”? So in Matthew’s teaching intention, disciples, you and I, need to come face to face with the parable’s examination of authority, errors in judgement, violations of norms, disrespectful acts and self willed arrogance.  The parable’s point is “It’s all very well to say I believe, but it means nothing if I’m not teachable, if I don’t live it out”. The difference between the sons is not what they say, but what they do. Such an unvarnished parable addresses the stark realities of self-willed disobedience and the inherent need for repentance. Now the temptation might be to identify with the first son like the temple officials. But the disciple is confronted as the tables are flipped by Wisdom literature. In Matthew’s thinking disciples are both these sons. At times we’re the second son: “Lord, Lord. Yes, yes. Sure, sure.” I’m good. And then we disappear. And at times, we’re the first son: “Ah, no, thanks, I don’t think so…/ leave me alone!” And when neither of these works, perhaps, we roll this spiritual excuse off our tongues “The dog ate my homework so I can’t”.

Now here is where it gets personal. I’ll close with some thoughts on the parable’s points about obedience/disobedience, trust, authority and discipleship. I’ll disclose some of Wisdom’s table flipping in my life and encourage you to reflect on yours. Matthew has laser focused on issues of religious position, authority and discipleship in this Temple scene. His questioning of position and authority led me to ponder seriously what I’m doing right now – a sermon. Here, I suggest, is Matthew’s underlying principle: Authority/position in discipleship and community is tested, proved, earned, lived. So the back and forth dialog in this week’s lesson reminds me that neither position nor authority should be taken for granted. Although a position with a history of authority is occupied, it doesn’t mean that authority is granted. It can be rejected, sometimes with good reasons. A preacher is granted a measure of authority. But it seems to me sermons have no authority if they do not compel a community to live their faith in a fundamentally different way, to tell others what matters, what is important, and what makes our lives so compelling so that we draw others in. The message of biblical faith teaches that we live in a disordered world. The problem of evil is a heart problem – a deeply embedded moral problem. The infusion of any social justice ideological chemotherapy will not eradicate that cancer. Gospel proclamation of the “way of justice” teaches transformation, holiness in living. Only Spirit infused biblical truth can awaken repentance in a broken heart. Only Spirit infused biblical truth has healing power. Do you see then the position, the authority to proclaim biblical truth is sacred. And I mean that. To deliver a sermon I have been invited into a pulpit that is holy. As soon as I think I deserve to be here, I have violated that space. The fact is I have been invited in by an authority that exists outside of me – a community of faith. And the burden on me is to earn the trust to be heard. Authority is derived from serving the community. This is why biblical position and authority is so different from what happens in a secularized culture. Secular authority isn’t built on trust or serving. It’s framed on power given to a defined position, on power out maneuvering the other side. And that’s why it is so devastating to the Temple, to a faith community when secular forms of authority/position creep in.  

And here is where it gets really personal. Discipleship is vineyard work. Discipleship involves obedience to the Father’s instruction. Discipleship begins in the vineyard of the household of faith. Discipleship in the vineyard is first and foremost about people. All too often discipleship in the vineyard involves common grace work, compassion work, mercy work, experiencing helplessness and suffering with others work. Here is where I teeter totter between the wisdom parable’s two sons. Perhaps I’ve said “No” too many times because I’m weary. At times during 50 years of ministry, the work has seemed overwhelming, life’s been too full of woundedness, the vineyard has seemed too difficult to care for. Perhaps I’ve said “No” because I take for granted that the Father will find someone else, that someone else’s “Yes” will meet the need to do the work. Perhaps because of my indifference I’ve taken for granted that harvest will come regardless. Perhaps because of my indifference I’ve taken for granted that the vineyard has no need for my labor – my mercy, my love, my caring. Or perhaps it is because I forget that the life I inhabit is also where work is needed, that I am part of a vineyard: I’m in need of nurture, in need of cultivation, in need of the pruning of Wisdom. Whatever the “perhaps…”, whatever the reasons, may my “No” become “Yes”, and my words become deeds. For I’m the Lord’s “Yes” – Jesus’ caring in action, Jesus’ presence in the vineyard which the Father so loves and is bringing to harvest.

Now my beloved may Jesus flip my/your views of responsiveness to discipleship of the Crucified, so that I/you work wisely in his vineyard.