Psalm 98 | Easter 3B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

A psalm.
1 Sing to YHWH a new song,
    for he has done miraculous things;
    his right hand and his holy arm
    have worked his salvation.
2 YHWH has made his salvation known
    and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
3 He has remembered his covenant loyalty
    his faithfulness to Israel;
   all the ends of the earth have seen
    the salvation of our God.

4 Shout for joy to YHWH, all the earth,
   burst into jubilant song with music;
5 make music to YHWH with the harp,
    with the harp and the sound of singing,
6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
    shout for joy before YHWH, the King.

7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
    let the mountains sing together for joy;
9 let them sing before YHWH,
    for he comes to judge the earth.
   He will judge the world in righteousness
    and the nations with equity.

Psalm 98

We’ll be in Psalm 98 this morning so please turn there in your Bible, device or prayerbook. All things considered, Psalm 98 is a very busy psalm. It’s one of the psalms used by the third stream in the Anglican realignment – the charismatic wing –  to construct the popular song “Our God Reigns” (others 47, 93, 96, 97, 99 and Isa. 52). It’s distinctive literary form, descriptive praise, situates it in the Jewish library as acknowledging who YHWH is, for what he does and how he does it. It’s a regular visitor to the Evening Prayer rotation between Mary’s and Simeon’s prayers. It’s read in all three lectionary years on the 3rd day after Christmas and it’s the psalm pre-set to the last Sunday in year C – Christ the King. On this Sunday, the lectionary sages have set Psalm 98 into the space between the resurrection and the ascension – the authorizing of Jesus to be King and Judge. 

The psalms were an early, formative part of my repentant redirection to Christian faith. In those ancient days there were recording devices called cassettes. Not sure where or how but I came into possession of three cassettes with the Psalms read from the King James translation by a voice actor – Alexander Scourby. Daily for close to three years in the truck I was amazed by the sounds, the rhythms, the lyrical qualities and ease with which those words were committed to memory.

But it took two other events, a few years later, before the seeds of those early plantings bloomed. The first actually had a profound effect on my entire educational experience – what I understand education intends to accomplish – broaden your horizon and amaze you with the jaw dropping wonder of it all. 

Stan and Laurie Grace were parishioners in Half Moon Bay Community Church. One Sunday after service, they asked if I would like to go flying with him some Saturday.  When that day came we drove to the airport between Moss Beach and the lighthouse at Pillar point. When he came out of the airport office, he had a large clipboard. It was a 5 page pre-flight checklist. About 20 mins into the checklist, he turned to me saying “you never want to fly higher than you want to fall”.  The deep breath I took was heard in the airport office!  I had only ever been in an airplane once but I noticed right off that I was looking out the front windshield of this plane. The best was yet to come. We circled Half Moon Bay before turning North. Flying along the cliffs, we seemed so small but I got a good look at Mavericks, the not-so-secret big wave surfing spot. Rounding the So. San Francisco peninsula – in the dazzling morning sun – suddenly, the Golden Gate bridge, the city’s skyline pierced by the Transamerica building, Oakland across the bay, over yonder the Pacific Ocean’s horizon and up ahead Marin – all this filled the windshield. From that day Stan delighted in telling anyone who would listen what a goof-ball I was – eyes wide open like a deer in the headlights, smiling like the Cheshire cat, foot thumping like Peter Rabbit’s, head turning ‘round like an owl, mouth twittering like a parakeet – Oh my, I was in love!

Some years later I was seated in a classroom with a bunch of high, maybe over-achievers under the watchful checklist of a rabbinic scholar learning Hebrew. Although the Joseph narrative was quite enough of a language challenge, thank you very much, twice a week he would turn to the psalms. Stressing the vocal character of the Jewish scriptures, he read and taught us to read out loud. I was amazed by the sounds, the rhythms, the lyrical qualities. Oh my, I was in love! 

In seminary, before I could fly, I had to turn the pages of the Hebrew language checklist for any given text: vocabulary, grammar, linguistics, reading aloud, literature and theology. The psalms became the runway of my graduate education – the subject of my dissertation. 

The horizon, the skyline, the golden bridge of the Word of God opened before me. It was deja vu, all over again. Oh my, I was in love! 

One of the first things I learned from my reading about and writing on the psalms  in seminary was:  praise in Israel is vocal, public prayer and congregationally intimate. But I am far from the first to know this. In the Easter Vigil message, I quoted the 4th cent. church leader Athanasius from a letter he wrote “the one who takes up the Psalms recognizes the words as being his/her own words. And the one who hears is deeply moved, as though he/she were speaking, and is affected by the words of the songs, as if they were his/her own songs” (Letter to Marcellinius).

Well, old scouts walk in old scouted paths. Here is some of what reading the Word of God, especially the Psalms, out loud has taught me. Reading out loud takes me back to the simplicity of those early, formative days listening to Scourby reading to me and the only thing expected of me was to take it in.  Although I now add in Hebrew, I haven’t laid aside English-ed versions, specifically the KJV. This translation’s beautiful verbal form involves harmonious, emotive, pleasing, at times, inspiring expressions. All the king’s men who translated the psalms were from Cambridge. They had a wonderful feel for rhythm, spacing and sounds. It’s my contention that sonic dimension is an important aspect of scripture’s overall “meaning”. So may I encourage you to take up your King James Bible and read the psalms aloud. Walk around your kitchen, your living room, your backyard. Take them in. Other things can come later. Along the scouted path, I learned reading aloud, even better, being read to, makes me a better listener. It takes effort to listen, taking each word and sentence captive. As someone who sometimes puts speed into the checklist, I often forget what pleasure I miss by not reading at a more leisurely pace. Sure reading out loud takes more time. But reading the Word of God aloud, as Athanasius notes, is intimate. Both the reader, listener and author share their words.  This is why from the very beginnings of my teaching Greek and Hebrew to students I have emphasised reading out loud. It opens up your vision to the word of God like sitting in a plane looking out of the windshield. It’s breathtaking. And here is for me one of the highlights of Anglican liturgy, we as a congregation reading aloud the psalms. Reading the Word of God out loud together creates in our liturgies a closeness, an intimacy not found in any other setting. Oh my, I’m in love. 

Well, why should Israel, the nations and all creation join in a celebration of YHWH’s kingship? The theme of Psalm 98’s majestic cadences enunciating the praise of YHWH is: he brings covenant faithfulness to the governance of Israel and the nations in the sight of all creation. The grandeur of the soundtrack plays out this way: vs. 1 is an imperative summons to people gathered in the Temple. They are invited to prayerfully rejoice at a summary of king YHWH’s saving acts for Israel in the sight of the Nations, vs. 2-3; vs. 4-8 widen the boundaries of acknowledgement to animate creation in an immense chorus of praise and, then, the psalmist closes with a theological lesson about the certainty of YHWH’s judgement, vs. 9.

In a world saturated with sin, oppression, confusion, and disorientation, Israel could be easily jolted out of rhythm with God, out of tune with others, and troubled by jarring discordant harmonies within themselves. The psalmist reminds the gathered people – the Lord’s hand and arm “have done miraculous things” (vs. 1). The public nature of YHWH’s “armed salvation” is a moving target, however. It’s not specified. And when we look closely at Israel’s historical/theological narrative we conclude that YHWH has “history” with Israel – intervening in events like the Exodus, the Wilderness, the conquest of Canaan, the united and divided Monarchy, the Exile and the Return. But on the other hand, we might be hard pressed to find a song in these stories.

Remember this Psalm’s theme – YHWH brings covenant faithfulness to the governance of Israel and the nations in the sight of creation. The theological vocabulary presented in word-pairs: salvation-righteousness (vs. 2); covenant loyalty-faithfulness-salvation(vs. 3); judgement-righteousness-equity(vs. 9) frame the psalm’s content and build a concert hall from the Sinai Covenant. In the Sinai Covenant, YHWH made an abiding, committed relationship of fidelity to Israel (Ex. 19.1-Num. 10.10; Deut.). Mutual promises/commitments, commands and stipulations stake out the ground of behavioral norms lived in accord with YHWH’s instruction and will. Every part of Israel’s life comes under YHWH’s governance and life giving purposes. He chose Israel and then remained loyal through thick and thin. Israel gave YHWH ever so many reasons to cut the strings that bound Him to them, but He never did. Israel’s every setback was repurposed for their eventual redemption. In the “covenant theatre” YHWH’s faithfulness, his righteousness, his public rescue gives Israel victory over themselves and their enemies. 

But the concert hall is bigger than we imagined. YHWH has demonstrated his faithfulness to Israel to “the ends of the earth”––which is a way of including “the nations” (v. 2). But the invitations to creation praise in vs. 4 -8 throw the doors wide open. Here come the boys in the band and the backup singers. As the dancers fill the floor, creation begins to jump and swing, rejoicing at YHWH’s saving faithfulness and righteousness.

Creation’s praise rightly celebrates YHWH’s saving acts. But the psalmist turns down the volume in the Temple and creation: Sing but don’t lose sight of this theological lesson – YHWH comes to judge the earth and the nations in righteousness with equity (vs. 9). His righteous, equitable judgment will be a welcome relief for Israel, the nations and creation. We benefit by plugging these words into the covenant relationship not politicised legal systems. Both righteousness and judgement spotlight “to govern”, that is, effective covenantally guided actions bringing about order and appropriate behaviors. All the stuff of integrity. And note this – equity is part of the rich word group in Israel’s Wisdom literature. YHWH’s kingly rule is not crooked, but evenhanded, balanced with a firm sense of right and wrong. There is nothing capricious or arbitrary about the Lord’s governance. 

Now how do we move from vocal public congregational Temple praise to vocal public congregational Christian praise?  Well, let’s start at vs. 3:  “He (YHWH) has remembered his covenant loyalty, his faithfulness to Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God”. YHWH  has proven faithful to covenant obligations made to Israel and demonstrates that faithfulness even further in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Davidic Messiah. And then let’s factor in the psalmist’s lesson in vs. 9 “let them sing before YHWH, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the nations with equity”.  After the resurrection, the vindicated messiah, Jesus, becomes Lord and Judge at the Ascension (Lk. 24.50-53; Ac. 1.9-11). At the Ascension, Jesus is “lifted up” for the third time. In contrast to the cross’s “lifting up” now the words over his throne are entirely appropriate “Lord of All”. And it’s not a zealot next to him but he is seated at the right hand of the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7). In line with the resurrection’s “lifted up”, the Ascension’s “lifted up” acknowledges Jesus’ many sided redemptive victory gives him authority to govern and to judge. I am aware of the tension between the present and the future. There will come a day, an eternally serious day, when Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. And there is an eternally serious present. The ascension positions Jesus to do deeply profound actions. 

So I want to address some of the activities of Jesus’ ascension. The ascension sets in motion the powerful presence of the Spirit as told in Luke-Acts (Lk. 24.50-51; Ac. 1.7-9). By the Spirit Jesus empowers and guides believers in everyday events.

Judgment, power, authority – not very popular topics in church culture. Again, here is where we need to factor in the biblical worldview set up in the NT. The seating of a victorious Jesus on a throne is a subversion of popular notions of power. And we see that imaged for us in Revelation 5 where John the revelator is told to “Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed”. But when he looks all he sees is a Lamb, looking as if it had been sacrificed, now standing, alive, at the center of a throne. And then he sees the Numinous and the Noble encircling the throne bowing and singing: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and praise! To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor, glory and power, for ever and ever! (Rev. 5: 5, 6, 9, 12-13). In the biblical worldview, Jesus as King and Judge is not just another overpowering authority. On the throne, King Jesus judges Israel, the nations, that’s us, with authority derived from salvation acts, sacrificial obedience, forgiveness, reconciliation.The intention is to open our hearts to experience the guidance of the living God.

But few of us understand how compromised we are, how stained by sin, how self-promoting, self-interested we are, how bent out of shape our human identity really is. So how does Jesus’ power get to a person’s heart? Because Jesus – the Word of God, the creator – is wrapped in humanity (Jn. 1.1-3, 14). By the victory of the cross/resurrection, by forgiveness, Jesus has reconciled individuals to God (2 Cor. 5.16-21). He is seated as the reality of what it means to be fully human -male and female- in the divine presence. There is an ascended  savior, a real human person, sitting in the presence of nuclear holiness, advocating, defending, rescuing, faithfully pleading forgiveness (1 Jn. 2.1-2, Heb. 7.26-8.2). The ascension, then, is not a power play but intended to transform a heart, intended to produce a lightness in a believer’s step in a conflicted world, intended to put lives before the throne of the Lord of All and ask him to judge, that is, to remove all those problematic bits and pieces and to gift believers with the Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control so we can live life to the fullest (Gal. 5.22). 

A Christian’s confidence and assurance are grounded in Jesus’ ascension.  Believer’s are assured of welcome, encouraged to trust in Jesus’s faithfulness to transform their lives to live in holiness. This relationship is open to anyone for the asking. Once you accept that relationship, you come face to face with the person who covenantally guides relationships, face to face with the person behind the cross and the resurrection, face to face with the Spirit behind the gift giving. Now you can grasp why Christians gather with others. Corporate Christian worship is an expression of deeply embedded gratitude and humility, erupting out of forgiven hearts as we pray and worship the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Oh my, I’m in love!

Psalm 130 | Easter Vigil Year B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

1  Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
2  Lord, hear my voice.
    Let your ears be attentive
       to my cry for mercy.

3 If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
4 But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

5 I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
    From all their sins.

Psalm 130

Please turn in your Bible, device or prayer book to Psalm 130. We know the very careful balance of biblical lessons begun in Lent originally incorporated the last Sunday of Lent – Passion Sunday. These sweeping lessons find their great commemoration in the structures and ceremonies of Holy Week. In the early church and in the centuries following, Christians have marked Holy Week with signs and symbols that point not only to the solemnity of the Passion, but also to the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. For example, the Gospel Lesson from the last Sunday of Lent ended with comments about light and darkness (Jn. 12.35-36). In Holy Week, Wednesday’s ancient service Tenebrae plays to “darkness”. The traditional practice extinguished 15 candles one by one, until only one remained burning. That single burning candle was taken from its stand and placed behind the table to symbolize Jesus in his tomb but it was not extinguished as death has no dominion over him, even in the grave. This darkness/light imagery is reinforced again in the rites and lessons of the Easter Vigil. 

From Good Friday afternoon until the vigil on Holy Saturday night – darkness has settled in. 

Remember, in our reading/listening, it was yesterday when the soldiers nailed Jesus to a cross between two zealots. As the soldiers bartered, his mother and others stood nearby. Darkness began to settle over the land. But it was a darkness that reflected spiritual darkness settling over the crucifixion. Now maybe Judean and Roman leaders and some in the gathered crowd sensed they had achieved their goal. The darkness ironically images their idea of their victory over Jesus the light. The sharp stab of truth’s light was about to be extinguished -they thought. He was cursed by YHWH because, remember, “cursed is everyone who is hanged” (Dt. 21.23).  So there he was cursed for everyone to see. They figured nothing he ever said or did could have meaning after this. Very dark- indeed!

Now I call your attention to the opening of our vigil lesson – Psalm 130. “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy”. It’s still darkness – all over! But this time, it’s different. This time it’s personal. Made alive by the Spirit we are now positioned to take up our cross and follow Jesus. And one of our cross experiences will involve coming face to face with the dark, swirling chaos of sin in our lives. And the light of forgiveness and mercy. And now I ask you to give me a wide place in the road. In a few minutes I will walk us through the psalm into the vigil’s baptism and eucharist services. Our walk will be in the shadow of two 4th century church “influencers’  – Hilary, who wrote a commentary on psalm 130 and his colleague Athanasius who says: “He who takes up the Psalms recognizes the words as being his own words. And the one who hears is deeply moved, as though he himself were speaking, and is affected by the words of the songs, as if they were his own songs” (letter to Marcellinius). Any failure to rise to their spirited heights is all on me. Now I will ask you to put on an historical robe – that of a catechumen. We’ve finished our training and instruction. Lent has focused our formation. We’re about to be baptized and admitted into the congregation. We’ll participate in the Eucharist for the very first time. Psalm 130 will embody the final exhortations to us. 

The Sinai covenant laid the groundwork for Israel’s faith and prayer. The covenant turned YHWH’s newly delivered people into a community of servant priests and witnesses. It’s saving aspects define faith, grace, mercy, forgiveness and redemption. The intensity of Israel’s care to maintain a functioning relationship with YHWH is expressed in the psalms. The psalms are grounded in the good news that in the covenant YHWH has presented and revealed himself as God with us – now, for us, in his greatest expression in Jesus.

Psalms are vocal, public and congregational prayers cast in poetic language –  language consciously crafted to be as beautiful an expression of meaning as possible.That is, the psalmists crafted poetic beauty and intended the music of their words to echo among the Temple’s beautiful arches. The psalms, the word of God, are the music of the soul – mind, heart, prayerful spirit, body, emotions- all acting simultaneously. The vast expanse of human experiences in the psalms pull the hearer/reader into the world, not out of it.

Poet’s and prayers don’t always play by the rules so trying to categorize the psalms is something of an exercise in herding cats. Over the years Jewish editors have labelled the final collections “praises” but 58 of that final150 are laments. Psalm 130 is a lament expressing deep sorrow for sin and asking the Lord for forgiveness and help. 

Laments initially begin by expressing a disrupted or impaired relationship. So they are at their greatest intensity when the psalmist is face to face with YHWH “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden”. Prayer offered “out of the depths” is instructive because it reminds us of the key role petition and complaint play in biblical prayer. They appeal to the vulnerable side of people – long melodic lines expose the speaker’s interior struggle with hardship, hurt, loss. Their candid honesty moves above, beyond handwringing until resolve emerges to wash away the grit of daily life. This is why laments are actually prayers of hope, uttered in hope, in humility – confident YHWH will hear and act. Laments, then, are not a sign of deficient faith but are basic to the very nature of faith. The evidence of a psalmist’s adjustments/readjustments has a familiar literary form: 1) A cry for help: Things are not right. It’s intolerable! 2) a confession of sin:They don’t have to stay this way, I confess…. 3) a confession of trust: YHWH, it’s your obligation to change things and 4) an exhortation to the Congregation: YHWH is faithful. 

Now dear catechumens, Psalm 130 is for all of us. The vigil’s lessons have spoken to us the salvation story about the Lord’s faithfulness throughout Israel’s sometimes lighted, sometimes darkened history. The living word of God is instructive to our daily lives as we undertake to serve and obey the Lord: You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: you will love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the prophets. 

The vigil’s lessons have ended with a psalm that calls us to pause:  “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy” (vs. 1).  The Psalmist has searched and applied to the recesses of his heart a skilful, cold scalpel. He confesses to discovery of an open break, a sinfulness has bent the needle of his moral compass. No illusory optimism here. Being a guilty sinner is not popular thinking today. Sin and its guilt have lost meaning in the pounding waves of materialism and secularism. It is not about social circumstances but about guilty sinners before a holy God. There is nothing deeper, darker than the swampy mess into which our own sin pulls us. 

Now dear catechumens, you will experience open breaks, There will be times when you are in the dark. There will be times when you feel your relationship hangs on a thread of divine compassion. Just ask anyone in the community. But know this. Confession leading to repentance is the key to unlock forgiveness. Christians are by definition sinners who confess their sins. If there’s one skill you will need to hone as a maturing believer, it must be confession seeking mercy and forgiveness: Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone, We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your son Jesus Christ have mercy on us and forgive us that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways to the Glory of your name, Amen.

None of us come to this point because we are more insightful, not just as deceived in darkness as everyone else,  just as committed to darkness as anyone else. Forgiveness offered by Jesus comes at a price – his crucifixion. Don’t be pushed off by it. Jesus does this for everyone who believes. Otherwise no one would believe. 

Now dear, catechumens, You are about to stand before the baptismal font where you will profess your faith.  Baptism is a sacrament, a visual act conveying the importance of forgiveness. Structurally it is a climax in the vigil as you pass through the grave, the gate of death with Christ.  Situated in the Easter vigil, Baptism is a sacrament, a visual act uniting you with him in resurrection, the symbol of eternity and the day of the Lord’s judgement. You are to be a new creation committed to living a new, a moral, a holy life, having made all things new. 

In the plea’s emotional force, the psalmist confidently believes the Lord is present in the “depths”. The Psalmist has admitted he has sinned. Now, dear catechumens, we might be inclined to think he can’t, shouldn’t even darken the Temple’s doorway. Ah, but confession/repentance is the key that unlocked the door to his forgiveness. Even in such pits as we dig ourselves, our sins are not deep enough to hide our cries from the Lord.  The Lord is one whose nature is to forgive “But with you there is forgiveness (vs. 4a). As is characteristic of the voices in the psalms, point of view is required, if we are to understand. This psalm is a careful statement about the Lord’s character not the psalmist’s. And the key to this is found in vs. 3-8. In vs. 3 the psalmist asks If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand?” The only answer is “No one.” And in vs.4 he reminds us  “But with you, Lord, there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you”. While the Lord is a God who marks or watches sin, he is also a God who forgives. Verses 5-6 are the confession of trust: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope”. To wait is to live expectantly, with awareness of how the Lord has acted in the past and with keen anticipation of what he is about to do. Waiting is the opposite of despair and hopelessness. So in vss. 7-8, the psalmist tells us the Lord is not the kind of god under whose watch sinners wither: “Israel, put your hope in the Lord,  for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is plenteous redemption.  He himself redeems Israel from all their sins”. Forgiveness, mercy and “plenteous redemption” as Coverdale has translated that most important theological word  ‘Hesed” characterize who the Lord is. The Lord remains faithful when we’re in the abyss. The Lord is not to be feared because of judgement’s wrath but we, because of Christ’ crucifixion/resurrection, stand in awe, in humility at holiness that forgives – at love not wrath – at welcome not rejection – at mercy not condemnation – at redemption not judgement.  Fearful is the Lord’s “plenteous redemption” because it grasps individuals out of the depths. 

Tonight, for the first time, at the Lord’s table, you will join up with other pilgrims who have been “grasped out of the depths”. Throughout this psalm you have been invited to put your hope in a relationship with the Lord who listens, who forgives, with whom there is faithfulness and great power to redeem (vs. 7). And now you will acknowledge this at the table for the first time saying:  

We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord so to eat the flesh of your dear son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood and that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us. Amen 

Now the psalmist has fashioned for you, catechumens, and the whole community, a prayer, giving us a profound understanding of grace, forgiveness, redemption and covenant faithfulness. A characteristic of the forgiven is conveying this forgiveness to others, sharing the experience so that others may join in the wonder of forgiveness: and now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord. 
We do theology in the light so we can stand on it in the dark. So dear beloved catechumens, Welcome into the light. Welcome into the community of the Beloved. Christos anesti. Alethos anesti. Alleluia. Christ is risen. Truly, He is risen. Alleluia.

Good Friday Meditation | Year B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

And they crucified Jesus with two Zealots
One of the crucified Zealots sneered at Jesus saying: 
     Aren’t you the Messiah? 
     Get us off this Roman tree!
Suddenly, the other crucified Zealot said:
     Don’t, Don’t
     Don’t  you fear the Lord?
     We deserve this,
          but He - He has done nothing amiss.
And Jesus spoke to that Zealot:
     Where’ve you been?
          shaking his head, I’d all but given up.
     In many dreams I've held you near,
     Now, at last, you're really here.
     Where've you been?
     I've looked for you along wilderness paths 
                             and on city streets.
     Where've you been?
     I'm just not myself when you're away.
     You can be with me in the Garden, today.
And the Zealot said:
     I’ve seen the morning burning golden on the mountain, 
                  aching with feeling for freedom like the eagle.
     Turning on the world,  
     Dreaming was as easy as believing 
               it was never gonna end,
               easier than anything I'll ever do again,
     Waking in the morning ,
     Wiping out traces of the people and places that I’ve been.
     Talking of yesterday, talking of tomorrow that I thought would never end.
And Jesus said to the Zealot:
     You’ve walked a lonely path.
     Oh, how very far you are from home.
     You’ve walked in the shadows.
     Your dreams are swept with fear.
     Your heart has filled with sadness,
            with darkness drawing near
     If the winds of disaster
     Have blown through your night,
           and the dreams you’ve cherished can't begin to take flight,
     Take my hand in the sunlight.
And the Zealot cried out:
     Lord, help me, Jesus.
     Why me, Lord, what have I ever done?
     Lord, help me Jesus.
     What did I ever do to deserve what you've done?
     Lord, help me, Jesus, I've wasted it so.
     Now that I know that I need you so.
     Help me, Jesus, my life's in your hand.
     Remember me, Jesus, when you come into your land!
And Jesus said:
     Today, you will be with me in the Garden.

(with thanks to Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Kathy Mattea and Dion)

John 12.20-36 | Lent 5B Passion Sunday

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

Please turn in your Bible or device to John ch. 12. In its narrative context, our lesson is the final event that sets in motion the final week of Jesus’ ministry and life. Until the liturgical renewals of the 1950’s-60’s  this last Sunday of Lent had been identified most often as “Passion Sunday”. The first entry for “passion” in James Murray’s priceless contribution, the Oxford English Dictionary, reads “…chiefly a word of Christian theology”….”the sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross”. Now you may be thinking “hold on, wait a minute. We’re a week out from those parts of our Christian liturgy”. And you’re right if we stop reading the OED there. Passion is a flexible word so farther down the column we read this entry “…any kind of feeling by which the mind is powerfully affected or moved; a vehement, commanding or overpowering emotion”. This meaning for  “passion” brings emotional depth to “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I pray for? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? (vs. 27a). Jesus is here voicing the sharper edge of obedience. A fitting end to Lent as I hope to show.

Closer reading reveals that the scene in our lesson is an expansion of the Pharisee’s exasperation “Look, this is getting us nowhere. The whole world is going after him” from ch. 12.19. Playing off their frustration, John records some Greeks want to meet with Jesus (12.20). We assume the men and women who make up the “Greeks” are not Jews, proselytes or God-fearers. So let me propose they might be what the Pew Trust survey could call religious but not spiritual – “first century Greco-Roman Nones” – persons on a package tour who have come to Jerusalem and its Temple for the Passover Festival.

These Gentiles want to fill in their tour with a “meet and greet”. Being a Gentile in Judea in the Second Temple Period mixed acceptance with suspicion.  We might suppose there was some uncertainty about approaching Jesus the Jew directly so they decide on an indirect approach. They talk with someone who speaks Greek, has a Greek name, Philip. Well they made their request to Philip but he turned and pulled his brother Andrew in. The two of them then go to Jesus and ask him, “Lord, do you have a minute? Some Greek religious tourists want to talk with you”. Close reading of the scene reveals that we don’t know if they get the “meet and greet”. 

But from the following narrative, we do know he responds to them in a way that cuts right through to the heart of what matters for Gentiles, Judeans and us. This Gospel is simple about simple truth but it is stubborn about subtle truth. What I mean by this: in the hands of such a skilled writer as John reading isn’t always like the “clear, crystal clear” exchange between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. Even a casual reading of the Fourth Gospel involves us in “hmmm. I wonder what this means?” Part of John’s genius, then, is his openness but also his elusiveness, his playing with words.

Jesus turns to the Gentiles, the disciples and the gathered crowd and doubles down with his final public teaching. He wants to zero in on the implications/results of his crucifixion death and resurrection as the only, the singular way to experience the relationship of YHWH as Father. But he begins his final teaching with a proverb – planting seeds and the expected harvest. They and we know seeds “falling into the ground, that is, being planted; their dying, that is, decaying is all part of the process in producing a harvest.

Now they and we also know proverbs aren’t about planting and harvests at all. That’s why Jesus drills down into the soil of that imagery to draw out his kingdom thoughts on death and life (vs. 25-26), suffering and obedience (vs. 27-30), crucifixion and its results (vs. 31-36) with scattered discipleship invitations (vs. 26, 35-36).

Jesus uses the proverb to bury his audience’s fragile, vulnerable preoccupation with life/death in a decaying culture (vs. 25-26). Jesus is challenging the cultural way of thinking and defining life/death. And may I say, as an aside, each year close attention to our Lenten formation has us considering this very same challenge. Life and death are more than biological functions. Notice “Life eternal” stands in sharp contrast to life “in this world.”  Life “in this world” is provisional and contingent. They/we are always on the lookout for things that we want to believe will give us life. “Life eternal” is living in a new dimension of life–the really real, as opposed to the fake life advertised to be real “in this world.” The person who loves this life, seeking to retain it, really destroys it. Self-interest and self-preservation are ultimately self-defeating because of death. The harder one tries to live for self, the less of life one really has, until at the end – death- there is nothing left of it at all, and one has nothing to show for it. The Father’s path to life involves weaning us from the world – the love of things that pass away, sometimes by taking them away. His intention is for us to learn to rely on the One who raises the dead, to learn to cling to him for life because in him only is there life. In the Bible’s way of thinking about death for the believer. Death leads to life not death. Death is only a stopover. Here is proverbial Wisdom: In order to have/give life you must be prepared to lay down your life. The point of following Jesus, then, is that we might be drawn more deeply into the kingdom through our love for, service to, and sacrificial dying on behalf of those around us. In the Bible’s way of thinking, life is measured by what is in the heart, by servant actions of love and generosity that flow from the heart. Jesus invites not only the Greeks but everyone, who is Jesus curious to death, servanthood and discipleship “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me”.(vs. 26).

But vs. 27-30 block the pathway to life, discipleship and servanthood with the cross. It’s just ahead. And as a reminder, we’re also standing with Jesus in the doorway to Holy Week. The approach of Greeks confirms the timer is on. The Hour is ticking down!  In Jesus’ interpretation of the proverb, the noun “hour”, the verb “glorify”,  the Gospel’s other word for light, and the verb “lifted up” play key roles.  His death on the cross will glorify God. How so?  It will affirm the death of Jesus, the Word of God, reveals the self-giving love of the Father. From ch. 2 onward, John has used “hour” to describe Jesus’ commitment to the Father’s purposes. The Greeks approach draws the shadow of the cross over his commitment. Jesus must now travel the Calvary road and be “lifted up” – code for crucifixion. 

But for Jesus it’s more than nouns and verbs! At vs. 27-28 there is an abrupt change in mood. We’ve now come to the reason for calling this Passion Sunday. And may I say to you, it should be for us more than reading sentences in this Gospel or in the creeds. The gravity of the situation, the havoc, the convulsion of facing a raw, hideous crucifixion death is painfully pleaded “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I pray for? ‘Father, save me from this hour’?” (vs. 27a).  Revisiting “passion” from the OED “…chiefly a word of Christian theology”…any kind of feeling by which the mind is powerfully affected or moved; a vehement, commanding or overpowering emotion”. We can and should put such feeling to the burden of Jesus’ emotional tension in his commitment to obedience. Jesus’ crucifixion is the revelation of sin in its most hellacious form. He is standing in the winds of crucifixion’s furious hurricane. Obedience in this instance might feel not only insane but impossible. I believe John expects us to pause for a moment as Jesus shrinks back. But only for a moment because Jesus digs down deep. Forcefully, he replies “No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (vs. 27b-28).  Jesus’ crucifixion is the revelation of love in its most self-giving form. How else can we begin to understand obedience if not here?

Our emotions influence what we say and do. If you are fortunate enough to be over thirty, then I’m probably preaching to the choir.  You’re probably willing to acknowledge that emotions have been/are central to your life – providing joy, alerting you to threats, at times a force for change, at other times a warning, sometimes even helping you to call out to others for help. And as you well know from experience, most times you don’t choose what to feel, let alone when to feel. 

I suggest Jesus’ grief, sorrow, death and obedience have a lot to teach us.  Candidly, in my experiences with death, tears are companions for days, nights, weeks, even years after. It also seems to me in the shadow of death, faith can be strangely hidden. When I’m struggling under a cloud of hurt, loss and death, can I still say I have faith? Most of the time I have struggled to find that answer. But I do think Jesus is pointing at an answer. Firstly, Jesus relates to individuals and communities from obedience, dedication and service. Jesus viscerally experienced the terror of the cross. John’s portrayal of Jesus’ deeply moving dedication in vs. 27-28 shows us how much suffering and death actually affect him.  Pain will be real, even for the triumphant, confident Jesus of John. The cross is a place of passion, about sin, about judgement but also about divine love, about redemption. The tracks of our tears, our suffering are the paths along which Jesus now draws out life in us. Not the kind of mirror we might choose to stand before too often. But still worth the Lenten reflection. Secondly, Christian resurrection hope is physical. The Bible doesn’t say in death we’re leaving Kansas to go to some Oz out there where all is colorful and magical. The Bible actually says through the resurrection Oz is coming to Kansas. It’s not YHWH’s intention to replace Kansas but rather transform it into the best Kansas there could ever be. As St. Paul writes: resurrection’s end game is for all creation to be reconciled to YHWH with all things “gathered up” in Jesus (Eph. 1:10).  Thirdly, our experiences in suffering, sorrow are intended to create in us a vulnerable heart moving us to become more than spectators watching a procession. We, who are a Jesus community, are in his resurrection procession. By the Spirit we are made alive with compassion, vulnerability and hope for the grieving in the face of suffering, even death.  We are empowered to be as vulnerable as he was in comforting and serving those walking in the shadows of suffering and death. Concentrated into a single verb “lifted up” is the sweeping unity of salvation – crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.  “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself,” (vs. 32-33). Jesus interpreted “lifted up” as the Christus Victor release of divine reconciling love. Jesus’ death was the exposure of human sinfulness – his resurrection – proof of his vindication as righteous and the whole event as a disempowering of the prince of this world. 

Now John 12. 28b records YHWH’s voiceover statement supporting Jesus but the larger crowd didn’t make the connection (vs. 29). For some of the Judeans in the crowd, however, the penny does drop and the light does come on about Jesus’ messianic claims. “Hold on, they say,  We’ve always been taught that when Messiah showed up, he’d remain with us forever. So what’s all this talk about death and departures? Do you want to be the Messiah or don’t you? The Messiah’s not going to die. He’s going to become an important political personage, an influencer whose voice is needed at this crucial time”. (vs. 34).

 Clearly the cross was and remains to this very hour the obstacle to accepting Jesus as Israel’s messiah and a Gentile’s only savior. So concluding his teaching, Jesus exhorts the hearers to “walk in the Light” because it’s twilight. Light is fading. John, showing how little light is left writes  “When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them (vs. 36). The Fourth Gospel makes it clear the Light that penetrates people’s lives when Jesus speaks leaves nowhere for Gentile, Jew or us to hide.  The substance of light in biblical thinking is obedience worked out in holiness, morality and truth. So the sharp stab of light that shines into the world provokes a response – either you come to the light or shrink back into the darkness. Jesus asks us to let go of the darkness. Walk in the light. 

Now Beloved, why have the lectionary sages chosen this reading for the  last Sunday of Lent? Why does John record for us Jesus’ final words framed in an agricultural proverb? It’s because they/he want to plant into the listener’s heart seeds of Biblical truth. It’s time to realize that since the first century until this day, it’s darkness in a world that’s lost its way.  So how can we as individuals in a faith community live out “lighted, crucifixion/resurrection servanthood” in the midst of darkness? The Passion of Jesus in vs. 27-28 is a call out for our committed participation in suffering and resurrection. Listen in on the writer of the letter to the Hebrews “While he lived on earth, anticipating death, Jesus cried out in pain and wept in sorrow as he offered up priestly prayers to God. Because he honored God, God answered him. Though he was God’s Son, he learned trusting-obedience by what he suffered, just as we do” (5.7-9). Through our obedient commitment, Jesus will find ways through his deeply experienced passion to bring healing and hope to others in suffering, pain. Through us, – the holding of a hand, our prayers with/for someone lost in unbelief’s darkness, a visit with someone in the midst of painful frustration, in a hospital, in terminal illness, a meal brought to a family in need – in any of these/more than these ways Jesus is present through us in the lives of others. To live a “lighted” Christian life always involves serious commitment to obedience. The Lord’s resurrection light is not part of the world’s electrical grid. There will be no rolling blackouts but sometimes people will want to flip the switch off. Get this clearly in our mind. Our walking obediently in crucifixion/resurrection light is the only remedy for the world’s darkness. To live, we must die, to walk in the light, we must die. We must walk in the light because, like Jesus, we must be passionately committed to help someone find their way out of the darkness. This is why Passion Sunday is the doorway to Holy Week.

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.


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.
    • 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.
    • 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.