That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: Advent

“One who is more powerful than I is coming…”

Rembrandt_-_Preaching_of_Saint_John_the_Baptist_-_Gemäldegalerie_Berlin

(“The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist”, Rembrandt, 1634/45)

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Well what do you think of John the Baptist’s “good news”? That’s what St Luke the Evangelist calls the strange, disturbing passage we’ve heard this morning.

At the end of John’s tirade, Luke tells us, “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”

I’ll ask again: what do you think of John’s “good news”?

His words are harsh words—words of judgment, words of condemnation, words of wrath. He calls his listeners snakes, counts them no better than scattered stones, compares them to unfruitful trees, and commands them to change their lives, utterly and completely, no matter who they are or what they do for a living.

Most startling of all, John warns that his whole ministry—his ranting and his raving and his baptizing out in the wilderness—is merely preparation for someone else who is coming: and from John’s description offered here, that someone else seems, if possible, even more unsettling and terrifying than John himself.

And all of this is called “good news” by Luke the Gospel-writer.

How can that be? How can this difficult, troubling Gospel passage actually contain a joyful, life-giving Gospel message—an announcement that is truly Good News?

If we would find the Good News in our passage this morning we must begin where John begins: with the possibility of repentance. The key to understanding this passage lies hidden within the very concept that causes us to squirm. For if John’s call to repentance is what makes us fear him and want to turn away from him, John’s call to repentance is also an announcement of great Good News.

The possibility of repentance is always Good News, if only we can hear it. For wrapped up in the summons to repent is both an acknowledgement that things have gone wrong and an opportunity to set them right again. The exhortation to repent is always a word of both justice and mercy—both the stern warning that the path we are pursuing will lead to destruction, and the loving invitation to turn around, to turn back, to turn again and escape the fate we have made for ourselves with our words and deeds.

The call to repentance is hard news, because it confronts us with the justice of a God who cannot abide evil. But the call to repentance is also Good News, because it comforts us with the love of a God “who desireth not the death of [sinners], but rather that [we] may turn from [our] wickedness and live.”

Repentance was John’s mission and message. He proclaimed to the people who came out to him and the wilderness—and by all accounts a great many did come out to him in the wilderness—the possibility of change: of living in a new and better way.

When the crowds—crowds including hated tax-collectors and cruel soldiers—came to him in fear and trembling, knowing that they had made messes of their lives and yet desperate to set things to rights, John could actually give them something to do.

“Live lives of humble generosity!” John said. “Don’t take advantage of your power and position!” John said. “Dwell content with what you have been given!” John said.

In John’s call to repentance, we hear a message of hope; an announcement that things can be different; a promise that people need not live forever in the weary wickedness of their old, warped ways. In John’s call to repentance we hear the beginning of Good News.

But it is only just the beginning of Good News.

For if John brings the assurance that change is possible, he also forces us to ask, plainly and honestly, whether change has occurred. What happens when we set the possibility of transformation alongside the record of our human reality—either our individual realities or the reality of our world? What happens when we widen our focus from looking merely at the invitation to live better, fuller, more faithful lives, and turn to see how and when and whether that invitation has been accepted?

If repentance is possible, then why haven’t we done it?

For you and I know that we are called to share of our goods and resources with which God has blessed us. Why then do we guard so fiercely our material wealth and the security it brings us?

You and I know that we are called to sacrifice our own advantages—our own power and privilege—for the sake of lifting up the lowly and the least. Why then do we cling so tightly to our positions and pretensions?

You and I know that we are called to live lives of contentment and satisfaction. Why then do we grasp so greedily and strive so relentlessly and work unendingly and worry unceasingly after the things we do not have but for which we lust and crave?

Over all these things, John the Baptist has spoken a word of judgment this morning. Have you heeded his warning? I confess that I often ignore it.

John has set before us the mercy and patience of a God who waits for us to return to him. Have you seized that opportunity? I fail to each day.

John has called us to repentance. Have you borne fruits worthy of that call? Beloved, in the light of this morning’s passage I look with shame on the bare branches of my heart and find myself tempted to despair.

For if the possibility of repentance is all that John the Baptist has to proclaim, then indeed our initial suspicions were right: there is no Good News here at all.

But John himself does not end his message with merely a call to repent. The possibility of repentance is not all that John has to proclaim.

For while John’s mission and ministry was all about repentance, repentance was never an end in itself.

Yes, he proclaimed the Good News of God’s justice and mercy. But he did so in preparation for a new and more startling expression of that justice—for a new and better working out of that mercy.

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Someone is coming, says John, who can do more than symbolically wash away the sins that cling to us so closely. Someone is coming, says John, who has the power to wash us and purge us and cleanse us within. Someone is coming, says John, who can remake us and renew us by the outpouring of his Holy Spirit.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Terrifying as this sounds, beloved, this is the best news we hear this morning!

John does not leave his hearers—John does not leave us!—scrambling and struggling for a repentance that we can never fully achieve. But John announced then and John announces now that God himself is coming to complete the work that we cannot even begin without God’s help.

God is coming to effect the transformation we know we need but cannot possibly accomplish on our own.

God is coming, and he will sift us as wheat is sifted: breaking away that which is useless and worthless from each individual grain, and preserving for his use that which he has given for his good purposes.

For the full extent of John’s Good News this morning—the full extent of the Good News for all time, dear people—is that the God who cannot abide our sin has come himself to bear the penalty of our sin. The God who calls us to repent is working in us to bring about the fruits of repentance. The God who made each of us for a purpose is coming to fulfill that purpose in each of us and all of us.

“Our hope and expectation,

O Jesus, now appear!

Arise, thou Sun so longed for,

above this darkened sphere!

With hearts and hands uplifted,

we plead, O Lord, to see

the day of earth’s redemption,

and ever be with thee!”1

AMEN.

1-Verse 3 of “Rejoice! rejoice, believers”, Hymn 68, The Hymnal 1982

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Who are you?

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 14, 2014

by the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Who are you?

That’s the deceptively simple question posed by the priests and Levites in today’s Gospel passage. They have come down from Jerusalem—down from the precincts of the Temple and from the carefully ordered life of the Holy City—into the wilderness. They have come down to ask John the Baptist that three-word question: “Who are you?”

But the very fact that they have come all this way—the fact that they have left the seat of their own power and prestige to interrogate a wild prophet in a wild place—shows just how important the question is, and how much is riding on John’s answer.

“Who are you?”

Perhaps for some of them it is a hopeful, expectant question. Will John reveal that he is the long-awaited Messiah, the long-awaited redeemer of the nation of Israel, the long-awaited rescuer of the people of God?

“Who are you?”

Surely for some of them it is an anxious, fearful question. Will John challenge their authority as the religious leaders of the nation, upending their orderly traditions and taking away the power of their privilege—the prestige of their position?

“Who are you?”

So much is at stake in that simple, powerful question. Their future, John’s fate, and the destiny of God’s chosen people all hang on John’s reply.

Two thousand years later, that question has not lost its power. “Who are you?” is a question that you and I face frequently, sometimes with the direct accusation heard in the voices of the priests and Levites, and sometimes subtly, quietly, implicitly. It is a question we hear from others who want to understand us better, and it is a question we pose to ourselves in the quiet of our own hearts. It is a question we answer constantly, both through our words and in our deeds—with our priorities and by our decisions.

“Who are you?”

The question comes, and I might answer with a nod to my national identity, saying simply that I am an American, a citizen of “one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

Or I could answer with respect to my education, pointing to the schools and institutions that have molded my mind and shaped my character.

Or I could answer with reference to my family, defining myself through the long line of those who came before me (which, I’ve come to realize, is a very popular choice here in South Carolina) or by the great web of those now living who mean the most to me.

Or I could answer by describing my work—the satisfaction I derive from my labors, the self-esteem I gain through the faithful use of my gifts.

“Who are you?”

There are so many ways to answer that basic, essential question. And yet, in these final months of 2014, what we find is that many of our safe, standard answers have begun to crack and crumble.

“Who are you?” comes the question, as this weary year draws to a close.

If we answer by citing our identity as Americans—by pointing to the values that define us as a people and to the commitments we hold most sacred—then surely the last days and weeks in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, and Washington, D.C., and all across our nation must give us pause. Can we still claim to be a nation with liberty and justice for all? Do we still recognize ourselves amidst the swirling turmoil of racial unrest, and in the face of serious questions about the fairness and equality of our justice system? How do we understand ourselves and our principles in light of the revelation this week that the use of torture in the War on Terror—torture done in my name and in your name—was far more widespread than we first realized? Those of us who claim the name “American” must surely now begin to ask ourselves, “Who are you? Who are we? Who am I?”

Or what about the schools and institutions that shape our lives? The last month has been filled with news of disturbing allegations about student behavior at one of our nation’s most prestigious universities. Whatever the veracity of the claims that lit this conflagration, the firestorm of pain and betrayal burns on as each day as and more and more women and men from more and more schools come forward to tell how they were victimized and exploited in the very environments where they hoped to grow in knowledge and deepen in wisdom. Do we still recognize ourselves when we are forced to consider the dark side of bright college years? How do we understand ourselves when we learn of disgusting abuse and inadequate oversight in the places we trust to safeguard intellectual integrity and develop sterling moral character? Those of us who have been formed by the gifts and culture of academia must find the courage to ask ourselves, “Who are you? Who are we?Who am I?”

Or consider the state of your relationships this holiday season. As the drive to acquire infects each aspect of our interaction with spouses and friends, with children and with parents, how do you understand your place in your own family? Do you still recognize the bonds that tie you to those you love and care for? Those of us who feel ourselves neck deep and near drowning in the rising tide of consumerism and crass consumption—who find ourselves alone with technology even in houses full of people–who chase after a security and a satisfaction that we know our stuff can never bring—we must beg the grace to ask ourselves, “Who are you? Who are we? Who am I?”

Or at last, beloved, as we come to the end of another year, look to the work to which you have given yourself in the twelve months now almost gone. Has you striving brought you peace and pleasure? Has your toil guaranteed you goodwill? As you look back over what you have accomplished—over the way that you have spent 365 days that cannot be recovered—do you find yourself confused and frustrated, demanding of the reflection in the mirror, “Who are you? Who are we? Who am I?”

The stresses and strains of this fall and winter have show how all of our ordinary answers to that simple question are feeble and fragile. All of the answers that look to what our work has made us or what our family has told us or what our society has decided for us or even what we ourselves most desire deep within us cannot bear the weight of that basic question: “Who are you?”

And this is why John the Baptist’s exchange with the religious authorities matters. For the truth is that all of the anxieties and uncertainties present when we ask ourselves the question “Who are you?” are present, too, for the priests and Levites interrogating John. And all of the various, ultimately unsatisfying answers available for us are available, too, for John.

“Who are you?” comes the question, and John could respond with his national identity as an Israelite, or point to the heritage of his forebears.

“Who are you?” they ask, and John could answer with the work that he has accomplished and the way that he has gone about it.

“Who are you?” they demand, and John could claim for himself a title of importance or a position of significance or a place in the life of his people that would strike his questioners dumb with terror and with joy.

“Who are you?” they cry with desperation, and John turns to answer them.

But John’s answer to the great question flows not from his background or his accomplishments or even from what the Pharisees want and fear him to be. Rather, John’s reply points beyond himself–beyond what he has done, beyond what his people long for and fear–and points instead to the One who sent him, the One to whom he bares witness.

“I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ as said the Prophet Isaiah.”

“I am but the fulfillment of prophecy. I am but a voice in the wilderness crying. I am but the forerunner and messenger of One greater than I.”

John’s identity depends not on John, but on Jesus. John knows who he is not by what he does or by what others want him to do or to be, but because of who God is and what God has called him to do and to be. His identity is not founded upon the yearning of his people or the anxiety of the leaders or even on the self-determination and self-resolution of John himself. But for John the Baptist, everything—everything—stands on the promises and purposes of God.

For John is the fulfillment of what Isaiah professed and prophesied when he told of how “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” Isaiah, both in his own ministry and in expectation of John the Baptist, paints for us a picture of a human being fully alive, a human being most fully himself—and behold, that is a human being whom the Lord has claimed and consecrated wholly and completely.

“Who are you?” comes the eternal question, and from the lips of Isaiah, and John, and Mary the mother of Jesus comes the ready answer, “I am the servant of the Lord—and so I am free. My whole being exults in my God—and so I am truly myself. I am the Lord’s—I know myself only because he first knew me, and all my hope and my confidence are in him alone.”

So what about for us, beloved?

“Who are you?” rises the accusing cry to nations and institutions—our nation, and our institutions—whose actions cry out for God’s just judgment.

“Who are you?” cuts the incisive question into lives and hearts—my life and heart, and your life and heart—that are not as they should be; not as we would have them be.

“Who are you?” comes the demanding query in a time when the very foundations of our facades are quaking and the categories we once relied on are tottering and we find ourselves exhausted by the question itself.

What will be our answer in that day when the question comes to us? How will we define or excuse ourselves? Will we rest our hopes on the roles which our social place and status have thrust upon us? Will we stitch together our identity out of the passing fads and catchphrases of popular spirituality and self-help manuals?

Or will we, with John the Baptist, point only and always to the Living God at work in us? Will our deepest identity be not a monument to our own wealth and workmanship—our own insight and enlightenment—but, like Isaiah, will it be a marker, a signpost, a witness to the One who has called us to his service and who has empowered us for his work? Will our hearts, with Mary, sing the story of what God has done for us? Will our eyes show the joyful strain of watching for his return?

Dear people, our hope for renewal in our nation and in our homes—in our institutions and in our own hearts—lies not in our own power and striving but in the promise of this season. For we, with John the Baptist, have become witnesses to the true light. We have heard the announcement of the Word made flesh. We have seen the power of the God who came down to stir up the muck and mire of our existence—to bear our griefs and to carry our sorrows.

Our hope is in the promise of Advent: the assurance that the God who came once in great humility will come again with power and great glory to judge both the living and the dead, and to set this world to rights. Our hope is in the promise and the prayer that between the first and the second coming of Christ, God has not left us comfortless.

But by grace and with great might, he is still at work among us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he has come “speedily [to] help and deliver us.” In his love and mercy, he knows us, and transforms us, and so he is making us truly ourselves.

“Who are you?” comes the question. May we ever make our ready reply: “I am the Lord’s, and his alone.”

AMEN.

“A great and mighty wonder…”

On this Fourth Day of Christmas—the Feast of the Holy Innocents—I’ve been re-reading and thinking about the two poems I posted a few days ago: John Betjeman’s “Christmas” (posted when I got home from Midnight Mass at about 1:30 on Christmas morning) and Robert Southwell’s “The Nativity of Christ” (posted once the shreds of wrapping paper had settled and the necessary toy-assembling was done on Christmas day). They are two of my favorite Christmas poems. Though very different in style, content, and context, they approach the Incarnation from the same perspective. Betjeman and Southwell both look upon the Birth of Christ as “a great and mighty wonder,” as the carol puts it—a surprising, paradoxical, unexpected thing that, in spite of all appearances, has earth-shaking significance.

I love the way that Betjeman begins with (and never really leaves) “the sweet and silly Christmas things.” The first five stanzas of the poem are entirely devoted to the stuff of a secular Christmas: cheerful pubs, bright bunting in the town hall, shops “strung with silver bells and flowers.” Even the decorating of the village church in the second stanza is really just a part of general Christmas merriment (rather than some special expression of spiritual devotion). It’s all done “So that the villagers can say / ‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.”

And all of this is good. Betjeman surveys these things fondly, with just a hint of longing and a hint of irony. The sentimental, slightly soggy stuff of Christmas isn’t bad. Families coming together (even “girls in slacks…and oafish louts”) and the excitement of children and the tinsel-trappings of the season: these are all good things.

But they are not the Good Thing. Whenever I read this poem, I imagine someone at a warm, cheerful holiday party. Standing with a glass of eggnog in his hand, he’s just finished a light and friendly conversation with an amiable acquaintance. Now he is, perhaps only for a brief moment, alone in the midst of a party overflowing with all “the sweet and silly Christmas things” cherished by our culture. Suddenly, in the sixth stanza, a question rises in his brain: “And is it true?”

What occasions that question? Maybe my imaginary partygoer glimpses a creche hidden under the Christmas tree. Maybe there’s a card on the mantle with some beautiful depiction of Mary and Joseph and the baby on it. In the third line of the sixth stanza, Betjeman himself connects the question with a “stained-glass window’s hue.” Perhaps the poem’s speaker has just escaped a brightly decorated street of shops by dropping into an empty church. Whatever the source or inspiration, in the sixth stanza the question of the Incarnation suddenly breaks into the poem.

And that is precisely how it must be. My post in response to the Rev’d John Ohmer’s thoughts on Advent is predicated on an understanding of Christmas as something abrupt and unexpected. The Feast of the Nativity—the Church’s celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation—can never be simply an extension of the good things of “the holiday season” as the secular world keeps it. Christ’s birth cuts at an angle to all the things of this earth: all of our bad things, and all of our good things—all of our sad things, and all of our happy things. Christmas interrupts us, just as surely as a wondering thought can steal upon a person at a party, or an unexpected encounter with a piece of art (a stained-glass window, a painting, a statue, or a great work of music) can raise unanticipated questions in the soul.

“And is it true?” Betjeman’s question, with a touch of modern embarrassment and slight skepticism, does not grow out of the ordinary stuff of Christmas. Rather, it engages with astonishing news: news that changes everything. Betjeman begins with all the good things this world affords, which really are abundant at Christmastime. But he ends by turning from them to the pearl of great price—the treasure hidden in the field—the “Baby in an ox’s stall”—and realizes that nothing else “can with this single truth compare.” 

Southwell, on the other hand, begins in the stable. With the great Biblical word of announcement—Behold!—Southwell dives right into the paradox of Christ’s birth: “The bird that built the nest is hatched therein.” What a delightful summary of John 1.10: “He was in the world, and the world was made by him.” The entirety of the first stanza is given over to the wonderful impossibility of the Incarnation: the Word of God—“the old of years”, “Eternal life”, “the mirth of heaven”, “might”, and “force”—lies newborn in a manger—“dumb”, weeping, “feeble”, creeping.

But what is the point of all this paradox? It is astonishing, but why does it matter? Southwell tackles that question in the second stanza with a series of imperatives: “O dying souls! behold your living spring! / O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!” Southwell’s list of paradoxes in the first stanza speaks directly to our “dying souls”, “dazzled eyes”, “dull ears”, and “heavy hearts” in the second.

And the greatest paradox of all, the paradox behind all of Southwell’s clever paradoxes, is that the gift of the Incarnate Christ—a gift that reveals God in a new and surprising way—transforms not God, but us. God is not lessened or changed by the Nativity of Christ. But by “assumption of the Manhood by God,” humankind is renewed and restored. Receiving God’s gift to us makes us what we were always intended to be: God’s gift to himself.

Southwell’s final stanza surveys the cosmos from the edge of the manger. He tells the story of Genesis 3 in just one line: “Man alter’d was by sin from man to beast.” So we stand: reduced, diminished, unmanned (in a different sense from the usual use of that word). And how does God address our alteration and loss? By coming down to meet us in our deepest depths: “Beast’s food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh; / Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press’d, / As hay the brutest sinner to refresh.” If men and women have, by the Fall, been made beasts, then God’s solution to this dilemma is to become the food of beasts: literally to lie in the feeding trough of cattle.

“Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew, / Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!”

The Great Interruptor

A Sermon Preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2013

by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

“But just when he had resolved to do this, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him…”

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Joseph of Nazareth was a righteous man. Matthew’s Gospel makes that very clear. But even if we had not been told it, we might have guessed that Joseph was a righteous man from the reasonable, responsible, righteous plan that he came up with. After all, we can imagine the surprise, the anger, the hurt, and the embarrassment that Joseph must’ve felt when he received word that Mary, his espoused wife, was with child. No one could’ve blamed him for exposing his young ex-betrothed to the maximum amount of public humiliation and disgrace. No one would’ve been surprised if he had reacted to the news of Mary’s pregnancy with a sense of blind rage, seeking only to shame the woman who had so shamed him.

But Joseph was a righteous man, and he comes up with a righteous plan. He will dismiss her quietly, saving her the utter disgrace, and saving himself the searing embarrassment. It was a good and decent plan, a merciful plan, a righteous plan, and Joseph, a righteous man, had resolved to carry it out. And then the Angel of the Lord appeared.

Popular culture often depicts a person making a difficult decision with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. We’ve all seen it in cartoons, in movies, and on television. The devil tries to get the person to take the selfish, sinful, vindictive course of action, while the angel tries to recall the person to what he or she knows is right, and good, and true. It’s an effective, if slightly simplistic, metaphor for our consciences.

But let us be very clear: nothing like that happens in this story. The Angel of the Lord does not come to convince, cajole, or coax Joseph’s wayward thoughts. Joseph’s mind was made up already before the Angel arrived. Joseph had already settled on his  reasonable, responsible, righteous plan. And Matthew tells us that, “Just when [Joseph] had resolved to do this, the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.'” This Angel does not plead, or request, or beg, or question. This Angel arrives with a command: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus.”

Not only is Joseph told to abandon his reasonable, responsible, righteous plan to put Mary away quietly: the Angel gives him a name for the unborn child then growing in her womb. First, Joseph’s life was interrupted by Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. Now,  Joseph’s plan to put his life back on track is interrupted by the unexpected visit of the Angel. And when Joseph rose from sleep, “he did as the Angel of the Lord commanded him.” Twice now, the Lord has interrupted the life of righteous Joseph. And we who know the story of Mary’s son know that there are many more interruptions to come—for Joseph, and for the whole world.

Beloved, what are we to do with a God like this? What are we to do with a God who confronts a righteous man in the midst of his righteous plan—and turns him around? What are we to do with a God who intervenes in Joseph’s reasonable, responsible, sensible course of action, and tells him to head in the opposite direction—right into ridicule, and risk, and danger, and disgrace?

This is not the kind of God we want. We want a God who is on our side. We want a God  who will prosper our plans. We want a God who will protect us from the very circumstances Joseph was called to face. We want a God who will look down on us as we struggle and strive to be good, to do the right thing, to behave in a righteous way, and who will say, “You know, he really is doing his best. I think I’ll make everything turn out all right for him—She really has been praying hard. I think I’ll give her what she’s asking for—Those folks in Greenwich, Connecticut really are nice, decent, upstanding people. I suppose I ought to bless them, just to show them how pleased I am with all they’ve done.” We want a God who will be on our side.

In his Second Inaugural Address, as the Civil War was drawing to a close, Abraham Lincoln traced this very same desire lurking deep in the hearts of human beings. Speaking of the North and the South, Lincoln noted that, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” In other words, both North and South were looking for a God who would be on their side, and who would support their cause against their enemies. But Lincoln went on: “The prayers of both [North and South] could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.”

“The Almighty has his own purposes.” There’s the rub. We want a God who will be on our side, and what do we find instead? “The Almighty has his own purposes.” It is a bitter and a difficult pill to swallow. It is the lesson learned by righteous Job, in what may be the most challenging book of the Bible. You all know the story. God’s faithful servant Job gets caught in a wager between God and Satan. Satan says, “Job only serves you, God, because you have richly blessed him. Take away all he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the Lord permits Satan to bring calamity and affliction upon righteous Job. Through it all, Job refuses to curse God.

But he also maintains his innocence. He insists, to his friends who come to comfort him, that all of his misfortune and disaster cannot be punishment for some secret sin or forgotten transgression. Job is innocent, though he has been made to suffer, and he insists that he could make his case before God, if given the chance.

Then suddenly, in the final chapters, the Lord himself speaks to Job out a whirlwind. “Where were you, when I laid the foundations of the earth—when the morning-stars sang together and all the servants of God shouted for joy?” God’s response to Job in his suffering—in all the interruptions that Job has been made to endure—is, essentially, “The Almighty has his own purposes.” And Job falls silent before the power of the Lord.

Beloved, what are we to do with such a deity—a God who has his own purposes, a God who readily and, it would seem, carelessly interrupts the lives of human beings? When we think of Joseph, when we look to Job, when we consider a world riven and torn and disastrously, outrageously unfair, how can we simply accept the pronouncement that “The Almighty has his own purposes”? Such a God can surely be feared—can he be loved?

If we are to answer that question, we must look, I think, to one specific interruption: the interruption promised in our Isaiah reading this morning—the interruption fulfilled in the life of Mary and Joseph—the interruption that we celebrate this week. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and ye shall call his name Immanuel: God is with us.”

This Wednesday, we will keep the Feast of the Nativity. It ought, perhaps, to be called the Feast of the Great Interruption. For on Christmas, we recall with wonder that the God who has his own purposes chose to reveal those purposes in a startling and unexpected way. The God who has his own purposes has interrupted not simply the lives of Mary and Joseph, and a few other people in distant, dusty Palestine: but God has interrupted all our lives—indeed, the life of the whole world. Beloved, in the birth of Jesus our Lord, in the Incarnation, the taking-on-flesh of the Word of God, the Almighty who has his own purposes reveals that his purposes are for us. God is not on our side. But in the person of Jesus Christ, God chooses to draw us onto his side.

And this interruption—this radical intervention in the life of our world—changes everything. It does not mean that life will be easy: that all of our plans will be brought to fulfillment; that all of our prayers will be answered with a great yes. But it does mean that in this world of change and chance, God is with us. In this life of sorrow and surprise, God is with us. In this flesh of weakness and worry, God is with us. Dear people, God has not promised that we shall always be happy: but in Jesus our Lord, he has shown us that he will stop at nothing—not even Death itself—to make us holy.

So runs the promise of the Great Interruption called Christmas, soon to come. But this Advent—and remember, beloved, that it is still Advent for a few more days—we look forward to an even Greater Interruption. For the promise of this Season is that the purposes of the Almighty toward us have not yet been carried out in their fullness. God is not finished with us yet.

And so, in these waning days of Advent, we fix our hearts and hopes on that Great Day of Interruption when the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give its light; when there will be signs in the heavens and tumults upon the earth; when the graves will be opened, and the sea shall give up its dead. On this last Sunday of Advent, we look for that Great Day of Interruption when the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed, and all the peoples of earth, both small and great, shall be called to give account of their deeds. At this, the turning of the year, we fix our hearts on that Great Day of Interruption when the heavens and earth shall be rolled back as a scroll, and the trumpet shall sound, and the Risen Lord will come in glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead.

And on that day all our decent behavior and all our careful plans; all our best manners and all our good intentions; all our sterling reputations and all our hard-won regards will be as dust and ashes and filthy rags in the bright light of the everlasting purposes of the Almighty. And then, in that moment of terror, in that dread day of Interruption, in that hour of deepest woe, in that time of weeping and wailing, Lo! we shall hear a loud, familiar voice say “Be not afraid.” For behold, our eyes shall look upon the one who was pierced—and he shall raise his wounded hand, not to smite, but to save. For the Great Interruptor—the One who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger—the One who was stripped by soldiers and heaved high upon the Cross—the One who rose again, forever clothed in power and great glory—even Jesus our Lord shall come down from on high to wrap the shining brightness of his kingly robe about the shivering form of our nakedness.

And on that day of Interruption, the purposes of the Almighty shall become our purposes, and the Kingdom of this world shall become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and at last “God shall be all in all.”

AMEN.

This is the Record of John…

Earlier editions of the Book of Common Prayer appointed John 1:19-28 as the Gospel lesson for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. That passage is now read only once every three years, on the Third Sunday of Advent in (Revised Common) Lectionary Year B. That’s a pity, as the drama of the back-and-forth between John the Baptist and the Jerusalem authorities—culminating in their question, “What sayest thou of thy self?” and his ringing response, “I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness!”—surpasses anything found in other scriptural accounts of John’s ministry. (Orlando Gibbons, in the well-loved anthem “This is the Record of John”, captures that drama and that ringing cry very powerfully: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9pE5vrgBHQ)

John’s remains the essential Advent voice, urging us to “Make straight the way of the Lord.” He stands on the threshold of the Kingdom of God: calling for repentance in our fallen world even as he points to God’s decisive intervention in this world in the person of Jesus Christ.

So in recognition of older customs and in affirmation of this year’s too-short Season of Advent, I offer this sermon about “the great forerunner of the morn.”

A Sermon Preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2012

by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance, and to prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

May I speak in the name of Almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In my sophomore year of college, I received a sign. Just as I began to consider entering the discernment process for the priesthood, I found myself enrolled simultaneously in Introduction to the New Testament and Economics 101. It was an interesting juxtaposition, and I will never forget the day my economics professor chuckled as he handed back my exam. I’d gotten a decent grade (economics was never my best subject). But he had circled a word right in the middle of one of my answers. I had been talking about businesses and the way they calculate their “profits,” P-R-O-F-I-T-S, and I had written “prophets,” P-R-O-P-H-E-T-S. My professor, who knew that I had entered the discernment process, wrote in the margin, “Well this should settle the question.”

I thought of that story as I reflected on our lessons and prayers for this day. If you’ve been listening closely, you might have noticed that we’re making an awful fuss over the prophets this morning. Our worship began with a collect that lifted up the work and witness of “God’s messengers, the prophets.” Then our Gospel lesson, a few moments ago, introduced us to John the Baptist: the voice crying in the wilderness, the last and greatest in the long line of Hebrew prophets. John’s presence makes the prophetic point of this day quite prominent indeed: not only is he the prophet par excellence, but he is himself the fulfillment of prophecy. Centuries before his birth, his coming and his mission were foretold by the prophet Isaiah in a passage quoted today by St Luke. We focus quite a lot on prophecy this Second Sunday of Advent, and so it seems reasonable to me to ask the question: why? What’s so important about the prophets? Why does their work and witness matter, especially in this holy season of Advent?

I think the best place to begin to answer these questions may be in that collect of which I made mention. The first half of the prayer that opened our worship speaks of the prophets as God’s messengers, sent to carry out two complementary functions: to preach repentance, and to prepare the way for our salvation. Looking through that double lens, we begin to see why John the Baptist is the poster-child for prophecy.

All four of the Gospels testify to John’s power as a preacher of repentance. People from all over Judea—from the big city of Jerusalem to the small towns around the Jordan, and from every class of society—flocked to hear his message, to confess their sins, and to undergo the ritual washing of baptism in the River Jordan. John’s role in preparing the way for our salvation cannot be denied either: Jesus’ public ministry begins after he goes out to his cousin John at the Jordan, is baptized by him, and is anointed by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. John stands as the promised forerunner, the one whose proclamation prepares the way for Jesus’ ministry and the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

So John gives us a clear view of the work of a prophet. But that only answers part of our question. Even when we understand what prophets do, we may still wonder why they matter. What has John’s preaching to do with us today? Why should we—who look back upon Christ’s coming in Bethlehem as an historical event, something that happened long ago—care about the ones sent to prepare the way? Why should we who live in hope of Christ’s promised return continue to listen to the prophets of old?

Once again, I think we can turn to this morning’s collect for help. We have prayed this day that God will give us grace “to heed [the warnings of John and of all the prophets], and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” I don’t know about you, but that word “warning” lands heavily on my ear. It reminds me that the continued relevance of the prophetic message is rooted in my own ongoing need for repentance.

When it comes to repentance, John’s call is as uncompromising today as it was two-thousand years ago. Just as he once stood on the banks of the Jordan, so now he stands, crying in the wilderness of our souls, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John stands, urging us to straighten out the warped and winding paths of our hearts; John cries out, imploring us to fill up our deep valleys of self-pity and self-hate, those places in our souls where the air is thick and fetid with regret and shame and bitterness; John bellows, warning us to pull down our gloomy mountains of pride and self-righteousness, those towering hills where the bracing breath of grace grows thin in the driving winds of our scraping and striving. John warns us to untwist our curlicues of covetousness, the crooked places and dead-ends of self-concern and jealousy; John pleads with us to smooth out the ways made rough by our churning appetites—those paths marred by the deep ruts of greed, and lust, and gluttony.

It is a daunting and a difficult message. It is a message that I find myself inclined to resist. There is a part of me that bristles and blusters and takes offense, and wonders who in the world John the Baptist thinks he is. But it is that resistance, that sense of offense, that pushes us to consider the final, critical element of a prophet’s role and work and identity. Beloved, the only way that we can hear John’s message, the only way that John’s challenging announcement can be received as Good News for us today, is because John does not speak for himself. No true prophet speaks for him or herself, but only by the will of the merciful God, the loving God, the living God.

The prophet speaks by the power of a God who has stepped into our story—into our collective and individual messes—with the coming of Christ as the baby in the manger. The prophet speaks by the power of a God who works in us, and all Creation, through Christ’s blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension. The prophet speaks, at last, by the power of a God who is faithful, who has promised to return, to gather us to himself, to wipe away every tear from our eyes, to make us at last “pure and blameless.” That is the God by whom the prophets speak. That is the God who gives life to the prophets’ words, and who causes those words to resound even to our own day.

Beloved people of God, the warning of the prophets is not our condemnation: it is our deliverance. The warning of the prophets is not a message of doom but of hope, because we have confidence that the same God “who began a good work among us will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.” The prophetic call to repentance does not drive us to despair because the same God who calls to us in the words of the prophets is at this very moment fulfilling those words in you and in me, preparing in us “a harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” By grace—by the power of God at work in us apart from what we can ask or deserve—every valley of our hearts is being lifted up. By grace, every mountain and hill in our souls is being brought low. By grace, what is crooked in us is being straightened out, what is rough in us is being smoothed, and by grace, we and “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Brothers and sisters, in this holy season of Advent, as we remember Christ’s coming in humility, and look for his return with power and great glory, may we give thanks for the prophets: for John the Baptist and all those whom God has sent to preach repentance and prepare the way of salvation. May we heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. And may we, in the fullness of time, join our hearts and souls with prophets, apostles, saints, and angels as they sing: “All praise, eternal Son, to thee, whose advent doth thy people free; whom with the Father we adore, and Holy Ghost forevermore.”

AMEN.