Weighty choices in life require us to consider the risk involved in taking one path over against another. This is a skill we’re having to employ almost daily now as a result of the danger posed by the coronavirus. Will we risk taking public transportation, or going to the grocery store, or running an errand, when we know a deadly virus is on the loose? When will the risk be low enough that we can begin to gather again with others and return to our work or to places of worship? Knowing that the stakes are high makes this risky business.
I Corinthians 12:3b-13
Today’s lessons present us with two very different accounts of how Jesus’ disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The first account, recorded in the Gospel of John, takes place in the evening of the first day of the week; that is, on Easter day. The disciples are gathered in a house with its doors locked shut. The gospel writer tells us they are afraid and explains why: they are imagining that the same people who put Jesus to death might now come after them. Without warning, and apparently without knocking or using the door, Jesus appears in the room, standing among them. “Peace be with you,” he says. He then shows them his hands and his side, proving that he is the same Jesus they knew, still bearing the marks of his crucifixion. The disciples receive him gladly, and he responds by ordering them into the world, just as the Father had sent him into the world. Then, he breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Finally, along with the commission to go into the world and the gift of the Holy Spirit, he grants them power to forgive people’s sins, or to refuse them forgiveness.
It’s a gentle episode – emotional perhaps, but not terrifying; surprising, but not overwhelming. We can imagine Jesus greeting them in a calm, quiet voice to soothe their shock at his sudden appearance: “Peace be with you.” The Spirit comes to them in such a gentle way: Jesus simply breathes on them. The Hebrew word for “spirit” means “breath” or “wind.” Here it comes as a gentle breath.
John 16: (16-23a) 23b-28
It’s difficult these days not to read every gospel text from the perspective of those whose lives have been so drastically altered by the coronavirus. Encountering this text from John 16, the word that captured my attention was the word “joy.” “You will have pain,” Jesus tells his disciples, “but your pain will turn into joy” (v. 20). Of course he is talking here of the pain the disciples will experience when Jesus is separated from them as he goes forward to his passion and death. “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while and you will see me,” he says (v. 17). He knows they will suffer; he knows that the events of the coming days will test and try them; and he knows he cannot protect them from this pain. But he wants to keep their eyes fixed not on the pain, but on the joy that is to come.
“You will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.” To help them grasp this promise, he offers the example of a woman in childbirth. The pain of birthing a child is intense, “but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (v. 21) There is joy on the other side of this suffering, he promises. “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joyfrom you”(v. 22).
“The Father himself loves you,” he assures them, and therefore they can ask for whatever they need in his name and the Father will give it to them (v. 23-27). “Ask and you will receive,” he tells them, “so that your joy may be complete” (v. 24). Once again, God intends joy for his people, not endless sorrow, and God will provide all that they need to find real and lasting joy.
II Thessalonians 3:1-5
I’ve been listening to a lot of gospel music lately. I do it because gospel music makes me happy, and offers glimpses of hope in a world that at times seems overshadowed by darkness. One of the songs I’ve come to find solace in goes like this:
Life is easy when you’re up on the mountain;
you’ve got peace of mind like you’ve never known.
But things change when you’re down in the valley;
don’t lose faith, for you’re never alone.
For the God on the mountain is still God in the valley;
when things go wrong, he’ll make them right.
And the God of the good times is still God in the bad times;
the God of the day is still God in the night.[i]
The song acknowledges that life has its ups and downs, its mountains and valleys, and that it’s easy to talk of faith “when life’s at its best.” But when we’re “down in the valley of trials and temptations, that’s where [our] faith is really put to the test” (quotations from the 2nd stanza). Doubtless we know this to be true from our own experience.
St Paul knew it. He had been on the mountaintops with God, borne into the heavens by the Spirit; but he also knew what it was to descend into the valley, to encounter resistance, persecution and evil. It’s moving to see him, a great giant of the faith, beseeching the Thessalonian Christians to pray for him. It is a mark of his humility, I think, and a valuable sign for us. We need one another. We need one another’s prayers. Paul is well aware of his own weakness and of the enormous challenges that are part of his calling, and he is humble enough to implore his fellow Christians to pray for him.
Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
The green vestments and altar frontal indicate that we have moved into what the Church calls “ordinary time.” But in spite of the change of color, we haven’t left the season of Epiphany completely behind. This is the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany and in just two weeks, we will conclude the season of Epiphany with the celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration, in which the disciples see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ when they are with him on the mountain. So the theme of Epiphany – the revelation of the Divine Nature in the person of Jesus – is still present in our appointed readings for today.
Why, then, do we have this sober passage on fasting from the book of Isaiah? What does this passage on social justice have to do with Epiphany?
If we take a closer look at this passage and its context, we may begin to understand the connection between social justice and the revelation of the Glory of God.
Over time, the majority of biblical scholars have come to recognize in the book of Isaiah three distinct parts, which some have conveniently labeled “First Isaiah” (referring to chapters 1-39), “Second Isaiah” (consisting of chapters 40-55) and “Third Isaiah” (chapters 56-66). “First Isaiah” is sometimes referred to as the “real” Isaiah because it is grounded in the age in which the prophet actually lived. “Second” and “Third Isaiah” describe later periods and, scholars tell us, have been added to the original text. “Second Isaiah” is written during the time of Israel’s captivity and describes the vision of the New Israel which God was to establish after the return of the people from their exile in Babylon. “Third Isaiah” – from which today’s reading is taken – reveals that this glorious vision did not materialize as anticipated, and expresses the disappointment of God’s people. God had delivered them from their captivity in Babylon, but Israel had not been restored to its former glory, as had been expected. They were back home, but their home was in shambles. To adopt the campaign slogan of a certain U.S. President, how could they make Israel great again?
Happy New Year!
Today is the first day of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s calendar year. The lectionary gives us a great gift when it begins the year with this short passage from the book of Isaiah: Isaiah 2:1-5. Here we read the account of a vision given to Israel’s greatest prophet. Isaiah sees a mountain – “the mountain of the Lord’s house” – raised high above all other mountains. And to this place, he tells us, “all the nations” shall stream. They will say to one another, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
The mountain Isaiah refers to is, of course, Mount Zion, on which stood the Temple, the dwelling place of God on earth. The revelation given to Isaiah in this vision is that this mountain – “the mountain of the Lord’s house” – will be a source of wisdom and right judgment for all people. The Law of Moses, given initially to the people of Israel, will instruct all the nations in the ways of God and teach them to walk in God’s paths. The result of this will be universal peace, the promise of peace with justice, which will allow humankind to “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks,” so that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Given that Br. Luke (our acolyte today) went to a lot of trouble learning how to pronounce all those difficult names, I feel it’s only right that we should reflect on the lesson from Nehemiah this morning.
It might help to first establish a context for these words. You may remember that early in the 6th century B.C.E., the Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians. It was a devastating defeat. The temple at Jerusalem was completely destroyed, as was the city itself, and the majority of the people were carried off into captivity. Only a small remnant remained. The period of exile lasted 70 years, and gave rise to the book of Lamentations and to several psalms of lament – Psalm 137, for example: “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion” (Psalm 137:1). In the year 538 B.C.E., Babylon was conquered by the Medes and Persians. The Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, was a wise and compassionate man who not only gave the Israelites permission to begin returning home, but also provided the resources they needed to rebuild the temple. A first wave of exiles left Babylon to return to Judah.
It took over eighty years before a second group of exiles returned to Jerusalem, led by the prophet Ezra, in 455 B.C.E. Ten years after this second group departs, we find Nehemiah, a Jew still living in Persia, serving as cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes. Nehemiah hears a report that deeply troubles him: the Israelites are still struggling to establish themselves in their home country. They have managed to rebuild the temple, but the walls around Jerusalem are still in ruins. After four months of prayer, Nehemiah decides to risk approaching the king. He asks for permission to return to Jerusalem with a third group of exiles, with the expressed purpose of rebuilding the city’s walls.
Luke 9:37-50 (with focus on v. 43b-45)
We have before us today a short passage from Luke’s gospel focusing on the failure of the disciples to understand Jesus’ prediction that he will “be betrayed into human hands.” To understand it better, I’d like to view it in its broader context (Luke 9:37-50), which you’ll find printed on the handout.
Jesus is with his disciples in Galilee, about to turn his face towards Jerusalem, where he will face betrayal, crucifixion and death. He is speaking with his disciples about the cost of discipleship, and the necessity of “taking up the cross” in order to follow him.
In this section of Luke 9, we are brought face-to-face with the weakness of the twelve. They are lacking in power, having failed to cast a demon out of a boy. They are lacking in understanding, failing to grasp Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal into the hands of his enemies. They are lacking in humility, arguing about which of them was the greatest. And finally, they are lacking in sympathy and in Jesus’ spirit of inclusivity, when they try to exclude those who do not join them.[i]
“…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.
Choose life….” (Deuteronomy 30:19b)
God tries to make it easy for us. Here are two ways, God says:
One way is to love God, obeying God’s commandments and walking in God’s ways. This way leads to life and prosperity.
A second way is to turn away from God, to refuse to listen or obey, to give your heart to other things, idols of your own making. This path leads to adversity and death.
Not a difficult choice, really, and yet not an easy one for most of us either.
These two paths are set before us again and again in Scripture. Take Psalm 1, the psalm appointed for today. There are two kinds of people, the psalmist suggests: the “righteous,” who have chosen the first path, and the “wicked,” who have chosen the second. (Make no mistake: you are not misreading the psalm if you take from it a fairly black-and-white picture of reality. You will also not be incorrect if you see this same pattern popping up over and over again in the rest of the Psalter.) The psalmist is making a very clear distinction between these two types of people, with not much in between by way of spiritual categories. Here’s what he says:
(The Sending of the Seventy)
Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20
Given what the gospels report about Jesus’ twelve disciples – how they were often slow to comprehend the message of the kingdom, and repeatedly failed to live by its principles – it seems to me that Jesus is taking quite a risk here in commissioning these seventy to go out as his representatives. If the twelve he had chosen to be his closest friends and companions were having trouble grasping the message, how was this lot supposed to get it right? What training did they have? Who was going to supervise them or hold them accountable? How could he be sure they were capable of representing him, or that they would be faithful to his message? Had he had a chance to test their theology? Had he checked their backgrounds? Had he measured their commitment, or tested their reliability? But here he is, entrusting them with the message of the kingdom and empowering them to heal in his name.
It seems that Jesus was willing to take chances. He was willing to place heavenly treasure in fragile earthen vessels. He was willing to turn them loose, to send them out, to let them speak, without being certain of the outcome. And, not surprisingly, he’s still doing that today – sending each of us out to be messengers of that Good News; asking us, despite our weaknesses and shortcomings, to be his ambassadors in the world; proclaiming, through us, that “the kingdom of God has come near.”