Ephesians 4:7-8, 11-16
There’s a cartoon with Jesus talking to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who are sitting in a circle. One of them is looking out the window, distracted; one of them is dozing; one of them is doodling; one of them is fiddling with his tunic. Jesus notices all this, and he says to the group: “Now listen up! I don’t want there to be four versions of what I’m saying….”
Well, we have four versions of the Gospel, all quite similar, and yet each one distinctive. Today we honor the witness of one of these Gospel writers, Saint Mark. Mark was not one of the original 12 apostles; however Jesus also appointed a wider circle of 70 disciples, believed to have included Mark.[i]Information in the New Testament about his life is sketchy, though we know that Mark was a fellow missionary at various times with Saints Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy.[ii]We can infer Mark had a close relationship with Saint Peter, who writes about “my son Mark.”[iii]And according to the Acts of the Apostles, his mother’s house in Jerusalem was a center of Christian life.[iv]In Egypt, the Coptic Church remembers Saint Mark as its founder and patron, Mark having been martyred in Egypt in year 68.
In his Gospel writing, Mark keeps a secret. It’s actually Jesus’ secret. In Mark’s Gospel account, Jesus will typically ask something, listen to something, do something like perform a healing or other miracle, and thenJesus will say, “Don’t tell anyone.” In many instances, Jesus insists on silence.[v]And it’s not just with outsiders. The same pertains to his relationship with the 12 apostles. Early on, Jesus asks them, “‘Who do yousay that I am?’ Peter answers, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And [Jesus] sternly orders them not to tell anyone about him.”[vi]
So what’s going on? Why the secret?
Once upon a time there was a young Elm tree, and, sadly, he was miserable most of his days. The weather was so fickle, often just plain awful; one day, too much rain, another snow and hail; ice and cold, burning heat, or terrible winds. Sometimes cloudy days would go on forever with no hint of Sun. And the young Elm would lament bitterly.
Nearby, their lived an old Oak tree, standing silently by as the weather did what it did. Hot or cold, dark or sunny, windy or calm, wet or dry, the old Oak just stood content and still, wearing a smile more often than not.
The young Elm would spy the old Oak, baffled and, increasingly, annoyed. It’s cold and snowing, for God’s sake, what could that old Oak be smiling about? Until one day, the young Elm could stand it no longer, and he said to the old Oak, “Why on earth are you smiling? The weather is horrible… why aren’t you miserable like I am? What do you know that I don’t know?”
Feast of the Epiphany – January 6, 2019
The prophecy of Isaiah is revealed in Bethlehem. The early church saw today’s celebration as a revelation: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you… Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The kings come. The three kings from foreign lands come to Bethlehem. The New Testament Greek name for them is “magoi” or, as we would say, “magi,” which means “fortune tellers” or “wizards.”[i] (The English word, “magician,” comes from the Greek, magi.) The Greek name magi also includes astrologers, and so it’s no wonder that the magi reportedly saw a certain star rising, knew it was significant, and followed it. What was this star? There’s been endless speculation down through the centuries, some of it based on the Zodiac, some of it based on astronomy.[ii]The Gospel according to Matthew makes neither explanation nor apology for revealing that the wise men had followed a star.
Here is the Lamb of God. I myself did not know him; but I came that he might be revealed.
As a child (and like many children) I lived with a terrible fear of the dark. Dusk brought with it great anxiety, for I knew what was coming, as it always had: the deep, dark, infinite night. If I am completely honest, this is a fear I have never really outgrown. When one summer between sophomore and junior years of high school I found myself drowning in preparatory reading assignments, the night brought new shades of anxiety. I recall spending most of that summer just as unable to face my bed as I had been as a child. Certainly, I became another “Glenn night owl,” but not because I enjoyed the night.
As an adult, I find the early anxieties brought on at dusk have only grown with me, changing shape, size, and magnitude as my experience with the world and myself became fuller, richer, and, at times, much darker.
It is now the darkest part of the year—at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. It is also a particularly dark season in the world. Yet this is not the only dark season I—or any of us—have known, and scripture invites us to name and own the enduring mystery at the heart of our human experiences of darkness.
Shopping these days feels like sensory overload. We’re bombarded with messages: Your home can be the best with these trees, ornaments, garlands, and nicknacks. Here’s the present for you. Get ready—Christmas is coming! December and year round, our culture tells us to look good and to have the right stuff. That what we have and how we look determines who we are.
We want to have our living spaces in order before anyone comes over. Don’t drop by because it—and I—might not be together. This is hard for me. I have always strived to keep my rooms organized with my loose ends and junk nicely hidden under the bed, in the closet, or under carefully draped fabric.
While it may not be an orderly space, what’s particularly important to your presenting image? We’re taught to consider what we wear, the stuff we own, the people we know, the places we’ve been, and what we have done. We consider what we let others see and for what they don’t see. Get ready—someone is looking at us!
In our Gospel text, someone is coming. God comes to John in the wilderness: not a fun place out in nature, but a harsh land where few people go. John looks odd, dressed in camel’s hair eating locusts and honey as Matthew and Mark tell us. An odd man in an odd place, and lots of people came from all around the region. John is not fancy nor fashionable, but many people listen and do what he invites. John is not the awaited guest; he points to Jesus. Get ready—God is coming!
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
When I was a pastoral intern in Nebraska, we gave a Bible to each third grader on a particular Sunday. The Bible is a good gift; it’s a source of hope, love, encouragement, inspiration, and life. I told the congregation: pay attention. We are giving children a knife. As we heard this morning from the letter to the Hebrews: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.”
Scripture is sharper than a sword. Like a scalpel, it cuts through what is diseased and damaged, cuts through lies and confusion, cuts through the stories we tell ourselves to reveal the truth. The stories of scripture surprise, disturb, confound and with good intention cut. We and our children need help and practice to listen, to receive powerful, sharp, healing words of life.
Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Psalm 85: 7-13
Acts 13: 14b-26
Luke 1: 57-80
It doesn’t take much: a young girl, barely a teenager, lowering her bucket into the village well, listening for the splash when it hits the water; an old man, hands shaking with age, alone in the sanctuary of the Lord, spooning incense onto the red hot charcoal of the altar brazier. It doesn’t take much, and suddenly there is a moment, a movement, a presence, a strange voice, a greeting: ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you’; a command and a promise: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
It doesn’t take much, a young girl, barely a teenager, going about her daily chores; an old man, whose hands tremble with age, performing a duty he had done, perhaps countless times before, yet something is profoundly different.
“It is I; do not be afraid.”1This is a familiar pattern. The Gospel narratives are full of instances where Jesus appears to his followers in a way that causes them terror. These experiences of fear seem to come in response to those moments in which Christ’s divinity is revealed, full and alive within his human vesture. In Mark’s Gospel, the angel of the Lord tells the women at the tomb that Jesus has arisen as he said; to this, we respond, “Alleluia,”2but this news prompted the women to flee from the tomb, “for terror and amazement had seized them.”3 At the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John are clearly astonished throughout the episode, but fall over in terror at the Father’s proclamation that, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This fear is only calmed by Jesus touching the disciples and telling them “do not be afraid.”4
But then, Jesus’s revelation does not only cause fear among his disciples. In John’s Gospel, Christ asks the company of men who had come to arrest him, “Whom are you looking for?” They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and he replies, “I am he.” At this, the men “stepped back and fell to the ground.”5 Falling to the ground implies an uncontrolled, instinctual response. Like a person whose hand touches the hot burner of a stove, this is not a thought-out reaction.
1 Corinthians 13:8-12 & Mark 8:22-26
Because children have a limited capacity to understand certain standard operating procedures of the adult world, they often come to conclusions that are very logical, but alas, entirely incorrect. National Public Radio’s Ira Glass calls this universal phenomenon “kid logic.”[i] For example, my younger sister was convinced that any building called a warehouse was a designated habitat for a werewolf, since these were the only two words she ever encountered with that particular prefix. Similarly, after overhearing an adult conversation featuring the improbable word “concubine” I became convinced that this was a rare species related to the porcupine. My parents patiently let us discover the errors of our “kid logic” on our own, and when we realized the inaccuracy of our theories, we were able to laugh at ourselves — and recalibrate. As children get closer to adolescence, they have a harder time with this gradual approach to revising their narratives. It’s a stage when many instances of “kid logic” collapse, often rapidly and ungracefully, in the face of new evidence about the world. That pre-teen struggle to integrate a vast range of new knowledge – along with the inner imperative to project a persona of effortless maturity to keep up with one’s peers – can make junior high school an unusually cruel boot-camp in disillusionment.
We continue our Epiphany preaching series, “Gifts for the Journey,” on following God’s call, focusing tonight on the gift of guides. Currently on display in the middle of our chapel is an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. Her hand gestures toward the child, in the classic iconographic depiction of the Hodegetria, Greek for, “She who shows the Way.” The tradition of iconography identifies St. Luke the Evangelist as the first iconographer, who painted the image of Mary while she was still alive; the icon he is said to have painted is the original Hodegetria, establishing this particular image of Mother and Child as both widely popular and a deeply reflective picture of who Jesus is, and, consequently, who Mary is. Jesus is the Way, and Mary is she who shows the way, her simple and silent hand gesture representing the life of the Virgin burning, brightly and endlessly, with the love and knowledge of God. In today’s Gospel reading, this is further encapsulated. At the wedding at Cana, Mary tells the servants to do whatever her Son tells them. Just a few verses beforehand, Jesus has told the disciple Nathanael that greater signs of Jesus’s work and identity await. John, in his gospel, then describes the scene at Cana, and so gives us the first of these promised greater signs. In this scene, it is Mary who initiates the interaction, and it is Mary who points the way: “Do whatever he tells you.” Mary is ever-vigilant, always pointing to her Son, always guiding us to the Way.
This is no surprise or coincidence. At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will descend upon her, overshadowing her with the power of the Most High. It is the Spirit, dwelling in and among us right now, who is constantly pointing to Christ. It is the Spirit who, in quiet whispers and gestures, points to the Son as the Way to the Father. It is the Spirit who binds us, uniting us to one another in Christ as his body, uniting us to the Bridegroom as his Bride. It is the Spirit who points the Way, and teaches us how to point the Way, if only we let him, as Mary did so long ago.
And though Mary is the fullest expression of this divine gift of guidance, it was taking place long before. Soon, we will sing the Nicene Creed. About the Holy Spirit, the Creed says that “He has spoken through the Prophets.” The long line of prophetic witness is another manifestation of the Spirit’s guidance, inspiring others to be co-laborers with him in his guidance. Tonight’s first reading is from the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is my favorite Old Testament prophet. He is perhaps a mirror image of Jonah, whose single call to repentance of the people of Nineveh brought about repentance. Jeremiah has no such luck. He spends a lifetime prophesying to Israel of their sins and the impending destruction and exile coming from Babylon, to no avail. Jerusalem is sacked, the Temple is destroyed, and the Israelites are scattered throughout the empire. Jeremiah spends the rest of his life in exile, in Egypt; he is left with bitterness, and tears, and lamentation. But this destruction, this uprooting, is no final death. It is the clearing of the brush, the making of the paths in the wilderness. Despite their settling in the promised land of Canaan, the wilderness has not departed from the People of God. Thickets still obscure the sight of the watchers, thorn bushes still ensnare the ankles of the travelers, wandering and searching for the Way. After foretelling humanity’s long exile in the wilderness of Babylon, Jeremiah offers us a prophesy of sweet hope: that God has a plan for us, that he has not forsaken us, that he has not taken the Way from us, that he will restore his people to the place from which we were exiled. We will be shown out of the wilderness and into the Garden. The Spirit who blew over the waters at creation is still a wind, whipping over the wilderness, ever working his act of re-creation on a world and a race beset by the spiritual wilderness of the formless void. This whirlwind is the breath, the voice of the prophets in the desert, proclaiming to all who would listen: there is a way. Here is the Way.
But this prophetic speech is no ancient tongue. The Spirit has always guided the world, but at Pentecost, his descent onto the people Church is as fundamental as Christ’s Incarnation. At the Incarnation, God the Son became imbued with humanity. At Pentecost, humanity became imbued with God the Spirit. So the Spirit has not stopped moving over the waters, but now moves with more grace and more power, more gentle and more ferocious than ever before. Dwelling in us, imbuing us with gifts of divinity, the Spirit’s guidance persistently abides within us. He shows us the Way, and shows us how to imitate him in showing others the Way.
And this is, perhaps, the most likely place you may have encountered the Spirit. Often, it is very difficult to discern the Spirit’s guidance, thumping in our own chests. Instead, we look outward, toward our human fellow-travelers. In the voices of their mouths, we, often quite unexpectedly, hear the whistling of the Spirit’s divine gusts. If we are open and prepared, a single word from a friend or a lover or a stranger may strike a silent chord deep within us, might stand out as a bright and brilliant sign, pointing out the otherwise-obscured path. A conversation might take an unforeseen turn, and words that strike us as ridiculous at first glance are actually the work of the Spirit, doing his eternal labor of Creation, planting seeds in the chaotic uncertainty of our own lives, so that they might grow into trees lining the Way. Despite our best efforts to dismiss, ignore, or push aside this guidance, God assures us of the truth of his path.
And we are called to be guides, to be the co-laborers of the Holy Spirit. This is a path that requires serious discernment. But to be prophets, to emulate the Virgin Mary as She who shows the Way, is to live up to our full human vocation. We are to be guides just as we are guided. We are to travel the path of God while clearing the brush so that others may join us. The Way is narrow, and long, and often obscured, but we are assured of the Spirit’s guidance, and we are assured of our vocation to work with him in that guidance. Let us show forth our Way.
This sermon is part of the “Gifts for the Journey” series. We hope you’ll check out the other sermons in the series.