We are just two days past the Feast of Christmas on which we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world as a tiny babe in Bethlehem. The familiar stories bring comfort and hope: the young girl and her husband searching for a safe place for the birth to take place, the shepherds in their fields surprised by choirs of angels in the heavens; the wise men guided by a mysterious star. Each story bears a promise, a promise from God.
To Mary God’s messenger proclaimed a son, to be named Jesus, which means “savior.” He would be great, the Son of the Most High, and would receive from God the throne of his ancestor David. He would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there would be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)
To the shepherds the angel announced “good news of great joy for all the people,” namely that the child born this day in the city of David would be “a Savior… the Messiah, the Lord.” “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” the choir of angels sang, “and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (Luke 2:8-14)
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like…
Sheep without a shepherd.
Students without a teacher,
Children without a parent,
Eggs without a brooding mother,
Warriors without a commander,
Citizens without a leader,
Treasure without a guardian,
Inheritance without an heir.
Characters without an author,
I must confess that the gospel we meet this morning is not an easy one. There is good news for us here, but it is not a simple news. It is a news that will fortify us, but to my fallen palette it tastes a bit like bile going down.
In 1937, just over 80 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his now classic text, The Cost of Discipleship (or, in the original German, simply, Nachfolge). His text opens with a harsh admonition, “Billige Gnade ist der Todfeinde unsere Kirche”—“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.” Bonhoeffer wrote these words to a church assailed by the claims of a dangerous ideology. An ideology that sought an illusory national purity. An ideology that marked one group as “fully human” while deporting, enslaving, and exterminating those groups deemed “less than human.” In the blink of an eye, the Nazi Party had leveraged itself into a fascist dictatorship. His church, Bonhoeffer worried, was at risk of missing the costly call of God, preferring instead billige Gnade, cheap grace that justified not sinners but sin itself.
Bonhoeffer found himself attempting to minister to communities who struggled to sense the cost of their allegiance to Jesus Christ—afraid to undertake the sacred labor of seeking Christ ready and waiting in their neighbors, enemies, and scapegoats. To preach the Gospel became an act of treason against a society that sought to deform and devalue the “teure Gnade,” the “costly grace” that comes with following Jesus Christ—the life-giving grace that only comes from the vulnerability of the cross. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer knew, calls the church always beyond the narrow horizons of its own self-interest. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer knew, makes no room for a spirituality that would simply treat God as a means to an end—even if that end is peace.
Remember the great salvation night when God brought our ancestors out of slavery in Egypt. As hundreds of thousands with neighbors and livestock, they fled. They were pushed out, having to leave quickly in the moment. “They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.”
They had not prepared food for the journey. All they had was their daily dough, and they could not prepare it as they were accustomed. They had to leave “before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.”[i]
For in the LORD’s hand there is a cup, full of spiced and foaming wine, which he pours out, and all the wicked of the earth shall drink and drain the dregs.
In the writings of the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, as in the seventy-fifth Psalm, we encounter a cup that no one wants to drink. All tremble when God offers it. And for good reason. To “drink the cup of God’s wrath” is to imbibe the consequences of ungodly actions. Those who drink it stagger and fall down, overwhelmed by the awful knowledge of their sins.
These images of forced intoxication are harsh and terrifying. They feel punitive in the extreme. But to see this image from the vantage point of the prophets of Israel, to drink this cup is also to swallow the Truth. If we have developed a personal habit of avoiding or evading the Truth; if we have fallen captive to our culture’s prevailing tendency to do this on a national scale; if we have lied to ourselves or others; or if we have done things that feel untrue to our primary identity as God’s children; the Truth may very well feel harsh and terrifying. When God offers this cup to me, it inevitably feels like a confrontation.
The same God of Truth also offers the cup of blessing. For those who are living in the Truth, living for the Truth, to drink of this cup brings life and health, strengthening one’s intimacy with the God who offers it. This cup purifies the heart and prepares our thirst for more and more.
But what if this is the same cup? It is obvious that the biblical writers are using the image of God’s cup to convey a wide variety of different meanings. But might it be the case that, rather than selecting a different cup from a divine cup collection or even pouring a different vintage of wine for each guest, God offers God’s one cup – the offer of Godself? Might it not be that the disposition of the one who would drink of itis the variable here, and it is we – who can see so little of the vast and inscrutable purposes of God – who attribute to God a variety of motives beyond the one motive of saving Love?
Jesus was steeped in the tradition of the Prophets and in the prayer book of Israel, the Psalter. He would have known this variety of cup imagery in scripture quite intimately. When Jesus says to James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” he has just offered to his disciples a third prediction of the suffering and death he is to undergo at Jerusalem, as well as a prediction of his resurrection. This is a cup of Truth so pungent and bewildering that they have avoided and evaded drinking it at all costs. And in just a few short chapters, Jesus will drink from a cup for the last time with his gathered friends, saying “Drink from it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” And he will go to Gethsemane and pray in the dark, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” The cup of Jesus is one cup. For him and in him, the cup of suffering is the cup of salvation. The cup offered to him and him alone by the hand of his Father isthe cup he invited his friends to share at their final feast. If James and John would drink the cup of blessing in the right hand of the king, they must drink all the Truth that that cup contains. And so must we.
The chalice of the Eucharist participates in the nature of all of these offered cups, which are the one cup – the offer of Godself. The bread and wine of the Eucharist are many, many things: food for our wilderness journey, medicine in this hospital for sinners, fruit hanging from the tree of the cross. But for me, a challenge – and some days, a confrontation– in receiving the Eucharist as frequently as we do is that the cup we drink also holds living fire. This image is especially prominent in the Eucharistic prayers of the Eastern Church, in which the bread is likened to the live coalfrom the altar that touched the lips of Ezekiel, and the wine a flow of living firefrom God’s throne. Such fire burns up sins, and sets the soul ablaze like molten metal. The heat that sometimes burns in my breast in response to this fierce gift finds poignant expression in the words of the Carmelite writer Marc Foley: “The deeper divine charity takes root in our hearts, the greater the guilt we feel when we hate or fail to love. The more we say yes to God, the more painful it becomes to say no. Nevertheless, we continue to resist God’s call to grow. Consequently, we feel trapped. We can’t say no, but we don’t want to say yes. We resent being put in this position.”
Each time we receive God into ourselves from this cup, we say yes– we say yesto the one who sensitizes our conscience, the one who sharpens our spiritual senses, and the one who turns up the light – and the heat – in our soul. The cup of Truth may cause us to stagger and fall down. But if we continue to drink from it – Christ promises – this loving confrontation will bring us to a miraculous and sober inebriation. We will know that fire can make its home in us, because our true nature is gold. The cup of his suffering – which is the cup of salvation – will bring with it each day a fresh opportunity to turn to the Lord and live. In this cup, we will know the Truth without fear, and the Truth will set us free.
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.
Matthew 9: 9-13
I believe that to be true. Probably, so do you. We believe that Jesus saves us from sin – our own and the sins of the whole world. Jesus saves us from death: by his Incarnation, by his freely given human life, and by his freely chosen death on the cross. Jesus saves us from the worst in ourselves: from our daily blindness, ignorance, resentment and failure to love. Jesus saves. For us, that is good news.
But just imagine that somewhere there is a person who doesn’t believe he is in need of saving. The message that “Jesus saves” rings hollow in his ears. In fact, he and his many friends hear this proposition and yawn, or chuckle, or roll their eyes. The offer of a Savior is not what they need.
I believe that, also, to be true. Probably, so do you. We believe that Jesus, our Savior, was also a Healer at heart, spending himself, spending his life bending down and reaching out to touch the leper, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the bleeding and broken and forsaken of the world. In healing bodies, he healed hearts and souls, and lives even now to do the same. Jesus heals. For us, that is good news.
Isaiah 40: 1 – 11
Psalm 85: 1 – 2, 8 – 13
2 Peter 3: 8 – 15a
Mark 1: 1 – 8
Each year I get a little crankier and a little more annoyed by Christmas.
Now, don’t get me wrong, before you write me off as some kind of a monastic Scrooge, let me explain what I mean.
If truth be told, I actually love Christmas. I love the lights, and the tinsel, and the tree. I love the decorations, and the carols, and the crèche, and the baking, (perhaps especially the baking!). I love Christmas. What makes me cranky, and annoyed, is that what many people really just want are the lights, and the tinsel, and the tree. What many people really just want are the decorations, and the carols, and the crèche, and the baking. What many people really just want is the baby and the celebration. What many people don’t want is a saviour. But isn’t that the whole point of Christmas? And you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
For many, Christmas is about a cute, pudgy, sweet smelling baby, nestled in a bed of clean straw, in a romantically quaint, clean, rustic looking barn, amidst softly falling snow, much as we had yesterday. What they don’t want, is a saviour. And they don’t want a saviour, because that would suggest that we need saving. That would suggest that life isn’t all that we so often pretend it to be. And who wants to admit that life, especially my life, is not perfect, or that I can’t fix it?
I have been captivated recently by the icons of Maxim Sheshukov, a Russian iconographer who works in a traditional style but whose icons often depict themes or events from Scripture rarely depicted in icons – Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, or Judas accepting the bag of silver, or the slaying of Abel by Cain, for instance. One icon that has been much fodder for my prayer depicts Christ, his figure almost whimsically tall and slender and slightly bent at the shoulders, standing before an equally tall, dark, and very narrow door. The wooden panel on which the icon is painted is tall and narrow, and is itself highly suggestive of a door. The background is a simple, quiet yellow ochre, the color of sand or wheat. Christ’s right hand – or more precisely, his outstretched, right pointer finger, seems to rest on the face of the door, pointing toward it, perhaps giving it the gentlest tap imaginable. His left hand holds a thin, narrow scroll, its words concealed from view.[i]
This evening is the second in our series of sermons on the theme of ‘Salvation Revisited.’ We are exploring the theme of salvation, which is central to the faith of the Church, and to the season of Advent, when we are promised a ‘Savior.’
Next week the theme will be ‘The sacred and Imperishable Proclamation’ and the final week’s theme will be ‘Salvation – from What, to What?’
My theme today is ‘Coming Home.’
When I was a teenager I rarely went to church. I was confirmed at 12, at school. Almost everyone in my class was confirmed – mainly so as not to let the house down! But for me, it was a kind of ‘passing out parade.’ No more church. I was interested in religious ideas, but thought Christianity rather facile. I preferred the more exotic Eastern forms of religious expression – far more interesting ways of trying to make contact with the divine. But one day, in my late teens, on one of my rare visits to church, I heard a Gospel which kind of stopped me in my tracks. It was the Gospel we heard read today: the parable of the Prodigal Son. What really moved me, was this image of the Father. Day after day, his father had been longing for his son – missing him, longing for him to come home. Scanning the horizon. Please, my son, come home. And then, one day, he sees him, way in the distance. He is so overjoyed that he runs – runs out to meet him, and welcome him home.