Life Flashing Before Our Eyes

One of the most familiar tropes in film and fiction is when a character in distress or at the point of death sees his entire life flash before his eyes.  Events from birth to the present moment cascade rapidly through consciousness, as the protagonist looks on in wonder at his life’s review.  This happens in Bruce Willis’ Armageddon, Tom Cruise’s Vanilla Sky, even in the Shrek spin-off cartoon Puss in Boots, though in that instance Puss in Boots sees all nine of his kitty cat lives replayed in front of him.  Most recently we saw this in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, when Max is near death and sees the events of the previous seasons flash before her eyes.

In most of these examples, the rapid life review is reminiscent, poignant, or even a comfort to the protagonist.  It is a means by which he can culminate his life before letting go.  But let’s pause and ask: Is that what it would feel like for us to have our lives flash before our eyes?  To have everything from our lives flash before our eyes? 

In addition to the things we do or leave undone, human beings spend much of our lives creating powerful psychological defenses, and we use these to suppress some painful or shameful memories and revise others.  We magnify our victories and minimize our failings.  In short, we tend to recast ourselves as the heroes of the story of our lives.  But here’s the thing about the breakneck life review that flashes before us at life’s end: It doesn’t care a whit for our psychological defenses.  The life reel that we will see (if indeed that’s how it works) will be not be varnished by our recasting.  It will show us the blunt truth of who we’ve been in each and every moment.  It will show us our joys but also those times when we faltered by mistake and when we willingly did harm.  We want the movie reel to be a superhero movie or a romantic comedy, but for some of us it might be closer to a horror film.

The reality is that the movie reel of our life already exists in its stark and unembellished form.  We know this, and we acknowledge it at the beginning of our worship each Sunday.  We’ve already done so today.  Immediately following the procession, the Celebrant prayed, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid…”  We might even add a tagline from the prophet Jeremiah: “I am watching, says the Lord.”[i]

The revision of our life stories may deceive us, but it does not deceive God.  God knows who we are.  God knows who we are.  And if that doesn’t make you the least bit nervous, you’re a much better person than I am.

This is the circumstance of the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel today.  This is a long passage, filled with theological heft and nuance, but among its most striking aspects is the few lines of dialogue between the woman and Jesus sandwiched in the middle.  After Jesus has told the woman all about the water of life (and more about that momentarily), Jesus instructs the woman to go and fetch her husband.  Attempting to shroud the truth of her life and its circumstances, the woman offers sheepishly and obliquely, “I have no husband,” upon which Jesus says, “It is true that you have no husband,” and then, as Frederick Dale Bruner puts it, Jesus “pierces her life at center.”[ii]  Jesus proceeds to run the movie reel and flash the woman’s life before her eyes, describing her unorthodox repetitive marriages and revealing that she is now living with someone to whom she isn’t married.  We don’t know the nitty gritty details beyond that, but it is clear that Jesus does, just as it is clear that the woman’s lifestyle sets her, fairly or unfairly, outside the bounds the morality of her day and time.

Just as we would be, the Samaritan woman is taken aback by Jesus’ prescience.  That much we would expect.  What we would not expect is what the woman tells all her neighbors when she goes back to town.  She says to one and all, “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done!”  Having spent so much effort—as we all do—building her psychological walls of defense, having obfuscated to herself and others (including Jesus) in order to preserve her sense of self as a good person, now the Samaritan woman rejoices that Jesus has seen her entirely and held that true mirror up to her.  And beyond that, her reaction is contagious.  Inexplicably, John tells us, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’”  All of a sudden, they want to see the true reel of their lives, too.  They want to face themselves square-on and without varnish.  Somehow, Jesus has turned the horror movie into a miracle story.

How is that so?  How is it Jesus can draw us to the very thing we’ve so diligently and assiduously avoided all our lives: The vision of our truest selves, light and shadow both?

It is because of the way today’s passage both begins and ends.  Before Jesus has held up the mirror of the Samaritan woman’s life, before the good, bad, and ugly have flashed before her eyes, Jesus shares with her the Good News of living water.  He does so already knowing everything about her.  To Jesus, already, the woman’s heart is open, her desires known.  From him no secret is hid.  And yet, even before he reveals all of this to her, Jesus offers her the water of life.

And what about after he told her everything about her?  Was the prior Good News just a ruse then to pull the rug out from under her?  Did Jesus intend, like some Puritan preacher of old, simply to begin with the Gospel in order to show us how depraved and fallen—how beyond grace—the Samaritan woman was?  No.  After the woman is faced with the stark reality of herself, Jesus continues to sit, and teach, and offer that grace fully and freely.  He stays with her, ignoring even his incredulous disciples, until she (not he) is ready to move.

The second half of the Collect for Purity we say at the outset of the Holy Eucharist—the prayer that reminds us God is the one “from whom no secrets are hid,”—says, “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name.”  The answer to that prayer is what we see happen in the Samaritan woman.  She can endure, and even welcome, seeing her life flash before her eyes, because Jesus is with her before and after the viewing. Jesus is the one who shows her her true self, but he does so already having extended grace.  In the metaphoric language of the passage, he provides her with the food and drink she needs in order to face who she has been.  In a phrase, Jesus loves her first, and through his love she can bear to see her life truly, allow it to be washed clean by the living water of Christ, and begin to love more perfectly in return.

Part of who we have been is glorious, to be sure.  As I preached two weeks ago at the beginning of Lent, God says that we are good.[iii]  But there are also those parts of us and things we have done that we prefer to keep hidden in the shadows, that we don’t want to admit to ourselves, much less the world around us.  Do we trust Jesus enough to let him show us everything we have ever done?  Are we thirsty for the living water that will strengthen us for the viewing?  Redemption begins with only and exactly this trust.  Only in it and with it can we be honest about who we have been and who we are.  Jesus reveals us to ourselves not to condemn or shame or abandon.  Jesus rehearses our lives so that we, too, can love more purely and live in the light.  Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  Are you ready for your life to flash before your eyes? 

[i] Jeremiah 7:11

[ii] See Bruner’s The Gospel of John: A Commentary, pp. 259-260.

[iii] Thompson, Barkley.  “Why Lent?”

Why Lent?

This is the first Sunday in Lent.  Every year on this day, we (along with Anglicans across the globe) chant the Great Litany, where we say, among many other similar things, “From all evil and wickedness; from sin; from the crafts and assaults of the devil; and from everlasting damnation, Good Lord, deliver us…From all inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us.”  And so on.

Every year on Ash Wednesday, which was five days ago, we confess to God, “our…unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience in our lives…our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people.”[i]

Every year for Lent we give up things we love—that make us smile and grant us a bit of pleasure after our daily slog—like chocolate or beer.

And every year on the First Sunday in Lent—every year—we read the Gospel story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, when the devil relentlessly pummels a tired, weak, and famished Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but we’re thirty minutes into the First Sunday in Lent, and I’m already miserable!  After the Advent season of expectation and anticipation, the Christmas season of joy, and the Epiphany season in which our eyes are opened to the wonder of God, we find ourselves—like Jesus—swiftly cast into a barren Lenten wilderness in which anticipation dies of thirst, joy withers, and our eyesight is dimmed by darkness.  Jeez, Louise, I want to crawl in a hole for the next forty days.

Have you ever asked why?  If Lent were a resolution passed by us in convention, the many things I’ve just described would be the “whereases”: Whereas we acknowledge our sin, whereas we repent in sorrow, whereas we deny ourselves, whereas we read of the temptation of the Savior…  But what is the “Be it therefore resolved” in this resolution?  Why do we subject ourselves to these forty days of self-abasement before we dust off the seersucker and flowered hats for Easter?  Is misery good for its own sake?  Why Lent?

Are we supposed to be miserable in Lent?

It’s probably a good idea to look closely at the Gospel reading today, the temptation of Jesus that gives us the model for Lent.  Though in church we’ve had six intervening Sundays, in Matthew’s narrative today’s reading follows immediately after what we read in church way back on January 8, the day Jesus was baptized.  On that day, you may recall that Jesus had an epiphany.  The eyes of his soul were opened to the presence of God, both around him and in his own life.  Some scholars believe it was at that very moment that Jesus began to recognize that he was different, that he was set apart for some special purpose.  And it was right then, in the wake of that profound, heady, and life-altering experience, that Jesus found himself cast into the wilderness and tempted by the devil.

That makes good and evident sense.  It is often when we feel unexpected wind in our sails, in those moments when the world seems to bend to our will, when a voice from God (or somewhere) says to us, “You are special” that we find ourselves tempted to believe our own hype and find first our behavior and then our very selves twisted into people we scarcely recognize and don’t want to be.

Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ temptation is sparse.  The way he tells the tale, Jesus immediately rebuffs each of the devil’s propositions.  But I doubt that’s the way it happened.  I suspect the reality was something much closer to Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Jesus very humanly indulged fantasies of his temptations, imagined in lengthy detail what his life would look like if he went down various avenues, anguished over the loss of things that he knew weren’t good and right for him but that he nevertheless desired and craved.

In other words, I don’t think Jesus’ time in the wilderness was a speedy chess match in which Jesus quickly bested the devil.  I think it was a protracted time (forty days in the bible simply means “a really long time,” after all) when Jesus struggled with his own shadow in all the ways we are encouraged to do in Lent.  Jesus’ temptation truly is our model in these forty days.

But again, that begs the question, why?  And the answer comes in what is usually considered a throwaway line at the tail end of today’s Gospel passage, when Jesus’ trial is done.  But it’s no afterthought.  It’s actually the key to the whole thing, the “be it resolved” of our entire Lenten proclamation.  That final line is the “why” of Lent: “Then the devil left Jesus, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”  Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, gives this verse its more telling emphasis.  Peterson says, “The Devil left.  And in his place, angels!  Angels came and took care of Jesus.”  I believe whole-heartedly that the trajectory of the story—its entire point—is those angels who rush in at the end. I’ll say more about that in a moment…

Too often, too many Christian preachers and Christian people treat Lent as if for forty days a year God wants us to be self-abasing and self-loathing.  Hear me say (and pardon these strong words): That is heresy.  If all our Lenten observances are intended to make us feel lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut, then we are forgetting God’s proclamation at the dawn of the world upon creating humankind in God’s own image, when God gazed upon us and said, “Indeed, it is very good.”[ii]

At Jesus’ baptism, it was revealed that Jesus was destined.  And before Jesus could fulfill that destiny, Jesus had to undergo the difficult and almost upending experience of temptation in all the ways human beings are tempted.  Jesus was tempted by indulgence, by status, by power.  In a phrase: Even Jesus was tempted to take on a false self.  And so, Jesus’ own wilderness time was not self-abasing; it was a stripping bare.  It was a casting off of the layers of temptation so that what remained was only the core, only the goodness, only the image of God that was Jesus’ heart.  And then, like magnets to a pole or moth to flame, the angels of God rushed in to Jesus, to tend him, minister to him, build him up in truth rather than falsehood and temptation, so that Jesus could be the One God had called him at his baptism to be.

That is our Lenten model.  Over time—over life—the temptations that beset us, the temptations to which we too-often give in, accrete upon us layers of indulgence and false selves that bury deep underneath our delusion that image of God in which we are created.  Our Lenten observance—the drone of the Great Litany, the practices we take on, the things we give up, the reminders of our mortality—all of these intend not to abase us or make us miserable, but to strip us bare of that delusion, to shed our false selves, to bore down to the image of God at the heart of us.  In us, as in Jesus, that image then shines forth to the angels, who will rush in to us and bear us on their wings.

We see this at other times in life, when our stripping bare is unintentional, times of illness, or economic hardship, or family crisis, when, as our layers are shed in the midst of it all, we encounter God in a profound way.  Lent is simply the same thing, but with intention.  That is the “why” of Lent.           

So, this Lent, hear the words of the Great Litany.  Renew your repentance and faith.  Give up something meaningful, or better yet something that should be given up altogether, or take on a new discipline.  But in all these things, remember always that you are good.  You are created in the very image of God.  And God loves you so much that, when you are stripped bare and in greatest need, God’s angels will rush in to tend you. 

[i] Book of Common Prayer, 268.

[ii] Genesis 1:27-31.

To whom do we belong?

In this season, our second reading each Sunday—the one we most often neglect, the one during which congregants are most likely to jot down their grocery lists on the back of a welcome card or wonder how long the preacher is going to talk—is from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.  Chopped into weekly bits, the letter doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but read in a sitting, as one would normally read any letter, it’s a fascinating piece of writing.

Paul has spent eighteen months in Corinth, first preaching the new Gospel of Jesus, then recruiting the church there, and finally establishing the structures of that church so that when Paul leaves it can continue to flourish.  But, barely down the road toward his next stop, a rider catches up with Paul to tell him that, back in Corinth, all hell has broken loose.

To understand this, we first need to understand Corinth itself.[i]  Corinth had been an ancient city, but when Rome conquered it, it scattered Corinth’s inhabitants and leveled the old city to the ground to build a brand-new Corinth on the ruins of the old.  Rome then transplanted people from all over the empire with promises of land and other incentives to populate the new Corinth.  The result was a polyglot city that was something like a cross between Las Vegas and New Orleans during Mardi Gras.  Corinth was a glittering, anything goes, “What happens in Corinth stays in Corinth” kind of town, and even the newly-converted Christians had trouble leaving their old habits behind.

“Corinth was something like a cross between Las Vegas and New Orleans during Mardi Gras.”

So, what are the presenting issues that furtive rider shares with St. Paul on the road?  What is going on in the Corinthian church that causes Paul to stop in his tracks and write an often-furious letter of warning to his former flock?  The first issue Paul addresses is that a lay leader in the Corinthian church has taken up an intimate physical relationship (to put it mildly) with his own stepmother.[ii]  Next, it turns out that affluent church members—the ones who don’t have to work at wage-earning jobs all day—show up early for the evening Eucharist and sit around getting drunk on Communion wine.[iii]  And even further on, Paul castigates church members for arguing over whose spiritual gifts are greater: the healers, the prophets, those who speak in tongues, etc.  The image is of school kids bickering on the playground about who is the “coolest.”  It’s at that point that Paul calls them all “noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.”[iv]  And so on.  You can’t make this stuff up.  (See how interesting the bible can be?!?)

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians reads, in many places, like a parent saying, “That thing you’re doing?  Stop it!”  But in other places, St. Paul takes a step back and offers a theological diagnosis to the overall problem of Corinth.  He recognizes that all the Corinthians’ foibles, errors, and gross transgressions are symptomatic of something much deeper and more pervasive.  Once in chapter one and again today in chapter three, Paul poses the overarching question, and it’s a question that pertains throughout the ages, as much to us as it does to first century Corinth.  Paul asks his readers, “To whom do you belong?”

That’s an interesting word, belong.  Its etymology traces to two meanings, both of which are worth notice.  The first is from the Dutch, and it means “to concern.”[v]  In other words, we belong to that with which we are concerned.  That makes perfect sense.  That which occupies our thoughts, which populates our anxiety, on which we spend our time, our energy, our money…that which concerns us, owns us in a sense.  We belong to that with which we are concerned. 

The great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich took this notion to its logical end and said that our god is that with which we are ultimately concerned.[vi]  And in that case, if we’re honest, the God we claim to worship when we come to church is not, by Tillich’s measure, our true god.  That’s hard to hear and even harder to accept, but what Tillich forces us to confront is this: How much of our time outside of these walls; how much of our consideration when we make decisions throughout our daily lives; how much of our interactions with other people; are determined by our devotion and adoration of God?  Not much, Tillich would say.  Most of us don’t often pause to consider the God of grace incarnate in Jesus as we tick through the moments of our day, and thus Tillich would say that God is not really our ultimate concern.  Instead, our ultimate concerns are placed in many other things: our ideology, our politics, our finances, our biases, our addictions, our petty grudges, our legitimate personal worries.  Some of these things are toxic, and some are benign.  But Tillich says that whichever of these things, or combination of these things, preoccupies our thoughts and drives our decisions, those are our ultimate concerns and thus those are our gods.  Those are the things to which we belong.  St. Paul is saying the same thing to the Corinthians.  “To whom do you belong?” Paul asks them throughout his letter.  Judging by their behavior, they belong to any number of things, but they don’t belong to Christ.

And that points to the second meaning of the word “belong.”  It is from the Middle English, and it means “to be fitting.”[vii]  In other words, we “fit” ourselves—we conform our thoughts, our actions, our decisions, our behavior—to that to which we belong.  If our ultimate concern is wealth, we act materialistically.  If our ultimate concern is winning in business, politics, life, we become vicious.  If our ultimate concern is a bottle, we will ignore all other responsibilities in order to get that drink.  We fit our actions to that to which we belong.  Paul’s deep frustration with the Corinthians is that their actions are entirely unfitting with discipleship.  The Corinthians claim to follow Jesus, but in their actual lives they follow anything and everything but Jesus!

And that is worth some introspection for us, too.  We may rebel against the notion that our gods are something other than God, but Paul presents us with a way to check ourselves: How do we act?  Do we fit ourselves to the ways of love and grace?  Or, do we, in Paul’s words, “behave according to human inclinations”[viii] and chase after other gods?

The Rector’s Book Club discussed C.S. Lewis’ classic The Great Divorce this past week.  Lewis’ book is about heaven and hell, and his conclusion is that hell is the life lived with something other than God as its ultimate concern.  Most of the characters in The Great Divorce who find themselves in hell don’t even realize where they are.  They are so consumed by concerns other than God, they so entirely fit their attitudes and actions to those other concerns, that, though they are miserable, they fail to recognize why.  Some seek to possess their spouses or children as instruments of their own worth and meaning; some are obsessed with their superiority, others by their victimhood; some thrive on their arrogance and indignation; some are consumed by addiction.  But in every instance, the characters belong to, and fit their lives to, something other than God.

Heaven is constantly held out to each of them, and for those who ultimately enter heaven the threshold is crossed when they say, in essence, “I will no longer fit myself to this other thing.  I will no longer allow it to be my ultimate concern.  I will no longer belong to it.  I will belong to God.” 

Then the world changes.  Hell becomes heaven.  God, as the new ultimate concern, becomes the prism through which all other concerns are viewed and considered.  Grace becomes the milieu through which all else is encountered.  And that, then, changes action.  The characters find that they begin to fit themselves to God.  They begin to interact in ways that channel grace to others.  Love itself becomes purer, as all other loves in life flow first from their love for God. As it is in C.S. Lewis’ fable, so it is in our very real lives, in our very real world.  St. Paul says to us, as St. Paul says to the Corinthians, you belong to God.  Let go of all else.  Allow God to be your ultimate concern.  Fit yourself to God’s grace.  Then even the hells we encounter in life we will find transformed into heaven.

[i] Horsley, Richard A.  1 Corinthians, 22-28.

[ii] 1 Corinthians 5:1

[iii] 1 Corinthians 11:20-22

[iv] 1 Corinthians 13:1


[vi] See Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith.


[viii] 1 Corinthians 3:3

God’s Slogan

Last week I went down a YouTube rabbit hole.  Someone sent me a link for an early 1980s commercial for the Sony Walkman, and my nostalgia got the better of me.  I proceeded from one vintage commercial to another, until (an hour of time wasted) I’d been reminded of virtually every famous commercial slogan from the past forty years.  You’ll remember many of them, because, well, they’re memorable.  That’s the whole point.  Here’s what we’re going to do:  I’ll name a company or brand, and you call out the slogan.  We’ll have to pretend we’re Baptists for just a moment, since we Episcopalians—the Frozen Chosen—don’t usually cry out in church.  Don’t be afraid; give it a try!  Here goes:

         Kentucky Fried Chicken: “It’s Finger Lickin’ Good!”

         Wheaties breakfast cereal: “The Breakfast of Champions”

         Folger’s Coffee: “The best part of waking up is Folger’s in your cup.”

Well done!  Here are a few more.  Remember the Wendy’s slogan in the 1980s that, in turn, became a catchphrase in the 1984 presidential campaign?  “Where’s the beef?!?”  Or, recall Volkswagen’s mid-century slogan to launch the original VW Beetle in the United States, during a time when the trend in American cars was to be as big as a boat?  VW instead encouraged people to “Think small.”  I always liked MasterCard’s slogan, “There’s some things money can’t buy.  For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”  In a split second, the viewer believed that a wallet-sized plastic card gave access to every dream.

That’s what good slogans do.  They are short, catchy, and memorable.  They bring to mind the product they represent, and they present to the imagination the vision of a different world and make us want to be part of it.  As a trite but effective example, KFC’s slogan—“Finger lickin’ good”—first makes us hungry and then transports us to a place where we are satiated with delicious comfort food.  Or, Wheaties’ slogan transforms the couch potato into a gold medal Olympian. 

I like to think I’m an intelligent, sophisticated person, immune to the manipulation of Madison Avenue advertisers.  But I’m not.  Last year I was at a clergy conference in Washington, D.C.  By the time my plane landed, I’d waited on my bag, and Ubered to the hotel, I was travel weary and irritable.  My back hurt, and I wanted to take a nap, but instead I dropped my bag in my room and went reluctantly downstairs to meet a few friends who were also attending.  On a bulletin board just outside the hotel bar was an advertising poster showing smiling, carefree, happy people lifting their cocktail glasses in a toast.  The sign’s slogan said, “What if, no matter what happens in your life, you were meant to be here?”

Oh, brother, I was hooked.  Without even realizing it, I thought, “Yeah, that’s right!”  So, I walked into that bar with a new spring in my step, not even noticing that it was a dingy and shabby bar, and proceeded to run up a tab.

This morning’s Gospel reading is the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  We hear these verses often, but we rarely take note of where they fall in Matthew.  Just prior to the sermon, Jesus has called his disciples, that first small band of closest confidantes and friends, and now Jesus’ message has begun to catch steam.  Immediately before today’s reading, Matthew tells us, “Jesus’ fame spread…and great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”[i]  In other words, Jesus’ Galilean start-up has suddenly gone viral.  And it’s at that moment that Jesus messages his famous sermon, which is the very heart of Matthew’s Gospel.

The sermon is long; it goes on for three entire chapters.  That said, the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount can be distilled into its opening verses we read this morning, the Beatitudes.  They serve as an abstract, a thesis paragraph of sorts for the sermon, when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy…” And all the rest.

The Beatitudes are certainly briefer than the entire Sermon on the Mount, but even they run on for twelve verses.  Given a full weekend spiritual retreat or a several-session Adult Forum course, one could study all nine Beatitudes and glean a depth of meaningful understanding.  It would take at least that long.  That’s why most preachers will select a single Beatitude on which to preach rather than the entire list.  But such a homily can capture only a sliver of what Jesus is talking about.  It would be a partial understanding, which could even lead to a misunderstanding by accentuating one Beatitude and ignoring the rest. 

What to do?  It would surely help if Jesus had a slogan, something to capture the imagination and call to mind a new vision of life as effectively as, for instance, Disneyland’s slogan “The happiest place on earth.”

Those here at Saint Mark’s who have already taken classes with me are aware that I am generally not a fan of slogan Christianity, because too often whatever slogan Christians choose is really more about what they want Christianity to be than what the Gospel actually says.  That said, in our harried lives and TikTok world of minute attention spans and it would be helpful to have a succinct and memorable way to understand and truly articulate the Gospel, a genuine Gospel slogan of sorts. 

And, in fact, we do.  We read it today, too.  It is not directly from the mouth of Jesus, but rather from the Old Testament prophet Micah.  It is proof that the Gospel does not begin with Jesus but much farther back in God’s salvation history; that Jesus came, as he himself says in Matthew, to fulfill the work that God’s prophets had begun.  In today’s Old Testament reading, in his challenge to the people of Israel, Micah presages the Beatitudes.  He takes their truth—already distilled from the entire Sermon on the Mount—and distills it further into a single sentence, provocatively posed as a question.  Micah asks, “What is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

There it is, the entire Gospel in a phrase.  A slogan worthy of Jesus: What is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? 

Succinct.  Memorable.  Drawing our minds immediately to our Creator, and casting before our imaginations a new vision of life.  Micah first calls us to recognize that, despite our pretensions otherwise, we are not God, and we must recognize our fragility, our contingency, and our need for humility before the one who makes us in love.  And the faithful response to that God is both to deal kindly with one another and to labor tirelessly in this world to mirror God’s own act of creation by creating just structures ourselves.

Micah poses his Gospel slogan in the form of a question, and the answer to that question is the Church.  Not MasterCard, not Disneyland, not any other organization in this world, but the Church—the Body of Christ—is called to be the crucible in which the vision Micah presents first become reality. And that finally brings me back to that poster I saw outside the Washington, D.C. bar.  It was a cynical poster, selling alcohol as happiness.  But God can redeem anything!  Recall that that slogan asked, “What if, no matter what happens in your life, you were meant to be here?”  Here, at Saint Mark’s Church in the middle of Little Rock, Arkansas. What if?  What if, right here, God means for you to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?  As Micah says, that is, indeed, good.

[i] Matthew 4:24-25

What do we see?

Pre-COVID, I was a prolific traveler.  I hit the road whenever possible, usually taking parish groups with me.  I hope to do such travel again before too long, and perhaps we can go together.  I have been blessed to visit the Holy Land, Malta, Italy, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Cuba.  Each place I’ve been, I’ve been stopped in my tracks by things special, beautiful, and rare.

Over the course of a decade and a half of such trips, however, I have noticed a subtle but important shift in the way I experience these places.  The change was concurrent with the proliferation of the smartphone.  Here’s the change: As our pilgrim group would approach a site either serene or sublime, I would immediately pull out my phone and rush to take photos, scores of them.  As a result, rather than witnessing God’s creation in a glorious place to which I was very likely never to return, I instead encountered a mere facsimile of that creation through a two-by-five screen.  That borders on the absurd.  What’s even more absurd is that, upon returning home and viewing my photo collection again, in many photos I’d find, right in front of me, some important element (what the kids today call an “Easter egg”)—a person, a treasure, a wondrous gift from God—that in person I’d missed it entirely—not seen it at all—because I was so caught up in the much smaller world of that pixelated phone.  There had been a miracle right before my eyes, and I’d missed it.

Today is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, and if you were at church last week you may be experiencing déjà vu.  Last week was the feast known as the Baptism of Our Lord, and we read Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan.  But here, today, we find another version (John’s) of that same story.  Why does the lectionary give us this story twice in a row?  Do scholars think we’re so dense as to need a repeated hearing?  Well, perhaps it’s not our ears that miss things the first time; perhaps it’s our eyes

Jesus’ baptism is one of the very few accounts that appears in all four Gospels.  And yet, each evangelist describes the tale a bit differently.  In Matthew’s account, which we read last week, Jesus is baptized, and the people around Jesus witness the miraculous interrupt the mundane, as the heavens open, a dove descends, and the voice of God speaks.  Yet, in John’s account today, it seems that only John the Baptist sees the heavenly scene that occurs at Jesus’ baptism.  And if we were to read Mark’s and Luke’s versions of the story, only Jesus himself sees the dove and hears God’s voice. 

What are we to take from this?  Well, we know that a crowd is gathered around John, listening to his preaching and themselves being baptized by him, as Jesus approaches and is himself then baptized.  That is, in and of itself, a very earthy, human, mundane thing.  It involves a hot a dusty people, a road weary man who has traveled from Galilee, a muddy riverbank, a splash of water.  Everyone sees all that.  But what happens next—the wonder, the miracle, the thing that renders this day unlike any other—many if not most miss.  Not everyone sees the same thing.  Jesus hears the voice of God; John sees the heavenly dove; but most, though looking at what’s right in front of them, somehow miss it all.

How might this be?  I suspect most of the gathered people are caught up in their own little worlds, with whatever they bring with them in heart and mind to the riverbank.  And I don’t mean to disregard those worlds.  Each person gathered at the River Jordan brings concerns of the day, large and small.  Someone is sick; someone else is hungry; someone else is preoccupied with conflict at home; and many, undoubtedly, are merely daydreaming either grand dreams or mundane thoughts.  Even though they’ve each traveled through the wilderness for the express purpose of being in this most special place, they fail to be fully present, and so they miss it when God does a unique and remarkable thing.  No doubt, many leave the River Jordan disappointed, thinking that they’ve been boondoggled once again by some religious charlatan or else castigating themselves for expecting anything out of the ordinary to have happened.  When, in fact, it did happen.  God did show up; they just didn’t have eyes to see.

I shake my head at the though of myself, privileged as I have been to visit sacred places across God’s good world, yet obsessed in those places with my smartphone’s screen instead of scanning the horizon for the appearance of God’s holy dove.  Then I realize that those lost opportunities don’t just happen on pilgrimage.  They happen every day.  And not just to me.  We, each and every one of us, miss epiphanies of God. 

A great challenge of our modern world is preoccupation, large and small.  One of the biggest preoccupations is, of course, our electronic devices, but beyond these we are preoccupied generally and with all things.  We obsess about the past we cannot affect, and we are distractedly anxious about the future that has not yet arrived.  In ways large and small, our preoccupation prevents us from being present what is right in front of us, and as a result, we, like the crowd gathered at the River Jordan, risk missing the epiphany of God.

Of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, John’s (which we read today) is my favorite, because in John’s version of the story, Jesus departs his baptism along with the other people gathered around the Jordan.  Rather than leaving them to meander away, not ever realizing what they’ve missed and wandering blind through God’s miraculous creation, Jesus goes with them and moves through them.  When this time the one who will become Andrew the Apostles does finally, vaguely notice something different about Jesus and inquires of him, Jesus says to Andrew, “Come and see!” 

Catch that: Jesus does not leave us blind by the riverbank.  If we miss the grand epiphanies—if in our daydreaming and distraction, if in our preoccupation with the unimportant, we miss the disclosure of God in our midst—Jesus will nevertheless stay with us and walk alongside us, coaxing us to open our eyes and follow him step-by-step, until we do see. Eucharistic Prayer C, which we will be praying at 10:30 a.m. for the remainder of this Epiphany season, includes the plea, “Lord God of our Fathers: God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us.”  That is what this Epiphany season is all about.  In our lives, there will be sublime moments, when God parts the heavens and miraculously appears.  There will be subtle moments, when Jesus brushes lightly past as we go about our daily business.  Will we lose our preoccupations, look up from our smartphones, open our eyes to God at work in the world about us?  Will we come and see?  If we do, we will gasp in wonder that we are surrounded with grace and blessing, as we discover that God reveals Godself to us all the time. 

What’s in a name?

When Jill’s family gathered for Christmas last week, Jill’s brother Johnny Benson gave Jill the best Christmas gift of this or many years.  It is a family bible dating back to the early 1800s and inscribed in it are the names of early Bensons.  The first Benson listed is Didymus Benson, born in 1818.  After Didymus come Amy and Silas.  Then, in 1842, a Benson is born and given the name Thomas Jefferson.  Three years later, Thomas Jefferson Benson’s little brother enters the world, and he is named—wait for it—Marquis de Lafayette Benson. That may be the most interesting name I’ve ever seen.  I wonder how little Marquis de Lafayette was treated on the elementary school playground…

Have you ever thought about your own name, how it was chosen, why it was given to you?  For parents, did you put much thought into the selection of your children’s names? 

There are many motivations behind the choice of name.  Some recycle and recombine family names, as my own family tends to do.  My name is Barkley Stuart Thompson.  Barkley is my mother’s maiden name, and Stuart is my grandmother’s maiden name.  My paternal grandfather, father, brother, and nephew are all Robert Thompson.  My uncle is Robert Barkley, as confusing as that is!  As I am fond of saying, my family tree has many branches but only a very few names.  We do this to hearken to our family origins and keep the stories of our family alive.  “Where did my name come from?” a Thompson child might ask.  “Well, your great-grandmother—for whom you’re named—was a remarkable woman, and during the Great Depression she kept her family fed by…” and so the stories live on. 

Benson Family Bible

Others choose names from history, like Jill’s forbears so clearly did, in order perhaps to reenforce deep family commitments to a cause or a principle.  It’s difficult to imagine a single day in the life of Marquis de Lafayette Benson in which he was not reminded of the great French general’s commitment to freedom and liberty.  Each time Marquis Benson spoke or wrote his name, he would be forced internally to ask and answer, “Do I, too, stand for these things?  Am I a worthy inheritor of my name?”

Yet others choose biblical names, because they hearken to the great cosmic story in which we participate, but that is infinitely bigger than any one of us.  I know a wonderful family in Paragould whose children are Rebecca, John Jacob, Luke, and Rachel.  Each name resonates with a rich chapter of salvation history.

There are, of course, less weighty reasons to choose a name.  My great-grandmother supposedly read a dime store romance novel in which the dashing protagonist was named Beresford, so my grandfather became Carl Beresford Barkley.  Others choose names for aesthetic reasons, because they like the way a name sounds, the cadence of the syllables as they roll off the tongue. 

Regardless of the rationale for choosing a name, names matter.  If I may get wonky for a moment, names are symbols rather than merely signs or signifiers.[i]  A signifier is simply a word that designates and identifies something: Chair, table, tree, lamppost.  A symbol, on the other hand, is pregnant with meaning.  It evokes not only the thing it signifies, but it also a wealth of associations.  As we’ve been discussing, the mention of a person’s name doesn’t merely draw to mind the person’s image, but also a history and a future, particular values, sorrows, joys, and hopes.  Consider the name Desmond Tutu for a moment.  Let all of its symbolic associations wash over you. Does it give you hope, make you smile?  Now consider the name Hitler.  Do its symbolic associations make you recoil?  Names are symbols.  Thus, they matter, and they ought not be chosen, or invoked, lightly.

Today on our liturgical calendar is the Feast of the Holy Name. It falls eight days after the Feast of the Nativity—eight days after Jesus’ birth—when, in accordance with Jewish tradition, the baby was circumcised and named.  Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary faithfully named her child Jesus, as the angel Gabriel had instructed her to do.  Luke also tells us that Mary “pondered all these things in her heart,” and among the things she pondered—as we do even to this day—must have been that choice of name.  On this day, we should ask—as we’ve been asking of other name selections—why did Gabriel convey to Mary this particular name?  Why did Mary name her child Jesus?

Jesus is Latin for the Greek Ἰησοῦς, which is itself a translation of the Hebrew Yeshua.  And that is not a new name in Scripture.  Yeshua is the name shared by the great hero of the Old Testament, whose name in that context we translate into English as Joshua.  Catch that: Jesus and Joshua are two translations of the same Hebrew name.  Mary’s son Jesus, in other words, is named for the biblical Joshua.  And just as everyone who ever met the Marquis de Lafayette Benson would have connected his name with the French paragon of liberty, everyone (including Jesus himself) would have connected Jesus’ name with the Hebrew hero Joshua.

So we need to ask, who was Joshua?  Who is this figure for whom Jesus is named?  Joshua is the one who fulfills God’s promise by leading God’s people into the promised land, and who casts down those who would separate the faithful from God.  God’s angel wants all those who meet Jesus to know, immediately and intuitively, that this is also who Jesus is, that Jesus is the new Joshua, who will spiritually and existentially draw us into God’s promise, who proclaims and enacts that, no matter what anyone else may say, nothing in all creation stands or can stand between us and the loving grace of God.  This is why the choice of Jesus’ name matters.  Every single time we hear Jesus’ name, this truth washes over us. 

By itself, that would be immense.  But the association goes further.  In his Letter to the Galatians today, Paul tells us that the promise into which Jesus—this new Joshua—draws us is himself, that we become a part of him, and in him we, too, are adopted as God’s own children.  To put a fine point on it: Today, on this Feast of the Holy Name, we, too, gain a new name.  In the earliest days of Christianity, the newly baptized would take on the additional name “Christian,” as a new symbol of their identity, as a constant and blessed reminder to themselves that at every moment they lived and moved through love. 

Among the year-end articles I read this week was a newspaper story from England in which a woman named Stacey Dennis lamented that, in all of 2022, not a single child born in Great Britain was named Stacey.[ii]  Stacey was once a popular name, but it is now, in Britain at least, in risk of extinction.  A mostly frivolous article, but it got me to thinking about the extinction of names.  Jill’s ancestors were Silas and Didymus.[iii] Those names have gone the way of the dodo.  May we never let the name of Jesus, or the name Christian, face that fate.  May we never allow Jesus to become nothing but an expletive when we stub our toe.  May we never allow those to hijack his name who would use it for any purpose other than that of the angel: to draw people into the unbounded, gracious love of God.    We are Christians, the people of Jesus, the very Body of Christ.  That is who we are.  That is our name.  Like Mary, more often we should pause and ponder that in our hearts, so that we know it, own it, say it.  And when we do, the love of God will wash over us and draw us into God’s promise. 

[i] The great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich writes much about the distinction between signs and symbols.


[iii] Didymus is actually Greek for “twin.”  In the Gospels, the Apostle Thomas is known as Thomas Didymus, or Thomas the Twin.

Light in Darkness

Several days ago, our parish administrator Karen Blissit bulldogged Entergy to come out and replace our parking lights, so we’d be able to see the way from our cars to the church tonight.  Last weekend, as I sat enjoying “Guys and Dolls” at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, I turned on my smartphone’s glowing viewscreen in order to see my playbill in the darkened theatre.  Yesterday evening, when I let the dogs out one last time before bed, I appreciated the halogen motion light in our backyard that prevented me from stumbling on icy concrete.  The point is this: Never in my life—not for one moment—must I walk in darkness.  Neither must you.

Consider that.  Our access to light is so consistent and pervasive that we take it for granted above all else.  For us, at midnight just as at noon, the light is never farther away than the flip of a switch.  Not so long ago, it was not so.  As recently the 1600s, a full century after Henry VIII broke with Rome to establish the grand church tradition we call Anglicanism, no city on the planet was illuminated by night.[i]  Forget those movie portrayals of medieval people walking down reliably torch-lit alleyways.  Such images have no basis in fact.  Long after the New World had been discovered and warfare was wrought with gunpowder, when the sun went down, the world was enshrouded in darkness.  Absolute darkness.  Hand-disappearing-in-front-of-your-face darkness.  In cosmopolitan London just as in deepest Africa. 

London finally created a system of nighttime illumination in the 1600s, but it wasn’t until after the birth of this country in the late 1700s that gas lighting was invented, providing consistent and systematic light in the darkness.  And it wasn’t until around 1800 that the average Western European family could afford as a regular staple a stock of candles. 

What I’m saying to you is this: Our experience of the world is incredibly new.  We are able to fend off the night in ways that people as recently as two hundred years ago simply could not.  Our eyes no longer widen in wonder when the candle’s flame casts away shadows.  We do not respond the way a young Robert Louis Stevenson did when his grandmother pulled him away from the window as he watched the lamplighter make his way down his London street lighting the gas lamps at murky dusk.  “What are you doing?” asked the grandmother.  And with bated breath the future poet replied, “I’m watching a man punch holes in the darkness.”

Once Jill and I went on a camping excursion to a friend’s hunting cabin.  To call it that is a stretch.  It was a squat, square, concrete block enclosure with no windows.  Once inside, when the lights were turned out, the darkness was absolute.  Unexpectedly, I was claustrophobic.  It was the rare experience that the darkness could reach out and smother me.  That is what darkness was—regularly—for our ancestors: fearsome and inescapable. 

Even more so during this time of year.  The birth of Christ falls during the week of the winter solstice, when the day is shortest and the night encroaches most completely.  In other words, in the middle of the night, on the longest night of the year, in the time of deepest darkness, Jesus is born.[ii] 

Forget soft and glowing drawings of doe-eyed lambs nuzzling Mary through a gentle labor.  For one lying supine on the dirt about to give birth among caravan animals, the snorts and shuffles of large hoofed feet crowding around in the darkness would’ve added anxiety to an already fearful experience.

Of course, for the Holy Family as for so many others, the darkness was existential just as it was literal.  The Jews of Palestine were an occupied people, kept under the boot of both a distant Roman Emperor and his local puppet Herod.  Don’t forget, Joseph was forced to travel in the middle of winter with a very pregnant wife to satisfy the caprice of Caesar Augustus.  Joseph was not his own man.

And for the shepherds, the encroaching darkness was absolute.  Shepherds and their sheep (which were practically blind even in daylight) regularly fell prey to wolves and even lions leaping from the darkness.

It is in this context that the baby enters the world.  It is into this darkness that God takes on our humanity and arrives among us.  It is here and now that the blackened sky parts over the shepherds in the field and the heavenly chorus erupts in song.  That darkness, which every other night in human history had held sway, flees in their presence.  The shepherds look on in utter wonder.  The prowling creatures of the night retreat, the shepherds’ fear melts, and they understand that with the birth of this child everything is made different.  After all, what power can the night hold over the One who said in the beginning, “Let there be light”?  When the angels of the Lord say, “Peace on earth among those whom God favors,” the effect is that of Stevenson’s lamplighter punching holes in the darkness.

In our outward lives, so long as the trusty smartphone is at hand, there is always at least a dim glow available.  We no longer wonder at the presence of light.  But existentially, we know what darkness is.  As Marcus Borg says, “We easily get lost in the dark; we stumble around and cannot see our way.  In the dark, we are often afraid.  We do not know what might be going on: danger may lurk, spirits may roam, evil may be afoot.”[iii]

There are instances when the caprice of others—or of life itself—moves us where we do not want or need to go.  There are times when heavy hooves push us about, knocking us to and fro and keeping us off balance.  There are nights when we’re barely able to keep the prowling creatures at bay.

But to us, too, Christ is born this night!   No matter how thick the darkness, a light has entered the world that scatters all shadows.  We’ve come back round to where we began: Truly, we need never walk in darkness!  As Brennan Manning says with wonder like the shepherds, “The world is [now] charged with grace!  While sin and war, disease and death are terribly real, God’s loving presence and power in our midst are even more real.”[iv] 

With the birth of this child, everything is made different.  We are made different, as people visited by the angels with the promise of God’s peace, as people commissioned like the shepherds to proclaim and share that peace.

What does it look like to live by the wonder of this light?  When we travel into the meanest places and meet those who suffer want, do we dismiss them, or do we see in them the Holy Family and in their children the Christ child?  When we see those who wander in their own darkness, do we pass them by, or do we step forward as with a shepherd’s staff to fend of the prowling beasts and shepherd the blind to safety?  When we feel the night falling upon us, do we cower, or do we look to the brightness of the Christ light and gravitate to its warmth?

When we leave this place, let us do so as if we’re seeing the city illuminated by night for the first time.  Let us do so with grins on our faces and light in our eyes, embracing those we meet, who may be stumbling around in murky dusk, and saying, “I have seen the child who punches holes in the darkness.  Christ is born.  Rejoice!  Rejoice!”

[i] This and other details about the development of lighting come from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, chapter seven.

[ii] I owe this turn of phrase to Borg and Crossan, pg. 172.

[iii] Ibid, 173.

[iv] Manning, Brennan.  The Ragamuffin Gospel, 99.

Who are we waiting for?

Today’s Gospel passage begins, “When John the Baptist heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to Jesus, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’”  Much follows, and we’ll talk about that, but I’m intrigued by this first line.  When the action opens, John the Baptist is floundering and festering in King Herod’s prison.  I’ve seen similar first-century cells in Jerusalem.  They are pits in the ground with high walls and no windows.  It is from captivity in such a dank cell that John calls his own disciples to him and then sends them out with a message for Jesus. 

John the Baptist has known Jesus for years.  Luke’s Gospel tells us that John and Jesus are kin to one another,[i] and all the Gospels recount how, before Jesus began his own ministry, Jesus came to John and was baptized in the River Jordan.[ii]  But since that baptism, the Gospels mention no further contact between John and Jesus.  Much time—months if not years—has passed since their meeting at the Jordan.  Why does John reach out to Jesus now?  What does John want?  What is his hope?

Let’s fast forward a few chapters to Matthew 14.  If we recall that gruesome passage, then perhaps retrospectively we can interpret John’s motivation in chapter 11.  Matthew 14 presents one of the most well-known and oft-depicted scenes in art and opera.  It depicts a lurid dinner party in which King Herod Antipas lusts after his step-daughter Salome.  In order to entice Salome to dance for him, Herod promises her anything her heart desires, and what her heart desires (at the prodding of her mother) is the head of John the Baptist.  Herod complies with Salome’s wish.  And so, by the caprice of a pathological and depraved family, Herod’s lackeys are sent to the dungeon, where they separate John’s head from his body and bring it back to the dinner table on a platter. 

Now rewind to chapter 11, which we read today.  John has already been in Herod’s custody for a long time.  Do you think the mercurial Herod who demands John’s head on a whim in chapter 14 was any less terrorizing during the interim between John’s arrest and that awful dinner party?  Undoubtedly, John has been traumatized while in prison, psychologically if not physically.  From John’s own experience, and from what he almost certainly has witnessed among his fellow prisoners, he knows that he is in mortal peril.  Imagine the constant anxiety of John the Baptist in the clutches of such an unstable tyrant.

All that is to say, I do not believe that the John the Baptist we meet at the beginning of Matthew 11 calmly summons his disciples and sends them to Jesus with a message curious about Jesus’ cosmic purpose.  Rather, John is a desperate man frantically begging to know if Jesus is the Messiah they’ve been waiting for.  And who, exactly, is that long-awaited Messiah?  Who is the Savior of common expectation among Jews in John’s day?  It is King David reborn, a champion who will rise up to free the Jewish people, and who more immediately (and to put a fine point on it) John the Baptist hopes will come and free John from Herod’s violent insanity.  Who is John expecting in Jesus?  Someone who will break him the heck out of there.

We can’t blame John.  After all, what kind of Savior do we want and hope for?  Who are we waiting on?  In our desperation, whatever our circumstances may be, we also seek a Jesus who will, in an instant, charge in and right our lives. When we are in peril, we want the hurting, the grief, the anxiety, the anger to stop, and quickly, and so we wait for, or go searching for, a Jesus who will come, riding on a charger, and scatter our foes.  We want a Savior who will protect us from the world’s insanity, break our chains, free us.  It’s the natural, and perhaps unavoidable, human thing to want.

We want a Savior who will charge in and right our lives.

I imagine John the Baptist waiting impatiently in his dank cell, straining his ears to hear the clarion call of the cavalry at the head of which he hopes Jesus will charge.  I wonder how, when John’s disciples return without Jesus, John receives Jesus’ reply.  Is it a disappointment to John?  It is undoubtedly a surprise.

Jesus doesn’t claim to be King David reincarnate.  He straps on no sword.  He musters no physical army.  Jesus doesn’t promise to force the world aright.  Jesus says and shows, rather, that salvation doesn’t work that way.  Jesus says to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus’ saving work is wrought through the patient, laborious, committed one-on-one interaction with grace.  And, Jesus reveals to John’s disciples as they undoubtedly see Jesus’ disciples doing that same work, that our own salvation happens when we participate in that labor alongside Jesus.

Jesus’ reply to John the Baptist will not give John hope that Jesus is coming to break him out of his physical cell, but it will transform John’s understanding of who the Messiah is and what his saving work is about.  And it will recall to John the role he—John—has already played in that work—reminding him that he is no reed bending in the wind—a reminder that will gird John’s strength and steel John’s resolve for what he will eventually face at the hands of Herod and Salome.

What does Jesus’ reply to John mean for us?  Like John, we want and hope for a Savior who will free us from our bonds (whatever they may be), but Jesus reminds us that true freedom comes when we participate with Jesus in his saving work to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, feed the hungry, and bring good news to the poor.   When we do this, no matter our physical circumstances, the walls of our own metaphoric prisons melt away.

That’s the great paradox of the Gospel.  Were Jesus King David reborn, the powerful, worldly champion that John the Baptist thought he wanted (and that many Christians consciously or subconsciously still want today), John might have burst out of Herod’s prison and wreaked havoc on his captors, but he’d not have been redeemed.  He’d merely have joined an endless procession of violence and retribution of one over another.  Instead, Jesus reveals to John that his participation in Jesus’ work to usher in the kingdom of God is salvation.

More wondrous still, Jesus says today that each one of us, even the least of us, is even greater than John the Baptist!  No matter what our circumstances in this world may suggest to us or to others; no matter what prisons—literal or metaphoric—may hem us in; no matter who may threaten or assault us; we will find salvation whenever we join our heart, souls, and lives to Jesus’ saving work.  When we give sight to the blind, we find our eyes opened.  When we feed the hungry, our souls are satisfied; when offer words of grace to others in need, the gates locked around our hearts are thrown open, and we are free.  When we join our labor of love to Jesus’ own, we discover with wonder that the prison walls that have surrounded us crumble to the ground, and the bright light of God shines down upon us.

On this Third Sunday of Advent—Gaudete Sunday, in which we are to rejoice—we also see that this is the way to wait expectantly on Jesus: Not to dwell on our own yawning needs, as real as they are, but to turn outward, to the needs of the world round about us, to do the work of Jesus as we await Jesus’ return.  This is how we prepare for Jesus’ coming.  This is how we break free from our prisons.  This is how we wait.

[i] Luke 1:36. The precise relationship is not specified, though Christian tradition says John and Jesus were cousins through their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary.

[ii] Matthew 3:13-17 and parallels.

Faithful Waiting

         A young couple learns that they are pregnant.  The first days upon making this discovery are filled with alternating sensations of excitement, fear, and utter disbelief.  As those first days pass and the weeks and months drag on, the couple settles into a more stable oscillation of excitement, fear, and disbelief.  But whatever else their nine months entails, it most assuredly does not include passivity or lack of attention.  Theirs is an active and faithful waiting.  They do the things that give life.  She reads What to Expect When You’re Expecting.  He puts together the crib.  They both gaze with wide-eyed amazement at the changes in her abdomen as God’s blessing grows within her, until they can feel and even see the child move, rolling and pitching like a ship at sea.  Their waiting is marked by prenatal visits to the doctor, sonograms and blood tests.  There are anxious moments.  There are wondrous moments.  And there is an attentive and faithful waiting.  The birth will come, and it will be glorious.  The couple can prepare.  They can tend to this blessing they have been given.  But the moment that this child will arrive no one can say.  And so, they wait.

         A 102-year-old woman has outlived her friends.  She enjoys a clear mind, but her body will not respond to her will the way it once did.  She is not depressed, at least not often, but she does wonder why she remains when so many have gone.  She does not fear death, knowing in faith that death is a transition rather than an end.  And so, she waits.  But hers, too, is an active and faithful waiting.  She does the things that give life.  She writes letters, and when she is unable to hold a pen, she asks the woman who cooks her meals to write the words for her.  She talks to her family, passing on the stories that have informed her life and formed her wisdom.  She mends the tears that unavoidably have occurred in some relationships over so long a life.  She talks to God regularly and listens for God even more.  There are anxious moments.  There are wondrous moments.  And there is attentive and faithful waiting.  The woman’s reunion with loved ones gone before and with God will come, and it will be glorious.  The woman can prepare.  She can tend to the blessings she has been given.  But the moment that she will enter larger life no one can say.  And so, she waits.

         The Creator reaches down from the heights of the cosmos and dips a hand into the chaos and void.  God moves back the darkness and ushers in the light.  God breathes over the waters and brings forth life.  God bestows upon the creation every blessing, most especially the gift of free will, to determine for itself the kind of world it will be.  God looks on with pain and sorrow as the creation makes choices that lead to destruction and death.  People kill one another.  Nations wage war.  Those charged to be stewards of creation use the green earth in ways that cannot be sustained.  Knit into the Creator’s tapestry of creation is a Savior, who will come and offer redemption to those who have fallen so very far, but the time has not yet come.  And so, God waits.  It is an active and faithful waiting.  God does the things that give life, coming to those in need, crying with those who sorrow.  God labors to melt stony hearts.  There are anxious moments.  There are wondrous moments.  And there is attentive and faithful waiting.  The time will come for the Savior’s birth.  The time will come for his Second Coming, when the creation will be mended and made whole, and it will be glorious.  But the time is not yet.  And so, God waits.

         No one likes to wait.  When given a choice, we are all people of instant gratification.  But blessedly, in those instances in which we have no choice we at times experience waiting as a profound gift.  Just as the pregnant couple, just as the 102-year-old woman, can experience the time of waiting—when the child is formed in the womb, when wisdom is passed on to younger generations—as a gift.

         Today’s Gospel passage in Matthew is one that has been hijacked by those who espouse the very shaky Rapture theology.  But this passage is not about the Rapture (which, by the way, is itself not an authentically scriptural concept).  This passage is about faithful waiting.  It is about doing the things that give life, so that when the Creator’s time has reached fruition, and Jesus our redeemer and friend comes to make all things new, we will recognize him.  It is about, in our anxious moments and our wondrous moments, waiting.

         This has everything to do with Advent, which begins today.  Advent is not primarily that period in which to do our Christmas shopping.  It is a holy season of anticipation and waiting.  I have asked myself why, for some, the Christmas season is such an unhappy time, why it rings so hollow for so many.  I have come to the conclusion that, for some, it is because Christmas in our culture strikes some as so very false.  As if in an eggnog-laden daze, we commercialize and consume our way through late November and December, dragging Christmas ever towards us with flash and tinsel.  There is no faithful waiting.  Instead, there is a breakneck attempt to usher in the holiday earlier and earlier.  And so, for most of us the significance of the Nativity is lost altogether.  For others—those for whom the holiday is so difficult—the good cheer of the holiday season has rung so false that when Christmas Day arrives it is experienced like that drugstore candy that looks so tantalizing as we grab for it but once in our mouths tastes like cardboard.

         Advent is a holy season of anticipation and waiting, both for the Nativity and for the Second Coming.  What would it look like to observe Advent?  What would it look like to hope for the Nativity rather than grabbing it and dragging it backward?  What would it look like to hope for Christ’s return, not knowing the moment it might occur? 

How do we faithfully wait?  Matthew encourages us to be about the things that give life.  He mentions Noah, who labors to build a vessel of life while the world around him continues in its normal, destructive ways.  What, in our lives, might it be to do the same?

         Can you imagine observing Advent by taking half of the money we’d normally spend on Amazon this month and instead purchasing items from our Alternative Giving Market or feeding those who are hungry through a donation to our Food Pantry or St. Francis House?  Can you imagine turning off the television in the evening and instead reading to your family from the second chapter of Luke?  Can you imagine beginning to live today as if Christ might come tomorrow and look you—or me—straight in the eye and ask, “Did you wait faithfully?  Did you make peace?  Did you love?”

         Not all candy tastes like cardboard.  On special nights at my grandmother Boo’s house, she would heat up the oven and mix together a bowl of mushy white meringue.  The entire time she would talk to us about how important it is to wait for the best, most blessed things in life.  She would add chocolate chips to the concoction and then spoon out little blobs onto a cookie sheet.  Once the oven was hot, she’d turn it off, place the cookie sheet inside, and leave the oven door cracked.

         “Now we must wait,” she’d say.  And we would do so actively, never knowing when the treat would be ready.  She would tell us stories of faith, teach us in ways of virtue, and tuck us safely into our beds.  Only the next morning would my grandmother open the oven and let us see what was inside.  Where those mushy blobs had been were now light and airy morsels of such delicate sweetness that they melted in our mouths.  Had we bought them at the store, or had she prepared them with us watching television, zombie-like, in the other room, or had she even told us in advance when they’d be ready, the experience would not have been the same.          So it is for us this Advent.  Christmas will come, and it will be glorious.  Christ’s return will surely come, but we know not when.  We risk missing the significance and the sweetness altogether if we fail to prepare for his coming.  There will be anxious moments, and there will be wondrous moments, as we live in faith.  As we wait. 


A few years ago over Thanksgiving weekend, Jill, our daughter, a nephew, and I drove the half hour from Paragould to Jonesboro to pay homage to my grandparents’ graves.  After we visited the cemetery, on a whim I decided to swing by my grandparents’ house, which I’d not seen for twenty years.  We made a slow drive-by 1244 Walnut Street.  The outside of the house was unchanged; the yard was well-tended; and there was a man in the carport unloading his pickup truck.  Because of the kind of person I am, we pulled up to the curb, stopped the car, and to Jill’s and the kids’ mild protest I got out to talk to the homeowner.  It turned out that he’d been the sole resident of the house since my grandmother’s death; he’d bought it from my mother and uncle and lived there for two decades.  And, he was happy to see us.  We talked for several minutes, and then, to my surprise, he asked, “Do you want to come inside and see the house?”

I should have declined, but my curiosity got the better of me.  We walked through the back door, and the experience was surreal.  The floorplan remained vaguely as I recalled, but beyond that my memory of my grandparents’ house dissolved.  Everything had been deconstructed.  The Formica countertops were gone.  The vinyl flooring was gone.  The mid-century modern furniture was gone.  The house was transformed.  The homeowner was excited to show me the house anew, and it was very nice, but I rebelled against the transformation.  I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

1244 Walnut Street in Jonesboro

We are not fans of the deconstruction of the familiar.  Whether it’s our old haunts, our old habits, or our understanding of the world around us, there is a human tendency to cling to the familiar as an unchanging comfort.  We want things to stay the same, when things are good but also, perversely, sometimes when things are bad.  Even when it harms us, we would rather remain in the construction of the familiar than risk its deconstruction toward who-knows-what.

This is equally true of our faith.  In seminary, I had a classmate who dropped out after one semester.  He was almost frantic to escape the seminary, because the first-year curriculum is so much about deconstructing what we’ve understood about our faith: its origins, its presumptions, it’s unexamined conclusions.  My classmate couldn’t bear to face deconstructing questions of his faith.  He saw them as a threat to his belief system, as if God might dissolve in the questions, and so he bailed as quickly as he could.

Today’s Gospel passage is all about the deconstruction of the most familiar and, indeed, most vitally important.  Those around Jesus are gazing at Herod’s temple, a massive architectural wonder of the world and the centerpiece of Jewish faith.  Jesus declares that the temple will, soon and very soon, be deconstructed down to the last stone.  His claim confuses and discomfits those around him.  The temple is the most permanent thing they can imagine, and it is at the core of their identity.  The notion of its deconstruction sends Jesus’ hearers into a frenzy of anxiety.  They can’t imagine life without it.

A model reconstruction of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem

About the temple, Jesus speaks literally.  Within a few decades, Herod’s temple will be, in fact, razed to the ground.  But Jesus also speaks metaphorically.  In his own coming passion and death, every presupposition, expectation, and hope within the hearts and souls of his followers will crumble.  At the foot of the cross, faith will itself collapse.  All the hope that the disciples had placed in Jesus will be deconstructed, piece by piece, until they are left in the rubble.

The lectionary wisely pairs this passage from Luke with God’s closing speech in the book of the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah lives five hundred years before Jesus, during the era in which the first Jewish temple—Solomon’s temple—was destroyed.  During Isaiah’s life, too, the Jewish world and faith was deconstructed, and Jews lived in a decades-long literal and spiritual exile.  As Isaiah’s book nears its end, the Jews have returned to Jerusalem, but it is not how they remember it.  None of the familiar markers remain.  The world they knew is gone, crumbled to the ground like Solomon’s temple.  The people are bereft.  They begin to wish they’d never returned home. 

But notice: It is in that moment that God speaks a wondrous word.  It is then that the very deconstruction that led to despair becomes, instead, a foundation for hope.  Through Isaiah, God says to God’s shell-shocked people standing in the rubble, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

In other words, where the returning Jews see disaster, God sees building material.  Where the Israelites see a life deconstructed, God sees a foundation on which to build something new.  And note that God does not build from scratch.  Whatever new heaven and new earth God will create—whatever new life God will birth—is made of the remnant of the old.  God does not discard what was; God redeems it.


As I was racing out the back door of my grandparents’ old house, the new owner said, “Before you go, I want to show you your granddad’s woodshop.”  Reluctantly, I crossed the carport and entered the shop, expecting it to be as different as the house.  But with wonder in his eyes, the homeowner showed me the unique shelves my granddad Pop had made a half century ago using bicycle chains, the smooth worktable Pop had built that now held the woodwork of a different hand, the jars of nails, screws, and rivets that Pop had spent a lifetime collecting.  “Your grandfather must have been something else,” the homeowner said to me, “Some of these things I couldn’t bear to change, so I’ve incorporated them, and I’m glad to have them.”

I left Pop’s woodshop with my perspective on the house as transformed as the house itself.  It was new, but the new was built on the foundation of the old.  And though what had been familiar to me was deconstructed and transformed, it was good.


The thing is, we don’t get the Gospel without the destruction of the temple.  We don’t get to Easter resurrection without first spending time at the foot of the cross and in the tomb.  We don’t walk long or far in this world without the comfortable, familiar, and expected ultimately being deconstructed, leaving us confused, anxious, and bereft.  Whether it’s our haunts, our habits, our worldview, or our faith, sooner or later the world cracks and crumbles around us.  What do we do then?

It is then that we most need to hear voice of God, who promises that deconstruction is never for its own sake.  Whether God causes the deconstruction (as God sometimes does) or the world simply has its way with us (as the world often does), God will always seek to work redemption from the rubble.  Where we may see only devastation, God says, “I am about to do a new thing!  See, I make all things new.”

We look across the globe and our own community, and we see so much turmoil, so much centripetal force seeming to tear at the very fabric of all we know.  In your own life, inside or out, you may be experiencing the same thing.  The temples may be falling down.  Hope may seem to hang by a thread.  But God will never abandon or discard you.  Beyond the deconstruction, Jesus promises not a hair of your head will perish.  Beyond any exile, God promises to create you anew and give you joy and delight.  And God will use the you-that-is and incorporate it, build upon it, redeem and transform it, into God’s new creation.  And far beyond our individual lives, today both Isaiah and Jesus allude that what God does in each of us, God promises ultimately to do for the whole world.  Eventually, even the broken fabric of our creation will all be made new: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”  The time will come when all things are made new—you, me, the good world round about us—and the love of God in Christ will be all in all.[i]

[i] Ephesians 1:23