Our daughter was baptized when she was nearing 3 months old, and because we waited “so long” (according to my mother), we had to purchase a larger christening gown instead of using the tiny family gown that my mother made when I was born, and was also worn by both of my younger sisters at their baptism. For my mom, the dress we three sisters wore was an important memory of a milestone in each of our lives, but even more so, it served as a reminder of our union within the body of Christ through baptism, a community that has existed since the occasion of the baptism of Christ by John that we heard proclaimed in our Gospel reading today.
So from my earliest memories, God and by extension, the church was the center of our family story. We were there every time the doors opened and you cannot name one committee or guild position in the church that didn’t have at least one of our family members serving on it. You can even drive down to Redeemer in Sarasota and find the kneelers that my mother embroidered before we moved away when I was in the 3rd grade and she left her position as the church secretary. One of my favorite memories came a few years later when our church enlisted every available person to participate in a tableau depicting scenes from the stations of the cross for Palm Sunday, right on the front lawn of St. Peter’s in Fernandina Beach on the busiest street in town. We were frozen in position and couldn’t move, sneeze, or talk, and strangers walked by watching – and I was so very sure that I was playing a critical role in the telling of the story of Jesus that day. These memories serve as the foundation of my feeling of being called by God.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. Today we encounter a scene where Christ himself is being baptized by John – something that a young girl like me wondered about each and every time we heard this section of the text read in church. Why did Jesus need to be baptized? Why did God need to be baptized if Jesus was God? My young self didn’t have the courage to ask that question as a child, but my grown woman self most surely did. Today’s gospel syncs closely with our gospel reading from the third Sunday of Advent in that John is again reminding folks that he is not the Messiah and that the Messiah will baptize with the spirit. Jesus is baptized, but not for the same reasons that we are baptized – he is baptized as a symbol of the beginning of his public ministry. The words that close our gospel reading today are public words of affirmation of Jesus – who he is and what he was incarnate to do for the world.
When we think about our own baptisms, or those baptisms we have witnessed over the years, we find ourselves drawn back into the words spoken in the liturgy in which we recommit ourselves to our own baptismal covenant. We, like Jesus, also hear words of affirmation in our baptism. We are received into the household of God, and directed to confess our faith in Christ as we are marked as Christ’s own forever. We are changed as we are recognized as members of Christ’s body. This is more than just getting a little wet for Jesus on a particular day – this is a public affirmation of whose we are and that we are called into the world to share Christ’s love as we ourselves are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
But let’s be real – the Holy Spirit is not just a gentle nudge on our lives. The Holy Spirit takes us places that we might never imagine for ourselves. I spent 25 years as a teacher and school principal. I loved lay ministry and found my way into all kinds of roles within the church and in service in my community. After losing my mom to a brief but intense illness in 2012, I found myself being led by the Spirit in ways I could never have imagined. I began seeking new theological experiences, experimenting with a writing a blog on the weekly lectionary, and started feeling as if my career in education was no longer filling my bucket in the ways it had for all those many years. I was seeking….searching for the ways that God was calling me anew, and the voice of God took hold in ways I had not experienced before. I was unsettled. Unnerved. Unsure of things with which I had previously been quite sure. God was calling me into a new direction, and it was far from a gentle and soothing experience. Leaving behind my career to go through the discernment process which led me to seminary and the priesthood is not something I had ever imagined God would call me into, and I sometimes would find my sweet husband (who wasn’t experiencing a call of any sort), looking at me intently as if trying to figure out who I was after being with me for nearly a quarter of a century at that point. The path was not straight. The way was not clear. The journey was one of the hardest things I have done. And here I am – barely on the other side of my ordination, listening and praying for discernment in where God is calling me next.
I didn’t make my own decision about my baptism as an infant, and maybe that is true for you as well. But we each have the opportunity to make decisions today about how we might discern God is calling us into ministry in the church. It could be that we are meant to serve others through the activities of our upcoming day of service on MLK day. It might be that there is opportunity for you in a new lay ministry here at the Cathedral that is bubbling up inside, waiting for you to pray and discuss with a member of the clergy. It may be as simple as deciding to join the Good Book Club of the Episcopal Church as we read Paul’s letter to the Romans between now and Ash Wednesday to spend time with Scripture. Or perhaps you are still discerning a way to draw closer to God and share the love of Christ with someone.
I’m sure of this – God is calling each and every one of us into relationship and covenant. Stepping out in faith and living out our baptismal vows is what we are called to do, even when we are not sure exactly what that means today. I’ll leave you with one of my longtime favorite prayers from Thomas Merton, that may help you along the way:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
(Originally posted on the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas Blog March 16, 2018)
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”
When a parable appears in more than one gospel text, it can be intended as a significant and important message for the followers of Christ. Jesus used parables as teaching tools for his Jewish followers who were trying to understand a new and somewhat confusing way of understanding who Jesus was and what it would mean to be a follower and disciple of Christ. That we have these two parables recorded by the evangelists in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke helps to clarify the parable’s meaning as conveyed through their distinct styles. The evangelists in both gospels write to give authority to Jesus early in his ministry, after he spent time in the desert and gathered his earliest disciples. Christ’s divine authority would be necessary for the followers to understand as they joined in ministry with Jesus and by doing so, entered unfamiliar territory peppered with unfettered criticism and even looming danger.
Matthew’s version of this parable appears in the text immediately following the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus is teaching about the way of life necessary to be a follower of Christ. In that famous selection, the door is cracked and a peek at Jesus’s authority of God is visible with close study. The parable shapes a brief yet powerful image of God’s will for God’s people, embedding into that imagery the authoritative nature of God and therefore of Jesus Christ. And once you can know Christ, then you are compelled to follow Christ. This would have been an unveiling of a newer view of who Jesus was as holding the authority of God, and happened when he was still quite early in his ministry. That authority is strong like a rock, not a shifting or uneven or fleeting authority and it will be on that rock that the church itself will be built. And Jesus makes clear that hearing and following any other authority than that of Christ’s is foolish indeed.
Luke’s rendition of this parable is absent any indicator of who is wise and who is foolish, and adds to Matthew’s reference to building on rock by hearing and following Christ. This evangelist chooses to include the meaning of rock as the foundation for building one’s house, a concept that would have been foreign to those living in ancient Palestine where building any building on solid footing would have been a challenge. This is significant to note, because what Jesus was teaching was quite different than what these believers were accustomed to hearing, and imagery like this would have been more impactful to them then it might be to modern day home dwellers who understand that building a strong house on a strong foundation is a given. The Greek understanding of this usage of foundation is that it is something that is physically laid down. Luke’s addition of this description is helpful in understanding that there is a physical response to hearing Christ’s words and then acting upon them, and in doing so, making your faith stronger and shoring oneself up against the storms of a raging river that each of us is bound to encounter in our life’s journey.
“If I wanted to have a happy garden, I must ally myself with my soil; study and help it to the utmost, untiringly. Always, the soil must come first.”
– Marion Cran, If I Were Beginning Again
The wise words above from Marion Cran come out of years of tending her garden and the wisdom she gained and shared in her role as the first gardening radio broadcaster in Great Britain. Cran spent her life doing important work for the British government in the early 20th century, and it would not be a stretch to think that this quote from her love of gardening influenced her work beyond just biological soil. For us who read this parables, Cran’s quote is helpful to understand the fundamental teaching of these two parables. Allying oneself to the soil is another way to imagine hearing the teaching of Jesus Christ and then inhabiting that teaching ourselves, putting those teachings first and foremost in our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. It’s impossible to go wrong when we adhere to Christ’s teachings. No river or rains, no floods or winds, cannot be overcome by the power of Christ Jesus.
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, `I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, `Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, `One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
When I was growing up in Fernandina Beach, FL, there was a guy who would park his small, red pick up truck on Centre Street in the historic downtown 8 block section of shops and restaurants. In my memory, he came every Friday morning in the summers, as I worked at Palmetto, LTD, a small clothing shop two blocks from the docks. He parked right outside the shop sometimes, and had a megaphone as his communication tool. He screamed out shouts of hellfire and damnation as he stood alone with empty parking spaces all around him and tourists crossing the street to avoid any confrontation. We usually kept the front door to the shop open to attract more business, but we closed it when he was close by to block out the screaming and wait for him to leave.
This was my early definition of “evangelism” and I was not interested. I also didn’t see anybody hearing that and thinking to themselves, “Hey, that guy makes a ton of sense and I want that life for myself too!” Hearing someone yelling out the consequences of our choices is never going to fall into the best practices for changing our beliefs. We have to change the way we view the concept of evangelism.
An unnamed woman who met a stranger became one of the most famous evangelists in the Gospels. She didn’t know Jesus when they met at the well, but he surely knew her, just as he knows each and every one of us. Knowing or believing in him isn’t a prerequisite to being known by God, and this story highlights that this woman certainly wasn’t full of virtues and family values. In the Christian tradition, we know many stories of Jesus’ love, forgiveness, healing and grace, but this woman knows none of this. Yet she goes back to her community and spreads her story of meeting Jesus so very well, striking just the right chord with those who heard of it, that they became believers who welcomed Jesus to their community. And it all started with a chance meeting at an unremarkable place, with no planned intentions or prior understanding and in the midst of a load of what we would call promiscuous behaviors.
So how does this connect to my life? I have always tried to live a life of good works and try always to be my authentic self, but I also rush through my life at a breakneck speed, working to get my to-do list accomplished and fulfill my many roles of wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend and principal. I know I miss out on opportunities to just tell my story of my encounters with Christ. I always find the time to tell funny stories, share my struggles with a colleague, hear the latest news from those I know, and even to exchange some tidbits of gossip. But I don’t always make the time to share the Good News of Christ in the world. Maybe I don’t know how? Maybe (and more likely), I don’t share my relationship with Christ with others because it makes me uncomfortable. And I’m not going to be lumped in with that yelling dude from my childhood for sure, so I don’t seize the opportunities when they are right in front of me.
But if not me, and if not you, then who are we trusting to share God’s love? Are we leaving it to the street corner screamers? The televangelists preaching prosperity? The door to door kids giving out literature? Those ways don’t work to turn people to Christ – if they did, more people would be doing it. Instead, we need to walk in our faith in all of our relationships, sharing our faith through our actions of love and support, our words of encouragement rather than hurtfulness, letting our deep love of God show in all we do. And tell our stories when we can. If a harlot who has a casual meeting at a well can be an evangelist, then we certainly stand a chance when we TAKE the chance to change the world and bring folks to Christ.
Gracious Father, thank you for continuing to give us the gift of your love and forgiveness. Equip us with the words and actions to be tellers of your truth in all we do and say. Continue to lead us to share our love for you and to bring us closer to Christ. You know our strengths and our challenges and still love us and count on us to do your kingdom work. With your support we can do more to spread the Good News! In your name we pray. AMEN.
This week, I was given the great blessing to share my story of attending Cursillo and the impact it has had on my life with our church family. As I continue to discern God’s call in my life, reflecting on the gifts I have received in my faith leave me in awe of our God. Here is the text of my sermon:
When I was 8 years old, my parents went to Cursillo in the Diocese of Florida. I don’t remember much about the weekends they were gone but it drastically changed the way our family existed after this experience for them. And a seed was planted in my life that was nurtured as I grew up in the church. Literally, I grew up in the church. I was baptized at 6 weeks old and won’t use all my fingers if I count the number of Sundays that my family was not present for worship times. And just about any other days for that matter, too. We settled down before my eighth birthday on a coastal island in North Florida, where our church home became the historic St. Peter’s Episcopal Parish in Fernandina Beach. My church family there continues to play a significant role in my life even all these years later and it was the perfect setting for me to start my marriage with David almost 22 years ago. It was in that first year we lived in Fernandina that the Cursillo movement began in the diocese in the mid 70s. My parents have always been early adopters of new ideas so it was no surprise when they attended Cursillo #3 in the Diocese of Florida.
What I remember most about Cursillo back then was what it meant through my very young eyes, since I obviously hadn’t experienced it directly of course. My parents wore their Cursillo nametags to church every week and literally hoards of folks from our tiny parish began attending this periodic retreat. My parents sponsored about half of them I think, which meant they were driving all over the diocese at first until our diocese completed their own beautiful camp and conference center in Live Oak, about 2 hours away. They would leave on Thursdays with their green passenger van filled with excited friends and luggage, and then on Sundays, they would hire a babysitter for us girls for a marathon afternoon and evening so they could collect their pilgrims from their weekend, arriving home far after we went to bed on a school night. Monthly, Mom and Dad would gather with their Cursillo friends for Ultreyas at our church – which was another word for party to my ears as a child. They also enrolled in the Education For Ministry or EFM course, started our first youth group and joined the choir. They served on vestries and search committees, while preparing and serving at the altar. Mom was a Daughter of the King, ECW president and Dad was in charge of the acolytes, parish fish fries and oyster roasts. What I can see today as an adult, as I reflect on their evolution as Christians was that although we had always GONE to church…we were now going far beyond weekly attendance and my parents were seeking out ways to serve the larger church and community. When I was 16 years old, I attended Happening #19 (which is similar to Cursillo but designed for teenagers), going on to serve future Happening weekends in Florida and in my adopted diocese of North Carolina during my time in college. I was yearning for that same feeling of connectedness my parents seemed to have to their friends through Christ, and as a young adult, I looked forward to the day when I would be able to attend Cursillo with my future husband just like my parents before me. This gave me a great foundation.
Cursillo is a Spanish word meaning “short course” and that’s exactly it’s intent. Participants (or pilgrims) spend three nights and three days focusing on renewal, refreshment, and recommitment to living for Christ. Most who attend Cursillo call this a “mountain top” experience. But as a beach girl, it was more like a “tropical island” experience for me…those days of my Cursillo weekend were spent away from the world of distractions and obligations, focused on renewing my commitment to Christ and giving me the tools to carry me beyond the weekend and into my fourth day. People who have attended Cursillo are called Cursillistas, and for us, the fourth day is the rest of our lives AFTER the weekend is over, when we are back with our families, friends, jobs and commitments, distractions, challenges and responsibilities.
So, back to my parents….they both began “GROUPING” after attending Cursillo; which as a young child, I thought that was code for Escape, for my mom in particular from the responsibilities of parenting three young girls. What they were really doing was keeping one another accountable for living out their lives in Christ. Their groups met every week and didn’t change too much over the years in membership. My dad’s original group is still meeting today almost 38 years later, and he plans to rejoin them when he moves back to Florida later this year. The weekend is not meant to be a one time shot of Jesus juice but rather it is designed to give us Christians a virtual road map to stay focused on what God calls us to do in the world.
As I was preparing for my talk today, I studied today’s readings, including the Gospel reading from the portion of the Sermon on the Mount that has Jesus admonishing those who murder, pass judgment on others, call others’ unkind names, and those with issues in their marriage. There are literally zillions of ways that we Christians stray from our responsibilities of loving and caring for one another, and we will continue to do so with unfortunate frequency. But instead of just hanging our heads and accepting the troubles we see every day, there are things we can do – things that we KNOW we are called to do as we walk with Christ. Cursillo’s approach to a short course in the Christian Life was more than a reminder for me – it was a catalyst to jump-start my personal responsibility for the growth of my faith.
You too may be able to identify with this self-description; having grown up as a Christian and always being an Episcopalian, choosing to have faith hasn’t really ever been a struggle for me. I never really went through any dark periods in my life where I didn’t believe in God, or that He loved me and created me. I had a pretty non-eventful childhood in comparison to the many challenges that I know people face in their families, and that could be viewed as lucky or even as BLESSED. But I am here to tell you that what that sort of, flat-lined history of faith did for me – no real significant peaks or valleys – is it left me soft and complacent in my relationship with God. I said my prayers out of habit. I went to church every Sunday because that is what I had ALWAYS done my whole life. I did nothing heroic, had no great transformation when facing adversity; heck, I didn’t even have to make the effort to CHOOSE to believe. My Cursillo weekend made me realize that I could no longer sit back as a spectator in my life in Christ as a passive act of faith. I had to change my intentions to match God’s intentions when he created me and called me to follow him.
There are a lot of our daily activities and decisions, which put a barrier between God and us. This portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we hear today is intended to reach inside of each of us and shake us up a bit. I sure hope no one here today actually has committed murder, but the other list of acts that Jesus describes in his teachings today aren’t nearly as uncommon or even socially unacceptable as murder of course. But that is not the point at all. We may be able to identify with the particulars of divorce, judgment and lying; and it may make us uncomfortable. THAT IS GOOD! Being uncomfortable is a feeling I don’t like very much and when I feel uncomfortable, I am far more motivated to do something to change myself to move out of that feeling. And let’s face it — relying on my own decisions and myself alone, is probably what gets me in my biggest messes in life. It is ONLY when I rely on my Savior to lead and guide me in my daily life that I show any real progress toward self-improvement. Laws don’t necessarily help me; rules often get in my way and confine me. But the power of God’s love gives me the strength and determination to WANT to do better in my life and to do all things in love. Cursillo gave me the tools to consistently draw closer to Him and I am forever grateful for the chance to benefit from other’s witness of love and support that weekend and now in my fourth day.
So I ask you —- what is making you uncomfortable as you reflect on your relationship with God? But more importantly, what are you going to do about it? I am only a witness of my OWN life and decisions, and for me, making the decision to go to Cursillo was just one stop in my journey to discern God’s call to me. The results of my life in my Fourth Day are
· More intentional time in prayer; more focused listening to God
· Regular reading of the Bible as a tool for understanding my God
· Being deliberate in my actions to carry out the Kingdom work I am called to do.
None of that is radical. But all of it was haphazardly accomplished in my life with varying degrees of success prior to Cursillo. But my very favorite saying I learned on my weekend was this —- Make a Friend, Be a Friend, Bring a Friend to Christ. Friends – God calls us to love each other without discrimination of who may be deserving and to follow Him and bring others to Christ. If I imagine myself as one of the MULTITUDES who were able to hear the words of Jesus in person at the Sermon on the Mount, I am sure I would have been both uncomfortable and COMFORTED, knowing that my Savior was sent to save me. Not because I did anything to deserve it, but rather just because he loves me. And then I am called to help others feel that same love in Christ.
So I ask you to prayerfully consider whether Cursillo might be just what you need to begin moving in your walk with Christ. Talk it over with any one of us Cursillistas. We would love to help by answering questions you may have about the weekend or what the weekend has meant to each of us – because this is just my story. David and I shared the same weekend and had really unique experiences based on what we needed at that time in our lives. Come to a St. Peter’s Ultreya. Get together with one of our small groups or start one of your own where you focus on keeping one another accountable for staying faithful.
But at the very least, reflect on what little steps you can make today to focus on your prayer life, your time for study and the actions that you plan to take to live more intentionally in your relationship with God. Our relationships with one another require effort on our part to be successful. Let’s do the same with our relationship with Christ and take a more active role in serving and praising his name. There is a Cursillo weekend coming in March that may be timed just right for you to attend. Or maybe another weekend would fit better in your life. I challenge you to take the next step if you’ve been thinking and praying about this, or to learn more about the weekend and how to grow closer to God each and every day. Of all the relationships in my life, the one that both enriches me and challenges me the most is the one I have with God – and I am a better wife, mother, sister, friend, school principal and Child of God because of His Love. He is longing for a deeper relationship with you and me both…let’s at least take a step to meet Him.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
- “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
- according to your word;
- for my eyes have seen your salvation,
- which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
- a light for revelation to the Gentiles
- and for glory to your people Israel.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
We were on vacation on the island of Kauai about eight years ago and visited a local church for Sunday worship, as we try to do whenever we travel. We happened upon the yearly visit from the Bishop of Hawaii, so the church was packed and there was a high level of excitement present at the gathering. One of the great things about worshiping God in the Episcopal Church is the familiarity of the liturgy, no matter where you go, but there are still subtle nuances in each individual parish which make it a distinctive experience, and the Bishop’s visit was certainly a factor making this visit even more unique. We were about halfway through the sermon when my husband leaned over and whispered in my ear…”Do you know who that is?” and he pointed to a gentleman sitting in the pew in front of ours. Let’s start with this – I have a terrible memory. I also need a lot of scaffolding to keep information safely in my brain and I couldn’t place this guy at all. David tried to give me a few subtle hints, but I was getting nowhere. Then he shared that it was Beau Bridges, the actor and brother of Jeff Bridges. He was dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts (as most of the worshipers were as well) and he passed the peace to us later in the service like he was just another guy and without any hint of his fame and fortune. We chatted with him later and learned this was his home parish, and he welcomed us as parishioners should always welcome any visitors to their church.
But I didn’t recognize him at all. David not only recognized him, but was able to name many of his appearances in movies and on TV. Once I was told who he was and what roles he had, I was able to make the connection in my memory. Without the help of my husband (whose ability to remember and recognize people from his past is LEGENDARY!) I would have never even noticed Beau Bridges. For me, it took someone to make that connection for me – then I was a bit starstruck and distracted the rest of the service, admittedly.
Simeon knew that he had to meet God’s Messiah before dying. He knew to go the temple the day that a little baby named Jesus was brought by Mary and Joseph to be presented as he was “guided by the Holy Spirit” to be there that day to meet him. I am sure that Mary and Joseph knew that their roles as parents to Jesus were a bit out of the ordinary based on the experiences with the archangel and the whole “born in a manger” thing, but they still may not have understood at that time the significance their little boy would have on them and the world. Simeon didn’t necessarily know that either, but the prayer he speaks following his meeting of a little child in the temple speaks loud and clear that he understood something huge had just happened to him and to the world. That prayer has been so important in the life and development of the Christian church that it is found in our Book of Common Prayer, specifically in the service of Compline found here.
Lord, you now have set your servant free *
to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
whom you have prepared for all the world to see: A Light to enlighten the nations, *
and the glory of your people Israel. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
His parents seemed to be surprised by this spontaneous prayer from a stranger who recognized the significance of Jesus’ presence on Earth. Simeon hugged Jesus and then told Mary a great foreshadowing of her life as a mother and the powerful impact on the world that Jesus would have. He RECOGNIZED both the greatness of Jesus’ life and the pain that would come to Mary as a result. There were most likely others in the temple that day, but Simeon was the one who knew that this small child would change the world. After Simeon, the elderly lady named Anna had a similar experience. She appears to have spent her nights and days in worship at the temple around the clock, and must have seen folks coming and going all day long. But something was different about Jesus. She wasn’t afraid to go and tell all who came after of the saving grace of Jesus in Jerusalem.
Beau Bridges was lovely and welcoming to us that day in church, but Jesus is so much more to all who turn to him. As we look ahead to more severe winter weather, the picture for today’s entry is that of the flower called the Snowdrop flower. It is a winter flower that appears around February 2nd for the first time, the day some refer to as Candlemas – celebrating the cleansing of Mary following the birth of Jesus when the baby is brought to the temple for the first time. It looks like such a fragile flower but has an incredible design that encourages it to bloom in the darkest and coldest times of winter.
We don’t always feel equipped to face the dark and cold times that challenge us in our daily lives ourselves. But the strength comes from somewhere beyond us and directly from the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Simeon would have missed out on his lifetime opportunity if he had ignored the will of the Lord. Anna’s deliberate existence in the very presence of the Lord gave her the chance to speak to others about Jesus in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if she hadn’t stayed the course. God gives us strength to face our challenges and provides us all we need if we will just take a moment to recognize it, even if it is hidden right in plain sight.
Our help is in the name of the Lord, and we accept the call to recognize Your Presence in our lives. The gift of your son was life-changing and in an enduring influence on our work in the world. Thank you for always finding ways to reach us and have us see you in the face of others. In your name we pray. AMEN
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
In 21st century America, we are invited to join, participate, follow, watch, pledge and try out a zillion different things. I’ve been invited to parties and participated in fundraisers; I’ve followed groups on Twitter, plan to watch the Super Bowl with friends, pledged a sorority in college, and auditioned for plays in community theatre. When I’m invited, I experience a range of emotions depending on the situation. Being invited to to follow someone on Twitter doesn’t necessarily mean too much to me, while being invited to pledge my sorority may have changed the trajectory of my life as I entered adulthood. Invitations may be easy to accept or decline, depending on the attachment, commitment level and emotional involvement. But just being invited to participate can send a jolt of excitement (ok, maybe it’s not that exciting to follow someone on Twitter – but certainly more exciting to lead an organization or join a new group of friends in a fun Friday night activity). I am quite often caught off guard if I didn’t see the invitation coming (like someone asking me to lead a group when I don’t see myself as the leader before being asked) – receiving the request can be flattering and/or daunting, causing me to do a quick assessment of my skills to help me determine if I am up for the task.
Today’s Gospel reading finds Jesus fulfilling another prophecy related to charismatic John’s imprisonment and the unspoken freedom it gives Jesus to move to Galilee and really increase his presence as a teacher without the confusion of followers choosing between John and Jesus. But he knows he can’t do this without a long lasting group of followers. Andrew, Peter, James and John were most likely hard working fishermen who had little to no social standing in the community. They caught fish for a living; they didn’t run a bank, weren’t CEOs of a Fortune 500 company, nor were they lawyers or doctors. Their jobs were simple yet powerful – go out and get fish so people will eat. The parallel between the jobs of fishermen and the jobs of apostles can be drawn simply: you know how to fish, now let’s fish for people.
I have often wondered over the years, as this Gospel reading comes around, about how I would have likely reacted at the invitation to leave my livelihood and family to go and do some pretty crazy things without the security of my current life. Sadly, I always reach the same conclusion – I’m not very confident that my answer would have been a resounding yes. There is much evidence in my current life of resisting the call to serve, with most of those invitations not EVEN requiring me to give up much of anything. I am currently wrestling pretty mightily with a very radical and transformational call to ministry and if that is any indication, leaving my nets on the side of the Sea of Galilee seems like it may have been a pretty unlikely outcome.
So here is the great news…Jesus doesn’t really tap us on the shoulder and ask us to walk away from everything to do. Whew!!!!! His invitation is comprised of just asking us to follow him. Seems simple, right? Simple – yes. Easy to do – not so much. If you are anything like me, you wake up with great intentions for the way your day will go, or you go to bed on New Year’s Eve with a year’s worth of new commitments for bettering yourself, only to find yourself forgetting all about your commitments or well intentioned to-do lists. It’s hard to keep our focus on Christ and loving each other when we have to run to the grocery store on the way to the office to get the snacks for the meeting we will be hurrying to right after work and before we head home to fold laundry and make lunches for the next day (makes fishing on the Sea of Galilee seem quite simple after all!).
But following Jesus gives all those other things the appropriate purpose and perspective. Committing to adding purposeful study, prayer and actions that bear witness to our relationship with Christ can start with small habits in the morning when you first wake up, at the end of the day when you are ready to rest or all throughout the day mixed in with your other to-do list items. It’s somewhat surprising how quickly those “habits” become integrated in our lives when we do them with a purpose.
Following Christ may mean a drastic change in your lifestyle and commitments. Or it may mean adding in special time at the foot of the Cross each day. Whatever it means for you, the first step is accepting the invitation to accept that God has chosen and loves each and every one of us. The next steps are completely in your court.
The love of our Father is greater than we can imagine and our invitation to follow him sometimes falls on deaf ears. Help us to see you in the world, find time to spend with your in prayer, and to live our lives as followers of you. You are our All in All. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Lamb of God
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
The First Disciples of Jesus
35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
On Tuesday, I was given a very powerful gift. I walked into the school office at the end of the day to get some long overdue work completed as I waited for our PTA event later that evening. There are always a few kids whose parents are running a little late and the regulars were sitting in the chairs reading their books and waiting for their parents. Amidst the small group was a mom I knew – being new to our school this year, I am still learning the parents! This parent had two kids at my previous school and so we had known each other from there. She had a baby last spring and I always ask to hold him when she comes to school. Tuesday was no exception – I greeted her and offered my arms to this sweet angel and rekindled my love affair with him on the spot! She had some small talk with me, then asked if she could speak to me privately; we headed back to my office with her sweet pumpkin in my arms. Her other two weren’t with her at the time of our conversation when she asked me a favor. She needed to leave her car and wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be towed from our school parking lot. After some gentle probing, she shared she was out of gas and money and planned to walk home with her three children; one infant, one with a brain injury and a kindergartner (the older two still in their car seats in the parking lot). The short version of this story is that I had a choice Tuesday afternoon. As a school principal, I quickly agreed to make sure her car was safe. As a Christian, I had to take it a step further. It was one of the best afternoons I can remember once I made the decision to embrace this encounter and lend a hand. She made it home in her car that day with hopefully one less worry on her plate.
Every day, we have encounters with Christ in our regular lives. My little encounter this week wasn’t on the agenda of my carefully planned out day. My opportunity wasn’t specific to my faith, but my choice was made easier because if it. John and the disciples had choices to make as they encountered Jesus. The historical context of describing Jesus as the “Lamb of God” was a descriptor that meant a great deal to the Jews. Before Christ the Messiah was crucified for our sins, the faithful used animal sacrifice as their method of forgiveness from God. Jesus’ place in the Kingdom of God was so significant as to negate the need for this ritual that was embedded into the traditions of the faithful. I’m going to guess that I would have been pretty skeptical of such a drastic attempt at change based on my track record. But the disciples embraced Jesus as the Messiah, and the encounter was life changing for them. They walked away from their families and their roles in the community to follow Jesus on a wild adventure. They embraced the encounter in a way that makes sense today, but must have seemed incredibly unusual and quite risky with benefits that would be hard to see at the time to the casual observer.
The opportunities may not be so dramatic and might not cause us to so drastically change the course of our lives, but they are present and give us the chance to serve in ways we never imagined. And if you are like me, you may miss them if you focus on YOUR plans, YOUR agenda and YOUR comfort level. My opportunity on Tuesday didn’t cost me much money or time, but the rewards I received knowing I could be the right person at the right time to help someone in need were immeasurable. When she thanked me, I thanked her too. She didn’t approach me to make me feel good, but I was so enriched by the experience. Sometimes God has plans for us that don’t align with our vision for ourselves. Taking the risk to embrace the encounters put in our paths can enrich us beyond imagination. Where is God working in your life to get your attention?
Lamb of God, Giver of Gifts and Knower of Needs, I pray for families in need. May I always be open to responding to any encounters where I can serve you through others and know that you will continue to challenge me to show love to all I meet. Thank you for trusting me to do your work in the world. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Baptism of Jesus
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
“Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the Church” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 298).
In the waters of baptism we are lovingly adopted by God into God’s family, which we call the Church, and given God’s own life to share and reminded that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ (from the Episcopal Church website).
I remember hearing this story as a child and wondering (probably out loud, as I was prone to do) why Jesus would need to be baptized by John if he was God. My lens as a child in the church was that children and sometimes even adults, went to the front (or back) of the church to the baptismal font for a big celebration on Sundays or other holy days. I knew it was special then, but it wasn’t until I had the honor of standing with my husband as he made the decision to be baptized as an adult in front of our friends and family that I had the full realization of the personal commitment of being baptized by water and the Holy Spirit. Then, a couple years later, our infant daughter was welcomed as the newest sister in Christ and marked as Christ’s own forever and I nearly lost it that day as the enormity of my responsibility as her parent and fellow Christian to raise her to know and love the Lord, accepting Christ as her savior on her behalf.
Baptism was a relatively new concept started with John. He brought people to faith and repentance with water, and with the promise of someone greater than him coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:1-8) John and Jesus grew up close like brothers, but had not spent a lot of time together as adults. John prophesied in the above lesson from Mark about the good news of Baptism in Christ, so I can only imagine how he felt to be in the position to be commanded to fulfill the will of God by baptizing Jesus himself. I can hope that John had more faith than I would have had under the same circumstances, “You want me to do what to YOU? Right here? Right now? Are you crazy, Jesus???? I’m just not worthy”).
There are some things happening in my life right now that make me feel a strong pull from God in directions that seem quite unusual, difficult, even a little bizarre. I don’t feel comfortable as I think about this plan that God may have for me that is not aligned with the plan I have had for myself. Following Him as he leads me into uncertainty DOES NOT MAKE MUCH SENSE. John probably felt the same way as he was tasked with the actual Baptism of Jesus. But fulfilling the plan is exactly what he did…and much more as we go on to read in the Gospel stories of his edgy and unusual life.
The baptism of Jesus was a necessary step in the completion of the Trinity. And each of us takes that step of joining in the relationship when we are baptized as well. For some critics of baptism in the very young who technically cannot make the decision on their own, here is my response: It is my job as a parent who decides to bring a child into the world and our family to ensure the choice of future of success and happiness. I am tasked with making education a priority, teaching values which support a child growing up to contribute to the world, and demanding that she is NICE in the world and to those she meets. But my most important job is to provide my child the opportunity for a lifelong relationship with God through Christ and with the power of the Holy Spirit. That starts with baptism and continues in my expectations for her and the experiences we give her as parents until she goes out into the world in a few short months to make decisions far beyond our control but hopefully withing the realm of her life to date.
Jesus’ baptism fulfills God’s plan, but it also shines a light onto his bottomless forgiveness, love and compassion. Malcom Gladwell talks about finding his faith in this article, highlighting the so called “weapons of the spirit.” He discusses meeting a family who lost their child in a horrific murder, and their discussion of forgiveness and love – sounding so foreign under those extreme circumstances of love. Although I pray I never (and you never) have to experience a life changing event like that, the gift of baptism in my love has given me the weapons I need to approach any challenge I may have with love and forgiveness. I’m not worthy of the gifts I have received, that much is true. So as the receiver of those gifts, how can I be selfish and not turn around and share them with others who may or may not be deemed “worthy” in my human eyes?
We are living in a world where things happen that bring us great sadness. Terrible things happen to the most innocent among us and as we rock along in our well-planned life, a detour pops up that leaves us bewildered and confused. But God has given us all we need to approach these difficult situations with grace and love, giving gifts we didn’t know we could give because it what God calls us to do. It’s the most surprising thing to see when a yucky situation is met with love and forgiveness; let’s walk our walk with Christ making it less surprising to see and more of what we expect to happen when Christians face life’s challenges.
John baptized Jesus and we are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit to join our brothers and sisters in Christ in fulfilling God’s kingdom work in our lives. John followed God’s command and we are called to do the same. Because don’t we all want God to see us and our work and tell the world he is well pleased with us?
Gracious God, thank you for the gift of Baptism by water and the Holy Spirit. The love and forgiveness you show to us every day is a gift we want to share with those we meet, even when we may deem them unworthy, just as we are. Teach us how to love one another without judgment and to respond to the challenges of our world in ways that make You well pleased. We ask all this through your son Jesus Christ. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Visit of the Wise Men
2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
I’m not always proud of my behavior. I strive to live out God’s plan for me every day and fall WAYYYYY short most days. On my best days, I work to remember that everything is not about me and that my job is to further God’s work in the world where I live. In some of my worst moments, I get caught up in feeling sorry for myself, gossiping about others, passing judgement and being pretty selfish. It certainly isn’t pretty and when I reflect on those memories I am not proud one little bit.
But some of my worst behavior has happened when I feel threatened. In high school, the cliques of high school girls didn’t bring out the best in me. I may or may not have behaved like a spoiled child in the face of the girl drama. As a parent, the threat of something terrible happening to my family has kept me from being rational in decision making and too protective when I needed to let go. In my job as a school principal, parents sometimes come to my office to scream, yell and make threats toward me and our staff. My default when threatened typically isn’t to respond with love and understanding. King Herod most certainly felt threatened by strangers coming to Bethlehem to pay homage to a new king; sounds like it was news to him and not welcome news at that.
Herod’s response makes him seem pretty insecure (somewhat understandably in the face of the loss of his power, status and livelihood) and then he gets a bit sneaky. Go find this king so that I can worship him too, he says. Yeah, right. That’s a bunch of malarkey in light of a few verses down the page in Matthew 2:16-18 when Herod’s insecurities leads him to make a pretty nasty decision to kill ALL the kids who meet the age criteria of this suspected king. Talk about acting irrationally in the face of a perceived threat!
And that is exactly what it was – a perceived threat. Not a real threat. Jesus was born to save the world, not to rule over a small group of people. But in the face of the threat to his identity, Herod did what seems unthinkable – certainly a drastic response to the situation. He acts out of fear of the unknown – and we are guilty of the same over reactions in our perceived threats today.
For me, I am fortunate to be able to live a life free of too many real threats to my safety and security. So when I feel threatened, it is typically to my reputation, my beliefs, my lifestyle or my ability to be the winner is some competition. But in most cases, the threat isn’t really about me. Jesus coming into the world as a baby was no more a threat to Herod than one of the cool high school girls was to my happiness back in the day. The threat wasn’t real, but based on a misplaced sense of self importance and our need to hold on to those things which we deem important to ourselves, rather than on the real threat of loss, pain and suffering.
This story tells of Epiphany, a feast day in the church where the manifestation of Christ is celebrated along with his baptism. The symbolism of light in the form of a star leading the way to three strangers coming to honor a king beyond the scope of their understanding, the fulfilling of prophecy (Micah 5:2) from ancient teachings and the fact that the revelation of God sending his Son to live among the people as one of them – they certainly qualify as an epiphany where we come to understand something in a new and different way. The Feast of Epiphany is celebrated on the twelfth day of Christmas – January 6, 2014 this year, to be exact. We are still singing Christmas carols in church (give us a break – we focused on Advent every week since Thanksgiving!) and now we find ourselves with the first of a long line of threats to the life of Jesus Christ, even as he is still a very young child living with his parents in a small town in relative obscurity. The threat to the life of Jesus was real – yet he didn’t respond in anger, defensiveness or with malice. He offered his other cheek, his love to the persecuted and downtrodden and his heart and salvation to all who follow him – personal status being irrelevant. Striving to live with that unconditional love for others is what we are called to do and fall short of as humans. But we must keep trying every day to keep perspective and discern the real threats: the very real threat of a life without Christ at the center of all we do, in all we meet and in our every day work, actions and relationships.
I haven’t killed anyone when I have felt threatened (whew!!!), but I have made others feel things other than love from me. That’s on me, and my lesson from this reading is to stop, listen and react with love, even when it feels unnatural and contrived at first. I know I’ll get better at it the more I do it.
Light of the world, help me to view others through the eyes of your love. When I am confronted with fear, help me to see that in you, my life is secure. Show me the way to live every day with you as the center. To you are the power and the glory. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Messengers from John the Baptist
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus Praises John the Baptist
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
This week has been filled with stories on the news about Nelson Mandela. I graduated from college in 1990, the same year that Nelson Mandela was released from prison. As stories about his life were explored at this time, I realized then what an incredible man he was. I became hungry to learn more about his struggles for freedom from oppression for the majority of the people of South Africa. As I learned then and and has been reinforced this week as his life is reflected for all to see, Nelson Mandela rose from the humblest of beginnings, experienced some of the most extreme hardships that people can face and came from all that to change an entire nation and impact people far beyond the borders of his country. I’m sure he had days, weeks and even years of doubt that his work would have meaning or make any difference at all. And the leaders of South Africa surely hoped that this felon would never make a ripple in the ocean of discrimination. But the legacy of his humble life continues to this day and well beyond his life here on earth.
Today’s Gospel reading highlights a portion of the humble life of John – no razzle dazzle at all. As he spends time in prison for his work paving the way for the Messiah, he himself has doubts about Jesus being the Messiah – the very reason he is living life as a prisoner. Jesus doesn’t really answer the question with a definitive “Yes,” (no surprise there!) but rather he proves it by sending John’s followers back to him with tales of miracles. The kind of acts that can only come from the Messiah. But he takes it a step further by teaching his followers about John himself.
Jesus teaches his followers that the job of John the Baptist is a tough one. No “soft robes” or well dressed man would do for this important job – to go out in the world John needed to “be of the world.” Jesus pays, quite possible, the biggest compliment of all as he wraps up his lesson about John’s important work by telling the listeners and us as readers, that no one was more important among the people. This, right after John voiced his doubts about Jesus and his role in the world. I’ll be that when word got back to John about this, he felt more than a little like a jerk for wondering whether it was all going to be worth it.
There is only one John the Baptist, but the doubt he articulates is real for us all, right? Who hasn’t had those doubts? Even in the face of the evidence of God working directly in our lives and the lives of those we love and live with? Each of us as Christians is called to do our work in the Kingdom of God here on earth – much less substantial than what was required of John for sure, but look how far we can take it when we act on faith in the example of Nelson Mandela! I’m certainly no potential world leader destined to change the face of my country, but every day, I am tasked with waking up grateful, loving the hardest to love along with myself as a child of God, praying for guidance and studying the Word. If each of us committed to these seemingly small thoughts and actions, imagine the way the world would change right in front of our eyes? And the bonus? The building of our faith and the squashing down of our doubts.
As we spend these last weeks in Advent preparation, remember that preparing the way for the birth and coming again of our Savior is not passive in nature. Building our faith to prepare the way – now that is action that will bring about the best gifts of all!
All of our gifts come from you dear Lord, and we stand before you not worthy to receive them. Help us to remember we are worthy of your miracles and tasked with spreading your love in your Kingdom. Our faith in you is stronger than we think and we commit to building it in preparation for your coming. AMEN.