Led Into Testing
Rev. Dr. Fritz RitschFeb 21, 2021, Mark 1: 9-16
Last week we talked about the fact that for nearly
Led Into Testing
Led Into Testing
Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.
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Led Into Testing
Rev. Dr. Fritz RitschFeb 21, 2021, Mark 1: 9-16
Last week we talked about the fact that for nearly
Up the Mountain or Off the Cliff
Rev. Dr. Fritz RitschFeb 14, 2021, Transfiguration SundayMark 9: 2-9
Fear, to a great extent,
All Things to All People
Rev. Dr. Fritz RitschFeb 7, 2021, I Corinthians 8: 1-13
“I have become all things to all
The Man with an Unclean Spirit
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[a] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
When I was in junior high school I was in a patriotic musical. It was fun and, in many ways, had a big impact on me. The musical finale was a song that went:
Freedom isn’t free!
You’ve got to pay the price
You’ve got to sacrifice
For your liberty!
Those words return to me a lot as an adult. They’re a reminder of what it has cost us, and continues to cost us, to have a nation that is, as we say, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal.” Americans have taken risks and died for our liberty and for the liberty of others. The song always reminds me that the concept of liberty is not built around the idea of the right to “do your own thing.” My liberty and your liberty are intertwined. For my liberty to mean anything, you have to be fully free as well. Sometimes I have to make sacrifices in order to ensure that you are free. Freedom isn’t free.
Freedom was largely at the core of the Gospel message that the Apostle Paul brought to the mostly Gentile congregation in the city of Corinth on the island of Achaia in modern day Greece. This is a congregation that Paul himself first established, spending 18 months there preaching and teaching. Paul taught them that Christ had set them free—free from sin, free from human rules, free to live a life in harmony with God through Jesus Christ, and free from God’s judgment after death. In many ways the core of Paul’s Gospel preaching was freedom. He taught that Gentiles who became Christian didn’t need to become Jews first. They were free from circumcision and from the restrictions of Jewish law.
They were free, for instance, to eat food offered to idols if they wanted. That sort of thing would have been considered idolatry to most Jews, but Paul taught that since God wasn’t threatened by other gods, it didn’t matter whether we ate food offered to idols or not. As he puts it right here in this letter, “Food will not bring us close to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” In other words, eating sacrificial food in God’s eyes has no meaning whatsoever. In fact, 1500 years later, Martin Luther would build on this to say that in some cases to do things like eat food offered to idols was an act of faithfulness to God, to prove you were free of human expectations and belief in the power of false gods.
I remember the time that teaching really hit me forcefully. It was in college. I was a leader in a college fellowship group that had ironclad expectations about how Christians were to behave. But I had other Christian friends, Kim and Kestina, who were my escape valve from all this smug rule making. They loved to dance and drink beer and have a good time.
One night we were at the local pizza place, Perini’s, when the tight-laced president of the Christian fellowship group, Dave, came in with a couple of other folks. He primly said hello to us—looking archly over his wire-rimmed glasses at me because he didn’t think Kim and Kestina were appropriate company—and ordered his pizza. Kestina looked at me. “Order a pitcher of beer!” she said.
“Yes! Do it!” Kim said.
The two of them could barely contain their glee.
“But—but—” said I. I had never had a drink in front of these sort of super-Christians before. Certainly not in front of Dave, who seemed to disapprove of anything fun. But Kestina and Kim could not be swayed. “Do it!”
So—I did. I was kind of quiet –“We’d like a pitcher of beer”–so Kestina repeated it much louder. “WE’D LIKE A PITCHER OF BEER.” (It’s important to note here that Kestina was a Lutheran.)
The looks that came at us from Dave’s table! And then the beer came, and we drank it and I relaxed. I admit, it was one more nail in the coffin of my relationship with Dave and that fellowship group. But it was also an important lesson in being myself. In many ways, one of the key points that Paul wanted us to understand when he taught Christian freedom is that in Christ, we are free to be who we truly are and who we are truly meant to be. There are a million caveats to that—I’ll talk about a few in a minute—but the point is that Christ frees us from the restraints and expectations that shackle us so that we can be both who we are, and who we’re meant to be in God’s eyes.
After that experience, one of the folks who’d been at the table with Dave that night came over to me and said, “You remember that night at Perini’s when you ordered beer? That was pretty cool.”
And this goes to one of Paul’s other points about Christian freedom. Paul firmly believed that the perception that God makes rules to restrain us and control us and limit our pleasure in life is an obstacle to the Gospel of Grace—God’s unconditional love for us. How can grace be free and unconditional if it comes with rules and regulations? My friend who liked that we were drinking that night liked the idea that one could be Christian and not have to be tied down by rules. I think this made a big, positive impact on his life over the next couple of years.
This Gospel of freedom and liberty that Paul preached had been a big selling point to the Corinthians when they first became Christians.
But then, it became a problem. And Paul had to address it.
There were a lot of problems in the Corinthian church after Paul had left it, too many to really review right now. Suffice it to say that because prestige mattered in pagan Roman Corinth, it started to matter in Christian Roman Corinth, too. Wealth, education, and success were the most important thing to most Corinthian citizens, and the worth of individuals was judged by their wealth, education and success or the lack thereof. And the same thing was happening in the church.
What really got to Paul was that it was happening at the Fellowship table where communion was served. It appears that in those days it was common for the church to have a Love Feast—that is, a full meal like we’d have at a church fellowship night, with the elements of the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine, as the centerpiece. The Corinthians had turned this into more of a bacchanal in which the wealthy got the best food and the poor got the dregs. One of the things that the more prestigious Corinthian Christians were doing was bringing meat offered to idols and eating it right there in front of everybody, right there at fellowship and in front, it must be noted, of “weaker Christians”—that is to say, new Christians who had just been weaned off the worship of idols, for whom anything that looked like idolatry was a temptation to return to false gods, who would be deeply offended or hurt in their faith to see food offered to idols being eaten.
This was the equivalent of our youth fellowship leaders inviting the middle school youth group to a gigantic keg party. The justification for all of this was that, “Hey, Paul said we are no worse off if we eat, and no better off if we do! We’re free to do what we want!”
But Paul says no. You are not free to do that. Why? Because these new Christians are “weak,” as he puts it. Their faith isn’t strong enough to understand the difference between eating meat offered to idols and idolatry. Paul is furious with the Corinthian Christians who think they are so wise and so smart and like to prove their superiority at the expense of the faith of younger, newer Christians. Freedom is not a license to do as you please, he warns them. “Knowledge puffs up,” he fumes, “but love builds up.” These smug, superior Corinthian Christians have flaunted their freedom at the expense of love.
And love, Paul tells them, is everything to God. Everything. He will in this very letter write a whole chapter on love, I Corinthians 13. “There abide faith, hope and love, these three,” he says, “but the greatest of these is love.” Love is the purpose of Christian freedom. It is the whole reason Christians are free. In Christ, we are free, at last to love. We are free so that we can grow into who God intends us to be—people who love without restraint, the same way God loves without restraint.
And what the Corinthians were doing was not love. Far from it. Theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that
“Freedom is not a quality of a person, nor is it an ability, a capacity, a kind of being that somehow flares up in one. Anyone investigating humanity to discover freedom finds nothing of it. Why? because freedom is not a quality which can be revealed–it is not a possession, a presence, an object, nor is it a form of existence–but a relationship and nothing else. In truth, freedom is a relationship between two persons. Being free means “being free for the other,” because the other has bound me to them. Only in relationship with the other am I free.”
This is exactly Paul’s point. Freedom is not a quality inherent in an individual. It is gift from God—but it is a gift worthless unless it happens in relationship. And so freedom must be practiced always and only in the service of love. We are free to be “free for the other.” Only in relationship to the other am I free.
For Paul, to be free means that you are more concerned for the other than you are about yourself. He saw God’s grace as freedom from piety and guilt and self-awareness. To him, this was the problem with religion in general: it makes us way too self-aware. We’re constantly worried about, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I sinning? Is God angry with me? Is God blessing me?” Me, me, me. Paul hated that and he thought God hated that too. We become so concerned with how I am doing that we don’t really think about our neighbor and what she needs—unless it’s in the context of me, me, me like “I must be good to this poor person so I can win brownie points with God.”
To Paul, God frees us from this constant self-centered soul searching so that we can stop worrying about me and start genuinely and selflessly caring about our neighbor.
Obviously, some of the Corinthians failed at this. For them, to be Christian was just one more pathway to self-awareness and self-prestige. They’d mistaken their freedom as a license to do what they want instead of a calling to love others freely.
Freedom continues to be a misunderstood quality today. Often talk of freedom today is around “My personal freedom”—I have a right to this, and I have a right to that. This is as if our freedoms are personal, they are individual, they are innate, they are endowed. That is the way we talk about rights as Americans.
But it is not how the bible understands freedom. Our freedom is not for ourselves. It is not an excuse for selfishness or to pursue our gain at the expense of another’s loss. As Bonhoeffer says, “Being free means being free for the other, because only in relationship to the other am I truly free.” Freedom is the pathway to selflessness, to service to others, to freely giving ourselves to others. Unfortunately, the way we often look at it is from the perspective of selfishness.
Freedom has always been important to both Christians and Americans, but freedom in both Christianity and the US Constitution has always been understood as a social contract. The Constitution understands that my rights are not guaranteed if your rights are not guaranteed. The Constitution is a social contract that says Americans have rights by mutual consent. You consent that I have rights and I consent that you have rights. The point here is that whether we understand our freedom to be Constitutional or Biblical, it remains true that freedom only exists in the context of the other.
But Christianity takes it further. Our freedom exists for the sake of the other, and it includes the freedom not to do something you have the quote right to do unquote if it means you might harm another person physically, spiritually, or mentally. This is Paul’s point. He tells the Corinthians that he has the freedom to eat meat offered to idols if he wants, but he has freely chosen to only eat vegetables so that he doesn’t “cause another to stumble.” He has freely put his self-interest to the side for the sake of others. It’d be nice to see a lot more of that in our common discourse—people less focused on their right to do something and more sensitive to others’ needs and concerns.
Thank heaven there is the church. Every day and in myriad ways we see folks here at St. Stephen freely do things for the sake of others at the expense of their freedom and “right” to do something else. Despite the pandemic and its limitations on all of our freedoms, we have church people who are nervous going out to the supermarket and confined to home still finding ways to make sandwiches for the homeless, thousands and thousands of them. People express their freedom to love by giving generously of long, impersonal Zoom meetings. Sure business people do this too. But church folks are not paid to do this. They are volunteers. They give of themselves freely out of love.
Communion was a big problem in the Corinthian church because of people misusing their freedom. But St. Stephen has gone a different direction, in fact a lot of churches have. All of our denominations have rules about how we serve communion, who is welcome at the table, and so forth. But here at St. Stephen, and in many other churches, we’ve come up with a way to have online communion that really stretches those rules and, in the process, welcomes more people to the table, rather than fewer. The PCUSA recently determined that they will do communion the way we have done it for years—it is open to any who seek to know God through Christ. We hope that many online visitors are feeling free to have the Lord’s supper with us because of the way we’ve loosened the rules.
That’s how we are called to use our freedom. Not to exclude but to include, to welcome and embrace, and support others. That is the true meaning of Christian freedom.
Looking at the assault on the Capitol on January 6, I was struck by just how colorful were the scenes. Lots of red hats. Flags, too. American flags. Texas flags. The battle flag of the Confederacy. Yellow flags and white flags bearing slogans of the Revolution. “Don’t tread on me.” “Live free or die.” There were also flags and banners which had names emblazoned on them. Flags with the name Trump. Banners with the name Jesus 2020. Signs proclaiming Jesus Saves. Those were the only names I saw flying in the wind. It made me remember that phrase in “Onward Christian Soldiers.” “Forward into battle, See his banners go.”
I don’t know about you, but I take it that these were the names in whose honor what was going on was done. These were the names the invaders invoked to encourage, to bless and guide something which had only been done once before in the War of 1812 by the British. For me, it brought on sadness and anger at how people who claim Jesus as savior would involve him in such horrifying acts.
If politics is only about power, then the Bible can serve up a certain kind of religion for power-hungry politicians. Literalistic, authoritarian, male dominated, white racist, homophobic, truth denying religion is just perfect for the power hungry. If that’s what you are looking for, it can be found in the Bible. No clearer instance do we have of this fact than President Trump’s photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church which stands in front of the White House. You remember, it happened on June 1 during a Black Lives Matter protest in front of the White House over the murder by a white policeman of a black man George Floyd. Protestors were forcibly pushed back so that the President and members of his staff, including his top general and Defense Secretary, could walk to the church. Standing in front of the church with the power of the state behind him, Mr. Trump held out a Bible in his right hand to hammer home his rule of law and order.
I don’t know about you, but all this has really made my job hard as a Christian. Last year I published a book entitled Aliens in Your Native Land. That’s about how I feel as a mainline Christian. White insurrectionists bearing the name Jesus get a free pass to storm the Capitol, trash it up, and threaten lawmakers in order to stop the heartbeat of American democracy. Black Lives Matter protestors get tear gassed and pushed back so the President can walk across the street with his top general and without asking for permission hold up a Bible in front of an historic church to hammer home his rule of law and order. And my non-Christian friends, the so-called “nones”, and the cynics say, “And that’s what your faith is all about?” “Is this how you use the Bible?” And our wonderful teenagers who are leading this worship service today say: “Is this what I signed up for when my parents had me baptized?” “And you think that this is what I need?” “Is this what ‘Jesus Saves’ is all about?”
Of course we do not think so. What happened on January 6 has thoroughly discredited the President and his followers. But just as tellingly, the religion of the banner wavers is shown up as trashing the name of the Jesus by making him the emblem of white supremacy, populism run amuck, rank individualism, male domination, and conspiracy ideology. We will have none of it!
If you open the Bible you will see that racism lives within its pages. In our Old Testament lesson, Aaron, one of Moses’ brothers, together with his sister, Miriam, tried to wrest the power of leadership from Moses. They said, “He has married a Cushite.” When you hear Cushite, think Ethiopian. In the legend of Noah and the ark, one of Noah’s sons, Ham, is the founder of the land of Cush which is in Africa. Noah curses Ham and his progeny to live in servitude. “She is a Cushite.” Slaves would come from Africa.
Miriam and Aaron played the race card in their bid to unseat Moses. Their power-play began by smearing him as having married a black woman, someone who is an “other”, someone who is outside the clan, someone whose race carries the taint of being of the servant-class.
Our story says that Moses was the most humble man on earth, but use your imaginations to conjure up the blow Moses suffered when his own flesh and blood, his own most trusted colleagues, dissed him, shamed him, slandered him through his wife’s race in a bid to unseat him as the leader of Israel.
The stakes in this struggle were so great that God had to intervene, and in a stunning act of judgment God cursed Miriam’s skin by making it turn snow white. She had used blackness to bring down her brother. God used whiteness to make her into an object of horror and repulsion. It was only after repeated pleadings from Aaron and Moses that God lifted the curse of the snow-white skin. But God’s curse was not lifted before God made Miriam an “outsider” just like she had made the Cushite wife. Miriam had to serve a seven-day sentence of solitary confinement outside the camp before she was able to rejoin the community. She had to get over being white. While Miriam may have been healed of her physical disfigurement, she will always carry the scar of the judgment and grace of God toward how she had used race to get control. Now hold this story in your mind.
Another story to think about. We all love the story of the Good Samaritan. I want to shift the focus of the story away from the invidious contrast between the proper Jewish clergy and the Samaritan. I want you to imagine that you are the half-dead Jew by the roadside, lying in the hot sun unconscious, in shock, your life-blood oozing out of your deep cuts. Suddenly, the sting of the alcohol in the wine being poured on your wounds shocks you back into consciousness, and it gradually comes upon you that you are being helped by a Samaritan!
Samaritans, you have been carefully taught, are ungodly, and if they touch you, you become ungodly. The thing you have been taught to do is to get away from this guy, but you are helpless to do so. More to the point, the very one you have been taught to hate, to dominate, to despise is the one who holds your life in his hands, the one who will determine whether you will ever see your wife and kids again. Jesus asked, “Who was the neighbor”? The answer is obvious. But the other unspoken question is: What was the Jew thinking about as he recovered in a bed paid for by the Samaritan?
So now I have you thinking about two stories that leave people scarred for life, Miriam and the half-dead Jew. They have been wounded in that part of their soul that harbors attitudes of being superior to someone outside their tribe. Scarred for life by grace. What shall we do with these stories today?
The title of my sermon today is “The God of the Ungodly.” It is taken from our epistle lesson, Romans 5:6: “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.” I have you thinking about two stories where God stood up for someone whom the dominant culture said was ungodly, beneath human dignity, the “other”, the sinister, the deadly. God stood up for Moses’ black wife when her race was used to try to bring him down, and Jesus made a hero out of the hated Samaritan. God is the God of those whom racism says are ungodly. Christ died for those people on the outside. God is their champion against Jesus 2020.
But we also saw in those stories a different kind of ungodliness. This is the ungodliness of sin. The smear tactics of Miriam and Aaron and their racist attitudes. That’s ungodly. The callous disregard of the priest and Levite. That’s ungodly, too. The inbred racism in which the Jewish victim of roadside robbery was trapped. That’s ungodly. There is an ugliness to ungodliness. Christ died for the people who held the Jesus 2020 banner.
Miriam was put in isolation for seven days to get over being white. What did she think about during that time? A Jew stayed in a hospital at the Samaritan’s expense to get over being anti-Semitic. What did he think about as he was recovering? The spirit of America is in intensive care. We are in the ICU because of the ungodly, ugly things we do motivated by our fear of losing our dwindling dominance and privilege juiced up by a religion of self-pity. In these days before the inauguration, what should we be thinking about?
Think about this. The one thing you and I and everybody else walked away with on January 6 was having suffered. If we are to start again, we have to begin in something we hold in common—in suffering. Think about this: Jesus was made to suffer and die like you would punish a slave. He suffered as one of the despised. Look at Jesus on the Cross! Look at the suffering human sin causes!
I’m going to tell you something that only Christianity will tell you about suffering: God raised the suffering Jesus from the dead, and he bears in his resurrected body the marks of his wounds. Your suffering sticks to the wounds of the resurrected-crucified Jesus. And his resurrection makes something wonderful happen. God pours into our wounds the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ. That love will keep us afloat as together we walk the healing path from suffering to endurance to character to hope.
God holds the hope for the suffering. God holds the hope for America to be “out of many, one nation.” God’s love makes this hope a sure foundation on which to build back better again. No one can come and take that hope from us. Notice that the chain of healing goes from suffering to hope, not from suffering to cure. That’s important. Because hope stands at the end of the chain of healing that means that all along the way “better is better.”
Let us strive for and celebrate the “better” until that day when our striving shall cease, and God will bring in a “more perfect union.”
Jeremiah 31: 7-14
Ephesians 1: 3-14
John 1: 10-18
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1900-1944, French Author, Pilot; from The Little Prince
I knew a man that people said did not really have a heart. That’s not how they put it, but that’s what they meant. He’d been a member of the church I’d served for decades and had been an elder. He’d raised his children at the church. But no one really liked him. They said he was crotchety and cantankerous even as a young man. He was argumentative, condescending and resistant to change. When he was an elder, he seemed to get into conflicts with everyone. Then when his kids grew up, he dropped out of church altogether. His wife kept coming to church and she was much loved and respected. But most people felt sorry for her, because she was married to him.
By the time I was pastor there, his wife was in declining health. She had been sequestered at home and he was her only caregiver. Neither had been at church for several years. I resolved to visit them, but people warned me not to expect much. He’ll probably tell you to leave, they warned me. He won’t even let you in the door. Now by this point I was no amateur at ministry and had had the door slammed in my face more than once. I figured I ought to at least give it a try.
When I visited their home, he received me graciously. He spoke kindly and asked me about myself and how things were going at the church. He asked about particular people. He read the newsletter and kept up with news. He told me how his wife was doing, and we went into her room with her. She was deep into dementia. We had a prayer.
Afterwards he told me that it was his wife who believed in prayer, not he. He told me honestly that even with all his years in church, even as an elder, he had never really been a believer. He attended church because his wife wanted to attend church. All this was said in a frank but kind way. He was simply being honest. He was glad I’d prayed with his wife, because she believed and I believe. I appreciated his respectful attitude toward our faith.
When next I visited him, it was soon after his wife had died. He was tending his backyard and greeted me with a sad smile. The service had already happened; it had been a small service attended only by family and a handful of long-time friends. We talked in the garden. He told me how much he had loved her and how he missed her. We talked about books; he was a voracious reader. He’d been particularly interested recently in books about the black experience in America and loaned me a couple that have had a great influence on me. I still have them.
He told me that now that his wife was dead, his will to live had left him. We talked about death but he said he didn’t believe in life after death. He just wanted the pain of this life to end. We parted amiably. I was sad but had enjoyed our visit.
He died just a few weeks later.
People had told me he didn’t have a heart. But he had a great heart.
Another person’s heart is hard for any of us to see. Most people who knew this man, at least in that church, did not really credit this man with a heart. But his heart was his wife. She was his world. Her suffering brought out his heart in a deep and profound way. That is because the problem with having a heart is that hearts suffer. To have a heart means to have a fragility that most of us fear.
But not to have a heart is far worse.
In our Gospel lesson today, John tells us that “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,[c] who is close to the Father’s heart,[d] who has made him known.” If we were to judge God by what we see in the world, it would not be unreasonable to assume that if there is a God, God has no heart. There is so much suffering, meanness, sadness and misery. That was my friend the so-called heartless man’s argument against God. How could God allow his wife, who was a woman of great faith, to suffer so? It’s a good question. I didn’t try to answer it for him, and I won’t try to answer it now, because any answer is facile and inadequate. I do not really know God, at least not that way. Only Jesus knows God’s heart.
And that is how we know that God has a heart.
A heart is revealed in all its broken glory through suffering. And Jesus, who was God walking among us, suffered. Jesus, who was at once mysteriously God, and God’s Son, suffered among us as one of us, alleviated the suffering of others, called out those who cause suffering, and died at the hands of those who perceived his great heart as a threat. He suffered shame, ignominy, humiliation, horrible physical pain and death. God’s heart was broken that day.
But this suffering happened because God was more concerned about your and my suffering, about human suffering and pain, and cared so much about it that God chose to go to the extreme of becoming human and suffering in person in order to do something about it.
It is an odd thing to proclaim someone a hero because they have suffered. We think of heroes as people who take action. But the truth is we’ve always known that true heroes bear suffering so that others won’t have to. We celebrate them on occasions like Memorial Day. On those days we don’t remember the living heroes who still get to wear their medals. We do honor them, but that’s not what a day like Memorial Day is for. On those days we remember the private who was gunned down by a German machine gun as soon as the gate on his landing craft opened. He never even got to fire a shot. He suffered, and his family suffered, and his friends suffered. But you and I are here because of him and hundreds of thousands of others who didn’t win medals but have suffered on our behalf.
Suffering is heroism because it reveals the heart. Certainly all of us suffer in some way, and not all of us are heroic about it. And I don’t mean to make some kind of blanket statement that you find out who a person truly is when they suffer, because I don’t think that’s fair. Some people suffer well and that doesn’t make them good people, and some people suffer poorly and that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. But what I mean is that those who suffer willingly show you who they really are—they show you their heart.
My friend who spent nearly a decade quietly tending his declining wife showed his heart deeply. I suspect as much as anything the reason he and I had such pleasant visits and developed a rapport was because his willingness to sacrifice so much for her sake had changed him in a profound way. For whatever reason, he had hidden his true self for years behind a façade of hard-edged cynicism. But tending his wife had revealed his true heart.
We don’t have easy answers to the problem of suffering and evil in the world. I doubt that easy answers would be satisfying, anyway. But we do know that in Christ, God suffered. God suffered for our sakes.
So we know that God has a heart.
Our country has just lived through a moment of truth. Fomented and abetted by President Trump, the legitimacy of the election of the 46th President of the United States Joe Biden has been contested in the courts up to the Supreme Court, and judges and justices, both Republican and Democratic, have validated resoundingly the work of state and local election officials. “Stop for a second and think about how awesome this election was,” marvels The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman. He elaborates further:
“In the middle of an accelerating pandemic substantially more Americans voted than ever before in our history—Republicans, Democrats and independents. And it was their fellow citizens who operated the polling stations and conducted the count—many of them older Americans who volunteered for that duty knowing they could contract the coronavirus, as some did. That’s why this was our greatest expression of American democratic vitality since Abraham Lincoln defeated General George V. McClelland in l864—in the midst of a civil war.”
All day last Wednesday and into the late hours of the night, our democracy lived through what may turn out to be the darkest moment of truth we have ever experienced as a republic. What happened at the Capitol and the White House has been called many things: protest, the right of lawful assembly to present a petition, insurrection, riot, act of sedition. Looking at my television screen, I had the same feelings of revulsion and anger as I had when St. Stephen was vandalized and burned. I prefer to see what happened on Wednesday in all its surreal aspects as a crossroads, as a crux, as a moment of truth. Will this be the final death rattle of an era of extreme partisan politics and structural disparity between the rich and the left-behind? Will something better come of it? Or will the storming and desecration of the Capitol be the labor pains of the emergence of an America where the only thing that matters is who has power?
We all have our moments of truth, times when there is no more room for delay, dilly-dallying, and dissembling. Times when the options are clear and squarely before us, and we must act or face the consequences. Will we be changed for the better by this moment of truth?
It was to that kind of moment, that moment of truth, that the preaching of John the Baptist drew crowds into the chalk wilderness of the Dead Sea. It was a moment not unlike ours today, where options are clear and square, a moment to act or face the consequences. John held church in a barren, inhospitable, hostile place—the wilderness. People go hear John preach in a place where the old and familiar is wiped away and replaced by stark moments of exposure and the challenge to rise to the occasion.
The message of John is the opportunity for a new birth, a new chance at life. The demand of John is that you face into your moment of truth and confess that you need this new chance, this new birth of life. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The people who came to John faced into their moment of truth. They confessed that they were sinners and that they desired to put their old lives behind them. Their baptism signified their desire to wash themselves of their old lives, and they looked to God to free them from their pasts, by forgiving them their sins.
I can picture a line of people shuffling slowly toward John as he stands in the waters of the Jordan. In their moment of truth, they have pierced into themselves deeply and asked of themselves, “How have I measured up to what God looks at me to do and to be.” The answers come back at them: Screw-ups, losers, inadequate, pathetic. In their pain they cry out: Can I have a fresh start? Can I have a new chance?
But look, my friends, Jesus himself is standing in that line with a bunch of sinners. Jesus is there, not saying much to anybody, just shuffling forward for his turn. No one recognizes him, not even John who is his cousin! When it is Jesus’ turn, John looks him in the eye; they speak, but no differently than anybody else. Jesus goes down into the waters with the sinners, looking every bit like a sinner.
Here is his moment of truth: When Jesus went down into the waters, he showed us that there was enough sin to go around for everybody to come to their moment of truth. Loser, screw-up, inadequate, pathetic, deplorable. But that’s not the whole truth. Upon coming out of the waters, a voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When Jesus heard, “You are my beloved Son,” he heard words that promised an intimate fellowship with his heavenly Father. Think of it! God promises intimate fellowship with someone who identifies with deplorable people. That means God promises intimate fellowship with us!
As the beloved Son, Jesus knows the heart of his heavenly Father. As the one who went down into the waters with John, Jesus knows our hearts and heartaches, too. Jesus brings together in his big heart the heart of his heavenly Father and our hearts and heartaches. Do you have any idea what that means for you? It means this: Jesus shows us how much his heavenly Father loves and cares for us, by how he, Jesus, is so touched in his heart by who you are and what you are going through. Indeed, what makes us so want to be a part of Jesus is how he can be so sensitive to us.
Baptism is your way of saying, “I want to be a part of Jesus. I confess that Jesus has found a place in his heart for me. The wonder of it all! The joy of it all! The awesomeness of it all!” When we remember our baptisms, we say again and again how grateful we are to be a part of Jesus and how grateful we are to be a member of Christ’s body, the Church.
When we remember our baptism into Christ, we remember that he opens his heart to bring us close to him. His sensitivity to us gives us the new-found ability to be sensitive to each other. Because of our baptism, Christians will stand out by our ability to be sensitive to the hopes and the hurts, the dreams and the depressions, the aspirations and the angers, the affirmations, and the aggressions of all of God’s children.
This election has been a moment of truth. It has shown us at our best and at our worst. Extremism tears up a republic. The inauguration of our 46th President Joe Biden is ten days away. More moments of truth await us; but they are not the either-or kind of moments of truth. They must be the both-and kind of moments of truth. Because of our baptism, we must insist on that.
Both finding a way to re-divide the pie and grow the pie. Both reforming police departments and strengthening law and order. Both saving lives in a pandemic and saving jobs.
Both demanding equity in education and demanding excellence. Both strengthening safety nets and strengthening capitalism. Both celebrating diversity and celebrating patriotism. Both making college cheaper and making the work of non-college-educated Americans more respected. Both high-fiving the people who start companies and supporting the people who regulate them. Both having an essential reckoning with white supremacy and understanding the other stories that people feel are driving their lives.
It is an awesome task to know when to support and when to resist, when to stand on principle and when to compromise. We will not always get it right or perfect. But if we stay close to Jesus who has opened his heart to us, we can always listen to our brothers and sisters and try again.
Psalm 139: 1-12
Ephesians 1: 1-10
Matthew 1: 18-2:12
Ever since my dad died, I have often had these moments where I’ll think of something, especially about the family, and think, “I know: I’ll call dad!”
And then I remember, I can’t.
Likewise my mom, who died nearly thirty years ago. She was an artist, and I have her paintings throughout my house. They are beautiful, bold, abstract. My mom could see things I couldn’t see. The more I look at them, I think of the depths I didn’t really understand or appreciate, the way too often I simply label her one way or another or make all my assumptions about her entirely based on me—what I liked, what I didn’t like, me, me, me. Her paintings are the expression of her soul, and her soul is a mystery to me.
As is my dad’s. As in many ways are my wife’s soul, my children’s souls—even my own soul. Each of us has depths within depths, and we really don’t even know ourselves very well.
This year has been an uncomfortable direct confrontation with the mysterious. First we are confounded by the Coronavirus. It has hemmed us in behind and before, to quote the psalmist, and done it literally, as we’ve been on lockdown in our own homes.
Then the death of George Floyd has forced us individually to examine our own souls and corporately to look honestly at the uncomfortable reality of implicit bias and institutional racism. This is the sort of thing that forces us to see ourselves through the eyes of others, and likewise to look at others in new ways, through new eyes. This is a reckoning with how poorly we know one another, and poorly we know ourselves, a confrontation with the mystery of one another.
It can expand us to acknowledge our ignorance and what we don’t know. Or it can cause us to shut down because we don’t want to see our shortcomings and be forced to change; such knowledge is too wonderful for us. We’d prefer to be ignorant.
Historian Yuval Noah Harrari writes in his book Sapiens that “The scientific revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the scientific revolution was the discovery that humans do not have the answer to their most important questions.” (53%)
Harrari says that the recognition of human ignorance transitioned us out of the Age of Faith and into The Scientific Revolution. Prior to that humans throughout the world operated on the assumption that “everything that is important to know about the world was already known.” Largely, this is because this is what their religions told them. Whether Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism, the great religions of the world told their believers that if it isn’t in our great book of faith, then you don’t need to know it; and furthermore, to delve into such things constituted faithlessness. It was dangerous and could even, ultimately, turn the world upside down. And we can’t have that. So don’t explore your own ignorance. Don’t seek to know what you don’t know. Stick with what you know, because ignorance is dangerous.
And it’s true. After all, ignorance nearly killed the wise men.
They were looking for the Christ child and they got lost. So they thought, “Well, this is the Jewish messiah, so let’s go to Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jewish world, and talk to their leader, Herod the Great, and his advisors, and maybe they can tell us where to find him!”
But then they make a big mistake: they call this mysterious baby “the King of the Jews.” “Where is the child who has been born the King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in its rising and have come to pay him homage,” they say.
Now Herod was touchy about that. Because, you see, HE was the King of the Jews. There were some people who contested that—namely, virtually every Jew on earth—but Augustus Caesar had appointed him King of the Jews, and so therefore Herod was the King of the Jews. End of the story, and keep your mouth shut if you want to keep your head on your shoulders.
But these well-intentioned but politically naïve so-called “wise men” didn’t know that. They were ignorant. And Herod would use that ignorance to his advantage. He would use it to find this mysterious child, this upstart that people might think was the true Messiah, the true King of the Jews, and kill him.
So Herod pretends to be a nice, good person and sends the wise men the right direction in hopes that they will return and tell him where to find the now toddler Jesus so that Herod quote can pay him homage unquote.
And so they go, and they find the Christ Child, this boy Jesus, with his parents in their home in Nazareth. But before they can in their ignorance return to Jerusalem to share their knowledge with Herod, God sends an angel to instruct them not to trust Herod and to go home by another route. And so they do.
The Bible stands in wonder at the wise men. We are told they come from the east, probably what today would be Iraq and Iran, and most scholars believe they were Zoroastrian. Zoroastrians believed in one God called Zoroaster and studied the stars for signs of what Zoroaster was up to. Zoroastrianism was another monotheistic faith and by this time had been around for centuries, as Judaism itself had been.
But when these Gentile Zoroastrian scholars saw this mysterious star in the sky, they did something interesting. They broke out of their comfort zone, their shell of certainty that told them that their religion was the only standard by which to judge what happens in the cosmos. They acknowledged their ignorance. This star in the sky, this mysterious sign, meant something was happening that they could not easily explain without turning to a different religious tradition entirely. They decided, of all things, that this was the work of the God of the Jews and that the star must indicate that the Jewish Messiah had been born.
And they were so excited about discovering this new world of things that they did not know, things they’d been previously ignorant of, that all they could do was joyfully prostrate themselves before a poor Galilean child and give thanks and praise and honor to Yahweh, the God of the Jews.
These wise men, who probably were the closest thing to scientists in their day, didn’t approach life from the perspective that they already knew everything they needed to know about the most important topic of life: the cosmic, the mystical, the transcendent. In a lot of ways they are reminiscent of the Medieval Christians Mystics, people like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, who spoke of God as “the Great Cloud of Unknowing.” God is wrapped in mystery and shrouded in what we don’t understand. The wise men are our guides in this.
But they are terrible guides. Really! They get lost. They ask for directions from the wrong people—see, this is why you should never ask for directions! Their journey constantly teeters on the edge of disaster. Their joyful, childlike wonder and willing naivete as they explore these new ideas leads them to take ignorant risks for themselves and for others, as well. And such terrible risks are exactly why you and I are often so afraid to explore the unknown, to risk venturing off the set paths of orthodoxy and convention. It’s dangerous. That’s why everybody tells us not to do it, and our own souls tremble at the thought, the idea of daring to venture into new ways to see God and the world.
But this story is all about the willingness to take risks—to step off into the unknown—to get lost in that great cloud of unknowing because in that dark and uncertain place, that place filled with risks and dangers, is mysterious and wonderful knowledge beyond anything we could discover on our own—knowledge of God. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it,” says the psalmist. Yet even so we are invited to try to attain it. This story invites us into mystery; in fact, as the psalmist says, it hems us in behind and before, so that there is no escape from mystery.
From the very beginning, we are forced down the dangerous and wonderful path of mystery. Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, is invited by the angel to abandon all his worldly and understandable assumptions about the pregnancy his soon-to-be bride. Forget honor and shame and convention and conventional wisdom, the angel tells him. Stay by Mary’s side and follow this mystery to its very unconventional and unpredictable end.
We then meet these wise men, people who by rights should be completely ignorant of who Jesus is and what God is up to; but then it turns out that they know more than all the Biblical sages who advise King Herod. Their ignorance is a doorway to God, whereas the sages’ wisdom is a hindrance and an obstacle.
Mystery shrouds this story, but also wonder, awe, joy and appreciation for the true depth and meaning of things. The wise men leave the home of Mary, Joseph and Jesus as better people, and they carry this new insight into the world far beyond Nazareth, far beyond Galilee, far beyond Palestine, and into the whole world.
Our epistle reading from the Book of Ephesians tells us that at last in Christ, the great mystery of the universe has been revealed to us. It is the mystery of God’s plan from before time began that in the fullness of time, all things would be united in Christ. The mystery revealed in Christ is the promise of hopes fulfilled, the assurance that love and grace and mercy are the core of God’s being and the axis around which the cosmos spins. It is a mystery that is so mysterious that it seems counter-intuitive: how does God become human? How can this world, in which Herod will soon kill hundreds of children under the age of two, possibly also be a world ruled by a God of grace and love and mercy? How is it that the end of this story, the death of God on a cross, is actually only the beginning of the story of God’s triumph over death for us all? How is it that we in this divided world will somehow find unity and wholeness and fullness in Christ?
God has revealed to us the mystery of God’s will and in the process has only raised more questions and revealed to us the many new and exciting ways we are still ignorant.
Albert Einstein wrote that “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” In our knowledge-focused world, we don’t like the mysterious. We like knowledge; we like certainty. And there is something we can know about the unknowable; there is a mystery that has been made known to us.
It is that God was in Christ, reconciling the world. It is that in the fulness of time, whatever that is, all things will be united in Christ, whatever that means.
This is good news. Good news that is meant not as the end of wisdom, but only the beginning. It is the door opening to knowledge of God. It’s like the first clue of a mystery story: it’s the beginning of the story, not the end.
In this time of pandemic and lockdowns and political division and racial unrest and unemployment and frustration and disappointment, this story invites us all to let go of our certainties and also our desire for things to get back to the way they were, and instead take bold and willing steps forward into the unknown new reality that is before us. It invites us, instead of rejecting this reality, to immerse ourselves in it, to accept it for what it is, to explore its unknowns and uncertainties and mysteries, and find the mysterious God of Grace who is certainly hidden in them. It invites us to see every moment as a doorway to the mysterious, to the unknown, to the awe and wonder and joy of finding God at work in God’s usual mysterious way. It invites us to a hopeful ignorance: we don’t know what God is up to, but we trust that God is up to something, and is guiding us on this path to discover what it is.
God has shown us a star. We can either just stare at it in wonder, or, with the Wise Men, make the star the beginning of our journey, assured that what awaits us at the end is still more wonder, still more mystery, still more awe and still more joy—the joy of God among us.
Luke 1: 39-56
Recently a friend, who is non-religious and a social worker, posted something on Facebook which caught my attention. He wrote that it always meant a lot to him when, after he helped out a client, that person said, “God bless you!” But that he felt unappreciated if they said instead, “Thank God!” I’ll help you as best I can either way, he said, but I notice the difference.
I think as much as anything my friend was expressing the frustration and exhaustion of folks on the front line of social and medical services. They were already bending over backwards to help out their clients through the myriads of problems they faced and the labyrinthine maze of bureaucracy that needs to be navigated. Add to that the increased pressure of COVID-19, with its added economic and medical stressors that have brought even more folks to a social worker’s virtual cubicle, and those in helping professions are feeling stretched thin as paper. Everyone and anyone who is in social work or medicine or a first responder deserves our gratitude and probably also needs it, because we all need those occasional expressions of appreciation: they fuel our own optimism and inspire us to keep going even in the face of overwhelming odds. We shouldn’t take these folks for granted.
Nonetheless, I pushed back gently on my friend’s comment. “I’d like to suggest a different way to think of that,” I wrote. “The person who says ‘Thank God’ isn’t unappreciative of you. It’s the opposite. You’ve proved to her that though she was despairing and beginning to think the universe was aligned against her, she has reason to hope. You’ve renewed her faith. You’ve renewed her ability to keep going despite the odds. You’ve become a doorway to God for her. She is grateful to you, but what you’ve done for her transcends you, it transcends even the service you gave her. It gives her faith to keep going. It’s the ultimate appreciation—you’ve given her transcendent hope. Seems like a pretty good achievement in my humble opinion!”
In these recent days, we’ve been hit with binary and opposite types of news. On the one hand, we have just passed 300,000 dead of COVID-19—as several have pointed out, a number larger than all the Americans killed in the Vietnam War.
On the other hand, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has been approved and has just arrived in Texas; and another company’s vaccine is soon on its way. England got to administer the vaccine just before we did. They started with elderly patrons of a nursing home. The second person to receive it was an 89-year-old man named William Shakespeare. I kid you not. Don’t tell me that was an accident. The British tabloids were calling his shot “The Taming of the Flu.”
Though we wish that life was always a wonderful walk through the park, it often seems more like it’s hiding in a ditch during a tornado. The truth is that life normally hands us a bit of both. There’s rarely the clarity that we long for. It is easy to feel so overwhelmed and weighed down by the crises and troubles of life that we can’t see or appreciate the good when it happens; and if we do see it, sometimes it just doesn’t feel like it’s enough. And even if we aren’t particularly troubled or pessimistic, it is just so easy to be distracted by everyday stressors and troubles and pressures that we become irritable, reactive and tense. It’s not that we don’t have hope: it’s just that we can’t see the forest for the trees. Immediate problems distract us from the big picture.
In our Gospel lesson, Mary, pregnant with a child who is Jesus Christ, pays a visit to her Aunt Elizabeth, further along in her own pregnancy with the child who is John the Baptist. If they lived in our day, Mary and Elizabeth are exactly the sort of people who could end up seeing my social worker friend. Mary is of course a teenaged unmarried mother from a poor community with no independent means of support. Elizabeth on the other hand is an older woman well past the age when we think pregnancy is a possibility, and by rights could have many fears like the increased risk of Downs Syndrome or birth defects, the health risks of a difficult pregnancy, the stress of taking care of a child when you yourself and your husband are advanced in age.
In everything in life, there is the ongoing balancing act of hope and fear, frustration and optimism, the things we think of as “good” and the things we think of as “bad.” Whichever one wins out in the end could be determined by something simple, like a social worker who finds you some unemployment benefits, or the doctor who tells you your treatment is going well, or the teacher who tells you how proud you should be of your kid, or the job interview that goes well, or the relief check that comes in the mail, or a phone call from a friend.
These things remind us of our faith. They remind us of the undercurrent of hope that keeps us going even when we’re down and frustrated and all options seem limited or nonexistent.
Mary’s story is the story of that faith. We read today her famous song, come down to us in tradition as The Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she says. This song is her affirmation of the hope that we often forget, or get distracted from, but which we share with her:
“God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant,” she says, and in one sentence reminds us that each of us, each one of us, no matter how low we feel, no matter how low we actually are according to the world’s standards, each of us is loved by God uniquely and individually and fully for who we are.
God’s sympathies and attention are especially on us when we are low and downtrodden, she assures us, when we feel weak and helpless; so even if—in fact, especially if—you are low and weak and overwhelmed and downtrodden, God loves you, God is with you, God is your savior—and God is worthy of your praise.
That hope is the undercurrent of our lives as people who have put their trust in Jesus Christ. It is especially easy to forget it in times of trouble and crisis, but Mary’s point is that especially in those times of trouble and crisis we should remember that hope and praise God for it.
My friend the social worker has an amazing job—he gets to remind people of that hope just when they’ve just about given up on it. We all are tempted to give up on that hope every now and then. Other times we just get distracted and forget that hope. And other times when things are well, we take it for granted.
But it’s that hope that keeps us going when times are bad, and raises us up when we are low, and gives us the spirit never to give up. It’s always there and it sustains us.
But that hope empowers us and drives us and makes us able to do more even than we can ask or imagine if we acknowledge it—if we thank God. If we affirm openly that it is thanks to God that I can keep on keeping on. It is because I trust God that I trust life, too. It is because of my faith in Jesus Christ that I always believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and so I keep moving forward even in the darkest night. It is because I know that God is good and that I am a beloved child of God that I keep pushing the rock up the hill over and over again, even though it rolls back down, because I know that one day the rock will go over the cliff and I will be free.
Thank God that hope is the undercurrent of our lives—but how much more we can do, how much more confident and hopeful we feel, we really acknowledge it and give God the credit. It’s our affirmation that life itself is on our side, that the cosmos is working in our favor, and that the Sovereign of the world loves me, me personally.
There is suffering and loss, there is hardship and travail, but there is also the courage and determination to keep going on, and the ability to discover joy and hope in the midst of hard times. These are a gift of God.
Right now we are saddened and angry and should be by the loss of lives and the rough road still ahead. We are also grateful for good news of vaccines and of a possible Congressional relief package. Take care of those in need and grieving. Thank the doctors and researchers and politicians (yes, even them). Keep taking precautions because we aren’t out of the woods yet.
But do all these things with the conscious affirmation of your very soul that God is your strength, your savior, your rock, your fortress, your healer, your comforter, and your hope. Even in your lowest low, God’s love never lets you go. Let your soul magnify the Lord and your spirit rejoice in God your savior.
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to the gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
John 1: 6-9, 19-35
“Seek not the favor of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But seek the testimony of few; and number not voices, but weigh them.”
—Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804, German Philosopher
“Consider the source.” We’ve all heard that expression. A lot of times we use it as a put-down, like in, “So-and-so said such-and-such!” “Well, consider the source.” In that case, it’s a way of saying, “This person is not a reliable source of information.” If we want objective or factual information, we shouldn’t believe something just because that person said it, but look for other, more reliable sources of information, sources who’ve got a proven track record.
These days it seems like all sources are viewed as questionable by somebody. Many people view the press and other independent, or seemingly independent news sources as prejudiced toward a certain view. And then the news has competition these days, heavy competition, from social media. Increasingly social media is capitalizing on what’s known as “confirmation bias,” the fact that when you and I already have an established opinion, we are more likely to believe information that confirms our opinion. If I am already inclined to believe that guns are a threat, I’m more likely to read or listen to stories that confirm my prejudice and disregard stories that indicate otherwise. If I’m already inclined to believe that democrats are running a child abuse ring out of a pizza place in DC and eat children for breakfastas apparently QAnon says–I’m more likely to pay attention to stories that confirm that bias and disregard information that might indicate otherwise, like how many children of democrats grow up whole and healthy and their parents never even bit them once even if they deserved it.
Many fake news outlets depend on confirmation bias and deliberately write false stories to capitalize on our gullibility. These fake stories play on liberal and conservative prejudices but turn them up to eleven. No one—neither liberal or conservative—has any room to feel superior about this. A major reason for the extreme partisan divide afflicting our nation now is our tendency to believe false stories about the other side that confirm our own biases.
It may come as a surprise to you that confirmation bias, fake news, and the reliability of sources are hardly 21st Century inventions. It could be argued that things were even worse hundreds and thousands of years ago. As Judas says in Jesus Christ Superstar “Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.” Two thousand years ago news not only travelled slow, it played out like that game we used to play in school where you’d tell a story to the person in the seat behind you and then they’d pass it on until everyone in the class heard it. By that point, the story would likely be changed almost beyond recognition.
The problem, of course, was that there really was no mass communication. One reason there are four gospels, for instance, is that as Christianity spread, it took on regional overtones. Different Christian groups had different assumptions and biases and were early on unfamiliar with the way other Christians might understand their faith. Matthew, for instance, is written with a Jewish Christian readership in mind, whereas Luke is written for a Gentile non-believer readership who would not understand or be interested in things that matter to Matthew’s Jewish audience. Mark was the first gospel and was apparently unfamiliar with the Christmas stories of Jesus’ birth. Those stories appear in the later gospels, Matthew and Luke, but apparently Mark had no idea of them.
Likewise the Gospel writers had to respond to their versions of “fake news.” The Gospel of Matthew reports a rumor going around that Jesus’ disciples stole his body from the grave in the dead of night. Matthew attributes this to a ‘cover up’ by Pilate and the Temple elite, who didn’t want the story of the resurrection to get out. As Christianity spread into the Gentile world during the Biblical period, a Greek philosopher claimed that Mary was actually impregnated by a Roman soldier. Later Jewish scholarship named this soldier Panthera. No doubt these in turn reinforced long-standing questions surrounding Jesus’ mysterious birth. The fact of this fake news influenced the emphasis that Matthew and Luke put on the virgin birth.
The radical and controversial nature of the Gospel made it especially important for the Gospel writers to find an unimpeachable source for their news that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. The source they chose was John the Baptist.
For a Jewish audience, John carried all the right credentials. The First Century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that John was admired and hero-worshipped throughout Galilee and Judea. He writes:
“…[T]his good man … commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God. For only thus, in John’s opinion, would the baptism he administered be acceptable to God, namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies, inasmuch as it was taken for granted that their souls had already been purified by justice.”
Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, [the Jewish King of Galilee] who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.
Josephus writes that it was widely believed that Herod suffered an embarrassing military defeat because God was punishing Herod for executing John. John in short was viewed by Jews throughout the Middle East as having a unique and powerful relationship with God, and he was greatly respected for standing up to Herod. In fact, John was easily far better known, even decades after his death, than Jesus was. Writing after 70 AD, Josephus writes extensively about John the Baptist but only makes a throwaway remark or two about Jesus. John was a First Century Jewish hero.
This made John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus extremely important to the Gospel writers and to Christians in general. He was easily the most credible source they could imagine.
One of the issues with the sources we hear from these days is anonymity. We don’t know who they are or where they get their information. QAnon especially capitalizes on this. He, she or they are anonymous source supposedly in some government inner circle who can’t reveal who they are for fear of retaliation. That should be a red flag right there. They claim some kind of credibility they can’t prove. We don’t know who they are.
The Gospel writers don’t start their story with a quote from a source they can’t attribute. They go to someone with proven credibility: they go to John the Baptist.
And it’s important to note the way John gives his testimony about Jesus. Listen again to what he says:
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”[g] 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
He then says that his job is to point away from himself, and toward Jesus, the Lamb of God. So despite his fame, John doesn’t toot his own horn. He doesn’t claim that he’s something he is not. This is the first thing we should note about credible testimony: It isn’t raising itself up. One thing we should always ask is, Does the testimony this source gives only serve to further its own ends?
The proof that John isn’t in this for glory is proven in our reading today when immediately after John calls Jesus “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” two of John’s own disciples abandon him to follow Jesus. If John was out to promote himself, he wouldn’t want that to happen. But he’s not out to promote himself. He’s out to promote something much larger than himself and is glad to fade into the limelight so Jesus’ light can shine.
Of course we are two thousand years out and our sources on John the Baptist are mixed. We cannot know for sure what John said and thought of Jesus. It is striking that all four gospels indicate that John knew and respected Jesus and his ministry. John put his own credibility on the line when he spoke out for Jesus. That is often true of people who give testimony about a truth larger than themselves. It’s a risk.
This should be another red flag on someone like QAnon. He’s anonymous. What risk is he taking? None, really. He says he’s at risk but we only have his word on that. On the other hand, is he benefiting? Most definitely, as his fame continues to spread and his opinions influence those of people in powerful positions.
You have probably noticed that I’m not filming this service in the usual way. I’m in my office after hours because I am quarantining. I have been exposed to COVID-19 and I don’t want to affect the health of other people. I have a test first thing in the morning tomorrow and will find out if I have it. If I do, I’ll have to quarantine for the next seven to nine days. Hopefully, I won’t have to. But I have to say that this has been an object lesson for me. I have tried to be cautious, and I advise everyone to be cautious, but even so, here I am. I am experiencing firsthand what the health experts are warning us about. The virus is more virulent now than it has been during all the last nine months. I can’t give more details, but I can assure that I am not the only church person who has gotten this. The virus hasn’t had a serious impact on our congregation before this, but now it most definitely is.
I have to tell you I am inordinately and irrationally angry at Covid-19. Not so much because I might have it. More because of the terrible effect is having on everything that makes being a church and being a minister matter. We can’t have proper funerals when someone dies. Hugging someone could make them or you sick. Singing is a no-no. I hate this disease’s inhumanity that I have to advise lonely or hurting people to stand six feet apart and make sure they are wearing masks and that we all have to live in fear that doing the things that make us loving and empathetic, the things that make us human, could actually hurt the people we love. I hate that despite good news of a successful vaccine, we will still have to wait months and months until we can relate to one another in the fully human way that all of us so desperately need right now.
I hate this disease. But even so, from the bottom of my heart, I beg you, please, take it seriously right now. The spread is particularly virulent right now. The risk has never been higher. I know you want to spend holidays with family or go caroling or attend some sort of live event. I know we’re desperate for those human connections. But please, I’m begging you, do not believe the people who lie and tell you it is okay not to wear a mask or that the vaccine is a way to implant microcircuitry in your body or that the threat is exaggerated or unreal. Do not believe them. I don’t know to what extent I have any credibility with anybody, but if I do with you, please listen to me. I WANT it to not be true that COVID-19 is a risk. I hate it and its effects on me and you and the world with all my heart. This disease undermines everything I went into ministry to do.
Except one. The most important thing I went into to ministry to do was to tell the truth. The truth about God, the truth about Jesus, the truth about the Gospel and the truth about the world.
And I’m telling you the truth now. Believe science. Believe Dr. Fauci. Wear a mask. Stay home. If you aren’t worried about yourself or the people you love, think about our hospital system strained to the breaking point, the numerous health care workers in our own congregation who could be stretched to the breaking point and in many cases already are, as numbers of infections increase at alarming rates. Think about the many people in need of some sort of surgical or medical procedure whose treatments are having to be postponed so hospitals can deal with increased COVID-19 volume. It’s misleading to call these “elective” surgeries. A knee surgery when you can’t walk or a test to find out if you have cancer is not the same as getting a nose job. Postponing such surgeries and procedures extends misery and increases risk.
Please don’t believe the self-serving lies out there to promote false notions that COVID-19 is fake or some kind of conspiracy. Consider the source. And also just look at the evidence all around you.
But also trust in this truth: God is with us. God loves us. God is with us in suffering because as Jesus Christ, he suffered just the same as we do. God is with us in grief, because God grieves when we grieve. As the psalmist says, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Hold out. Hold out and trust God. Joy will come with the morning.