Jesus’ (not so) hidden life

a sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas [Year C]

Luke 2:41-52

The other evening at the music ministry Christmas party several of us began reminiscing about the different kids in the congregation who had played the role of baby Jesus in the Children’s Tableau at our children’s Christmas Eve service through the years. We got started talking about it because this year we had two little girls play baby Jesus, which is absolutely fine. Those were the littlest children available that evening. Neither of them were actually newborns, though. The parents of Kate Behrens, who played baby Jesus at the 5pm service, tried to see if she would lie down in the manger, but she wasn’t really having that so they just let her sit up on her mom’s knee.

a baby Jesus trying out the manger

Our conversation at the party, though, was mainly about Christmases past, and we tried to name the different kids who had been Jesus each year. We got many of them back to the early 2000s. It was fun to name them and realize most of them are still members of this congregation and are now playing the parts of angels or shepherds in the same Christmas program. We also laughed about the time when John Reynolds played Jesus. At 18 months he was the youngest kid in the congregation, but they used him anyway. None of us at the party were at Epiphany in 1983 when he was baby Jesus, but we’d all heard about how his parents put him in the manger and he promptly stood up and waved at everyone.

We could take all of those kids who’ve ever played baby Jesus and line them up here and we’d have a beautiful picture of childhood and young adulthood right before our eyes. We’d get to see that span of life and realize how through the years we’ve had the privilege to see them get bigger and take on new responsibilities, just like we get to watch the other youth in our midst. Parents might even get misty-eyed about how quickly time has passed.

the second child from the left once served as a baby Jesus…8 years ago.

And yet we don’t get to see any such growth or progression for Jesus. We know almost nothing about Jesus’ own childhood. There are a handful of stories of him as an infant, this single story of him as a tween, and then time passes. All the other stories of Jesus, of course, are of him as a full-grown adult.

Part of this lack of information is understandable. In the ancient world, childhood was not nearly the sacred, blessed time that it is nowadays. Because of disease, many children did not live to see their fifth birthday, so not many resources at all were poured into documenting anyone’s childhood or youth. In addition to that, children were not thought to make any useful contribution to society until they were able to work to support the family. The idea was to hurry up and grow into an adult, “to increase in human and divine favor,” as Luke puts it. Nowadays it’s quite the opposite: stay as young as possible for as long as possible! Back then childhood was largely something to be endured, which is how most people think of adulthood now. We even have a word for it: “adulting.”

It’s natural to have some curiosity about this time of Jesus life, which is called Jesus’ hidden life, since it is hidden from us. Historians and archaeologists can tell us a great deal of things about what life in Nazareth 2000 years ago was like for the average person, but in terms of specific information about Jesus we have very little. How did he interact with his parents and other family members on a day-to-day basis? What were his friendships like? Was there a Mrs. Betsy figure in his life, or a Mr. Scott, or a Mr. Barger, who helped nurture his faith in some way? How did the teenage Jesus deal with peer pressure? With acne? Given that so much time, energy, and money are allocated in the church these days on faith formation for youth and children, it is almost peculiar we know so little about how all that went for Jesus.

“Holy Family with a little bird” (Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1650). This painting attempts to depict a scene from Jesus’ hidden life.

What we do know is that his parents were faithful enough in their observance of Judaism to somehow teach him Scriptures and how to read, because by the time he is twelve and he is in the Temple he is able to do that. We know his family had not just the religious devotion but also the means to take the annual Passover pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem. We also know that he traveled in a caravan to get there, which means he had a group of people from his village that his parents trusted and depended on. People formed caravans because it was a safer way to travel, and when we hear about caravans of migrants coming up to the U.S. from Central America, we probably can imagine the group that Jesus was traveling with wasn’t all that different.

We also know that while Jesus’ caravan is heading home from that pilgrimage, his parents have a Macaulay Culkin –  Home Alone moment. There’s that scene from that classic 1990 movie when Kevin’s mom is finally on the plane with all her relatives, trying to relax after a hectic departure, mentally running through all that she has done when she suddenly realizes her young son is missing. She has absent-mindedly left him at home.There is immediate panic and then an about-face to figure out if he’s OK. Leaving an 8-year-old by himself can be a dangerous, scary thing.

“Kevin!!!” (Kate McAllister in Home Alone)

I imagine Mary and Joseph have a similar episode, furiously asking all the other family members and friends if they’ve seen Jesus. And then they stop everything to try to figure out where he is, backtracking for three whole days, traipsing through the places they stayed in Jerusalem for the eight days of the festival. For three days they are separated from their child, unable to know what might be happening to him, which must have been a nightmare. I wonder about those families who are still separated from their children at the U.S. border. As of the end of last month, there were still 173 children in custody, which does not include the 8-year-old and the 7-year-old who died while in custody this month. Terrifying.

For Mary and Joseph, thankfully, there is a happy reunion. Just like in “Home Alone” when Kevin’s parents finally find him back at home doing just fine on his own, even holding off some house robbers, Jesus’ parents finally locate him back in the Temple, which he calls his “Father’s house.” There he is, talking to the teachers of the Temple, listening to them and learning from them. We also find out that Jesus is particularly bright when it comes to his grasp on religious matters. The rabbis he is sitting among make note of it, which is a clue for us that Jesus was already at age twelve beginning to show signs of this special relationship with God. We also see Jesus’ parents not fully grasping that, not quite yet understanding how their relationship to him will change, how they will eventually hand him over to the world.

Young Jesus in the Temple

In Pittsburgh I have a friend who used to teach parenting classes at the Children’s Hospital and through various community organizations. She was a social worker and had raised three daughters of her own and was widely-respected in that field. In general I found her to be someone with a great deal of wisdom about life. When she would talk about her work with me, I remember she would say that she always tried to communicate that the primary job of parenthood is to produce a responsible adult and release him or her into the world. That was it. It wasn’t mainly to make them wise or give them great experiences. She said we even might be tempted to think it is to ensure your child’s happiness or give them the tools to find happiness themselves. The job of a parent was to produce a responsible, loving adult, which means the process of raising children is a releasing, a letting go, and I remember being surprised by that at the time because I didn’t have children and I assumed otherwise.


What we see with Mary and Joseph on that anxiety-ridden trip to Jerusalem is the beginning—or at least more—of that letting go. He is in their custody for the time-being, but their child belongs to the world. He will come of age under the roof of their house, but ultimately he is going to be a resident of his Father’s house and open it up for everyone. He will be obedient to them in Nazareth, but his calling is a higher obedience of service and love to all people everywhere. And that call is Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace among those he favors. It is the salvation God has prepared in the sight of all people. It is the redemption of the earth.

God gives us the opportunity to grow in our faith our whole life long, and a huge part of that involves turning Jesus loose to let him be who he is called to be. It does no good to fashion Jesus into a tool for our own happiness. It does not help for us think of him only as our personal Savior, or as someone who primarily keeps us safe. Like Mary and Joseph eventually do at some point, we are to release him and let him offer himself for the life of the world in the way God has called him to do. We let him stand up in the manger, wave to the world, and then step out into its assorted beauty and ugliness.

And then maybe he won’t be so hidden anymore! We will end up seeing his face, for example, in the stranger…in the face of the person in search of a home, or in the face of the person at the border. We let him go so that we can come to recognize his life in the youth who is struggling with peer pressure, the child who makes decisions we don’t like or understand, in the person who disagrees with our personal politics, in the person who has hurt us. We let him increase in wisdom and in years so that we can treasure the gifts of youthfulness but also the gifts of being aged and elderly.

migrant caravan

We let him go into his mission and we see him offer his life for us to show us the superior way of self-sacrifice, the power of humility and the glory of loving others as God loved us. We let him grow up and eventually watch him love us so much that he brings us all into the Father’s house where we one day we will stay forever and ever.

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


The ride through the December streets of Sherwood Forest and Buena Vista
winding up to the West End
was not all that
but from the back of the Volvo wagon
on the way to church
six kids primed for choir practice
could count
a million
Moravian stars

A child’s game but
I must confess
I wish my eyes
were still so trained
on these other journeys
to look for
bursts of

Taking risks

a sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord (Christmas Eve)

Luke 2:1-20

Through the ages we, the church of Jesus Christ, have gotten quite a few things wrong, but I think we’ve managed to get worship on Christmas Eve right. I’m sure there is some way it might be improved upon—perhaps rehearse the anthems and music one more time, definitely polish and shorten up the sermon a bit—but on the whole I think we can give ourselves an A+. God is glorified by what we do tonight. Even though it always follows the same pattern, something still stirs each year within us, something compels us to squeeze uncomfortably in a pew in the way we never would for an athletic event or a show in a theater.

And the candles! That’s really the clincher, isn’t it? The soft glow of, well, of a thousand points of light bathing the faces and tears of both friends and strangers while voices swell in singing “Silent Night, Holy Night,” the world’s beloved lullaby—well, it’s hard to describe that moment. As they say, “You just have to be there.”

CHristmas Eve sanctuary 2018

This subject of that moment came up in conversation over lunch a few weeks ago. Some people were talking to me about the candlelight part of Christmas Eve worship and they wondered aloud what the everything must look like from the vantage point of the pastor or choir right at that moment. I said, “It is incredibly beautiful, seeing all those faces. It’s impossible not to be moved.” And then I offered, “Well, I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to take a selfie right as we light the candles, if you want?” Naaaah. Even I know that would cross a line.

It could be argued there is no Christmas carol more central, more integral, more crucial to tonight’s worship than that one. Millions of people—perhaps tens of millions—will file into sanctuaries and town squares tonight with candles lighted and sing it. It’s been translated into roughly 140 languages. As many of you are already aware, tonight “Silent Night” celebrates its two hundredth birthday, and to think we only have it because of a church’s broken pipe organ.

You’re probably familiar with the story by now. As Christmas Eve 1818 approached in the little down of Oberndorf, Austria, the priest of the local parish, Joseph Mohr, was worried that the church’s broken-down organ wouldn’t be able to carry the congregation’s singing. Wondering what to do, he remembered he had written a poem a written a few years before and he took it to his schoolteacher friend, Franz Gruber, who came up with a tune for it on his guitar. It was six verses long. The priest and his friend performed it with the guitar on Christmas Eve that year and it was an instant favorite.

Christmas Eve at the Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf, Austria

The version that we sing and know so well comes from a very rough translation done by an Episcopalian pastor serving in New York in 1859. He slowed it down a bit to make it more of a lullaby, but initially it was sung with a quicker tempo, like a jig. He also changed some of the song’s imagery from the original and gave us some turns of phrase that are poetic but a bit awkward. “Round yon virgin”? For the longest time as a kid I thought “Round yon virgin” was “brown, young virgin.” Kind of funny, but that’s probably an accurate description of Mary, beautifully brown-skinned middle eastern peasant woman that she was—at least it’s more accurate than the lily white one in the nativity scenes I grew up with.

brown young virgin
glad to see a brown-skinned Mary in children’s nativity story books today

If you were to directly translate Joseph Mohr’s first verse, which most of us probably know by heart, and not be concerned with making it rhyme or fit the meter, it would go like this:

                        Silent Night, holy night!
                        Everyone is sleeping.
                        Only the dear, holy couple keeps watch.
                        Pretty boy with curly hair
                        Sleep in heavenly peace.

It’s slightly more vivid than our version, isn’t it? Jesus isn’t just tender and mild; we see the way his hair looks!

One of the original three verses that was left out of our version goes like this:

                        Silent night! Holy Night!
                        Where today all Power poured itself out
                        in Fatherly love
                       And where Jesus as brother to us
                       graciously embraced
                       All people of the earth.

Now that’s some lullaby! Turns out far more is happening with this birth than just some angels singing and a young new mother laying her infant in some straw. With Jesus’ birth, all of God’s power and might, all that wisdom that formed the universe, and all the glory of the heavens is being channeled into Bethlehem in the form of a parent’s love. And more importantly it is not your or I, nor even Mary, who encloses the baby in our arms, but rather God who is enclosing us in his—and not just us here tonight, but all the people on earth.

But here’s the thing: Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr took a risk 200 years ago tonight. They didn’t know how their impromptu carol would go over that evening. They just had to put it out there. It could have bombed. The congregation could have heard it and just as easily thought to themselves, “Oh dear, Lord, someone please fix that organ by next Sunday.”

the original manuscript of “Stille Nacht”

The creators of the song took a risk, which is what is involved every time a gift is given or a statement made. Every time a poet writes something, every time a composer comes up with a new melody, every time an artist throws colors on a canvas there is risk.

Every time a computer programmer re-thinks a code, every time doctor tries to heal, every time a teacher draws up a new lesson plan, risk is involved.

Every time a Christmas present is wrapped and given, every time the family decides to gather around the table for a meal and conversation, risks are taken.

Part of life, part of being incarnational, is putting ourselves out there, hoping whatever we do and think is received and considered beautiful. We create, we utter, we make choices, we decide, never knowing exactly how it might go. We sit with the sick, and we might get sick ourselves. We take seriously someone’s pain and we might figure out there’s something we can do about it. We say “I love you” and we risk hearing nothing in return.

Some of you, I imagine, took a risk to be here tonight. You have doubts, you have wounds, but you still came to worship and hear and to hold the candles again. And we are blessed by your presence.

No matter the reason any of us is here and no matter the fears any of us may harbor about life, no matter the ways in which each of you risk yourselves daily, may we hear tonight above all that God takes a risk for us. In all the singing and wondering and crying and rejoicing may we come to understand again that’s God’s nature. He tries the incarnational thing too. In pouring himself out into that manger in Bethlehem, in revealing himself first to a bunch of no-names from out in the fields, in allowing himself to be held by a tender mother and a no-doubt nervous father, God puts himself out there. God risks again and again for us, lighting another bright candle against the wind of a dark world.

And even when we don’t have time for it, or when we misuse it, or have become to cynical and untrusting to hear it God still risks his love for you and me and hopes it is received and valued.

“Round yon” is not the only time or place God risks things. It continues from there in the life of one who walks in the margins. He risks confronting demons, risks to touch a leper, to eat with tax collectors and sinners. He puts himself out there at a table with bread and wine, where he is placed in the hands of the people he comes to save, body broken and blood shed. And he puts himself out there on a hill outside of town where the power of God pours out in Fatherly love once more. He opens his arms and they’re pinned down by nails that way. There he graciously embraces for real all the peoples of the earth.

In his op-ed in the New York Times, writer Peter Wehner notes that humans are “naturally drawn to covenants and karma, to cause and effect, to earning what we receive.” “Grace is different,” he says. “It isn’t entirely rational. It interrupts…the consequences of your actions.”[1] Grace and risk…two hinged concepts that our God functions with that interrupts our sin. And we know he is still risking today…inspiring us to risk forgiveness, to risk speaking for the voiceless, to risk, as Paul says to Titus, being people “zealous for good deeds.” God inspires us to risk gentleness in the face of a harsh world, and to risk kindness, especially since we’re drawn to operate with karma so people get what they deserve. Jesus, the gracious risk taker, born again in you and me.

serving in Atlanta

Tonight across the world, in a million churches big and small fixed and functional pipe organs will start to play a slow lullaby for another century of Christmas Eve worship. And among us, as this happens, young children in our pews will be given the awesome responsibility to hold a lit candle, not tilt it, and sing about the brown, young virgin and the pretty baby with curly hair. Some of them will be holding their “Silent Night” candle for the first time. Real fire…real wax…real risk. Bearing the light for all around them to see. If you can, find one tonight and grab a glance. They’re thinking “I can do this. I’m big enough. I can be trusted with this flame.”

May we all feel that thrill and that gracious, heavenly risk as we give witness each day to the Lord of Light.

Thanks be to God!

Candle child

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


In our midst

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent [Year C]

Luke 3:7-18 and Zephaniah 3:14-18a

The other day I was driving down the road and my cell phone rang. I glanced over and didn’t recognize the number even though it was a local one. I’ve been getting a lot of random robocalls lately, so I just let it go to voice mail, which usually solves the problem and I don’t think any more about it. However, when I finally got to where I was going I noticed the person had actually left a voice mail. I started to think maybe someone was in the hospital or that someone needed me for some important reason, so before I got out of my car I listened to it with anticipation. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I hear that it is Jacob from Project Green, following up with a quote they gave us about my lawn in the spring of 2017 that I never even followed through with.

I am not in lawn mode these days. There were still six inches of snow on the ground that day. I’m waist-deep in Advent and Christmas preparations and this guy is wanting me to think about my grass in the spring? From a visit he made over a year and a half ago? He got about halfway through his opening pitch before I clicked “delete.”

But a few seconds later I had some regret about that. What was he going to tell me? Yes, it’s December, but maybe there was a good reason he was calling. I became curious. Maybe he was going to tell me there was something important I need to be doing—that even though it is winter (technically-speaking still fall) I can still nurture my grass. For it is surely there, isn’t it, even if I can’t see it yet? And there are tasks related to a lush green spring that I might be able to do even now, when I’m waiting in the white. The grass, you may say, is still in my midst, and that, that in itself is a cheerful thought.

a soggy but cheerful sight

The message for this third Sunday of Advent is that the Lord is in our midst and that in itself is a cheerful thought. Even if we can’t see him or perceive him in the way we might expect the Lord is still in our midst. He may be obscured much of the time by a layer of the world’s brokenness, or terror, or grief, but he is here.

That’s not just the message for the third Sunday of Advent. That was the message to God’s people Israel for years at many points throughout their journey of faith. Their primary posture for so many years had been one of waiting, of wondering whether or not a time of unity, peace, and righteousness would come. They expected a leader who would gather them and feed them and allow them to “draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.”[1] And even as they waited, several of the prophets, like Zephaniah, reminded them that the Lord was nevertheless somehow already in the midst of them. The time of his arrival and salvation was so near, in fact, they could go ahead start rejoicing, dancing, partying. They still might look out and see mainly the ways they and their world fall short, but if they looked hard enough, or with the right lens, they could already see signs of his presence.

Have you ever noticed you can wait for something and anticipate it so much that it’s almost like it’s already started? Theologians and bible scholars call this prolepsis, which is from the Greek words for “before” and “take.” It’s assuming or acting as if something you are waiting for is already happening or has already happened.  Jacob’s call from Project Green was proleptic. I can’t see the grass yet. I am waiting for the spring to start, but I apparently could take some advice now and do some things for the lawn as if it’s already growing and thriving.


The National Football League is in a bit of a proleptic phase right now. If you watch games, you see that the announcers are talking about what the playoffs are going to be like even though they don’t start until January. They throw potential playoff pairings up on the screen and in some cases teams are playing like they’re in the playoffs hoping to be there in a month. Prolepsis is the “Gentlemen, start your engines,” phase of the race. Even though the flag hasn’t dropped, we’re revving our engines, going through some key motions, smelling the fumes and in many ways we’d think the race is already underway.

This is true of Jesus’ arrival. This is what the prophets want Israel to focus on so they don’t lose hope, and it’s definitely what John the Baptist is going on and on about  on the banks of the River Jordan. “Even now the ax is already lying at the root of the trees,” he says. Even now it’s time to bear fruit! Even as they are filled with expectation and questioning in their hearts John gives them all examples of what that fruit-bearing might look like. He says they can take and receive parts of God’s kingdom before it’s even really here. And like Jacob the Lawn Guy, he’s going to outline specific, concrete actions for any person at any stage in life. Soldiers, tax collectors, ordinary people who accumulate more than they really need: anyone and everyone can bear fruit now that matches the kingdom that is coming. When we take part in these things, we see signs that the kingdom isn’t only on its way. It is in some ways already here.

John has a way about him, though. His delivery is a bit aggressive and confrontational and we can see how people might be put off. And he certainly doesn’t like people talking religiously and acting the part with no intention of true repentance.

John the Baptist preaching to the people

It certainly appears that some people have gotten his message here, which is exciting. For example, this week I learned that someone in our congregation is undergoing surgery tomorrow to donate a kidney to someone they barely know who is in desperate need of one. This person isn’t looking for any special recognition or honor. They just heard about the need and started researching how kidney donation works and how easy it is to live with only one. John the Baptist says anyone who has two coats must share with anyone who has none. Apparently this person heard “two kidneys.”  When I learn about things like that, I know the kingdom is in many ways already here. In fact, the Lord is in my midst.

When I walked into the Chapel on Friday and saw gifts lined up and wrapped carefully for distribution to children at Ridge Elementary School, I see that the kingdom has already started to arrive. The Lord is in our midst. But then I learned that this is the first year that Epiphany, along with another local congregation, have taken on the entire task of gift distribution from the administration at Ridge, I am further encouraged that the Lord is near. Apparently, the needs in that school’s community (which is, in fact, our community) have become so great that it has overwhelmed the guidance counselor’s department. Three of our members stepped in, along with some volunteers from Welborne United Methodist Church, to spearhead the whole undertaking. It began in October with research and registration to learn about children’s needs, which led to the tags on our Giving Tree, and your vigorous shopping and wrapping and dropping gifts off in the middle of a snowstorm, and then culminated with thirty-two volunteers, youth and adults, showing up in the school parking lot yesterday to distribute them all. The volunteers had helped to secure funding to pay for interpreters for yesterday’s distribution because so many of the families do not speak fluent English, but the interpreters preferred to do their work for free. The Lord is in the midst of us.

When I log on to Facebook and I see someone upload a photo of a bunch of high schoolers and middle schoolers having a good time on a Saturday night, and what they’re doing is standing outside the home of a woman in our congregation who just lost her husband and they’re holding candles and singing her Christmas carols, I think “how proleptic.” (OK, I didn’t really think it that way, but you understand). I’m still waiting for this new season to come, but I here are some kids acting as if it’s already started.

Caroling 2015 outside.jpg

And the best proof we have that the Lord is in our midst, that the kingdom we’re waiting for is also already here is staring us right in the face. Above the altar there, looming over the bread and wine, over the spring-like altar flowers given in memory of those who’ve died, over the single rose reminding us a new baby’s birth, just as it lovingly looms in every suffering corner of this world. It is the empty cross. John says the One who is Coming is more powerful than he is. Faith gives us the lens to look at the cross and see a powerful love for us. It is love that doesn’t just offer a coat for someone in need, but which offers its whole life. It is mercy that isn’t just satisfied with everyone getting what they deserve, but in making sure everyone’s true needs are met. It’s a grace that doesn’t stop at being satisfied with what he earns, but only in what he can give.

sanctuary Epiphany

Love that offers itself…mercy that knows our needs…and grace that gives what we haven’t earned. This is the One Who is Coming, the one who baptizes us so we burn like fire and whose purpose of compassion flows through us like the Holy Spirit.

And the word is: he’s already here! It’s time to rejoice. The call is coming in, the phone is beeping, you’re driving down the highway of life. The question: will we just let it go to voicemail?


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.





[1] Isaiah 12:3

Off the radar

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent [Year C]

Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 3:1-6


I usually get to hear some amazing stories and remembrances when I visit people. Two weeks ago I was in the home of Janet and Keith Goodson, and I can’t recall how we ended up on this topic but Janet was sharing about her college experience. It was fascinating to me. She was born and raised in Person County, North Carolina, a fairly rural area, and when she got ready to graduate from high school, her English teacher took on the role of guidance counselor and scouted out placed for Janet to continue her education. This was 1952, and it was not altogether common for young women to go off to college in those days, but Janet displayed the gifts and the ambition to do so. However, she was going to need to pay for her education, and that required work-study opportunities. At the time, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, her primary choice, did not allow women to participate in work study programs, and neither did the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, another place that she considered. Those were the two places closest to Person County that had degree programs Janet was looking for. It looked like the doors were going to be closed for her.

Then her persistent English teacher found out that way out in eastern part of the state—in a place somewhat “off the radar” for a person from Person County—at what is now East Carolina University, a new female dean had instituted work-study programs for women. The Dean’s name was Ruth Allen White, and she had been hired by the university as Dean of Women just one year earlier. Perfect timing for Janet. She applied, was accepted, and enrolled. She ended up working in the library 36 hours a week and completed her Bachelors degree in 3 years.

Ruth Allen White, Dean of Women at ECU (1951-1969)

I left the Goodsons’ that day thinking about how Dean White prepared the way for hundreds and maybe even thousands of women, many from rural areas, to arrive on campus and receive a university education. I like to think about how many lives were changed, how many doors were opened for women and for their families by Dean White’s insistence to get that policy approved. Eventually, of course, the larger, more well-known and better-endowed institutions in the state would follow suit, but in North Carolina it began in a more off-the-radar college by a visionary new administrator.

A key theme of Advent is preparing the way for God, and on this second Sunday we hear that a visionary new “administrator” appears off the radar in the wilderness in order to do that. Preparing is not just a theme of Advent, however. It’s a theme in all of Scripture. The prophets mention it several times throughout Israel’s history leading right up to the time Jesus is born: a key component of receiving the promises of God involves some sort of making way, some sort of rearranging of things.

One of those earlier prophets is Malachi, who was writing in the 5th century before Christ, a time when people seemed a bit lackadaisical and indifferent to God’s presence and activity in their lives. God says that part of what Malachi would do as a messenger is prepare the people like ore needs to be prepared to render gold or silver, so they could be restored to the righteousness for which they were made and be pleasing to God. Shining like gold or silver sounds good to me, but there’s going to be a process to get them there.


The people of Israel could point to many more of their ancient prophets who were concerned about preparing the way. And then one of these messengers appears on the scene that the gospel writers want to tell us about—that wilderness-dwelling visionary guy. Luke starts by listing all the standard, well-known movers and shakers and kingdom-stakers of the time. He mentions Tiberias and Pilate and Herod in Galilee and the chief priests in Jerusalem, but then says the word of God does not come to any of them, not to the castles and fortresses and temples. It comes to this visionary John son of Zechariah, son of a small-town synagogue priest, way out in the regions of Judah and around Jordan. The voice cries out from off the radar, just like the older prophets said. This John turns out to be the one who announces God’s arrival and gives us the clue as to what to do. It’s as if this all says, “You can never be sure of how or where God’s Word is going to show up.” We can count on the fact it will, but we shouldn’t assume that it will always take the predictable channels of power and control. And just as that dean at East Carolina surely had to change people’s minds about the roles and opportunities of women, John comes talking about changing heart and changing perspective. That’s the critical part of this preparing for God.

The word for this is “repentance.” That’s what we’re told the core of his message was about. John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” I think a lot of time we associate repentance with some notion of feeling bad about ourselves or admitting we are wrong about something. The word has taken on some negative connotations, to some degree, probably thanks to many preachers: “Repent!” has taken on this meaning of “I know you’re doing wrong!” or “You’re not pure like me!”

Saint John the Baptist (El Greco)

In fact, repentance is more like a change of perspective or a change of mind. It’s about consciously being open to seeing things differently, to understanding things differently, which leads to responding to things differently. A part of repentance involves ceasing old ways, but it has more to do with turning around and embracing something new, stopping and re-directing one’s attention. Places where there used to be mountains and hills too high or too cumbersome to climb are now flattened so that they are passable. Valleys that used to be so steep that they would hinder progress are to be filled. These are the kinds of activities that John relates to repentance.

Interestingly enough, the past two years of working with our building team about the renovations and expansions to our church property have taught me a lot about how to prepare to receive people here. To make our front entrance area and parking lot more accessible to more people, especially people with mobility needs, we will literally have to fill some valleys and flatten some hills. The changes to the parking lot to accommodate better and more handicapped parking spaces means grading and leveling out our current one, a process that will involve bringing in some fill dirt and re-paving a lot. Perhaps we should call it “repenting” the parking lot and entrance areas.

architect screenshot

I’ve also been surprised to learn that this is one of the most expensive parts of the plans. It takes a lot of effort to change perspective and turn in a new direction. But we do this and we realize its value to us because we know that God shows up here every week. In the new people visiting, in the families who want to feel a part of a faith community, Jesus is present, searching and waiting for us to receive them. So we prepare the way. We open ourselves to a changed perspective.

Sometimes I wonder if we still trust that God does show up in our everyday lives. Do we still think it’s worth it to prepare the way, to do some things differently that might shift our perspective? Or are we indifferent, a bit tone-deaf, like the people to whom Malachi found himself preaching? One well-known Lutheran clergyman from the 20th century named Edmund Steimle talks about this a bit in a devotion I read this week. He says that we often are willing to speak about how God can show up in our crisis moments of our lives, or in church and worship, in the grand ways when we find ourselves needing or looking for something major to occur.

But what about in the common and trivial and, he says, “in what we might consider the inappropriate moments”? Are we aware he arrives there and then? Steimle says God’s “huge joke…is always appearing to be less than he is.”[1]

I think realizing this is a huge part of repenting—seeing God’s messengers as the ones who are often off the radar. It is having our perspective changed by God’s grace to see that God comes to us first and foremost on the cross of Jesus, a place of suffering and unexpected humiliation. The cross is “off-the-radar” as it gets for the divine life. The act of repentance involves seeing God’s greatest loss actually as the greatest gift for us and for creation. It is coming to regard the places of pain and hurt in our lives as the areas where our greatest growth can occur because God is at work there, healing and refining gold. It is seeing, for example, that unplanned conversation you first wanted to pass off as an unexpected interruption as a place of holy ground. When we are reminded that God comes to us in these cross-borne ways we can start to get ready to receive him.

Not me, but this is kind of what I do.

Last week a member stopped me after worship and asked me why I bowed my head at the point in the Communion liturgy when we sing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” No one had ever asked me about that before, but it’s something I’ve always done and that Pastor Chris Price, my predecessor, did too. Pastor Joseph also genuflects slightly at that point. There’s probably some formal seminary answer to that question of hers, but as I thought about it, I told her that for me it was a way of demonstrating reverence for Jesus’ arrival in the sacrament. It’s not that I’m more holy than anyone else; no, in fact, at that point I’m changing perspective, acknowledging our Lord’s presence on behalf of the whole congregation.

And as I lift that cup I then look at you—the presence of Christ in our midst—I look then beyond you to our doors, and then to our parking lot. These may all be ordinary, regular, “off the radar,” but we trust he is here. Come to think of it, maybe my bowing is a little repentance for all of us to take part in, a nod of the head that we can receive Christ, holy and humble, in these and in all places. Here he comes, the One promised through the prophets. And like John says as he wanders through the wilderness, preparing the way, we know in Jesus all flesh shall see their salvation.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Edmund Steimle in “From Death to Birth.” For All the Saints, volume III, pg 12 1995 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau.