By What Authority?

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year B]

Mark 1:21-28 and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Just the other day my 4-year-old son and I were waiting in my wife’s car for her to get finished with work and take him home. I was sitting in the passenger’s seat and he had gotten out of his car seat and was climbing around the front pushing different buttons and flipping switches. He has recently become enamored with the sun roof, especially, and at one point he reached up to open it but, unsurprisingly, it remained closed. He looked at me matter-of-factly and said, “It’s not working right now because mommy’s not in here.”

In fact, the sunroof was not working because the car was turned off and the key was not in the ignition but his assessment of the situation was clearly an indication of who really has authority in our household. I’ve known this for years, of course, that mommy’s authority in most matters outranks mine, and I’m OK with that. Mommy is a good authority, but this was the first time her authority was so great that her presence on its own could open a sunroof. We didn’t even need a car key. We just needed mommy to show up.

As soon as Jesus shows up in Capernaum at the beginning of his ministry, people are impressed with his authority. It has power that no one has really seen before. When he teaches the Scriptures in the synagogue, people listen. They are impressed. They had been hearing teachings from the scribes for years and years but Jesus is different. His authority has some new power.

The scribes, by contrast, were the people who just occupied leadership roles in the synagogue and in religious life of the Jewish people. They were educated. They were experts in the law and in interpreting Scripture. They had been approved by the various religious leaders to do their jobs, but in many ways they were just in the passenger seat. They were just occupying a spot of leadership they had received from those who had gone before them. Jesus arrives and it’s clear he’s a driver. Whatever he says  leaves no doubt in their mind that he is someone to be listened to, someone to be followed.

And if that weren’t enough, he also has amazing authority over unclean spirits. While Jesus is in the middle of his teaching in the synagogue, a man wanders in who is possessed of something that has control over him. Even though he is interrupted, Jesus doesn’t barrel through with his teaching, trying to shout over the man. No, Jesus immediately turns to deal with him and rebuke the spirit.

And as it turns out, it is not just the people in the synagogue who recognize Jesus’ authority, but the unclean spirits. In some ancient versions this is translated as “demons,” and we probably shouldn’t get too worried about the man’s precise medical diagnosis. We may say they are forces of the world that stand in the way of God’s goodness, dark powers that corrupt God’s children and their thinking and how they go about world. Whatever they are, they too show up to challenge Jesus as soon as he is on the scene, even calling him the Holy One of God.

Isn’t it true that just the presence of good things brings out the haters? You can find an article about something so lovely and pure on the internet— a piece that talks about children sacrificing their allowance to donate food for the hungry, or a story about a police officer who goes the extra mile to help a victim—and if you read the comments below the article there is inevitably someone  being needlessly hateful and critical about it all, calling into question the good of the story. Jesus’ goodness and authority is never going to be well-received by the unclean spirits of the world. In fact, many times they seek him out and try to bring him down.

When Jesus deals with the haters, though, he first tells them to be silent. This is not the last time that Jesus is going to keep his identity secret. We may think it is strange that Jesus rebukes and tries to silence anything or anyone that would declare him for who he really is, but Jesus doesn’t want to primarily be known for these acts of authority, no matter how good he is. He does not mainly come to be a teacher about Scripture, and he does not mainly come among us to cast out demons. He knows his authority is going to be rooted in something more significant and far more powerful. Jesus is going to express his authority in self-sacrifice. Jesus is going to show the depth of his authority through service to others. Jesus is going to truly demonstrate the kind of authority he is by giving himself on the cross in love and mercy. It is one thing to show people how much you know and how strong you are. It is a totally different thing—and more powerful thing—to show how much you love them. And that is where Jesus’ authority is rooted.

What will truly drive out the unclean spirits that possess us—that is, the spirits of pretentiousness and pride, the demons brought about by individualism and self-righteousness? We must also consider the forces of false information and fake news, the desire to control other people with our viewpoints and prejudices or, at the very least, to have our biases confirmed? Only Jesus’ love will do this. Only the kind of self-giving and humble spirit that Christ possesses and which he lavishly pours onto each one of us will be able to accomplish that. And as these things are driven from us they are going to cause convulsions, especially depending on how firmly embedded the uncleanliness is. It is hard to let go of prejudices, especially when they’ve brought us power. Did you look along Monument Avenue this summer and fall? Convulsions.

Driving out the unclean spirits of our culture

As it happens, this was Paul’s very message to his beloved congregation in Corinth. These were people who were very enamored with things like status and knowledge and credentials. They were giving a lot of authority to these things, and it was a like an unclean spirit infecting the church. The particular case we hear Paul mention this morning has to do with how certain mealtime practices were causing division in the community. In Corinth, the main way you could come by meat was at temple where people would sacrifice animals to foreign gods, or idols. Butchers in the temple would then sell the remains so as not to waste it. Some early Christ followers in Corinth did not want to be associated with those temples and those idols in any way so they would not buy meat there, which meant they were effectively vegetarian. They just went without meat as a sign of their faithfulness to Jesus.

Some Christians, including Paul, felt that eating meat from these places did not automatically make you an idol-worshiper. You could in good conscience buy meat from those butchers and still eat it and be a faithful Christ-follower. But, Paul says, if his eating of meat might lead one of the weaker members into eating meat and destroying their faith, to fall back into their old idol-worshiping ways, then he would rather abstain. Paul says, he knows it’s absolutely fine from a faith standpoint to eat meat sacrificed to gods that don’t even really exist—one, you might say, has the freedom to do it—but he is willing to go without for the sake of the love he has for his fellow believers who still have problems with it.

The authority they are to follow, you see, is not the knowledge of what is or what is not theologically correct, or their rights to do this or do that, but the respect and compassion one has for one’s neighbor. Paul demonstrates a spirit of self-sacrifice and humility, meeting other people in his community where they are. It is one of the many ways he says that love builds up the whole, sometimes at the cost of the individual’s freedoms.

If we’re listening, we can hear Paul talking to the church today about how to live and worship in a pandemic, racial change, and political tension. He might talk about facemasks, and how some people don’t feel it’s necessary to wear them. They themselves are not afraid of catching COVID, or maybe they just don’t think it’s a very big deal. That is an authority based on knowledge, which only puffs those people up. Even if someone feels that way, the loving and Christlike thing to do, Paul would suggest, is to go ahead and humble oneself and wear a face mask for the sake of those who are afraid of catching COVID. Some people are strong in their faith and are not afraid of worshiping in large groups during this time, even if it causes the disease to spread. Paul would say, the authority of love would instruct us to refrain from doing that for the sake of those who are not as confident in that knowledge or in their faith.

Paul would probably be concerned that we Christians have on the whole not come to be known for the authority of love during the past year. In many cases we’ve been unwilling to make personal sacrifices for the good of others and for the glory of God. He’d warn us that it seems we’d rather be known for standing up for our supposed right to worship however and whenever we want, than tp be known for the ways we show humble, Christlike concern to others, even it means scaling back worship. One article in Christianity Today this week reports that half of Protestant pastors in America have encountered conspiracy theories in their congregations. That is, half of the pastors in Protestant churches have heard people in their parishes espouse things promoted by QAnon or other right or left wing groups. Conspiracy theories, by definition, are based on authority of knowledge and secret wisdom that tries to control other people, not release them in love and openness in the way of our Savior. Paul might say too many of us are concerned about the freedom of our speech and not concerned enough about the truth and love of it.

socially distanced, silent worship

Jesus has made it his plan for us—he has nothing to hide, no confidential story to keep in the dark. He lays himself out there in full, arms open, and we can pick him apart as we will. As the psalmist says this morning, “the works of your hands, O Lord…stand fast forever and ever because they are done in truth and equity.” Jesus’ truth is based on coming to where we are in our weakness, not demanding we come to where he is. And his equity is in making sure everyone is together. And now we can do the same for the rest of God’s people, as we are ruled by the authority of love.

That is a tricky, tricky witness, and these are certainly stressful times to do them in, when all kinds of demons are all up in our grill. I heard someone say recently, “I’m tired of living in unprecedented times. I’m ready to live in some precedented times.” Amen to that, but may we never tire of living in God’s unprecedented love, a love that arrives on our scene, in our heart, and is ready to be the driver—a love that says, from the center of the cross “I am in control and no matter what you will always ride with me.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Influencer in the Wild

a sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Year B]

Mark 1:14-20 and Jonah 3:1-5, 10

It’s a new day, a new time. Something amazing and momentous is being inaugurated right before our eyes! We are told first that John has been arrested, and while that’s not good, here comes Jesus in Galilee, down along the fishboats, announcing that God’s kingdom is here. It’s a new day, a new time, a new hopeful regime has begun, and one of the first orders of business is to recruit followers.

As it happens, our culture knows all about followers and how to get them. Social media, the strangest force of our times, is built on the concept of recruiting followers. A follower is someone who pays close attention to everything you post. One of the people I follow on Instagram and TikTok, a young chef who puts up a new recipe approximately every day, just this past week celebrated getting 5 million followers. He baked himself a cake and decorated it with a big 5 and a big M. Each time this chef posts a new recipe, five million people around the world, including me, hear about it and, for at least a second or two, think about making it.

We know about followers. Followers, give someone clout and the ability to influence culture or their area of expertise. The more followers you have the more people you can influence. We call those people influencers, and some will do just about anything you can think of to gain more followers, more reasons to be talked about so that they can influence even more people. There is actually an account on Instagram dedicated entirely to showing what outlandish lengths people will go to get people’s attention. The account is called “Influencers in the Wild” and it ends up being both funny and sad at the same time. Funny, because people usually end up making fools of themselves. Sad, because people sometimes end up hurt or embarrassed. For example, they’ll dance on a crowded beach, they’ll take a selfie in the middle of the road with traffic all around them, they’ll have their friends get just the right angle for a carefully curated shot. And it’s all just to get more followers.

This morning we hear Jesus’ approach to getting followers. He is an influencer in the wild! We find him down on the beach where it’s likely pretty crowded, where people are going about their daily business, making a living. He walks up to some everyday fishermen and calls them to follow him. He doesn’t ask them. He doesn’t coax them with a cool carefully curated photograph. He sees two pairs of brothers, all of them in the tasks of working, calls them with a simple invitation and promise. And they drop everything and go. That is some kind of influence! How is Jesus influencing you?

Like probably many of you, I have loads of questions about the call of Jesus’ first disciples and this influence Jesus seems to have over them. It sounds like they’re leaving behind a family business, a livelihood that was probably pretty profitable, based on evidence in the story and what archaeological discoveries have told us about the fishing economy in the ancient Middle East. James and John, sons of Zebedee actually leave their dad in the boat. I want to know more about that. Did they see him again, or did Jesus whisk them away for good? Did these guys already know about Jesus and were hoping they’d be chosen as followers? Was there just something about him that was magnetic and they couldn’t resist?

None of the gospel-writers is too big on details, but Mark is especially brief, and the one thing he seems insistent on telling us is that this all happens immediately. Immediately they leave their nets. Immediately they leave their dad in the boat. There is something about Jesus’ invitation to follow that pulls them right in.

Here’s what I think: when you know there is a new day and a new time at hand, when you’ve been anticipating a new reality and a new beginning you don’t really waste any time in your decision-making. You are ready. You break loose, knowing you don’t really need to understand everything about what’s going to happen because the bigger picture it all is leading to is so wonderful and so amazing that you’re OK to figure it out as it unfolds.

That is the life following Jesus, the Son of God. That is one of the things that we learn right up front, right as things are getting off the ground. In Jesus, God goes right where people are and just begins enlisting ordinary, everyday people. I’m not getting the feeling Jesus overthinks this, are you? He’s not made a list and ranked his choices, like we often do when we’re recruiting people for something. If God’s kingdom, as the prophets repeatedly tell us, is about being a light to in all the nations, lifting up the bowed down, including the blind, the lame, the deaf, then Jesus can begin right among the common. His influence will have its greatest and most gracious effect in the groups and crowds of people who are ready for change.

That’s what Jonah learns the hard way when God sends him among the people of Nineveh. In Jonah’s eyes, the Ninevites are not special people. They are a wayward, sinful, dark-souled people who Jonah thinks should be written off by God because of the amount of evil in their city. But God wants to include them in his mercy, and no amount of protesting or running away on Jonah’s part is going to change God’s mind. Even Nineveh has a chance to repent and embrace the life of God’s reign. And to Jonah’s surprise, they do…immediately. Jonah is a better influencer than he realizes! Even though he tries to escape his role as messenger to them, even though it takes a large whale to swallow him up and spit him back out in the right direction, Jonah manages to bring them around to God. They get a new beginning.

“Jonah and the Whale” (Pieter Lastman)

As you can imagine, when we were in seminary we shared a lot about our own calls to follow Jesus, our new beginnings. We spent a lot of time in some of our early classes unpacking where we had come from, the lives we had left and the careers we had changed in order to arrive at seminary and explore more deeply what God might be calling us to do. I distinctly remember sitting around one day and having this surreal and almost unsettling feeling that we had really all been assembled by some mysterious person that we all had in common. It was like one of those books or movies, like Oceans 11, where different unrelated characters are all gathered together somewhere only to figure out after they’re all there that they will all have a task to carry out or a problem to solve. Some of us had risen quickly from our former lives, whereas some had been putting it off for years. In the end, it didn’t matter because the call wasn’t primarily about us or our own gifts but about the new beginning God was bringing about in Jesus and that the whole world would eventually be in on the game. Like Simon, Andrew, James and John, we had been called individually, but the task involved a group effort.

Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary class of 2003

Sometimes the call to embrace the mercy of Jesus’ kingdom means a big drastic break from a career or a lifestyle. We walk away from the nets and the boats altogether. But Jesus mainly comes to call and claim people each and every day. In each moment Jesus’ invitation gives us the chance to use our gifts right now for his kingdom, to make a thousand little breaks from the past, a thousand little changes of direction to live as Christ himself would live in each and every relationship we already have. We may or may not leave “boats and nets” behind, but Jesus still keeps us fishing and catching with a different goal: more followers.

This past week, on the evening before our country inaugurated a new president, we installed a new Church Council. We did this on Zoom and recorded it, and in a minute you will see them, looking like a Brady Bunch Church Council, everyone in their own black square, answering the call to serve as a congregation leader for another year. In that group is someone who is retired from a career in law enforcement, a person who worked in commercial real estate, a person in risk management for the financial sector, a public relations specialist, an education specialist for intervention, an expert in state commerce, just to name a few. There are people who’ve worked primarily for themselves and people employed by large corporations. There are people who’ve devoted their lives to organization and those who’ve moved around vocationally. There are some who’ve given their adult years to the holy vocation of raising children in the home. And this doesn’t even touch on how diverse they are in terms of family background or age.

Council members at Epiphany 2021

What I’ve learned through the years, though, is that people who serve on Council bring with them gifts they have honed elsewhere in life. Jesus, in a sense, repurposes their skills and talents for the work of his kingdom through the church. The law enforcement person has great insights for our Safety Team. The public relations expert thinks of our messaging and how to communicate effectively. And the finance people are always curious about our audit procedures. Jesus calls them all individually, but they’re working together.

This applies to all of us, too, whether we’re in leadership positions or not. We may be followers, but our baptism, has turned us into influencers, too. We should be prepared to do some outlandish and public things once in a while for the sake of bringing more followers along. Outlandish things like serving the hungry. Making friends with people we disagree with. Mentioning Jesus’ name every once in a while! Our common leader has uncommonly assembled us all, calling us to embrace the new reality of Jesus’ reign. Unlike the shadowy figures who lurk at the center of conspiracy theories our leader lays himself out there for all to know.

In fact, he doesn’t just recruit and call people people out in the open, but he lays himself out there in the open. On the cross, he makes it absolutely clear that the time is fulfilled…the time for God’s unconditional love to break in…the time for bringing all people into the heart of God’s mercy…the time for forgiveness for all our sins. On the cross, he wields mighty influence over death and sin and all our brokenness and all the things that stand in the ways of his Father’s love. He wants followers, and he wants us all, and he’ll take us no matter who we are and where we’ve been.

So, come on. Feel that influence. And now be it. In the wild. This is a new day. A new time.

Thanks be to God!

06 Venice The calling of the apostles Venice: Mosaics from San Marco, Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, and Murano

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Looking up to the Sky

a sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord [Year B]

Mark 1:4-11 and Genesis 1:1-5

On the morning of January 1, 2021, when the world seemed so bright and full of hope, I logged onto Facebook to find that one of the guys I went to high school with had posted this:

“On this same morning in 2003, I couldn’t remember most of the night before. I literally looked up at the sky and said, “God, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but PLEASE help me.” I haven’t had a drink since. I don’t tell this for pats on the back. I want you to know, should you need to, that you don’t have to feel the way I felt this morning 18 years ago ever again.”

Wow. What honesty and openness. I had never known my friend had struggled with a substance abuse problem. There is a tendency we all have to keep our brokenness and our problems hidden, but in this case it was out there for all see see. I also imagined he was not the only one to mark each January 1 as a day of rebirth, given that New Years Eve is often viewed as one last chance to live in chaos and craziness before joining the gym, or spending more time with family, or pouring the liquor down the drain. But aside from all of that I was moved by my friend’s vulnerability in sharing it. I especially am grateful for the way he phrased it, that he looked up at the sky and cried out to God. I rejoice with him in the new life he lives, just as we should all rejoice in the newness anyone experiences when they are redeemed. This January 1st was just another day for me. For my friend it was a powerful reminder that God reaches down and saves us.

That, my friends, is the God we believe has claimed us. Like we see in the beginning of all things, this is a God who can and does move over the waters of our chaos and the darkness of the world and brings about order, who brings about light, who brings about good. This is a God who constantly works to rebuild and restore. And to do all those good words that begin with ‘re’—renew, redeem, reform, reclaim. This is just how the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is, the God who brought Moses through the Red Sea, the God who sent the prophets like Isaiah in the midst of ruin with words of hope. The deep and the formless void is not too scary for this God, even when the deep and formless void is within us. We aren’t able to make a new start because the calendar year changes. We are able to make new starts because God always grants new beginnings. That’s what God does. That’s who God is. Faithful. Full of promise.

This is the God who sends Jesus into the Jordan River probably on some random, chaotic Tuesday when John the baptizer is busy washing people with water. Something is clearly afoot because everyone is there like a mob—people from the villages and farms and people from the big city. John is washing and cleansing them as part of another ‘re’ word: repentance. Repenting sometimes gets a bad rap, but really it means a turning around, a changing of direction. Looking up at the sky and crying out. Soul-searching is what it is. John the baptizer knows God’s kingdom is about to break into the world in a new way. Perhaps all those people are, too. They are tired of the same old, same old. They are weary of the dysfunction. So John is busy trying to prepare people for the new. He’s helping them turn around from the ways they’re going, to renounce the things drawing them from God.


In the midst of this scene Jesus steps in and presents himself for this baptism. He’s just one of the masses, blending right in. The whole world doesn’t even know it, but the point when Jesus is baptized becomes the point all of earth can look up to the sky and cry out, “We don’t know what’s wrong with us, but God can help us.” The world may not have caught on just yet, but that moment when Jesus bursts out of the Jordan’s waters becomes the moment that God’s redeeming love bursts onto the scene of creation in a new way that will have lasting effects on all of us.

            The Baptism of our Lord is either mentioned or recorded in all of the gospels, and it was one of the very first festivals the church ever celebrated. In fact, many eastern Christian traditions still read the story of Jesus’ baptism when they celebrate their Christmas. For us that may seem strange. In our time events like Christmas or Epiphany get all the attention, and that’s OK, because they have an important message to teach us. But to the earliest people of faith what this occurrence said about God was too powerful and too extraordinary to skip over. It’s the real beginning to a new creation, no turning back. From here on out, everything that Jesus does and says is for us. From here on out, God is reaching down and pulling our lives out of the void.

            Part of the reason that this event is so clarifying has to do with rivers, and the Jordan River in particular. Not many of us live near a river anymore, nor are our livelihoods directly impacted by one. We laugh in Richmond about how the river divides us, and at best we retreat here for recreation. But in Jesus’ time rivers were constantly bringing life to everyone around them. They had cycles of flooding and drying up that made soils fertile and irrigation systems work. The Jordan River, which was not all that mighty, was also the boundary between wilderness and the Promised Land. When Jesus stands there in the water, he is showing us that he is God’s path to deliverance. Jesus is a bridge. He is a flood of God’s grace, ever new, ever reliable. We have taken what it means to be human and dragged it through the mud. Jesus takes back what it means to be human and plunges it in the cleansing waters. We take our human nature and degrade it with things like hatred. Jesus raises up human nature as God’s Beloved. The heavens are torn open. God speaks. God is well-pleased with him. Creation begins again.

            There is only one other time when something is torn like this in Mark’s gospel. It happens here at Jesus’ baptism, when we first meet him, and then at the very end when he dies, when we think his ministry is over. We hear that Jesus cries out in a loud voice, breathes his last, and then the curtain of the temple is torn in two. The curtain in the temple separated that which was common and profane from that which was holy and sacred. It was a barrier that had stood in the temple and in people’s relationship with God for a long time. In his death, Jesus takes that which is an end, a boundary, and makes a new beginning. God’s holiness is open for all, forgiveness and mercy abounding, not sequestered anymore. God reaches down and saves Jesus by raising him up. And because Jesus has been given to us, in so doing so raises us to new life as well. New beginnings. Sin and death no longer have us bound.

            I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the own dark times in my life, the choices I made and the influences that formed me. Maybe it’s because I now have teenage children of my own and that’s making me remember what it was like to be in those exciting but confusing times. Like many of you, I had very rough days back then, days when I wasn’t sure who I was or what was going to become of me. It was a lot of soul-searching at times that wasn’t fun. One thing I realized even as early as college was that my faith, through my church, had instilled in me the notion that of my own worth. I’m not sure that was ever a stated objective of my congregation’s youth ministry or Sunday School program but that was the message that got across anyway, many times over. I was a worthwhile child of God and no matter how dark and chaotic my world got, no matter what people said about me and no matter what I might be persuaded to think about myself, a claim had been made on my life for good. God would always, always, always give me a new beginning because I was grounded in his love. Like a river it would always be there for me to return to, a soil that would always been made rich.

I hope that doesn’t just sound like something inside a Hallmark card, because there’s no telling how many times it saved me. God’s claim on my life in baptism, reiterated to me numerous times by family, friends, and pastors, anchored me in a way I couldn’t even articulate at the time. Of course I made mistakes, let people down, let myself down. No matter what barrier tried to contain me, Jesus could tear open a hole in it for me to experience God’s constant grace. I hope that each of the young people growing up in our congregation today receive the same kind of message. It will guide them through their life until they draw their final breath. They have elements of brokenness, shortcomings, but ultimately they are God’s and because of Jesus, God is well-pleased with them.

            These are dark times for our country. We saw images this week that are difficult to process. Relationships in our government and in politics have been dragged through some of the worst mud we’ve ever encountered. We know our enemies are laughing at us and rejoicing at our stumbles. We are angry. We are disappointed. Some of us feel betrayed. Others feel assaulted. A lot of what I’m feeling is grief. Most religious leaders I know are fatigued from a year of constantly trying to narrate hard things in the light of God’s Word. And now there’s been a violent attempt to overthrow our government and execute leaders. Like my friend’s prayer said, we don’t really know what’s wrong with us. It’s like void and chaos.

When these feelings come, maybe it’s best to start back at the river. Maybe it’s just best to go there and look up to the sky God can tear open. And repent. Before we do anything else. All of us, together. From the whole countryside and the cities. Sounds like red states and blue states. Then, standing there, before we say another word to each other, remember again who works really well in void and chaos, over the formless face of the deep things. It is the God who always works new beginnings, who brings about light and good. And does so in the mud of a riverbed. At the boundaries of the holy and profane. On the cross of death. In the life of a man sent to love and give and serve until he breathes his last.

It is Jesus of Nazareth, the new beginning of love and forgiveness that is risen and lives forever.

Notice how the creator of this icon tries to make the sky look like it is torn open.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

God’s Superhero Suit

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas [Year B]

John 1: [1-9] 10-18 and Ephesians 1:3-14

We are in full-on Superhero mode at the Martin house right now. A few months ago, our four-year-old, Jasper, discovered the main characters of the Marvel and DC universes and it has been Spiderman and Batman and Superman ever since. He was Spiderman for Halloween and for Christmas someone gave him a Batman costume, and we wears both all the time. Sometimes he can’t decide on one, so he’ll wear a Spiderman shirt and a Batman mask. You can walk into any room in our house, even when we’ve cleaned up, and either see or step on a superhero figurine or accessory. Jasper has not seen one movie or comic book yet, but something about these characters fascinate him and spark his imagination. I think it’s not uncommon, given that movies in this genre gross billions in revenue.

Lately he has really become interested in the fact that all superheroes have what is called an alter ego, and he’s trying to memorize which alter ego goes with which hero. The way Jasper asks about a character’s alter ego is, “Who is such-and-such when they take off their suit?” And so we explain that when Batman is not dressed like a bat with the mask and the cape, he is a normal man named Bruce Wayne, Spiderman, when he’s not in his Spider outfit, is really a guy named Peter Parker. Yesterday he found his little figurine of Flash Gordon and that is where it got a little complicated because apparently Flash Gordon and the recent TV show The Flash are not the same thing. I had to look that one up.

The Word of God—that is, the very essence of what God is like and how God moves, the second person of the Trinity—has put on a special suit and it is Jesus of Nazareth. We don’t need to look that one up. John, the gospel writer, begins his story about Jesus this way, leaving nothing to secret, by telling us how the Word of God, who exists from the very beginning of time, has a human counterpart and that this human counterpart has some to live among the rest of us. “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son.”

Before we learn anything that this human counterpart does, John states very clearly right up front that when we come to know who Jesus is we are coming to know what the heart of God is. Only certain people ever know that Bruce Wayne is actually Batman, or that Peter Parker is Spiderman, and the heroes tries to keep those two identities separate. It’s as if their power would be taken away if this was revealed. Not so with the Word of God. The Word wants to be known and seen as Jesus, the glory of a Father’s only Son. The Word wants people to see him and see his true identity, God’s Son.

And just as superheroes acquire or display some powers when they don their different suits, so does the Word of God gain certain powers and abilities when he puts on human flesh and comes to be among us. It is a power of giving like we’ve never seen. He gives us who receive him the power to become children of God, to be born anew and live with God in unity. His powers are strange, almost backwards from from we’d expect because they are rooted in his humility and servanthood, not in magic or wizardry or brute force.

This is the miracle of God’s incarnation, which is the heart of what we celebrate at Christmas. Incarnation means “putting on flesh” or “being physically present.” But the incarnation is not just the heart and meaning of Christmas. God’s act to become flesh and live among us and therefore undergo human life in broken world becomes the basis for everything else about Christian faith, from the manger (which John actually never mentions) to the cross.

This fundamental idea may seem kind of basic and obvious to you and me by this point. We marvel over story of Bethlehem, we sing the Christmas carols, we ask “What Child is This?” and think about God as baby all the time. I was amazed at how many of the Epiphany families who took part in the daily video Advent devotions showed nativity scenes. There were so many different and beautiful ones. I remember one young woman and her nephew, Callie and C.J., took us through her house and showed us three or four of them.

We just accept the incarnation as a fact, but for so many of the earliest Christians this was a challenge to get their head around. The concept of God, especially in ancient Greek culture, was all about attaining secret knowledge and intellectually contemplating beliefs and theories. To arrive at what God was like you needed to debate and argue different perspectives about life. You were supposed to reflect on private things of the soul, contemplate the universe, and so on. The idea that a God would just reveal himself so plainly and blatantly, as a person, was preposterous. One early critic of Christianity, a man named Celsus, wrote a long essay attacking the faith of Jesus that many people in his time read. It gives us a peek into ancient views on religion. At one point in it Celsus says, “If you shut your eyes to the world of sense and look up with the mind, if you turn away from the flesh and raise the eyes of the soul, only then will you see God.”

We may have loads of nativity scenes around and be able to talk about Jesus the human, but how often do we still go Celsus’ route without realizing it? By that I mean how often do we still find ourselves saying things like “If I could only mentally escape this chaos for a little bit I’ll connect with God”? “If I could just remove myself from the everyday I’ll experience that flash of faith again”? How often do we look to have an experience in creation—say, with birds—as if it is proof God is real? How often do we look for that one author or that one book that will transcend our realities and help us see the divine more clearly? Nature and good books are true gifts from God—don’t get me wrong—but we don’t have to seek them to know God, John says. Jesus is as far as we need to go. And we don’t need to go find him. He has come to us.

superhero powers, incarnational presence

There has been so much talk about how awful the year 2020 was. I think “dumpster fire” is the term I hear most often It is true that much of life was and remains disrupted by the things that happened in 2020, but I’m wondering if this past year didn’t also provide a great opportunity to reflect on the true importance and deep meaning of God’s incarnation. I wonder if the trials of 2020, particularly ones brought about by the pandemic, weren’t actually a window into seeing how a flesh and blood presence with one another is more lifegiving than we realized.

Just look at church life. Much of it has been disembodied this year. We’ve moved many ministries on-line, we’ve tried to limit personal contact as much as possible, dropping things off by the office without running into anyone. Our worship services and daily prayers on the internet offer time for people to reflect on God’s Word and pray, in some sense, together. But there is something about being physically present with one another that almost everyone seems to recognize the need for. It’s not just that we miss seeing each other and all the things that might come with that. There is something about life that depends on incarnation. There is something about our faith that can’t just survive on words and thoughts alone.

When we are actually together, when God’s people are assemble for real, it is like we are wearing our true nature. Our ideas or theories about love and forgiveness and community life eventually have to actually be practiced and honed, and to do that requires real togetherness, being in the same space. This is one reason why our bishops have not encouraged practicing some form of online Holy Communion, although several churches have done so. Sharing bread and wine around a common table of some form, which is what the Lord’s Supper is, brings us together, puts us in one another’s space. And in that God meets us and works to reconcile us, to remind us in the best way possible that we must share this creation. I know that for all the fun it has been to share devotions on-line, I have felt an overwhelming joy to see people in person, to hear people speak as one.

The Word of God is not just some ideal, something we reflect on. God means to meet us, grab us, touch us. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians uses a very physical word when he describes what Jesus does: he gathers. “The good pleasure God set forth in Christ,” he writes, is “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and on the earth.” He does not say Christ’s goal is to inspire all people, or to improve all people, or to get everyone to make the right New Year’s Resolutions so that their lives will be in order. Jesus is set before us to gather all things—all people, all kinds. Together. And so even though we give thanks for the ways that God gathered some of us through digital means in 2020, we look forward to the ways God may really gather us at some point in the future, maybe even in this new year. Because that is why he becomes flesh and lives among us.

An emergency vehicle, with siren blaring, “interrupted” my sermon right as I was talking about the Christian call to embrace the world’s suffering. Very cool.

This also suggests that our call as the church must involve being physically present for our communities and the world. We begin to fulfill our role as Christ followers when we clothe ourselves with the suffering of those around us. And that is what the Holy Spirit helps us do, and, thankfully, has enabled you to do over and over again this year. When we do things like that—when we pull up alongside those who suffer the effects of racism, when we reach out with food to the hungry, when we gather together with those who struggle under life’s load, when we bake a supper for someone going through a hard time, then we are wearing the suit of our superhero, Jesus Christ. And the God no one has ever seen will be made known.

There is no cape involved. No X-ray vision, no superhuman flying or jumping abilities (much to Jasper’s disappointment). Just thoroughly human abilities. Washing feet. Sharing bread. Embracing the wounded. Full on superhero mode. You know, the powers of the children of God.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.