“Dangers, Toils, and Snares”: a Year of Pandemic

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year B]

Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

It has been one year since the novel coronavirus COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and life as everyone knew it changed. It’s been a year of worshiping on-line, learning how to live-stream, hook up microphones to our smartphones, and upload videos to YouTube and Facebook. One member sent me a couple of photos from a year ago this weekend that showed a group of us crowded into the new parlor holding worship on Instagram Live and Facebook Live around the makeshift studio altar we had thrown together. We weren’t even wearing face masks back at that point because we weren’t even sure how this virus really spread. Little did we know that Joseph’s and my televangelist careers would begin that day. I don’t know how he feels, and please don’t take this personally, but I’m ready to have my televangelist career come to an end. The blooper reel alone from this past year provides enough comedy and blackmail material to bankroll a capital campaign.

This week one colleague of mine posted on Facebook the following question: “If you could go back in time one year from right now, what would you tell yourself?” I was amused at some of the answers people gave. Several people said they tell themselves to buy stock in Zoom. One person said, “Move to New Zealand right now.” Another said, “Get a massage. You won’t be touched for a year.” Poignantly, one person said, “Go visit grandma in the nursing home.” What would tell yourself as you launch into a process of lockdown measures that dragged on longer than most of us expected?  What would you tell yourself knowing now that a year of all kinds of tumultuous social changes would occur and the political divisiveness would get worse?

I can think of several things that might have bolstered me through all that would come, but I try as I may I can’t come up with anything better than the third verse of the hymn we just sang, which, ironically, is not even one of my favorites:

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares we have already come;
’tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.”

It is God’s grace that has allowed us to continue to have a congregational life together without really being able to be together as a congregation. It is God’s grace that sent us numerous people who had the right skills to guide us through this time—those with computer and technology skills, those with creative ideas and energy, those with the far undervalued gift of patience. It is God’s grace that sent us things like parents who called the church saying, “I know it’s a pandemic, but we want our child baptized and however you think we can do that, we’re on board.”

It is God’s grace that has provided a way through the wilderness of disappointment, pain, cancellations, and complaining that we’ve all faced and, if we’re honest, taken part in. Yes, I would have told myself “Look, remember that God’s people have come through so many ‘dangers, toils and snares’ before. Phillip, trust that God’s grace will lead you through.” That is what we sing to ourselves today, for, sadly, this time of wilderness is not yet finished.

It sounds like the Israelites could have used a little reminder of that in the middle of their wilderness, which is where we find them this morning. There is disappointment, there is impatience, and there is complaining. And this is epic complaining. This is far worse than complaining that we can’t sing in church or that facemasks make it hard to breathe. Worse than complaining that the school board made a decision we disagree with. Or complaining that the vaccines are being rolled out quickly enough. I mean, we’ve complained a lot this year, myself included, but the Israelites take it to the extreme.

For, you see, God has delivered them from their hellish existence in Egypt. God has given them manna to eat each day and quail, too. God has found water for them in the middle of the desert. God has brought them through life-or-death toils and snares, but they seem to have already forgotten that and just want to mumble and grumble. They start taunting God, almost. One modern paraphrase of Scripture has the Israelites asking God, “Why did you drag us out of Egypt to have us die in this godforsaken country?”[1]

And I don’t know if it’s that God has had enough of their attitude or what but he sends snakes to start biting them. At least, that’s how the Israelites remember it. The point is, there’s a snake infestation at this point and people start dying.

A culture of complaining is venomous. It starts to poison everyone—the people who make the complaints and the people who hear them. It slithers around and finds its way into the cracks and crevices of every situation. Studies have actually shown that complaining—or being complained to—for thirty minutes or more physically damages the brain.[2] It also releases the stress chemical cortisol into our bloodstream, which impairs our immune system and can lead to other problems like diabetes and heart disease. Venomous snakes are probably an effective way to have the Israelites reflect on their behavior and what’s really killing them. Horrified, they come to Moses and confess their complaining and ask for the snakes to be removed. But God doesn’t remove them.

It may be, at first read, the most baffling story we ever read. Snakes are killing people and God doesn’t just simply take them away. But God does find a way to save them from the snakes. Moses is told to make a bronze version of the snake and lift it up on a pole high enough so that everyone will be able to see it. If they get bitten, they can just look at it and the power that the snakes have to kill is taken away. The people still get bitten, and I assume the venom still hurts, but the control it has over them is removed.

It’s not too different from this COVID vaccine and how it works. It’s pretty evident that we can’t eradicate this coronavirus. Like these snakes, it will lurk in our midst probably for the rest of time, or at least for the foreseeable future, infecting us and passing from one person to another. But thanks to science and medicine, whose very symbol has roots in this story, we’ve found a way to lift up a little version of it inside our bodies so that if we get bitten by the virus, COVID won’t kill us.

This event in the history of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness might have become one of those lesser-known stories you never hear about if not for the fact that Jesus uses it to describe his own reason for coming. One night a leader among the Jews named Nicodemus comes to him to learn more about who Jesus is and the things he is doing. They have a conversation about how to perceive the kingdom of God in the here and now, and about being born from above, or born again, and about having a relationship with God that gives eternal life.

All of these things are interrelated, Jesus says, and critical to having any of it—the ability to live in God’s kingdom now and to be born anew—is being able to look at Jesus as he dies and see life, see salvation. Jesus will be lifted up on a pole just like that serpent in the wilderness so that people who see him will have a life that conquers death.

It’s a seeing that is more than just looking with the eyes. It is a seeing with the heart and the mind—understanding that in Jesus’ death on the cross God is doing something save the world from all the venom and poison and sinfulness that infects us. Because when we see Jesus, the Son of God, dying, we see the harm that our sin does to God and to others. It’s laid bare for us to deal with, lifted high so that everyone can see. God doesn’t just take sin away, but in Christ he gives us the way through it. And that’s important, for in order to be saved, we need to be honest about what is really killing us, what we’re being saved from.

When we look at the cross of Christ, with Jesus hanging on it, we see the evil of violence, the damage it does. We see the wickedness of hatred and bigotry and the way they corrupts who we really are. What else do we see? We see the dead end road of trying to justify ourselves before our Creator, that we can sacrifice something or stake the blame on someone else in order to clear our name. None of it works. All of it is worthless, and it’s painful to be bitten by that realization but God wants us to see that in his dying Son so that we can come to terms with it. It will help save us.

When we think of racism, to use an example that has bitten us quite a bit this past year, we have learned will not find a way to heal from it if we keep ignoring it or complaining about it or justifying the stances of our past. We have to confront it, especially in ourselves. I can lament the political divisiveness in our country until the cows come home, shake my fists at the media or the politicians, but the division not going to miraculously disappear. I have to look at how I actually might be participating in it, unawares, and how my comments or apathy contribute to the decay. That will be the way through it.

And so forth and so on we go about all that poisons us until we realize that also hanging there in the loss and the death is God himself. There, present in the wilderness, all along, present in the decay and despair, present in the hunger and the thirst—present, faithful, steadfast, in spite of our complaining is God the Son, given—always given—never, ever taken away. There, never letting us go, in a place where everyone can see, is love. Love that will heal us, love that will forgive us, love that will let us lament all that we’ve lost this year and love that will persist with us until the end. Love that will never condemn. Love that will be sign that God will always deliver us to the other side.

This miracle, my friends, is not on us. We alone will not find the way out, we alone will not brave the dark of sin and triumph over it—but God, stooping low to be lifted high, will do it for us and with us through every danger, toil, and snare…and every online worship video too.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr


[1] The Message. Eugene Peterson

[2] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/06/stanford-researchers-says-30-minutes-of-complaining-makes-you-dumber.html

Where to Find God

a sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent [Year B]

John 2:13-22 and Exodus 20:1-17

When Moses comes down Mt. Sinai after the Israelites have been released from bondage in Egypt, and before they begin a forty year journey in the wilderness he bears in his hands a list of laws that would come to be known as the Ten Commandments. Read aloud as our first lesson this morning, they form the backbone of how God wants his people to navigate the complexities of life. They are a hard-and-fast, unchangeable rules that are not supposed to weigh them down with duty but actually lift them up to create an environment for a good, safe, and prosperous life. The Ten Commandments are a gift, even though the people pretty quickly reject them.

It got me thinking, we’ve kind of had a very similar experience over the past year when it comes to navigating and living safely as a human community during this pandemic. We’ve watched so many officials coming down out of governmental institutions bearing clipboards we probably could compile a list of the Ten Commandments of COVID. What do you think they’d say? Here are some I’ve thought up…

Thou shalt wear a facemask.
Thou shalt remain six feet or more from other human beings.
Thou shalt wash your hands fastidiously.
Honor thy doctors and nurses.
Thou shalt not go anywhere if you have a fever.
Thou shalt not sing in public.
Thou shalt learn how to unmute yourself on Zoom.
Thou shalt not hoard toilet paper.
Do not covet thy neighbor’s vaccination. Or thy neighbor’s ox’s vaccination. Or donkey’s.

Things seem fairly set in stone about it all now, but it wasn’t always so clear what we were supposed to be doing. Remember when we were still leaving our groceries on our doorsteps for 48 hours before bringing them inside? I know some of you are still doing that—not judging! And we still have governors and other officials rescinding orders and backtracking on health guidelines. It’s all so confusing, even if we were to have them listed out like Moses’ Ten Commandments.

One of the main benefits to having these rules from Moses in Exodus listed so concisely and so systematically and engraved in stone is that it leaves no question as to how God speaks to us and how God wants us to be together. The law comes across so self-explanatory. “Do this and don’t do that.” God’s presence and God’s goodness are going to be really clear and obvious whenever and wherever people are obeying them and putting them into practice.

We do this kind of thing with God’s laws and God’s words all the time. We basically roll into one the rules and God himself, and as long as we’ve got the rules down pat—so we think—as long as we know what’s expected of us and do our best to meet those expectations, we’re on God’s side. It’s like God is in the rules and if we do the rules then hunky-dory and if we don’t do the rules, then there’s probably some way we can make it up, or just try again.

It’s kind of like COVID. We think as long as we follow all the main rules and trust Dr. Fauci or Michael Osterholm or whichever official we put on the pedestal we will keep the virus at bay and live in safety.

Except we don’t. Some of us still get sick, even though we follow all the COVID commandments. I can’t tell you how many people I know, some in this congregation who have gotten the virus, and they don’t have a clue about how or where they picked it up. A safe life was never supposed to be guaranteed with the COVID commandments, and a relationship with God was never guaranteed by following the law. God meant it as a tool for living in that relationship, but eventually even those who love God distort its use.

This distortion of the law and the overly corrupted systems of religion is what we see Jesus confronting in bold fashion as he comes into the Temple of Jerusalem. The tables and booths where people were selling cattle and other livestock were taking up precious space in the temple’s interior. People were so convinced that by just keeping the law, by fulfilling whatever sacrifices the religious authorities interpreted the laws to require, that they had found God and God’s favor.

Christ driving moneychangers from the Temple (El Greco)

In Jesus’ eyes, the Temple looked like a market. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a middle eastern market before. They look similar to one of our flea markets or maybe a farmer’s market—narrow rows that take you by table after table where people have set up their wares for you to see and buy and maybe barter for. Could you imagine coming to worship and finding that, people barking over tables at you, trying to get you to come closer? I would imagine that most people back then, if they just stepped back and looked at what had become of their Temple, would have been shocked at it. Jesus sees it with fresh eyes, a Nazareth guy from way out in the country, disgusted that the Temple had become this.

He takes a whip of cords and drives them all out. It’s like Indiana Jones Jesus. It’s a famous scene and one of the first things we actually see Jesus do in John’s gospel. He changes water into wine at a wedding, and then he immediately goes to Jerusalem for Passover and confronts the religious system of sacrifices and this misguided understanding that following the law gets people closer to God.

One thing this scene should make us stop and think about is what our own churches and religious buildings look like and what their interior and exterior communicates about God and our relationship to God. This week I stepped outside briefly because the weather was so nice and found Mike Long, one of our members, thinking through our new signage. As you know, the entrances to our building have changed drastically, and it’s not immediately clear where people are to come inside to find the sanctuary or the office, for example. Something as basic as a sign shouldn’t be so complicated, but he and I walked around for a good bit talking about where we’d place it and what it should say and where the arrows should point.

I admire him because he clearly thinks about this kind of stuff all the time and is good at it. You don’t want to put up a sign at a church that is going to confuse people about where they’re supposed to go, no matter how obvious you or I may think the path may be! By the same token, houses of prayer should communicate above all things that God is worshiped here, not something else. Churches and sanctuaries and common areas and the art and furnishings and decorations in them should point a clear arrow to God’s grace.

But no matter how good the signs are, they don’t—and they can’t—point an arrow to where God may be found. And that is really the message Jesus is driving home when he makes the whip of cords and overturns the tables. God can’t be found in building or a temple any more than God can be found in following rules.

And so when Jesus overturns the tables he is doing more than redecorating the Temple narthex. He is overturning the way of thinking that says the commandments contain our relationship with God.

He is overturning the beliefs that say as long as you’re at church you are holy and sacred.

He is driving out the wrong idea that we can build a building to contain God or write him down on pieces of paper.

God is not located in a sanctuary and God is not found in the law or in Holy Scripture. God is found in Jesus. And even more amazing than that? If God were to make a sign about how to enter relationship with God, the sign would say, “Wait! Stay where you are. I’m coming to you.”

Just as Jesus changes water into wine and flips tables, Jesus also completely changes our whole stance toward God. Gone are the days where we need to search or change or sacrifice something in order to get to God or grab God’s attention. In the cross of Jesus, God comes to us. “Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, “and in three days I will raise it up.” He’s not talking about the building. He’s talking about himself and the incredible lengths he himself will go to in order to prove that God loves and reclaims every aspect of the human experience. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God reaches out to all of humankind and to all lonesome paths that humans walk, even the walk of the grave.

this overturns everything we might assume about God.

That kind of grace can’t be contained in a list of laws or in a structure or institution. It is made known each time selfless, sacrificial love is shared with someone else. God’s love seems foolish to the world, which almost equates force and violence with strength. And God’s self-giving ways are a stumbling block to systems that say we have to be wise or clever to know God.

When I sat down with the Nass family to prepare Alice for her baptism a few weeks ago, I was slightly aware of our language barrier. Being from Brazil, her parents speak Portuguese. They are much better at speaking English than they think they are because I have no problems understanding them, but sometimes they are worried they misunderstand me. I noticed that they had taken our baptism preparation packet, all four pages of it, and entered it into Google translate so they could really read and understand it and know they weren’t missing anything.

their delightful surprise, everything said exactly what they were expecting it to say. There were no differences, as it turns out, in how a baptism in their old church in Brazil would go and how a baptism here in Richmond would go. And furthermore, there was no difference in what the baptism would signify. Two different cultures, two different languages, two different countries, but one clear sign that pointed to grace: Jesus has torn down the temple of his body and raised it back up to cleanse Alice of her sins and claim her forever as God’s child. And how she will be a little arrow that points people to Jesus.

That, my friends, is the action of a God whose grace is now unleashed in the world, a God who likes and uses commandments, a God who likes and uses buildings for worship, but ultimately a God who will not be contained by culture or language or privilege or sacrifice systems or human wisdom or human strength or time or place or death. That, my friends, is the God who loves and claims you.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

From Wilderness to Paradise

a sermon for the First Sunday in Lent [Year B]

Mark 1:9-15 and Genesis 9:8-17

Like many other people, my family decided to get a COVID puppy last year. That is, in those early days of the pandemic lockdown, when there was no school and no going out and we were all stuck at home we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to get our first family dog. We would be able to devote the necessary time things like housetraining and crate-training. Always around and playing nowhere else but in the backyard, we would give it plenty of love and socialization so that eventually (we thought to ourselves), we would have a nice well-adjusted animal companion. Joy, as we named her, is a sweet, loving pet. She is soft and affectionate and playful. She is a wonder to watch run and catch a Frisbee in mid-air.

our friendly beast

But—I have to be honest with you—most of the time we are also asking ourselves, “What, in God’s name, have we done? There is a wild animal living with us!” She has chewed up three pairs of our son’s eyeglasses, one of our daughter’s retainers, and a brand-new ottoman in our family room. There have been countless nights when she cried and howled most of the time, and we’re still not able to let her loose in the kitchen for long because she knows exactly how to grab our food when we turn our heads away. I know they say dogs are man’s best friend but at this point it feels like we are in constant conflict about who really controls the house. When will we find lasting peace? Are people really meant to live in complete harmony with these creatures? Our puppy-trainer is excellent, but even she explains how the secret to success of raising a good dog companion is to establish and maintain your dominance (which she calls leadership) and get them used to being out of your bubble. Harmonious relationships between humans and people doesn’t just automatically happen.

In that case, we should notice that something special is up when Jesus is driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness after his baptism. There he is, forty days in the harsh environment, with all kinds of wild beasts happily in his bubble. These aren’t puppies or dogs, either. These are all kinds of fearsome and dangerous animals that would have normally devoured a lone, unarmed person like Jesus—wolves, leopards, wild boars. Ancient Israel even had lions! It’s kind of funny, if you think about it. We sing all kinds of hymns and carols at Christmastime about the friendly beasts who come to tend to Jesus at his birth in the manger, but the only time that Scripture ever talks about animals being with Jesus is at his temptation in the wilderness.

Christ in the wilderness (according to Mark’s gospel)

We may see this as a strange and endearing feature to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, an easy to overlook aspect of Jesus’ very first steps, but for those who have ever longed for a broken world to be put to rights, this is the first powerful sign that day has arrived. He is with the wild beasts. A wilderness is being turned into a Paradise. God had once before cleansed the wicked world through a flood, giving Noah and all the animals of the earth a new beginning. The heavens had opened and hope had shone through in the form of a rainbow. A dove had gone out and hovered over safe ground. Now, once again, water is bringing about a new world. The heavens open and a dove hovers over someone steady and sure, a new foundation.

In the baptism of Jesus and his subsequent temptation in the wilderness, a brand new day has begun. God has boldly announced a new chapter—the final chapter—in God’s plan to reconcile the entire cosmos to God’s self. And, strangely, before Jesus has called even his first disciple, the wild beasts are gathering around him as a sign of the peacefulness and promise to come. He doesn’t even have to enlist an expert puppy trainer. They just know. Eden, at long last, has been regained.

How about you? Do you feel the draw to gather around Jesus, to respond to his announcement that God’s kingdom has come near? Do you, too, long for a fresh beginning, a total do-over in life, or maybe just today? Have you ever been adrift like Noah on the ark, searching the skies for a sign of hope? The good news from the gospels is that in Jesus this fresh start, this new beginning, is always possible, for each and every one of us. Your age does not matter. Your background does not matter. Your past choices do not matter. In Jesus, God has come to contend with the fears, the temptations, the dark forces that estrange all people from God and the good God desires for us. This new day begins that moment by the Jordan River and reaches its conclusion at the cross in a new flood of grace where God’s own Son takes all the sin of the world and drowns it in love. Jesus goes into our most godforsaken territories and turns them into a Paradise.

“Noah’s Thanksgiving prayer” (Domenico Morelli)

For the sinner, for the person who is seeking, this is made real in the waters of baptism. Whether we were a tiny infant or a college student or an older adult, our baptism is a sign that we’ve been forever included in this new covenant established by Jesus’ life and death, a promise that Jesus goes into every breast-haunted wilderness we may ever find ourselves in. God has guaranteed our place in that new creation even if we wander from its promise or were just too young to remember what it meant—even if we, at times, behave or carry on as if that new birth never happened. Out of God’s grace we are chosen and gathered as children from all ends of the earth. Each time we reflect on our own baptisms we are reflecting on just how powerful and permanent God’s love for creation is: Jesus has himself driven to the wilderness to save it. Jesus will die on the cross to restore it and rises again from its darkness to show its power. And so baptism is a chance to begin again. Even the act of remembering it, as Martin Luther says, is a chance to start our lives anew and, once again, take part in the kingdom of peace and righteousness that Jesus has begun.

One Easter in the first congregation I served we baptized a man who was in his fifties. He had first ventured into our congregation with his wife earlier that year, in January, after having driven by the front door regularly for about six months. It took him that long, I later found out, before he finally got up the nerve to come inside. I think we church people can forget that. It takes many people a lot of courage just to enter church doors. We used that Lent as a time to have some intentional conversations about his life and his faith and where he perceived God’s presence in his life. We came to the conclusion that it was time for him to be baptized. For reasons unknown to him, his parents had never taken that step with him when he was young.

That Sunday, as the water was poured over his head, a new thing for that congregation occurred. He began to weep. It caught everyone by surprise, although perhaps it shouldn’t have. The people in the choir, who were standing nearest to him by virtue of the way our chancel was set up, were affected by his visible show of emotion. Some of them began to cry too, confronted with the seemingly un-Lutheran reality of a grown man moved to tears in worship, and in such an open way. I’ll never forget a comment one of them made after worship was over and she reflected on the event. “It was like it meant something to him,” she said.

Indeed, something had happened. There was a new creation. We watched over the next months and years as the splash created by his baptism rippled throughout the entire congregation, just as the same grace ripples throughout any congregation whenever a pastor cradles a new baby in his arms at the font. People began sharing a bit more about their own faith, their own God-given chances to start over. Something is happening in the life of Jesus Christ, the likes of which this whole world has never experienced or seen before. No matter how or when we travel through the flood waters of baptism, God’s purposes are made clear: Jesus is on the scene. He has come to gather us.

And even when powerful emotion is not there in our faith, even when we traverse the long days of wilderness when we doubt and wander, it is still true that the days when sin and death have the final word are now behind us. That time is no more. God has claimed us for his grand new restoration project on earth, and each person—be they young or old, be they intimidated by the front doors of church or as comfortable in a pew as on their family room sofa—each person has the Spirit-given gifts to join in on the effort.

This does not mean, it should be noted, that the Christian life will be easy, that taking part in this restoration flood will be free of tests and trials. After all, once his own baptism happens, Jesus is driven by the Spirit not into a field of daisies, but straight into Satan’s tests. As member of his body, we should expect the same type of experience, for we are subjects of a kingdom whose existence and goodness is not yet completely acknowledged by the whole world. Temptation is a regular part of the baptized life.

And we should also note that our gatherings will be gatherings of different-minded people, with different backgrounds and sometimes conflicting points of view. But because Christ is a new creation, the church can be together as diverse people who don’t devour each other like wild beasts. We learn to see those different from us not as threats, but as beautiful creatures of God who add to our human experience, who help populate a kingdom that includes all kinds. This is what the world will seek and be drawn to.

In one of his books, former Divinity School professor and United Methodist bishop Will Willimon tells the story of a newspaper clipping he once read about a woman somewhere in Louisiana who raised somewhere around a dozen foster children despite her low, meager income as a domestic worker. Why did she do it? Why did she suffer so? She responded, “I saw a new world a comin’.”[1]

A new world is comin’.  As far as Mark is concerned, the animals might already know it. It starts with a splash, then forms a ripple, until all of creation is caught up in the flood. Get ready. Turn around! And believe in the good news!”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[1] Will Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002. P127

Over the Top

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

Mark 9:2-9

Two friends of mine who are married to each other have a competition every Valentine’s Day to see who can find the cheesiest, tackiest, most-over-the-top Valentine’s Day card. In the early days of their life together they used to purchase these cards, sign them and give them to one another and then circulate them among their friends and family so that we could vote on which one we found the sappiest. Nowadays, my friends upload them to their Facebook page and let dozens of people weigh in, and at the end of the day they reveal who won the most votes. The whole event is a lot of fun, and it’s really generous of them that they’ve allowed so many other people to join in the love they have for each other this way.

Whose will win 2021??

Let me tell you, there are a lot of doozy Valentine’s Day cards out there—ones with cutesy poems, ones with obscene amounts of glitter and shine, ones that have surprise sound or music coming out when you open them up— but my friends really have a knack for finding ones that really go over the top. I can’t wait to see what they’ve come up with today.

In the transfiguration of Jesus, God really goes over the top, you might say, to get the message across. It’s flashy, it’s bright, there’s a lot of shine. There’s even a surprise sound coming out of the clouds at one point. And, quite literally, he takes them over the top—over the top of a mountain somewhere in the region of Judea. Some people say it was Mount Carmel, but others point out that Jesus may have taken them up Mount Hermon or Mount Tabor. Regardless of which specific peak it was, that this happens on a mountain is important because in Scripture mountains are places where people traditionally receive messages from God. Jesus selects just three of his disciples, likely his closest friends, and goes out of his way up on this mountain, away from the crowds, in order to reveal something about himself.

Mountain peaks usually have this type of mystique about them. They offer perspective. Sometimes people go on retreats on mountains for this reason. The air is thinner and feels cleaner to breathe. We feel above the fray, away from it all. The views from the tops of mountains also often give us a sense of where we are in relation to everything else. This past summer my family got to visit the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. At 14,415 feet it is one of the highest drivable summits in the U.S. We were there on a crystal clear day—spacious skies— and it was easy to see why the view inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write “America, the Beautiful” after she visited there in 1893. We couldn’t linger and admire the view for very long because our son passed out from lack of oxygen, but we were so high up that it felt like we could see half of the country up there, the fruited plain stretching out endlessly one way and the purple mountain majesties the other.

On the mount of transfiguration, the disciples get perspective on Jesus, the beautiful. It is not so much the view from the mountain that God focuses them on, but the view on the mountain. Jesus changes somehow. Maybe his face is different, or the shape of his body, but what the gospel writers remember most is that his clothes become dazzling white. The Greek word actually means “glittered.” He stands there, so bright to look at, too much to take in. This is over the top already, but then suddenly Jesus is joined by two of Israel’s all-stars: Moses on one side and Elijah on the other.

These are two figures that loomed so large in ancient Israel’s history and mindset that their presence would have immediately raised Jesus’ street cred in the eyes of the disciples. Based on Peter’s reaction, we can tell that suddenly they think Jesus is a bit more important than they had probably up to this point. Moses represents the beauty of the law, that long and holy tradition of following God’s commandments. Elijah represents the beauty of the prophets, that long and holy tradition of hearing and heeding God’s Word among in community. Flanked by these two, Jesus is seen in a new perspective, and this is the message of God’s over-the-top card: Jesus is not just some guy who comes to heal the sick and teach Scripture. Jesus is not just a Messiah who will march onto the scene and violently overthrow the powers-that-be. He is at least as great as Moses and Elijah, at least as beautiful as the two ways God has, up to this point, related to God’s people.

J Nance

In fact, by the end of the transfiguration, God’s message is even clearer. Jesus does shine fairer, Jesus does shine purer. A voice thunders from the midst of the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Moses and Elijah mysteriously disappear. We are left with only Jesus.

How often do we place Jesus just on equal level with so much else in our lives, as just another commitment in our calendar, just another authority among many? I think that is a temptation, even for people who follow Jesus, maybe especially for those who follow him. Jesus means to be everything for us because we are the ones he loves. Richard Graham, former Lutheran bishop of the Metro-DC Synod once said, “Jesus is the light of the world. Christians don’t advance the conversation [in a helpful way] when they say to the world, ‘Jesus is just an interesting option.'” The transfiguration is the over-the-top message that says Jesus is more than just an interesting option. There is no one equal to him.

Therefore, we listen. We listen to the way Jesus speaks to us, the way Jesus reaches out to people. We listen to the way he speaks to people who are hurting, the way he speaks truth to those in power, the way he calls out the hypocrisy of religious leaders. We listen to his invitations to children and others who are often overlooked. And foremost, we listen to his words about what’s going to happen to him, the very message he has already tried to get across to his disciples, although they don’t seem to hear it. He tells us that he will go into Jerusalem and be handed over to the chief priests and elders suffer, and die, and then rise again on the third day.

In fact, he commands Peter, James, and John not to mention this transfiguration until after that point, until after all that hard stuff has happened and he’s risen from the dead. He has given them on the mountain a glimpse of the final glory promised in him. They will need that glimpse as they traipse with him through the grueling road of suffering ahead. It gives them the perspective they will need—that the love of God in Jesus will be victorious over all the dark and devious things the children of God encounter. Jesus will once again shine purer and fairer after the tragedy of the cross.

The Transfiguration (Raphael)

This pandemic feels like we’re all in a deep valley. It’s like the opposite of a mountaintop, the air is stifling here, and I’m not sure any of us have any real perspective on how it is changing us as a society and as individuals. People talk about how it will leave a permanent mark on us, what we’re learning. Maybe it will change our lifestyles in certain ways for a long time to come. There is a lot of speculation about this, lots of predictions about how this time will affect us all. I’m not sure we can really say anything about that yet with any certainty. It’s fun to predict and say international travel will never be what it once was, or that facemasks will always be part of our wardrobe, or that people won’t use office buildings anymore. But I have a sneaking suspicion we won’t really know what that future life will really be like until we actually up from this valley on the other side. It would be nice to have a vision of that post-pandemic life, so we could plan an all, but until then we just trudge through. Perhaps the end is more near than we realize.

Jesus’ transfiguration is a vision of that final, future life, when he is finished with the suffering and the dying. when the cross and the nails are behind him. This shining moment in the thin mountain air is the vision of that distant time when we are all finished with our grief and our sorrows, when we’ve come out of this long valley of confusion and death to a new summit we will never leave. Perhaps that glorious end is more near than we realize, too.

This is the time of the year—the Sunday of the Transfiguration—when Pastor Joseph and I fulfill a yearly Epiphany tradition. We haul out the big ladder and climb to the top of things to hang the purple drape on the cross for Lent. Thankfully neither one of us is really afraid of heights, so we’re not against doing it, but there is a bit of danger involved so we try to be very careful. My ears don’t pop as I go up, and the oxygen isn’t thinner, but the middle of the cross is the highest point in the sanctuary, higher even than the balcony. Every year I am taken aback by the view from up here, the perspective from this cross in this particular room.  From here, as I hang this drape and try not to fall, I can look out and imagine all the people of God’s kingdom, all the people who sit in these pews and in churches across the world and be reminded of the long vision of hope Jesus gives us.

May you stand here, just for a moment, and take in with me this year that God really goes over the top in his love for us. In his transfiguration, on the cross, Jesus, the beautiful—the most beautiful—goes totally over the top. And all of us win.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Swaddled

a sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

I don’t suppose any of us were hoping we’d be celebrating our Lord’s birth this way this year. I remember that during the first few weeks of the pandemic I was sure everything would be back up and running by the fall, if not earlier. Like in that final scene in “White Christmas,” I at least held out hope that the curtain would miraculously go up on Christmas Eve and reveal a world uninhibited by a coronavirus.

Oh, how naïve I was! Maybe some of you were, too. Christmas, in large part, seems to be all about closeness, sharing food, and singing together. And now here we are with very little of that. Perhaps we should have prepared better, been more sober-minded, but Christmas is about hoping and believing, right?

not 2020

It has been nine months of a strange, fearful, and tumultuous lifestyle because of the coronavirus. And I don’t know about you, but for me all the conflicting sources of information have made it worse. Finding which media voices to trust is as difficult as staying on top of the ever-changing flow of data. Throw in a Presidential election and rocky administration change, threats of foreign influence and pretty much everyone is wondering: Who should I listen to? What’s reality? Voices of the left? The right? Somewhere in the middle? What is the middle? Is there a middle?

Tonight there are no sides, no spin. The news comes straight down from above, delivered by God’s messengers. And the message is a wonderful, glorious truth: God declares humankind essential. God has always felt that way about us, of course, from the beginning at creation when God declared us very good, and even through the struggles and wanderings of his people Israel.

But tonight it becomes clear to the world in a new way. Looking past all our failings, our contagious fallibility, God shares our space and says, “This isolation is over.  This sin that separates us, keeps you quarantined from my peace and goodwill? It is gone,” God says in the birth in Bethlehem. “You and I are going to be together.”

Perhaps never before—in the last century, at least—has the message of this night met a world so fearful and angry and broken. It’s like the hopes and fears of all the years are met in us tonight as we listen from our cars, masked in the church, or on a screen at home. Madeleine L’Engle, the writer of the beloved children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, was a person of faith, and over her life wrote several poems about Christmas. She composed one of them, called “Into the Darkest Hour,” in the 1990s, but upon reading it we might think it is about 2020. The first stanza goes:

It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss-
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.

We are living with a “horror in the air”—we’re afraid we’ll breathe it, share it. Don’t sing a Christmas carol with people…there’s a horror in the air! And there are echoes of war—trade wars, civil wars, not to mention about wars within our own hearts about how we go forward. And yet as Mary and Joseph go down to Bethlehem, driven there by a ruler who wants to count, count, count the people, it should occur to us: how we’re living now is exactly how God expects to find us. How we’re living now—more aware than ever in our lifetimes of our mortality, more aware than in a long time of our disunity, more aware of the challenges of trusting one another—is precisely the humanity God love and has in mind to save. And so into this darkest hour we know God comes. We may not be able to sing or celebrate it like usual, but Jesus is nevertheless born.

He is most wonderfully here.

Yes, it’s a stripped-down, more-anxious-than-usual Christmas, but something truly sublime happened here last week as we pulled together a Live Nativity outdoors. It happened on the night we should have had a children’s Christmas musical. We had never tried to put something like this together before, much less while maintaining social distance for people seated in their cars and broadcast over the radio:“Breaker-breaker-one-nine, we got a pregnant lady coasting into Bethlehem.”

In all honesty, we weren’t that clever. We didn’t need to be. We simply had families from the congregation sign up on-line for the different roles and we read the Christmas stories straight from the Bible. We had a Holy Family, including a real baby Jesus, some shepherds, four angels, plus an archangel who stood on the roof, and we added in the magi from Matthew’s gospel just to make it more interesting. We even had an extra set of shepherds show up if we needed them.

To my knowledge very few of these families really knew each other or had met before that night. Our preparations were minimal. All we really did was tell each group where they were supposed to start and where they were supposed to end up. We did a very quick run-through and then they went and put on costumes. Twenty minutes later they did it for real in front of more than 100 people.

And in spite of all my anxiety, nothing went wrong. It would have been OK if something had, but nothing went wrong. Nobody’s timing was off, no one had to be coaxed into their role, and my favorite part was the fact that the very moment that the narrator was speaking the words, “Mary wrapped her first born son in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger,” our Mary actually bent overand put her son right into our manger. Like we had practiced for days.The whole thing went off without a hitch.I am positive something similar to this happened at churches throughout the world.

It occurred to me, as the cars were filing out of the parking lot, as the characters were hanging their costumes back up, and Saturn and Jupiter, mysteriously drawn together, were appearing in the sky over the columbarium like a Bethlehem star, with what other story on earth could people do this? What other story can take total strangers, hand them basic props like bathrobes, tinsel halos, and plastic crowns, and essentially say, “Do your thing”? Almost everyone knows the shepherds are terrified. Almost everyone knows the angels show up, flap their wings, and calm them down. People know the magi kind of wander around and then at some point kneel down with gifts. Mary and Joseph don’t need to speak. They just need to act tenderly with one another and smile at their baby.

The story, you see, just carries us. This good news pulls everyone in. It doesn’t need embellishment, it doesn’t really need rehearsal. It definitely doesn’t need complexity. It uses common people, and most everyone fits that bill. There are people, of course, who don’t know this story. For whatever reasons they aren’t aware yet how silently the gift is given, but they also don’t know how easy God has made it for them to play a part too. At a Christmas when all we really have is the story, we see it’s enough for God to carry us through.

When mothers in the middle east give birth, they wrap the child in nothing more than bands of cloth, or swaddling clothes. Whatever they have on hand. Mary does this. It is a sign of maternal care. Swaddling keeps babies warm and makes them feel safe. It also makes them easy to carry. Who is swaddled this year? I think God has swaddled us. I believe we find ourselves wrapped up in little more God’s story of love and relying on God’s hands to carry us through. And it’s enough.

For it is a story, you may recall, that takes us from the swaddling clothes of the manger to the clothes that are divided by casting lots as this Jesus hangs on the cross. It is a story that does not turn back from any darkest hour, not even death. In Jesus, God takes our various terrified and wandering lives, pulls us in, and tells us where we end up and where we end up is at the heart of his love. We are essential, remember?  Even as he dies, he dies for us. Because of Jesus, the best gift of all, we will be carried through to life forever with God.

And so on this unusual night of peace and glory, when all we have is this wonderful story, here are the things marvelous things we ponder:

As the holy pair wait for room to deliver their child, we know God is with every patient waiting on a hospital room or ICU spot.  

As the shepherds are startled from their fields we realize God values every health care worker and law enforcement officer who has had to work through the night this year.

As the angel insists on making known tidings of great joy to a fearful audience, we know God is with every public health official and vaccine developer who has struggled to get across messages of health and safety this year. God sees every teacher who has struggled to share tidings of math and reading through a computer screen.

As Joseph and Mary travel far from their home in Nazareth, separated from family in such a tender and vulnerable moment, we trust God recognizes every grandparent and loved one and nursing home resident who celebrates this day alone.

As Jesus finds himself born in Bethlehem simply because the governor issued a census, we see that God knows what it’s like to counted by the powers that be, as another data point for some chart somewhere. And so God comes alongside everyone who’s received a positive COVID test, mindful of the stigma they are now just a number on a graph.

As the whole scene likely takes place in the open air, and on a road trip, and definitely not in heated sanctuary, we know God sees everyone who’s been kept away from gathering in their churches this year.

We’re all in the story, somehow, you see.  Swaddled, wrapped up, kept safe in this dark night…and ready for God to pick us up and take us ahead, and Jesus is most wonderfully here.

Merry Christmas!!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Rejoice + Pray + Give Thanks

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

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 and Psalm 126

One night this week my family was seated at our kitchen table for our Advent devotions, which we typically do right as everyone finishes eating. We prefer to have the table cleared before we do them, but on this particular night we were in a rush so we just shoved the dishes to the middle of the table and made-do. There are different duties all associated with our devotions routine. In our kitchen window we have our Advent log, which contains one candle for every day of Advent. We also have an Advent calendar and some devotional readings I’ve worked up over the years. Everyone has multiple roles to play, and no matter how well-organized we are, there is always some fuss and debate about who gets to do what.

what a completed Advent log looks like

On this particular evening, as he watched the rest of us try to figure out what was going to happen in what order, the 4-year-old announced, all on his own, that he wanted to lead us in a prayer. It kind of caught us off guard, and even though our routine was already a little too elaborate, perhaps, we couldn’t turn down his request. And so we bowed our heads and let him offer a prayer. There was no hesitation on his part. “Dear God,” he said, and then clearly waited for us to repeat: “Dear God.”

“Thank you for loving me.”
“Thank you for loving me.” And then a pause.

“Thank you for loving Bigger Bear” (which is his number one stuffed animal)
“Thank you for loving Bigger Bear.”

“Thank you for loving our food.”
“Thank you for loving our food.”

“Thank you for loving our vegetables.”
“Thank you for loving our vegetables.”

“Thank you for loving an apple.”
“Thank you for loving an apple.”

And at this point I couldn’t resist opening my eyes just a bit and I saw him scanning the room looking for the next thing to plug into his prayer formula. The girls were starting to get the giggles, and I wasn’t sure how long this was going to go on considering we have a very cluttered kitchen right now. He had plenty of things to choose from. But right at that moment he said, “Amen.”

In his final words to his congregation in Thessalonika, Paul says to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances. There we were in our kitchen, doing all three, and our 4-year-old was leading the way. In the Thessalonians’ case, Paul is not discussing family devotions or rituals, but the situation they are dealing with is not all that different from ours on this third Sunday of Advent. They are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Jesus. They are taking serious Jesus’ own promise that he would return at any moment and usher in a reign of peace and justice. We get the sense from reading the letter that they are starting to get a little impatient and that impatience is leading to some anxiety and even some fear.  I thinktThe Thessalonian congregation sounds a little bit like a popular Christmas song by the Chipmunks, rephrased:

Our Lord Jesus’ time is near.
Time of peace, time of cheer.
We’ve got faith but we can’t last.
Hurry, Jesus. Hurry fast.

Oh, how hard it is to wait!

Then in his characteristic pastoral tone, Paul assures them that anxiety and fear are not in order. Even in this time of waiting they can rejoice. Always. They can pray. Constantly. And they can look around the room wherever they are and start plugging things they see and notice into a prayer of thanksgiving.

There are several times where prepositions become very important in our faith, and I find that this is one of them. Paul doesn’t say to give thanks FOR all circumstances, but to give thanks in all circumstances. And so even as they pray for Jesus to hurry, even as they confess some frustration with how long the waiting is turning out to be, they can still be thankful. That is, they don’t need to feel thankful for Jesus’ delay, but it’s absolutely appropriate to be thankful while Jesus is delayed.

We find that this expands to all kinds of situations of faith and life. I’ve had a conversation this week with a woman in our congregation whose father just died. She told me how she has feelings of sadness, because, after all, he was her dad, and she loved him, but at the same time expressed to me how thankful she feels nonetheless—thankful his death was peaceful, thankful all siblings had time to gather and spend time with him, thankful the nursing facility relaxed COVID restrictions just so they could say goodbye. She’s not thankful for his death, but she’s thankful in the circumstances.

I spoke recently with someone whose child had received a cancer diagnosis. Those are never words you want to hear. You rarely, if ever, give thanks for cancer, but at the same time there was clear thankfulness, in this case, that it had been caught far earlier than it should have. There is thankfulness for support from so many friends and caregivers.

I don’t think I need to belabor the point, and Paul doesn’t either. These three little commands at the end of his letter are brief and to the point. Through joyfulness, fervent prayer, and a spirit of thankfulness they will have all they need to be blameless and sound at the coming of Jesus. To be blameless and sound is to be ready, to be whole. And all three of these things—thanksgiving, prayer, and joy—have a way of doing that to our soul. God, the one who calls us, is faithful, Paul reminds us, and will provide us the ability to sit around the table, virtually if we have to and share these things together.

Of those, the one we might need to hear most in these days is the command to rejoice always. For obvious reasons, joy goes a long way during stressful times. Traditionally, the third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, taken from the Latin word for joy. The Scripture readings appointed for this Sunday typically focus on joy if they don’t mention joy directly, and we certainly hear them today. In some traditions the Advent candle is pink today, a color that symbolizes joyfulness and gladness, which reminds us that ultimately we are anticipating joy in Jesus.

That Latin word, Gaudete, is also where we get the word “gaudy,” which is a word that comes to mind with pink. Gaudy also makes me think of what has become many people’s favorite ways to mark this time of year—the gaudy Christmas sweater. Things that are gaudy often bring joy. They are flashy and fun. They don’t hold back and aren’t subdued by social convention or feelings of embarrassment. They’re kind of bold in the midst of the whites and golds of Christmastime. The third Sunday of Advent tells us our faith can wear a gaudy Christmas sweater, especially in the midst of a world that is dark and hurting. It’s a garland instead of ashes, a mantle of praise rather than a faint spirit, as the prophet Isaiah says.

But we know the joy that Christ brings us is not a shallow or surface happiness. It is a joy that knows God plays the long game, as theologian Walter Brueggeman says. It is a “deep, glad confidence,” he says, “that God’s good will for the world will outrun all of our troubles and tribulations.” This, you see, is a joy rooted in the cross and shining with the light of Easter morning. It has already looked death head on and let it do its worse and still not been conquered. Nothing can now take that away.

The truly amazing thing about this joy that Christ brings is that it isn’t just intended for us and for our salvation. It is a joy that is reflected in the transformation of the world around us. The brokenhearted find themselves bound up in hope. The captives are set free. Prisoners to sin and grief are set free. The ruins of human communities are rebuilt and restored. Goodness and mercy flow through God’s people again, like the watercourses of the Negeb, which is a desert wilderness in southern Israel, after a storm. They blossom and grow in a riot of color even though the surrounding hills and rocks, in their desolation, suggest they are out of place. A gaudy sweater stands out, looks “out of place.” The deep joy from knowing Christ sets God’s people apart, even as the world seems fearful.

Jesus, in all his goodness, comes to us. In fact, John says he is standing among us now. May we be sound and blameless. Ready and whole. It’s a joyful thing. Next thing you know—this joy spills over from our personal gaudiness, and the whole world wants to wear a sweater like ours. It spills over in your generosity through the Giving Tree and Thanksgiving baskets. If flows over in your commitments to carry this congregation into another year, even as a pandemic is ongoing.

The writer of the psalm would call this shouldering the sheaves. That is, carrying so much more harvest than you expected that you bear them on shoulders, ready for a party.

John the Baptist would call this testifying to the light, the light that ends the darkness.

Paul would call it rejoicing always, giving thanks in all circumstances.

Jasper, my son, would say, “Thank you, God, for loving me. And that over there. And that over there. And that and that and that.”

Take your pick, it’s all the same.

The Lord is near. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do this.