Epiphany

ISAIAH 60:1-9
PSALM 72
EPHESIANS 3:1-13
MATTHEW 2:1-12

The commemoration of the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem occurs every year on the 12th Day of Christmas. And just as Christmas, it’s observed on a specific date rather than day; always January 6th.

Epiphany’s Gospel lesson affords us an opportunity to rescue the Magi from their places in the annual Christmas pageant (having "traversed afar”, they arrived in Bethlehem much later than, say, the shepherds), and restore them to their biblical roles as key witnesses to both the promise and threat of Christ.

Matthew paints a vivid picture, not only of the welcome of God to the whole world, but also of some foundational truths and risks of true worship.

Prologue

ISAIAH 61:10-62:5
PS 147:13-20
GALATIANS 3:23-4:7
JOHN 1:1-18

Whatever else John is going to tell us in his Gospel,  his stunning prologue sets the scene for the story of God and the world, not just the story of one character in one place and time.

 It’s about the creator God acting in a new way within his much-loved creation.

 It's about the way in which the long story that began in Genesis is reaching the climax the creator has always intended.

 And it will all come about through the Word.

Magnificat

MICAH 5:2-5A
PSALM 80:1-7
HEBREWS 10:1-10
LUKE 1:39-56

What would it take to make you celebrate wildly, without inhibition? Whatever it is, you’d probably do things you normally wouldn’t.

 You might dance. You throw a party. You might sing a song. You might even make one up as you went along—probably out of bits of poems and songs you already knew, or maybe by adding your own new words to a great old tune.

Read Mary’s Song like that. (It’s most often called Magnificat, because that’s its first word in Latin.) It’s one of the most famous songs in Christianity. It’s been whispered in monasteries, chanted in cathedrals, recited in small churches by evening candlelight, and set to glorious music by Bach.

It’s the gospel before the gospel, a fierce shout of celebration thirty weeks before Bethlehem, and thirty-three years before Calvary and Easter.

Christmas Isn't Magic

ZEPHANIAH 3:14-20
PSALM 85
PHILIPPIANS 4:4-9
LUKE 3:7-20

I do so wish Christmas was magic, for with a prayer and a wave of my hand the world could be made new. Yet Christmas is a miracle, the miracle of a God who would love us and be amongst us. The miracle of a savior who will endure the rejection of those he came to save. The miracle of a new life which will outgrow all that is entrapping us.

Preparing the Way

MALACHI 3:1-5
PSALM 126
1 CORINTHIANS 4:1-21
LUKE 3:1-6

There were few paved roads in the ancient Near East. Regular people travelled on little more than worn paths in the baked earth. There were no significant bridges or tunnels. You walked around rocks, over hills, and around gullies.

But not the king. When he planned a visit, the first to show up were heralds and engineers to prepare the way. To make crooked places straight and rough places smooth, to fill “valleys” and level “hills”.

 Tearing down and building up to create a “King’s Highway”.

 This is the image John the Baptist uses when he tells those in his day—and us by extension—to “prepare the way of the Lord” as we do in Advent.

 It’s also a pattern embedded in the Scriptures and in the Gospel itself.

Christ the King

DANIEL 7:9-10, 13-14
PSALM 93
REVELATION 1:4b-8
JOHN 18:33-37

On the feast of Christ the King in 2015, I was confirmed by the Bishop of St Albans, Alan Gregory Clayton Smith. What I did not know, nor could I was how profoundly it would change my life to have the Holy Spirit poured out on me in this unique way.

Sitting Down

DANIEL 12:1-3
PSALM 16
HEBREWS 10:11-25
MARK 13:1-8

Most of us do most of our work sitting down. As I write this now, I’m sitting. Generally when I stand up, my work is finished…or I’ve seen something shiny (and just between you and me, it’s generally the latter). Except maybe for the something shiny, the same’s likely true for you.

It wasn’t necessarily this way in the ancient Near East. Mostly, people stood to work and sat down when their work was finished.

In this week’s Epistle, the writer of Hebrews juxtaposes standing and sitting to communicate something profound about work ongoing and work completed. And in light of that reality, our proper response.

The Why Question

1 KINGS 17:8-16
PSALM 146
HEBREWS 9:24-28
MARK 12:38-44

A friend from the 80s, now a successful executive mentor, had a refrain: "Until you answer the why question, the cost is always too high.”

Simply put, why makes what meaningful.

Nearly anyone who reads this week’s Gospel lesson (The Widow’s Mite) can pretty quickly come up with the what (spoiler alert: sacrificial giving). That’s simple.

But what’s the why? Well, that’s the vital question, isn’t it?

Paying Attention

DEUTERONOMY 6:1-9
PSALM 119:1-8
HEBREWS 9:11-14
MARK 12:28-34

Things we hear all the time—even important things—can become so familiar we stop really paying attention. Think about the last time you were absorbed in what the flight attendant said just before takeoff.

There’s a vital part of Christian liturgy—28 words so important that Jesus said every other word in the Bible hangs from them—the church has repeated week after week almost without exception. Year after year. Decade after decade. For millennia.

Cue the Charlie Brown adult sound.

This week, though, we’re gonna pay attention.

The Miracle That Gets Us There

JEREMIAH 31:7-9
PSALM 126 
HEBREWS 7:23-28
MARK 10:46-52

Our Gospel Lessons this month have given us the sad story of a rich man who walks away from Jesus sad, and the strange story of James and John asking Jesus whether they can sit at his right and left hand. In these stories something is asked of Jesus which they, for some reason, cannot receive.

But this week Jesus will be asked a question which he can finally answer in the affirmative.

Yet the work he does for this person is not the end of Jesus’ ministry.

I suppose I have often thought that my needs ought to be met, but I do not consider how the answers to my prayers might fit with Jesus’ purpose for the salvation of all the world. Might it be that what I believe about what I need would change, if I kept in mind the direction I am headed?

Warts and All

ISAIAH 53:4-12
PSALM 91:9-16
HEBREWS 5:1-10
MARK 10:35-45

When Oliver Cromwell was presented with his official portrait in 1656, he angrily rejected it. Thinking it would please him, the court painter had omitted Cromwell’s unsightly facial warts.

“Take it away”, he demanded, “and paint me as I am, warts and all.”

In this week’s Gospel, Mark unabashedly paints Jesus’ disciples warts and all…bent by ambition and jealousy.

Why’d he do this? Mark had a very ancient (and biblical) way of understanding human nature, which actually aligns seamlessly with what Jesus went on to tell them about the upside-down nature of true greatness.

Blind Spot

AMOS 5:6-7, 10-15
PSALM 90:12-17
HEBREWS 4:12-16
MARK 10:17-31

The practical definition of a blind spot is simply, “something you don’t see.”

It’s often quite painful when a blind spot is exposed to us. In fact, it can be grievous. But once it’s been exposed and dealt with, the result can be quite life changing.

In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus lovingly exposes a blind spot in an exceptionally successful, powerful, and moral young man—just one thing that’s holding him back (though admittedly, it’s a big one).

But sadly, while its exposure grieves him, it doesn’t quite change him.

Common Ground

GENESIS 2:18-24
PSALM 8
HEBREWS 1:1-4; 2:5-12
MARK 10:2-16

Just last Sunday I was telling a visitor why I value preaching through the lectionary. I said something super cheery like, “I never have to dream up a topic or a passage, because they’re determined by the Church calendar and the cycle we’re in (“Year B” this year). I actually really like that.”

May have spoken too soon. Monday morning I read this week’s Gospel.
So, besides the level ground at the foot of the cross, you and I may have other common ground this week:

I don’t really want to preach this sermon...and I’m betting you don’t really want to hear it.

Reductio ad Absurdum

NUMBERS 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
PSALM 19:7-14
JAMES 5:13-20
MARK 9:38-50

In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus seemingly offers a fairly extreme way to avoid wrongdoing.

Apparently, if you sufficiently dismember yourself, you won’t be able to take any wrong action. This is, at least, the logic by which Jesus reduces the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees to the absurd.

In their view, the law could be satisfied, and thus goodness attained, if you simply avoided sinning. You’re “right” if you’ve done nothing “wrong.” You could keep from sinning if you simply eliminated the bodily parts that make sinful actions possible. You’d stay out of hell, but you’d roll into heaven a mutilated stump.

Ouch.

Living Gently within the Wisdom of the Cross

JEREMIAH 11:18-20
PSALM 54
JAMES 3:13-4:3, 7-8A
MARK 9:30-37

Living gently within the wisdom of Christ's cross and resurrection doesn't seem very dangerous, yet as we comprehend the face of our Lord amongst those who cannot offer us anything in return, nor even the satisfaction of being admired for our service, it may well be the case that we will show a world of vicious division and ambition that there is a God who loves them.

Not the God I Wanted

ISAIAH 50:4-9
PSALM 116:1-8
JAMES 3:1-12
MARK 8:27-38

A few days ago, a friend texted me a quote by author Richard Rohr, and I don’t like it: “The real places of spiritual transformation are solitude, loneliness, boredom, suffering, and fear. Things we want to avoid but where the good stuff always hides.”

I know this to be true, and that’s why I don’t like it. Candidly, this is not the God I wanted.

But I’m not alone. This is revealed in the answer to a pointed question Jesus asked in this week’s Gospel reading. It’s not the God Peter wanted either...but it is the God that is.

And the God that is is so much better.

You Are A Grain Of Wheat

DEUTERONOMY 4:1-2, 6-9
PSALM 15
JAMES 1:17-27
MARK 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

You are not a glass of wine. You are not the ripple of an echo. You have not yet forgotten your name, and your soul is not a chip from a star.

To Whom Shall We Go?

JOSHUA 24:1-2A,14-18
PSALM 34:15-22
EPHESIANS 6:10-20
JOHN 6:56-69

From the ongoing sexual abuse scandal once again rocking the Roman Catholic Church, forcing the resignation of Cardinal McCarrick; to the sexual abuse scandal at the prominent and influential Willow Creek Community Church, ousting Bill Hybels, his two pastoral successors, and the entire Board of Elders.

While Lauren and I were travelling earlier this week, the top story in the local news was of a parish Priest who’d stolen more than a quarter million dollars from his predominately poor congregation.

The angry, impassioned—and justifiable—responses of heartbroken and disillusioned parishioners have been really hard to see. In a lot of ways, many are asking the very question the Apostle Peter asked (and answered!) in this week’s Gospel reading.

How Should We Then Sing?

PROVERBS 9:1-6
PSALM 34:9-14
EPHESIANS 5:15-20
JOHN 6:51-58

Besides church, try to imagine any other times and places where you sit with a group of people you don’t know and sing. Where does that happen? Sometimes at a birthday party. Or you might stumble through Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve. Or maybe during the seventh inning stretch if you’ve had a couple.

Imagine going to your favorite coffee shop, standing up, and saying, “Let’s just sing a few songs together!” I doubt you’d get much participation because culturally, today, it’s an odd thing to do.

However, in the seminal book, “Worship and the Early Church”, scholar Ralph Martin writes, “The Christian Church was born in song.” Singing together has always been seen as a vital part of Christian worship.

But why should we sing? And just as importantly, how? St. Paul gets at both in this week’s Epistle.