In Power and Great Might: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is built around the Collect for the third Sunday in Advent and the Gospel reading for the third Sunday of Advent in Year C.

You can find those readings here.

 

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Please be seated.

How long, O Lord? How long?

We wait here in the dark, longing for your coming, and our hearts groan with news of the world around us: wars and rumors of wars, famine, refugees on the move seeking safety and shelter.

People are hungry, cold, alone… right here where we live. We continue to hurt one another in ever more brutally efficient fashion and we seem to be powerless to do anything about it. And so we pray:

        Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us…

We long for God to remember God’s promises and come among us to lead us out of the darkness. We long for God to to fill the hungry with good things, to release the captives, to give sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free. We long for all flesh to see the salvation of God!

It may be comforting to know that we’re not alone. We are in good company on this third Sunday in this season of Advent. People are streaming into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist proclaim a baptism for the forgiveness of sins because they too are desperate for change, for relief, for deliverance from the news of the world around them and from the world in which they live.

They are desperate because they are facing much the same trials that we are. Listen to John’s instructions to them when they beg him to tell them what to do:

To the crowds he said:

If you have an abundance, an extra coat or food – give it to those who don’t have enough.

To those in power he said:

Don’t use your position to enrich or aggrandize yourself.

Don’t use the power you have to exploit others through violence or threat of  violence.

We can infer from his instructions that they are in fact dealing with a lot of the same things we are. And while John’s injunctions might seem at first to be overly simplistic approaches to the issues that have us groaning, longing for change… if we stop to think about it, following John’s direction we might get us right to the heart of a lot of the evils that we face today.

The evils that we face today…

On the same day that we pray:

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us…”

we also pray:

God of all mercy,

we confess that we have sinned against you,

opposing your will in our lives.

and

We repent of the evil that enslaves us,

the evil we have done,

and the evil done on our behalf.

The juxtaposition of these two prayers that we say together, the collect of the day and the General Confession, paired with John’s instructions to the crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers, begs us to ask the question… Just what is it that we are praying for when we ask God to stir up God’s power and come among us with great might? What are we asking God to do?

 

John the Baptist had a pretty clear vision of what God’s intervention might look like.

John calls the people who came out to hear him a “brood of vipers” and asks “who warned you to flee the “wrath” to come” (Luke 3:7)?

He warns them that even now the “ax” is lying at the root of the tree of the family of Abraham, ready to cut off the people of Israel.

He tells them that the one who is to come, the one more powerful than John, will have a winnowing fork in his hands.

John tells them that unless they repent of the evil that enslaves them, the evil that they have done, and the evil done on their behalf, unless they begin to bear good fruit…

God will deem them chaff and burn them with unquenchable fire!

Is that what we are asking God to do when we pray,  “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us…”  Is that the message that we came out to hear this morning?

John sure seemed to think so.

John’s approach isn’t hard to understand. The People of Israel were more convinced than we are today of their corporate culpability and the relationship between their awful circumstances and the evil that enslaved them, the evil they had done, and the evil done on their behalf.

They were more than ready to believe that the restitution they desired required that God come to judge them.

It is understandable that John, a first century Palestinian Prophet in a long line of prophetic voices would proclaim the judgment of a wrathful God… but from where we stand, here in the darkness of Advent, almost two thousand years later, we know that he was wrong. He was wrong.

That may be a surprising thing to hear from the pulpit on the day that we read John’s prophecy from the Gospel According to Luke but hear me out.

John was talking about Jesus. Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, is the one to whom John refers when he says, “…one who is more powerful than I is coming…”

Well, Jesus came in a manger in Bethlehem, his family too poor to afford lodging in an inn, in a town, where the rates had been jacked through the roof to take advantage of the lopsided supply and demand curve created by the census.

He was born in a place where animals were housed and fed, totally dependent on the people around him to survive.

The “one more powerful” than John needed people to feed, clean and shelter him. The one we are calling to come among us in “power and great might” came among us defenseless, dependent, vulnerable, a babe wrapped in bands of cloth.

John knew all that. Jesus and John were cousins. He might have been ready to ignore that first coming of the “one more powerful” than he as he looked forward to Jesus beginning his public ministry,

but

you have to wonder just how John felt when Jesus began that ministry, baptized in the River Jordan and named by a voice from heaven as “God’s Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.”

There was no crowd of supporters to help overthrow the oppressors. No ax to cut down the family tree of Abraham and David. No winnowing fork in his hands. No unquenchable fire to burn the chaff. And then just to top it off, having been named as the Messiah, the one more powerful than John, Jesus goes off, alone, by himself, into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

John was confused. This wasn’t working out the way that he thought it would. Later in Luke’s Gospel account we will hear that John, who was in prison, sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another” (Luke 7:20)?   Where were the wrath, the ax, the winnowing fork, and the unquenchable fire? Where was the “power and great might?”

John’s messengers returned to tell him what they had seen… the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22). Did this news reassure John? We don’t know. This is the last we hear of John in Luke’s Gospel. We know from Mark and Matthew that Herod has John beheaded in prison so John wasn’t around to see Jesus’s story through to the end.

If he had lived to see it I bet he would have been surprised!

Jesus, the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased; the one who is to come, the one greater than John, the one whom we call to come in “power and great might” ends his life on a cross. He put his life into our hands, a vulnerable child born in “such mean estate.” He gave himself to us.  And he never backed away. He never withdrew what he had given. He remained vulnerable to the very end and was willing to die at our hands.

 

I said earlier that John was wrong.   Maybe I need to be more specific. John was right when he told us that one more powerful than he was coming. He was right when he identified Jesus as “the one.” He was right when he told us that we need to

repent of the evil that enslaves us,

            the evil we have done,

            and the evil done on our behalf.

And he was right to characterize all of this as the “good news.”

But John was wrong about the way that God comes among us with “power and great might.” God’s power and great might are not expressed with wrath, axes, winnowing forks, or unquenchable fire. God’s power and Great might is expressed through love, vulnerability, and the willingness to risk all for the sake of communion and relationship.

 

We are here today, in the dark, longing, even groaning, for change. What is it that we are asking God to do when we ask that God come among us in “power and great might?”

It’s that next line of the collect that is so important. It’s that next line that expresses the radical truth proclaimed by the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…

God’s “power and great might” are God’s “bountiful grace and mercy!”

We aren’t asking God to come and do something to us. We are asking god to come and do something through us!

…because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…

We are hindered by our sins. Our corporate culpability, our readiness to fall back into a world dominated by wrath, axes, winnowing forks and unquenchable fire all conspire to keep God’s power and great might from working through us to effect change and realize the kingdom here and now.

What are we asking God to do when we pray this day?

We are asking God to come among us, one more time, and remind us of God’s radical power and great glory, manifest in vulnerability, in the willingness to risk all for the sake of communion and relationship, and in love.

We are asking God to forgive, restore, and strengthen us; to heal us and make us whole through the abundant grace and mercy that flows unceasingly from God to us.

We are asking that we be set free to love one another so that through us the world might finally learn to put away the wrath, axe, winnowing fork and fire.

Stir up you power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.

Amen.

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Give Me the Head of John the Baptist: a reworking of a sermon in a new context.

This sermon is built on the first half of a sermon that I preached three years ago on the readings assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary for Proper 10 in Year B.

Three years ago the sermon cried out for a different ending and as I approached these texts this year, in the context of a Baptism at our principal service that ending came into focus.

You can find the readings here

You can find the original sermon here.

The story of Herod, Salome, and John the Baptist is full of graphic and sensual images.  I would imagine that, thanks to multiple artists, playwrights and composers, none of us in this room has any difficulty conjuring up this scene.  A dimly lit space, stone pillars supporting an ornately carved ceiling, powerful people reclining on richly embroidered cushions while women in “exotic” dress move in and out serving platters of spicy food and drink.  There are open braziers in the corners and the smell of smoke and incense fill the room.

Then the music changes, a young girl enters the room, and she begins to dance.  The dance starts out slowly and then gains momentum and power.  The room is transfixed.  All eyes are upon her.  No one even tries to disguise his or her stares.  She has them all in the palm of her hand. And then she turns her gaze upon the king.

We jump now to a cell where John the Baptist has been imprisoned.  The guards storm in and before he can begin to defend himself they pin him to the floor and swing a sword.

The banquet hall falls silent as a platter is carried in and presented to the girl; a platter bearing the head of John the Baptist.

A visual, sensual and graphic story that comes easily to mind, complete with special effects and a soundtrack.  Mark, our Gospel writer, is a master of his craft and in this passage he has constructed a true work of art.  And yet all of the details, the sights, sounds, smells, that rush to mind when we hear this story can be problematic.  They can distract us from the real point of this story; a point that would be easy to miss unless we know a little history.

The Herod of our story is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great.  It was Herod the Great who ordered the slaughter of the innocents when the Magi told him that a King had been born to the People of Israel.  This same Herod the Great had two of his sons executed in order to secure his throne as King of Judea.  Another of sons was convicted of trying to poison him.  At this point, with three older brothers removed from the line of succession, Herod Antipas, who appears in our gospel reading this morning, became heir to the throne.  But on his deathbed, in the last days of his illness, Herod the Great revised his will and divided the kingdom between Herod Antipas and two of his remaining brothers.  The three of them take to their case to Rome, each claiming sole rights to the throne.   Despite an early disposition towards Herod’s argument of sole succession, the tides turn and, in the end, he inherited only a small portion of what he thought would be his.

In a family like his, in a time where accession to power happens through the blade of a knife, a poisoned cup, the clash of armed men, Herod’s hold on his rule must have felt tenuous and insecure.  Everyone in that room with him was a potential threat, a would be assassin, coveting his throne, status, and power.

Into this highly charged setting comes a girl, his wife’s daughter, who beguiles everyone in the room and seduces Herod into an extravagant promise.  “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom” (Mark 6:22b, 23).  She runs to consult her mother and when she returns she says, “Oh father, I am but a child.  I would never presume to ask you for half of your kingdom.  Please, I would ask for something much less significant.  Give me the head of John the Baptizer, that evil gadfly who has been making my mother’s life miserable.  Give me his head on a platter!”

We already know this part of the story…  Herod has divorced his own wife and married the wife of his brother, while his brother is still alive.  John has been condemning Herod in public, saying that it is not lawful for him to have his brother’s wife.  The wife, Herodias, has been asking Herod to have John killed.  But Herod, until now, has refused and has protected John.  John’s words perplex and challenge him but the Gospel tells us, he thought John a Holy and Righteous man and he liked to listen to his words.  He must have recognized the truth in what John was saying, even if it did make him uncomfortable and make his wife angry.  But now Herod was in real trouble.

I am sure that when Herod made his promise to his daughter the crowd sucked in their breath.  This was an impetuous, even foolish promise.  What if she did ask for half the kingdom?  Would Herod make good on his vow?  When she came back into the room and told them that all she wanted was the head of John the Baptist the crowd probably laughed.  “Silly little girl.  She let him off too easily.  Well at least he can finally be rid of that tiresome preacher and make his wife happy.”

But in this moment the trap is sprung, the set up is complete, and Herod is in a bind.  The Gospel tells us that “out of regard for his oaths and for his guests” he could not refuse the girl’s request.  If he had refused, the easy way out of his predicament, his guests would have seen it as a crack in his armor, a sign of weakness, “Give the silly girl what she wants. You’re not really so attached to that rabble rouser are you?” It’s a difficult choice that confronts Herod in this moment and with a little historical perspective we have come to see the true nature of that choice.  Does he continue to protect John?  Does he continue to wrestle with John’s words?  Does he stand up and defend the Truth?  Or does he do the politically expedient thing, grant the girl’s request, and protect his own power, status, and rank, and prestige?

Our Gospel passage this morning asks us the same question.  When we are offered an opportunity to stand up for the truth; that all of creation is beloved of God, that we are all one, that the people on the fringes of our culture and society, the poor and the disabled are our brothers and sisters…  will we stand up for that truth or will we choose to protect the power we believe we have and our vain need to be in control?  Look again at our Epistle reading for the day,

“With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth”  (Ephesians 1:8b-10).

All things!  It is God’s good pleasure that all things, all people, and all of creation, live in Him.  Do we open our hearts, our minds and our doors to the “other” and embrace them as co inheritors of God’s love and grace?  Do we proclaim the good news and insist that everyone receive the benefits of the garden?  Or do we cast our eyes aside, take the politically expedient path, defend the status quo and thereby protect our own position in the smoke filled, dimly lit room as we recline on the cushions in Herod’s palace?

This is the same Herod who later in the Gospel will send Jesus back to Pilate to be condemned.  Today Herod is confronted with the truth in John the Baptist.  In a few chapters he will be confronted by the Truth in the person of Jesus.  When we recognize the parallel in this story, when the weight of what is happening as this girl makes her request of Herod is clear, everything else in the room should melt away leaving the spotlight to just two people…  Herod and… Jesus.

What would have happened if Herod had encountered Jesus before he encountered John?  Of course we can’t know that but I can’t help but wonder.  Having made the decision to protect our own status, position, power and rank, once we have denied and betrayed the truth, do we become locked into a pattern of behavior that is almost impossible to escape?  When we have chosen ourselves over the truth we become complicit in the crucifixion.  “Repenting,” turning back to the truth would require us to confront and to acknowledge our past behavior.  It is a slippery slope.  If we can’t be faithful to the truth in the small things, how will we be faithful to the truth in the big things?

We will make a good start today. We will proclaim to Aidan James Brown that he is a beloved child of God, adopted through Jesus Christ, sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

We will renew our own baptismal vows and promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.

We will renew our promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

And we will promise to proclaim by word and example the Good news of God in Christ.

In all of this we will claim, through our baptism, our own beloved-ness, welcoming “the new life of grace” and “the courage and will to persevere” that will allow us to acknowledge our past behaviors. It is through our baptism that we can break the old patterns of denial and betrayal that have protected our own power, privilege and illusions of control and become the voice in the wilderness crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

I said a few moments ago that when Pilate is asked for the head of John the Baptist everything else in the room should melt away.  We suddenly understand that the lavish imagery that we have constructed is a distraction, and maybe a dodge.  There is a lot more at stake here than a vengeful unfaithful wife, a conniving despot and the girl who has become their tool.  Through the artistry of his writing Mark has dragged us into the spotlight as well.  Jesus stands before us asking Herod to choose and he is asking us to choose as well.  Will we acquiesce, make the politically expedient and safe decision, or will we risk it all by opening the door to John’s prison cell and setting the truth free to transform the world?

Amen