In Church we say that Advent is the season to “prepare our hearts” for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. At home, the reality is, that Advent is a time to “prepare our stomachs” for food, lots and lots of food. If your household is anything like mine, you are either baking food to take somewhere, or buying food to prepare for a dinner party, or the whole family, young and old is gathered in the noisy kitchen, elbow to elbow, chopping vegetables, washing potatoes and peeling carrots. The season between Thanksgiving and New Years eve could almost be described as an Anti-Lent in terms of our intake of food and merriment. While this is not an Advent ideal, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Many of our memories and friendships are built around the preparation of meals, and we see this in the life of Jesus and his disciples as well.
Today, the second Sunday in Advent is traditionally referred to as Bible Sunday because of the emphasis on the Word of God in the Collect, Epistle & Gospel. You might be wondering what the connection is between the Word of God and food. Both are life giving and both take preparation if they are going to be truly edifying. As Jesus said, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” (Matthew 4:4, ESV) and the Psalmist says that God’s word is sweet to the taste, even sweeter than honey (Psalm 119:103). Likening God’s Word to food that we digest, our Collect says what we are to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the Scriptures, to the end that we may both have patience and comfort in God’s Word, which gives us “the blessed hope of everlasting life” in the person of Jesus Christ.
There is a lot of theology in that last sentence, which ties together God’s Word and the Christian Hope in the person of Jesus. This is another way of saying, that Jesus Christ is at the center of our faith,
at the center of the Scriptures, at the center of our Liturgy
and is at the beginning and end of the church year, as Revelation says, he is both the Alpha and the Omega. Jesus is not just the “reason for this season” but he is the reason for All Seasons. In this particular season of Advent, on this particular Sunday, we are preparing to receive and digest the Scriptures which give us Jesus Christ, the Word of God.
Two questions arise from this directive.
First, what is the hope that gives us comfort, and, second, what are best practices for reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting God’s Word?
The Christian Hope is everlasting life rooted in Jesus Christ. This includes eternal life in a renewed creation, but this does not mean we have to wait until we are dead to start living. Everlasting life begins now. While hope looks to the future, it is rooted in the past: in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As first Peter chapter one cheerfully states, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:3-4, ESV)
There is also an aspect of the Christian hope that longs for justice and peace in this world and the next. If you have been following the news, there are cries all of the world for justice from people who hurt. Not just in far away places, but right here in America. Racial tensions are high, economic pressures do not seem to go away and anxiety about the future seems constant. In the midst of these tensions, we are celebrating the coming of the Prince of Peace, and this peace cannot be separated from righteousness and justice. When we see injustice in the world, we long for the day when all wrongs will be made right. The peace that comes from the hope of Jesus is best understood in the hebrew word Shalom. To experience God’s Shalom is to experience total salvation, which includes justice and peace in all areas of life.
Too often we are putting off the reality of the Christian hope for the next life, instead of incarnating it ourselves in this life. Living with hope means living with the tension of God’s eternal promises, in the midst of injustice and brokenness. Part of our mission as Christians is be agents of hope, bringing God’s Shalom to the world.
We learn to fulfill our mission of hope by regularly partaking of God’s word, as the collect says, by inwardly digesting it. We do this through simply reading the bible, or hearing it in the Liturgy, or taking part in Morning and Evening Prayer. This is not always easy, because the Word of God is bitter yet sweet. References to eating God’s words are found in Ezekiel, and in Revelation where John says, “So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, “Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” (Revelation 10:9, ESV) When God’s word confronts us of our sin, and tells us things we do not want to hear, it is bitter to the taste. But when God’s word gives us hope and new life, it is sweeter than honey.
As we approach Holy Communion today we see Jesus, the Word of God at the center. We come to the altar rail with faith and hope that the Birth of Jesus means new life. We are also confronted with our sins, which can be a bitter experience. This is why we confess our sins and commit to a new way of living each week. At the communion, we take and eat the Living Bread which came down from Heaven to give Life to the World (John 6:51). As we go out into the world this Advent season preparing our homes for all the parties and festivities of the season, let us remember to renew our commitment to prepare our hearts by incorporating the Word of God, the Scriptures into our daily lives.
The Good Shepherd, John 10:11-16
2nd Sunday after Easter. Blake Schwendimann
Few images are more comforting to the Christian than the Good Shepherd. One of the most well known verses of Scripture, Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” When I hear these words, I am transported back to my earliest memories of a Christian Funeral, sitting in a pew as a young child, where I knew something sad had happened, but I didn’t quite know how to experience it. I remember there being sadness, and yet, hope. I remember hearing someone read the 23rd Psalm, and even at a young age, those words brought me comfort, as they still do. Though we don’t always understand the journey that is set before us, we know that we have a Good Shepherd leading us through the dark valleys. Even when we get thrown off course, either in the face of tragedy or from falling into sin, our Good Shepherd will patiently and lovingly bring us back home.
As we enter more fully into the Easter Season, we begin to focus on what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and what discipleship looks like. We are learning what it means for us to be sheep. Out of all the steps there are to look at in discipleship I want to focus on two. First, we are to learn who Jesus is, and, second, we learn who we are, and what the relationship between us and Jesus looks like.
When we think of following Jesus, we often think of imitating his good deeds, his kindness, meekness and patience. We think, “It would be great if I was more like Jesus”, only in regards to all the positive and helpful things he did. We don’t immediately think of the passion and the crucifixion as part of what it means to follow Jesus, but that is part of the cost of discipleship too. As Jesus tells us, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” In this morning’s Epistle, Peter tells us that following Jesus includes enduring suffering. Not merely suffering for a just and worthy cause, but also enduring unjust suffering, and having patience in it. As Jesus said in Matthew 5, when someone strikes you, turn the other cheek. Being a disciple of Jesus has many great privileges and rewards, but it is also can be an arduous journey. As Christians on this side of Easter, we follow the conquering Lamb of Revelation chapter seven, who yet wounded, stands amongst his sheep, leading them as a Shepherd to the springs of living water, wiping away every tear from their eyes.
The relationship we develop with Jesus is one of complete and utter dependence as sheep are to a shepherd. Jesus tells us that he is not a false shepherd; he’s not a rent-a-shepherd, but rather, a Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him.
In southern California, we don’t have much interactions with animals, except maybe our dogs and cats. But in the ancient near East, the Shepherd was a well-known figure in society, and people knew good shepherds from bad ones. Jesus hearers would have been very familiar with his comparison of hired shepherds versus shepherds who personally own sheep. A good shepherd was one whose primarily obligation was to his sheep. He spent his life with the sheep, feeding them, protecting them, cleaning them and traveling with them daily. Because this Good Shepherd took his livelihood from his own sheep, he would do anything to ensure their wellbeing. He was fully invested in the life of his sheep. If a family only had a couple of sheep on their property and but had a trade to manage in the daytime, they would hire a ‘rent a shepherd’ who would take care of their sheep, along with others on a very part time basis. These ‘rent-a-shepherds’ were never as good as a true shepherd, and they certainly would not go out of their way searching for a lost sheep, or even think about giving up their life for the sheep in face of danger. If the wolf came, the hired hand would flee, leaving the sheep in harms way. But this type of Shepherd is not the One whom we follow. Our Shepherd has searched us out, called us by name, and in the face of danger, He laid down His life for us.
Because Jesus is our Good Shepherd, what is our role as His sheep in this journey of discipleship? In John 10:14 &15 Jesus says that he knows His sheep and His sheep know him. This is an image of mutual intimacy leading us to ask the question, do we know Jesus? Does He know us? Have we experienced His leading in our life? We are not going to be proficient Christian disciples or effective sheep if we have no idea who our Shepherd is and what He has done for us.
Thankfully, Jesus has not left us all alone to figure it out how to be disciples. We do not experience the Christian life as solitary individuals. We are called to be part of his Body, of his One Flock, where we are known. As modern Christians, we have almost unlimited resources available to us to learn who Jesus is and what it means to be his disciple. We have the Bible in our own language, we have 2,000 years of Christian wisdom and reflection, we have the Church and it’s Sacraments, which continually nourish and feed our souls, and we have other Christians who are walking with us, encouraging and challenging us to grow in the grace and knowledge of God. In last week’s Gospel, we learned that Jesus breathed on his disciples, giving them the power and authority to continue his ministry. In Scripture, the breath of God refers to His Holy Spirit. When our pastors and bishops were ordained and consecrated, they received the same Holy Spirit empowering them to be the Shepherds of Christ’s flock, continually pointing and leading us back to Christ, who is the Bishop and Shepherd of our souls.
In the Christian tradition, Pride is considered the most grievous of all sins. The prophet Isaiah tells us that Lucifer (also known as Satan) was a great and mighty angel, and in his desire to exalt himself above God, he was cast out of heaven. In comparing pride to other sins, CS Lewis says, “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison”; “Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind” (Lewis, Mere Christianity). Pride usually does not come in bursts, like anger, but it is a slow accumulation of thoughts about how great we think we are. The Biblical antidote to this disease is humility.
This morning’s Gospel of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector could be called “A Tale of Two Worshippers.” It is a tale that involves two radically different people, attempting to do the same very same thing. In ancient Palestine, there were certain days and hours of prayer where the temple was open to the public; so actually getting there did require some effort and planning. In our modern society where church attendance is rather sparse, we believe the fact that we are even showing up is something to celebrate! While it is something to celebrate, the parable teaches us that even the best intentions can lead us astray.
The Pharisee is the obviously holy man in Jesus’ first century audience. He would be the person you were most comfortable with, the person you would trust with your deepest secrets, and he was the person whose advice would be the the most respected.
The other man in in our tale is the Publican; a Roman Government official who was responsible to collect taxes. It is significant to remember he represented political Rome. It’s not simply the fact that he collected taxes, and since no one likes to pay taxes, he’s the “bad guy” in the parable. The publican in the mind of the ancient Jewish people was a co-conspirator with the occupying Roman forces who betrayed and cheated his own people.
Fr. Scarlett often mentions that heresy, or false belief, happens when we abuse or overemphasize a a very good aspect of the faith, at the expense of the whole of the faith. In this regard, heresy is very subtle, and often goes unnoticed.
The same is true of pride; it can be very subtle. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, and tithing can and should form us into mature Christians. They are routines we should be consciously praying for the power to do. But they could also be the very things that destroys us. From all outward and objective criteria, the Pharisee was a holy man. Then why are we told that it was the Tax Collector, and not the pharisee, whom went home justified in the eyes of God?
It is because the first step towards a right relationship with God is humility. The Tax Collector had enough self awareness to see himself in light of who God is. This takes us back to the two of the most basic theological doctrines – the knowledge of God – the creator and sustainer of the universe and the knowledge of ourself – created by God. The Pharisee’s pride made it seem as if he was doing God a favor by worshipping in him, and letting God know that there was someone doing it wrong behind him. The tax collector realized that he had nothing to bring to God except himself, and the acknowledgement that he was a sinner looking for mercy.
In Orthodox iconography, the Pharisee is depicted as standing up close to the altar, raising his arms towards heaven, where he is thanking God he is not like all the other bad people out in the world – “the extortioners, the unjust, the adulterers, and even people like this publican.” The Icon shows the publican standing a few steps below, with arms slightly outstretched, as if he is unsure about the offering of praise he is about to make. He stands in the lower place, and has a sense of humility and openness towards God’s will for his life.
When we approach God in worship, what is going through our minds? Do we think that because we are not like all the other bad people out in the world, we have earned a special place in God’s house? Do we keep a better record of other people’s sins than our own? Often, we walk around like the man who has a plank of wood in his own eye, working meticulously to get the splinters out of their neighbors eye.
The liturgy works to form us against false hopes of self righteousness. Just before the reception of holy communion, we pray that we “would not presume to come to God’s table, trusting in our own righteousness, but trusting in God’s manifold and great mercies.”
Our culture has taught us to believe that we are extra special, that we are unique – not like the rest of humanity. This philosophy can be a road block to humility. At times, we may have subconsciously prayed the words of the Pharisee, thinking, “O God, I thank you I’m not like everybody else.” But to move towards Christlikeness, we must begin to adopt the prayer of the publican, who went home justified, saying “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”