A Most Ingenious Paradox (updated)

Sermon for Sunday, November 28, 2021 || Advent 1C || Jeremiah 33:14-16

Did anyone stay up late last night to watch the ball drop in Times Square? I didn’t. If memory serves I have stayed up until midnight on New Year’s Eve exactly once in my life. I think it was my senior year of high school, and I’m pretty sure my friends had to keep waking me up. So, I was definitely asleep for the ball drop last night. But did any of you stay up? Show of hands?

No one?

Did I open up the wrong sermon?

Continue reading “A Most Ingenious Paradox (updated)”

Beyond Fear

Sermon for Sunday, December 22, 2019 || Advent 4A || Matthew 1:18-25

At the end of this sermon, I’m going to talk about the movie Frozen II. But first let’s talk about fear. Whenever an angel of the Lord appears in Holy Scripture, the angel always begins the message for the same four words: “Do not be afraid.” Today’s Gospel lesson is no exception. Mary’s fiancé Joseph has resolved to “dismiss her quietly” because of her pregnancy, but he takes one more night to sleep on the decision. During that night, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. My question is: Why would Joseph be afraid to do this? I can think of many reasons for Joseph’s fear, and I want to talk about three of them this morning. We’ll dispense with the first two quickly because the third is where I really want us to focus.

Continue reading “Beyond Fear”

A Most Ingenious Paradox

(Sermon for Sunday, December 2, 2012 || Advent 1C || Jeremiah 33:14-16)

I’ve never been good at staying up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. I always seem to nod off at about 11:35, or in recent years, much earlier. There was one year back in my wild college days when I managed to keep my eyes open for Dick Clark’s countdown, but now that he’s gone, I won’t ever have that pleasure again. So maybe some of you can fill me in on last night’s frivolities. Who took Dick Clark’s place? It was Ryan Seacrest, wasn’t it? Show of hands – how many of you stayed up until midnight last night to watch the ball drop in Times Square?

No one?

Did I print the wrong sermon?

No, I didn’t. The world at large won’t celebrate the New Year for another month. And the world at large is already celebrating Christmas, or to be more precise, perpetual Christmas Eve, with all the hustle and bustle of shopping and the butchered covers of  “O Holy Night” playing in the mall, and the newspaper circulars I could weight train with. The world at large, as it so often does, has everything backward.

For us followers of Jesus Christ, today is New Year’s Day, and Christmas doesn’t happen until we tick the next four Sundays off the calendar. Today begins a period of deep-breathing, of collective Lamaze, if you will, while we wait and watch with the Virgin Mary as she comes to full term. This is the kind of breathing that the world at large can’t participate in, because the world at large never stops to catch its breath. So what is today, this New Year’s Day, this Day of Deep Breath? Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year. Over the next three and a half weeks, we have the wonderful opportunity to breathe into the quiet spaces within ourselves and allow God to fill those cavities with the perpetual hope that marks this pre-Christmas season.

That’s what this sermon is about, by the way: hope. Advent is about anticipation, expectancy, keeping our eyes open, and hope fuels these things. But hope has always been a tricky concept to convey, so we’ll try to tease out its meaning a bit in the next few minutes as we talk about what this wonderful season of Advent, this season of deep breathing, has in store for us.

piratesWhen discussing hope, we first must acknowledge the fundamental paradox of our lives as followers of Christ. This is, as the Pirates of Penzance sing, a “most ingenious paradox.” [“A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox. Haha haha…”] The pirates’ response to the paradox is to laugh, which isn’t a bad place for us to start either because laughter keeps things light, and this sermon could easily get very, very heavy.

So what is this most ingenious paradox of the Advent season and of our lives as followers of Christ? Well, rather than tell you straight out, I think I’ll illustrate by using the most beloved of Advent songs, which we won’t actually be singing until next week. “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appear…”

The name “Emmanuel” is a special one. First appearing in Isaiah’s prophecy, the angel who comes to Joseph in a dream gives this name to the unborn child in Mary’s womb. Emmanuel means “God with us.” Do you see the paradox yet?

O come, O come, Emmanuel. O come, O come, God with us. O come, O come, One who is already here, One who is closer to us than we are to ourselves. O come, O come. This is the paradox – we wait for and anticipate the One who is already and forever with us. My father has often said, “The best way to prepare for the coming of Christ is never to forget the presence of Christ.” This is the paradox that we live into as followers of Jesus and celebrate especially in this Advent season.

And this paradox shows us why hope is such a difficult concept for us to get our heads around. You see, hope is faith projected into the future. Hope is the willing expectation that the bounds of possibility are far wider than we can perceive. The trouble is that the times when we most need to be hopeful, the times when hope really is the only thing that can sustain us, are often the same times that faith is in short supply or when those boundaries of possibility feel impossibly narrow.

Today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah comes during one of those narrow times. Things are looking bleak for the people of God because they haven’t been acting like the people of God for some time. By coincidence, I actually just finished reading the entirety of Jeremiah last week, and man, is it a depressing book. One tragedy after another befalls the people of Jerusalem: siege, famine, betrayal, assassination, murder, all culminating in the worst tragedy of all – being carted off en masse to Bablyon and the desolation of exile from their homeland.

But in the midst of this darkest of dark periods in the history of God’s people, the Word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah and says, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David…In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”

In the midst of the darkest of dark days, through Jeremiah God affirms God’s promise. There isn’t much hope in the book of Jeremiah, but here, in these few verses in the middle, we get a tiny whiff of hope.

But even a tiny whiff of hope is still hope. Hope of any size or strength is still hope – full, effective hope. Here again, is our paradox. Hope sustains us with the promises of God fulfilled at some future time that we cannot see in the midst of desolation. But at the same time, God is the One catalyzing the hope within us, the tiny whiff of hope, which is all we can manage right now. And so we pray, “O come, O come, God with us. You are here, O God, but come just the same because this tiny whiff of hope is wavering. O Come, O come, Emmanuel.”

How many of us have found ourselves in this situation, in this dark day of desolation? Perhaps yours happened on the day your mother died and you realized that you would never again hear her voice on the telephone? Perhaps yours happened when your son was diagnosed with severe autism and the life you had mapped out for your family took a sharp turn? Perhaps yours happened when you lost your job, or when you didn’t get accepted to the college you had your heart set on, or when you had sunk so low into depression that your bed became an island in a vast sea of nothing. Perhaps today, New Year’s Day for the Church, you are in the midst of your dark day, your time of exile.

Whether you are or whether you are remembering when you were or whether you are dreading when you will be again in that dark day, I invite you on this First Sunday of Advent, to take a deep, cleansing breath. Let that breath fill the quiet spaces within you. Feel God breathing into you that tiny whiff of hope, an embryonic hope, as small as those cells coalescing in Mary’s womb. The hope growing in Mary’s womb will be with us soon, in three and a half short weeks. But, as our most ingenious paradox goes, Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, is forever with us, and he’s breathing hope into our desolation, he’s breathing vastness into our narrowness, he’s breathing promise into our faith. Rejoice. Rejoice. Emmanuel comes. Rejoice. Rejoice. God-with-us is here.


(Sermon for Sunday, December 19, 2010 || Advent 4 Year A || Matthew 1:18-25)

When my mother discovered that she was going to have a second child, she began thinking up names for the tiny person growing within her. Since she didn’t know until I was born if I were going to be a boy or a girl, she tried all manner of names on for size. She spoke them loudly and softly, lovingly and reprovingly. She paired them with my sister Melinda’s name. She let them roll off her tongue, and she wrote them down to see how they looked on paper. Finally, she settled on a boy’s name – a real winner. Lying in bed one morning, she struck up a conversation with my father: “I think we should name him ‘Tristram.’”

My father sat bolt upright in bed. “Absolutely not,” he said. And so with a mixture of brainstorming, cajoling, and bargaining, my parents settled on “Adam,” thinking the name to be a good, strong one. (Just a side note: if I had been a girl, and I’m not making this up, my mother would have named me “Meriwether.”)

Sometimes, I wonder what my life would be like if my dad had agreed with my mother’s initial offering. “Tristram” is certainly less common than “Adam,” not that “Adam” is on a top ten baby name list. “Tristram” comes from the word “sad” in Latin or “tumult” in Gaelic. The variant “Tristan” was one of King Arthur’s knights, the subject of stories and songs, and Wagner’s great opera. You know where “Adam” comes from. When God sculpted the dust into a form and breathed life into the body, what God made was my name. Originally, my name wasn’t a name at all; rather, “Adam” – ha adam – was the word for “human being.” “Man of earth” might be the most expressive translation, though my friends who studied Hebrew in seminary took to calling me “dirt boy.”

Would my life be any different if I had been named “Tristram” rather than “Adam?” Could I have traced a different path with a different name? Does a name really matter in the grand scheme of things? Judging by today’s passage from the Gospel according to Matthew, the answer is “yes.” The right name is significant enough for an angel to tell Joseph just what to call the child growing in his fiancé’s womb. But just one name won’t do: Matthew recalls a second name for this child from the words of the great prophet Isaiah. And these names – Jesus, Emmanuel – these names are more than just names. They are mission statements. They are explanations of the life that God sent God’s only Son to live.

The angel in Joseph’s dream tells him to name Mary’s child “Jesus,” because “he will save his people from their sins.” “Jesus” (Iesous) is the Greek way of writing the Hebrew name “Yeshua,” which we render in English as “Joshua.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses grooms Joshua to be his successor because Moses knows that he’s not going to reach the Promised Land. After Moses dies, Joshua leads the people of Israel out of the wilderness, which had encompassed them for forty years. This hero of the old stories, which were told at the Temple and around the dinner table, finishes the work of bringing the people into the Promised Land. Forty years from God’s initial rescue of God’s people from slavery in Egypt, Joshua helps God close that chapter of Israel’s history.

God saves Israel. This is the mission statement found in Joshua’s name, which means “God saves.” The life that Mary’s child will live years after Joseph gives the boy Joshua’s name accomplishes the same mission. Jesus, the angel says, “will save the people from their sins.” Jesus takes the people out of the new wilderness in which they are wandering. This new wilderness takes up no space on a map. There is no Promised Land a month’s hard trudging through the desert. Rather, the wilderness from which Jesus saves the people is the emotional, psychological, and spiritual desolation that they wrought for themselves. They created deserts around and within themselves through misplaced priorities and apathy toward the less fortunate and worship of all manner of idols, including the very law that was supposed to connect them to God.

Sound familiar? The desolation that the people of Jesus’ time brought upon themselves is the same desolation that affects people today. Our idols might be shiny and new, but our deference to them is unchanged. Notice, however, that the mission statement found in Jesus’ Hebrew name is not “God saved,” but “God saves.” With his resurrection, Jesus signals to people of all times that nothing in all creation – not even death – can keep God from bringing people back to God. We are some of those people. Nothing in all creation can keep Jesus from being in relationship with us. When we embrace this joyous truth, we can participate with Jesus in turning our desolate deserts into Promised Lands.

This constant relationship, this promise kept through the power of the resurrection, brings us to the mission statement found in Jesus’ other name: Emmanuel. Matthew helps out his non-Hebrew readers by translating this name right there in the text. Emmanuel means “God is with us.” Just as God was with Moses and Joshua and the rest of Israel during their forty-year journey through the wilderness, God was still with the people of Israel during their own self-imposed desolation. After all, God is the God of the desert and the Promised Land. But their desolation kept them from seeing the truth that God was with them. In Jesus’ life, the reality of Emmanuel – God with us – found flesh and blood. 17th century poet Richard Crashaw describes Jesus’ Incarnation in this way:

“Welcome all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span!
Summer in winter! day in night!
Heaven in earth! and God in man!”

After centuries of captivity, after the life-giving words of the prophets had begun to fade from the collective memory, God’s people needed the immediacy, the physicality of the Incarnation to bring them back to God. This flesh and blood reality of God-with-us shocked some folks out of their desolation. They told others and those others told more, and pretty soon, followers of Jesus Christ were spreading to the ends of the earth his good news of abundant life lived for God.

But just as  “God saves” is not simply a past event, “God-with-us” emanates from Jesus’ life on earth through the presence of the Holy Spirit down to us. His “eternity shut in a span” breaks free of the constraints of time, and so we too can encounter Emmanuel in our lives. Jesus promises to fulfill his name’s mission statement even after he ascends to heaven. In the very last line of the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus echoes this name when he says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20).

Every moment of every day, we have the opportunity of encountering the presence of God-with-us. We have the ability to participate with the God who saves in turning our desolation into a place of springs, where the “wilderness and the dry land shall be glad” and “the desert shall rejoice and blossom” (Isaiah 35:1). In the very names of our Savior Jesus Christ, we find the good news of God for all people. When we discover the presence of Emmanuel and embrace the forgiveness and salvation of Yeshua, of Jesus, we can then begin to ask God what our missions shall be. We can pray, “O God, what would you have our names mean?”

Of sandwiches and second comings

(Sermon for November 30, 2008 || Advent 1, Year B RCL || Mark 13:24-27; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9)

At the end of this sermon, I’m going to explain why the phrase “O come O come Emmanuel” is a funny phrase. But first, I want to talk about my parents’ crèche.

During the season of Advent when I was growing up, my family placed a beautiful Nativity scene on the shelf above the TV. The wooden stable had a bark and moss covered roof, above which we suspended angels on fishing line. Inside the stable, a bearded Joseph leaned heavily on a staff and a kneeling Mary pondered things in her heart, while a donkey and a cow looked on. Outside the stable, a pair of shepherds, a woman balancing a jug of water, and assorted townsfolk queued up like bridesmaids and groomsmen in a wedding photo. Each character was transfixed by something going on at the center of the stable, something that was obviously important if the painted expressions on their faces could be believed. The trouble was that nothing was going on at the center of the stable. An unassuming manger stood in between Mary and Joseph, who stared lovingly down into the empty box.

William Blake "The Descent of Peace"

You see, we waited until Christmas Eve to place the baby Jesus in the manger. (Confidentially, we hid him on the shelf behind the stable until our plastic Mary came to full term.) So, for the entire month of December, our crèche was incomplete. As a child, I might have laughed at the incongruity of the scene if I had known any other Advent tradition. Jesus hadn’t come yet, but the fishing line angels were already fingering their harps, the shepherds were already choosing which lamb to present, and the cattle were already lowing (whatever lowing is).

Without Jesus in the manger, none of these activities made sense. But putting the babe away in that manger a month before Christmas removed the period of expectant waiting that Advent is all about. This is the tension we acknowledge during these next four weeks. By preparing to celebrate Jesus’ Incarnation, we are also preparing for his second coming. To be able to come again, he had to leave. But even as we prepare for his coming again, we remember that Christ abides with us even now in the present.

This incongruity is quite confusing. How can Jesus be coming again and abiding with us at the same time? This makes no sense. If I say I’m going to the kitchen to make a sandwich, I can’t watch football on the couch in the living room at the same time. (I can, of course, pause the football game with the wonderful invention of DVR, but that’s beside the point.)

I can either make a sandwich or watch football. We are used to our world working in this either/or way. We exist in time and space. At this moment in time and at this place in space, I exist in this pulpit talking to you. I can neither make sandwiches nor watch football right here right now. Indeed, many years ago I gave up praying for the ability to teleport and succumbed to the reality of our either/or world.

But we get so caught up in “how things are for us” that we forget God lives outside and above and throughout this reality. We are bound by our either/or perceptions. Our God lives an expansive both/and kind of existence. Both three persons and One God? Yes. Both fully human and fully divine? You bet. Both coming again and abiding with us still? No problem.

The problem comes when we, in all our haste and distraction and busy work, forget that Christ abides with us still. Acknowledging the promise of “coming again” is much easier for us because it takes place in some amorphous future. Now, we humans have developed an awful routine of sloughing the future off on those people who will be alive in the future. This routine has spawned the byproduct of ignoring the consequences of our actions for those unfortunate future people. If we can push those consequences off into an amorphous future, surely we can install Jesus’ second coming there, too.

But when Jesus warns his disciples to “keep alert” and to “keep awake,” he reminds them that the future has a persistent habit of becoming the present. On some day that only the Father knows the Son of Man will come in the clouds with great power and glory. At some hour the master of the house will come, says Jesus. Don’t let the vague obscurity of the future lull you to sleep or you will miss the promise fulfilled in the present.

The Apostle Paul is aware that there are numerous sleepy followers of Christ in Corinth, the city to which Paul addressed this morning’s lesson. He reminds the Corinthians of Jesus’ promise to come again when he mentions “wait[ing] for the revealing of our Lord Jesus” and being “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the same breath that he speaks about the future, Paul also focuses on how Jesus Christ abides with the Corinthians and impacts their lives in the present. Christ has given them the “grace of God.” They have been “enriched in him in speech and knowledge of every kind.” They are “not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Christ will “strengthen” them even as they wait for the day of his revealing.

With these words, Paul teaches us that the best way to prepare for the coming of Christ is to realize that Christ continues to grace and enrich and strengthen us even now. Forgetting that Christ is present in our lives feeds the delusion that the future happens only to people yet unborn. On the other hand, setting all our desire on Jesus’ coming again blinds us to the presence of Christ in our midst. Thus, we can’t afford to let our either/or world dictate to which alternative we will subscribe. Only by keeping awake to the presence of Christ in our lives today will we be able to keep alert for the coming of Christ tomorrow.

When we come to the altar in a few minutes, we will share that presence of Christ in our midst. We will be nourished in the breaking of the bread and strengthened to go out and enrich the lives of all we meet. We will be given the opportunity to let our haste and distraction and busy work fall away, and for one shimmering moment, we will remember that the grace of God weaves our lives together. And as the body and blood of Christ fills us, the master of our internal houses will wake us up and set us by the door to watch for his coming again.

Okay, I promised that I would explain why the phrase “O come, O come, Emmanuel” is a funny one. Well, “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” So, when we chant that hauntingly beautiful melody, we are saying: “O come someone who is already here.” No matter how nonsensical our either/or world says this line of reasoning is, we still pray for “God with us” to come to us. By asking us to believe that Christ will come again even as Christ abides here, God invites us to join God in a moment of sweeping both/and reality. During the season of Advent, we cultivate the hope for this expansive existence. At the same time, God jostles our faith to make sure both our presents and our futures are full of the love of God. Keep alert for the coming of Emmanuel. And keep awake for the joy of God with us.