Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year, Holy Name, Circumcision

          Happy New Year!  This morning we celebrate new year’s, and the Name of Jesus, and finally the Circumcision of Jesus.

We keep track of time either by sun or by moon.  Every 365 days 6 hours 9 minutes and 9.76 seconds the earth makes a complete revolution around the sun – or from the earth it takes that long from the shortest day in the year to the longest and back. When the sun is midway days and nights are the same length. In 1582 Pope Gregory offered a calendar revision that keeps the spring equinox when days and nights are equal length around March 21 and thus keeps Easter in the spring. Muslims use a calendar based on the moon which is 11 days shorter than the calendar based on the sun. One result is that the fasting month of Ramadan moves through the seasons. In 2005 Ramadan began October 4; this year July 20; by 2015 June 18. The Jewish calendar is also a lunar calendar but keeps in synch with the seasons by adding an extra month 7 times in 19 years.

          The Romans used the extra month system until 45 BC when Julius Caesar reformed the calendar to 12 months with an extra day every 4 years, just 9 minutes, 9.76 seconds off. Over time 9 minutes a year adds up. In 1582 10 days were dropped - October 4, 1582 was followed by October 15, 1582. Protestant countries were slower than Catholic ones to change. In England Wednesday September 2, 1752 was followed by Thursday September 14, 1752.

          Gregory also changed the date of the beginning of the new year. The Jewish year begins with Rosh Hashanah (the head of the year) in the fall; the church year begins with Advent 4 Sundays before Christmas. In England before 1752 the new year began March 25 the feast of the Annunciation, but in Scotland and most of Europe after 1600 the new year began January 1. The Reformation in Scotland was more thorough than it was in England. The Scots abolished all “Catholic” observances like Christmas. But people need a winter time to party and Scots’ celebration of Hogmanay and “first footing” on New Years Day came to America with the Scots-Irish and continue.

          New years offers us a chance to reflect on the year past and to celebrate, repent, and to change attitudes and behavior. Fitness center membership spikes the first two weeks in January. We joke abut new years’ resolutions and our inability to keep them. Our experience is that no matter how worthwhile and important the resolution change is hard. But we can make changes; conversion is a reality. Change requires lots of grace and lots of support. We are children of God by adoption and grace; the Holy Spirit dwells in us; God calls us to help one another to live lives in which God’s grace is evident. So Happy New Year!

          Ous second celebration is the Name of Jesus. The 1979 Prayer Book has January 1 as the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus – from the gospel reading. Names are important. Our names both mark us as individuals and show our connections to others.  Hebrew names generally are words with particular meanings. Jesus is a form of Joshua which means “I will save.”  And he has saved us by his death and resurrection.

          Today’s Old Testament reading begins, “The LORD spoke to Moses . .  .” In the English Bible tradition LORD in all capital letters translates the Hebrew Yod He Vav He - J H W H -– called the Tetragrammaton – the 4 letters. It is a form of the verb “to be” as Moses heard God say at the bush that burned and was not consumed, “I am that I am.” God’s name for himself is holy, so holy that it is not spoken by Jews. The old style was to say “Adonai” my Lord. Modern Jews say “Ha Shem” the name.  Classical Hebrew is written in consonants only, with no vowels, and no spaces between words. People learned to read the Bible by hearing it read to them; the written text was simply a reminder. In about the year 800 of our era a system of dots and dashes under the letters was developed to show the proper vowels The vowels for Adonai were placed under the JHWH, and when Christians who did not know the tradition but did know the vowel points read the Hebrew Bible they pronounced JHWH as Jehovah. We don’t know how God pronounced his name, but we do know that God has chosen to reveal his name to the people he has chosen for himself.

            And we know that God chose Jesus to save us. God chose to become a man, fully and completely human, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile all humanity with God. As St. Paul wrote to the Galatian church, “,so that we might receive adoption as children. Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” We bear the name of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. God grant we may be worthy of the name!

          And last, beginning in France in 565 we have records of a celebration of the Circumcision of Jesus on the 8th day after his birth, and for 1400 years we heard sermons about the spiritual meaning of Jesus’ circumcision.

The sermons had two major themes, both of which are important in our spiritual life. The first spiritual meaning of Jesus’ circumcision was Jesus’ obedience to the law of God. Beginning with Abraham God commanded male circumcision as a sign of his covenant with his people. The church very early replaced circumcision with baptism as the sign of the covenant. The issue is obedience, obedience to God’s will. We teach that obedience to the moral law of God is required of all people. Christian people are not required to observe the ceremonial law. We don’t have to abstain from shellfish and barbeque – thanks be to God, but we may not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet; we must honor our parents and those in authority and we must both take reasonable rest ourselves and offer rest to those over whom we have authority. The Prayer Book Catechism pages 847 and 848 summarizes the moral law that we are called to obey. 

The second spiritual meaning of Jesus’ circumcision pays attention to Jesus’ blood shed for us, fully expressed in Jesus’ death on the cross, but beginning with his blood shed by the command of God’s law to his people the Jews at his circumcision.

          So New Year’s Day, the Name of Jesus, the Circumcision – all three have spiritual meaning. May God give us grace to live a new year, celebrating Jesus name, and giving thanks for his obedience and his blood shed for us and our salvation. Amen.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas Eve 2011

         We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son. For in these last days you sent him to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world. In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

       This is the beginning of the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer over the bread and wine which we pray will be for us the sacramental body and blood of our Lord Jesus as we participate this evening in the great banquet of heaven. It is in the red Prayer Book on page 367, and I invite you to join me in unpacking its meaning.

       Christians believe that God is good and that God is love, that God chose to create us and the world in which we live to share the goodness and love of God throughout the whole world. From the beginning the whole creation was filled with goodness and love.  God’s love gave all people free will to choose for good or against good. Our choices include choosing an unlimited good for all or choosing a limited good for one at the expense of others. 

       God is eternal and knows all things. We are limited in time and space and knowledge. Some of our decisions are wrong because we are ignorant. But God has shown us his will in the laws of nature and in his moral law given through Moses on Mount Sinai. And all people have by desire and by action done what God has shown us to be wrong. As St. Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “All have sinned” (3:3, 5:12).  Our sin brings us guilt, shame, and isolation, isolation from other people and from God that leads us eventually to spiritual death.

       God’s will for us is goodness and love, and God showed that goodness and love in the world through Abraham and Abraham’s dysfunctional family. The Patriarchs and their wives experienced the goodness and love of God: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, and their 12 sons. God chose Moses, a murderer, to lead the people from slavery in Egypt through 40 years wandering in the wilderness to the promised land. God called Israel to be his people and gave them his Law.

          And when the people again and again failed to obey the Law and worshipped false idols God sent the prophets to call them back to him. When King David committed adultery and tried to cover it up by murder, Prophet Nathan called him on it, “You are the man!” When the people began to worship the idol of money Amos (5:21-24) spoke the word of God, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies . . .your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, God made known goodness and love through his word, spoken through the prophets. Sometimes the word was encouragement, preparing the people for God’s further self-revelation, like tonight, the prophecy of Isaiah, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Our God made goodness and love known to us in the Word spoken through the prophets.

       Above all God made goodness and love known to us “in the Word made flesh, Jesus, the Son. For in these last days you sent him to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world.”  Creation began when “God said ‘Let there be light.’”  God has chosen to be present in the world by the natural processes he created, but when it is necessary to do so to accomplish his purposes he moves in ways we do not fully understand. We believe that the one God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that the Son through whom all things were created chose to be born as a human baby, to grow and live as a man, to redeem and save all ncreation from the consequences of human sin.

       We celebrate that birth tonight. As someone said, “It’s Jesus’ birthday, and we get the presents.”  In Jesus God delivered us from evil. The Holy Spirit of God lives in us to guide and direct our spirit in God’s ways so we don’t have continually to do the same thing over and over again looking for a different result. We are freed from guilt and shame and empowered to do the right thing. In Jesus God takes away our anxiety and fear, washes us spiritually clean and makes us worthy to stand before God.  In Jesus God brings out of the errors of thinking and action that come from our limited and sinful understanding into the fullness of his truth. In Jesus God forgives our sins and makes us righteous. By Jesus’ death for our sins on the cross and by Jesus’ resurrection Easter Day God has set us free from eternal death and given us new life in Jesus.   And for that we give thanks tonight.  Amen.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Advent 3B December 11, 2011

           Last week I went with others to see the icons at Bob Jones University museum and the Greek Orthodox church in Greenville, SC. Icons are holy pictures used as an aid to prayer in the Eastern Orthodox church. Icons are full of symbols; everything has a meaning. I’ve brought a few reproduction icons - in the parish house.  Where we have an altar rail the Greek church has a wall of large icons in the Byzantine style. John the Baptist is shown with wings.

          Wings are for angels. Angels are messengers of God and John is also pictured with wings to remind us that John was a messenger – the Greek word is martyrion from which we get “martyr” – witness.  John “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”

          This Advent in the two weeks we have before Christmas, I invite you to be like John the Baptist, witnesses to the light. We’ve all walked in physical darkness, and we know that it doesn’t take much light to be able to see. Many of us have experienced spiritual darkness, the heaviness of despair, and we know first hand about the light of the love of God in Jesus Christ that has come to us in that spiritual darkness.

          John was a witness that the light of the world had come in Jesus Christ. We are witnesses to the light of Christ that has come to us. We know ourselves to be forgiven sinners, set free from the natural guilt and shame that comes when we sin against God and others, set free from the compulsion to keep on doing what didn’t work then and won’t work now, set free to be able to receive and give the love that God shares with us in family and friends, set free to love and serve God and one another.

          Our task is to own our experience, to rejoice in it, and to be ready to share it as God gives us opportunity. The world is hungry to hear good news; we wait eagerly to hear that we are loved, that our sins are forgiven, that God has “graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.”

I spoke last week about Isaiah’s word to the returning exiles from Babylon. Today’s Old Testament reading continues the word of the Lord, “Comfort, comfort ye my people.”  The returning exiles were rightly depressed when they thought of the amount of work they faced to restore after generations of abandonment and neglect land and city and destroyed temple. Their fathers had been taken captive into exile. They were free, free to struggle and conflict and hard work.

The Lord promises them comfort – comfort in the old meaning – “with strength.”  When I talk with couples before weddings I remind them that the vow to love and comfort means comfort as strengthening one another. And in a society of conflict and easy divorce I spent some time asking couples to tell me how they plan to live out their vows to honor one another, “and forsaking all others, be faithful.”

God gives us comfort - strength, spiritual strength that comes like physical strength – with sweat and discomfort. God gives us gladness instead of mourning, “praise instead of a faith spirit.” And God promises his justice. The exiles had to deal with squatters had moved in on the lands of the returning exiles; their family houses had been looted, and recovery of the stolen goods was not easy. But the word of the Lord says, “For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.”

It took a long time, but God’s everlasting covenant was made. In the death of Jesus the penalty for the sin of the world was paid. In the resurrection of Jesus new life is offered to all who will receive it in him. We are among those who have accepted that new life. We sealed our covenant in Baptism and we renew it today in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. “We remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory.’

The people did not see the wings of John the Baptist. They were invisible and we know of them only in the picture. People can’t see our wings either, but we’re as called as John was to be witnesses and messengers in our time. May God grant us the invisible wings and the grace of his Holy Spirit to be effective witnesses to his love and grace in the next two weeks.

As John Keble wrote in the hymn “New every morning,” “God help us, this and every day, To live more nearly as we pray.”

Friday, December 2, 2011

Advent 2B 2001

          These are rough economic times, and have been for a while. Yet this week I received from Bishop Taylor an invitation to contribute to the Mission Fund, “established so the important initiatives identified by the Executive Council of the diocese would not be diminished by the downturn in the economy.”  Bishop Taylor may know something I don’t know. He very likely does. He’s a man of hope.

          We’re called to be people of hope, people who trust in the love and mercy of God, not only about money, but about all our life, in this world and the world to come.

          The first 39 of the 66 chapters in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah tell of the last days of the southern kingdom of Judah. Then Jerusalem was captured, the Temple destroyed, and the leaders of the people taken into exile in Babylon – 586 years before Christ. Two generations later Babylon fell to the Persians, who allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. Gradually they did so and the last 27 chapters of Isaiah are God’s word to the returning exiles.

          The Jews who returned had heard from their parents and grandparents of the land of milk and honey, the beauty of the Temple, the joy of living in Judah. Our children and grandchildren occasionally ask us about the past, and we all tend to describe the good parts. Going back to places where we lived as children is always a shock. The houses and the rooms are much smaller than we remember them. So we can imagine some of the returning exiles’ reactions, particularly from the reluctant spouses. “What have you gotten us into? This is not like grandmother described it. This “homecoming” idea is a big mistake. We’re being punished like our grandparents were. We should have stayed in Babylon.”  They forgot that their ancestors in the desert said the same things about Egypt.

          To this dispirited group, the word of the Lord comes by Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.”

          The penalty has been paid. By his death on the cross Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of the whole world, and for our sins, our individual sins and the sins that come because we live in a world filled with sin and evil and pain and injustice and hopelessness.  We can live in hope because on Easter Day Jesus rose from the dead. Because he lives, we live, and we live in hope. The Holy Spirit of God came at Pentecost to in-spirit us in God’s hope.

          The exiles had followed the route our father Abraham had taken, up the river and then down the valleys past the Sea of Galilee and down the mountain road to Jerusalem. It took several months on a rough road. They knew first hand about the wilderness and the desert, the valleys and the mountains, the uneven ground and the rough places.  They understood the call of the Lord, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” The exiles understood the call to hope.

          We’ve all had our own experiences with valleys and mountains, with uneven ground and rough places. And we know something of how the Lord has brought us through them into the place where we are now. For some of us it is easier than for others, but we’re in this together, to help each other, to hope together.

          The decision to leave the familiar in Babylon to return to Judea was not an easy one. Families were divided. Some left; others stayed. During 500 years of Europe’s Dark Ages Babylon was the center of Jewish learning, and Jews were only forced out after the founding of Israel in 1948. The returning exiles knew from experience about the pain of broken personal relationships.

          Many of us know something of that kind of pain and loss and the loneliness that invites our own loss of hope. We know how “people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades . . . surely the people are grass.”

To the exiles, and to us comes the word of hope, the word of the Lord. “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” Our hope is in God’s promise. We are called to take the long view, the view from the mountain top, to trust in the love and power of God who “comes with might,” feeds “his flock like a shepherd,” who gathers us his precious lambs in his arms, and carries us next to his heart, and gently leads.

          St. Peter reminds us that we live in God’s time, and encourages us to patience. “With the  Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

          John the Baptist called the people of Jesus time to repentance, and he calls us to repentance. We are exiles in a sin-filled world who are on the road – the sometimes rough road – to God’s kingdom. We are sinners saved by God’s grace in Jesus. And while we are on the road we are called to hope, to hope for our final redemption, to look in hope for God at work in the world and in us.

          December can be a dark month, a time of despair and loss and pain and hopelessness.  But Advent is a time of hope, hope in Jesus’ final triumph, hope in our redemption, hope  both in the last day and hope every day. In the busy days let us hope for the guiding of God’s Holy Spirit. In the sad moments let us look in hope for God’s love and power. In the happy times let us hope for the fullness of God’s love and joy in our lives, in the lives of those we love and those we have trouble loving, and in those whom we do not know with whom we share life in the world redeemed by Jesus death and resurrection. Amen.