When I was about 8 or 9 years of age, my grandparents gave me an illustrated bible with several glossy, color illustrations of various stories. They weren’t great art, but they were clear and very expressive. My favorite amongst them was the illustration of today’s gospel lesson.
I know it was John’s version of the cleansing of the Temple because in that picture Jesus was swinging a whip. John’s is the only version of the story with that detail. The rest of the picture was filled with movement. Jesus was whirling about like a dervish, his long hair and the hem of his rob flaring out. Men were scattering, tables and cages sailing through the air, birds fluttering away, and coins flying everywhere.
A couple of decades ago, when several of my friends were wearing “WWJD?” (What would Jesus do?) bracelets, I’d think of that illustration and wonder, “Have you considered that time with the whip in the Temple courtyard?”
What is Lent all about?
Some say it’s a time when we are supposed to find the presence of God in everyday life. The Most Rev. Dr. Jonn Sentamu, Archbishop of York from 2005 to 2020, suggested as much in his 2015 Ash Wednesday meditation when he said, “Lent is a time to get to know God better.” The metaphor of keeping Lent as being a journey during which we search for, find, and come to know more of God is so widespread and prevalent, one cannot find its origin.
It seems to be the most common way to think about Lent. But that way isn’t working for me this year, especially as I contemplate Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism and its aftermath. If in our Lenten discipline we are to be, in some way, doing what a Lenten hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great says — “keep[ing] vigil with our heavenly lord in his temptation and his fast” — then we should pay particular attention to what really was going on there and seek to do during Lent what seems to be going on with Jesus in the wilderness.
Here we are at the end of the first period of what the church calls “ordinary time” during this liturgical year, the season of Sundays after the Feast of the Epiphany during which we have heard many gospel stories which reveal or manifest (the meaning of epiphany) something about Jesus. On this Sunday, the Sunday before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, we always hear some version of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, a story so important that it is told in the three Synoptic Gospels, alluded to in John’s Gospel, and mentioned in the Second Letter of Peter.
Six days before, Jesus had had a conversation with the Twelve in which he’d asked them who they thought he was. They had said that other people thought Jesus might be a prophet and that some thought he might even be Elijah returned from Heaven or John the Baptizer returned from the dead. Jesus put them on the spot, though, and asked, “But who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
In the Episcopal Church, when we baptize a person, we pray that God will “give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will, and to persevere, a spirit to know, and love, [God], and the gift of joy, and wonder in all [God’s] works.” Similarly, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the prayer is that the baptizee will receive “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge, and the fear of the Lord, [and] the spirit of joy in [God’s] presence.”
In both traditions, our prayer is that the new church member will live a life of faith, in which he or she will develop and exercise the faculty of discernment, which is “the ability to make discriminating judgments, to distinguish between, and recognize the moral implications of, different situations and courses of action.” In today’s readings, we have two stories of discernment.
There’s a story about a pastor giving a children’s sermon. He decides to use a story about forest animals as his starting point, so he gathers the kids around him and begins by asking them a question. He says, “I’m going to describe someone to you and I want you to tell me who it is. This person prepares for winter by gathering nuts and hiding them in a safe place, like inside a hollow tree. Who might that be?” The kids all have a puzzled look on their faces and no one answers. So, the preacher continues, “Well, this person is kind of short. He has whiskers and a bushy tail, and he scampers along branches jumping from tree to tree.” More puzzled looks until, finally, Johnnie raises his hand. The preacher breathes a sigh of relief, and calls on Johnnie, who says, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but that sure sounds an awful lot like a squirrel to me.”
My best friend (another retired priest) and I often ask one another, “What are you preaching about on Sunday?” and our answer is always “Jesus.” For a preacher, the answer is always supposed to be Jesus. We’re supposed to take Paul as our model; he wrote to the Corinthians, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” So we are to do the same, preach Christ and him crucified, or perhaps today preach Christ and him baptized.
When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness
she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
I did not begin this morning with “Happy Christmas” or “Merry Christmas” because, although it’s December 24th, it’s not Christmas; it’s not even Christmas Eve yet! The rest of the world may want you to think it’s Christmas and that it has been since mid-October, but the Episcopal Church insists that it is not yet Christmas. In fact, there’s still more than nine months until Christmas if we believe the good news we just heard from the evangelist Luke! We still have some time to wait for trees and carols and packages, for festive dinners and “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and the “holy infant so tender and mild.” We still have some of the Advent season to complete and so on this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we focus our attention on Mary and consider not the end of her pregnancy, but its beginning, that moment when the Angel Gabriel told her that she had been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah.
Visual artists depict the stories of the bible in many fascinating ways and their works can help us explore scripture’s meaning. Often their images capture or suggest nuances in a story that we might miss just hearing the words. This morning, I’d like to tell you about three paintings that particularly speak to me about the Annunciation. They are the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini painted in the 1850s, Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli’s late 15th Century Cestello Annunciation, and a contemporary piece by American artist John Collier.
On April 12, a little more than seven months ago, I was privileged to officiate and preach at a service of Choral Evensong at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland. Following the service, on our way home to Medina, my wife Evelyn and I stopped at a Lebanese restaurant in Middleburg Heights for a late dinner in celebration of our 43rd wedding anniversary, which that day was. After a lovely meal of hummus, baba ganoush, spicy beef kafta, and chicken shwarma, we went home to bed. A few hours later, around 2 a.m., I woke up with a horrendous case of heartburn. I took some antacid and went back to sleep sitting up in my favorite armchair. At 7 a.m. the next morning, I woke up knowing that I hadn’t had indigestion after all; I was having a heart attack.
John, your parish secretary, puts together a mailing every week that he sends to the clergy who will be joining you as presiders and preachers. He includes in that mailing some of the material from an Augsburg Fortress publication called “Sundays and Seasons,” which is a great lectionary resource. The illuminations that your lectors read before each Bible reading giving a little introduction about the lesson come from “Sundays and Seasons.” I’ve been familiar with the publication for a long time, though I’ve never been a subscriber: I used to participate in a weekly ecumenical lectionary study group that included Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopal clergy and our Lutheran colleagues often brought something from “Sundays and Seasons” into our discussions.
This week “Sundays and Seasons” offered this précis as an introduction to our gospel reading, which is Matthew’s Parable of the Talents:
Jesus tells a parable about his second coming, indicating that it is not sufficient merely to maintain things as they are. Those who await his return should make good use of the gifts that God has provided them.
It’s now that time of year when clergy and church councils like to talk about stewardship of God’s gifts, and I am sure that you have heard many sermons that take exactly this approach to the Parable of the Talents;. I know that I have both heard and preached such sermons! But, having taken a closer look at the text recently, I that interpretation misses the mark. I don’t think this is a story about stewardship, at all: I believe it’s a story about conscience or, rather, the lack of conscience.
We have three intriguing lessons from scripture today. First we have a denunciation of Hebrew worship, which also interestingly contains a verse most famous in American politics for having been spoken on the steps of the Lincoln monument by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some people who dislike liturgy, or some aspect of liturgy, like incense, or vestments or music, ignoring that sentence about justice flowing like streams, have used this text to prove that God also dislikes, liturgy, or incense, or vestments, or whatever. However, that’s not what this lesson is about and I’ll get back to that in just a moment.
The second lesson is a crazy excerpt from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. With all that talk of God playing a trumpet and people flying up to meet Jesus in the air, it reads like some sort of hallucination or LSD trip, or like the ramblings of our crazy uncle who shows up for Thanksgiving dinner, muttering about things people don’t understand. The thing about Paul’s letters, though, is that they’re intended to be read as a whole. Breaking them up into excerpts, as the common lectionary does, can lead to a misreading and a misunderstanding. Fortunately, the lectionary doesn’t intend the epistle lesson to necessarily be read and interpreted in conjunction with the gospel lesson, as it does with the thematically related Old Testament lesson, so today we’ll just set crazy, old uncle Paul in a chair over there and let him be today.
Finally, from Matthew’s gospel, we have a lesson in which Jesus teaches about the kingdom of heaven. He does this using a parable. Now, you know what a parable is, right? It’s kind of like a metaphor and it’s kind of like a simile, but it’s neither a metaphor nor a simile. In a metaphor, the speaker says or implies that A is B, when the listener knows darn good and well that A is not B at all, but metaphoric imagery challenges us to consider A in ways we might not have done before.
What does it mean to say “Jesus is Lord”? The question arises because of today’s dialog between Jesus and some of the Pharisees about the relative importance of the Commandments. Jesus responds to a lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment and then follows his response with a question about the lordship of the Messiah, the anticipated “Son of David.”
Jesus very rarely claimed this title for himself and when he did it was generally in the sort of oblique way we see in today’s exchange. He doesn’t come right out and say “I am the Lord,” but he hints at it. Usually, however, it is applied to him by others. In daily usage among First Century Jews, addressing someone as “Lord,” was probably meant as an honorific synonymous with “Rabbi,” “Teacher,” “Master,” and so forth, the way we might use “Doctor,” “Professor,” or address a judge as “Your Honor.”