Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 22, 2019
Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Today’s Gospel is no ordinary birth announcement. It will be a boy, yes, but even more it is a theologically packed proclamation of who Jesus is and for what God has sent him.
Matthew proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s anointed agent who once for all, in the fullness of time, will set right the world’s wrongs. He is the sign of God’s intended realignment of the entire creation. Jesus is Son of David, a pedigree essential for the Messiah as one strand of Jewish expectation. Jesus’ conception is a gift of the Holy Spirit, albeit an inconvenient one, in that Mary and Joseph are not yet married. Finally, his name, Jesus, is divinely ordained through the announcement of an angel as he is Emmanuel, God with us, sent to rescue all people from their own brokenness, and that of the world.
Let’s look for a moment at that name, Jesus. The Hebrew and Aramaic forms of “Jesus” and “he will save” are similar. The point being made in that biblical pun is this: “You shall call his name Savior because he will save.” Yet the word “Jesus,” in Hebrew, “Joshua,” even more literally means, “Yahweh, help!”
Isn’t that often our most basic prayer—a plea for God to help? We hear that plea in “O Come O Come Emmanuel”; all of our Collects; the Eucharistic Prayer; the Prayers of the People. Jesus, in his very person, is a living and breathing prayer as he intercedes for you and me.
As we all struggle to make sense of life during our time on the planet, we often feel out of control, teetering at the edge of being overwhelmed when we observe that at times it seems the world is intent on destroying itself. Hopefully you know joy in life as well, but our bottom line prayer is, “Yahweh, God, help.” We want to make sense of things and know that God is in it with us. Even looking into the heavens for stars to follow as civilizations have done for millennia, we want a sign that tells us God is visibly present and working in and through our lives and the circumstances surrounding us.
God’s response to our plea of “God, help!” is Jesus. The One born of Joseph and Mary is God’s distinctive answer, an outward and visible sign of all who God is. I saw this beautifully played out in a first communion class I was leading some years ago. A little girl’s parents told me that the night before the class, their daughter was walking around the house with her hands out, as if ready to receive communion. That little girl’s hope, her longing, her desire, was that she was getting Jesus!
The next day it was fulfilled when the very sacrament of God, Jesus the Messiah, the One who saves, was placed in her hand. Even as Jesus is God’s answer to our call for help, Jesus is also God’s plea to us in return. Here’s what I mean.
As a Christian community, one of the things we promise when a person is baptized or confirmed is that she or he will be raised and formed in a community of hope. We say we will do everything we know to do to assure that promise comes to fruition. Just as Joseph was filled with the Holy Spirit, so are we in forming one another as people of faith, a people who trust in Jesus in the power of the same Spirit. And here’s the kicker. Just as Joseph was able to make the shift from the merely sensible, reasonable and pragmatic in order to say “yes” to God, our times are requiring flexible and adaptive approaches to faithfulness and life, an “Irrational Season,” if you will. As stated beautifully by Madeleine L’Engle in her poem of that name:
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
I would add that it was the same for Joseph. To be clear, I am in favor of good reason, but only as long as it does not keep us stuck in the status quo, cut off from God’s sometimes disturbing invitation, and not able to live radically into the Gospel adventure.
Your ongoing work and mission is to respond to God’s plea in the little girl and in our hurting and broken world. Joseph could have turned back, remaining secure in the law as understood in Scripture, with Mary likely being stoned to death in shame. Instead, Joseph said yes and followed God’s call to the edge, risking his own reputation and family for the hope of the world.
So it is that we seek to be “a mansion prepared for himself,” whether it be Jesus in a manger, a little girl seeking communion, the stranger at our door, or the child within each of us, longing for God, asking for help. Trust the promise that God, Emmanuel, is with us. It will burst forth when we recognize ourselves called and used by God as part of the answer, just as Joseph was, when we are willing to follow strange and unexpected movements of God in Christ wherever they may take us.
Joseph was an answer to God’s prayer. You can be also.
Dear Faithful People of the Diocese of South Carolina,
“The Word became flesh and lived among us, …full of grace and truth.”
My heart is full. As these last days among you wind down and my time as your Bishop draws to a close, I am filled with nothing but gratefulness. I said yes to coming among you at the invitation of the Standing Committee three and one-half years ago, because I sensed this was a call from the Holy Spirit. I had to say yes in order to be faithful. There is nothing that has occurred along the way that has to me indicated otherwise.
In just a few days we celebrate once again that to which John’s Gospel points us: the Christ of all creation becoming flesh in Jesus. The One manifest in the animal food dish in a cave in Bethlehem incarnates the fullness of God in mercy, love and never-ending hope, no matter what the circumstances around us may bring. What I want you to know and never to forget is that you, the people of the Diocese of South Carolina, have been the face of God for me. You have, over and over again, been the evidence of the Word dwelling among us, for that dwelling occurs in each of us as the Christ of the Universe is made manifest in all and through all.
Bonnie and I will be forever thankful for this sojourn together in your midst. Know how deeply touched we were, even overwhelmed, by the generosity of your gift to us as we part. Thank you too for all of the well-wishes, cards and gifts that have come our way this Advent. Please know, however, that more than anything, it is the gift of you that we celebrate most of all.
I pray for you a most blessed and holy Christmastide. Celebrate well. Rejoice deeply. Adore God’s beauty. Love one another. Trust fully that the Word was made flesh and does indeed live among you. I’ve seen it!
In the love of Jesus, the gift of the Manger,
Third Sunday of Advent: December 15, 2019
We are continually by disturbing images from around the world and within our own country: a politically deeply divided nation; horrific expressions of anti-Semitism most recently in Jersey City; embedded institutional racism; escalating and rampant gun violence; multiple wars and the even the more real threat of domestic terrorism. It seems at times that the world has gone crazy. This shopping season leading up to Christmas is not enough of an anesthesia to relieve the fear and anxiety with which many are living.
Confronted with the constant reminders of the brokenness of the world, Advent arrives as a gift, seeking to take us in search of a place that longs for a new possibility. We call it hope. assaulted
Isaiah the prophet was writing to a people who were in danger of losing their moral and national identity. It was a world in political turmoil as they were threatened by the rising power of Assyria. Right in the midst of their own struggles, however, Isaiah holds before them images of a hopeful future with a complete reversal of their circumstances. “The wilderness and dry land shall be glad, the desert shall blossom…and rejoice with joy and singing. To those “who are of a fearful heart,” they are offered the words, “Be strong. Do not fear. Here is your God.” Even today’s reading from the Psalms, the hymnal of the Hebrew people, resounds with a word of hope: “Happy are they whose hope is in the Lord their God.”
Then we get Matthew’s great vision through John the Baptist that God reverses everything, coming in the midst of the conflict with the religious and political rulers of his day. Jesus calls him a prophet, that is, a truth teller, even and perhaps especially when it is inconvenient to do so. He points to the dream of God as offered by Jesus and we get the glimpse today that it means, at least in part, “…the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” In other words, anyone despised and discounted and marginalized, even those counted as dead to the world, are offered a place with God.
The Advent scriptures are infused with hope in the face of the world’s evil, even as we long for what has not yet been fully realized. We get a sense of this longing for hope in the midst of an anguished present when we listen to people from the margins, the ones to whom John the Baptist and the other prophets are always pointing us. I read a moving account told by a Syrian mother who had come to the United States with her family, fleeing the violence of her country and the murder of her 7 year old son. It was heart wrenching. She, her husband and three girls were waiting with bated breath for that one rescuing word of welcome to a new home of hopefulness in the United States. The promise of release and freedom, daring to stare down hopelessness: this is the quality of Advent.
The annals of former slaves tell us this is how they survived the cotton fields and the brutality of slave owners, that is, by staying centered in the promise of restoration and God’s new future. Slave ships came to capture. God comes to set people free.
So what do we do now, in this in-between time of Jesus having come to us in Bethlehem and the yet to be fulfillment of God Kingdom, God’s full reign, on earth? After all, we pray, nearly very day, “Thy Kingdom come,” do we not? The Letter of James encourages us to be patient, just like a farmer waits for a crop. But note this is not a patience of passivity. Celebrating 50 years as a parish is a wonderful thing to mark and celebrate to be sure. Such anniversaries are also times to refocus and be clear about why we are here. We know we have work to do.
Our Advent call is the transformation of the now. We persevere as a community of faith, “strengthening our hearts” as James would tell us in the Epistle, and “As an example of suffering and patience…take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” With the prophets we dare to speak the truth even when costly to do so, then seek to do something about it. It is part of what those coming forward today are promising to be and do. As Henri Nouwen once said, “You are a Christian only so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come.” Such a hope is not born in mere optimism that things will eventually get better. It is born in God, or even, God born in us. The Kingdom of God is already here within us, right here at St. Stephen’s!
In this way we are always an Advent people—unsatisfied with the way things are when they are less than God’s hope for the world. I trust it is why you care so much for the community around you in your outreach efforts to which you are so deeply committed. We are to be God’s change agents who work to tear down every wall that would separate and divide God’s people as we usher in ever more fully a community of God’s all-embracing love.
Our hope is in the One whose birth we celebrate in ten days. We belong to a God shown forth in the child of Bethlehem who promises that the end is already secure. We seek to change the world now as an act of thanksgiving for the promised One to come. Our hope, past, present and future, is held in Christ Jesus as we hear one more time those audacious words from Isaiah: “Be strong, do not fear, here is your God.” It may be the most radical thing you can do. It starts right here in North Myrtle Beach.
The Second Sunday of Advent: December 8, 2019
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” And so Isaiah begins today.
A stump – what used to be a tree, given up for dead. What was once a proud, living thing, with deep roots and vast spreading branches – A metaphor for Israel in its glory years under King David – powerful, influential, clearly in God’s favor, was no more. Now only a stump, a remnant of what was. Israel had been a tree of promise. Now, a stump.
Some 730 years later it hadn’t changed a whole lot when John the Baptist comes along. His words of judgment declare the axe is lying at the fruit of the tree and if there was no promise of fruit – it would be cut down, made into a stump.
Now here we are, some 2,000 years beyond that, and we find many of us struggling to live under the burden of a dead tree, a stump, that once held such promise:
Perhaps it is a broken relationship, the death of a loved one, a bad diagnosis, a lost job, depression. Once what held so much promise has been ripped away. It can feel as if an axe has been swung and only a stump is left. Of course this sense goes beyond us as individuals. An endless war in Afghanistan, the proliferation of increasingly powerful storms and the subsequent devastation; senseless killings of children in our schools embedded in the violence of our culture; our cynicism toward a dysfunctional Congress, seemingly unable to work together for the good of the country.
So with all of this, my experience is that what most of us are looking for, especially when we dare to come through the doors of a place of worship, is hope. Hope in the midst of the brokenness as we look for the green shoot of life to appear out of the stump, whether it be in our personal life or in the world about us.
I think that is why we love baptisms, babies being born, marriages ordinations, and confirmations such as we are celebrating today. These are all signs of hope! All of you receiving the laying on of hands today are to be signs of hope for one another and the world. You, me, the Church, even when we struggle, are called to be a sacrament of hope, an outward and visible sign of new life coming to bear through the hearts and life of the people of Holy Communion. So we yearn for something beyond the superficial, seeking to be engaged in things that really matter in order that it makes a difference in us and in the world.
But of course there is a problem. Life disappoints us. We disappoint each other. Expectations are not realized. We elect people to office and they disappoint. One war ends and another begins. Those baptized, confirmed and married fall short of the promises and vows they make. Even the Church, itself to be a sign of hope, can disappoint as it fails in God’s mission to be the Body of Christ on the earth.
You see, hope is more than desiring the best or mere wishful thinking. It is even more than seeking a spiritual relationship with God by well-intentioned people such as you. But how? How do we see hope in the midst of this life when so much can seem like a lifeless stump when we are feeling overwhelmed by all that tears us apart?
Look for a moment at the Diocese of Haiti. Numerically it is the largest Diocese of the Episcopal Church. I have had the privilege of traveling there several times to show solidarity in the midst of their suffering. To see the poverty of that country, the devastation after hurricanes and earthquakes, if anyone has a reason not to hope it is they. What one finds when engaging the people however, is hope. Every celebration of the Eucharist I have attended there, every Bible study and prayer group, is filled with life, expectation and a zeal for hope. I have experienced similar sensibilities whether it be in the people fleeing violence in El Salvador or in the squalor of Calcutta, India—hope, even joy, rooted in something beyond their immediate circumstances.
Or look at the example of Nelson Mandela. 27 years behind bars. Beat down. Tortured. But what is the enduring gift of his life? Hope! Isaiah places his hope in the one coming as the spirit of the Lord rests on him. – wisdom and understanding, righteousness and faithfulness. The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the child over the pit of the poisonous snake. The point of these images is that in God every relationship is remade, renewed, changed!! For John the Baptist, the axe is the symbol of the possibility of new life after the dead, unpromising, lifeless wood is taken away.
All of this leads to the unmistakable truth of this Second Sunday of Advent. Our hope is not in a program, or good intentions, trying harder, being more spiritual or in anything else. It is to be found in the One who is coming and whom we adore this day. Isaiah looked for God to raise up a new leader for God’s people. John the Baptist announced that he had arrived. We know him as Jesus the Christ, born in Bethlehem. We dare to proclaim in every Advent that our hope is in Jesus, for the promise of God’s vision of justice for all people was born fully in him. All is reconciled through him. The stump of life, personal and that of the world, only has meaning as it rests in the hope of the One who is the Prince of Peace as he is the shoot emerging out of that stump.
Perhaps the prayer of Advent is the scariest of all for us to pray: “God, put your axe to my life and take away all that is not of you, so that I may know that my hope rests only in you.” Our response? Go. Pray it, live it, act it, on earth as it is in heaven.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.