The good news is that we don’t do it alone. Just as Jesus claimed that the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him, which was true in a very particular way for Jesus, yet it is also true for us –
for this happened for and with us at our baptism. We have been anointed by the Spirit of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, which enables us to be guided in this Advent work of preparing our hearts for Jesus, by turning our hearts to others whom we are not, and carries with it the responsibility to anoint others with the grace and love of Jesus, for it is in the in-breaking of God’s kingdom by our bearing witness to each other, that the world moves toward salvation offered through us by the birth of Jesus, whatever account of it we want to read. Advent is a time, not only to marvel at what God did, but a time to marvel at what God is asking us to do to receive what God has done.
The kingdom of God is near and the more we are able to open ourselves, prepare a place within our hearts by clearing out that which we no longer need or that which hinders us from seeing the new opportunities, or to release old hurts or shame, we can settle into God’s mercy that will lead us forward. The truth I wish that priest had told me many years ago is that God’s Advent (the in-breaking of the holy into our world) comes every time we confess to God and God welcomes us home. Repentance is acknowledging the grace that precedes us, meets us, and is out ahead of us.
The other odd thing about Advent is that our scriptures for the 1st week of Advent, the beginning of our church year, start out with the texts of Jesus right before he’s crucified. Maybe this makes sense, maybe it’s a statement that, for Jesus’ death on the cross to mean new life for us is emerging, we have to put the end of life, Jesus’ crucifixion, up against and connected to the anticipation of new life – his birth in the manger. But it feels a bit odd, when images of the shepherds and angels and barnyard animals have begun to float around in our head as we hear the Christmas story again, and our scriptures talk to us about Jesus’ death.
But this cycle of death into life is we actually one we all know. The cycle of death into life, whether it’s in watching the leaves slowly and silently descend to the forest floor, knowing green buds will emerge in a few months, or whether it’s noticing our transition from one stage of life to another, we know this cycle. It is the one constancy in our lives.
And our faithful work is knowing that it will happen, and with grief, that God is always there, urging us into the embrace of what is next.
In Matthew’s gospel, today’s story is Jesus’ last teaching opportunity before he is crucified, so we have to imagine Jesus has saved the most important for last. Jesus is saying to us that our actions matter. We are to be accountable to what Jesus has asked us to do. This really is non-negotiable. You may notice that Jesus’ last teaching has nothing to do with orthodoxy, right belief, or how the church is to be structured, but rather, it’s all about orthopraxy – walking the walk, being authentic, making a difference in the world, being accountable for our choices or the choices others make on our behalf. We are living an authentic Christian life when we receive the bread on Sunday and on Sunday afternoon, as we plan our week ahead, we orient our lives to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and welcoming the stranger. Jesus did all of these things, which is why, when we do them, these moments are sacramental. Take, eat, this is my body, which is given for you. In receiving the broken bread, we become Christ’s body, so that we can see, be, and do for Jesus, so we can be sent out into the world to move it toward justice, where wrongs will be set right, and only God’s love will pour from all hearts.
As we say in our collect on Friday mornings during Morning Prayer, “Jesus stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone may come within his saving embrace.” Believing in a God who would do that for us, and thus calls us to do that for everyone else, can feel risky. And if it is risky, then perhaps it is of God, for it does seem to me that God is the greatest risk-taker of all. God trusts us, we fallible humans, with each other
and with God’s creation, and built into that trust in always intention and invitation to redemption and transformed living. When we believe in a loving God who takes risks for us, who loves us into being, then I believe we too can become risk-takers for love. This is what this parable can teach us. Be risk-takers for love.
We often say fear is the opposite of faith, largely because each time the angels show up in scripture, they begin their conversation with “Do not be afraid” for fear can prevent us from seeing, hearing, and loving God.
Do not be afraid, my friends. Above all else, God has entrusted you with your love of God and it is right and good to share that love boldly with others. We can’t get that wrong, for that always will be pleasing in God’s sight. Amen.
There was another party going on in town that night. One where the rejected, the tired, the weary, the lonely, the ones who mourn, the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers were gathered, where the healing love of Jesus flowed through and around them, where they anointed each other, maybe not with expensive oil, but with tears of joy, for Jesus was with them.
The church shows up, our church shows up when we readily offer ourselves and our resources to each other, when we ask the question, “What do you need?” or “How can I support you in the cold dark night, where fear and trembling settle in upon your soul and weigh you down like a heavy down comforter, almost making it difficult to breath?” The church shows up, our church shows up, when we acknowledge our vulnerability before God and each other, or when we acknowledge that we can’t be prepared for everything, and instead chose to trust that it is Jesus who opens the door, invites us in, and prepares the feast.
There is a little poem I think about this time of year.
Some people dream the dream
Some people live the dream
Some people defend the dream
God bless the defenders
The Lord said “who shall I send and who will go for us” and I said “here am I; send me. Amen.
Just as the river in Ezekiel flows from the Temple and the river in Revelation flows from the throne of God – our Gospel today points us to one of the greatest symbols of God’s love flowing into the world – the empty tomb. Imagine a spiritual river flowing out of the empty tomb filling the whole world. And the first folks to put their toes in that river are Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Thank God for the faithfulness of these women. They went, as Matthew says, to see the tomb, to investigate. Where were the men? Fled to Galilee. And what did the angel tell these two faithful Apostles to do? They were to go tell the others that Jesus was raised and “indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him.” Jesus is going ahead of them into the world – not going away from the world. Like a mighty river rising from a very small source, Jesus’s presence and his love is still spreading from that source – the empty tomb – to fill our entire world. That is the picture that Matthew in his last chapter wants to leave us with. There is no ascension story at the end of Matthew’s gospel. The book ends with our great commissioning to “make disciples of all nations.” Get busy working in the world to make others aware of the love of God! And the final sentence of the Gospel is a final reminder as the love of God flows out to include all people: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Just like the promise in Genesis that cycles would follow on cycles, just as the promise of the river that it would always flow, Jesus is promising to be with us – not remote in some far-off throne room in heaven – but to be as near to us as that river. Surrounding us in God’s love, bringing life to everything that Jesus touches.
“God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” A common saying. Perhaps you’ve heard it many times in your life, or have even spoken it yourself. It’s a saying I’ve always pushed back against from a place deep within my gut, not necessarily understanding why, until I studied theology, and then I knew why. My image of God doesn’t include someone sitting upon a throne in heaven, dolling out bad things to people at opportune times, with the purpose of disrupting or destroying their lives, always attentive to the balance of good and evil in their lives at any particular moment, so people can be just on the edge of the good— or worse yet, bringing on the bad thing in life to selected people at the worst possible moments of their lives, just when they are starting to turn things around, or when they are spiraling downward.
My image of God is a flow of love, a source of desire for goodness for each part of the created world, a pull deep within each one of us for wholeness, and an inherent life-force reaching toward a rich and abundant life designed for everyone, lived within the healing embrace of Christ.
So how would I, how do you, reconcile this image of a God who looks at us through eyes of love, with the God conjured up in this popular saying that seems to imply God is actively involved in bringing bad things into our lives?
Because Jesus stayed in the tomb, contained with the earth, with the massive round stone rolled across its entrance, Jesus sanctified, made holy, saturated with the presence of God, the darkened container he was put in, and therefore sanctified all the darkened containers we put ourselves into. But the point of the story of Jesus is that he didn’t stay there. And his resurrection invites and implores us not to stay there either.
God’s mercy, love, and compassion draw us into these places of alienation and disconnect. We resist going there often, sometimes by saying, “We’ve always done it that way” as a reason not to move into that place of uncertainty, where the old begins to fade away before we can see the new. Or sometimes we resist the draw into exile because it’s easier to fortify the sides of our containers with bolstered arguments or fiery threats.
But the pattern of faithful living, that paschal mystery we often speak of, moves us into a place of exile, of self-reflection, of noticing the places of disconnect between what God has asked of us and what we are doing, to the land, or in our lives, or in our relationship with God, for they are all connected, of acknowledging what we have done or left undone that has caused harm. But then the Spirit turns us again toward God, when God’s mercy, love, and compassion can strip from us all that we have falsely created, to return us to what God has created within and around us.
If we listen closely enough, in these times of exile, which our own lives may be in now, or our country may be in right now, we can hear God’s voice saying, “Come and see, I am bringing you to a new way of experiencing me. Come and see.”