What an interesting Gospel reading for today, the first Sunday in Advent. We’ve roasted our turkeys, we’ve listened to Christmas carols in the stores for a couple of months now, we lit the first of the Advent candles this morning. We just sang about the spirit of the watchers. So now we watch and wait for the birth of Jesus. That’s what Advent is all about. Isn’t it?
Advent is a season of the Church calendar that marks a three- to four-week period before Christmas. It is the beginning of the new year in the Western Church calendar. The word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus meaning “presence” or “arrival.”
The world has become darker (especially when we moved our clocks back a few weeks ago), and Advent looks toward the coming light. I suspect it’s no accident that we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the “Light of the World,” just after the winter solstice when the light
begins its increase, when (as my dad loved to quote from poetry) each day lingers a little longer the western sun.
Today’s collect begins asking God to “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” So we await for Christ to come among us.
But if we look to the lectionary for this Sunday or the next two Sundays for any hint of Bethlehem or wise men or miraculous births, we’ll be a bit disappointed. Of course if we look to either the first or last Gospel written, Mark or John, we won’t find any story at all about the birth of Jesus. Those birth stories we have, in Matthew and Luke, were created a couple of decades after Mark’s Gospel came along, and the two offer quite different, if not conflicting, accounts about what might have happened.
For example, the Gospel that we’re reading for these four Advent Sundays, Matthew, begins with a genealogy to show Jesus’ heritage from Abraham to David down to Joseph, the husband of Mary, and then tells of Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth without any reference to a journey to Bethlehem, just that after Jesus was born there, the Magi came to “the house” after their fateful visit to Herod in Jerusalem. Matthew makes no reference to a stable, manger, shepherds or donkeys.
Luke on the other hand provides no genealogy and instead focuses heavily not on Jesus but on John the Baptist as a foil to Jesus. The author goes to considerable length to explain the background and circumstances around John's birth before ever coming to the subject of Jesus. Mary is much more central to the story there than in Matthew with her visit to Elizabeth and her Magnificat. There’s a heavy focus on the naming of John before we’re ever told of Jesus’ birth.
Back in Matthew, I think the emphasis there on Jesus’ ancestry reflects the author’s desire to show Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's story. He highlights Jesus as the new David with his birthplace in Bethlehem and his links as a direct descendent through Joseph. Joseph hears from angels about Old Testament prophecies that are shown to be fulfilled in Jesus. The whole Matthew account is littered with references to the Old Testament, again highlighting Jesus’ Jewish roots. Finally, the Magi's role shows the importance of Jesus and his prominence as “King of the Jews.”
So why does the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent focus on Christ’s second coming? A second coming that we cannot anticipate the where or when of. As I read the lines about not knowing when Something’s Coming, I couldn’t get Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics out of my head from West Side Story:
There’s something’ due any day;
I will know right away
Soon as it shows
It may come cannonballin’
Down through the sky
Gleam in its eye
Bright as a rose!
So here on first day of the church’s new year, just when it feels there should be a little Good News about the coming of hope and peace and life this Advent, our friend Matthew strongly suggests that we are at risk. He says “…until the day Noah entered the ark, Noah’s neighbors knew nothing… until the flood came and swept them all away. So too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
For a post-9/11 world, his is a difficult passage for 21st century Americans. How can we make sense of it? How can we find good news in the prediction that “one will be taken and one will be left” when the Son of Man comes? How can we, who live in a culture of fear and regularly updated threat levels, hear Jesus’ words except through our fear?
You’ve probably heard of a series of books called Left Behind, where a “rapture” occurs. In this so-called “rapture,” Christians are suddenly taken away from the earth leaving their clothes behind. Both in Chapel Hill on the UNC campus and at Wesleyan down in
Connecticut, I’ve come across stagings of clothing “left behind.” They were probably placed there by some group of students making fun of the whole idea of the “Rapture” and “left behind,” a movement that sprang up in 1833 from an unusual Bible translation by John Nelson Darby. Most Christian churches don’t subscribe to rapture-oriented theological views, of course, but it’s out there.
Matthew does have a rather end-time – or apocalyptic – orientation, dividing history into a present, evil age and a new age (or Realm of Heaven). The older age seems to be all about Satan and demons, about idolatry, sin, injustice, exploitation, violence, and death. The new age will be characterized by the complete rule of God and angels, by authentic worship, forgiveness, mutual support, health, and eternal life.
I think most of us tend to take this apocalyptic language as figurative and as tied to a first-century world view (when most of the population was illiterate) that doesn’t make much sense to us today. Nearly 2,000 years have passed without the Apocalypse, and we don’t anticipate some singular event that will instantly transform the world.
In the season of Advent we anticipate the arrival of the Messiah on two levels. First, we seek to place ourselves in the historical shoes of Israel as they waited for centuries for the arrival of the Messiah. When we sing songs like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with its lyrics about “ransoming captive Israel” who “mourns in lonely exile here” we are remembering our forebears as they awaited the arrival of God’s Anointed.
On the second level, we’re told to anticipate Christ’s Second Coming, what the New Testament writers like Matthew and Paul refer to as His parousia [pa-ra-see-ya or pare-rau-zi-a]; His “arrival.” That word, parousia, is actually the Greek word that gets translated to Adventus in Latin. So it’s the original word for Advent.
A problem with this Gospel lesson is that it calls for readiness without telling us how to get ready. What must we do? In the next chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives two answers. First, the Parable of the Talents tells us to use our God-given resources for God’s benefit. Second, Jesus says that feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner are activities that will be credited to us as if we had done them for Christ.
This two-fold emphasis is consistent with Jesus’ answer to the lawyer who asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” You remember Jesus gave a two-fold answer:
He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. A second likewise is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
So my takeaway from today’s lesson is that we can prepare for Christ’s coming by (first) loving and serving God and (second) by loving and serving our neighbor.
I think the message is that simple and that universal.
So Happy New Year.
Amid all the various ecclesial, ethical, and liturgical reforms of the sixteenth century, Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer: the tenth leper turning back. – He said the nature of true worship is the tenth leper turning back. Perhaps paying attention to a few details will help us appreciate Luther's insight into Luke's unique passage.
But first let’s start with a different story of a man who was lost in the woods. Later, in describing the experience to some friends, he told how frightened he was and how he had even finally knelt and prayed. Someone asked, “Did God answer your prayer?” “Oh, no,” the man replied. “Before God had a chance, a guide came along and showed me the way out.”
It’s so easy to be blind to the many blessings that God daily showers upon us. We can awake to the sun shining, the birds chirping, and the flowers and trees lining our paths, and not give much thought that God has given us those blessings and given us the senses to enjoy them. One of my favorite Psalms verses is: “This is the day that the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” It’s a great way to reinforce a good start to the day. But some people grumble about having to eat the same kind of cereal every morning, forgetting that many have nothing to eat for breakfast. They complain about a lack of money, forgetting that they spend more on entertainment each month than many around the world earn as their total income.
To be oblivious to God’s blessings I think of as a slight to God. The proper response is to glorify God from a thankful heart. These two responses, the proper and improper, are illustrated for us in this story of Jesus cleansing the ten lepers. Only one of the ten responded properly.
If your upbringing was anything like mine, then you had a parent or two who was concerned that you learn proper manners. I remember being taught as a kid how important it was to behave properly, especially outside the home, and to use conventions of polite language: always say please and thank you. And when I was 13, we moved south to Georgia, there were even more rules to learn about polite Southern society.
So when we read this story about the ten lepers from the Gospel of Luke, it’s easy, with such an upbringing, to see this story as being about manners, and about gratitude and thankfulness. And certainly, it is about that. The lepers have been showered with an amazing act of grace, and the proper response to such grace is praise and thanksgiving. But I think this story is about something more.
One of the things that intrigues me about this story, and leads me to think that it’s more than just a story about nine people forgetting their manners, is the setting. The gospel writer tells us that while on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus passes through the area between Samaria and Galilee. First: given that Samaria and Galilee border each other, there really is no “region between” them, and even if there were, that area is nowhere close to “on the way to Jerusalem.” At least, it’s an odd route to take toward Jerusalem. It may be that Luke has little grasp of the terrain he describes, but I tend to think his point is theological rather than geographical. (Remember that we Episcopalians take the Bible so seriously, we know that it should not be taken literally.)
It’s also interesting to consider the relationship between the people who lived in Samaria and the people who lived in Galilee. We’ve heard enough about Samaritans that we know they were considered outcasts by Jesus’ first century Jewish community – at least as they are portrayed in the New Testament.
Although they had the same scriptures and followed the purity laws, the Samaritans did not worship in the temple in Jerusalem, and so those in Galilee (and the rest of southern Israel) thought this was heresy. In Galilee, where Jesus did most of his public ministry, the Samaritans were a despised group considered unfit for association.
So it would seem that Jesus has deliberately entered into this place, this area between what his community considers what is right and what is wrong, an area where he is sure to encounter not only his own folk, but those who are unlike him, whom his community considers unclean. What sort of borderland place is this, this area on the border of Samaria and Galilee I imagine it as a sort of a demilitarized zone, a place to create distance between the warring factions.
What happens in this place in our Gospel story is that Jesus meets ten lepers. According to first-century historian Josephus, lepers were treated “as if they were, in effect, “dead men.” The Mosaic Law prescribed that the person be cut off from society, including his family. He had to wear torn clothing, have his head uncovered, cover his lips and shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” wherever he went to warn others to keep their distance.
So, according to the Law, they have to keep their distance from Jesus, but they recognize him and cry out to Him for mercy. Rather than drawing near and touching them, as He did with the leper in Luke’s Chapter 5 (13), Jesus offers the ten lepers cleansing from their disease, without any apparent need for ceremony or physical action. He merely tells them to show themselves to the priests – a necessary step under the law for healed lepers to rejoin communities – and they become cleansed as they proceed to do so.
Luke here, I think, wants us to see ourselves as spiritual lepers in the sight of Christ – that our hearts are sick with sin, unclean before God. Just as this awful disease of leprosy separated the leper from the community, so our sin causes distance in human relationships. Just as only God could heal this dreaded disease, Luke is saying, so only God can heal and cleanse the human heart from the awful disease of sin.
The healing of these ten outcast lepers is not unusual for healing stories in the gospels. It follows a typical pattern: Jesus is passing through; there is a cry for help. Jesus notices and responds, and healing happens. These lepers are commanded by Jesus to go show themselves to the priests. It’s important to note that the lepers all obey Jesus. They all have faith that something good is about to happen, and even though he wonders about the nine others’ apparent lack of gratitude, Jesus doesn’t condemn them or take away their healing. What he does do is point out the atypical tenth leper – another indication that there is something deeper going on in this story.
This tenth leper is no ordinary leper, if there is such a thing. Not only is he ostracized because of his disease; he’s also ostracized because he’s a Samaritan. He’s a foreigner. He’s an outcast-outcast. There is perhaps no one else that Jesus could have met that would have been so hated and feared – hated
because of his beliefs, and feared because of his disease.
But Jesus meets this leper in the field between wrongdoing and right doing, and those distinctions between them disappear in the presence of the divine. “Get up and go on your way,” Jesus says. “Your faith has made you well” (or in the King James, “Your faith has made you whole.” The word that Luke uses here for “well” or “whole” is the Greek word Sozo, commonly translated as “to save” or “salvation.” The tenth leper is not merely healed of his disease, but is made whole and transformed in the presence of God.
This passage hints at the fact that Jesus offers this leper more than the others. They received healing, but this Samaritan receives a deeper salvation in addition. His faith has prompted him to return to the feet of Jesus in thanks, and that personal contact, that personal submission signifies a soul healing that is more than skin deep.
Notice Jesus didn’t demand this praise, but this leper offers it freely. Jesus loves for you to offer praise freely. Ten men prayed, but only one praised. Ten men prayed, but only one praised. As he is laying himself at Jesus’ feet, he is declaring his gratitude and also giving all he has in surrender to Christ. Perhaps the core of true thanksgiving is humility. He is not simply thinking of God’s gifts, but thinking of God the Giver. God gives us His gifts in love not so that we will make idols of the gift, but to truly fall in love with Him, the Giver!
The punch line here, of course, is that this guy was a Samaritan, implying that the rest were Jews. He is the last guy you would think would receive healing (especially in Jewish eyes), but the only one who truly has faith. Jesus expresses his sadness and disappointment. “Where are the nine?” He says.
I think this story serves as an invitation to believers – then and now – to recognize that what we see makes all the difference. In the face of adversity, do we see danger or opportunity? In the face of human need, do we see demand or gift? In the face of the stranger, do we see potential enemy or friend?
And it goes further. When we look to God, do we see stern judge or loving parent? When we look to ourselves, do we see failure or beloved child? When we look to the future, do we see fearful uncertainty or an open horizon? There’s no right answer to any of these questions, of course. How we answer depends upon what we see. Yet how we answer dramatically shapes both our outlook and our behavior.
Perhaps this is the key to the stewardship campaigns happening in most churches this month. Stewardship is not first about giving, but about seeing all that we have been given and rejoicing in a way that cannot help but shape how we act. I repeat: Stewardship is not first about giving, but about seeing all that we have been given and rejoicing in a way that cannot help but shape how we act.
We give thanks for God’s great mercy.
What is true stewardship, worship, and Christian living?
It is the tenth leper turning back.
By Bill Hattendorf
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” the lesson starts out. Fear not. We have heard these words before in Luke’s gospel.
They’re the words that the angel Gabriel spoke to aged Zechariah, when he announces that a son will be born to him and wife Elizabeth, they who had waited so long for a child. “Fear not.”
These are the words that Gabriel speaks to a trembling teenage girl when he brings the message that she will carry Jesus in her womb.
They are the words spoken by the angel of the Lord in the shepherds’ field, “Do not be afraid … I bring you good • news of great joy for all the people.”
They are the words that Jesus uses to summon his first disciples after they haul in a boatful of fish. Peter and Andrew promptly leave their nets and follow him.
These are the words that herald miraculous births, joyful news, and calls to loving action.
So why does Jesus use them now? The news that he proclaims will no doubt raise some anxiety. His message is not easy. As the words of angels cause those in their presence to tremble, so too, does the cost of discipleship.
Jesus goes on to instruct his followers. Sell your possessions, he says, and give alms. Strive for the eternal, not for the things of earth which do not endure. This is hard news for a group of Christians in the first century (who weren’t known as Christians yet, of course), many of whom probably struggled just to get by.
I’ve got to think that the radical message that we find in Luke’s gospel, a vision of a new reign where the powerful are cast down and the lowly lifted up, likely did not have much appeal among the upper classes of society. It was fearsome news, indeed, that the order of things, our structures of power, would be turned on their heads.
I think this passage should really end a verse later. Those verses immediately after today’s lesson are not included in the Sunday lectionary. After our reading about giving all one has to the poor and about being on the watch for Christ’s unexpected return, we may well want to echo Peter’s question that comes in verse 41: He says, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” (Or, Do we have to pay attention now?”)
In terms of family background, my mom’s Scottish McLeod family was part Methodist and part Episcopal. My dad’s parents of German background were Lutheran.
Naturally, I was baptized Lutheran, confirmed Methodist, but always knew in my heart I was an Episcopalian. With such church cross-cultures growing up, I’ve sometimes found it particularly challenging to remember which Chistmas carols or which verses belong where. But I do remember singing a hymn with the Lutherans that was:
“Have no fear, little flock, Have no fear, little flock, For the Father has chosen to give you the Kingdom Have no fear, little flock.”
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Our reading today tells us that all that is worth having, God has already given, and gladly so. It brings God joy to share with us the eternal reign of heaven. And that should be our starting point. Treasure that, Jesus says.
The phrase “Do not be afraid” is the hallmark of good news throughout Scripture and it occurs multiple times in Luke's story of Jesus as well. (It is also what God says in today's first reading in Isaiah.) This “Do not be afraid,” is the rhetorical prelude to the announcement of God's mighty and saving deeds. And it’s the starting point and anchor for everything else in this passage. It is God's good pleasure – God's intention, plan, and delight – to give you the kingdom! If this is true, then disciples can, indeed, resist the seduction of wealth, not fall prey to constant anxiety about worldly needs, share what they have with others, and wait expectantly, even eagerly, for the heavenly kingdom.
The watchfulness that Jesus commands, I think, is not an anxious anticipation of the end of the world – but rather an eager expectation of God's consummation of history. What Jesus is commending is faith – faith that frees us to be generous; faith that enables us to leave anxiety behind; faith that creates confidence in us about a future secured not by human endeavor or achievement but by God alone. And todays’s second lesson was pretty much all about faith too.
Jesus does not simply hold out faith as a model and goal, much less as a standard by which to judge us. Rather, Jesus creates faith by announcing a promise: Like a parent loves one’s children deeply and desperately and wants all good things for them, so also is it God's good pleasure to give God's children the kingdom.
Promises create a shared expectation about the future and bind together the giver and receiver of the promise in that shared anticipation. Promises create relationship. Promises create hope. Promises CREATE faith. All of our instruction about the Christian life – whether about prayer, money, watchfulness, care of neighbor, and more – are therefore anchored in the gospel promise that it is, indeed, God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Remembering – indeed, exalting in – this promise enables us not only to have faith, but to answer Peter's question: is Jesus saying this to us or to everyone? — Yes!
The faith that is shared by Abraham and Sarah, by those first disciples of Jesus, by the little flock of Christians to whom Luke’s gospel speaks, is a faith that calls us to be dressed for action, speaking out on the issues of our day. It is a faith that calls us to be politically active, fiscally generous, and compassionate in every area of our life as we journey together toward the promised land. Christ calls us to respond gratefully, with love that risks, love that gives, love that answers, love that never stops hoping for the beauty of heaven, and never stops seeking to show that beauty here on earth.
While “Have No Fear. Little Flock” has not really stayed with me over the years, another song that relates to todays lesson, I think, has: It’s a Curtis Mayfield song from the 1960s that echoes the spirituals style in the African-American tradition. Mayfield titled his song “People Get Ready.” I bet you know it. The lines speak of faith:
People get ready, There's a train a comin'.
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'.
You don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.
People get ready for the train to Jordan,
Picking up passengers from coast to coast.
Faith is the key Open the doors and board them,
There’s room for all Amongst the loved the most.
“All you need is faith,” Curtis Mayfield assures us.
That is where it starts, isn’t it?
The certainty of God’s favor, revealed, lived, died, raised, and ascended in Jesus.
It is only after this promise that we can imagine any kind of concept of what our treasure might be.
What is the power behind life?
Having faith makes it possible to be prepared for and
become an actual participant in God’s kingdom.
Only with faith, we are able to hear its sweet song.
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