"Lec Lab Live" Podcast is Here!

Give Our New Podcast a Listen

Brand new for 2013, the Bubbas do a “live” podcast focusing on each week’s texts. Extra stuff that we just can’t get into the online version — our first effort is for January 6, 2013 and the Epiphany of the Lord. 

Just click on the link to the right and you’ll be taken to our conversation. Please, please, please listen and give us some feedback! We want to hear from you about what you find helpful (and what you don’t!)

Questions, insights, ponderings, musings — all are accepted and considered. Leave us a comment here on the Lab, or send John an email at john.fairless@gmail.com

Our thanks to Jordan Fairless for an assist with the first production — we sound a lot better because “he helped!”

Come on in and set a spell…

Year C — The Epiphany of the Lord

Commentary for January 6, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Isaiah 60:1-6
Epiphany is, of course, all about the light. 

We have just celebrated Christmas with candles and twinkling bulbs and stars shining through the night. The longest night of the year has begun giving way to more daylight each day. “Bleak mid-winter” may not quite be done yet, but we have hints all around that the world will not be cold and dark forever.

Isaiah’s admonition to “lift up your eyes and look” around is a call to see with spiritual eyes just how much God really is doing, even in the midst of a world that still lives primarily in the dark. A little light goes a very long way on a dark night; on this day, our prayers are for God’s light to shine on us and through us.

The world could use some of that ” little light of mine!” (An uncredited, but stirring, track of the familiar song here on Youtube.)

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Wow, oh wow…a great reminder of just “why” the child of light has come into the world here in vv.4 and 12: “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor…. For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.” 

Not popular preaching these days, especially in the good old US of A. But, as those called to bear the light of God for the world, do we really have an excuse for not acting as our Lord did?

I am not responsible for Mr. Obama or Mr. Boehner or their colleagues or their choices — I am responsible for what I do with the “light” and the blessing of the gospel. 

Ephesians 3:1-12
The apostle reminds us that, as well as we know the story and as often as we have been down this trail, preaching these texts — the working of God in the hearts and lives of God’s people is still a considerable mystery. (Note that Paul uses that word four times in these five sentences.)

Take a little time to dwell on the mystery — after all these years of studying and preaching the gospel, what is it that still mystifies you? What stirs a bit of wonder in your own heart? What puzzles you as you think about it? What is it that you do not yet know about God?

Matthew 2:1-12
Fear. Joy.

Two fairly strongly contrasting emotions that dwell together in this text. Herod is “frightened” by the news of the Magi who come in search of a king. By all accounts, he was a fairly nervous fellow when it came to threats to his sovereignty. He “axed” several of his own family members when he thought they might be after his seat of power. He later orders the “Slaughter of the Inocents” in order to root out what was, in his mind, a pretender to his throne.

Okay, so much for fear; now we know why not only Herod, but “all Jerusalem with him,” were frightened.

The “wise men” from the East, despite Herod’s best efforts, do find their way to the child, Jesus, and discover great joy. Overwhelming joy, in fact. (That’s another interesting sensation to think about — when are the times you can remember being so happy that you were nearly overcome with the emotion of it?)

These guys aren’t Jewish…and they probably don’t fit anyone’s definition of a Christian, either, at least not at this point in the story. But their response is instructive. They came a very long way to find this child, and when they met him — they knelt and they offered him gifts.

Like the bumper sticker I remember placing on our old family station wagon (in my youthful evangelistic desire) — “Wise Men Still Seek Him!”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I was once deep in the stacks of the graduate library at UNC-Chapel Hill during a power outage. I was surrounded by total darkness. And I was not only in the dark; I was also lost, with no idea of where I was or how to get out.

At first, when I thought it would be over in a few minutes, it was interesting. Hmm, so this is what total lack of light is like. Then it got a little funny as I heard people trying to move around followed by loud bumps and crashes and muffled curses. But as time went on it got very annoying and not a little frightening.

Finally I spotted a small beam of light. I yelled out, “Stay still, I’ll come to you,” for I knew it was easier for me to go to the light than it was for the person with the light to search for me, especially when no one even knew I was there.

I found my way to the library assistant by following the beams of his little keychain penlight. Together we found the staircase and worked our way out of the darkness into the light.

Afterward, I kept thinking “It’s amazing how little light we need sometimes.” Like the magi, who only needed the pinpoint of a new star to find their way to Jesus.

The world can seem an awful dark place sometimes. Things like the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary and the ongoing wars, rebellions and oppression in the Middle East burden us with doubts about the reality of God or the goodness of humanity.

Personal lives can also be dark. Strained relationships, economic troubles, loved ones sick or dying or both; marriages or careers or children haven’t worked out quite the way we’d planned.

We do what we can to push back the darkness.

Some people give in to addictions, numbing their pain with their addiction of choice. Others embrace philosophy or practice politics, believing and hoping that by thinking right or doing right they can cure their sickness unto death; that by saving the snail-darter they can somehow save their souls.

Still others go for material success, as if by surrounding themselves with enough stuff they can insulate themselves from decay and despair.

Some try to turn back the clock, struggling to resurrect “traditional values,” as if time could be reversed and the days of Ozzie and Harriet, the Beaver Clan and Mayberry can be brought back to save us from ourselves.

A few years ago I was in line in the Post Office when the clerk turned and yelled back to his supervisor, “Hey Jim, lady here wants to trade some religious for some traditional.”
It occurred to me that that is what many of us have done without thinking too deeply about is trade the truly religious for the merely traditional.

In our search for meaning, have we tried the safe route of attempting to recreate happy times and safe places in our lives by following “the way we’ve always done it,” instead of taking the risk of following the star into new times and new places.

The world needs is the light of the gospel, but the gospel is not a garish, neon light. The light of Christ has always been a little hard to see, something of a “dimly burning wick.”

The Magi have much to teach us here. They were people who made a little light go a long way. Indeed a very little light led them to go a long way. It is surprising how little light we need sometimes, if we have the faith to go with it.

They didn’t have the scriptures or the religious traditions to prepare them for a messiah. They did not grow up in a culture that expected a savior to come and rescue them.

The only light they had was the light of the stars, and this new star, this new light, this new thing in the sky. What did it mean? Where might it lead? They didn’t know, but they followed.

God sent us the light in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a light that can pierce the darkness of our lives.

But it is a small and somewhat unobtrusive light.

And it is at times encrusted with 2000 years of traditionalism.

And it is a light that must compete with brighter and more insistent lights in order to be seen.

But it is amazing how little light one needs sometimes in order to find one’s way.

We have been called to follow the light and to be the light for others.

We have been called to gently shine the patient and never ending love of God into the midst of all the world’s dark and scary places.

We have been called to invite all God’s beloved children into the light.

Don’t worry; you don’t have to shine that brightly.

It is amazing how little light you need sometimes to find your way.

Amen and amen.   

Bonus Selection: A Poem for Christmas

Christmas 2012
What is it about a child
that makes us smile?

And hope?

A baby gurgles,
eyes flitting wildly about,
arms and legs flailing the air,

and grown men take leave of their senses
while women folk gurgle back.

Newly minted people,
freshly formed and sent forth into this world,

remind all of us of who we once were;
and who we may, perhaps, still become.
— By Delmer Chilton, December 20, 2012

Year C — The First Sunday after Christmas Day

Commentary for December 30, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
The RCL gives us a snippet from the story of Samuel, perhaps as a “precursor” for the story of the young Jesus (see today’s gospel lesson, below.)

There are similarities, certainly, in the two figures:

  • Both are rather miraculously conceived under extraordinary circumstances
  • Both are intimately encircled with the meditations and prayers of their mothers
  • Both have fathers that are somewhat peripheral to the story (as we have it, anyway)
  • Both are called to serve a higher purpose in the plan of God
  • Samuel becomes a pivotal figure in the life of Israel, serving as both prophet and priest — perhaps he could have been a king, but instead accepts the role of “king maker” under God’s direction
  • It is Jesus who will bring the three roles together — prophet, priest, and king — as the Christ of God
Most interestingly to me, both young men display an unusual capacity for submission — to their parents, to their proscribed roles, and — ultimately — to the will of God. Probably never a bad “lesson” to learn!

Psalm 148
The closing verse of the Psalter, only two psalms hence, says, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”

Here, in Psalm 148, we have a pretty extensive naming of things that have breath (and quite a few that do not) — and they are all joining in the “creation praise” of the LORD.

Colossians 3:12-17
Awesome passage from Colossians to close out 2012 — I have treated the epistle readings as something of a “series” during the season of Advent and Christmas. I have grouped them and called them “Letters from the Heart,” because of the warm, intimate tone set by the Apostle as he writes to these young churches.

In this closing portion, then, Paul sets some of most vivid (and tangible) images of the way Christ dwells in the hearts and everyday lives of his people.

We have “new clothes” to put on –okay, I’ll admit that I am going with the title, “New Clothes for Christmas” here! Pretty nice image — especially for a typically “down” Sunday after all the holiday pageantry leading up to Christmas. 

When you go to the closet of your Christianly attire, just what is it that you will select to clothe yourself with? Vv. 12-13 give us some nice options to work with.

The peace of Christ mentioned here pairs nicely with the Philippians passage we read on the Third Sunday of Advent — the peace that surpasses understanding.

As a former (?) church musician and quasi-hymnologist, v.16 is one of my favorite passages. How does the living word of Christ dwell in our hearts richly, if not in our teaching and our singing. Personally, I know I have worshiped when I have both sung with God’s people and heard from God’s word as it is preached and taught. 

And talk about homiletical convenience! How can you ask for a better “closer” to end the old year and get ready for the new than v.17?

Luke 2:41-52
Famously, we have our only glimpse of Jesus as an adolescent in today’s readings. 

It is somewhat curious to our ears to hear about young Jesus wandering off from his parents, “doing his own thing” without much regard for their feelings, talking back just a bit to his momma, and speaking in a language that they feel they just can’t understand.

Oh, wait…maybe it’s not that curious after all. Jesus is a teenager!

Again, what a great closing line, though; Jesus (who always does the right thing, remember?) is obedient to his parents, and grows on up as he “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.” (I’ll admit to the occasional predilection for the KJV and its resonance. So sue me, okay?)

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I have been trekking to the foothills of southern Virginia all my life for a family reunion.  Because it was often held on Sundays and I lived far way, I sometimes had trouble getting there for several years in a row.  It has occasionally been disconcerting to discover that a young man I still remembered as running his tricycle into my car is now in college, or that a cousin that I did not know was either married or pregnant now has children in elementary school. I really need to do a better job of reading those Christmas letters.

I had that same jarring feeling when I read this morning’s Gospel lesson.  Wait, Jesus is what, twelve?  He’s in 7th grade now?  In advanced placement history and philosophy?  Going to early college?  But, but, wasn’t he born like, just last week, Tuesday in fact?

Sometimes the order of the lectionary readings can be a little confusing.  Last Sunday Mary and Elizabeth are pregnant, Monday night Jesus gets born, today he’s twelve and in the temple, and then next Sunday, the Epiphany, he’s a baby again, being visited by the Magi.

It’s like watching one of those movies or television shows that don’t follow a straight time-line.  They start at the end, and then have flashbacks and “two days earlier” sections and it’s enough to make a person long for the days of Joe Friday and Dragnet and “Just the facts, Ma’am”  It wasn’t great story-telling but you could follow it.

Today we get Jesus in the temple and it’s a good story, and it’s an important story for today because Luke is trying to tell us who this Jesus who preached, and healed, and suffered, and died, and was raised from the dead, really was.  He’s giving us the deep background before he turns to the time when Jesus emerged as a very public teacher and healer.

In chapter one and the first part of chapter two he has told us about the angel, and Mary and Elizabeth being pregnant, and the birth and the dedication at the temple. Now we turn to Jesus and his family and their annual trip to Jerusalem for the week of the Passover festival.

At the end of the week the family headed home.  Mary and Joseph thought Jesus was walking with family or friends.  At the end of the day, they discovered he was missing.  They spent three days looking for him in Jerusalem and then found him in the temple sitting in on a grad student seminar. When his mother fusses at him for being so inconsiderate, pre-teen Jesus returns the favor by carefully explaining to her that it is all the parents’ fault for not knowing where he would be.

Next comes one of my favorite lines in the Bible, a line that got me through years of being a parent to teen-age boys, “But they did not understand what he said to them.”  If Mary and Joseph, the Bible’s model parents, were confused by their perfect and sinless son, then it was okay if I didn’t know what I was doing half the time.
In one of his commentaries, N.T. Wright said that when you try to point something out to a dog, the dog will look at your finger instead of what you are pointing at.  In the same way we sometimes look at the signs, the pointers, in a story instead of seeing what the writer is pointing us toward.  What is it that Luke is pointing at in this story?

First of all, Luke is trying to show that Jesus was indeed a good little Jewish boy and not some wild-eyed, pagan-influenced radical.  Notice all the references to the temple in the first couple of chapters; Cousin Zechariah serving as a priest in the temple, Mary and Joseph having their child dedicated at the temple, Jesus studying Torah at the temple.

Further, Luke shows us that Jesus was, in the old Southern phrase, “raised right,” by indicating that his family made a habit of attending to all their religious duties and involving their children in them.  And, the reference to the “group of travelers” shows that the family was involved in a larger network of family and friends who also were faithful Jews.

Secondly, Luke is indicating that Jesus has not pulled his religious teachings out of a hat.  Jesus in the temple studying the Torah indicates that he is deeply familiar with both the written and oral religious tradition of Israel.  It also shows him at an early age engaging with it creatively and seriously. Luke wants to establish Jesus’ authenticity as both a student and a teacher.

Thirdly, there is an indication of Jesus’ own need to wait patiently for things to unfold.  He too had to learn to live with the tension of the “already, but not yet’ nature of the Kingdom of God.  He obviously knew something about who he was and what he was called to do; “be in my Father’s house” or “be about my Father’s affairs,” but he also knew it wasn’t time to start; “he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.”  In a world in which forty was old and boys became kings and emperors in their teens, Luke wanted to explain Jesus’ late arrival on the scene his obedience to God’s will.

And what does all this have to do with us? It calls us to think and pray deeply about what it means for us to be followers of this Jesus whom we call Lord.  We have celebrated his birth as a sign that God’s kingdom has come and is still coming into the world in us.  We must not simply put Christmas back in the box with the decorations and the wrapping paper and casually turn our attention to the Super Bowl and college hoops.

Instead, we are called to be about our Abba’s business; reaching out in love to those in need, binding up the broken-hearted, feeding the hungry, making the lame to walk and the blind to see.
And when we do we, like Jesus, will increase in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”  And who knows, at the next “family reunion” there may be those who will be surprised to see how much we’ve grown.

Amen and amen.

Sermon after Newtown: What I’ll Be Saying on Sunday

For what it’s worth, these are the thoughts that I will be offering to my congregation on this Third Sunday in Advent, in light of the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut two days ago.

John Fairless (aka, Bubba #2)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

I will admit that dealing with a biblical text that concerns rejoicing in the Lord seems especially difficult during a time in which our nation has experienced such sorrow and heartbreak.
We are all citizens of Newtown, Connecticut this week – and, as our President stated so poignantly on Friday – “Our hearts are broken…” at the tragedy that took the lives of so many young and innocent human beings.
Though it has only been two days since tragedy struck yet again in the form of a lone gunman in a public place, the questions have been ceaseless; the speculation is rampant.
Who was Adam Lanza? What was wrong with him? How could he do such a thing? What made it possible for him to bring such terror and evil into a place dedicated to life, to learning, to the safety of our children?
As prominent as any question I have heard has been the theological one: how could God let something like this happen? Has God left us? Has God somehow been “removed” from our schools and our public life to such a point that God is somehow now “powerless” among us?
I share the sense of anger and frustration that so many feel. We want to do something to make this hurt go away – perhaps if we had someone to blame, or some way to “take it out” on a mental illness or societal flaw.
When I manage to begin working past the raw emotion of the moment, I feel drawn by suggestions to find some way to do something that is positive. My friend and colleague Rev. A. Joseph Smith wrote this week – “…don’t allow ideologues & pundits to steal energy from you in tragedy’s wake. Spend energy on volunteering at a local school.”
I feel, in the passion of the moment, that I might like to take him up on his offer – that if I knew my presence would make a difference, I would be willing to show up at my local school every single day – perhaps offering a hug or a word of encouragement to every child and teacher.
I want to feel like I could say to them, “You will be alright now – I am here – we are here – we will keep the bad things away from you. Your life will be just fine.”
But I would be making a promise that I know I cannot keep.
Life is hard; bad things do happen in our world. They do not mean that God has left us or abandoned us. They do not mean that we are without hope.
Rather, times like these cause us to dig deeper, to think more carefully, to look harder at what it is that we believe, and in what – or in whom – we place our trust.
Why is it that generation after generation of faithful believers have claimed that they could trust the God that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ – the God for whom we wait and long – whose coming we beseech in our cries of anguish and through the the bitter tears of our grief?
Ours is not the first generation ever to know hard times; we are not the first parents ever to have lost children. We are not the first victims of senseless violence, nor are we the only generation ever to have questioned the presence of God with us.
There is something about the promise of God that endures; this faith that we share is more than some communal fairy tale, a diversion that keeps us numb to the pain that surrounds us and threatens to overwhelm us.
There is, in the words of the apostle to the church at Philippi, a “peace that passes understanding” that we find in Christ. It is no mere prop for our souls, not just a guard of denial or ignorance that keeps our darkest fears at bay.
No, there is something quite genuine that happens to us, even in the midst of unspeakable horror. We find ourselves praying – we find ourselves looking outside of ourselves for both help and hope.
And, when we endure through the long night of the soul – when we take the hand of another who is beside us, when we share the bread of suffering and drink the tears of sorrow together – we find that the sun of God’s presence does shine on us again.
God has given us a world of freedom – which we do not always use wisely. God has also given us gifts of accountability and responsibility. These we may choose to exercise for the purposes of good or evil.
Adam Lanza in Newtown; Sung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine – human beings who chose to use their freedom, accountability, and responsibility for great evil. They will have to be judged by history and, one day, by God.
But what about you and me? What choices do we face this day? How will I – how will you – use the gifts that God has given?
Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” the apostle says, “for the Lord is near.”
Gentleness is not simply meekness, or weakness, as some might seek to portray it. No, gentleness is actually a quiet strength that simply will not be deterred from doing what is right.
You see, God was not absent from Newtown, Connecticut this week.
God showed upin the faces, hearts, and healing hands of every teacher, rescue worker, fellow student, family member and friend who chose to act with bravery, with compassion, with love and honor and responsibility.
Whenever evil shows up – good must show up, too. And what is evil will never overcome or out-do what is good and right.
God has placed that within us – and God calls us to the patient exercise of that kind of faith, those kinds of gifts – even and especially when evil has appeared and done its best to shake the foundation of our lives – and our peace.
It is in the practice of that very presence of God among us – in prayer, in faith that helps and hopes, in solidarity that stands together with every shattered life and hurting heart – it is there that we begin to find our peace again.
It is a peace that we are hard-pressed to explain with mere words. Even if I could understand it, I don’t know how I could begin to say it.
All I know is that we are called to live it – to believe it, to trust it and try it, and to share it with the world around us until everybody knows it and believes it for themselves.
May the God of unsurpassable peace descend and live among us and through us, this day and on all days.

Year C — The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Commentary for December 23, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Micah 5:2-5a
Deum obscuramGod of the obscure. 

Among the many names for Israel’s God, I sometimes wonder if this title shouldn’t be included. This little passage from Micah, tucked away in all of the other “messianic” prophecy scriptures, points toward Bethlehem as the birthplace of something big — a new ruler for Israel. 

Bethlehem is anything but big — a sleepy little hamlet that had, at most, a few hundred residents during the time of Jesus. (Today, Bethlehem’s “Old City” contains about 5,000 residents.)

God seems to have a propensity, however, for doing “big” things with “small” packages — witness another Bethlehemite king — none other than David himself. It was he who burst onto the national stage with his victory over the “big” opponent, Goliath, when he was but a wet-behind-the-ears kid with a sling. (see 1 Samuel 17 for a refresher on that story…)

Feeling a little small, under-noticed, isolated or obscure as Christmas approaches this week? You’re in good company — God does good things in those obscure places of our lives.

Laudate deum obscuram.

Luke 1:46b-55
This portion from the gospel can serve, of course, as the psalm text in Advent worship for this Sunday. See the commentary below for further comments.

Psalm 80:1-7
Perhaps the most notable imagery of the psalm reading is its repeated emphasis on the light from God’s face that shines upon us. Certainly, many of us will hold services celebrating the light of Christ shining into the world on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day. 

The psalm also continues a theme we have seen consistently throughout Advent, as well; God is with us through the rough times, even when it appears that God may be “angry” with our foibles and failings. 

Many of our parishioners know what it means to eat “the bread of tears” and to drink “tears…in full measure.” The holiday season makes grief seem more acute. But, over time and in compassion, the light of God’s presence does shine again in the dark places of our hearts. God restores, thank God!

Hebrews 10:5-10
The writer of Hebrews can be a little difficult to follow sometimes, especially if you are attempting to follow his line of reasoning by jumping in to the middle of things. (In other words, it can be a little dangerous to lift quotes from this biblical text out of their context — maybe more so than in most other biblical passages.)

Here, in chapter 10, he is bringing to a grand conclusion his argument that Christ has come, has sacrificed his life (and, necessarily, his body) — and that this sacrifice is far superior to any other sacrifice that has been or ever will be offered. 

It’s a bit sticky that he writes, “when Christ came into the world, he said…” and then begins to quote Psalm 40:6-8. While, in the mind of the preacher of Hebrews this psalm well should and ought to be connected to Jesus, we never have a record of Jesus actually saying it (I don’t think!)

Well, pesky textual details aside, most likely we have this reading today for the connection it offers to the “body” of Christ — his humanity, as well as his “assignment” from God to bring salvation for the world “once for all.”

Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)
We have in the gospel what I call “The First Christmas Carols.” Elizabeth and Mary, pregnant cousins — both by rather extraordinary means — sing the praises of God and look forward to what their respective sons will accomplish in the world. 

(Okay, okay, it doesn’t actually say that they sing — they “cry aloud” and “say” — but go with me here on this one, will ya’? It’s almost Christmas, for Christ’s sake, and everybody wants to sing!)

I, along with millions of other Bach fans, love Mary’s Magnificat — from the Latin text of this passage. (A very nice recording of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Chorus performing the opening movement of the piece– with herald trumpets! — can be found here.)

I wonder if it’s not a fruitful exercise to think for a few moments on what it means for each of us to “magnify” the Lord during these final days of Advent and into the Christmas season?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One of my mother’s favorite stories is about the year I was supposed to sing at the Slate Mountain Baptist Church Christmas program.  My mother was the director and some of us were too young to be in the play and she wanted every child to do something so she had all the little kids pick a Christmas song to sing as a sort of prelude to the rest of the program.

I picked “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and, over many objections, practiced it day and night around the house.  I also faithfully went to church for play practice and sang it to the empty pews.  The night of the play came and I walked out to sing and I looked at a hundred or so faces staring back at me and I sang “Rudolph the red-nosed . . . “ and then I stopped.  I started again, ”Rudolph, the red-nosed . . . “and then I quit again.  Finally I ran off the stage screaming “Mama!” and fell into my mother’s arms.  I was four and I have seldom sung in public since.

In our Gospel lesson, Mary finds her voice and sings a song for the ages.  Tied up with her story is another story about a man who first loses, and then later finds, his voice.

Elizabeth was the mother of John the Baptist and the wife of Zechariah, a priest of the temple.  Their story is also told in the first chapter of Luke.  It is a story that Luke weaves in and out of the story of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. It is important to hear both stories together.

Like Abraham and Sarah before them, Zechariah and Elizabeth were old and childless.  Zechariah went to work at the temple one day and while he was alone in the inner sanctuary, burning incense while the people prayed, an angel appeared at the right side of the altar, scaring poor Zechariah half to death.

The angel said, “Do not be afraid Zechariah, your wife will bear you a son and you are to call him John.” The angel then proceeded to tell Zechariah what wonderful things his son would do.

Zechariah had some doubts which, personally, I find both understandable and amusing. On the one hand, he is old and his wife is old and though it is the first century these people do understand basic reproductive biology.  It is a legitimate objection.  On the other hand, he’s arguing with an angel that something is not reasonable.  I think we’re already outside the realm of empirical reason and into the mysterious area of miracle.

The angel was not as amused as I am and got very stern with Zechariah, “I am the angel Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent out to speak to you and tell you the Good News.  Because you do not believe what I have said, you shall live in silence, and you shall be unable to speak a word until the day it happens.”

And so it was that Zechariah lost his voice.  He was unable to tell anyone, even his wife what had happened to him at the altar that day.  After his time of service in the temple was over he went home to his wife and she was soon pregnant, but he could say nothing to her about what the angel had told him.

The story then shifts to a time six months later when the same angel Gabriel visits a young peasant girl named Mary.  He tells her equally unbelievable news; that she will bear a child.

Mary may be young, but she too knows her basic biology. She is stunned, “How can this be?  I don’t understand?”  The angel reassures her that it is true and offers the proof that her elderly cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant, even though she is beyond her child-bearing years.

Then comes the part of the story contained in our Gospel reading.  As soon Gabriel left her, Mary went “with haste” to visit with Elizabeth.  In one of the more charming incidents in the Bible, Luke shows John the Baptist “leaping in the womb,” when Mary arrives; presumably excited over the presence of Jesus in Mary’s womb.

Immediately after this encounter, Luke shows Mary bursting into song with the words that have come to be known as “The Magnificat” – a poem rich with images from the Hebrew Scriptures about God rescuing the poor, the lonely and downtrodden from their distress.

After Mary’s song is sung, the text turns back to the story of John’s birth.  When the Baby was born, the kinfolk wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father.  Elizabeth said, “No, his name is John.”  They protested, “But no one in your family is named John.”   (Hmm, they must have been from southern Israel.)

So the kinfolk stopped arguing with Elizabeth and turned to Zechariah.  He took up a tablet and wrote, “His name is John,” and when he made that confession of faith in the promise of God, his tongue was loosed, he found his voice, and he burst into song, the song of Zechariah, a song of prophecy and joy.

It is not by accident that Christmas is a time filled with music and singing. When our hearts are full of hope, our mouths are naturally full of joyful praise.

When we embrace fully God’s promise to be with us in the world, when we give ourselves over completely to the miracle that is God’s intrusive love in the world, then we find ourselves with a story to tell and a song to sing.

The Word of God comes to us again this year.  God makes promises to come into the world through us, to bless the world through us, to save the world through us.

We can make excuses.  We can be like Zechariah was at first, saying, “We’re too old.  We’ve already tried that, we know it won’t work.”  We can stutter and stumble and run off life’s stage, unable to sing.

Or we can say with Mary, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”

And when we do, we will, like mary and Zechariah, burst forth with words of hope, joy and prophecy; and we will commit ourselves anew to lives of servanthood and love.

Year C — The Third Sunday of Advent

Commentary for December 16, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Zephaniah 3:14-20
The reading from Zephaniah gives us our first hint that today’s worship may not be entirely about the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” (with a tip of the hat to Charles Wesley, of course!)

Celebrating a warrior God for Advent is more than a bit jangling to our nerves, and perhaps to our sensibilities. Yet, it is God’s strength that we celebrate (see the “psalm text” from Isaiah that follows;) it is precisely this God who is mighty enough to conquer every enemy — even death.

We do well to remember that Advent is a season for upsetting the tidy apple cart of our worship — at least just a bit.

Isaiah 12:2-6
To gain further insight into the image of a strong protector for Israel, we can think of just how important it was to a desert-dwelling people to have someone on guard, someone that can be trusted and who is imbued with strength and might, while the daily task of drawing water from a well was completed.

No enemies are able to encroach on this most crucial task; thus, the ability to draw “water from the wells of salvation” not only with impunity — but with joy!

Philippians 4:4-7
Ultimately, the result of God’s strength and presence in our lives is peace. This peace passes our ability to understand it, both in its nature and its depth.

Peace through gentleness is the opposite of what we assume to be true. We are taught (and we live) as if peace through strength is the mandate of the day. 

Now, it is true that God is strong for us and in us; God is our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend, after all.  (I’m just in a hymnic mood today, okay?)

But it is God’s strength that we trust, and that allows us to maintain a gentle spirit, known to everyone. When it comes to most fights, we just don’t  have a dog in  that hunt!

Luke 3:7-18
John the Baptizer — who was not known for mincing words (“you bunch of snakes!”) — actually gives some pretty practical direction here when asked about the kind of repentance that would stave off being cut down by the root and thrown into the fire.

“Got two coats? Give one of them away to somebody who doesn’t have one. Got more food than you can (or should) eat? Why not dollop a bit out to those who would otherwise be hungry today!”

With similar aplomb, he spoke to the tax collectors and the soldiers about fairness, equity, and the like. But, actually, John is speaking to us all, is he not? Be honest; be open. Don’t be arrogant, don’t take undue advantage.

This is just good, plain, sensible living. This is doing what’s right. We ought to “get it” and be willing to “do it.”

But, if we don’t, there’s always the Lord’s winnowing fork and that unfortunate, unquenchable fire!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few years ago I found myself (much against my will) in a huge shopping mall in Nashville a few weeks before Christmas.  I was on the second floor, heading for the elevator.  In front of me was a young family; man pushing a stroller and baby with one hand, carrying gift boxes with the other, woman balancing presents on one arm and holding onto a four year old boy with the other.  The boy was almost out of control; whining, kicking, crying, pulling, etc.

The family got into the glass elevator and before the door closed I saw the mother take the young man’s chin and turn his gaze to the large open space on the first level.  She said, “Look down there.  Santa’s watching you.  Do you want him to see you like this?” The boy stared at Santa and said, “I’ll be good until I get past him.”

And he was.  I leaned on the rail and watched the family get out of the elevator.  He was a perfect little angel, until they got well away from Santa.  Then I saw him kicking and screaming again.

So it is with all of us.  Repentance and amendment of life based on fear and punishment are always insincere and short lived.  There is a spiritual disease that afflicts all our souls at one time or another and legalism is helpless to cure it.

This disease goes under many names: self-will, narcissism, hubris, pride, greed, selfishness, sin.  It is not so much a matter of the individual things we do.  Those are only the symptoms; the outward and visible signs of our inward and spiritual lack of grace.

In spirituality as in medicine, any remedy that treats only the symptoms without attacking the cause will fail to cure us. When Mom made her appeal to Santa she placed within her son the fear of losing his Christmas presents.  So he responded in a manner calculated to protect his own self-interest.  He did not repent, he did not change his evil ways, he did not “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  He simply changed his behavior in an attempt to fool Santa.

Rules are good for making society operate more smoothly but they will not make us better people.  Law fails because it treats the symptoms without healing the disease. Law changes our behavior without changing our hearts.

This is why Luke dares to call John’s preaching against insincere and incomplete repentance Good News. When John says “bear fruit worthy of repentance” he is saying, “Just running around saying you’re sorry and promising to do better isn’t repentance.  If you have truly repented your life will show it.”

The word repent in Greek is metanoia.  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament has this to say about John’s use of the term: “This is a once-for-all conversion, an inner change, that is required even of the righteous and must find expression in acts of love. A baptism of conversion signifies that God is at work to change our nature for the new aeon.  God himself (sic) grants conversion as both gift and task . . .”   (p. 642)

So, language about “the ax lying at the root of the tree” and unproductive trees being “thrown into the fire,” is good news.  It is the “Gospel of the Lord. It is a message to be joyful about.

It is good news because John is proclaiming that God’s Kingdom is coming in Christ to stop the cycle of incomplete repentance and temporary solutions.

Christ is coming to cut through our feeble attempts to change our own behavior to meet some external and arbitrary standard of correctness.

Christ is coming to treat the disease and not the symptoms.

Christ is coming to break our hearts and change our lives for ever.

Christ is coming to show us God’s way of dealing with ourselves and each other.

All too often our way is the way of fear and intimidation, of attempting to adjust our lives to meet external demands because of our fear of judgment and reprisal.

God’s way is the way of love and intimacy, of having our hearts broken by the depth and totality of God’s love for us.

God’s way is the way of having our hearts broken so deeply and completely that God can move in and change us from within, from the very core of our being.

God’s way is the way of emptying us of our selfishness and pride; and then filling us up with the gifts of the spirit and the fire of God’s love.

When that brokenness and refilling have happened to us, our behavior changes without our having to think about it.  We begin to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” as naturally and thoughtlessly as we breathe.

Just as our sins and misdeeds grew out of the disease of self will rooted deep within our hearts, as new creatures in Christ acts of love and kindness will flow from us as naturally, as water flows from a spring or apples sprout on apple trees.

Christians whose hearts have been broken and filled with God’s love and spirit do not have to think about doing good, do not have to decide to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  It just happens.  It is nothing to worry about or brag about.  It just what flows out of a heart and life filled with God.

Advent is a time when we remember that Christ has come, and is always coming, to show us God’s way to live.  Christ is coming to show us the possibility of living our life in holy freedom, bound only by the constraints of selfless love.  

Amen and Amen.