We skipped ahead nine chapters in Luke between last week and this week. Last week’s Gospel was near the very beginning of Jesus public ministry, when he went out into the desert to be tempted. This week, we’re very close to the end. He’s on his way to Jerusalem and he knows what’s going to happen there. So a lot has happened from one to the next, but one thing they do have in common is the way they show us something about the humanity of Jesus.
Today’s Gospel begins with what sounds like a concerned warning from the Pharisees: Look out, Herod is after you. Go hide somewhere.
But really, this isn’t kindness. It’s a kind of a trap. If Jesus turns away from the work that he’s doing—his preaching, and his teaching, and his healing, and hides to protect himself—he’ll be proving that he’s not a true prophet. And he knows that he has to continue. He has to do what he’s doing. He has to go on to Jerusalem, and he’ll meet his destiny there.
But those words Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wingsI! He’s full of concern for the city. He’ll actually weep for Jerusalem later in the Gospel. When he finally arrives, he’ll look down on the city and weep. And you can hear the heartbreak in this brief lament: Jerusalem, Jerusalem. It’s just a snippet of lament here, but lament really is a form of prayer.
The first time I distributed ashes on Ash Wednesday, one of the first people in my line was someone who had lost a child. A teenager who died in a sudden, tragic accident. And I put my hands on her, I marked the cross, I said the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—it’s a reminder of our mortality—and I was so humbled. I was almost shocked to be standing there in front of this person who had come face to face with death in a way that I hadn’t, and I thought, who am I to be reminding this person of our mortality.
And I’ve had that experience quite a few times since then, the experience of marking a cross in ash on someone who was facing death in one way or another—and of course we all are, that’s the truth we live with.
And I’ve been thinking of some of those people this week. I thought of one woman who was an Elvis Presley fan, and for her 75th person she hired an Elvis impersonator and she gave a party for the whole parish in the parish hall, with lots of food, dancing, she wore blue suede shoes and danced the night away. She had been dealing with cancer for quite a long time, and she died about a year and a half after that.
And I thought of another person who also was living with a diagnosis like that, and she was a much quieter person, but someone who really opened her heart to welcome everyone in the parish into the journey that she was on, to walk with her the way she was walking. Now I know it might not seem obvious but that was a tremendous gift to everyone in the parish. In a paradoxical way, it was life-giving.
Our Gospel this morning is a sort of bonus edition. We get two stories, instead of just one. First Jesus goes up a mountain to pray, and while he’s there his appearance changes and his clothes start to shine. And then he comes down and heals a boy that his disciples weren’t able to help on their own.
We hear this Gospel in church every year on the last Sunday before Lent begins. And if I’m preaching, I usually concentrate on that first story about what happens at the top of the mountain, what we call the Transfiguration, because it’s so important.
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain, and Luke tells us that he went to pray. And while they’re there, they see the way his appearance changes, and watch him talking with Moses and Elijah. And they’re talking about his “departure,” which is a reference to his coming crucifixion and death.
And Peter wants to build three dwellings on that spot, to memorialize it, maybe to prolong the experience—but just then a cloud comes over them and they’re frightened out of their wits. And out of the cloud they hear a voice that says, “This is my Son, my chosen”—which calls to mind the voice that called Jesus “the Beloved” just after his Baptism.
And all of this works as a sort of bridge between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent by including some of the themes of each: The identity of Christ is revealed and confirmed. There’s a hint of the suffering that’s about to come. And it marks a turning point in the Gospel, because very soon after this Luke says that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
Do you ever wonder in these times when our churches are so challenged if we really need a church? What does the church do for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves? What did you miss most when the church was closed for a while during the early part of the covid epidemic in 2020?
And of course you can be church without being together in a building. But that’s a different sermon for another day.
But what is it about church that makes it so essential? Well, of course there’s that feeling of community when we come together. It’s good to be with people who know us and really care about us. St. Paul tells us that this community is the Body of Christ here on earth, and we do believe that Christ himself is with us in a special way when we gather here to celebrate Holy Communion.
But you could also think of the church as a kind of school for saints, because this is where we learn to be followers of Christ. And that learning takes place at least in part through the example of other Christians. We need people who can inspire us to be our best selves, who can show us through their own lives what it looks like to be disciples.
And so on our church calendar we have special days when we remember outstanding Christians who have gone before us, not just to honor their lives but so we can by inspired by them, and try to follow their example.
So today, February 13, is the day when we celebrate Blessed Absalom Jones, who was a Philadelphian, a member of the Diocese of Pennsylvania like ourselves, and the first person of African descent to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. And our bishop has asked us to remember him in our worship today.
Well, I brought a friend with me today to help out with the sermon. He’s a little hard to recognize, especially maybe for you way in the back. So I hope you can all see that this is Jesus, looking maybe not the way you’d expect to find him in church. He’s my plastic Jesus. Maybe some of you have heard that song, “I don’t care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of my car.”
But this is not that kind of plastic Jesus because he doesn’t have a suction cup. I think of him as roller-skate Jesus, because he’s got wheels under his sandals, and his arms are posable, limited but posable. I think of this as his “come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened” pose.
So there’s a story about how I came to have this Jesus. When I was still at the church I served before I retired, every year in the fall they had a yard sale out in the area in front of the church. And people in the parish—but also outside vendors—could buy a table. And even though it’s out in the country, it’s a fairly well-traveled road. So it was a bit of visibility for the church, too. And it was very popular in the community.
And I would walk around and try to talk to pretty much everybody who was there, just to welcome them and kind of make them aware of our community in that church. So I walked past the table of a guy who sold a lot of junk. And I saw Jesus there sitting on top of some junk behind him. I walked on by, but then I said to myself, you know what? I’ve got to have that. So I went back and I said to him, how much do you want for Jesus?
There’s a woman in another parish that I visit from time to time who asked me on one of my last visits there if I would give her a special blessing on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of her baptism. They have the custom of having blessings for birthdays and anniversaries and so on. And it seems that she asked to be blessed every year on her baptism anniversary, but this year with the zero at the end of the year it was especially meaningful to her.
And of course I did give her the blessing. But I was a little embarrassed, although I didn’t say so, because I realized that about two months earlier, I also had had the 70th anniversary of my baptism, and the day passed without my thinking of it at all. So I was impressed by how much that meant to her in an ongoing way. I’ve been thinking about my own baptism though these last two weeks as I reflected on the baptism of Jesus, and what it meant and what it means to us now.
I don’t remember my own baptism; I was an infant. But Jesus was an adult and he made his own decision to come to John, where John was baptizing on the banks of the Jordan River. And John’s baptism of course was different from ours. John says in the gospel it’s a baptism of water. It’s not the Trinitarian baptism that we celebrate: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” His baptism was a baptism of repentance and preparation. Preparation for the coming Kingdom of God, turning your life around and being ready to live in that kingdom.
There’s a painting of the infant Jesus that I’ve reflected on over these last weeks of Advent, as I pondered again the meaning of Christmas. It’s not one of your typical cow-and-donkey Nativities. There is no multitude of the heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” This one is very, very simple. It’s a night scene, and the contrast between dark and light in the painting is quite intense. It was done by a Dutch painter about 400 years ago, and if anything comes to mind for you when you think of a Rembrandt painting—if you can imagine that contrast between dark and light—that’s what this is like.
There are only five people in this scene. First of all, there’s the baby himself. He’s at the center of the picture. He’s lying on a white cloth, underneath of which you can see a little straw. So he’s in the manger. And the strangest thing about the picture is that he himself appears to be the source of light.
Mary is holding that cloth. She’s about to swaddle him. She’s looking down at him, and she looks serene. Joseph is standing behind her, looking over her shoulder, and he’s in darkness. So he’s a little hard to see, but he looks full of joy.
Leaning over the baby in the painting are two angels. Now, we know they’re angels in this picture because you can just barely see their wings, but they really look more like teenage girls, and they’re leaning over, and they have that expression of absolute joy and delight which is so typical when we see a newborn baby.
I think that this painting really tells us three things that are important to remember when we think about the meaning of Christmas. The first is that this baby is a very typical—very ordinary, in some ways—human infant. He’s just a baby. On the other hand, he’s the Light of the World, and his light illuminates the faces of all those around him.
Poor John the Baptist, we’ve turned him into a caricature of himself. We think either of that fiery and perhaps somewhat frightening prophet that maybe some of you heard in this morning’s Gospel, or else into a funny little cartoon character with the shaggy hair and beard and shaggy brown tunic and sandals, wearing a sandwich board that says, “Repent.”
And either way, by making him something different from what I think he really is, we make him irrelevant.
John’s original mission was to call people to repentance as a way of preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ. And apparently his preaching was so powerful that crowds came out of Jerusalem and went to where he was preaching beside the Jordan River. Something in his preaching really touched their hearts.
And since we ourselves are preparing in this season of Advent for the coming of Jesus Christ, I think it’s good to think about what his message was really, and what he might have to say to us if he came back here and appeared among us today.
But first of course, we’d have to recognize him. I don’t think he’d show up in Bristol in his shaggy little tunic and sandals. At least I hope not in wintertime, but it might be hard to recognize him in skinny jeans sitting by the banks of the Delaware River.
As some of you know, I live in New Hope, another small town on the Delaware River. Actually, I think it’s a little smaller than Bristol, and it doesn’t have a beautiful colonial Episcopal church to brag about, but there may be some similarities. It’s still a small town. Many of the families that are living in town now have been there for generations. Their names are very recognizable to us locals. Last week, I had a little problem with my car and I had a little problem with my bank so I went out to visit them both, and the guy who owns and operates the service station is married to the manager of the bank branch. So it’s all in the family.
But it’s changing. My husband grew up in New Hope. He remembers when the stores in the center of town were owned by locals and they served locals. There was a news place where you could also get a cup of coffee. There was a little grocery store. We would laugh today at the size of that grocery store. There was a luncheonette.
Now the stores cater to tourists and they sell things that nobody really needs. The bank on the corner is still there, but when he was growing up, it was owned by locals. Now it’s changed names so many times I’ve completely lost track. And when you go inside, it doesn’t even look like a bank. It doesn’t work the same way as it used to.
Today’s gospel begins with what might be the most audaciously tone-deaf statement in the entire New Testament. Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, which is to say that Jesus is walking to his death. And he knows it.
Just before this, he tells his people for the third time that in Jerusalem he will be turned over to the high priests, and mocked and tortured and put to death. The very next thing is, here come James and John with their request. But actually it isn’t a request. They don’t ask a question. They just tell him what they want. Teacher, they say, we want you to do for us what we ask of you. And when he asks what they want, they say, we want to sit at your right hand and your left when you come into your glory.
It’s a little like sitting your kids down to give them some terrible news, and when you’re finished, the next thing they say is, what’s for dinner—we want you to give us something good. It doesn’t acknowledge what Jesus is going through. I can just imagine how he must’ve felt.
So I think when we look back on that scene, it’s easy for us to feel superior. Here are these people who are with Jesus day in and day out, and they just don’t get it. He’s preparing to die. They’re worrying about what their rank is going to be, who’s going to be the greatest among them.