Homily for Advent 4 at Christ Chapel at Sound Retreat Farm, 20 December, 2020

Dr. T. Y. Hiter

St. Luke 3:1-17

In the Gospel of Mark, the first, most of us believe, to be written down, the role of John the Baptist receives credit, but not a great deal of it. Mark tells us about John’s diet and clothing, and about his baptizing people in the Jordan, including Jesus, but that’s really about all. John’s “message”, according to Mark, was “One is coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to unloose; I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”. All perfectly true, of course, but Mark seems to have wanted to get through the John the Baptist stuff and get on with telling about Jesus, himself.

Matthew dedicates most of a chapter to John’s ministry, but really tells no more about what his message was than Mark, though of course he does give us a little more two Chapters later, when he tells us about John’s sending disciples to ask if Jesus really was the Messiah. John gives us a good deal more about the Baptist, giving us quite a lot of detail about John’s testimonies about Jesus, and even more detail about John’s conversations with the Pharisees and scribes. But the real source of information that we have about John’s message comes from Luke.

Luke tells us both about John’s testimony concerning Jesus, and summarizes John’s message, itself. That’s what our lesson is about, this morning.

Luke starts off in his 3rd Chapter, as he so often does, with a reference to contemporary events: footnotes, if you will; references and cross-references so that readers can check out what he’s about to say: “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness”. Wow! That is so Luke! Six references! But anyway: Luke goes on to recite John’s imprecations against the leaders of the Jewish religious community, as the other Evangelists did also. Then he got down to the meat of our lesson this morning. “And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?” And John’s answer is what our lesson is really all about.

He did it by having John speak directly to three distinct groups: Observant Jews, minding their own business and worshipping in the Temple, according to the Law of Moses; Publicans, in other words, collaborators with the Roman occupiers, men who made their livings by extorting taxes from Jews to send to either Herodian local rulers or Roman overlords, or both, in other words, Jews but not very good Jews, and soldiers; possibly Roman soldiers, but most likely not. Nowhere is it suggested that John had an audience of Legionnaires; the soldiers referred to were probably Herodian soldiers, men of the sort who were hired by the local governor to enforce his will. Soldiers who fought not against enemies of the state, but who were, rather, much more like the “soldiers” of the Mafia families. Strong-arm men. Gangster enforcers. Thugs who made a living hurting people. John’s message, then, according to Luke, was intended for the entire Jewish nation: good honest Jews, dishonest collaborators, and outright nasties! And what did John tell them?

Let’s look back at the lesson: “He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.” Huh! Interesting! No tithing; no sacrificing at the altar, in the Temple. No complicated regimen of prayers, even. Just share what you have with others. Doesn’t this look a LOT like “the Golden Rule”? Isn’t this an awfully lot like “love your neighbor as yourself”? Of course it is, and we know why, don’t we?

But then look at the second group, the Publicans. People whose very livelihood depended upon ripping people off! “Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you.” And the soldiers? Those people whose whole reason for being was to do violence to people who had done nothing wrong? Again, look at the text: “And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” Well!

John did not really ask very much, did he? No major lifestyle changes. No great sacrifices; no great changes, at all, really. Is this the stuff of revolution? No, not really. The message was revolutionary, though, in many ways. Remember where we are and with whom we’re dealing. First Century Palestine was not 20th Century America, or anything like it, but it was not a cultural backwater, either. The Roman government was eager to enforce it’s prerogatives, but no more so than the Herodian government. Or, any government, for that matter. Before the Romans, it had been the Hasmoneans, and before them the Greeks, and before them the Captivity in Babylon. These people were not used to honesty and respect from their government. But neither were our own recent ancestors, prior to the adoption of our Constitution. Governments do not generally tend to be either honest or forgiving. They tend to want more work, more income and more obedience from ordinary people, and not a lot else. John’s message was indeed a suitable foretaste of Jesus’s message. It was, indeed, the same message: God’s message, wasn’t it?

Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, 13 December, 2020, at Christ Chapel

By Dr. T. Y. Hiter

St. Luke 1:57

It’s Rose Sunday, in the Western portion of the Christian Church! The third Sunday in Advent is called that, or sometimes, especially among our Roman brethren, “Gaudete Sunday”; “Gaudete” is from the opening Latin words for the introit for the Mass, today. Gaudete means “Rejoice”, and just as we use a rose colored candle on our advent wreath instead of the more somber purple, so we “lighten up” a bit on this third Sunday in Advent, and “rejoice” a little bit. You’ve heard most of the homily, before. Our Gospel lesson concerns the naming of John the Baptist, and it is just so pointed and so true that I can see little point in trying to improve upon it, very much. I remain indebted to Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh for inspiration and for many of the words that follow.

Do you remember the movie “Harvey”? In both versions, I believe, and certainly in the more modern edition, the hero, encountering two people with radically different ideas about what should be done to him (that is, incarceration in a mental institution, with administration of an attendant mind altering drug, or not) says “So, you disagree. Well, that’s a good thing. My mother used to say that an element of conflict improves any story”. Well, that may be true, and goodness knows, there’s plenty of conflict in the New Testament, but the one in our lesson this morning is special. This one is so real: A family disagreement over the naming of a child. That strikes a true chord, in this part of the world, where names are so very important. I say that as a man whose first name goes back at least four generations on one side, and a middle name that goes back seven, on the other (more than that, really, because it was one particular g-grand-mother’s family name.

The names of children have different kinds of significance, depending upon the particular culture they’re given in. In the current, urban white American culture, the only major considerations seem to be that the name must “sound” right, match the sex of the child, and not have any unpleasant connotations. In the corresponding black culture, imagination and innovation seem to be the rule. I know one young woman, for example who named her son “Quentin Quertermous” because the father’s last name started with a “Q”. On the other hand, many black girls get named Nevaeh: that’s “heaven” spelled backwards, and more than you’d guess get named “Abciday”. That’s spelled “Abcde”. In the rural south, naming kids after parents and grandparents is still most common. So it seems to have been in 1st Century B.C. Palestine.

Let’s recap: Zachariah was an older priest who, while serving his stint at the temple was visited by an angel who told him that he and his equally elderly wife Elizabeth would have a son. When Zacharias expressed doubt, he was struck dumb (and maybe deaf, as well). He went home and, nine months later, became a father. After eight days, a group of people came to the house to circumcise the boy. This was (and still is) a rigidly conducted rite in Orthodox Jewish households. The participants in the ceremony are even more specifically chosen than Godparents in our own tradition. Them, plus the “Kohan”, the official who actually does the operation, are well respected members of the community, and often include other family members. The father plays a large role in the ceremony, but Zachariah couldn’t have a speaking part, for he was still unable to speak. Elizabeth had to do the naming, but all the official party just assumed the boy would be named after his father. The argument occurred when Elizabeth picked a completely unheard-of name: John.

After quite a scene, somebody decided to bring Zacharias up to date, and explained it to him. He responded by writing on a slate the boy’s name: John. Imagine the surprise, especially if Zacharias was indeed deaf, when he wrote that. Well, with his written naming of John, he was suddenly able to speak and hear, again and the issue was settled. But still: Why did Luke make such a big deal of it? Simply this: Had he been named after his father, he would have been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. He would have been expected to become a priest like his father, to learn his father’s trade, and to continue his father’s family line. That was very important to Jews of that time. To be named anything else implied just the opposite. John would not follow in his father’s footsteps. He would not learn to do what his father did. He would not be a priest. This, of course, was precisely the case, and thus the reason for the name John. It isn’t the meaning of the name “John” which is so important, then, but the message implied by having any name other than Zacharias which was such an emotional issue. To those gathered at the circumcision ceremony Elizabeth’s insistence that the boy be named John was to renounce the family, its work, and its perpetuation through the next generation. Zacharias, though, and Elizabeth, too, knew what they were doing. They had an angel’s word for it.

The statement, “For the hand of God was certainly with him” in verse 66 may indicate that there were unusual or miraculous incidents associated with John in his childhood which testified to his unusual origin and mission in life. We can’t be sure of it, and we probably shouldn’t make too much of it, but the statement is in there, and we ought to be aware of the possibility. Luke gives us only a general statement, though, suggesting that much more could have been written. The outcome of all of these things was that there was a sense of expectancy among the people of that area, at that time. That, perhaps, is the explanation for including the story in the Gospel. There, in the hill country of Judea, among the ordinary people of that region where Jesus would later appear and do his work, God first announced it. He told them that it was coming. Eventually, John preached it, and baptized in preparation for it, but He did it by naming a little boy “John” instead of Zacharias, Junior. Then, in verse 80, Luke wraps it all up for us: “And the child continued to grow, and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” We serve an awesome God.

Homily for Advent 2 at Christ Chapel; 6 December, 2020

Dr. T. Y. Hiter

St. Luke 21:25

Almost all of our New Testament lesson for today is written in red, in Bibles that do that, to highlight the words of Christ. The words themselves were spoken during Jesus’s last visit to Jerusalem, just days before he was arrested, tried and crucified. This is not the only place in the Scriptures that we read this lesson. In fact, the words spoken in this lesson are virtually identical with the words of the Olivet Discourse, that we studied in Matthew. The setting is a bit different, in Luke. Back a few verses, Jesus had been teaching in the Temple and, seeing the widow put her two tiny coins in the treasury, had mentioned the upcoming destruction of the Temple. When his followers had asked him when the destruction was to happen, Jesus had delivered the sermon that Luke reports here, and that Matthew relates as the Olivet Discourse.

Luke also uses Jesus’s words from the Olivet Discourse to warn his followers that before the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, other people will persecute them: that they will, as he says in verse 12, “arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name”. then, in verse 20, he says “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that it’s destruction has come near”, and in the next verse tells them that if they are in Jerusalem, they must then quickly flee to the mountains. Some scholars believe that this is in fact exactly what did happen in 69-70 AD, and that the Christians who were called Ebionites, the followers of James, did in fact escape to Qumran, and continued there until the Second Jewish War in 135 AD, when The Romans wiped out that community at the same time that they took and wiped out the fortress of Masada.

In any case, that brings us to our lesson, beginning with verse 25. “There will be signs in the Sun and the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations”. Then, Luke tells us, he told them a parable. How very like Luke to top off a bloody and portent-ridden sermon with a parable! The parable of the fig tree.

“Look at the fig tree and all the trees” he told them, “as soon as they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is at hand”. As soon as you see these things,”, meaning the signs and portents, the armies surrounding Jerusalem and all that, “ you will know that the Kingdom of God is near”. This is one reason that some preachers insist that this deals with the end times, rather than the 1st Century. “Look”, they argue, “The Kingdom of God has not come, so he must have been talking about the end times”. They are, of course, quite wrong. The Kingdom of God has come, and we are living in it right now, if we want to be.

You know, the word “kingdom” is a funny word. It can be used to describe two entirely different sets of phenomena. Furthermore, the same seems to be true of the Greek word that we translate as “kingdom”, that is, “basileia”. According to Vine’s complete expository diction of New Testament words, “kingdom”, basileia, can be either an abstract noun, referring to the sovereignty of a king, or as a concrete noun, referring to the people or the territory that a king rules over. Now, it gets even more complicated when we realize that two sets of words, “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven (or “the heavens”) are often used almost interchangeably in the New Testament. In our text this morning, the words used in Luke were “basileia tou theou”, and the use is pretty clear. What Jesus said next was “Verily I say to you that this generation shall have in no way passed away until all shall have taken place”. Many of the people who were listening to him, that day were in Jerusalem in 69 AD, when Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem and destroyed it. It was a clear prophecy of things that were going to happen in another 35 years, or so. But look at the next few words:

“Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away”. Now, there, he’s not talking about 70 AD. Nor is he talking about 135 AD. And, he’s not talking about 1948 and the restoration of Israel in the Holy Land. And, he didn’t say “the whole world will pass away”! He said “The heavens and the earth will pass away”. The whole Universe will pass away! But my words will not pass away. Whose words? God’s words. God created the heavens and the earth—we’d probably think of that as “space and time”, but the intent is the same; He did it with words. God said “let there be light” and there was light. God said “let us make man”; God said “be fruitful and multiply.”

The Universe is not an artifact. The Universe is a narrative. It is a story, being told by God. All the rest of it; all the stars and planets and worlds without end are part of the story, and they’ll all pass away. But the story itself; the words God spoke in the beginning, and the words he has spoken since, and for that matter, the words he has not yet spoken—those are forever. That, I think, is what we’re supposed to get out of the lesson, this morning. He has spoken us. He has spoken now. We are part of the story. The big story. The only story, and we have a starring role! We serve an awesome God!

Homily for Advent I at Christ Chapel; 29 November, 2020

Dr. T. Y. Hiter

St. Luke 1:5-25

“There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.” You all know, I think, how much I admire Saint Luke. It’s far and away my favorite Gospel. A large part of the reason is that he writes like a scholar. Of course, that’s because he was a scholar, or at least a highly educated man, for his day, and both his Gospel and Acts of the Apostles, really volume I and volume II of the same piece of work reflect this. I’m fascinated withg the idea that there may well once have been a Volume III, too; one that would have told us for sure what happened to Paul after that first appearance before Caesar! Well, he may never have written it, and even if he did, it’s been lost since the end of the First Century, so I guess we’ll just have to be content with what we have.

The point of course, is the painstaking detail that Luke gives us to support all his narrative. As he tells us in the opening verses of his Gospel, he wrote it all down for the specific purpose of setting the record straight. Already, apparently, people were making up imaginary tales about Jesus’s life and ministry. Luke wanted to record for all time the facts surrounding the life of Jesus and the growth of his Church. That’s why he repeatedly gives us what today we call “in text citations”. Footnotes right there in the text, designed to make it possible to check every fact he relates.

So, he doesn’t say “Once upon a time, there was a Jewish Priest named Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth. No, he tells us who was king at the time, he tells us which shift at the Temple Zacharias was working on, and he tells us who Elizabeth was, and what her genealogy was. Now, those may be arcane pieces of information to us today, but in the First Century, at least until 70 AD, anybody who was interested could have checked them out. That’s why Luke put them in.

And so he goes on to tell us in detail about the visitation of the Angel with Zacharias, inside the Temple itself. Zacharias’s job was to burn incense. Now, that was a very specific part of worship, as it is of ours, when we burn it. In the Temple, incense was not burned in a thurible or censer, it was burned on a special altar, constructed for the purpose. The altar was built of cedar wood and covered with sheet gold. It stood inside the sanctuary of the Temple, very close to the entrance to the innermost chamber, the Holy of Holies Because of this sacred location, the priest detailed to actually burn the incense was not visible either to the people or the other priests who were leading the prayers. Again, this would have been common knowledge to a Jew who attended regular worship at the Temple, but Hellenized Jews and Greeks might not have known these details, so Luke put them in.

Also interesting is Zacharias’s reaction to the Angel’s message. Zacharias was evidently an old man. He says as much, explicitly, and unless men have changed more in the past 2000 years than I think they have, he wouldn’t have claimed age as an excuse for not getting Elizabeth pregnant if it were not so. Likewise, he exclaimed that Elizabeth herself was “well-stricken in years”. In other words, an “old” woman. Past child-bearing age. Nowadays, we would say she was past menopause, but they evidently didn’t need a name for it, in those days. A woman kept having kids until she was too old to do so. Now, that may have been younger than women today would understand, but probably not much. It only matters in that the Angel, Gabriel, according to Luke, was a little put out at Zacharias for not believing his message, and struck him dumb for the next nine months!

The fact of the upcoming conception and birth, though, while important, was not the only thing Gabriel told Zacharias. He also gave him quite a lot of information about what the boy’s life would be like: “thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

The boy’s name would be John; a completely unheard of name for that family; the boy John would have a special relationship with God, and would in fact be filled with the Holy Ghost all his life; he would have a special understanding of the prophet Elijah; he would live as a Nazarite: a hermit, for all intents and purposes; living in a religious life, in the wilderness, and he would preach a mighty message of repentance and conversion to the people of Israel. Quite a lot, for a yet-to-be-conceived baby!

But it was conceived. Soon. We know what those two were doing the night Zacharias got home! Sorry. That was rude, but it’s true! Elizabeth conceived immediately and went into seclusion. Why did she do so? Why did she “hide herself”? We’re not told, for sure, but we can speculate a little. First, as Elizabeth herself gives some idea: “And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.” She may well have felt like she had to seclude herself. Why? Well, possibly it was because she didn’t want to seem to brag. She had been shamed for her whole life for being barren. It may be that she just did not want to appear to be a show off. Or, she may have wanted very badly to avoid any possibility of ritual impurity or defilement. The boy was going to be a Nazarite. If his mother was impure at or before the birth, that may have affected his becoming one. Or, as the wife of a priest and as the daughter of a priestly family, she may have used that time of isolation for prayer and devotion. We don’t know. But, we don’t need to know. If it had been important, Luke would have told us, and he would have documented it. Suffice it to say, it all happened just as the Angel had said it would. It will for us, too, if we’ll read the scriptures and practice the Commandments. That, I think, is what the lesson is really all about.