Hear the Angels Sing


Sermon for Christmas Eve 2019



Before I being my sermon in earnest, first a little Sunday School lesson, or catechism:


Angels are a special order of God’s creation. They are spiritual beings that have no physical bodies, and that most of the time, are invisible to us.


They are not your deceased relatives. That is a popular misconception, but it’s not biblical or traditional.


Now your dead aunt Ethel may have been a wonderful person, she might have even been a saint, she may even have a front row seat before the throne of God, but that doesn’t make her an angel. We humans can become saints, and our souls may enter into heaven, but we don’t become angels. Angels were created differently than we humans were.

Angels are spiritual creatures that were created to serve God in heaven and on earth. They do this primarily in two ways: they either protect us or they deliver important messages to us.


I’m telling you this so that if and when you ever encounter an angel in your life, you will know what it is and what it’s up to. Because we do encounter them.

Thus endeth the lesson.


Tonight’s story, the entire Christmas story really, is filled with humans encountering angels.


In Luke’s gospel, before Jesus was born, the old priest Zechariah saw an angel in the temple of the Lord, that told him that his wife, who was barren, would give birth to a son that would be the prophet John the Baptist, the forerunner of the messiah.


And then a little later that same angel, Gabriel, was sent to a young girl in the city of Nazareth named Mary, and that angel told her that even though she had never been with a man, that she would bear a son by the Holy Spirit, and his name would be Jesus.


That girl’s intended husband, Joseph, understandably found her story hard to believe, he was going to quietly break off the wedding. Quietly, because he didn’t want Mary to be shamed or killed. But an angel came to Joseph in a dream and confirmed that Mary’s story was true.


And then, on the night that Mary’s child was born, an angel appeared to shepherd’s in the fields to announce this glorious birth and to point them to where it was happening: a simple stable. A cave right outside of town that was being used to shelter animals.


And then that angel was joined by other angels, the whole host of heaven, and they began singing this glorious song of praise: Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men. Gloria in excelsis deo.


You know those words. You have probably sung them countless times over these past few weeks. Those words are found in so many of our Christmas Hymns.  Angels we have heard on high, while shepherds watched their flocks by night, O come all ye faithful, so many of our Christmas Hymns allude to that angel song: Gloria in excelsis deo. Glory be to God on High.


You know those words that the angels are singing. Outside of the penitential church seasons of Lent and Advent, just about every mass begins with that song: Gloria in excelsis deo. When we come together for mass, to celebrate the life of Christ and all that that means, we usually begin with the angels’ song that announced his birth: Glory be to God on high. The joy of Christmas meets us all over again whenever we gather at this altar. Week in and week out we are reminded of an encounter some poor humans had with angels, and of the glorious news that they were given. God, your God, the messiah, the son of David, the king you have been waiting for, has been born among you.


The God of all creation has done the most miraculous thing: he has been born among you. He is here to save you from slavery to sin and death.


The angels’ song was about rejoicing in what God has done. The angels were fulfilling their role as God’s messengers. They were leading us to find God in our midst and teaching us how to rejoice in the amazing thing that God has done. The good news of Christmas is a message of hope about what God has done and is doing. It is not about what humans can do.


The angels weren’t singing about the glories of mankind. The message of Christmas was not: hey y’all just be nice to one another. And the angels definitely weren’t saying “if you just be good, God will give you a present.” The angels weren’t telling us how to save ourselves, they were singing a song about how God has saved us from ourselves.


Can you hear them singing?

Can you hear their message about the glorious thing our God has done?


It isn’t always easy.


One of our hymns later in this service is “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” It is an old and familiar hymn, but the problem with familiar hymns sometimes is that you may sing them without paying much attention to the words you are singing. Pay attention to it tonight. Pay attention to the image that hymn paints of the angels singing their song. Pay attention to the middle verses…the ones you may not hear on the radio, the ones you may not know so well.


Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled,

And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world;

Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing,

And ever o’er its Babel-sounds the blessed angels sing.


Still through the cloven skies.

Still their heavenly music floats.

Ever O’er its Babel-sounds.

The blessed angels sing.


The angels that sang to those shepherds that night…they are still singing. They might have passed out of our sight, but their music still fills the air. The bible never says they stopped singing. They are still singing about the glorious thing God has done. They are still astonished at this miraculous birth.


Can you hear them singing?

Many people can’t.


Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;

Beneath the heavenly strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;

And man at war with man hears not the tidings which they bring;

O hush the noise ye men of strife and hear the angels sing.


The angels are still singing. We’ve just stopped listening. We care more about our petty grievances and concerns than we do with the glorious thing that God has done. This isn’t something new. We have been ignoring the angels for two thousand years.


No sooner had the baby Jesus been born, then an angel had to warn Joseph that King Herod wanted him killed. Hatred and sin are not news in this world. But the glorious thing that God has done in the birth of this child, well that is news. Good news. It is something worth singing about. God is still sending his angels to bring you that news.


If you want to hear the angels, you must first learn to be silent. You must learn to hush the noise both on the inside and on the outside so that you may hear and receive the message that these heavenly creatures are proclaiming. Hear the message first; receive it. And then, maybe you will learn to sing along with them. We don’t become angels, but we can learn to sing with them.


For lo! The days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old,

When with the ever-circling years shall come the time foretold,

When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,

And all the world give back the song which now the angels sing.


The angels are still singing.

Can you hear them singing?

Can you join your voices with theirs?


The Little Miracles


Sermon for Sunday, December 15th, 2019



Some of John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus and asked him:


Who are you?

Are you the one?

Are you the messiah that we have been waiting for?


It wasn’t the first time Jesus had been asked this question. It wouldn’t be the last either. As a matter of fact, this is the question that Jesus is always being asked.


Who are you?

Are you the messiah?


In some form or another people throughout the gospels are asking Jesus this question. Everyone from Peter to Pilate. Everyone wants to know who this man really is. It is the most important question they ask Jesus in the scriptures. It is the most important question any of us ask Jesus. In fact, it is probably the most important question any of us will ever ask in our lives:


Who is this man?

Who are you Jesus?

Are you the messiah?


Jesus answers this question in many different ways in the scriptures. This time, Jesus tells John’s disciples to go and tell John what they see.


Tell him that the blind, see.

Tell him that the lame, walk.

Tell him that lepers are cleansed.

Tell him that the deaf hear, that the dead are raised.

And tell him that the poor, have hope.


Tell John what you hear and see. Jesus is telling these people that the evidence for who I am is right in front of your eyes. Elsewhere in scripture Jesus says: “If you don’t believe me, then believe my works. My works testify to who I am.” The miracles are right there, only, for some reason people can’t see them, can’t believe them. Some people can’t take them in. Why can’t they take them in? All these little miracles are pointing to the big miracle right in front of their faces. When John’s disciples ask Jesus who he is, he points to the little miracles. Maybe Jesus suspects or knows, that if people can’t accept little miracles, they’ll never accept the big one. If they can’t accept people being healed, they won’t accept the promise of eternal life either.


You know I typically don’t like either/or categories and I don’t like separating people into being either this or that, but this is one occasion where I feel compelled to. It seems to me that there are people that believe in miracles and people that don’t. Either you believe that God has sovereign power and is active and alive in the world, or you believe that the universe is essentially a machine, with every mysterious phenomenon possessing a logical explanation. If you believe in miracles, then even the tiniest, most insignificant thing can be proof to you of the presence and the love of God. If you don’t, well then even a dead body coming back to life isn’t likely to impress you. You will find a way to dismiss it. If you can’t accept the little miracles, you aren’t likely to accept the big one. It should come as no surprise then, that the people that like to dismiss the little miracles Jesus performs, are also typically the ones that end up denying Jesus’s resurrection. If you can’t accept the little miracles, you aren’t likely to accept the big one either.


But when they asked Jesus who he was, he pointed them first to the little miracles. Pay attention to the little miracles, and then you will begin to see the big one. Sometimes I wonder if that’s how God’s grace works. Maybe God uses little miracles to crack that crusty exterior of ours so that his big miracle and get through. The little drops of grace, the little miracles are the most important ones to absorb, because they are what prepare us for the big miracle.


As I was reading the passage from Isaiah this week about the desert blossoming and water being upon the dry land and the highway in the desert, I was reminded of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land a few years ago. Not our most recent pilgrimage, but the one a few years before that.


As tourists are wont to do, one day while we were there we took a drive (took a highway through the desert actually) to visit the Dead Sea and to see a mountain fortress that King Herod build called Masada. If you ever get the chance to visit Masada, it is really spectacular. It sits on top of a giant rock next to the Dead Sea. And you can either hike up a trail to the top or you can take a cable car. Well just as our group got off the cable car on top of that mountain, something spectacular happened: it started to rain. It started to rain hard actually. It wasn’t the slow, misty, drizzly rain like we have had here all week. It was a driving rain. Well we had to scramble to find some protection from the elements while we waited for the next cable car back down the mountain. Unfortunately, that year that group didn’t get to see much of Masada, because it’s just not safe to visit it in the rain. So, we loaded ourselves back onto the bus and got back on the highway headed back to Jerusalem.


Our tour guide commented as we got back on the bus, that it usually only rains one day a year in that part of the desert. One day a year and as luck would have it that was the day we tried to visit. Now you might think that the parched and dry land of the desert would suck up and moisture like a sponge, but that’s not what happens. It’s funny, but dirt that isn’t used to water, doesn’t know what to do with it. Water is so foreign to the dry land of the desert, rain is so uncommon, that when it does rain, when there is water, the land has no idea what to do with it. The desert soil doesn’t absorb the water; the water runs right off it.


If you have ever had a houseplant that you have let almost die from neglect and not watering it, and then decided to try and save it by pouring water onto it, then you may know what I am talking about. Once the soil has turned dry and hard, if you just pour water on it, most of the water is just going to pour straight through the pot or overflow onto your counter. Dry soil doesn’t know what to do with water, so the water just runs off.


Well on the one day a year when it rains in the desert, the water doesn’t soak into the soil; not much at least. It mostly runs off and creates rivers and streams and waterfalls and flash floods. That highway in the desert that we were traveling on, headed back to Jerusalem, was quickly flooding and becoming almost impassable in places. We made it back obviously, but it was a little slow-going at times.


Dry land is so unused to water that when it comes, it kind of shrugs it off, as if to say, “what is this stuff?” “I don’t recognize this stuff. Better dismiss it.” The ground becomes so hardened that it can’t absorb what it needs the most even when it is right there. Little drops of daily rain water the ground much better than an annual flash flood. Maybe it is the same way with us and God’s miracles and little graces. If we aren’t used to seeing little graces, little miracles in our daily lives, then we aren’t likely to recognize big ones. Our souls become dry and hardened by not seeing God alive and at work on a daily basis, so when the big miracles come along, the grace just runs off us; it doesn’t seep in because we haven’t learned to let it in. Just like the desert soil doesn’t know what to do with water when it comes.


If you want to know who Jesus is, and as I said, there is no more important question, then maybe start with the little miracles, not just those he performs in the scriptures, but start trying to see the little daily miracles in your life. Don’t write them off; don’t dismiss them or try to explain them away, but choose to believe that God is active and alive in the world, even in small and almost imperceptible ways. Believe that God has power to do little things, and then maybe your crust will start to crack, your eyes and ears will be opened and then maybe you will be able to receive the big miracles when they come along.


The One Thing We Have in Common


Sermon for December 8th, 2019



The prophet Isaiah declared that “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” 

Paul also quotes Isaiah when he says “the root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the gentiles; in him the gentiles shall hope.”

Well you will be forgiven if you are sitting here listening to the readings and wondering: who was Jesse and what does he have to do with a tree stump?

Jesse isn’t necessarily a biblical character that I would expect you to know much about. There isn’t a lot written about him. 

You know it must say something about the power of association, but when I hear the name Jesse, I think of Uncle Jesse from the Dukes of Hazzard. I grew up watching that show, and in that show the old, wise and loveable patriarch of the family is named uncle Jesse. So when I hear Jesse, my mind thinks old, wise patriarch, Uncle Jesse. Well, you know that isn’t too far off from what people in biblical times would have thought of when they heard the name Jesse. He was a sort of patriarchal figure. 

Jesse was the father of King David. He is the grandson of Ruth, from the Book of Ruth and he is the father of David. His role in scripture is extremely minor. His grandmother gets a whole book, Jesse gets just a few lines. But because Jesse’s son would go on to become Israel’s greatest king, his name would be forever associated with the monarchy. Just like Abraham would be the father of the Hebrews, Jesse would be the father of the monarchy. So when people in biblical times heard the name Jesse they would have thought old, wise patriarch. They would have thought founder of our monarchy. They would have thought of King David. He was the one that the Kings all traced their lineage to.

So the name Jesse meant something to the people in Jerusalem that Isaiah was addressing. And Isaiah had just got done telling the people that there are bad times just around the corner. Isaiah said to his people: look, you have fallen so far away from the ways of God, that there is a reckoning coming. Isaiah said to Ahaz, the then king of Judah, he said you, who think you are high and mighty, you are going to be cut down. The Assyrians and going to invade your kingdom, just like they invaded the northern kingdom and they are going to burn it all down to the ground. And then the Babylonians are going to attach the Assyrians and there will be war and destruction and exile. This is what happens when we put our trust in faithless rulers. This is what happens when we let corruption go unchecked. This is what happens when we turn away from God and pay no attention to his commandments. We have not put our faith and our hope in God, Isaiah says, and the result of that is the painful times that are ahead. Our glorious kingdom will be brought low and our mighty king, the descendant of the great king David, he will be brought low with it. He will be cut down. Felled like a mighty tree. 


But, Isaiah says, that is not the end of the story. Because God, well God is going to bring new life out of that tree stump. The mighty tree may be cut down, but there is a new shoot that is going to come out of that root. That root of Jesse, the monarchy that has been cut down, well Isaiah says that there is a new king coming, and this new king is going to lead us back to God. 

Our kings have led us astray. Our kings have divided us. After David’s son Solomon died, the kingdom split in two. Corruption and division and division and corruption. Our kings have not united us; have not protected us, and have not led us to righteousness. Our kings have led us away from God. Even mighty and glorious king David, was a sinful man. Our kings have led us astray, but Isaiah says, there is a new king coming. 

This King will be like new life coming out of that dead stump. He will be a descendant of Jesse, from the line of King David, but this King won’t look like the kings we have had recently, Isaiah says. No, this king will have a spirit of wisdom and understanding. This king will delight in being obedient to God. This king will not judge by appearances or what is on the surface. This king will judge with righteousness. This king will be faithful and righteous. 

And this king will bring enemies together. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, a nursing child and a poisonous snake. In this king’s kingdom, enemies will come together. This king will be a symbol that will bring people together. 

Isaiah says that there are hard times coming, because we have faithless leaders, and we have turned away from God, but he says, we have hope because there is also a new king coming. There is a king coming that will unite us, that will judge us righteously, and that will lead us back to God. There is a new shoot that is going to grow out of that dead stump of Jesse. 

There is a new king coming. There is a new anointed one (one of the symbols of kingship is being anointed. King David was anointed by the prophet Samuel). There is a new anointed one coming. In Hebrew anointed one is translated as meshiach, messiah. In Greek that word is Christos, Christ.

In the days of John the Baptist, people were still looking for that coming King, the messiah that would unite them and lead them back to faithfully following God. As he stood in the Jordan river, telling people to repent and return to following God, John noticed both Pharisees and Sadducees coming out together to be baptized. Well Pharisees and Sadducees might both be groups of Jews they might have common ancestry, but they don’t get along. They don’t like each other. And yet, something is drawing them together. It isn’t their past that is drawing them together. It is their future. It is the coming king. It is the approaching messiah that is bringing them together despite their differences. 

Like Isaiah, John is preaching and warning of a coming judgement, but he is also offering the hope of a coming king that will judge with righteousness. That isn’t condemnation, that is hope. This new king will do what other kings couldn’t. He will unite people and bring enemies together. The new king will bring together people that have no other reason to get along, that otherwise would never like each other or associate with each other. And here in the middle of the Jordan river John is watching enemies come together to prepare for their new king. Maybe they don’t agree on much, but they do agree that they want to be a part of his kingdom. That’s something. And that desire to be a part of his kingdom is more powerful than you might imagine.

I want you to take a minute and look around this church. Look at the people that are gathered here. Think about all the members of this church. Some of these people are your friends. But some of them are not. Admit it, there are people in this church that you don’t like. There are people in this church that if we didn’t come together once a week for worship, you probably would never cross paths with. There’s no shame in admitting that, because some of us have nothing in common. We don’t all share a common ancestry or history. We don’t all share the same likes and dislikes. Think about the makeup of this church for a minute. There are some people that were raised Episcopalian, but even more that were raised something else. There are people here whose ancestors were slaves; there are people here whose ancestors were slave owners. There are people here that were born in the Unites States; there are people here that were born in other countries. There are married people. There are single people. There are straight people. There are gay people. There are people with children. There are people without children. White, black, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, there are people that I know live very comfortably and there are people that I know are really struggling to make ends meet. Now if this church didn’t exist, there are some of us that might still be friends and hang out on the weekends, but there are some of us that would never cross paths with each other. And yet, each and every week here we are, gathered together, because there is one thing we do agree upon. There is one thing we have in common.


We want to be a part of his kingdom. We want this new branch from the root of Jesse to be our king, our leader. If we are going to be judged, we want to be judged by him. If we are going to be led, we want to be led by him. We may not agree on anything else, but we agree that Jesus is the way. We agree that he is the future. And that means more than anything else that may divide us.

You know, people like to make a big deal about the divisions that exist within the church. People like to point out all the splits and schisms in the church in history and they like to point out that even within our own denominations, sometimes within our own parishes it doesn’t seem like people like each other that much. If you read the scriptures you will see that there has been division among Jesus’s followers from the very beginning. But if you are focusing on the squabbles and divisions among Jesus’s followers then you might be missing the miracle that is right in front of your face. These fractious, squabbling, disagreeable people are all following the same man. That is the power of Jesus, is that he is bringing together people that otherwise would have nothing to do with each other.

The church didn’t invent disagreement and division. That is a part of humanity. That is the world. The miracle of the church is that all these people that never had any reason to agree, to like each other, or to even inhabit the same space, now have something vital in common: Jesus. They may not share a common ancestry, but they have a common future. That is a miracle and it is a miracle that happens here every single week and we may never notice it. There are people here that you would have never met or encountered were it not for one thing. Him. Jesus. He draws together this rag-tag group of followers, people that outside those doors would be natural enemies, would have nothing to do with one another, and yet in here we are side by side, under the same roof, learning to get alone, and I dare say along the way, learning to actually love each other. The fact that Jesus’s followers are disagreeable and don’t always get along, well that is a testimony to his power.

When you look at all of the different people that look to Jesus as their messiah; that see him as the way to God; all the divided people that are somehow united by the water of baptism; all those people that seek to follow him side by side with people they have nothing in common with, no matter how imperfectly they do it, then you realize that maybe John was right. Maybe God could even turn stones into children of Abraham.