Monday, January 25, 2010

Good News for Now

SJF • Epiphany 3c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”+

You’ve probably all heard the old saying, “No news is good news.” What I’d like to suggest to you this morning is that old news is good news, too. For in the Gospel passage we heard today, Jesus wasn’t being original. He wasn’t telling the people in the Nazareth synagogue anything they hadn’t heard many times before. No, he was reading from a scroll, a copy of a copy of a copy of an ancient document, handed down for almost five hundred years: the scroll of the prophecies of Isaiah, old news from long before his time, but good news at any time.

Who wouldn’t want to hear about release for captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed? This is good news that addresses universal human longings, universal human hopes, whether preached as they were originally, to those facing captivity in Babylon, or centuries later in Jesus’ day, preached to Palestinian Jews suffering under Roman domination, or again centuries after that to African slaves brutally torn from their homes and shipped across an ocean to toil on plantations of the American South or the cane-fields of the West Indies, or then again in living memory to their descendants in the ghettos of Montgomery, Alabama or New York City. This is old news, but it is also good news, preached again, even more recently, amidst the ravaged ruins of Haiti.

This good news had been repeated for centuries, by the time Jesus took up that scroll,. and it has been often repeated since. What is different, the crucial difference, in the news as Jesus delivered it, lies in his closing one-line sermon on the text: (the shortest but most powerful sermon ever delivered!) “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Isaiah’s words had been read for centuries, and would continue to be read, but always with an eye to the future, to some unrealized liberation not yet come, and in that they provided encouragement and support for people in their suffering, to comfort them. Yet Jesus, with that authority for which his ministry and preaching were known, says in that one line that these promises are not for some future yet to be realized time, but are unfolding even now, even as he says them. Promises from a distant past for a future yet to come suddenly meet in the glorious Now of their realization.

This kind of spiritual “time travel” is deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition into which Jesus was born and in which he grew to maturity. The annual Passover meal was not simply a re-enactment of that night in Egypt from the distant past, that night when the spirit of God hovered over the city, slaying the firstborn of the Egyptians while passing over the houses of those marked with the blood of the paschal lamb. The annual Passover meal was and is timeless, so that those Jews who gather to this day to break matzoh and eat bitter herbs and roasted lamb in haste and with girded loins — it is as if they are dining at that same original Passover meal. So too for us, our weekly celebration of the Holy Eucharist where we share in Christ our Passover is not simply a re-enactment or a recreation of the last supper, but a present participation both in that historic event and in the heavenly banquet that awaits us in the future. God telescopes or folds up the distant moment of salvation into the present commemoration, and has and will for ever and ever.

This is the spirit and attitude we need to adopt if we are to understand what Jesus means when he says the year of the Lord’s favor has begun; that release, new vision, and liberation have arrived. The ancient prophecies of a distant future time are happening now, all around us, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. The day of liberation has come!

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Yet what an odd person to bring such a message! We know what would happen to Jesus in very short order: arrest, trial, sentence, torture and death. Hardly evidence of the Lord’s favor! The one who proclaims release will betaken captive; the one who announces new sight to the blind will be blinded by the sweat of his own thorn-wounded brow; the one who proclaims liberation will go to his death while a criminal goes free. Could there be anything more tragic, more ironic?

But my dear sisters and brothers, what I proclaim to you today is that it is neither tragic nor ironic. What Jesus spoke that day in Nazareth was true then and it is true today. Just as the Passover Seder and the Holy Eucharist are for ever new instances of the same meal, a kind of second seating, if you will, so too the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled in our hearing, today and every day — if we have ears to hear. For what Jesus shows us in his life and in his death and in his rising to life again is that the kingdom of God is among us. What Jesus reveals to us in his victory over death, is that liberation is taking place even in the midst of our pain and our suffering; that the presence of the Holy One of Israel abides among the faithful even when they are oppressed; that the knowledge of the love of God survives and thrives even as we pass from life. This is the incredible fulfillment that Jesus proclaimed that day: that the liberation of the spirit transcends and transforms the suffering of the flesh; that the vision of the heavenly city can illuminate our eyes even when they are blinded by the tears of this transitory life; that the yoke of oppression can be lifted from our shoulders even as we sink into the grave, singing all the while, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

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This parish church has from its foundation been blessed by the presence and ministry of people in the healing professions. I’ve spoken before of Dr. George Cammann, the inventor of the modern stethoscope, who served this congregation in the nineteenth century as a lay leader. And among our members today are many who work in the hard but vital field of medicine. Those who exercise these ministries share in the vision of fulfillment that Christ preached that day so long ago. And what we celebrate and honor in them is not simply the skill to cure, but the gift to heal.

To bring about a medical cure is no small feat, but as we all know, ultimately medical science comes to an end, and there is always that one last malady or injury that will not or cannot be cured.

But healing — healing that is so much more than a mere cure — healing can happen and does happen even in the midst of death, perhaps even especially then. Most physicians and nurses know this, they’ve seen it — anyone who serves in a nursing home or hospice knows it for a certainty— that even in the midst of death itself liberation can be proclaimed. The healing of the spirit can encompass the death of the flesh, the vision of the heavenly city can shine forth even in the most unexpected places.

I spoke last week of the sign of transformation that Jesus gave at the wedding party at Cana; how it wasn’t so much about wine as about the new life to which he called the people. So too, the sign for us this week is not the sign of miraculous cures, but of unshakable faith that survives even in the face of death, that transcends the grave and outlives it — that hope for the resurrection. Those who serve in the works of mercy are themselves signs and agents of the heavenly reality that comes to birth even in the midst of earthly pain and death. They are the members of Christ’s body, the body which suffers when any member suffers, the body that rejoices when any member of it is honored. These workers of mercy are those most acutely charged with reaching out to touch and comfort in times of pain and suffering, to cool the fevered brow and grasp the hand of the wounded.

In their hands and hearts that scroll has been placed, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, not merely the temporary respite of relief but the eternal manumission of salvation; not the mere glimpse of a furtive hope but the steady vision of the love of God; to set free the oppressed and proclaim the Lord’s favor; not for a time or a season but for eternity, and not with the relative freedom of even the best earthly society but with the true and lasting freedom of the children of God in God’s own house; This is not an unrealized promise from long ago. This is not a hoped for vision deferred to some distant time to come. This is the power and the presence of God with you and the present power of God among you — you, the Body of Christ, filled with his life-giving Spirit. As he promised, so it is. Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Here. Now. Always. Everywhere. In all places and at all times. From the heights to the depths and to the end of the ages. “Publish glad tidings, tidings of peace, tidings of Jesus, redemption and release!” To him whose promises are secure and fulfilled, to him be the glory, henceforth and for evermore.+

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Sign of the Wine

SJF • Epiphany 2c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The steward said, “You have kept the good wine until now.”+

Have you ever heard the expression, You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? It’s one of those proverbial impossible tasks, like spinning straw into gold, herding cats, getting blood from a turnip, or sculpting with Jell-O. Today we come to the wedding feast at Cana, like uninvited guests looking on from the sidelines, and getting a glimpse of an interchange between Jesus, his mother, and what we’d now-a-days call the head waiter. In this little drama, we witness the first sign through which Jesus revealed his glory, changing water into wine.

Now, just as a sow’s ear is no place to start if you’re making a silk purse, or straw to make gold, or a turnip to get blood, or cats for a parade, or Jell-O for a sculpture, water is not what you start with if you want to make wine. What you need is the fruit of the vine: grapes. The only water that comes into it is the rain that waters the vineyard: it’s grapes that wine comes from, and all of the water from the Creation through the Flood would have done no good to Noah, when it came to making the first wine, if the ground after the flood had not brought forth grapes. Everybody knows that, and they knew it in Jesus’ day just as well as we do now. Perhaps even better: Because every town back then had its winepress, and wine was the everyday drink of just about everyone.

So they knew then as we know now, that water doesn’t change into wine. In fact, water doesn’t really change into anything, all by itself, does it? Left to itself, it evaporates! Even ice and steam have to be frozen solid or boiled up if they are to change into another of H2O’s three states: fluid, vapor, and solid. Let solid ice melt, or vaporous steam condense, and you’re back to plain old liquid water. (That’s our chemistry lesson for the day.) Fact is, you can try to change water all you want, but all you’ll get is wet.

Nor can you simply add things to water to change it into wine, at least not good wine. You may remember the story of the stone soup that I some years ago. Of course water can become soup if you add onions, barley, carrots, meat, and salt and spices. Even if you added “wine concentrate” to water — something to make any wine-lover cringe — you aren’t really making wine — any more than stirring a teaspoon of Tang into a glass of water “makes” it into orange juice! Remember Tang? Whatever you do, no human power can change water into wine all by itself.

So that’s why what Jesus did is a miracle, which isn’t just something to amaze, it isn’t some magic trick, but something to instruct: it is, as our Gospel calls it, not a miracle but a sign — a sign that points to some great truth about who it is Jesus is. It is a sign that doesn’t just amaze but also reveals something about Jesus; it reveals his glory and leads his disciples to greater faith in him. Only Jesus could take water and make it change its very being, its very substance, until it simply wasn’t water any more, but wine — and good wine at that!

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Of course, the sign that Jesus performed isn’t ultimately about wine, but about transformation, about the kind of transformed lives that Jesus calls us to live. The amazement may have been about the wine, but the sign is about the change — the change that begins in him, when he became one of us, and changed human nature.

Sometimes we think that transformation is modifying how we act in response to the world around us. But transformation isn’t about a change in external shape or state or form, like water changing to ice or steam in response to the changing temperature. All of us know, from how many years of new years’ resolutions that have dissolved themselves early in the year, that simply promising yourself that you’ll keep your cool under stress; or telling yourself to build up a head of steam to finish a project long overdue, or that you’ve postponed, just won’t work. The pressure (or lack of pressure) of a changing environment doesn’t really change us but instead reveals what we really are, just as changing temperature and pressure show what ice and steam really are: water.

We will lose our cool under stress, and get burned out when the heat and pressure of responsibility rises, and we do get lazy and unproductive when the pressure is off. So human transformation isn’t about changing how we act or react.

But then is transformation about adding something to ourselves? No, for as we saw with water, transformation isn’t about adding ingredients to make either soup or reconstituted wine, or the beverage of astronauts! That doesn’t change the water, it just flavors it.

Sometimes we think that if only we could add something to ourselves, if only we had more money, or a different job, or even different clothes, we’d become different people. But we all know that more money doesn’t really change a person or a personality. The winner of the lottery may turn out to be just as miserable as she was before, when she discovers all those “friends” she didn’t know she had. A new job may bring out hidden talents, or even perhaps help you develop new skills, but you will still be you. And in spite of the proverb, clothes do not make the man — and he can end up being all dressed up with no place to go! True transformation has to go deeper — right to the heart.

Some years ago, Adolph Coors IV, then heir to the huge Colorado brewing industry, was at a prayer service and believed he had undergone a conversion: so he swore he would give up the beer-brewing business and lead a new life. Shortly thereafter, however, he recalled how Jesus transformed water into wine, and decided it was OK to stay in the beer business after all! His conversion was short-lived and his transformation was superficial and temporary.

The long and the short of it is that on our own we can (for a time) change what we do but we can’t for good and all, and on our own, change who we be. If we aren’t transformed inour very nature, no outward addition or action, or subtraction or restraint of action for that matter, is going to make us something other than what we are.

That water at Cana of Galilee couldn’t do anything or have anything added to it to make it into wine. What it needed was a word spoken by Jesus, to be poured into jars, and to be ladled out and tasted and enjoyed. True transformation doesn’t happen apart from Jesus. Those jugs of water could have sat in Cana from the wedding day to the day of doom, and never would have changed to wine unless Jesus had chosen to do as his mother asked. And when he did, all it took was a word of command to the servants: fill up the jars with water, and then draw out the wine.

So too, we will not change — we can not change — unless we are open to Jesus and the word he speaks to us. Unless we hear his commandment to be filled with his love, and then to pour out that love to those around us, we will never be transformed. We cannot do it on our own. We will remain empty jars standing in the corner unless we are willing to let his love be poured into our hearts, where by means of his word he can transform it into the joyful wine of God’s Spirit, which we can then share in rejoicing and fellowship.

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All of us are keenly aware of the horrific tragedy that has struck the people of Haiti this past week. All of us are, I am sure, strongly hoping that this tragic situation can be transformed. And to some extent it can — as we too are inwardly transformed and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, in a burst of generosity to send help as soon as we can to those suffering people. As you know, tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, and we normally take up a collection to support the MLK Scholarship. I want to suggest to you today that we split what we would normally send to that scholarship fund in half, and send the other half to Episcopal Relief and Development for their coordinated push to help the people of Haiti. I think Dr. King would approve, and I hope you do, too. Do you? Through the transformation of our hearts, our offering too can be transformed into practical help — we can’t change water into wine, but we can change money into food, medical supplies, and feet on the ground — we can convert our dollars into life-saving help.

And so in our own small way, may we, who have died with Christ in the water of baptism, heard his word of command in the Gospel, and drunk the wine of his most precious blood, be inwardly transformed by him who died for us, and who lives in us, even Jesus Christ our Lord. +

Sunday, January 10, 2010

That is My Name

SJF • 1 Epiphany 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Now when all the people were baptized, and Jesus also had been baptized, and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove; and a voice came from heaven....+

Suddenly, it got awfully quiet. Moments before there had been splashes of water, the loud voice of John the Baptist, the clamor of the crowd. People waiting in line had asked those ahead of them how cold the water was, and some complained, even those used to walking barefoot, about how the rocks hurt their feet. Others were too full of emotion to speak, too aware of their past failings, too full of hope for a new beginning to pay much mind to the chatter around them. Then, after the baptisms, when the crowd had settled on the shore, some talked quietly among themselves about what it was like. Just as people who have just seen a movie talk with each other about their favorite parts, the people on Jordan’s bank talked about how it felt when John had held them firmly by the shoulder, then pushed them under the cold, clear water. They recalled how all the normal sounds had disappeared to be replaced by a humming burbling pressure as they held their breath and waited for John to let them back up. They could hardly make out his words through that humming pressure: “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!” They came up sputtering, blinking, and feeling and knowing that something great had happened to them: they felt new-born, re-born. “That’s what it was like,” they said to each other as they sat on the shore, drying in the warm sunlight, resting a little before the long walk back home.

Then something unexpected happened. A deep voice spoke, just loud enough that everyone could hear it, like distant thunder: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then, silence. Everyone looked around. Who said that? Where did it come from? A little way down the stream a man was sitting by a rock, praying. “What is that on his shoulder?” someone said. “A dove?” “And why is John the Baptist looking at him so intently, so excitedly?” There was a good reason. For in John’s heart a question and a hope began to form: “Is he the one?”

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Is he the one? We might well ask, Who is this “one” about whom John wondered and hoped? For what — or for whom — had he been waiting and watching? It had been a long wait, you see, longer far than John’s own life. Hundreds of years before John was born a promise had been given to the people of Israel. A deliverer would come, one chosen by God, an anointed one, a Christ (for “Christ” is simply the Greek word for “one who is anointed,” which in Hebrew is Moshiach — Messiah.) This chosen one, this anointed one, this Messiah, this Christ, would not only deliver Israel, but establish justice on the earth.

But who was he? Was this prophecy about some individual person, or symbolic of Israel as a whole, personified? Was it Cyrus the Persian king, who would indeed be called God’s chosen and anointed one, to return the people from exile in Babylon? Return them Cyrus did — that prophetic detail came true — but still injustice held sway on the earth... He was not “the one.” Time passed; other prophets spoke, other kings ruled; wars were fought and won and lost. And still, justice was not established on the earth, and Israel was delivered from bondage only to be conquered yet again a few years later by another earthly power.

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But lately in the days of John the Baptist, in the days of the latest occupation, by Rome, a new hope had arisen in Israel, Could John the Baptist himself be the one? Well, John answered them directly: No. He was merely the forerunner, the advance man for the one who was to come. He, too, had been given a personal assurance: “The one upon whom you see the Spirit descending..., is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”John 1:33

John understood he had been given a prophet’s task, the task I’ve spoken of before: Prophets point — and not to themselves! Prophets bubble with holy enthusiasm that cries out, “Look! Behold!” Prophets aren’t interested in starting a cult; true prophets point people to God.

I reminded you a moment ago about what people do when they’ve enjoyed seeing a film together. No doubt you know this from your own experience. What’s the first thing you do when you’ve experienced something wonderful? Whether it’s a book that you think is the best thing you’ve ever read; or a movie that delighted you; or a fascinating exhibit at the museum. What do you do? You tell people about it, of course. And the way you tell them is filled with special kind of enthusiasm. You can’t wait till they’ve seen it, or read it, or been there. And as I mentioned, we all know that special extra delight, the added pleasure in discovering that someone else has already read the book, or seen the movie. That’s when the real fun starts. “What part did you like best? Wasn’t that a great scene? I’m going again next week! Want to go together?”

Prophets and enthusiasts both point at something else, not at themselves. They don’t say, “Follow me!” but “Come with me!” And if for some reason they can’t go along, like John when he was in prison, they say, “Go, follow him. He is the one. I told you I wasn’t the one; I was only preparing the way.”

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God, in this as in all else, is different. God also points things out, directs our attention, shows us the way; but God does it differently. God does say, “Follow me!” Not only that, but God says “Don’t follow anyone else!”

Compare for a moment: listen to John the Baptist’s humility: “One who is more powerful than I... I am not worthy to untie his sandal...” Then hear the emphasis in God’s description of his coming chosen one, the Messiah. Notice how much God uses the first person singular! “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him... I am the Lord, that is my name...” We might say that God is “the first person singular” — for when Moses asked for God’s name, he was told, “I AM.”

Names are the point for naming is perhaps the most important way to point something out, of giving it an identity, and directing our attention to it. When God spoke at Christ’sbaptism, the great “I AM” gave Jesus a name too, “My Son, the beloved.” Names identify both the person, and the person’s relationship to others. We have a “given” name, given to each of us after we are born, and a family name as well, the name we arere born with, the name that was there before we were born. One name belongs to us, the other name says we belong to something else: a family. At his baptism, Jesus (the name he was given when he was born) received a new name, a name that describes his relationship to God: Jesus belongs to God: he is God’s beloved Son. He is Christ — God’s anointed one.

The same is true for us in our baptism. We receive our baptismal name, our “first name” as we say; we receive our family name, officially as it is pronounced over us; but we are also given a name, a hallmark, like the thumbprint a potter presses into the bottom of the pottery he makes, to mark it out as his very own creation. We too are anointed, “Christened” as we say, and given a mark and a name that transcends both our individuality and our family, a mark that doesn’t say so much who we are but whose we are. We are “marked as Christ’s own for ever” and we are given the new name “Christian.” We belong no longer to ourselves alone, but to Christ, who is Lord of all. We are his, because we bear a new name, Christian.

As we come up from those cold Jordan waters, blinking and sputtering, perhaps (I can tell you from experience) gasping and crying and perhaps wriggling around, we are given a new name, we are marked with an owner’s mark, in the shape of a cross — right here. Baptized into Christ’s death, we share in his resurrection.

And we have a job to do. The Baptismal Covenant is our Christian job description — and we’ll have our annual review in just a few moments. Among the accountabilities in that job description is the task to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers,” which is what we do here each Sunday. But we are also assigned the task “to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” It shouldn’t be hard to do the latter when we’ve done the former. Isn’t life everlasting better than the best novel you ever read, the most exciting movie you ever saw? Isn’t the Lord’s table the greatest feast? Isn’t the Word of God proclaimed the most important thing you could ever hear? Can you leave this time of worship with a glow of enthusiasm; filled with excitement? Can you tell your friends about it? You are the evangelists and prophets, sent to proclaim the word: you are the messengers of Christ at work in the world.

And when you spread the word of what you have seen and heard, of what God’s saving grace has meant for you, of how you have heard his word, known his forgiveness in your heart and been fed at his table, when you have shared this good news, of God’s presence in and with the church on earth, you can always end by saying, “I’m going back next week! Do you want to go together?”+

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Evil in High Places

SJF • Christmas 2 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.+

Merry Christmas! Christmas season isn’t over yet, remember; it’s 12 days long. Today is the 10th day of Christmas and the second Sunday after Christmas. So we can still say “Merry Christmas” for another two days! But just to round things out, let me say, Happy New Year.

Merry and Happy...hmmm. Our gospel today, however, is a sobering reminder that all is not well in the world. It introduces one of the great villains of world history: King Herod the Great. (Don’t confuse him with the other Herod, his son Herod Antipas, who would later rule over Galilee, and cause trouble both for John the Baptist and for Jesus some thirty years later. I suppose one might well observe “like father, like son.”)

This earlier Herod is a prototype of evil in high places: a stereotype of tyranny and wickedness in the place where justice and good should sit. We only hear the first part of the story in our Gospel this morning — but you can tell that something is up even if you didn’t know the rest of the story: that after the Wise Men don’t come back to Herod, he too knows that something is up, something is going on to threaten his position, that there’s a rival king out there somewhere, and he orders the massacre of all of the little boys up to the age of two in the town of Bethlehem — and the Holy Family only escapes in a flight to Egypt because of Joseph’s dream.

Herod is so bad that he became proverbial. The historical Herod merged with the legendary to produce the perfect villain. In the religious plays that the merchant guilds of England performed in the Middle Ages — for the benefit of the common people, few of whom could read or understand the Latin bible — the part of Herod was always played by the biggest ham actor. The man who could shout and scream and roll his eyes the most would get the part to play horrible Herod. This style of overacting became the rule for Herod to such an extent that a few hundred years later Shakespeare could joke that a really bad actor “out-Herod’s Herod!”

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But what I would like to suggest to you today is that the really scary villains aren’t the ones that scream and roll their eyes, and run up and down the stage stamping their feet. The ones who scare me are the ones who go about their villainy calm, cool, and collected.

If you watch the History Channel at all, no doubt you’ve seen films of Adolf Hitler — certainly one of the worst if not the worst villains of the last century. If you’ve seen him speaking at one of his party rallies , you’ve seen how he gestured and emoted like the ham actor he was — in fact, one of the reasons he was able to come to power was that the moderates in the German government didn’t take him seriously, and couldn’t understand how anyone else could either; they considered him a blustering buffoon; more fools they! And by no means wishing to diminish or downplay the evil or the villainy of Hitler, I just want to say that I always find films of his Soviet counterpart, Josef Stalin, even more disturbing. “Uncle Joe” as he was sometimes called, was a man as ruthless and murderous as Hitler. But when you see him speaking to the crowds in Red Square, he barely breaks a sweat. Instead of the silly posturing of the Fascist salute, Stalin gently waves like the Queen Mum. But he could send tens of thousands to their deaths in prison camps with just such a dismissive wave — and he did, time and time again.

And I tend to think that Herod was a bit more like Stalin than he was like Hitler. He’s a smooth villain, is Herod. He knows how to make nice, and be polite, how to cozy up to the wise men, and get them to act as his agents — until they too are warned in a dream not to buy what this smooth villain is selling.

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And isn’t this a warning to us? Avoiding evil and malicious people would be very easy if you could always tell who they were by obvious clues — if all the villains really wore black hats, or had pencil mustaches and favored cheap suits and loud neckties. The fact is, con men and crooks are successful precisely because they look just like the rest of us, or maybe even better than us — the con man has to get you to trust him, after all.

While not wanting to put him in the class of Hitler, Stalin, or Herod, Bernie Madoff would not have been able to make off with all that money if people hadn’t trusted him. Villains in high places, whether the merely financial evil of an embezzler or swindler, or the literally murderous evil of the manufacturer who spikes infant formula with poisonous chemicals to make it look more nutritious, they often get away with it precisely because they seem so courteous, solicitous, and upstanding. You know the old expression of “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” — well evil in high places often clothes itself very comfortably in the robes of state and privilege and propriety. And they fit like a glove.

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So what are we to do? Perhaps the dreams of Joseph and the Wise Men, warning them not to trust Herod were in part a result of some sixth sense that tells you something is wrong even when it seems all right on the surface. There’s a story of a woman who managed to escape the Bernie Madoff disaster because one day she passed him on the street and noticed his shoes weren’t shined — and she pulled out all her money from his care, and escaped the disaster. Perhaps that is how the Holy Spirit works some times — as Paul mentioned in Ephesians, opening the eyes of our hearts — to see those little things that the eyes of our head might not catch. So it is important to keep both sets of eyes wide open. More importantly, much more importantly, because we will still miss things, and still be fooled — no one escapes that all the time, as Lincoln observed: that you can fool most of the people some of the time — we can have trust, more importantly, that while there may well be evil in high places, as Saint Paul reminds us in our reading from Ephesians, we also have a friend in high places! The battle with the forces of evil is not ours alone, and that is good news! As Martin Luther said in his great hymn, “Did we in our own strength confide, our winning would be losing; Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing!” We do not need to tremble in fear at the “Prince of darkness grim” or any of his third-rate imitators seated in high places of power and prestige.

For there is a word of power above all earthly powers, a living Word and wisdom in whom we are empowered to live, and who lives in us, and that is a big part of what Christmas means. He has endowed us with a glorious inheritance and has given us a spirit of wisdom and revelation, when we open the eyes of our hearts as we have come to know him, by his becoming one of us. This is Saint Paul’s message of hope and encouragement to the people of Ephesus, and it is a message of hope and encouragement to us as well.

We do need to keep our eyes open and to be, as Jesus himself warned us, as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves —
— there are crooks and villains aplenty in this world of ours; corruption loves its comfortable seat in the halls of power and some seated there are smooth and clever, able to deceive even the elect.

But only for a time — their doom is sure. Justice may be deferred but it will not be denied, and the villains in high places and on their lofty thrones — or in their posh boardrooms or their corner offices — will find their stolen power slipping away, slipping through their greedy fingers. The Holy Family will escape. Christ will spend that safe sojourn in Egypt, return to Galilee, and grow to manhood. And even when that other Herod, Herod Junior, joined with the priests and scribes and Pharisees, with the power of the Romans at their disposal, think they have finally succeeded, and defeated Jesus, and nailed him to the cross, they will be proved wrong. Mourning will be turned to joy, and Christ will rise again, never to die again.

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And so, good people, take courage. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Have confidence that though evil and wickedness may seem for a time to run the show, the curtain will soon come down on their last performance. Christmas is the preview of that promise, and it reminds us that God has come among us to give us power to discern and avoid evil, and ultimately in and with his strength, to defeat it. This is the hope to which God has called us, that we may know what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. So let us rejoice and be glad, and believe that Christmas promise, in and through Jesus Christ our Lord.+