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The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year W) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin |18 December 2022 | 1 Samuel 1:19-28 | 1 Samuel 2:1-10 | Titus 3:4-7 | Matthew 1:18-25

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who is with us in hearing and speaking and naming and incarnation.

Good morning, friends. Today is our last Sunday of Advent, of preparing for Christ’s birth together. And for now it’s our last Sunday of hearing scripture with the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney’s Women’s Lectionary. Our readings these four weeks have explored Advent as a season of Annunciation, these birth stories. That means it’s been a season of conversations with God. Hagar, and Mary, and Abraham, Samson’s mother, Elizabeth, and today Hannah and Joseph, talk with God or God’s messengers about coming births.

So today we’ll look at how God meets these saints and sages in holy conversation, in hearing and speaking and naming, and how we might meet God there too.

Today we hear part of the story of Hannah. Like Sarah and Elizabeth, Hannah is a woman who did not think she could have children. She and her husband faithfully worship at the temple every year, and there she prays to God for a child. When she’s praying intensely, her lips are moving even though she isn’t speaking aloud; the priest at the temple thinks that she’s drunk and calls her out. Hannah defends herself and shares her prayer, and the priest blesses her.

And as today’s story tells us, Hannah has a child the next year. Samuel, who will become a prophet; someone who helps God’s people hear God’s voice for their times, someone who facilitates this conversation between God and human beings. Hannah names her child Samuel because it means “God hears,” and God has heard her prayer.

This naming of Samuel echoes the first conversation with God we read this Advent—when Hagar meets God in the desert, and she’s the first person in scripture to give God a name. Hagar names God “The One Who Sees.”

Hagar names God for the way that God sees her praying. And Hannah names her son Samuel for the way God hears her praying. These names are part of the holy conversation between God people that’s still going on; they’re a form of prayer; they’re a kind of testimony to God’s presence with us. Naming and being named are part of how people in the Bible learned how to be present to God and welcome God’s presence among them.

Dr. Gafney’s lectionary gets at the importance of naming in scripture; she uses many names for God. In the Hebrew text of the Bible, there is a Name for God that’s written but not spoken. When reading aloud or translating into another language, we substitute another word. Our Jewish siblings sometimes say “HaShem,” (which means “The Name”) for this. English translations often use “Lord” in small capitals. And there’s also a movement in translation that when this holy Name appears, we can use a descriptive name for God in place of what can’t be spoken.

This is what Dr. Gafney does. The ways she names God are rooted in the stories of God in scripture, the ways God has been present with God’s people. She invites us to use these names in prayer and worship and see where they might take us. Here are some of the names for God we’ve seen so far in Advent:

Inscrutable God

Wellspring of Life

Ever-Living God

Faithful One

Living God

Worthy One

She Who Speaks Life

Holy One of Old

Generous One

Ageless One

God Who Hears

Creator of All

Gracious One

Fount of Justice

Since Hagar, God’s people have given God many names. It’s part of how we pray. It’s part of how we take our part in the conversation God is having with this world.

And in today’s Gospel, God claims the name Jesus, which means “God saves” and the name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” In our final divine conversation for this season, God’s messenger visits Joseph to announce Jesus’ birth. The angel tells Joseph that Mary hasn’t betrayed his trust, that her pregnancy is from the Holy Spirit. And Joseph is called to care for Mary and name the child Jesus.

As many readers have pointed out, Joseph does not say anything back to the angel in this story. The end of the scene says Joseph “does as the angel of the Lord commanded him,” but he we don’t get to hear what he thinks about it the way we do with most of the other people we’ve seen in dialogue with God or angels this season.

Maybe Joseph’s part of the conversation just wasn’t written down, or maybe Joseph was too busy listening to be talking in this moment. The only place it’s even implied Joseph speaks is to name the child Jesus, as the angel has told him to do.

When God becomes human and takes on a human name, Joseph gets to be part of the naming. Joseph gets to be part of that same legacy of naming God that goes back to Hagar, but in a new way. Jesus is a form of the name Joshua, and it means “God is help” or “God is salvation.”

Matthew also gives us another name for the child to be born—the name Immanuel, which means “God with us.” This name is taken from a story back in Isaiah when the timing of a child’s birth symbolized God’s presence with God’s people in a difficult time. It takes on new meaning in Matthew’s gospel as a name for God incarnate, God in the flesh, God walking with us as a human being. 

In her commentary on this gospel, Gafney points out that annunciation stories are common in the ancient world—heroes and demigods are often born to unlikely mothers and heralded by prophecy. But for the child to be “God with us,” Emmanuel, “the fullness of God in the frailty of flesh,” for God to be a human being with us—that’s something new.

The incarnation is the mystery of God becoming radically with us; God claims the name Immanuel for Godself in this moment, and God grows in a woman’s body and is born as a human infant and is named by his parents and learns to speak a human language. It is a continuation of the divine conversations we heard with Hagar and Hannah, with everyone who ever answered God’s call or cried out to God in prayer or dared to give God a new name.

Dr. Gafney says: “God’s saving work did not begin with Jesus; we see it borne witness to throughout the scriptures as Hannah sings of it in her time and in the days to come as would Mary, echoing [Hannah’s] song. Jesus is the continuation and embodiment of that salvation, himself an annunciation, of good news.”

And friends, this is the good news for which we prepare in Advent. This is the love that saves us. This is the holy mystery we welcome. This is the divine conversation in which we speak and listen and name and are named.

And this divine conversation can look a lot of different ways and still be faithful and good. Hagar in the desert demands to be seen and lays out her troubles before God. Hannah answers back when a priest tries to shame her for how she’s praying to God. Abraham and Sarah both laugh, and their child is named for their laughter.

Mary says yes to God’s call. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and strengthens her friend with joy and wisdom. Hannah and Mary both sing songs of praise for God’s revolutionary love. And Joseph hears what the angel says and doesn’t speak at all, but he acts to answer the call.

God is with all of these people, and all of these people are with God. All of these conversations are honest and faithful. All of these conversations are holy moments of presence where God and God’s people are in relationship. Some of these moments end up as lovely Christmas card art, and some are too messy for that, but they are all part of the holy conversation. They are all beautiful.

Some of us have a reflex to evaluate and rank things unnecessarily. (It’s me, I do.) And so we might want to figure out which conversations with God are the best kind, or judge how we should talk to God and how we shouldn’t. But scripture doesn’t do that in the stories we’ve just read. It turns out that the correct way to have a conversation with God is to have a conversation with God, and we grow as we go.

Joseph’s silent obedience is faithful. Hagar’s bold naming is faithful. Arguing can be faithful. Songs of praise can be faithful. Complaining can be faithful, and so can peaceful acceptance. There is no single template for how we relate God’s call or how we pray to God.

Conversations with God will look different for different people; they’ll look different for the same people in different seasons of life. The point is that we listen for God’s voice, and we speak to God honestly, and we practice a life of being present and active and fully ourselves in God’s continual conversation with our world.

And the real point is that God is with us. No matter how quiet or loud or distracted or wise we might or might not be, God chooses to be present with us. If we have had an Advent season of contemplation and reading scripture and lighting candles, God is with us. If we have had a season of rushing around taking care of a thousand things, God is with us. God is with us anywhere in between—Immanuel is God’s name.

And if our prayers this season have deepened into fathomless wells of silence from which we draw pure peace, God is with us. If the only prayer we can manage is “Oh God help,” God is with us too. God sees us, and God hears us.

So friends, let us take our part in the holy conversation that we have followed through scripture—whatever shape it takes for us as we come to the end of this Advent season. Let us listen for God’s voice among us and offer to God whatever words or silence or names or cries or laughter we might have in us today.

And in that holy conversation, in the mystery of God with us in speaking and hearing and naming, let us prepare our hearts and minds and bodies to welcome the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery Mary’s holy child born among us, Emmanuel, God with us.

Amen.   

Kelly Latimore’s beautiful icon of St. Joseph. Latimore reflects: “St. Joseph has shown us that even the quietest ordinary acts can be signs of hope in the world.”

The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost | Proper 21 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 1 Timothy 6:6-19 | Luke 16:19-31

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God who came to us in gentleness and in glory, who calls us to a faith both humble and bold.

Good morning, friends. When I read today’s portion of the letter to Timothy, I was struck by the shift in the middle of it. The writer is going along giving basic good advice, and then suddenly it’s an outburst of praise. We start with humble instructions on living well. Things like “be content if you have food and clothing” and “watch out for greed.” And then suddenly in the middle of that we get a glimpse of Christ in glory: Christ who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.

Even though I’ve read this before, I had to read it a few times to see if I’d missed something. What is this song to Christ’s glory doing here?

So today we’ll spend our time with just this one passage from the letter to Timothy, and the shift from ordinary to otherworldly that we see in it. We’ll think about why the letter was written this way at the time and what it might have to say to us now about who Jesus is and about how we are called to live as Jesus’ followers.

This is a letter addressed to a young church leader, Timothy. It has Paul’s name on it, but many scholars believe it was written by another Christian leader after Paul’s lifetime to offer pastoral teachings to the young church. The literary frame of Paul writing to Timothy may have helped that author to give mentoring and guidance to other leaders in the early church in this letter.

It was a time when the first churches were figuring out how to live, whom to trust, and what to make of the life and teachings and identity of Jesus. Early Christians were sorting out what the faith was going to be like, how to respond to Jesus.

Writing as Paul to Timothy may have allowed the author of this letter to reinforce the basics of the faith without seeming disrespectful to the readers. And we’re getting those basics in today’s reading (until we’re not). It’s humble advice about living a good life; things like managing your desires wisely, and not chasing after wealth instead of what matters. “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.” “The love of money is a root of all evil.”

The writer is advocating for virtues that already exist in Greco-Roman culture: virtues of temperance and self-sufficiency. Someone in this time and place wouldn’t even need to be a Christian to give the moral guidance in the first part of our passage. A stoic philosopher like Marcus Aurelius would approve of most of this teaching. It’s everyday wisdom that happens to fit in well with the author’s vision of Christian righteousness.

And in the context of an oppressive empire, some of the advice in this letter is tuned toward helping the early Christians survive by keeping their heads down and not making any trouble if they can help it.

But then things start to take a turn. After describing how dangerous it is to chase after wealth, the writer turns to the church leader and says what to do instead. “But you—you, human being who belongs to God—pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight. Grab onto eternal life even now.”

The call becomes more bold. Gentleness is paired with fighting the good fight. The leaders aren’t supposed to grasp after riches, but they are called to take hold of eternal life. We see now that the quiet, steady goodness of Christian living has a fierce side to it. The faith is more than it appears.

And then the writer starts talking about God, and suddenly it’s so much more. First, God the Creator, “who gives life to all things” is called in as a witness to the letter.

Then Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, comes in, and there’s so much going on here that the writer seems to lose the train of thought for a while. The writer tells the reader to “keep the commandment until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So at first, it’s still about what the Christians are supposed to do—they’re supposed to keep holding the faith until Jesus returns.

But at the mention of Jesus Christ, it’s suddenly no longer just about the Christians and how they’re supposed to act anymore. The writer gets swept away into praise:

“Jesus Christ—the blessed and only ruler,

the king of kings, the lord of lords,

the only one holding immortality,

dwelling in light inaccessible,

whom no human has seen nor is able to see,

—to Christ be honor and power eternal. Amen.”

We’re lifted above what we can see in this world. We’re suddenly in a place of awe and wonder at Christ’s glory.

This song of praise might be a hymn or a text from the early church’s liturgy that the author is quoting once the topic shifts to Christ Jesus. In any case, as soon as the writer thinks deeply of Christ, we’re in a place of praise and glory. 

 It seems very different from the practical advice for good living where we started. There’s some creative dissonance, some fruitful tension, in the tone of this passage—we move from instructions on how to live a gentle, contented good life to a vision of grandeur with Christ in glory. It may feel jarring at first, but we can see how it comes together.

We see a picture of early Christianity here that is humble and bold at the same time. People who are just trying to live decent lives and take care of each other and find contentment in little things are the same people who share a wild hope in eternal life, a wild hope that Christ who holds immortality and dwells in light inaccessible loved us enough become human and walk among us and die and rise again.

After this outburst of praise to Christ, we get back to practical advice for living well again: Rich people need to share what they have. We need to trust in God and not in wealth; we take joy in what God gives us, and whenever we’re blessed with something good, we look for ways to lift others up too. This is the kind of approach to wealth that we cultivate as Christians. This is how we take hold of the life that is truly life, amid all the distractions.

And this down-to-earth instruction happens with the song of praise to Christ still echoing in the background. And it makes sense that it should. After all, this is a hymn to Christ, to the Son, to the Word, to that member of the Trinity who became human. And the incarnation is all about God deciding to show up in regular human realities. It’s God who sweated and bled; God who probably smelled bad sometimes; God who got hungry if he didn’t eat; God who had regular human needs and leaned on the generosity of people who had money to meet them.   

And when we notice that, it’s not out of place to move back and forth between praise to God incarnate and instructions about what to do in regular, everyday life. This is how it is for us in the Christian faith. We believe that God became human, and that God chooses to show up among us.

We believe that when we share Christ’s body in the bread at communion, we become Christ’s body together. We believe that when we do good, when we give thanks, when we share what we have, our everyday lives become part of Christ’s reconciling, redeeming movement in the world.

This is mix of the miraculous and the mundane is how it is for us as Christians: The indescribably holy brushes against the ordinary. “Here is what we do” rubs shoulder to shoulder with “This is who God is.” At the food pantry, cans of ravioli bump up against the seraphim. Bank statements tangle with the unknowable Trinity. We’re just trying to go for a walk or answer our emails or prepare a meal, and the mystery of the incarnation manifests.  

This liminal space where is where we live, because the incarnation forever blurred the boundary between things earthly and things heavenly. Because of that, we’re called to handle earthly things as people transformed by a heavenly vision. We don’t pretend material wealth doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter in the face of spiritual truths—instead, we use whatever we have to help our sisters and brothers and siblings.

Our calling to follow Jesus is both humble and glorious.

It’s humble: We find contentment in simple things, we tell the truth, we share with our neighbors. We follow in the steps of these early Christians addressed in Timothy. We learn to be gentle and kind and steady. We build a life that makes us ready to be generous. These things are sometimes hard to do, but they’re not so hard to understand. So we fight the good fight, we try our best to live with integrity and love.

We plod along, hoping to make our corner of this earth a little better. But then all the sudden, we turn a corner and there’s Christ, blazing in glory, beyond any goodness we could achieve, beyond any wisdom we could comprehend.

We are called to a life of bold witness, a life where we claim eternal glory, a life where we trust that Christ who alone holds immortality, Christ who dwells in light inaccessible, is the same Jesus who lived among us and loves us and cares for us. And we believe that the Christ who is God with us, who is both gentle and glorious, still shows up.

We share a moment of honest grief, and there’s Christ. We listen to someone whose voice we haven’t truly heard before, and there’s Christ. We take a drink of cold water on a hot day, and there’s Christ. We pray, and Christ is with us. It’s like the Celtic hymn: Christ before us, Christ behind us, Christ under our feet. And this Christ calls us to follow him in a faith that’s humble enough to care about where the money goes and also bold enough to claim eternal life.

In some seasons, we lean into the humility of the faith; we do what’s right because we know it’s right, and we take care of people because they need taking care of, and we do our best to find contentment in the ordinary. It’s not always a blaze of inspiration, and that’s okay. We’re faithful in the basics. We do what we can to follow Jesus who was good to people.

And other times maybe, the glory of God presses in on us. Maybe we see the spark of divinity in every person and every sunset. Maybe the holy light of Christ in glory is always at the corner of our eye. For a season or for a moment, we find ourselves awestruck, on the verge of bursting out in praise.

The humility and the glory are both holy, both blessed, both true, both part of the life to which Christ calls us. Both these movements are part of our faith because they are both part of who Christ is, the one who calls us. We live here, in the paradox of Christ’s incarnation.

And we follow this calling together. We remind each other how to love well and do simple good in this world, and how to reach out for a glory that is beyond comprehension.

So friends, let us follow in the footsteps of early Christians whose faith was both humble and bold. Let us pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness. Let us fight the good fight and take hold of life eternal even now. Let us be ready to share what we have in this world, and also ready to be swept away in praise of the God who is beyond this world.

And so day by day, let us follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, whose gentleness shook empires and whose glory lifted up the lowly.

Amen.

A painting of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet from the 1630s, attributed to Jan Lievens (and accessed through the Chicago Art Institute). I think the scene and the light in this painting really get at that paradox of Christ’s humility and Christ’s glory.