A Reading from the Book of Isaiah (61:1-4, 8-11)
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
3 Then they said among the nations, *
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
4 The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.
5 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.
6 Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.
7 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
A Reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians (5:16-24)
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (1:6-8, 19-28)
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Last Wednesday evening, Judy and I attended the annual Holiday Concert at Oakwood Junior and Senior High School. It included five different musical ensembles. Mark and Micaela are both members of the High School Concert Choir. These talented young people do a wonderful job. So does their music teacher and director, Jeremy Storost.
The students love Mr. Storost. He has a way of bringing out the best in his students and enabling them to have fun at the same time. From time to time, they tell us about some of his regular sayings. Among them is one that focuses on the importance of pronouncing the lyrics correctly and intelligibly, or, as, he puts it, “You need to put the em-PHA-sis on the right syl-LA-ble, or the words will sound we-IRD.”
We’ve all had the experience of struggling to understand speakers for whom English is not their native language and who sometimes put the accent on a different syllable from where it belongs. That can pose a challenge to listeners. But at other times, changing the emphasis in a word or within a group of words can have a much more fundamental effect on the message itself. And changing the emphasis on what we say and sing in worship can have a fundamental effect on how we understand and live our faith.
Choosing the hymns for a worship service, for example, is never a matter of simply picking out ones’ favorite songs – at least if the person doing it has any sense of the great responsibility involved. As those who have been involved in that process realize, it requires an extended time of background study and reflection on the liturgy and on the readings for a particular day, plus a thoughtful consideration of what the words in the hymns are saying. The late Louis Ball, a longtime professor of Church Music, used to tell his students: “If the Bible is the source of all theology and doctrine, then the hymnal is the distillation of that theology. The one who selects the hymns of the congregation selects its theology.”
The theology of the hymns that churches use varies greatly from one another. Some hymns, including many in the hymnals that we use, focus on a very self-centered approach to faith; they reflect a self-centered theology. They sing about what God does for me, and look solely at what God can do for me, helping me, taking care of me, comforting me, supporting me, They speak as though I and my God were alone in the world. The recognition of our own personal relationship with the divine is certainly part of the biblical tradition and of our heritage. But it is only one accent, if you will, on the word; and changing the accent transforms the meaning and brings out, what has to be for Christians, the much more important and primary meaning.
It has always seemed strange to me that, as Christians, we celebrate Jesus as the one who lived and gave his life for others. We then continue to assert that we are called to imitate him in living and giving our lives for others, just as he did. But then our approach to our spiritual life does “a 180”; and we pray and sing with a focus, not on what God calls us to do for the sake of the rest of the world, but primarily, and sometimes exclusively, on what God can do for me. Such an attitude differs very little from the sometimes self-centered culture in which we live – just with God thrown in as a nice accessory.
What difference might it make if, not only our prayers and hymns, but also our entire approach to our life of faith actually matched up with what we say we believe? What if we actually focused beyond ourselves? What if we did what Jesus did: living our lives and focusing on what God can do in and through us for the sake of others? That change in accent in not just a minor matter of individual taste or personal preference. It completely transforms our faith from one that is self-centered to one that, like the Lord we profess, is focused on the rest of humanity and on serving God’s creation, just as Jesus did.
An approach like that would be, for many Christians, a major change. It is one that breaks, to a large extent, from the spirituality that many of us grew up with; but it is one that accords much more closely with the teachings and the life of Jesus. Following Jesus’ example has never been easy, and it is certainly not easy for us either.
Let’s try one example of an accent change here this morning and see what it does. The fourth chapter of the gospel according to Luke begins its account of Jesus’ public ministry with a visit to his home synagogue in Nazareth. According to the narrative, Jesus was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah from which to select a reading for comment. He opened it and found the passage that we heard as our first reading this morning, the one that begins: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.” And he then concluded by announcing: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus seems to have adopted this passage as a description of what his own life and mission was all about.
What if — as his followers, as people called to follow his example — what if we were to do the same thing that he did? What if we were to make those words our own? What if we were to see Jesus’ mission as our mission, too? Specifically, what if we were to put the accent, the emphasis, on the pronoun “me” and probe what that change might imply for our lives and our calling to live as Jesus lived?
Jesus had received God’s Holy Spirit at his baptism but so have we: as our Prayer Book puts it, we have been “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism.” Think for a moment about repeating the words of this reading yourself and accepting it as your mission. Think about saying: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Accepting these words as a statement of our own mission, we who have been made “Christ’s own for ever,” transforms the entire understanding of our faith and entrusts us with nothing less than a lifetime of continuing Jesus’ mission in the world. It changes our approach to faith from being a self-centered one to being an other-centered one; and so it changes it to being a life that follows the example of Jesus himself.
Making such a radical change in our approach to faith may be difficult and a real struggle at first. We might feel that we are somehow putting the “em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble.” But with time and with the grace of God, we might just come to realize that we have finally got it right, that we are now really following where Jesus has led the way, and that, at last, we are putting the emphasis where it should have been all along.