A Reading from the Book of Baruch (5:1-9)
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven. For God will give you evermore the name, “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.” Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Philippians (1:3-11)
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke (3:1-6)
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Three weeks ago, as representatives from across southern Ohio gathered downtown for our Diocesan Convention, I had the privilege of welcoming everyone to Dayton. To do so, I arranged with our diocesan Communications staff to show a wonderful, locally made video called “Where the Rivers Meet.” It uses the image of the rivers converging in downtown Dayton as a symbol for one of the greatest strengths of our community: the rivers of immigrants who have come and continue to come today from all over the world to join with us who are already here in making Dayton their home. And, as the video builds toward its climax, it reminds its viewers that, whether recently or generations ago, “we all came here from somewhere else.” Whether we arrived recently or generations ago, we are all a nation of immigrants.
The subject of immigrants is a pressing one today in many countries, including our own. Far too many statements made by public figures provide, as the saying goes, “more heat than light.” They play off people’s fears, employing half-truths and outright lies in order to manipulate people and win support for a particular person’s campaign or a particular group’s cause. It is here, as in many places, that our history has a lot to teach us. We need to learn from our past mistakes so that we don’t repeat them again and again.
Our nation was founded on the Enlightenment principle of breaking through the old boundaries of race and nationality. Yet over and over again, we have allowed ourselves to become suspicious of those who appear to be different from us and to try to prevent “them” from coming into “our” country. At times, we as a nation have warned about the danger of, and enacted laws against, immigrants trying to come here to find freedom and new life for themselves and for their families. As Bishop Tom Breidenthal pointed out in a recent statement: “Throughout our history, entire immigrant groups have been targeted as dangerous because of their possible connection with terrorists and enemies – Italians early in the twentieth century were associated with anarchists, during World War I German immigrants were targeted as un-American, and we all know what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II. It is a mistake to refuse welcome and shelter to desperate people seeking safety and a new life, simply because we fear infiltration by terrorists along with them. Such a retreat from our highest convictions as a nation simply plays into the terrorists’ hands, for in the long run they are not so much after our lives as our souls.” Our souls demand that we welcome the stranger. Each time that we have succumbed to our fears and abandoned our responsibility to welcome the stranger, we as a nation have later recognized the fact that we were wrong. There were, at times, individuals who posed a threat, but there are also many individuals within our country, life-long citizens, who pose a threat as well.
If history has much to teach us, our faith tradition has even more. One of most frequently emphasized commands of God in the Torah, the Pentateuch, the heart of our Old Testament, is the command “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 19:34). That principle is fully in keeping with the assertion that the Lord is the God of all people, and that all people are God’s children, made in God’s own image and likeness. At times, Israel failed to live up to the implications of that belief, but God repeatedly sent the prophets to call them back.
We see this same principle at work in the New Testament, specifically in the gospel according to Luke, from which most of our Sunday gospel readings will be taken this year, and also in Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles. Luke’s version of the gospel begins, as Matthew’s does, with a story about Jesus’ birth. But the heart of the narrative begins with the passage that we heard today, with the story of the word of God coming to John the Baptist in the wilderness. “He went,” Luke says, “into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
New Testament scholar John Pilch describes the import of that term “repentance” as meaning a “broadening of horizons,” a “transformation of experience,” a “change of mind.” Luke’s version of the good news about Jesus begins with the call by John for people to broaden their horizons, to think in a new way, to recognize God’s presence in and work among all people. And, at the end of the gospel, in the scene of Jesus’ ascension, Luke ends where he began: with Jesus reminding his followers of their responsibility to bring the good news of God’s life and love to “all nations.”
The Acts of the Apostles likewise begins with the pouring out of God’s Spirit “upon all flesh”; and it concludes with Paul taking his ministry to Rome: a symbol of the ends of the earth, a place where all nations came together. Both Luke and Acts begin and end with an assertion of God as the God of all people, and of all people as our brothers and sisters. As Paul famously put it (Gal. 3:28): “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” To put it another way, there is no longer an “us” and a “them,” for we are all members of one family, all children of the one God.
The wonderful feast of Christmas, which we are about to celebrate, likewise reminds us of God’s embrace of all people. In Luke’s account, which we will hear on Christmas Eve, a group of shepherds are the first to hear of and celebrate the birth of Jesus. At that time and place, shepherds were looked down upon as suspect and potentially dangerous people. They were the outsiders. They were seen as a threat by many who lived in the cities and the towns, people to be kept at a distance. And, in Matthew’s version which we will hear two Sundays after Christmas, it is a group of magi, pagans, foreigners from modern-day Iraq and Iran, who are summoned by a star to come and offer their gifts to the newborn king.
The question for us, as followers of Jesus, is always: by which values are we going to be guided? By which values are we going to live? Are they the values of those who, in every age, seek to keep away or even kill those who do not think or speak or look or believe the way that we do? Or are they the values of the God who calls us to welcome the alien, the stranger, the oppressed, those of all nations who are seeking an opportunity for their families to live in freedom and in hope?
The question asked in the first pages of the Bible, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a question asked of all of us, and of each of us. If we don’t know the answer by now, we just haven’t read the book; we just haven’t heard the Good News.