Monday, February 27, 2017

Preacher's Study - 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A

The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts on next Sunday’s sermon,
1st Sunday of Lent, Year A

John W. B. Hill and Angela Emerson

Genesis 2: 15 - 17; 3: 1 - 7;  
Psalm 32; 
Romans 5: 12 - 19;  
Matthew 4: 1 - 11

All three readings make use of mythological characters — in Genesis a talking serpent, in Romans a dominion named Death, and in Matthew the Devil incarnate.  This may seem a perilous form of communication, but it is an unavoidable necessity.  Biblical revelation entails naming the delusions that wield power over us and enslave us, alienating us from God and the ways of God.  The Bible makes the unseen visible through this mythological naming, enabling us to acknowledge and renounce the claim these powers have on us.

Lent summons us to search the dark places inside us, acknowledge the times we have given in to temptation, and face our sins — to name them, understand them, and seek forgiveness for them.  Only then can we be free from the terrible effect that sin has on our lives and on creation.

The forbidden tree in the Garden is not distinguished by its special attractiveness; all the trees are “pleasant to the sight and good for food” (2:9).  Adam or Eve had apparently never even thought of tasting the prohibited fruit until the serpent raised the issue.  The prohibition merely served as a reminder of human limitations and a warning against acquisitive desire.

However, the serpent’s question exaggerates the prohibition in order to stimulate resentment.  Clearly, Eve is infected by this innuendo, for she too exaggerates the prohibition. The serpent promises her that “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  What her eyes are ‘opened’ to, however, is seeing God as her rival.  Once Eve has been seduced by this suggestion of divine rivalry, her inevitable response will be to enter into this rivalry herself, abandoning her former trusting relationship with God.

This is a story, not about our biological ancestry, but about our cultural ancestry.  We are formed by a culture of rivalry.  We desire what others possess or desire.  What others possess tempts me to think that I am lacking something myself.  I begin to see myself through the eyes of others.  Eve did not know what it was to lack anything until she knew envy; then she forgot that her very being is the gift of a generous and loving Creator.

The temptations of Jesus constitute the second half of a larger account of the beginning of Jesus’ mission; the first half is the story of his baptism.  Both halves are intimately related (even though the lectionary separates them); the temptation is the inevitable outcome of the baptism.  But their separation suggests that each half introduces a distinct aspect of Jesus’ mission, and that each aspect is worthy of separate treatment.  Thus, the story of Jesus’ baptism launches the period following the Epiphany, while the story of his temptation launches the season of Lent.  The first aspect is Jesus’ manifestation of the coming Kingdom of God; the second is the developing resistance to that Kingdom (which he embodies), leading to his execution.  

The temptations of Jesus portray the essential conflict between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world which we will see developing through the subsequent Lenten gospel readings. 

In the story of his baptism we are introduced to the defining character of Jesus’ life: he is the Father’s Son, in whom the Father takes delight, the Son who delights to do the Father’s will.  He is the true ‘Adam’ who is content to know himself as he is known by the Father, the one on whom the Spirit rests like a dove, for he is the new creation risen from the flood.  Then, like ancient Israel, after passing through the waters, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil.

But Jesus is undaunted by the tempter’s insinuations (suggesting that God is not to be trusted).  If you are the Son of God,” begins the tempter, appealing to that deep sense of lack at the core of every human being.  But Jesus does not suffer such lack of being, for his life is rooted in his Father’s love, and his desires are formed by desiring what his Father desires.

The tempter suggests that Jesus not rely on God for bread, but use his own powers to get it; he suggests that Jesus not trust God’s support for his mission until he has tested that support — by throwing himself from the temple parapet; he suggests Jesus follow the tried and true methods for winning power rather than relying on God’s promise.  It is by resisting such insinuations that Jesus will become the bread of life, will become the temple of God’s people, will become the King of all earth’s kingdoms.

In the kingdoms of this world, it is often difficult to recognize the face of temptation.  If only the devil had a face, and could be recognized!  Sin is woven into the very fabric of the society in which we live, into its structures, politics, systems and values.  It can be extremely difficult to recognize sin when it is an accepted part of our everyday lives.  Jesus’ relation to his Father models for us the possibility of freedom from this pervasive power of sin.

Angela Emerson was a litigation lawyer in Toronto for 31 years; she left the practice in June, 2013 to have a saner lifestyle and pursue other interests.  Angela obtained her M.Div. from Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto in 2009.

John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada, author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice, council member of APLM, and chair of Liturgy Canada.

"Christ in the Wilderness,” by Briton Riviere, available at

"Temptation - Adam's Dilemma," by Hiroko Sakai, available at

“Father, Forgive Them,” by James B. Janknegt, available at

Preacher’s Study - Ash Wednesday

The Preacher’s Study

Ash Wednesday

John W.B. Hill                                                                                                  

Joel 2.1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58.1-12;
Psalm 103.8-18;
Psalm 51.1-17;
2 Cor. 5.20b – 6.10;
Matt. 6.1-6, 16-21.

It is worth keeping Lent’s special agenda in mind as we prepare to preach.  Lent originated as a season of testing for those preparing for baptism — testing whether they had the will to do the will of God — and candidates for baptism would be enrolled for this testing on the first Sunday of Lent.  The Gospel readings during Lent reveal how Jesus’ own commitment to do the will of his Father was tested by people’s resistance to him (including resistance from his own disciples!) 

But Lent also became a season of testing for those who had compromised their allegiance to Christ but were now seeking reconciliation with the company of disciples.  They too would be tested for their will to do the will of God; and they would be enrolled for this testing on Ash Wednesday.  The sign that marked their path to reconciliation was the sign of the cross which they had received in baptism, the sign which they now acknowledged had turned to ashes.

Today, however, Lent is a time for all Christians to follow this path to a new reconciliation, for we are all heirs of a profoundly compromised form of discipleship, our life’s habits scarcely distinguishable from those of the surrounding culture.  The reading from the prophet Joel addresses precisely this condition.

The Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount (together with the reading from the book of Isaiah, if that is chosen) addresses our sorry condition on another level: Jesus warns us that our religion itself can be a way of avoiding the will of God (and the prophet provides some examples of this phenomenon). 

What does it mean, then, to observe a holy Lent?  Is cultivating some healthy self-discipline by fasting, or becoming more pious, or joining a study group an acceptable substitute for “loosing the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke, and letting the oppressed go free?”  Or for “sharing our bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into our house, and clothing the naked” (Isaiah 58)? 

Thus the passionate entreaty in the reading from St Paul: “Be reconciled to God!  For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Our reconciliation with God consists in learning to follow the way of Jesus.

So what will our lives be like when we are reconciled to the Lord, who “is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness” (Psalm 103)?  Will our experience of discipleship begin to resemble the experience Paul describes (2 Corinthians 6)?

John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada. He is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Preacher’s Study – Year A, Transfiguration Sunday, 2017

The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon
(Transfiguration Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017)

D. Jay Koyle

Exodus 24.12-18
Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
2 Peter 1.16-21
Matthew 17.1-9

Taking note of Matthew’s placement of the Transfiguration in his gospel proclamation is key to preaching this Sunday. With compelling insight, Matthew situates the tale at the midpoint of his narrative, spaced nicely between Jesus’ baptism in the opening scenes and his Resurrection at the blockbuster finale.

Already, Jesus has been labeled as a blasphemer, subjected to intense criticism for his choice of table companions, nagged incessantly about his disciples’ failure to observe the law and traditions, accused of demon possession, and doubted by John the Baptist. Now, however, the momentum of Jesus’ trajectory to Golgotha is picking up speed, and he knows it. It is at this turbulent moment that Matthew directs our gaze upward to a high mountain, to a dazzling reminder of who Jesus is and a glimpse of what is to come.

Taking note of the timing of the Transfiguration story in Matthew’s narrative of Jesus is key to this Sunday’s pulpit proclamation. So is its recapitulation on the Sunday before Lent, its timing in the Church Year’s narrative about our life in Christ.

Contrary to what some may think, we don’t observe the days and seasons of the church calendar simply because it is a handy didactic tool. It’s not because it gives congregations a reason to change the decor in church from time to time. It’s not even because the calendar gives liturgists something to argue about.

No, we get swept up in the rhythms of the church year because it is a concrete expression that the days of our lives find their full identity and meaning in Jesus Christ.

There’s a wonderful saying you may have heard. It goes like this: "It is not so much that the Jews keep the Sabbath, but rather that the Sabbath keeps the Jews." Well, it’s not so much that we keep the church year, as it is the church year keeps us. This faith-filled marking of time is a piece of necessary memory work. It helps ensure that we don’t succumb to spiritual amnesia and forget that the story of Christ crucified and risen is our story – that is, the stories of our lives are immersed in his.

So just as Matthew sets the Transfiguration story right before Jesus turns his face toward his rendezvous with the Cross, providing a glimpse as to the true identity and destiny of God’s chosen and beloved one, Transfiguration Sunday provides for us a sneak peek into what awaits us on the other side of Lent so we may set upon the coming forty days as on opportunity to recover the identity that belongs to the baptized.

There are so many other identities foisted upon us that serve as poor substitutes for who we really are.

For pretty much all of us, a market-based society tells us all we’re nothing more than producers and consumers.

For far too many, nationalistic exceptionalism skews the distinction between country and Kingdom, asserting that citizenship in, and allegiance to the former are the same as with the latter.

For some of us, hurtful words of a loved one may have told us we were anything but beloved, leaving us to spend our nights and days trying in vain to prove our worth or to earn yearned-for affection.

For others, the independence we once so cherished is now held hostage by a debilitating condition, leaving us with the sense that we are no longer anything more than a burden to our family and friends.

In each of these situations, and many more, we lose sight of who we really are, as if our true identity has been snatched from us. Identity theft, it would seem, is not just a phenomenon of cyberspace costing individuals and society millions of dollars each year. Indeed, as tragic and scary as that may be, there’s an even more costly kind of identity theft, one that far too often befalls the church. It is the identity theft in which we fail to recognize ourselves as beloved of God, people whose life and meaning, vocation and mission are found in Jesus Christ. As my friend, colleague, and fellow APLM-blogger Amy McCreath has noted, the false and manufactured epiphanies of our world are relentless in trying to sell us false identities.

So, by passing through the Transfiguration story, we ready ourselves to traverse the terrain of Lent, making our trek to the Easter waters awaiting us at the Christian Passover. There we will discover anew our identity as those baptized into Christ and walk with vigorous step as people of the Resurrection.

Jay Koyle is president of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission. He serves as the chair of Faith, Worship, and Ministry for the Anglican Church of Canada.

This is a revision of an earlier post.

“Transfiguration” by Lewis Bowman is available through

“Communion of Saints” by Elise Ritter is available through