I’m pretty sure that we’ve all been asked this question. After all, it’s pretty common—whether you’re in school, talking with your friends about the latest Marvel movie, or participating in an icebreaker exercise at work, you’ve probably had to think about what superpower you’d pick.
Invisibility. Teleportation. Strength. Shapeshifting. Time travel. Or maybe your superpower is something else I haven’t listed. or maybe you’re actually Spiderman—I wouldn’t know.
And I think the thing that we love about superheroes is that they’re at their best when they stop hiding from whatever superpower they have, and start using it.
That’s always the best part of the movie, right?? When Thor or Wonderwoman or Dr. Strange suddenly realize that, oh, I know how to fix this. That their superpowers will actually make a difference.
So I want to suggest that the writer of today’s Psalm definitely had a superpower. And the key to this superpower is in verse nine, where they say that “Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him…”
“Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him…”
Surely. Surely is a weird word, right? It’s an adverb, which, means that it’s modifying the verb “to be”. The Psalmist is sure that God’s salvation IS. The Psalmist is sure that God’s salvation EXISTS.
Lexico describes surely as a word that is “used to emphasize the speaker’s firm belief that what they are saying is true and… their surprise that there is any doubt of this.” It means that you really believe what you’re saying is true.
Being sure is a superpower, and the Psalmist definitely has it. In the earlier part of Psalm 85 that we didn’t read today, they begin by reciting what God has done… to God!
“Lord, you were favorable to your land”
“You pardoned all their sin”
“Restore us again, O God of our salvation”
“Will you not revive us again?”
“Show us your steadfast love, and grant us your salvation”
God, you were awesome…. and you should do that again.
The Psalmist is so sure about who God is, and what God does, that they have the tenacity, the bravery, to demand that God make things good again.
“Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him”
“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet”
“The Lord will give what is good”
The Psalmist’s superpower is being sure about who God is, is knowing the TRUTH about God. That God has been good to us in the past, and that God CAN and WILL be good to us now, and in the future.
That’s a lot of confidence to have in God. So yes, it is a superpower, but I think that it’s a superpower that we can claim today.
When we have a really bad day in school, or a really bad week at work.
When our faith is more questions than answers.
When all we want to do is ask, with the Psalmist, “Will you be angry with us forever?” Will things ever go right?
Perhaps we can stop, and remember our superpower: maybe we don’t know for sure what will happen in the future, but we know the truth about who God has been for us in the past.
We can name the deeds of God, from creation to crucifixion to right now, and say that yes, Lord, “you were favorable to your land”. “SURELY his salvation is at hand”, and that SURELY “The Lord will give what is good”.
So next time you need a superpower, remember this: that you too know the truth about God.
That God is good, and “the Lord will give what is good” to his people, now and in the age to come. May this truth set us free to be doers and witnesses of Christ’s work in the world.
Preached on 2/20/20, on Psalm 85, for the Thursday Night Live Service at Virginia Theological Seminary
When I was in England a few weeks ago, I started watching a TV show that introduced me to a brand new world… the world of English gardening. It’s called “Small Spaces, Big Dreams”, and is hosted by Monty Don, who is so famous that he’s basically the Oprah of BBC gardening shows. The title sort of gives it away—in each episode, Monty coaches an ordinary person through designing their own garden in a tiny backyard or plot.
I’m pleased to say that after watching three whole seasons of this fantastic show, I’ve learned a few things.
First of all, it doesn’t matter how many resources you have. You’ve got to have a plan that’s realistic. You can’t plant desert plants in a swamp, and you can’t spend all your time digging—at some point, you’re going to have to put something in the ground and wait for it to grow.
Secondly, it’s probably going to work best if you’re friends with a few sturdy folks who don’t mind helping out with the planning or digging. Two, or four, or five, are better than one, right?
Thirdly, the amount of money that you pour into the garden won’t make a difference if you don’t have realistic plans and supportive friends. Money can only go so far towards making your garden personal and meaningful.
So in order to build your very own dream garden, we need three things: we need a plan, we need friends, and we need more meaning than money can supply.
Today’s Gospel is a hard one to hear. This part of the Sermon on the Mount, the one that we love to hear the beginning of: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek. But in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount actually continues on for three chapters, and includes today’s passage.
Jesus takes some of the Ten Commandments, and other parts of Jewish teaching at the time, and instead of saying that the commandments don’t matter, he says, that yes, they do matter, and here’s how to live into them.
There’s a common theme for how to go about living into these commandments. Not only is it about the ACTION that you do or don’t do, but it’s also about what you think.
Yes, don’t commit murder, but just walking around feeling like you want to murder someone isn’t good for you or that person either.
Offering a gift to God won’t be an adequate substitute for the work of making peace with my brother or sister or friend or enemy.
What Jesus says about the law is this: that the bare minimum is not okay. In order to live with each other, we have to do more than just check boxes. The work of following Christ requires us to be all in, not just operating on technicalities.
If God was a gardener, which our 1 Corinthians reading suggests, you might say that this ideal of how we live together in peace and dignity is, in fact, the master plan. It is the plan that God conceived for humanity in the Garden of Eden, when the world was still echoing God’s voice speaking it into being. It is the plan that Jesus wanted to tell a world that was and still is obsessed with technicalities. How little can we do, or how badly can we act, and it still be “legal”, or “moral”?
If you read the news these days, I’m not sure we’ve changed a whole lot. We still want to know how to be “good” with the least amount of effort. But the master plan is a bigger dream than that, a dream that imagines a future where we will be reconciled with each other, where we will live faithfully, where murder, and lawsuits and divorce won’t be necessary because we will have learned to see each other with God’s eyes.
I don’t know about you, but this master plan seems a bit daunting to me. On a good day, I can only remember even one of these instructions, and most of the time, Jesus’ teachings from our Gospel lesson don’t actually seem that helpful.
Take, for example the teaching on divorce.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
What do we do with that? How can we possibly follow a teaching that is far more suited for the original Biblical context, where men controlled the relationship, and where divorce would absolutely impoverish a woman? It seems to make sense in that context: Jesus is admonishing the men in the audience not to abuse their power in the relationship, to do more than the bare minimum.
But knowing that context doesn’t do much for us, does it? For a lot of us who have experienced divorce in the 21st century, it’s much more complicated than that.
When my parents were going through the divorce process, I remember feeling a profound sense of relief. Thank goodness they’ve finally realized that it’s not going to work. In my parents’ case, both of them did as much as they could to make it work. But sometimes, through unequal effort, abuse, or a multitude of other reasons, a relationship just doesn’t work. And perhaps you’ve experienced this in your own family, or with friends, where you realize that ultimately, the healthiest decision is to separate.
This takes us back to the second step for creating our dream garden—sometimes, we need to find a friend, or two, or five. And perhaps, the person that we started the journey with will not be the person to help us plant, or water or prune the garden. In the Gospel’s ideal world, we would spend the whole journey with the friend or partner we started with. But sometimes, the digging is too much. And so we need to find another friend, another community, another group of people to support us as we aspire to the ideal–God’s master plan.
And this brings us to the final piece of gardening advice in this sermon: that you can’t substitute money or possessions for the hard work that ultimately makes a garden beautiful and meaningful. As the gospel says, you can’t substitute a gift at the altar for reconciliation with others. You can’t let a judge decide how reconciliation will happen between you and a friend.
This is the world that we want to live in, where we reconcile with one another, where we prioritize our relationships with others over our money or success. This is the world that we commit to working towards every time we renew our baptismal vows, whenever we say that we will “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”.
And I love this honesty in the baptismal vows, because they don’t say that there is already justice and peace and respect among all people.
Instead, we promise to strive for it. We promise to start again and again whenever things don’t work out. We just promise to keep trying to work towards God’s master plan.
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul?… I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth….”
“For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” We are working in a great big garden, with a Gardener whose plan is bigger than ourselves, than our country, than our moment in human history. So, grab a friend, or two, or five, and let’s keep striving towards a more just, faithful, and peaceful world as we water our corner of this great big garden.
When I was a child, I spent a lot of time in the truck with my dad, driving to and fro as we did errands for the farm. I don’t remember much of what we actually talked about on those long drives, but one of the few things I remember is a question that only an eight year old would ask… one of those questions that those of you who are parents probably think about with dread.
“Dad”, I said, “if I was named something other than Amanda, would I still be me?”
If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me?
Now, I have no memory of what my dad said in response. It was probably some attempt to answer what is an actually an impossible question. (sorry, Dad)
If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me? If you didn’t have your name, would you still be you?
Names are important. Just think about that moment when you see the person who is dearest to you in the world after a long absence, that moment when they say your name: so full of joy, of love, of warmth. When someone we love says our name like that, it is a feeling, at least in my experience, that I’m fully known by that person. Speaking my name feels like an acknowledgement that they accept and love me for who I am.
And despite that old rhyme about sticks and stones, words hurt. Names can hurt. Anyone who’s ever been called a horrible nickname by a bully on the playground knows what it’s like to have someone mess with *who we are*, a little piece of ourselves, our identity.
Names matter. What we call people, matters. A name can be weaponized through anger, or it can become the most beautiful music when said by someone we love. Names matter in the Bible too—just a few weeks ago in Advent, we spent an entire Gospel lesson hearing names upon names upon names: Jesus’ genealogy.
Names matter. And so in Isaiah, we find God promising a new name to a sad and broken land.
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”
Isaiah is a book of the Bible where we find the Israelites struggling with their identity. They’ve been wandering away from God for so long that they don’t know how to be God’s people anymore. The readings from this book alternate between God expressing anger at Israel’s unfaithfulness on the one hand, and the promises God makes that say there will be hope and life at the end of all this war and evil.
And all of this promise, this hope for the future, is symbolized by a new name.
“you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give”
Isaiah is not the only reading this morning that talks about names. The gospel, that famous passage from the first chapter of John, is also about new names. In it, the Word of God, the son of God, takes on a new name.
“the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
The Word became flesh and took on a new name, the name of Jesus Christ.
Christ is, as Paul says, born under the law to redeem those under the law. Jesus Christ, born in a manger, the redeemer of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Calvary. Jesus Christ, who took on a new name so that you and I might know him, love him, and adore him.
So as I conclude, I’d like to return to the question that we started with:
If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me? If you didn’t have your name, would you still be you?
After reading today’s lessons, what I would tell my childhood self is this: the new name which you might be called to: a new vocation, a new orientation—a new way of following God in this world, is not changing your identity. I will still be me. You will still be you. The new name to which we are called is more “us” than we could even imagine.
A new name is the fulfillment of promises hoped for. God has already called us by a new name: his people. And perhaps when God calls us by a new name, (a new call, a new way of being in the world), we will recognize it as the fulfillment of everything we’ve ever hoped for—all of God’s promises to remake and redeem us—fulfilled in the Christ who took on a new name for all of us.
As we approach the beginning of the new year, may we remember that regardless of what resolution we take on, God is always calling us by a new name, drawing us ever closer to himself, and the promise of a world renewed. Will you answer?
At first, it is a drop of water. Out of the middle of nowhere, perhaps on your forehead, or on your dusty hand as you reach out to pull a weed from the dry soil. One drop. And then, in sixty seconds, another, and another, until for the first time, you see the grey soil variegated with brown.
A cool mist descends around you, and for the first time in weeks, months, you can see the world around you begin to take shape out of the settling dust. You… we… are soaked, and as the rains settle in, the whole earth seems to take a breath… in… out. The rain has finally come.
Being caught in unexpected rainfall is like the church’s entry to the season of Advent: we are alternatively exhausted, thirsty, relieved, and drenched by the sheer force of the new church year. And for many of us, it’s an excellent reminder that we maybe need to go inside and get a fresh change of clothes and a shower… perhaps literally, for those of us in the midst of finals… or figuratively, for ourselves and our congregations. Advent is a time of preparation, a time of examination.
And I’m going to make a generalizing statement that, in the church, we love preaching in Advent, because it’s a great opportunity to slip all of our cultural pet peeves into a sermon. Prepare for the coming of Christ! and shrug off your obsession with material objects! secular culture! capitalism! socialism! Black Friday! fast fashion!
So I would like to clarify that when I make the statement, in this Advent sermon, that we can be too easily distracted by the here and now, I’m not actually talking about these things.
Because calling out obvious and alluring pieces of secularism… that’s the here and now that’s culturally acceptable for us Episcopalians to condemn, isn’t it? Our own version of a culture war in Advent, ironically, to counter the war on Advent, as some of you fastidious advent-lovers occasionally imply.
But what about the here and now which is good? The work of the church? The feeding of the poor? Caring for the orphan and widow? Advocating for policies, and even politicians, who reflect those values? Caring for the environment? And whole host of important values, embedded in our tradition and in our Bible?
Perhaps we can too easily be distracted by the here and now, and even in these good works, here also be dragons:
In Isaiah 7, much earlier than our reading today, we have the famous exchange between Isaiah and King Ahaz. Ahaz is king of a petrified people, terrified of destruction by Aram and Ephraim. And Isaiah says, ask for a sign from God, that this destruction will not take place. Anything! Ask for anything as a sign.
And Ahaz, says no, I won’t test the Lord.
And we sort of smugly laugh at Ahaz now—obviously THAT was the wrong answer, right? Right?
I bet Ahaz had a to-do list. Distribute food to those in Jerusalem, set extra watch on the outlying cities, prepare to do some negotiating with Aram, maybe move the elderly inside the city walls for protection.
But I wonder what would have happened if he had stopped and asked for a sign.
Our to-do lists as a church are all well and good, so were Ahaz’s: necessary, important for the care of others. But if we do not know the holy vision which compels us to these things, then we are nothing more than agnostic, secular humanists.
Advent is not an invitation away from our cultural and political pet peeves, into our world-saving to-do list of good works. Advent… is not… an invitation at all.
Advent is Isaiah at our door, our window, our pulpit saying ASK for a sign from the Lord. Advent is one of those annoying prophets that makes us hold up our sacred idols—our holy to-do lists—against the purifying flame of God’s vision. Advent is John the Baptist, at the street corner with a microphone and posterboard screaming REPENT, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.
If we allow Advent to call us out of our complacency, then we will ask for a sign of God. We will give up the here and now—our ministry, vocation, and holiness as well as our sins and cultural ills—and we will TEST our actions and to-do lists against God’s purifying fire of repentance.
And so Advent asks us, to imagine ourselves, with everything that we think so important, so alive, so vibrant—as a desert. In a wilderness. Where the date palms that we thought so lush are just withered sticks against a grey sky.
If King Ahaz had asked for a sign, if we ask for a sign, this is, I think, the sign that he, and we might receive:
In the middle of the desolation of our works made brittle by the overwhelming, holy fire of God’s vision. In the wilderness of Isaiah 35. The sign comes upon us in a drop of rain. One drop, and then another, until the patchwork of sand and rock sputters into dark, fertile soil. Water, breaking through the topsoil, awakening the seeds that lie dormant within, until almost overnight, the once barren-land is filled with tiny shoots of green poking above the ground.
And standing there, soaked by the promise of this eschatological vision… that’s when we’ll hear it. Just one voice, and then, another. A familiar sound, like the echo of a memory, the voice of someone dearly loved and almost forgotten. And then another voice turns into a multitude, coming into view on the horizon, rising up from the ground like the shoots of green beneath your feet. “And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way… The redeemed shall walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing.” The great cloud of witnesses will overtake us like a torrent, a rush of holy floodwater, and suddenly, we will be caught up in that multitude, rushing toward the highway laid before us, further up and further into God’s Holy Way.
This is our sign. God’s vision of the future. The ultimate good that all of our good is working towards, if only we would open our eyes to see it.
Christ has come once, and with his body and blood, made a way where there was no way. And so in this Advent, may the rain of God’s holy vision for the future wash us and our work afresh, as we pray, come, Lord Jesus.