Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 20, 2019 (John 2:1-11), “Master of the Feast”

“The Wedding at Cana: Jesus Blesses the Water” (1641-1660), by Jan Cossiers (1600-1671), Saint Waldetrudis Church, Herentals, Belgium

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.


In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

The party had been going on for hours.  After fulfilling a number of formalities required to end their betrothal and finalize their marriage, the bridegroom had brought his bride into his home at Cana.  The dowry was paid and they would now seal their union with her entry into his house. All their friends and family were there to witness their marriage and celebrate it.  And celebrate they did! There was a banquet of rich foods, and the wine…well, the wine flowed like water. Everyone was partaking in the nuptial joy, and people were invited from far and wide.  There was music and dancing, games, flirtations, and merriment, laughter, and cheer.  The bride and groom and all their guests were looking forward to a week of wedding revelry.

Then, disaster struck.  A celebration that was meant to go on for a few days was going to draw to a premature end.  Someone–either the bridegroom himself or his caterer, the master of the feast— had made a miscalculation.  They were going to run out of wine!  The revelers had consumed almost all of it, and their reserves were dry.  No wineskins hidden off in some corner of the cellar. No old amphorae forgotten in a cabinet somewhere.  They were going to be out.  And how would that look to the guests?

Can you imagine how the master of the feast felt at this discovery?  This is first century Judea— you don’t not have enough wine at a wedding!  Providing refreshments for a wedding feast was an important way to show hospitality to family and friends and to make a good impression on all in attendance.  How could they have been so short-sighted? How could they have so royally messed this up? This was a huge faux pas, and would damage the reputation of the groom and his family.  What were they to do?

***

It often seems like we have everything figured out or squared away, that we are in control of our plans, that we are masters of our fate and captains of our souls.  That’s how we make plans, isn’t it?  We lay everything out and expect what we do to go according to our plan.  Follow the plan, and life will work out just as we desire it to.  Stick to the itinerary and your trip will go well. Follow the recipe and your dish will be perfect.  Set up everything just right, and your party will go off without a hitch. We’ve all been there. We all think this way.  We make plans, and very often, we put our trust in ourselves to carry them out. We’re like Clark Griswold, who just wants to give his family the best Christmas ever.  But very often, things don’t go according to plan, and if we didn’t make additional plans to deal with those snags in our execution — those squirrels in the Christmas tree, our cousin who shows up with his Winnebago in the front drive uninvited — then we’re up a creek without a paddle, and our machinations fall apart.

“Robert Burns Turning Up a Mouse in Her Nest, November 1785,” The Robert Burns Gallery

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft agley, / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / For promis’d joy!” writes the Scottish poet Robert Burns in his poem “To a Mouse.”  The success of our best-laid schemes is never given. There is no guarantee that they will come out the way we intend, and depending on the situation, they may not come out well for us at all.  It’s like the “Reset with Russia” that happened early on in the last presidency. The State Department made a little button, kind of like the famous Staples’ “easy button,” that Secretary Clinton and the Minister Lavrov could symbolically press to indicate a “reset” of relations with Russia.  It was only at the press conference where the button was unveiled, though, that a terrible mistake was uncovered. Minister Lavrov saw the button and laughed. The button didn’t say “reset” — it said “overcharge.” Someone didn’t check to make sure the Russian word on the button was correct! The State Department thought they had everything covered and had carried out their plan to a “t,” but someone trusted his or her ability with the Russian language a little more than they ought to have, and in the end, what was supposed to be a great diplomatic moment ended up making the American delegation look silly.

The Infamous “Overcharge” Button.
Meeting between Secretary Hillary Clinton and Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva, Switzerland, 2009.
U.S. Department of State.

And when we make plans, we tie our success or ability to adapt to changing circumstances to where we put our trust.  Very often we put our trust in ourselves to make our plans or schemes happen. But when we do this, when we see ourselves as the captains of our fate and masters of our souls, we forget that we aren’t actually in control.  God is, and when we forget that he’s the one who makes our life possible, literally the one from whom all blessings flow, from whom we receive all that we need “to sustain this body and life,” we make ourselves into little gods, and we sin against him.  And when our plans fail and things go poorly, we can be tempted to despair because all our faith has been in ourselves. Indeed, when we put our faith in ourselves to accomplish certain ends— even to do the will of God— we will be sorely disappointed. Our modern humanist tendency to make man the measure of all things causes us to ignore the God who made us and sustains us, and so in this, we sin.  The “promised joy” we set our sights on, like Burns’ mouse, is replaced with “grief an’ pain” when we make ourselves our own masters. Sinatra may have sung “I did it my way,” but when we do it our way, in our sin we find that our way generally leads to failure rather than success, and sometimes, to destruction.

***

“The Miracle at Cana” (1887), by Vladimir E. Makovsky (1846-1920), Vitebsk Regional Museum of Local Lore, Russia

Going back to the wedding at Cana, the feast was in jeopardy.  Where would they find enough wine for the guests at this hour? Was anyone really aware that the wine was out?  Suddenly, and miraculously, out of nowhere, more wine was found. 120-180 gallons worth, by modern estimates.  And unlike the lower-quality wine that you would usually serve at the end of the night when everyone was too far gone to really appreciate the finer vintages, this stuff was phenomenal.  It was even better than the really good wine that was served at the beginning of the feast. But where did it come from? The master of the feast didn’t know. Neither did the bridegroom, though I suppose he didn’t say anything about it.  After all, who would want to disavow great wine that appeared at your wedding as something you didn’t supply?

But there were some who did know from where this new wine came, and in such abundance.  Jesus had been invited, and Mary had asked him to help. He responded to her that he would deal with the problem in his own manner and in his own time.  When he told Mary, “what does this have to do with me? My time has not yet come,” Jesus wasn’t saying that he didn’t want to help, but that he would use the occasion for his own purpose, to demonstrate that he is the Lord of All.  And so he did. The servants were told to do whatever he told them to, and they heeded him. They poured water in the jars and it became the finest wine anyone had ever tasted. And in doing this, he gave the servants proof that he was no mere man, but in fact the Son of Man, the Messiah.  He gave them a sign, a “semeion.”

“The Wedding at Cana” (1870), by Carl Bloch (1834-1890), Det Nationalhistoriske Museum på Frederiksborg Slott, Danmark

That is why Jesus performs signs according to John in his Gospel— so that those who see and hear about them may know that he indeed is the Christ, the one who conquers sin, death, and the grave.  Signs like this attest to Christ’s being the true Master, and not just the Master of the Feast (because at Cana he helps the master of the feast save face by doing his job), but the Master of All Things.  He is the source, the one through whom all things were made, and from whom all things come. He is the one who gives all people value in the sight of God, upon whom all people rely for the promise of life.  This miracle of the 180 gallons of wine is more than just a miracle pointing to who Christ is: it points to the fact that Jesus is the one upon whom all people should rely and in whom all people should put their trust.  Those disciples who saw this sign and believed in him accordingly received the promise of everlasting life.

When the servants listened to to Mary and did whatever Christ told them to do, they were trusting in him. It was an act of trust on their part because they didn’t know what he was going to tell them to do or knew who he necessarily was. He could have told them to do any number of crazy things— perhaps making some sort of concoction of dirt with toads and bats wings— or just told them to run down to the wine merchants’ or go over to a neighboring vintner to pick up more wineskins.  But by trusting in Jesus and listening to him, they ended up receiving an immeasurably greater solution to the problem than anyone could have imagined. It was better than what anyone may have thought the feast needed. Indeed, for those who saw and believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the promise that accompanied this faith was far better than anything they had ever received in their lives. And so it is with us in our walk with Christ.

***

When we trust Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we realize that we receive everything from him.  We receive eternal life and forgiveness of sins. We receive forgiveness for the times that we forget him and what he has done for us, when we forget that he is truly the Lord of All.  And we are able to trust him to be our Lord, who cares for us and gives us what we need. And when we trust in Christ because he has saved us, we can confidently approach God our Father in any situation and ask him for anything we need.  In fact, he wants us to do this— when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking him for those things that we need and that his will will be done.  God may not always give us what we want, but he does give us what we need and what is best for us, and what he gives is us always better than what we, in our limited human experience, can imagine.  His will for us, after all, is that we live with him forever in perfect harmony, and nothing we can think of even compares to that. That is what he has promised to give us in addition to what we need in our daily life.

So in your own life, in your own plans, remember what Christ has done for you and how he has given you all you have, and has made you and all that you are.  Remember that he is not just the true master of the wedding feast at Cana. He is the master of your life as well, and he will use your life to further his kingdom and bring you to himself as he sees fit and in his own time.  So do not be afraid to ask him to bless your work. Do not be afraid to ask him what you should do. Do not be afraid to pray for his guidance. He wants you to. You are his by faith and in baptism, and he will provide for you, even if your plans fail.  For our Lord is the master of all. There is no need to despair when things go wrong, when our own strength is not enough to achieve the desired results that we want. Our Lord is in control. His plans never fail, and he will bring you to join with him in his ultimate victory on the last day.  On that day, we shall be partakers in a feast greater than that at any earthly wedding, when Christ will rejoice over his bride, the church, and delight in her. Amen.


Albert Jay Nock, “Isaiah’s Job” (1936)

Albert Jay Nock

Albert Jay Nock originally published this essay in The Atlantic Monthly in 1936, and it has seen a lot of republishing in libertarian circles online in recent years. Its use by libertarian critics aside, Nock’s insights have given me a lot to think about with regard to evangelism and how one goes about doing it, and what one’s motivations are. The following paragraph sticks out to me because it challenges many of our modern assumptions about the job of the evangelist, but you had best read the whole essay to get the full force of what Nock says:

If a prophet were not too particular about making money out of his mission or getting a dubious sort of notoriety out of it, the foregoing considerations would lead one to say that serving the Remnant looks like a good job. An assignment that you can really put your back into, and do your best without thinking about results, is a real job; whereas serving the masses is at best only half a job, considering the inexorable conditions that the masses impose upon their servants. They ask you to give them what they want, they insist upon it, and will take nothing else; and following their whims, their irrational changes of fancy, their hot and cold fits, is a tedious business, to say nothing of the fact that what they want at any time makes very little call on one’s resources of prophesy. The Remnant, on the other hand, want only the best you have, whatever that may be. Give them that, and they are satisfied; you have nothing more to worry about.


ISAIAH’S JOB
Albert Jay Nock
I

One evening last autumn, I sat long hours with a European acquaintance while he expounded a political-economic doctrine which seemed sound as a nut and in which I could find no defect. At the end, he said with great earnestness: “I have a mission to the masses. I feel that I am called to get the ear of the people. I shall devote the rest of my life to spreading my doctrine far and wide among the population. What do you think?”

An embarrassing question in any case, and doubly so under the circumstances, because my acquaintance is a very learned man, one of the three or four really first-class minds that Europe produced in his generation; and naturally I, as one of the unlearned, was inclined to regard his lightest word with reverence amounting to awe. Still, I reflected, even the greatest mind can not possibly know everything, and I was pretty sure he had not had my opportunities for observing the masses of mankind, and that therefore I probably knew them better than he did. So I mustered courage to say that he had no such mission and would do well to get the idea out of his head at once; he would find that the masses would not care two pins for his doctrine, and still less for himself, since in such circumstances the popular favourite is generally some Barabbas. I even went so far as to say (he is a Jew) that his idea seemed to show that he was not very well up on his own native literature. He smiled at my jest, and asked what I meant by it; and I referred him to the story of the prophet Isaiah.


“Isaiah” (c. 1896-1902), James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902) , The Jewish Museum, New York

It occurred to me then that this story is much worth recalling just now when so many wise men and soothsayers appear to be burdened with a message to the masses. Dr. Townsend has a message, Father Coughlin has one, Mr. Upton Sinclair, Mr. Lippmann, Mr. Chase and the planned economy brethren, Mr. Tugwell and the New Dealers, Mr. Smith and Liberty Leaguers – the list is endless. I can not remember a time when so many energumens were so variously proclaiming the Word to the multitude and telling them what they must do to be saved. This being so, it occurred to me, as I say, that the story of Isaiah might have something in it to steady and compose the human spirit until this tyranny of windiness is overpast. I shall paraphrase the story in our common speech, since it has to be pieced out from various sources; and inasmuch as respectable scholars have thought fit to put out a whole new version of the Bible in the American vernacular, I shall take shelter behind them, if need be, against the charge of dealing irreverently with the Sacred Scriptures.

The prophet’s career began at the end of King Uzziah’s reign, say about 740 B.C. This reign was uncommonly long, almost half a century, and apparently prosperous. It was one of those prosperous reigns, however – like the reign of Marcus Aurelius at Rome, or the administration of Eubulus at Athens, or of Mr. Coolidge at Washington – where at the end the prosperity suddenly peters out and things go by the board with a resounding crash.

In the year of Uzziah’s death, the Lord commissioned the prophet to go out and warn the people of the wrath to come. “Tell them what a worthless lot they are.” He said, “Tell them what is wrong, and why and what is going to happen unless they have a change of heart and straighten up. Don’t mince matters. Make it clear that they are positively down to their last chance. Give it to them good and strong and keep on giving it to them. I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you,” He added, “that it won’t do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you and the masses will not even listen. They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life.”

Isaiah had been very willing to take on the job – in fact, he had asked for it – but the prospect put a new face on the situation. It raised the obvious question: Why, if all that were so – if the enterprise were to be a failure from the start – was there any sense in starting it? “Ah,” the Lord said, “you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.”

II

Apparently, then, if the Lord’s word is good for anything – I do not offer any opinion about that, – the only element in Judean society that was particularly worth bothering about was the Remnant. Isaiah seems finally to have got it through his head that this was the case; that nothing was to be expected from the masses, but that if anything substantial were ever to be done in Judea, the Remnant would have to do it. This is a very striking and suggestive idea; but before going on to explore it, we need to be quite clear about our terms. What do we mean by the masses, and what by the Remnant?

As the word masses is commonly used, it suggests agglomerations of poor and underprivileged people, labouring people, proletarians, and it means nothing like that; it means simply the majority. The mass-man is one who has neither the force of intellect to apprehend the principles issuing in what we know as the humane life, nor the force of character to adhere to those principles steadily and strictly as laws of conduct; and because such people make up the great and overwhelming majority of mankind, they are called collectively the masses. The line of differentiation between the masses and the Remnant is set invariably by quality, not by circumstance. The Remnant are those who by force of intellect are able to apprehend these principles, and by force of character are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them. The masses are those who are unable to do either.

A more modern “mass man.”

The picture which Isaiah presents of the Judean masses is most unfavorable. In his view, the mass-man – be he high or be he lowly, rich or poor, prince or pauper – gets off very badly. He appears as not only weak-minded and weak-willed, but as by consequence knavish, arrogant, grasping, dissipated, unprincipled, unscrupulous. The mass-woman also gets off badly, as sharing all the mass-man’s untoward qualities, and contributing a few of her own in the way of vanity and laziness, extravagance and foible. The list of luxury-products that she patronized is interesting; it calls to mind the women’s page of a Sunday newspaper in 1928, or the display set forth in one of our professedly “smart” periodicals. In another place, Isaiah even recalls the affectations that we used to know by the name “flapper gait” and the “debutante slouch.” It may be fair to discount Isaiah’s vivacity a little for prophetic fervour; after all, since his real job was not to convert the masses but to brace and reassure the Remnant, he probably felt that he might lay it on indiscriminately and as thick as he liked – in fact, that he was expected to do so. But even so, the Judean mass-man must have been a most objectionable individual, and the mass-woman utterly odious.

If the modern spirit, whatever that may be, is disinclined towards taking the Lord’s word at its face value (as I hear is the case), we may observe that Isaiah’s testimony to the character of the masses has strong collateral support from respectable Gentile authority. Plato lived into the administration of Eubulus, when Athens was at the peak of its jazz-and-paper era, and he speaks of the Athenian masses with all Isaiah’s fervency, even comparing them to a herd of ravenous wild beasts. Curiously, too, he applies Isaiah’s own word remnant to the worthier portion of Athenian society; “there is but a very small remnant,” he says, of those who possess a saving force of intellect and force of character – too small, preciously as to Judea, to be of any avail against the ignorant and vicious preponderance of the masses.

But Isaiah was a preacher and Plato a philosopher; and we tend to regard preachers and philosophers rather as passive observers of the drama of life than as active participants. Hence in a matter of this kind their judgment might be suspected of being a little uncompromising, a little acrid, or as the French say, saugrenu. We may therefore bring forward another witness who was preeminently a man of affairs, and whose judgment can not lie under this suspicion. Marcus Aurelius was ruler of the greatest of empires, and in that capacity he not only had the Roman mass-man under observation, but he had him on his hands twenty-four hours a day for eighteen years. What he did not know about him was not worth knowing and what he thought of him is abundantly attested on almost every page of the little book of jottings which he scribbled offhand from day to day, and which he meant for no eye but his own ever to see.

This view of the masses is the one that we find prevailing at large among the ancient authorities whose writings have come down to us. In the eighteenth century, however, certain European philosophers spread the notion that the mass-man, in his natural state, is not at all the kind of person that earlier authorities made him out to be, but on the contrary, that he is a worthy object of interest. His untowardness is the effect of environment, an effect for which “society” is somehow responsible. If only his environment permitted him to live according to his lights, he would undoubtedly show himself to be quite a fellow; and the best way to secure a more favourable environment for him would be to let him arrange it for himself. The French Revolution acted powerfully as a springboard for this idea, projecting its influence in all directions throughout Europe.

On this side of the ocean a whole new continent stood ready for a large-scale experiment with this theory. It afforded every conceivable resource whereby the masses might develop a civilization made in their own likeness and after their own image. There was no force of tradition to disturb them in their preponderance, or to check them in a thoroughgoing disparagement of the Remnant. Immense natural wealth, unquestioned predominance, virtual isolation, freedom from external interference and the fear of it, and, finally, a century and a half of time – such are the advantages which the mass-man has had in bringing forth a civilization which should set the earlier preachers and philosophers at naught in their belief that nothing substantial can be expected from the masses, but only from the Remnant.

His success is unimpressive. On the evidence so far presented one must say, I think, that the mass-man’s conception of what life has to offer, and his choice of what to ask from life, seem now to be pretty well what they were in the times of Isaiah and Plato; and so too seem the catastrophic social conflicts and convulsions in which his views of life and his demands on life involve him. I do not wish to dwell on this, however, but merely to observe that the monstrously inflated importance of the masses has apparently put all thought of a possible mission to the Remnant out of the modern prophet’s head. This is obviously quite as it should be, provided that the earlier preachers and philosophers were actually wrong, and that all final hope of the human race is actually centred in the masses. If, on the other hand, it should turn out that the Lord and Isaiah and Plato and Marcus Aurelius were right in their estimate of the relative social value of the masses and the Remnant, the case is somewhat different. Moreover, since with everything in their favour the masses have so far given such an extremely discouraging account of themselves, it would seem that the question at issue between these two bodies of opinion might most profitably be reopened.

III

But without following up this suggestion, I wish only, as I said, to remark the fact that as things now stand Isaiah’s job seems rather to go begging. Everyone with a message nowadays is, like my venerable European friend, eager to take it to the masses. His first, last and only thought is of mass-acceptance and mass-approval. His great care is to put his doctrine in such shape as will capture the masses’ attention and interest. This attitude towards the masses is so exclusive, so devout, that one is reminded of the troglodytic monster described by Plato, and the assiduous crowd at the entrance to its cave, trying obsequiously to placate it and win its favour, trying to interpret its inarticulate noises, trying to find out what it wants, and eagerly offering it all sorts of things that they think might strike its fancy.

But without following up this suggestion, I wish only, as I said, to remark the fact that as things now stand Isaiah’s job seems rather to go begging. Everyone with a message nowadays is, like my venerable European friend, eager to take it to the masses. His first, last and only thought is of mass-acceptance and mass-approval. His great care is to put his doctrine in such shape as will capture the masses’ attention and interest. This attitude towards the masses is so exclusive, so devout, that one is reminded of the troglodytic monster described by Plato, and the assiduous crowd at the entrance to its cave, trying obsequiously to placate it and win its favour, trying to interpret its inarticulate noises, trying to find out what it wants, and eagerly offering it all sorts of things that they think might strike its fancy.

The main trouble with all this is its reaction upon the mission itself. It necessitates an opportunist sophistication of one’s doctrine, which profoundly alters its character and reduces it to a mere placebo. If, say, you are a preacher, you wish to attract as large a congregation as you can, which means an appeal to the masses; and this, in turn, means adapting the terms of your message to the order of intellect and character that the masses exhibit. If you are an educator, say with a college on your hands, you wish to get as many students as possible, and you whittle down your requirements accordingly. If a writer, you aim at getting many readers; if a publisher, many purchasers; if a philosopher, many disciples; if a reformer, many converts; if a musician, many auditors; and so on. But as we see on all sides, in the realization of these several desires, the prophetic message is so heavily adulterated with trivialities, in every instance, that its effect on the masses is merely to harden them in their sins. Meanwhile, the Remnant, aware of this adulteration and of the desires that prompt it, turn their backs on the prophet and will have nothing to do with him or his message.

Isaiah, on the other hand, worked under no such disabilities. He preached to the masses only in the sense that he preached publicly. Anyone who liked might listen; anyone who liked might pass by. He knew that the Remnant would listen; and knowing also that nothing was to be expected of the masses under any circumstances, he made no specific appeal to them, did not accommodate his message to their measure in any way, and did not care two straws whether they heeded it or not. As a modern publisher might put it, he was not worrying about circulation or about advertising. Hence, with all such obsessions quite out of the way, he was in a position to do his level best, without fear or favour, and answerable only to his august Boss.

If a prophet were not too particular about making money out of his mission or getting a dubious sort of notoriety out of it, the foregoing considerations would lead one to say that serving the Remnant looks like a good job. An assignment that you can really put your back into, and do your best without thinking about results, is a real job; whereas serving the masses is at best only half a job, considering the inexorable conditions that the masses impose upon their servants. They ask you to give them what they want, they insist upon it, and will take nothing else; and following their whims, their irrational changes of fancy, their hot and cold fits, is a tedious business, to say nothing of the fact that what they want at any time makes very little call on one’s resources of prophesy. The Remnant, on the other hand, want only the best you have, whatever that may be. Give them that, and they are satisfied; you have nothing more to worry about. The prophet of the American masses must aim consciously at the lowest common denominator of intellect, taste and character among 120,000,000 people; and this is a distressing task. The prophet of the Remnant, on the contrary, is in the enviable position of Papa Haydn in the household of Prince Esterhazy. All Haydn had to do was keep forking out the very best music he knew how to produce, knowing it would be understood and appreciated by those for whom he produced it, and caring not a button what anyone else thought of it; and that makes a good job.

In a sense, nevertheless, as I have said, it is not a rewarding job. If you can tough the fancy of the masses, and have the sagacity to keep always one jump ahead of their vagaries and vacillations, you can get good returns in money from serving the masses, and good returns also in a mouth-to-ear type of notoriety:

Digito monstrari et dicier, Hic est!

We all know innumerable politicians, journalists, dramatists, novelists and the like, who have done extremely well by themselves in these ways. Taking care of the Remnant, on the contrary, holds little promise of any such rewards. A prophet of the Remnant will not grow purse-proud on the financial returns from his work, nor is it likely that he will get any great renown out of it. Isaiah’s case was exceptional to this second rule, and there are others, but not many.

It may be thought, then, that while taking care of the Remnant is no doubt a good job, it is not an especially interesting job because it is as a rule so poorly paid. I have my doubts about this. There are other compensations to be got out of a job besides money and notoriety, and some of them seem substantial enough to be attractive. Many jobs which do not pay well are yet profoundly interesting, as, for instance, the job of research student in the sciences is said to be; and the job of looking after the Remnant seems to me, as I have surveyed it for many years from my seat in the grandstand, to be as interesting as any that can be found in the world.

IV

What chiefly makes it so, I think, is that in any given society the Remnant are always so largely an unknown quantity. You do not know, and will never know, more than two things about them. You can be sure of those – dead sure, as our phrase is – but you will never be able to make even a respectable guess at anything else. You do not know, and will never know, who the Remnant are, nor what they are doing or will do. Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness; and this, I should say, is just the condition calculated most effectively to pique the interest of any prophet who is properly gifted with the imagination, insight and intellectual curiosity necessary to a successful pursuit of his trade.

The fascination and the despair of the historian, as he looks back upon Isaiah’s Jewry, upon Plato’s Athens, or upon Rome of the Antonines, is the hope of discovering and laying bare the “substratum of right-thinking and well-doing” which he knows must have existed somewhere in those societies because no kind of collective life can possibly go on without it. He finds tantalizing intimations of it here and there in many places, as in the Greek Anthology, in the scrapbook of Aulus Gellius, in the poems of Ausonius, and in the brief and touching tribute, Bene merenti, bestowed upon the unknown occupants of Roman tombs. But these are vague and fragmentary; they lead him nowhere in his search for some kind of measure on this substratum, but merely testify to what he already knew a priori – that the substratum did somewhere exist. Where it was, how substantial it was, what its power of self-assertion and resistance was – of all this they tell him nothing.

Similarly, when the historian of two thousand years hence, or two hundred years, looks over the available testimony to the quality of our civilization and tries to get any kind of clear, competent evidence concerning the substratum of right-thinking and well-doing which he knows must have been here, he will have a devil of a time finding it. When he has assembled all he can and has made even a minimum allowance for speciousness, vagueness, and confusion of motive, he will sadly acknowledge that his net result is simply nothing. A Remnant were here, building a substratum like coral insects; so much he knows, but he will find nothing to put him on the track of who and where and how many they were and what their work was like.

Concerning all this, too, the prophet of the present knows precisely as much and as little as the historian of the future; and that, I repeat, is what makes his job seem to me so profoundly interesting. One of the most suggestive episodes recounted in the Bible is that of a prophet’s attempt – the only attempt of the kind on the record, I believe – to count up the Remnant. Elijah had fled from persecution into the desert, where the Lord presently overhauled him and asked what he was doing so far away from his job. He said that he was running away, not because he was a coward, but because all the Remnant had been killed off except himself. He had got away only by the skin of his teeth, and, he being now all the Remnant there was, if he were killed the True Faith would go flat. The Lord replied that he need not worry about that, for even without him the True Faith could probably manage to squeeze along somehow if it had to; “and as for your figures on the Remnant,” He said, “I don’t mind telling you that there are seven thousand of them back there in Israel whom it seems you have not heard of, but you may take My word for it that there they are.”

At that time, probably the population of Israel could not run to much more than a million or so; and a Remnant of seven thousand out of a million is a highly encouraging percentage for any prophet. With seven thousand of the boys on his side, there was no great reason for Elijah to feel lonesome; and incidentally, that would be something for the modern prophet of the Remnant to think of when he has a touch of the blues. But the main point is that if Elijah the Prophet could not make a closer guess on the number of the Remnant than he made when he missed it by seven thousand, anyone else who tackled the problem would only waste his time.

The other certainty which the prophet of the Remnant may always have is that the Remnant will find him. He may rely on that with absolute assurance. They will find him without his doing anything about it; in fact, if he tries to do anything about it, he is pretty sure to put them off. He does not need to advertise for them nor resort to any schemes of publicity to get their attention. If he is a preacher or a public speaker, for example, he may be quite indifferent to going on show at receptions, getting his picture printed in the newspapers, or furnishing autobiographical material for publication on the side of “human interest.” If a writer, he need not make a point of attending any pink teas, autographing books at wholesale, nor entering into any specious freemasonry with reviewers. All this and much more of the same order lies in the regular and necessary routine laid down for the prophet of the masses; it is, and must be, part of the great general technique of getting the mass-man’s ear – or as our vigorous and excellent publicist, Mr. H. L. Mencken, puts it, the technique of boob-bumping. The prophet of the Remnant is not bound to this technique. He may be quite sure that the Remnant will make their own way to him without any adventitious aids; and not only so, but if they find him employing any such aids, as I said, it is ten to one that they will smell a rat in them and will sheer off.

The certainty that the Remnant will find him, however, leaves the prophet as much in the dark as ever, as helpless as ever in the matter of putting any estimate of any kind upon the Remnant; for, as appears in the case of Elijah, he remains ignorant of who they are that have found him or where they are or how many. They did not write in and tell him about it, after the manner of those who admire the vedettes of Hollywood, nor yet do they seek him out and attach themselves to his person. They are not that kind. They take his message much as drivers take the directions on a roadside signboard – that is, with very little thought about the signboard, beyond being gratefully glad that it happened to be there, but with every thought about the directions.

This impersonal attitude of the Remnant wonderfully enhances the interest of the imaginative prophet’s job. Once in a while, just about often enough to keep his intellectual curiosity in good working order, he will quite accidentally come upon some distinct reflection of his own message in an unsuspected quarter. This enables him to entertain himself in his leisure moments with agreeable speculations about the course his message may have taken in reaching that particular quarter, and about what came of it after it got there. Most interesting of all are those instances, if one could only run them down (but one may always speculate about them), where the recipient himself no longer knows where nor when nor from whom he got the message – or even where, as sometimes happens, he has forgotten that he got it anywhere and imagines that it is all a self-sprung idea of his own.

Such instances as these are probably not infrequent, for, without presuming to enroll ourselves among the Remnant, we can all no doubt remember having found ourselves suddenly under the influence of an idea, the source of which we cannot possibly identify. “It came to us afterward,” as we say; that is, we are aware of it only after it has shot up full-grown in our minds, leaving us quite ignorant of how and when and by what agency it was planted there and left to germinate. It seems highly probable that the prophet’s message often takes some such course with the Remnant.

If, for example, you are a writer or a speaker or a preacher, you put forth an idea which lodges in the Unbewußtsein of a casual member of the Remnant and sticks fast there. For some time it is inert; then it begins to fret and fester until presently it invades the man’s conscious mind and, as one might say, corrupts it. Meanwhile, he has quite forgotten how he came by the idea in the first instance, and even perhaps thinks he has invented it; and in those circumstances, the most interesting thing of all is that you never know what the pressure of that idea will make him do.

For these reasons it appears to me that Isaiah’s job is not only good but also extremely interesting; and especially so at the present time when nobody is doing it. If I were young and had the notion of embarking in the prophetical line, I would certainly take up this branch of the business; and therefore I have no hesitation about recommending it as a career for anyone in that position. It offers an open field, with no competition; our civilization so completely neglects and disallows the Remnant that anyone going in with an eye single to their service might pretty well count on getting all the trade there is.

Even assuming that there is some social salvage to be screened out of the masses, even assuming that the testimony of history to their social value is a little too sweeping, that it depresses hopelessness a little too far, one must yet perceive, I think, that the masses have prophets enough and to spare. Even admitting that in the teeth of history that hope of the human race may not be quite exclusively centred in the Remnant, one must perceive that they have social value enough to entitle them to some measure of prophetic encouragement and consolation, and that our civilization allows them none whatever. Every prophetic voice is addressed to the masses, and to them alone; the voice of the pulpit, the voice of education, the voice of politics, of literature, drama, journalism – all these are directed towards the masses exclusively, and they marshal the masses in the way that they are going.

One might suggest, therefore, that aspiring prophetical talent may well turn to another field. Sat patriae Priamoque datum – whatever obligation of the kind may be due the masses is already monstrously overpaid. So long as the masses are taking up the tabernacle of Moloch and Chiun, their images, and following the star of their god Buncombe, they will have no lack of prophets to point the way that leadeth to the More Abundant Life; and hence a few of those who feel the prophetic afflatus might do better to apply themselves to serving the Remnant. It is a good job, an interesting job, much more interesting than serving the masses; and moreover it is the only job in our whole civilization, as far as I know, that offers a virgin field.

Gaudete! Festum Asinorum!

“Toppling of the Pagan Idols (The Flight into Egypt): Isaiah 19:1, Pseudo-Matthew 22-23” (1423) by the Bedford Master

January 14 marks the old medieval “Feast of Asses” (“Festum Asinorum“), now an obscure and abandoned observance that, among other things, commemorated the flight into Egypt. It was part of the greater medieval Feast of Fools, which fell out of observance by the 15th Century. But it did give us a particular carol tune that you will no-doubt recognize, “Orientis Partibus“:

The Latin lyrics (while not quite the same as those in the above videos–kind of a conglomeration of the two) are as below. I offer a somewhat free translation from the Latin on my part (with thanks to the resources linked at The Hymns and Carols of Christmas for inspiration):

Orientis partibus
adventavit asinus,
pulcher et fortissimus,
Sarcinis aptissimus.

     Hez, Sir Asnes, hez!

Hic in collibus Sychen
iam nutritus sub Ruben
transiit per Jordanem
saliit in Bethlehem

Saltu vincit hinnulos
damas et capreolos
super dromedarios
velox madianeos

Aurum de Arabia
thus et myrrham de Saba
tulit in ecclesia
virtus asinaria

Dum trahit vehicula
multa cum sarcinula
illius mandibula
dura terit pabula

Cum aristis, hordeum
comedit et carduum
triticum ex palea
segregat in area

Amen dicas, asine
Iam satur ex gramine
amen, amen itera
aspernare vetera
From Eastern parts
A donkey came,
Strongest and handsome,
Best for burdens.

Hey, Sir Ass, hey!

Here among the hills of Schechem
Now nursed below the Red Sea,
He went across the Jordan,
Bounded into Bethlehem.

In leaping, he beats the mules,
Fallow deer, and roes.
He is above the camels,
The swift Median camels.

Gold from Arabia,
Incense and myrrh from Saba,
Donkey-strength
brought among the congregation.

While he drags carts
With many a little bundle,
This donkey’s jaws
Grind tough food.

He devours barley,
awns-and-all, and thistles;
He separates the wheat from the chaff
On the threshing floor.

Say amen, Ass,
Now full of grass!
Amen, amen, again
To spurn old things.

Read more about the Feast of Asses here!

Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019 (Matthew 2:1-12), “The Gift to the Magi”

“The Journey of the Magi” (1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902), Minneapolis Museum of Art

Originally Preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Epiphany is here!  Do you know what that means?  Not only does it mean that we’re now in a new season of the church year, it means that we can finally acknowledge the arrival of the Three Wise Men who have been hanging out in the background of our Nativity scenes for the last few weeks.  We no longer have to pretend that they aren’t actually there yet. Now Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar can give the Baby Jesus their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, pay him homage, and leave without telling Herod that they’ve found the King of the Jews.  And after today, they’re gone from the Gospel narrative, almost as swiftly as they came, returning to parts unknown.

NARA Poster featuring the Magi (1941-1945), Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services (National Archives)

We make a lot out of the visit of the Magi, as short and as quick as it is.  We get our tradition of giving one-another gifts at Christmas from our remembrance of their bringing gifts to the infant Christ.  We have stories and songs inspired by them and their example— think of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Journey of the Magi,” or John Henry Hopkins’ carol, “We Three Kings (of Orient Are).”  And some of the images associated with Epiphany have bled into what are ostensibly Christmas hymns and carols. The one that comes to my mind is the beautiful and contemplative (and far more English than Judaean!) poem by the nineteenth century Italian-English poet, Christina Rossetti, which has become a staple of Lessons and Carols services: that poem titled, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

If you know the poem, you know that the poem is largely a description of the setting in which the Christ child is born.  Rossetti describes the weather, the stable, the animals, the baby Jesus at his mother’s breast, the immensity of the miracle of his incarnation.  But the final verse is interesting, because Rossetti touches upon an all too human impulse in what she writes. She says,

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my Part;
Yet what can I give Him: give my heart.

Christina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter” (1872)

Rossetti’s persona in this poem, moved by the whole scene, wants to do something for the infant Jesus.  She wants to give him something, anything, and she cites the Magi: “If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part.”  But what this poem gets wrong, which the Biblical Magi and many of us get wrong as well, is that Jesus is not the sort of king we do something for.  Instead, he is a King who does something— everything— for us.

But first, who were the Magi, the “Wise Men?”  Nobody knows who they were or where they came from.  We don’t even know their names— the names we traditionally associate with them, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar, all come from a sixth century Greek work that was translated into Latin and titled The Latin Excerpts of the Barbarians.  We often think they might be Persian because the “magi” existed as a specific class of priests among the adherents of Zoroastrianism according to Greek writers.  Among the Greeks, the Magi had come to be seen as something like sorcerers or magicians by the time of Jesus’ birth, but these ones seem to have been skilled in astrology, hence why we tend to call them the “wise men.”  We also don’t know how many of them there were, but tradition often numbers them as three, and they may not have necessarily been Persian. One Armenian tradition holds that each of the Magi came from a different place, one from Persia, one from Arabia, and one from India.  If you’ve read Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, you might remember that the opening of the novel begins with the meeting of the Magi, but for Wallace, they’re an Arab, a Hindustani, and a Greek.  An 8th-Century Syriac text titled “The Revelation of the Magi,” which purports to have been written by them and may actually date to the second century (it is hard to say), says that there were twelve of them and that they came from a far-off land called Shir, which some scholars believe may actually be in modern-day China.  But in any respect, we don’t really know anything about them, apart from the fact that they show up in Jerusalem looking for the newborn King of the Jews and tip off Herod to a potential threat to his bloody regime.

“Die heiligen drei Könige,” Piotr Stachiewicz (1858-1938), in Die Kunst für alle: Malerei, Plastik, Graphik, Architektur 24 (1908-1909), Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

The gifts brought by the Magi also seem strange to us.  Who brings gold and incense to a baby? Probably better to bring Jesus and his family a smoked ham like the Herdman boys do in Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever— aside from their being observant Jews, at least the family can eat it.  But in antiquity, gold, frankincense, and myrrh were truly kingly gifts. Gold is obvious— it was the base for the ancient economy and of great value for both its monetary use as well as its ability to be fashioned into jewelry and costly items.  Frankincense, the hardened resin of the Boswellia tree, was burned as a high-quality incense and was sourced from the Arabian Peninsula and the horn of Africa.  It had to come a long way and at high cost to wherever the Magi were when they started. And myrrh, another tree resin from Arabia and East Africa, was used as a perfume, medicine, and incense.  It, too, had to be imported from afar. These resins would have been extremely valuable, perhaps more valuable than the gold that accompanied them. They were at least as valuable as the vial of perfumed ointment made from pure spikenard that Judas gripes about possibly selling for 300 denarii in John 12:3, which in modern dollars would roughly have been worth $1,100.  So these weren’t trinkets. These gifts were serious tribute.

And why did they give this baby these gifts?  The Magi were mistaken about who Jesus was. They thought that the King of the Jews was just like any other earthly ruler, and so they gave him the gifts that one would present to an earthly king.  God seems to have pointed these Gentile mystics toward his Son, but they didn’t have the whole picture regarding Jesus, and so they brought him costly gifts that any king would consider appropriate and “fell down and worshiped him.”  Actually, there, it’s more accurate to say that they prostrated themselves before him, just as they would have done before any number of Eastern kings, submitting themselves to him as to one who had dominion over them. It’s not unlike a dog behaving submissively before an alpha or its master— after all, that’s what the word used here to mean “worship,” proskuneo, originally meant to the Greeks: “to play the dog.”  To these Magi, Jesus was as powerful as the king of Persia, and they were his servants.  They did not see this infant as God-in-the-flesh; to them he is not the Messiah who will redeem the world, but rather one to whom they must show obeisance and give tribute to in this earthly realm.  Earthly kings demand tribute, and thinking Jesus the same, the Magi give it to him.

So the Magi seem to have believed that Jesus, as a king, required tribute or gifts, that they had to give him something.  Even though we know more than they did— Jesus isn’t just a king, he’s our God and Savior who died to take away our sins and redeem us so that we can live with him forever— we often find ourselves wanting to do something for Jesus or to give Jesus something.  Have you ever been told that you need to do something for Jesus? That in order for the church to grow or for your own life to be transformed by the work of Christ you need to do something big for him? Or, like the speaker in Rossetti’s poem, that you could give Jesus your heart in order to satisfy some urging or requirement or to do something for him?  Or even moreso, that in order to receive the benefits of Christ that you need to give him your heart? Or ask him into your heart?

You’ve probably heard it suggested that some people, in the act of converting, should recite the Sinner’s Prayer, in which someone, of his or her own volition, declares faith in Christ and, in Billy Graham’s version of the prayer, invites Christ to come into his or her heart and life.  The problem with this suggestion is that the theology behind it does not acknowledge the fact that our wills cannot choose to give Jesus anything, especially not our hearts or lives. By our being sinners, our wills are bound toward sin and we neither can nor wish to, of our own accord, look to Christ or trust in him.  Our hearts, full of sinful urges and desires and inclinations, are like the bits of trash and plastic you see along the road outside here along 123 and the parkway. In and of themselves, they’re not worth anything, and they’re not at all useful. They merit nothing good, and really ought to be in the scrap heap. Our sinful hearts are certainly not worthy gifts of any kind.

The sainted Bishop of Gothenburg, Sweden, Bo Giertz, writes about this in his novel, The Hammer of God, in which Fridfeldt, a young pastor who has come to believe that only a true believer gives his heart to Christ, is confronted with alternative ideas when speaking to an elderly curate:

“But don’t you know, sir, what it means to be a believer?” [said Fridfeldt.]
“That is a word which can stand for things that differ greatly, my boy. I ask only what it is that you believe in.”
“In Jesus, of course,” answered Fridfeldt, raising his voice. “I mean—I mean that I have given him my heart.”
The older man’s face became suddenly as solemn as the grave. “Do you consider that something to give him?”
By this time, Fridfeldt was almost in tears. “But sir, if you do not give your heart to Jesus, you cannot be saved.”
“You are right, my boy. And it is just as true that, if you think you are saved because you give Jesus your heart, you will not be saved.  You see, my boy,” he continued reassuringly, as he continued to look at the young pastor’s face, in which uncertainty and resentment were shown in a struggle for the upper hand, “it is one thing to choose Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, to give him one’s heart and commit oneself to him, and that he now accepts one into his little flock; it is a very different thing to believe on him as a Redeemer of sinners, of whom one is chief. One does not choose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand, nor give one’s heart to him. The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap. A fine birthday gift, indeed! But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks his walking cane through it, and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with him. That is how it is.”

Giertz, Bo, Hammer of God, Augsburg Fortress: Kindle Edition: 146-147
Bishop Bo Giertz of Gothenburg, (Carl-Henrik Martling (red.): Till Bo Giertz 31 augusti 1965, Uppsala 1965.)

“A wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can…and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with him.”  Our hearts are just like that rusty old can that really ought to be in a landfill, but Christ takes mercy on us and takes us for his own— without our asking.  And in doing this, he gives us a gift far surpassing any of the gifts that he received from the Magi, and certainly far better than anything we can give him. Christ freely gives us himself.  Himself! He comes among us, lives and preaches and heals, and dies for us so that we might be freed from the bondage of sin, death, and hell.  He does this so that we can live with him in perfect harmony without that  sin which divides us from him. He does this so that we can live as God created us to live, and he does it out of love, for us.  We do not deserve this act of love, but Jesus doesn’t care.  He overlooks our undeservingness. His gift of himself on the cross is for everyone, for Jews and Gentiles alike— yes, even those Magi who brought him gifts and mistook him for an earthly monarch.  Christ’s free gift of himself and the faith to trust that he has saved us by his work is for all of us. We cannot believe this for ourselves; we cannot believe it of our own effort or choose it. But our ability to trust that Jesus Christ is our Lord, and our ability to come to him, is a gift from Christ through his work and from the Holy Spirit whom he has given to us as our helper and comforter.  His gift of life and salvation doesn’t need or require anything from us. Instead, Christ gives to us freely and points us to use our gifts, not for him, but to help our neighbors. And that indeed is the greatest gift of all.

So this Epiphany, do not think that you too, like the Magi in Rossetti’s poem, should “do your part” and do something for Jesus.  You cannot. Instead, take comfort that any gift you might bring to him pales in comparison to the gift that he has given us in himself, that undeserved gift of life and salvation that comes in his blood.  And take comfort and joy in the fact that he gives that gift to you and everyone else. The Magi may even have received it, too. Remember that Syriac text called “The Revelation of the Magi” I mentioned earlier?  While it is likely fictional and contains many fantastical elements, the story ends with the Magi, back in their homeland, being baptized by the Apostle Thomas, bringing them fully into Christ’s promise of salvation.  How much greater it is to know that this potential gift to the Magi is truly and actually yours, today, and forevermore! Amen!

May the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.