St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver, B.C.

Phone: 604-877-1788


The Anglican Parish of St. Mary Magdalene

2950 Laurel Street at West 14th Avenue

Vancouver, BC, V5Z  3T3

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Diocese of New Westminster Anglican Church of Canada

Home Who We Are UAM What Is On Sermons Contact Us


December 8th Advent 5, 2019     John Marsh

Isaiah 1:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Stories are critical to our humanity - to our wellness - to our sense of self - to our sense of place.

Stories sustain, call, empower and shape us.

And of late, I find myself remembering stories of my family, of those who came before me.

I particularly remember stories told of my grandfather who died years before any of his grandchildren were born.

The stories told of one stalwart and tough. He was his own man, a man who would not back down from any adversary, a man who would protect his family and friends.

However, as I would discover, these stories were more hagiographic than holy. They were two dimensional heroic stories that cloaked more than they revealed.

As I grew and listened carefully, I overheard other stories, stories within stories suggesting alternative realities. Stories of fighting in WWI as an underage soldier, stories of trench warfare, stories of being gassed, stories of health issues.

As I grew and listened carefully, I took note of details and passing comments which did not fit the hagiographic portrayal: suggestions of explosive anger and violent outbursts, of haunting nightmares, of a profound lack of self-worth, of compulsive and addictive behaviours, of paralysing moods, of physical ailments.

Hagiography in its promotion of an idealized image hides humanity.

It hides the mess.

It hides wounds – both visible and invisible.

It hides the pain borne by those in the trenches.

It hides socio-political forces which demand sacrifice with individuals, individuals with names and stories not the whole paying the price.

It hides societal forces which perpetuate and justify cycles of violence.

It hides the fact that little or no attention was paid to the social and familial cost.

It hides the victimization of the victim, hiding the perverse effects of victimization in which the victim often internalizes and perpetuates the abuse.

It hides the psychic reality that the ‘sins’ of the victim are usually passed on to other generations.

The hagiography of the heroic, while it attempts to save face, enshrines the lie.

For as the poet says:

I bear the wounds

As do my brothers

As did my father and his brothers

We share the inheritance of innocence lost in trenches torn in the soul

We bear the wounds of hurts too deep, of fears stigmata

We share the inheritance of one who returned but never came home

We bear the wounds as do our children - Still

Lest we forget...

Oh that we could

For we have had enough, more than enough

Hagiography distorts humanity and is corrosive of hope.

And so, let’s be honest and try to nourish hope for the sake of humanity.


In the popular mindset, there is a similar hagiographic treatment of both John and Jesus.

John the Baptist has become not much more than the opening act for Jesus, his unique voice almost erased. However, when John’s voice is muted, so is Jesus’; when the uniqueness of John is obscured, Jesus is also; when we lose John, we also lose Jesus.

John and Jesus were different, and it is important to let John be John and to let Jesus be Jesus. And it goes without saying that the story of John is larger than merely announcing the coming of Jesus.

John, standing in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, stated that things were going wrong because we’ve screwed up and we need to repent to put things right. We need to put behind us those things which are putting us at odds with god!

Speaking within the context of Roman occupation and the pain of economic hardship, John is forcefully calling people to change, to turn about, to repent because god is at hand!

John, knowing the depth of suffering and hardship, proclaims an energetic eschatological message:

God is coming! Now is the time to get right with the Holy One - Repent!’

As a symbol of this repentance, John invited people to enter the Jordan and undergo a ritual purification as a sign that one is faithfully and fervently waiting for god who is soon to come and confront all that is wrong.  

And people responded.

They responded because it was a way of acknowledging and responding to despair - the pain, the burden, the hardship of their life. They responded, as did Jesus. Jesus was part of John’s movement for he too knew of the pain, the hardship and the suffering; he knew of, and was stirred by, prophetic passion.

However, while responding to John’s call and respecting his message, Jesus ultimately sensed another path.  

Yet, in the hagiography of the popular mindset, little of this is heard and so distortions set in – distortions of John and distortions of Jesus.

In the popular mindset, John is reduced to announcing the coming of Jesus while the message of Jesus is essentially reduced to, ‘God has come to deal with sin, his Son’s death is the remedy for our sin and through believing in his death we gain heaven.’

Not surprisingly, this does not do justice to anyone, to John, to Jesus, to the incarnation or the complexity of the gospel narratives. This reductionist portrayal so distorts that we are blinded to the unique and radical call of John and Jesus.

Jesus, although responsive to John’s call, followed another path, something far more daring.

While John talked about the immanent coming of the god of judgement, of the need to repent and prepare for the coming of ‘the day of the Lord’, Jesus in effect said, ‘god is here now, as close to us as our heartbeat, as close to us as the wind blowing on our face.  And god is calling us to act.’

For Jesus, we are necessary participants, not passive recipients.

For Jesus, god is not a ‘superhero’ from on high.

For Jesus, it is the nature of god to be in our midst; it is the desire of god for us to become fully aware of who we are, to be fully engaged in living.

For Jesus, god is inviting us to participate in the commonwealth of god, to participate in and to make real the desires of god. For Jesus, it is not simply that god will come bringing peace, but that god is here within invitations for us to become peace, to embody god’s shalom.  

From the perspective of Jesus, we are called to respond to divine solicitations. In other words, the program of Jesus is not about the passive reception of what is brought to us but active participation in possibilities birthed in our midst, within us and within our culture.  

The program of John is that our hardships and sufferings are because of our collective actions which are often an affront to god; we must therefore repent and align ourselves with the sacred to avoid the day of judgement in which the powers will be confronted.

John does not call people to repent because of the coming of Jesus; he inspires people to prepare for the coming of ‘the day of the Lord’ which will mean, in John’s heart and mind, the ending of Roman injustice and oppression.

Jesus, while respecting John’s prophetic message, opens it up to broader dimensions.

The program of Jesus affirms that our repentance and our alignment with god involves not sidestepping the judgement of god but opening to god in our midst, accepting the invitation to be one with god who is non-violent and compassionate.

In the program of Jesus, our actions are intertwined with god’s solicitations through spirit’s spectral presence.

Truth to tell, the incarnation involves both John and Jesus having little or nothing to do with two-dimensional hagiography.

The incarnation is something different, demanding a fuller, more complex story.

John was a prophetic voice birthed of faith and human angst; a voice that needs to be heard even though it expects divine violence to end oppression. It is a voice which descends from the heavenly heights working in the trenches of everyday life, a voice giving grit and substance to our living, a voice giving passionate substance to our hope. It’s a voice which Jesus heard and respected yet, while respecting

John’s voice, Jesus gives witness to another dimension of the way:

god is in the middle of life’s despair and burdens. god is in your midst. god is within you. Which is to say, you are critical to the process, critical to life, critical to god’s shalom. You are critical to the hungry being fed. You are critical to having a human heart. You are critical to life in its fullness!

The complex stories of Incarnation are not so much about awaiting the birth of god in Christ as they are about celebrating god with us and us with god; they are stories inviting us to birth ‘the Christ’ by becoming wholly human.

And so, returning to the beginning, I grew up hearing stories of my grandfather and of those stories, those more complex ones, those with uncomfortable and disconcerting details, I love them. I love those stories of a grandfather who was tough but not without wounds, persistent but not always for good, who endured but not without fears, who suffered in silence but not without consequence.

However, perhaps his foibles, his silence, may create openings allowing for the telling of other stories, stories which speak of the complex arc of the incarnation which stretches from one generation to another, from before my grandfather through me and onwards.

So, tell me the stories of Jesus, of John, of my grandfather, of humanity.

Tell me the stories that I may live fully alive.

But please, save the hagiography for those ‘plastic saints’ - the hagiography gets in the way, its idealizations hiding humanity and god as well.

So, yes tell me those stories, those complex, messy, sometimes inconvenient stories…