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Feast of the Holy Name, Year B

Exodus 34:1-8 - link to NRSV text
Philippians 2:9-13 - link to NRSV text
Luke 2:15-21 - link to NRSV text

Our reading from Exodus for this week says something that was a truism in Jesus' culture:

Who you are is largely about who your parents are. Your name, your identity in the world, is your family name, and especially your father's name.

But it was widely known that Jesus' father wasn't Joseph. It meant that Mary his mother faced the possibility of death at the hands of a brother or father seeking to protect the family honor. I've blogged and preached about that before. Joseph had a price to pay as well for his refusal to abandon Mary, and we get a hint of it in this week's gospel; it's most likely that his family disowned him, or he and his wife would have been able to stay with extended family for Jesus' birth.

It also means that Jesus was subjected to whispers in the village until the day he left it. He was called “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3). Everybody knew that nobody knew who his father was, and everybody knew that Mary's name was no status symbol, given her pregnancy by someone other than Joseph. “That young man will come to no good,” people murmured as Jesus walked past, “no family, no honor.” His parents' iniquities would be visited upon him, and his name was mud.

And yet this Sunday, when we remember his naming, is the Feast of the Holy Name. God gave him “the name that is above every name,” according to the hymn in Philippians 2, the passage an early Baptismal hymn that's on my mind every time I bow at Jesus' name in the liturgy. God gave Jesus the name that is above every name because Jesus, the most powerful person on earth, didn't exploit that power to try to seize the throne. He didn't seek the company of the powerful, but he used his power to exalt the powerless, restoring the outcast to community and ascribing dignity to those the world despised. He met them with compassion born of experience, because he shared their name in other's eyes. No name, from nowhere, the bastard from a backwater village.

And God gave him the name that is above every name. God exalted him, lifted him up, and Jesus lifted up his sisters and brothers among the despised. Jesus carries the name at which every knee should bow, but he teaches his followers that they will find and serve him by seeking and serving those furthest from the center of power -- the sick whose illnesses render them impure, the prisoners literally barred from community, the poor beggars outside the city gate.

That's the heart of why we call him the Son of God: because Jesus does what his Father does, and Jesus' words and example, his life and his death, taught us that his Father, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca and Rachel, is always at work on the margins. God looks at those whose name is mud and calls them God's own beloved child, made in God's image and deserving the reverence that comes from being mindful of that.

Jesus' name was mud, and God called that name holy. That dignity, that gentle power, that holiness, can be found when we look at the outcast as Jesus saw them, rather than as the murmurers saw Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

December 27, 2005 in Exodus, Honor/Shame, Justice, Luke, Philippians, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Christmas Day: The Feast of the Nativity

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You can find links to all of the potential readings here. There are three sets, to be used according to the time of the service, but at any service, I don't think I'm presumptuous in thinking that the sermon is going to be about Christmas, the Incarnation, and what it means for us.

Many times in my youth, I heard that Christmas is the time when God bridged the gap between heaven and earth, or between spirit and flesh. But that's not what the Incarnation did for us. Creation did that for us. The Gospel of John makes that very clear: for its author, “the beginning of the Good News” of the Son of God, to borrow Mark's phrase, is in Creation. The Good News begins for John in that moment in the very beginning when “all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). The Gospel of John might have more rhetoric of “us vs. them” than any other canonical gospel (it comes of the intensity of persecution the community felt), but it makes very, very clear from its very beginning of its story that the beginning, middle, and end of the story of the world is one of love -- intimate and unwavering love.

[CORRECTION 12-22-05: I removed the paragraph about the word for “love” in John 3:16. It is NOT eros; I was working from memory, and my memory failed me! Many thanks for those who caught the error. But if you look at how the four Greek terms for “love” in Hellenistic literature, I think you'll still find that the terms blur together far more than we often let on. And my main point -- that God has been intimately involved with physical bodies, which he declared to be “very good” in Genesis 1:31, from Creation.]

So let me tell you what Christmas is NOT about: It is not about a God who can barely stand smelly fleshy people until becoming one. It is not about healing a rift between the spiritual and the physical. Here's what it is about, or the start of it: In the very beginning, John tells us -- before there were any people to need redeeming -- God was present with and active in the world, loving every human being intensely, passionately, faithfully.

As you can guess, my top choice of classic Christmas carol lines to rewrite would be, “Lo, he abhors not the virgin's womb,” which seems to me to say more about how many people think that bodies -- and women's bodies in particular -- are icky than it does about solid biblical theology. That story often told about the physical world being hopeless and at least a little disgusting to God until God hold's God's nose and plunges into humanity is NOT the story of Christmas.

If anything, the story of Christmas has the opposite message. If I had to sum up the Incarnation in a nutshell, I'd say that it means that as Christians, we hold the fullest revelation of God's purposes on earth and of God's very character to be in the flesh-and-blood person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth we celebrate in the Feast of the Nativity. Among many, many other things, that means that there is NOTHING intrinsic to human life that God shrinks from.

But is that the meaning of Christmas? I'd say it isn't. It's part of it, but Christmas is much richer than “God loves you, and doesn't think you or your body is icky.” Christmas isn't about bridging the gap between God and humanity, because God has never left us, even when we've naively tried to leave God, and even when our behavior is far from what God is doing on earth. But it is about closing another gap, another kind of transcendence.

I hesitate to use the word “transcendence,” as it's awfully abstract, but I can't think of a better one. It's an awkward use not least because it's often used so crudely, as if God “transcending,” being beyond what's right here, meant that God is hanging out on some distant moon. Some biblical writers use imagery that sounded a little like that, imagery of God sitting on a throne in the heavens and using the earth as a footstool and so on, but it's a poet's image. The prophets in particular (and props to Scott Bartchy, my Ph.D. supervisor, for turning me on to this) also talked in a way that suggests God's transcendence, God's going beyond as well as being in the world we experience, is about time. God is with us right here and right now, but God is also ahead of us, beckoning us toward a future in which the world is all about love -- as obviously as it is truly.

That probably still sounds a little abstract. Let me put it this way: the Gospel According to Luke, the source of our gospel reading in two of our three sets of readings for Christmas, tells us how Jesus taught his followers to pray: that God's kingdom would come and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That was no dry recitation, and it was no wild, speculative hope of someone in darkness saying, “I hope someone out there has a match.” It was the passionate declaration of someone who SAW it, who KNEW it, whose very life penetrated the barrier between the now that we live in and the future we and our world were made for: God's kingdom come, God's will done in every way on earth. The life we celebrate at Christmas is God's future breaking into the present, and it's like a circuit made complete; God's justice, God's powerful love, courses through.

Advent, when we fully enter into it, is a season in which we reflect on God's dream for the world and for us. We study it, we long for it, we sing about it prayerfully, wholeheartedly. And when we can make the time and the space in our busy lives to have these experiences -- and sometimes when we can't or don't, because God is, after all and always, gracious -- we can almost see it and smell it and taste it. And the dream is that vivid, we have a sense of just how close we are to being THERE. If you haven't had that experience, or even if you have, it's worth taking a moment on Christmas Day to close your eyes or open them -- whatever is most conducive to this kind of dreaming for you -- and pause to imagine what the world would look like with every longing of the prophets fulfilled: People living in harmony with one another, with God, and with the world we live in -- no enmity or envy or greed or hunger. You have what you need, and are made content by others having what they need. Dream the prophets' dream, and take a look around at a world in which nothing separates us from one another or from God. Smell it and taste it; drink it in.

That getting in touch with the prophets' vision, with the future God intends for us and for the whole Creation God loves passionately, is Advent.

And now comes Christmas.

The hope of the prophets, that longed-for “someday,” is born in flesh among us NOW. The Word of God whose love gave birth to the world is here among us! It's no pie in the sky; it's a child, revealed to the hosts of heaven and the shepherds shivering in the cold outside the village. The life that has come among us is none other than the light of the world. No darkness can overcome it; all the ends of the earth will see God's salvation, deliverance from everything that separates us from one another and from God.

That's why they say this is Good News. And here's something that just might be the best part of it: when we proclaim that God's Word was made flesh to live among us, we're not just talking about an event in the first-century Roman province of Palestine. Every time we gather together to live into the way of Jesus, we are the Body of Christ, and the life-giving Word that powers the universe finds flesh among us. If it's hard for you to drink in the hope of the prophets by imagining -- if there what comes to mind for you is broken relationships, worries, or fears, and if you can't imagine a light that could reach the whole world -- then the invitation that comes to us this Christmas season is as much or more for you. Stay with us, with these little candle-lit groups clustered around the world. For all our flaws and foibles, God's grace breaks through among us, and the angels' song echoes as our learning to forgive and bless one another points to the full realization of the love for which and in which the world was born.

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace for the world God loves!

Thanks be to God!

December 18, 2005 in Christmas, Isaiah, John, Justice, Love, Luke, Prophets, Year B | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

If you've sent anything to my P.O. Box ...

Dear All,

If you've sent anything recently to my P.O. Box and it bounced, I apologize -- it's now fine to use. Thanks for your patience, folks!



December 15, 2005 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B

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2 Samuel 7:4,8-16
- link to NRSV text
Romans 16:25-27 - link to NRSV text
Luke 1:26-38
- link to NRSV text

When Mary heard the angel Gabriel address her as “favored one” and tell her, “The Lord is with you,” “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” “Perplexed” would be an understatement by the time the angel had left her. She was to bear a child, who would be called a son of God, and would receive the throne of David. “How can this be?” Mary asked.

Good question. It sounds impossible, and that business about Mary not “knowing” a man is just the beginning of the obstacles. As I preached about last year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary had to be wondering about how she'd survive until the baby's birth, once the village heard of her pregnancy. As in many cultures today, “honor killings” weren't infrequent in Mary's culture. If a woman had been sexually violated by a man -- even if it was against her will -- she could be killed, usually by her own father or brother, so the woman and her illegitimate child could no longer bring shame to the family. Joseph knew he wasn't the father of Mary's baby. If a man and a woman betrothed to each other had sex with each other and the village knew it, they were considered to be married; it was the “consummation” of the union that married the couple, not a religious ceremony. If Joseph intended to stay with Mary, he would have no reason not to acknowledge the child as his, so it's most historically plausible that our stories about Joseph not being Jesus' father stem from historical fact. And that fact had some nasty implications: if Mary's pregnancy became known and her father or brother didn't kill her, the scripture commanded the death penalty both for her and, if his identity were known, the man who had stolen Joseph's betrothed and gotten her pregnant.

So the odds are against Mary's surviving until the child's birth. And then, should others come to the conclusion Gabriel has about the child's identity, odds are against the child surviving. Herod the Great, who ruled as “king” with Rome's support, wouldn't have been very keen on another trying to claim David's throne and title. And the designation “son of god” was claimed by Roman emperors; anyone else acclaimed as a “son of god” by the populace was very likely to end up on a cross instead of a throne. And the paradox of this is that Jesus of Nazareth gets both, forever linking the two. God's kingdom, the fulfillment of Mary's song that God “has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” bringing down the powerful from their thrones and raising the lowly (Luke 1:52-53) will come not with the might of armies, but with Jesus' consistent and nonviolent ministry of reconciliation.

The story of God's angel proclaiming the Lord's favor on a young single mother gives us all a great deal to ponder this Advent. We live in a world in which one more child dies every three seconds from extreme poverty -- three hundred during an average Sunday sermon in an Episcopal Church, and sixteen hundred during each celebration of the Eucharist (thanks to Mike Russell for that powerful way of putting it), and yet God's promise is that through Jesus' work among us, the hungry will be filled with good things. We might ask, with Mary, “How can this be?”

But we're called to do more than ponder. We're called to bring the Good News of liberation to the prisoners, of food for the hungry, of the dignity of those considered lowly by the powers of this world. We're called to do that not just in words or song, but like Mary, giving flesh to God's hope, God's peace, God's justice, and God's love for the world.

How can this be? Through the faithfulness of the God who promises David that his house will be established forever, and whose promise is fulfilled, we believe, in Jesus. Through the power that gave Mary the courage to face her family, her betrothed, her village, and clothed her with dignity and grace throughout the village's pointing and whispering. Through the compassion that led Jesus to heal and empower the outcasts he encountered. And through the peace that comes of catching even a glimpse of just how deeply, passionately, and unconditionally God loves each of God's children.

Thanks be to God!

December 14, 2005 in 2 Samuel, Advent, Honor/Shame, Justice, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Romans, Women, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

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Isaiah 65:17-25 - link to NRSV text
John 1:6-8,19-28 - link to NRSV text OR
John 3:23-30 - link to NRSV text

I once drove up to a venue where I was supposed to speak. I was running a little late, so I pulled into a parking space, dashed up to the front door, and was met by a man who said in nearly a single breath something like, “Are you Dr. Breuer's assistant? I have to stay out here to meet him, but do you know your way around the kitchen? Nobody's made the coffee yet,” and then he returned to expectantly scanning the parking lot. I was in a rather mischievous mood, so I just said, “well, I don't know this kitchen, but I've spent a lot of time in parish kitchens ... I'm sure I can find my way around this one,” and I went in to make the coffee. Once it was brewing away, I went up to the podium to start the talk.

The man who met me at the front door had made some assumptions about the person he was expecting. He assumed I was a “Dr.” (I'm a Ph.D. candidate; I expect to file next academic year). I think he also was expecting Dylan Breuer to be a distinguished-looking gentleman in a coat and tie, not a relatively young woman with a goofy grin at least as conspicuous as her Greek New Testament. Whatever he was expecting, it's true both that I was the person he was expecting and that I didn't look much like what he'd envisioned. In this case, everyone laughed at the mistake.

Advent is a time when we are particularly intentional about waiting expectantly and preparing — not just for Christmas, but for the culmination of Jesus' work on earth. And it is appropriate that at Advent we read more than one story about John the Baptizer, who saw his own ministry as one of waiting and preparing. We have expectations for John. That's reasonable, isn't it? He's a hero of the faith and a prophet who prepared the way for the Christ, so we need him to meet certain standards. He should be respectable; he should inspire the kind of civic and familial virtues we can all rally around. But most importantly, he should be right, and especially about anything having to do with the one he's expecting.

So, how well does John the Baptizer fit our bill?

Not very.

To start with, John the Baptizer is not the guy who declares that all the trains the institution predicts are, always have been, and always will be on time. He's not the guy who's going to tell our kids to eat their vegetables and do their homework, to work hard and play by the rules to get ahead. He's the homeless guy who eats locusts (bugs, kids. they're bugs.) and wild honey, and he tells the people of Israel that the one of the fundamental rules they grew up knowing — a rule people thought of as being cast in scripture-flavored concrete — is moot. That would be the rule that says that you're in God's eschatological (eschatological = having to do with “the end”) in-crowd if you're in the people of Israel, and membership in that people is defined by blood: if your mom is Jewish, you're Jewish; and if you want to convert and if you're not born Jewish, your membership will be established by the shedding of blood (a blood sacrifice of an animal in the Temple regardless of your sex, and additional blood shed through circumcision if you're male). John the Baptizer says that rule is moot, regardless of who says otherwise. That's what's at stake when John says, “God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham” (Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:7).

John the Baptizer believed that something else — something besides blood, besides that scriptural set of criteria — determined who was in God's in-crowd. He believed that anyone who was willing to “take the plunge” (John thought that was a literal one, namely, baptism at his hands) would be welcomed by God, and that nobody who had not experienced conversion would. In a way, John the Baptizer was the world's first evangelical: he believed that anyone, regardless of bloodline, had to CHOOSE to be in God's people.

He also had some beliefs about someone who was going to follow him: a person whose might was beyond description in any but apocalyptic terms. John baptized with water, and this Coming One was going to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire — presumably those in God's in-crowd, those who had chosen to be baptized, with the Holy Spirit, and the rest, those in God's out-group, with the fire that would destroy them.

And as our readings for this week, the third Sunday of Advent, in Year A (we're in Year B) show us, John the Baptizer was sorely disappointed. Kudos to those who crafted our lectionary for including this once every three years for including it at all, as it really blows minds when we read it closely: John the Baptizer expected someone who was going to DO something in particular, and Jesus didn't do it. John expected someone who was going to get rid of all of those who weren't really and personally committed to the program, all those whom he felt were holding back the coming of God's kingdom, and then Jesus came, healing and proclaiming liberation, and there was no fire that John could see. He died in prison with an ambiguous answer to the question he'd sent messengers to Jesus to ask: “Are you the Coming One, or are we to wait for another?”

Was John the Baptizer disappointed? Perhaps the more important question for us to ask today is whether we are disappointed. Are we disappointed in a herald for the Christ who disagreed publicly with the one that the Gospel According to John portrays as being the fulfillment of all his hopes? Are we disappointed in a canon of Scripture that refuses to dissolve all ambiguities, to make our ancestors in the faith the kind of people we want our children to grow up to be, a canon that won't answer every question, or even all the questions we think are important?

And what about our Christ? We are called to risk everything that John the Baptizer risked, and that includes the risk that this person we are waiting for to do God's will may reveal that God's will is not identical to ours, that God's aspirations for the world may not be the same as ours. It's not safe. It's better than safe. It's not comfortable, and it's better than comfortable. Because if we're willing, in this Advent season, to offer our very dreams to God, and to trust that God's dreams will do better than fulfill our own, we might discover for ourselves that our God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

Don't get me wrong: we need to dream. We need to dream the most audacious dreams we can. And then let us offer our dreams to the God whose creativity and love surpasses the best of our own. Let's be ready for more than what we expect.

Thanks be to God!

December 7, 2005 in Advent, Eschatology, Faith, Isaiah, John, Prophets, Year B | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

Sorry this took so long, all. It's been one heck of a week. Phew!

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Isaiah 40:1-11 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 85 - link to BCP text
2 Peter 3:8-15a,18 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:1-8 - link to NRSV text

This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, God's Anointed:

John the Baptizer proclaimed in the wilderness a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

This was a radical thing to do. It wasn't radical or even unusual to proclaim that people could find forgiveness for sins. The Temple hierarchy had been saying for hundreds of years that God was merciful and eager to forgive: the sacrifices in the Temple brought forgiveness to God's people. Prophets like Isaiah proved to be a thorn in the side of the Temple hierarchy, proclaiming that God isn't impressed by burnt sacrifices, doesn't live in a house built by human hands, is not confined to one holy land. The prophets proclaimed that God's reach extends across every land, God dwells wherever justice and peace are lived out in community, and that justice and peace is the only sacrifice God wants.

John the Baptizer made his ministry a living parable of that message. Isaiah 40 speaks of a voice in the wilderness crying out that the Lord is coming, and we are to prepare the way (depending on your comma placement, that is -- there was no punctuation in the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint, so readers were free to play in their communities with the many possible variations of meaning from which modern editors choose. Many, like the community in Qumran that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, read the text as meaning something more like, “A voice cries out: prepare in the wilderness the way of the LORD.”). John the Baptizer based himself in the wilderness along the Jordan River outside Jerusalem, and proclaimed to all who would hear that forgiveness was available to any who would be baptized — no Temple sacrifice necessary. According to Matthew and Luke, John the Baptizer taught that blood ties to Abraham were of no account in God's eyes — the high priest needed the baptism of repentance just as much as a Gentile convert to Judaism, and Abraham's inheritance would go to any who would receive it through that baptism.

This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, God's Anointed.

The world did not need Jesus merely to hear a message that forgiveness of sins and a relationship — a close, personal relationship — with the God who created the world was available to all. That message of grace was proclaimed in the Temple by Sadducees who believed that the blood spilled in the Temple was sufficient to cover sins, and by Pharisees who said that God welcomes converts from any nation who want to join God's people and walk in accordance with God's Torah.

And if I may bring a bit of Passover into Advent, I'll take up a refrain from the Passover liturgy: dayenu, “it would have been sufficient.”

The world did not need Jesus merely to hear that we can find forgiveness and join God's people without a Temple, without preconditions apart from conversion through repentance and baptism. John the Baptizer taught that much, and it would have been sufficient for that much. If all we expect from Jesus' coming and Jesus' work among us is that we will find forgiveness for sin, find relationship with God, and join God's people if we're willing to repent and experience conversion, we're due for a surprise.

This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, God's Anointed. And the grace of this message is astonishing. But it is only the beginning.

We expect more. Especially during this Advent season, we expect Jesus, and the full realization of Jesus' reconciling work on earth. As 2 Peter tells us, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where God's justice is at home. And we will not be disappointed. Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming, inviting us to experience conversion, to be given a heart full of God's deep compassion, to be forgiven for our sins — and much, much more. Jesus is reconciling the whole world, each of us with one another and with God. Jesus gives us a vision of a world in which all of the barriers that separate us — the poor from the rich, the West from the South, nation from nation — will be no more. And that would have been sufficient for us to sing God's praises forever.

But it's just the beginning. Jesus has given us not only the vision, but the Spirit — the power to prepare the way of the LORD, casting down the mighty and raising up the lowly in the ultimate leveling of the proverbial playing field. As the Psalm says, “justice (a better translation, I think, than ”righteousness,“ as it makes clear what the prophets proclaimed is the right sort of relationship that defines God's righteousness) shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet”; we prepare the way of the LORD whenever we do justice and make peace.

This is the grace we experience and the calling God gives us. And it's just the beginning. I'm inclined to that that the opening of Mark 1, the phrase, “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Christ,” refers not only to the ministry of John the Baptizer we remember today, but the whole of Mark's gospel, the whole story of Jesus' work among us, his death on the Cross, the empty tomb and God's messenger's proclaiming his resurrection and sending his followers forth. As you probably know, the last words of Mark's gospel have long been a puzzle to scholars. The very last word in our earliest texts of Mark 16:8 is gar, Greek for “for.” It seems almost like the “Castle of Aaaaaaaaaaaa ....” in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail -- a trailing off rather than a proper ending.

It isn't a proper ending.

It's a proper beginning. All of this — the whole story we'll be reading in this Year B of the lectionary as we journey through Mark's gospel — is the beginning of the Good News. That beginning ends with God's messenger saying something that's always true on our journey with Jesus — “he has gone ahead of you” — and the call to follow. We have become characters in that story, that Great Story of Good News, and we are to expect great things. The end of extreme poverty in this generation isn't overreaching: it's just the beginning of the Good News of the Lord whose way we are called to prepare. Have you or your parish been giving money to help our impoverished sisters and brothers in Haiti or Africa? That's good. But on December 13th, we have the opportunity to let the nations of the world know that we will no longer support trade practices that flood markets with subsidized American and European rice that robs Haitian and African farmers of their livelihood and Haitian and African children of life. We have the opportunity to Make Trade Fair, upholding the dignity of work and of workers and coming closer to giving every child the chance we want for our own children.

Now THAT would be a beginning. I say that not because we haven't had real, honest, and significant beginnings before; we have. But as we deepen our sense of what the end, the telos of Jesus' ministry is — and that's what all of these apocalyptic texts we read in Advent are meant to instill in us — we find the need and the power for a new beginning.

This is the day. This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus?

Are you ready? Let's begin.

Thanks be to God!

December 1, 2005 in 2 Peter, Advent, Conversion, Eschatology, Forgiveness, Isaiah, Justice, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Prophets, Repentance, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack