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Get. There are things to do.

Epiphany 5 - February 7, 2021
Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39
Get.  There are things to do.

What Can Jesus Really Do?

Epiphany 4 - January 31, 2021
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 
Psalm 11
1 Corinthians 8:1-13 Year B
Mark 1:21-28

What Can Jesus Really Do?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

To understand Mark’s gospel, one must first understand Mark’s way of thinking.  Mark likes to write in circles.  He says something and then proves how that something is true.  In this particular instance, Mark lays out Jesus’s mission statement: “‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” 

First stop on this circular way of thinking is Jesus finding some “employees” who are willing to commit themselves to preaching the Tim is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has near, repentance and believe in the good news.  So, he calls Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him.  Jesus has the start of his organization of evangelizers.  

But now that he has his mission and some people who are willing to commit to this mission, what is he going to do in order to fulfill that mission?  This first public act by Jesus in Mark’s gospel is significant and noteworthy.  In John’s gospel, his first public act is the Wedding at Cana and turning the water into wine.  In Matthew’s Gospel, his first public act is the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount.   In Luke, Jesus’ first act is reading from the Isaiah scroll in his hometown and where he gives the shortest sermon of his life, “today, this prophecy has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Mark fist public, missional act, is the healing of the demonic. 

Think about the implications this has on Mark’s view of Jesus. Jesus is willing to take this message into the depths of hell and look evil square in the eye.  An innocent man has had his body taken over by a demon.  The man needs help and Jesus helps him by telling the demon to get lost.  How far is God willing to go and save a life of a human being?  The answer: to the depths of hell itself. 

I want you to put yourself into this scene with Jesus.  Imagine someone coming up to you and acting like they are possessed by a demon.  We probably write them off as crazy.  We would push them out of the way.  When they would ask, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Our response would probably involve us saying, “Not talking to you, crazy person.” Imagine how many people wrote this man off?  Imagine how much of this man’s life was destroyed because this demon decided to take over this innocent man’s body.  Jesus could have ignored the demon.  He could have pushed him away.  But the great savior of the world, the holy-word-incarnate, the one who was and who is to come does not walk away.  He says, “‘Be silent, and come out of him!’”

In this very simple act of exocerism, Mark proclaims God’s kingdom is pushing out the kingdom currently occupying the same place.  And in God’s kingdom, there is no room for demons that take over innocent beings.  In many ways, Jesus is also possessed but he is possessed by a different spirit; the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit has a different view of life.  The Holy Spirit sees the value of life.  The Holy Spirit views every life as a precious gift from God and that each life is worth saving.  This means Jesus will have to enter a very unclean and terrifying, demon-possessed world.  Today is just the start.

The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.  In order for this to fully happen, Satan’s free reign of the world has to be put to a stop.  Evil knows this fact.  The demon even says that:  “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus is not afraid to put evil into its rightful place.  This is not the last exorcism that Jesus will do in this gospel. And certainly, evil has not been rid from our world.  Demons still try to force their way into innocent people, but we have the good news our on side.  The kingdom of God is near and that means, with each passing day, God’s kingdom become more known in our world and the world of the demons is pushed more and more away.  Jesus has already revealed that there is no place for demons and evil in God’s kingdom.  Evil will not win.  The innocent will be set free and Satan will be powerless to stop it.  

Yet, it is hard to acknowledge that evil is not winning today.  Especially when you look at the latest covid numbers, politics, racism, church attendance and participation.  It certainly feels like Jesus is losing some ground, right?  As I sat down to do the parochial report for St. John’s, I realized that this is the first time in nearly 5 years that we have seen a decrease in our membership due to so many deaths in 2020.  And on the question of worship attendance, how does one even figure that one out this year?  Looking at the trend, worship attendance has been slowly going down for the last 8 years.  On paper, it certainly feels like evil is winning.  It certainly feels like God’s kingdom is drifting farther and farther away from us.  It certainly feels like we are all alone with a demon trapped inside of us, wreaking havoc on all facets of our life; those things we hold most dear.  

Yet, what does our gospel say?  “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”  Do you believe that to be true?  Take a moment right now and think about that statement.  Do you believe what Mark wrote here to be true?  Do you believe that Jesus proclaimed the good news?  If we say that this is true, that this message is really good news, why, my friends, why do we continue to allow evil to gain the upper hand.  Why do we continue to allow the devil and his little band of demons to control the narrative.  

Believing the good news of Jesus means believing that God’s kingdom is near.  Our work is the same as our Lord.  We follow our Lord into those places where evil has taken over and demand that the evil speaks no more.  We take away the devil’s power and we usher in God’s kingdom one person at a time.  That is what we are called to do, my brothers and sister.  And there will be days when it appear that evil might have the upper hand.  When it looks like evil has won the day.  The cross is a prime example to evil appearing as if it triumps, , but we all know the truth.  God is not messing around any more, my brothers and sisters.  There is nothing our God cannot do, will not do to rescue you, to save you, to bring you into God’s Kingdom.  In a world where Bad news fills the airways, bring the good news to people who need rescuing.  They are out there, my brothers and sisters.  Take them Jesus and show them the amazing, awe-inspiring kingdom that can await them.  Never doubt the good news.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Are you ready?

January 24, 2021 - Epiphany 3
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Are you ready?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The commentary that I was reading this week on the book of Jonah describes the book as “a tale of what happens when God’s mercy is too much for some, and maybe not enough for others.” No truer words have never been said about this book.  Jonah is unique in that it has very little to do with the prophetic witness Jonah is sent to proclaim.  Actually, we are never even told Ninevah even did.  Either the writer assumes we would already know or that the crime doesn’t really matter.  I tend to believe it is the later of the two. 

The book of Jonah is really about the prophet.  Most books named after other prophets (Isaiah, Samuel, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Micah, etc) all deal with a message sent by God.  Rarely do we even learn much about the prophet themselves outside of a short call story like last week and the calling of Samuel.  Jonah is all about the prophet and his aversion to being a prophet.

As a child, I always wondered why Jonah would not want to be a prophet.  It seemed like a cool job.  What I knew about prophets, from my Sunday school classes, is that prophets came and told people that God is upset and if you just say your sorry, everything will be okay.  To me, that doesn’t sound like a bad job.  In fact, that sounds like something we all should do, so why would Jonah not want to do this very normal thing?

But as I got old, I started to learn that being a prophet was not exactly one of the ways to get on one of those Forbes top 100 lists.  Being a prophet means risking your life for the sake of a message from God.  That prophets, often times, get themselves killed for doing the right thing and usually do not receive vindication for many, many years after their death.  It took 20 years after Martin Luther King’s death before his birthday was made a holiday and at the time of its conception, faced many questions as to why we needed a day to honor King’s legacy.  Prophets are rarely liked because their job is to speak the truth. 

Last week, we heard the story of Samuel and his calling to be a prophet.  He was sent by God to tell Eli that his family, for generations to come, would be punished for his sons’ misdeeds.  I can’t imagine, as a pastor, showing up to someone’s home and telling them that they really, really messed up and they would die knowing that redemption would not come for generations.  A prophet’s job is not easy and Jonah knew this.  So he ran.  

He ran until he reached the sea.  Knowing that it wasn’t far enough, he jumped on to a boat in the vain hope that God would not find.  Yet, God did.  Jonah realized that he was putting everyone’s life endanger when a large storm had erupted around them.  He tells the crew to throw him into the sea, probably in hopes that he would drown and die before God had a chance to use him as a prophet.  But God had other plans.  Instead, he spent 3 days in the belly of a fish.  It almost sounds like a comedy story.  Jonah would rather die than go be prophet.  God changes his mind by having a large fish swallow him up and he has to stay in this fish’s belly for three days.  I only hope he took a shower before he got to Nineveh. But as we know, a lot can happen in three days.  People who have been dead for three days can be brought back to life.  In this case, the heart of Jonah was changed and he goes to Ninevah.  

Jonah cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ A simple, rather poient message.  Pretty clear and easy to understand. Now Nineveh, according to the book, has 120,000 people living in it.  To put that into perspective, Martinsburg has 17,475 and Berkeley County has 119,171.  We are talking about a large city for the time—a booming metropolis.  In a sea of so many voices and people, Jonah somehow breaks through all the noise and gets heard.  The people “proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” The author of Jonah tells us “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” No wonder Jonah was chosen by God.  He is really good at this whole prophet thing.  I wish I had that kind of success rate.  120,000 people listened to Jonah and changed their ways.  I would be thrilled.  Most of us would be thrilled.  Jonah…not so much.

He leaves Ninevah, finds a place to pray, and lets loose on God.  “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’”  Jonah leaves in a huff, goes outside the city and waits for its destruction, which sounds normal for a three year old and not a 40 year old.  None-the-less, God takes pity on him and gives him some shade.  A bush grows up and Jonah enjoys the little bit of respite from the sun, but he is still angry.  I imagine him dressed like Bernie Sanders with mittens, sitting in under this bush saying, “This could have been done by an email.”  Jonah has some strange expectations.  He expected his job to be filled with difficulty and opposition.  It is exactly why he got onto that boat—he didn’t want that path in his life.  He wanted to be different.  He wanted to be someone else.  When he finally does relent, he goes into the job expecting to see God blow Ninevah up with the kind of fire power of a modern day warship.  He wants to see the people who opposed him suffer their fate.  He never imagined that people might actually listen to him.  Jonah expects one thing and gets something completely different in return.  Depending on your view of things, Jonah’s expectations are either crushed or they are exceeded. 

Fast forward a thousand years and you find Simon, Andrew, James and John all doing their normal, every day life of fishing. James and John are sitting in a boat with their father.  Their expectation was to work and take care of their family.  And along comes this man named Jesus who says, “Follow me.” They all leave their nets and follow Jesus.  James and John even leave their father behind on the boat because they were promised something more.  They seem to go without any hesitation unlike Jonah who fought going every step of the way.  They must have had some kind of expectation that the life promised by Jesus was going to be better than the one they were currently living at this moment.  And I have to wonder, did their expectations get met?  Were they disappointed?  Did they expect Jesus to be a revolutionary leader who would take down Rome?  Did they expect that Jesus was actually the Messiah, the savior of the world?  Could they ever have expected that on that day, many years ago, along the sea of Galilee, that they would leave their life of fishing behind and become evangelists of the good news of Jesus Christ?  

What are your expectations as a follower of Jesus?  Do you expect to find a entertainment here for hour each week?  A feel good message?  The pastor to be a motivational speaker? Do you expect the church to take political stands? Do you expect the church to function as a social justice organization? Do you seek spiritual care and nourishment?  Do you seek comfort?  Family?  Hope?  I want you think about your exceptions and ask yourself, “Are you ready for them to be dashed?”  As you ready to see that Jesus is more than anything we could ever expect?  Are you ready to see that God choose you for a reason? “The purpose of Jesus’ call to discipleship is not to take people out of a hostile world, promising them a better life in God’s heavenly kingdom. Instead, his purpose is to change the world in such a way that it will cease to be the hostile place it is, so that God’s reign can be established on earth.”  And God brought about God’s reign into the world not with clubs and swords, but through reaching out to the poor, the oppressed, the last, and lost.  He reached out to women, Samaritans, and those possessed by demons.  For so many of us, we expect discipleship to filled with fun times, Bible studies and community service projects.  The reality to remember is that Jesus pushes away all our romanticized expectation and does the work of the of gospel, which is often messy, difficult, and at times deadly.  

As a church, as disciples of Christ, I think this is a great time to reflect on our exceptions of discipleship and make sure that they are actually steeped in Jesus and not our own selfish desires.  Because for some, discipleship and just a tool to get ahead in the world, but we know it is more than a resume builder.  Discipleship is a way of life and I pray that we, as the body of Christ, are as ready as Simon, Andrew, James, and John, and evening Jonah were ready to find out and experience the the life of following a man named Jesus from Nazareth.  

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Not your average Lamb

Epiphany 2 - January 17, 2021
1 Samuel 3:1-20 
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

Not your average Lamb

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Some of you might know that I have a fig tree in my back yard.  It is one of the most wonderful things I have ever had in a backyard.  Nothing beats a fresh fig.  Fig newtons are disgusting after you have a fresh fig.  And you can't have one.  

I know Jerry and others have asked that I bring some in but truth be told, they usually don't even make it into the house. But to call a fig tree a tree, is a little bit of a stretch.  A fig tree, or at least ours, is composed of really thin branches and large leaves at the top of the "tree."  It really looks like a bush or a large shrub.  You can't really climb a fig tree because the branches could not support your weight.  And does anyone know how fig trees get fertilized?  Wasps and little tiny ants.  Yeah, you got to be careful and I don't think I would be sitting under a fig tree very long.  

So, if you are like me, you probably have had a picture of this scene in your mind for some time of Nathanael sitting underneath this large, oak-like-tree pondering the meaning of life, and Jesus was up in the tree looking down at him.  Reality though, Nathanael was most likely in a garden doing work outside and happened to stop for a break to enjoy a treat from the tree when Philip approached.  Jesus’s physical presence in the tree was impossible, so how did Jesus see Nathanael standing under the fig tree before he was called?

There is just something about our Lord’s statement to Nathanael, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” That made Nathanael realize that Jesus is different and we are not told what that something is.  This story is more than just having Jesus be a really great stalker, Jesus could see Nathanael on a different level.  He knew Nathanael before Nathanael knew Jesus. 

Which is also a little bit scary.  Anyone remember what Nathanael said about Jesus and his hometown?   "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  Yet knowing what Nathanael said about him, Jesus still says, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!"  I don't know if I could say something nice to someone who has just insulted me and my hometown. Yet our Lord does because our Lord knows Nathanael on a completely different plane of existence.  Our Lord saw where Nathanael came from, knew him on a very intimate level and despite all of that, could see the potential of Nathanael as a disciple and still invited him to see greater things than what he witnessed on that day many years ago.  

I find this story helpful to remember in ministry.  It is not my job or any of our jobs to know people on this kind intimate level that our Lord knows Nathanael.  Rather, our mission as disciples, as the church, is to take what we see here and go find others.  To say, "Come and see" to people, both strangers and friends.  When they ask, "Can anything good happen come out of St. John’s/Martinsburg/the church?” Your reply needs only to be, “Come and see.”  You do not need to have the Augsburg Confession memorized, you don not have to know all the books of the Bible, you do not need to be a tele-evangelist—you simply need to do the invite, “Come and see.” Seriously, hit that share button right now and share our worship with all your friends and family on Facebook and simply right, “come and see.”

My brothers and sisters, the good news of today's text is that Jesus not only wants to be in relationship with you, but has been in a relationship with you before you even knew him.  Our Lord knows you on a deep and personal level.  Our Lord isn't stalking you but sees you, knows what bad and awful things you have said and says, "There is a person whom there is no deceit!"  There is someone whom I will use to proclaim the gospel.  That is the good message of today's gospel - our Lord likes you despite the fact that you say and do some pretty awful things.  There is nobody else in the world who wants that kind of relationship with you.  How blessed you are this day.  

But here's the thing.  You will see greater things.  Things that you cannot even begin to imagine.  Think of all Nathanael had to see:  Jesus tearing up the temple; curing the blind, the sick, and the lame; a Jewish male speaking to a samaritan woman; washing the disciples feet. Nathanael will see Judas betray him.  He will see Jesus tried and convicted, hung on a cross, and buried in a tomb.  He will see his rabbi be brought to life, he will see Thomas question his friends at the appearance of the resurrected Jesus; he will hear Thomas call Jesus "My Lord and my God," he will see Jesus make breakfast on the beach and be reminded that the work of being a disciple had only just begun.  He will see his Lord ascend into heaven and then he will witnessed the birth of the church. 

And it all started with that simple invitation from another disciple - come and see.  What have you seen and heard here?  I have seen some amazing things in my time as pastor.  I remember my first Easter Sunrise as a pastor.  On a cold day in March, walking out of the Parish hall carrying the Paschal candle chanting, "This is the night" and seeing the sunrise just start to break over the mountains - moments later reading from the gospel of John how the women went at early morning to anoint the body of Jesus only to discover that he had been risen.  Is that what it was like for the women?  Carrying candles and spices, looking at the sunrise, not knowing what awaited them?

I have seen amazing and wonderful things happen at the font.  I have held my Lord’s body and blood in my hands.  And not only have I held him in my hands, I am then take this amazing gift and give it out to others to see, taste, and enjoy.    I held babies who are just a few hours old.  I held the hand of dying Christians - friends whom I have loved.  I have confirmed young men and women in churches where it was said they have no kids or youth.  I have have walked with people from to the cradle to grave, and I know there are many great things to come.  I have come to know that God is not done with us, with you, with me, with this church, this congregation or this town or this world, just yet. There are many great things that await us in the future.  Today is only the beginning.  Your task, as followers of of Christ is to do some serious inviting.  You don’t need to have a systematics degree.  You don’t need all these fancy robes.  You don’t even need to have a good idea of who this Jesus character is.  You simply need to say, “Come and see.” For God has seen each and everyone of you, and knows you on a intimate level - knows your potential, knows what you have said and done, (End) and yet still loves you and wants to be with you.  

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

 

 

 

 

Splish. Splash

Baptism of our Lord - January 10, 2021
Genesis 1:1-5 
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7 
Mark 1:4-11 

Splish. Splash

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

In the beginning, God’s Spirit moved over the waters.  Earth was a formless void floating in space.  And God speaks.  Out of nothing came light.  God spoke into the midst of chaos and emptiness and made everything that is around us.  God existed before this all existed.  In this eternity of existence, God shows us exactly what God can do—create “order out of the chaos of unordered matter.”  It is hard to grasp and comprehend the immensity and power of our God and yet, it is important to remember that it is “in the context of God’s immensity, the Son, the Beloved, is baptized to know himself, to be transformed into the subservience John calls all people to engage so that he will carry out the mission he has been given.”

“When we look just at the Gospel reading for the Baptism of Our Lord, we do not see Jesus as fully as we see John the Baptist, his forerunner. Jesus remains a mystery while John stands before us in all the wildness of a life that shuns the interiors of buildings, eating what God provides in nature, speaking from the humility of a self that knows to whom it is indebted. We know what John wears; we are not told what Jesus wears. It is that clear of a difference. John, though peculiar according to our standards, is a fully human creature while Jesus—enigmatic, given to hearing a voice no one else hears—is identified in this scene in a way no one else has or will be known.”

Mark is different in that nobody else hears the voice of God.  It is possible that Mark might have made a grammar mistake, but the grammar is clear - “And just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Matthew and Luke would later clarify that indeed the entire crowd had seen and heard all that had occurred.   Mark, though, sets this very personal scene between Jesus and the Creator of the heavens and the earth, a scene where God affirms God’s relationship with Jesus and affirms that Jesus is doing everything in the way it has been planned.  This very personal moment, though, marks the time when all of creation is upended.  Notice, Mark says that the the heavens were torn apart—The word is the same word you would use to tear a shirt or a bag of chips. “Out of that rupture comes the Holy Spirit in a form that is described as a dove. That dove does not simply alight on Jesus, because in the Greek, eis auton can be said to have come into him. Jesus is infused with the Spirit from God. A new reality has come into the world, transforming all things including the seen (the heavens and a dove) and the unseen (a voice).?”  

As I say this, I think it would be good to stop and answer that age-old question: “why our Lord was even baptized?"  If he is without sin, why do something that is suppose to remove sin?  Mark’s gospel really does an amazing job showing how different of a baptism that Jesus experienced.  John was calling for people to repent “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  He was also proclaiming “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with[b] water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  John’s mission involves two task:  baptize those who have come to repent and to also prepare the way for our Lord.  When Jesus does arrive, his baptism is not needed for repentance but to usher in the next part of God’s plan.  Just as it was at the beginning of time, when God spoke into the chaos and made something out nothing,  it is here that God speaks again to the chaos of the world, tears open the heavens, and begins to transform this floating marble in space. The baptism of our Lord  is essentially a contract, a covenant that God make with Jesus. Jesus agrees to be faithful and God agrees to be faithful as well.

But that doesn’t mean this day in the church year has nothing to do with us.  There is a reason we remember this day every, single year on the Sunday after the Epiphany of our Lord. "On the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, the Holy Church proclaims our faith in the most sublime mystery, incomprehensible to human intellect, of one God in three Persons. It teaches us to confess and glorify the Holy Trinity, one in Essence and Undivided. It exposes and overthrows the errors of ancient teachings which attempted to explain the Creator of the world by reason, and in human terms. The Church shows the necessity of Baptism for believers in Christ, and it inspires us with a sense of deep gratitude for the illumination and purification of our sinful nature. The Church teaches that our salvation and cleansing from sin is possible only by the power of the grace of the Holy Spirit, therefore it is necessary to preserve worthily these gifts of the grace of holy Baptism, keeping clean this priceless garb, for “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27)."  We remember this day and we will continue to remember this day until his return because of the great joy this event has for humanity.  This is the day, the moment, When God tears open the heavens to usher in a new age.  This is the day, the moment, where Christ not just becomes commissioned, but known/authenticated as God's son. That Jesus is now where God's promises are being fully revealed. 

And in a day and age where cable tv news is on 24 hours a day, social media apps take up all our attention, where we bounce from one thing to the next—it is important to hear year after year that Jesus is where God's promises are fully revealed. We keep searching for the next best thing.  We keep searching for that special something to make us happy, rich, successful.  We keep searching for God in all the wrong places.  I think the events of this past week prove that Americans have more faith in our leaders to save them than in our savior, Jesus Christ.  We lift up our leaders, no matter if they are democrat or republican as our savior and they fail.  And when they do fail, it has serious consequences for those who look to these mere mortals as saviors.  This day, the day we remember the baptism of our Lord, stands in stark contrast to our new ideology.  Today, we are reminded of the real savior’s identity.  And not only today, but every time we gather, we are reminded that it is in this place, in this font, at this table, in these holy word from scripture, in this blessed community of saints that God is present, the heavens are torn open week after week, the holy spirit descends on us like a dove, and God reveals for us a little bit more of this blessed age to come. 

In the name of the the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

A little ditty about Simeon and Anna

Second Sunday in Christmas - January 3, 2021
Isaiah 61:10-62:3 
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

"A little ditty about Simeon and Anna"

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

I first want to note that if you are a church nerd, you will notice that today’s lessons are not the correct lessons appointed for the Second Sunday after Christmas.  John 1 should be the gospel and not Luke 2:22-40.  However, I already preached on John and I rarely ever get to preach on the lessons appointed for the first Sunday after Christmas.  Typically, I am so exhausted from Christmas that I usually take the Sunday off, like I did last week, and have some of our very talented Lay Leaders take over.  Since I already preached on John 1 on Christmas Day (you can go over to our YouTube page to watch that message), so let’s talk about this little ditty about Simeon and Anna.

Most of us know the story of Simeon.  If not, we at least know the song he sings:  “Now Lord, you let your servant go in peace…your word has been fulfilled.”  Also called the Nunc Dimittius which is latin for “Now you dismiss…” I remember learning this story in Sunday school…Simeon picking the baby Jesus in his arms, so excited that now he could finally die...Or something like that.  When I read this story today, it is hard for me to imagine any parent willingly allowing a complete stranger to hold their newly born son in their arms without a mask on. 

Anna rarely gets any mention.  She doesn’t sing a memorable song like Simeon.  Luke tells us that she is a prophet, of advanced aged, a widow after 70 years of marriage.  She sits and worships in the temple (slow) NIGHT and DAY.  That is a strange phrase…night and day… How do you normally say that phrase?  Day and night, right?  Did you also catch a similar thing that Simeon says?  “This child is destined for the FALLING and the RISING of many in Israel…” Again, how do you say that phrase?  Rising and falling, right?  Had this been any other gospel, I probably would have glanced over this very minor variant.  Had this been Mark, I probably would have just said he was writing to quick to care that he made a mistake.  But Luke is different.  Luke is careful about his word choice.  He tells us this in the very first few lines of the gospel:  I have set down to write an orderly account.  So, why did he reverse these two phrases?  

What is Luke trying to accomplish by telling us that Jesus, on the day he is presented in the temple, is met by these two strangers who speak of their baby as being more than just a baby, but declare him To be the salvation of the world?  We already know what Simeon says to be true.  Mary already sang about Jesus and his role in saving humanity during her magnificat.  And notice what Mary sings?  Again it is a reversal.  The rich sent away empty.  The powerful taken down from their thrones.  Luke is using Simeon as a way to reinforce this idea that God is reversing the way things have always done.  But Simeon takes it one step further.  “Simeon tells Mary that “a sword will pierce” her soul (her psyche). She will experience great pain, thorough agony, and the madness of those who witness injustice and are unable to stop it. When we who live on this side of the crucifixion and resurrection hear Simeon’s words, we have a way to know something of what Mary endures watching her son die. Or maybe we can never know; at least we honor the torment. She is the mother of all the disappeared and oppressed, the imprisoned and tortured protesters throughout history. She stands beside his cross. She watches. Before the rising is the falling. Before the glory of God is the cross.”  Simeon might very well be reinforcing this reversal concept that Luke is using, but we also get a glimpse into the heart of Mary—a mother will one day watch her son die on the cross to save billions of people she will never even know their names.  

Then there is Anna.  She again is reinforcing this reversal, but she takes it to the next level as well.  “We first learn that she is up all night and only then do we learn that she is also in prayer all day. She is keeping vigil at all hours, waiting for the arrival of the one who will redeem Israel. Mirroring the order—down before up, cross before triumph—is the fasting and praying Anna practiced “night and day.” These two prophets know what God is about: salvation comes through confrontation. The sign of the Messiah is opposition. There is no resurrection without the crucifixion. There is no unbinding without the binding. That the hard reality of repentance precedes forgiveness tells us plainly that there is no forgiveness where there is no fault.”

“The fact of injustice, pain, hurt, denigration, want, and death mean that God is eternally at work to bring healing to all facets of our lives. The Lord is at work in the world just as Mary sings about it when the angel announces God’s favor on her. She gives thanks that God brings down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry, and sends “the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). All these powerful actions mean to reverse normal worldly expectations. Not in spite of, but because of struggle and destruction, the Lord, the Holy Spirit, brings consolation and deliverance. The Holy Spirit guides the faithful to meet the Messiah in order to take on the same mission: to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. Just as the Spirit “rested” on Simeon, the Spirit rests on the baptized in every age, compelling prayer and fasting, urging us to righteous deeds, calling us to see through or within our failures a pathway to the good. The Lord uses the wicked ways of all creation in order to bring about what nurtures and creates peace, and thus is Simeon able to sing of a peace which has come to him because he has seen the savior.”

God is all about doing the unthinkable.  You know, when I was younger, I had a speech problem.  I saw a speech therapist until I was in the 8th grade.  I had some learning disabilities growing up.  A few years ago, I went back and read  some of those reports from school counselors.  I doubt that, at the time, any of my counselors or speech therapist could have ever imagined that I would have went on to receive a Master’s degree and have a job where I get paid to give speeches.  Yet, here I am.  God called 12 of the strangest characters to be his disciples.  One betrayed.  One denied him.  They all abandoned him at the cross.  Yet, look at what God did?  From 12, to over a billion and still going strong.  Not ever a pandemic has stopped us from proclaiming the good news about this babe of Bethlehem.  

Simeon’s song and Anna’s joy lives on today.  Though they are long gone, we still sing of the mysteries we have beheld at the altar.  We leave worship  with joy in our hearts just as Anna had joy in her heart after seeing the salvation of the world wrapped up flesh and blood.  And even though we might not be able to gather around this table and sing Simeon’s song as we have before, “we still receive through God’s Word the promise of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness”—which is exactly what Simeon is proclaiming.  Even in these times when church and worship just don’t feel right, because God’s word is proclaimed, we still witness the salvation.  Despite not being able to receive the sacrament where we are promised to hold Jesus in the palms of our hands just like Simeon held Jesus in his, we still can behold the salvation for all people.  The gospel is salvation for all people and it is why we have never shutdown as a church.  Our work is needed now more than ever.  People need to hear the good news that God knows a thing or two about reversing things—that our God knows how to turn things around.  

Simeon and Anna died a long time ago, yet the world needs people like them.  The world needs people willing to proclaim the good news like Simeon did. The Good news which also includes the harsh truth that we sometimes do not hear—things will get worse before they better.  The world needs more Annas who are willing to keep vigil night and day in the temple as we await the return of our Lord. The spirit of God is at work this day, my brothers and sisters.  Can you feel the Spirit?  Can you hear the Spirit?  This little ditty about Simeon and Anna is actually about you as well.  Preach the gospel with truth and honesty, never stop holding vigil for our Lord’s return, and may God’s favor rest upon you as well. 

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

 

Pitched a Tent

Christmas Day - December 25, 2020
Isaiah 52:7-10 
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-4 [5-12] 
John 1:1-14

“Pitched a Tent"

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

How does one celebrate Christmas when everything that we normally do on Christmas cannot happen?  Normally, I would have had two services last night where over 200 people would have joined together to sing, “O Come all ye faithful.”  Normally I would have gotten home around 1:30 in the morning completely hopped up on adrenaline, country ham sandwiches and coffee.  I left church last night around 9:30pm with only 4 of my live stream committee members and my choir director’s family in the sanctuary.  Each person there had a job and where only there because I could not be in five places at once.  Today, after I leave here, I will go home and spend Christmas Day with just my family and my in-laws.  We will not be traveling over all of creation as we normally do.  We will not get to see extended family.  We will not gather around a large dining room table, stuffing our faces full of ham and turkey.  We will not gather around a tree to watch each other open gifts.  Instead, this Christmas will be very different and unforgettable.  

I remember my first Christmas at St. John’s.  I was running around trying to make sure I had everything ready to go for my first major Christmas Eve here when I got a call that a church member was in Winchester Hospital.  This was back in the day when pastors could actually go and see people in the hospital.  Immediately after I got the phone call, I dropped everything that I was doing and drove down to Winchester Hospital to see Carroll.  I thought it was awful that Carroll, a pastor spouse and one of most beloved shut-ins would have to spend Christmas in the hospital.  Carroll should be with her family, I thought.  She should be with her grandchildren as they open Christmas gifts.  This is not fair, I thought.  It was cruel.  

As I sat down and told her how awful it must be to be stuck in here on Christmas, she responded, "You know, we should celebrate Christmas every day."  And then she went on to tell me, and I am paraphrasing here - she said it better but I didn't think to write it down word for word, "Being in here doesn't mean I will miss Christmas, it just means it will be different." Carroll just recently passed away from Covid19.  I never got to tell her how much she taught me that morning I visited her at Winchester Hospital when she asked she said, “we should really celebrate Christmas every day.”  We should.  And I am not talking about the family gatherings, the ham and turkey, the traditions that each of our families has to celebrate this day.  No, I am talking about the the most basic idea of Christmas - That God is present with us.  That God is present in both the happy moments and in the most difficult of days—when it feels like the darkness is so thick that you can cut it with a knife.  For as John says in the gospel reading for today:  The light shines in the Darkness and the Darkness does not overcome it. 

That is a powerful message and its meaning has been lost because of our modern day technology.  Do you know how blessed we are to have artificial light sources, cheap-artificial-light?  All we got to do is flip a switch and the light shines in the darkness.  Candles can be purchased at the dollar tree.  Oil for candles is not that expensive at all.  Yet in the ancient world in which Jesus was living, in order to have just 15 minutes of artificial light at night, it would cost almost a day's wage (like a $120 in today's world). 

You know, now-a-days, we live in a time when light pollution is a real issue.  Yellow Stone is looking to designate part of their park as "big-sky" which would therefore deny any artificial light sources from taking over the sky.  We live in a time when darkness is not all that big of a problem - yet in the day of Jesus, the phrase, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it" would have been a powerful phrase indeed to say and make.  

That the light from our savior is more valuable than a day's wage, can last for more than 15 minutes, and can outshine any darkness.  This light source has apparently been around since the beginning of time when God created the heavens and the earth—for some reason we rather sit in darkness. Perhaps it is because when one sits in the dark, it is a lot easier to hide ugliness of one’s sin.  But to those who welcomed the light, the light dwelt there and lived among the people.  The Word of God became flesh and lived among us and the glory of God's son shined bright and has lit our world since that fateful night in Bethlehem, when all the world stood still as the savior was born into a very dark stable in Bethlehem.  We were completely unprepared even though prophets had long foretold of his birth and coming.  We made no room, we made no extra effort.  The savior of the world came in the most unglamorous of fashions and lived among us.  As my wife so beautiful summed it up on Christmas Day in 2017, “Phenomenal Cosmic Powers! Itty Bitty Living Space!” Our Lord, who was there when all of creation was formed, who holds the same power of the Father in the palms of his hands, dwells and lives within our midst, taking the form a child. 

That idea of dwelt/living among us gets lost in translation.  Our biblical translations really do a nice job of making those words sound pretty and flow beautifully together but the actual Greek is "pitched a tent."   The Word became flesh and pitched-a-tent among us.  It is very similar to the Israelites traveling in the wilderness for 40 years and carrying around a tent called the tabernacle where the required sacrifices could be made to God in this tent. John uses this this idea of pitching a tent to imply a deep intimacy, not just a passerby or temporary guest. While at the at the same time noting that the coming of the Word-made-flesh was something different, and not fully native.  That his coming would be different and is different.  

To celebrate Christmas every day means that we look for where God is pitching a tent in our world still today.  Where do you see Christ pitching a tent in your life?  Where do we see the tent? The Word of God becoming bread and wine for us to hold and eat.  What about at your home? Around the dinner table?  On that Christmas Tree? The light that God is offering us is so much better than the cheap, artificial light that our current world has to offer.  I have seen God pitching a tent in all kinds of places this past year.  God pitched a tent among the scientists who put in long hours to develop a safe vaccine that might put an end to Covid19.  God has pitch a tent among the medical professionals who continue to risk their lives as to care for complete and utter strangers during this pandemic.  God has pitch a tent among the teachers who work tirelessly to teach children over zoom.  God pitch a tent among the 2600 jeeps that gave a special parade for a little boy named Georgie, who has been at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital since October 2019 and is suffering with Stage 4 neuroblastoma and who has returned home to spend what could be his  Christmas with his family. God has pitch a tent among the waiters or waitresses who has not seen a stable paycheck since the pandemic started.  God has pitch a tent among the countless number of men and women who have lost their jobs during this pandemic.  God has pitch a tent among those who have lost loved ones to Covid19 this past year and have not yet been able to grieve with others their loss. Pitching a tent doesn’t mean things will get better, but it means that God is with us.  Where is God pitching a tent today?  I can assure you, God is not hold up in our church buildings.  Covid19 has taught us that the Word of God cannot be just contained to sanctuaries.  The Word of God is with you, wherever you might go, dwelling with you, shining that light to cut through the darkness that you might find yourself in.  

We live in a world shrouded in darkness this day. Even with so much artificial light, we still lose our way.  We walk around saying that 2020 has been an utter failure of years and yet, we cannot even begin to see that God has been with us this whole time.  We forget the gospel truth that God has pitched a tent in our world. When God is present, failure is never an option. When God is present, even the dead are raised back to life.  When God is present, even the sinner is forgiven.  Christmas teaches us that there is no place our Lord won’t go to be with you.  Whether it be in a cave, a locked room, a classroom, a hospital room—God will be in those places and it is your job, my brothers and sisters, to tell the world that the darkness will end.  It cannot overcome God’s light, God’s promised hope.  Church, even though you find yourselves stuck in your homes this day, you are still tasked with the beautiful and holy obligation to not pitch the tent, but to tell the world God is present, to point to those places where you see God present, that Christmas is not a day we celebrate, but is a way to live—God present with us even in the darkness. Come out of the darkness this Christmas, out of the shadows and see the hope that this season brings because you might be the light that some one might need this Christmas. Be Christ’s candle sticks and go light up the world.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Who are we?

Christmas Eve - December 24, 2020
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

Who are we?
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Tonight, is not a birthday celebration for Jesus.  For one thing, as the text reminds us, shepherds would not be sleeping in the fields in the middle of winter.  While Luke doesn’t give us a date, he give us a clue that Jesus was probably born in the spring time.  So, tonight is not a big birthday party. 

Tonight is not about family gatherings.  Out of love and safety, most of these special gatherings have been canceled this year.  If Christmas was about family gatherings, then Christmas would need not be happening…yet here we are…worshipping the newborn king just as we have for hundreds of years.  

Tonight is not about reading your favorite Christmas story  written by people like Charles Dickens or Dr. Seuss.  Christmas involves none of these things society deems a necessity to happen on Christmas.  Tonight, Christmas, is about remembering that God is present in our world.  Tonight is about remembering the time when God

  • the great creator of heaven and earth; 
  • who formed the earth out of nothing; 
  • who took this formless marble floating in space and made something out of nothing; 
  • the same God who delivered the people out of slavery in Egypt; 
  • who spoke to Abraham and Sarah who even though they had no children of their own promised them that God would build a great nation from their offspring; 
  • who spoke to Job in the whirlwind, 
  • who inspired people like Ester to speak up and save God’s people from tyranny; 
  • who promised King David that from his line would forever include great leaders for the people of God
  • tonight is about remember that time when our amazing God was born in the city of Bethlehem, in a cave, placed in a stone feeding trough, and had shepherds come and worship him.

It is a night that needs little fan fair; pomp and circumstance.   For our Lord had very little.  Jesus was born at a time when the world considered his life to be of little to be of no consequence. Born at a time when Augustus was known as savior of the world.  Born in a city known as the home of a deceased and defunct monarch.  Born to a family, even though Joseph shared in King David’s legacy, lacked any of David’s wealth or stature.  Born in a town where the population was no more than 300 people.  It was small and run down that held little to no significance to Rome.  It was not in a particular strategic section of the empire.  Bethlehem was a forgotten place.  The only reason Mary and Joseph are traveling to this place is because Augustus, the great savior of world, wants to find a way to tax people like Mary and Joseph.  This census was a way to count the people and then force them to pay more in taxes to Rome, to support an Empire that cared only about world domination. 

We read this story with rose colored glasses.  We hear the romantic side of our Lord’s birth.  Seriously, I am surprised Hallmark hasn’t tried to make a movie out the birth of Jesus.  This story, the story we heard read here tonight, especially during this year, has the ability to do two things: Make us long for what we use to have or it can help us refocus on the new future that God wants us to move towards.  Nostalgia has a way of creeping in and stealing the power away from this crazy  story.  

Whenever I stand and read this gospel lesson or hear it, I always think about those childhood Christmases.  I think about all those Christmas pageants I was in as a kid.  I think about that time I played Joseph or that time I was the narrator.  I think about those Christmas Eve’s spent as an acolyte at my Dad’s church, with my cousins, aunts and uncles, my grandmother in the pews that evening.  I think about everyone coming back to our house for dinner after church.  I miss those simple days.  I miss that feeling of stability and excitement.  And in 2020, stability and excitement are in short supply.  

Looking around on Social media today, the general consensus is that Christmas is a complete wash.  Nostalgia seems to be winning. All those normal traditions have been put on hold.  Family gatherings canceled or drastically scaled back.  Video calls will replace in-person visits on Christmas Day.  Tonight feels like a complete and utter failure.  We are tailspinning into an ocean of complete despair and the only way to pull ourselves out of this death dive is to dive deep into the story of our Lord’s Birth. 

So, I want you to imagine yourself as either Mary or Joseph.  I want you to picture what it must have felt like for the holy family to leave their home in Nazareth, travel over three days on the back of a donkey, all the while having a very pregnant spouse.  You go to Bethlehem knowing its reputation.  You go there knowing full well that there might not be a place for you to stay.  Remember, Bethlehem is where Joseph is from.  This is his family.  His friends.  He probably left Bethlehem to find better work.  He returns home with a woman who is pregnant and was found to be with child before they could be married.  You know, I have to wonder if all those rooms in Bethlehem were actually full.  

When Thomas and Isaiah were born, we had a plan, and expectation of what it would be like.  Because of the amazing medical team at Jefferson Hospital, from the doctors, nurses, tech, Cooks, maintenance staff and house cleaning crews, they made the experience even better than we could have imagined.  One month before Diane was due with Isaiah, we decided to skip a synod con-ed event because we didn’t want to travel that close to Diane’s due date.  Yet we live in a time when hospitals are within a reasonable driving distance, where medical staffs are well trained, and where giving birth has relatively low risk because of the entire medical team’s training.  

Now, put yourself in the shoes of Mary and Joseph.  Forced to leave their home and family in Nazareth to go to the middle of nowhere while being nine months pregnant.  Mary’s whole birthing experience, her life up this point could be classified in today’s 2020 terms as an utter failure.  Yet, it was a night where God fulfilled the prophecy of Haggai - “I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land.”  God shook the heavens, the earth, and the sea on the night of our Lord’s birth.  God forever changed the world on that night, God forever changed a town forgotten by time.  God shook the world, an empire, a town, in need of a good shaking.  Rome was trying to replace the need for God.  Rome was trying to rewrite reality where they were the mediators of peace and their leader, Augustus was the savior of the world. Yet, God shook the world out of its complacency.  God re-righted things that night in Bethlehem.  For our Lord was not born in a palace as Augustus was.  He was not born to a wealthy family.  He was not born in power or privilege.  He was born in a town filled the most despised of all people — Mary and Joseph.  

“Nobody notices or understands what God performs in the stable…Oh, what a dark night it must have been over Bethlehem and they did not see such a light! Yet God, in this moment, reminds us that he pays no attention at all to what the world is or has or can do, and on the other hand the world proves that it knows nothing at all of, and pays no attention to, what God is or has or does. …Christ puts to shame the world and indicates that all of its doing, knowledge, and being are contemptible to us, that its greatest wisdom is in reality foolishness, that its best performance is wrongdoing, and that its greatest good is evil.”  The birth of Christ, by the world's standards, by 2020 standards, would be an utter failure.  Yet, God shows the world what God can do with utter failures.  But notice that God places angels in the sky, awakens shepherds sleeping in the fields and tells them that an utter failure has taken place and they are welcome to go and see it for themselves—only it is not a utter failure; it is good news for all people.  God sent angels to proclaim a wondrous and most splendid surprise—the word of God has been made flesh and they: poor, despised, and outcast shepherds are invited to see this thing which has taken place.   

The angels sing of God’s new and wondrous idea—The idea of Emmanuel—God with us.  They sing of peace coming down to the earth.  They tell the shepherds that they need to only go into town, find the holy family and they themselves can hold God’s gift of peace in the palm of their hands.  And on this most holy of nights, in the midst of another year deemed by the world as an utter failure, the angels sing to us once again - they proclaim the good news that the peace we long to feel, the peace we long to experience, the peace that has evaded us all year is within our reach—it is within our grasp.  For centuries, the world has never been able to experience or offer such a gift as God gave to us many years ago in the most unlikely of places; A cave, a stone feeding trough, a baby wrapped in scraps of cloth.  At the time, I am sure Mary and Joseph could not have envision that in a similar place, many years later, our Lord would emerge from a cave after laying a stone bed and wrapped in burial cloths—completing God’s plan of Salvation for God’s people.  

Our Lord’s birth is a reminder of what is to come and so we meet our Lord at the stable tonight.  We hold a vigil of sorts with a joyful spirit in hearts, but we also hold the reality of what awaits our Lord in the future.  We gather on this night and remember that with God, there is no such thing as utter failure.  That with God, nothing is impossible. We gather on this night forever reminded that the message the angels proclaimed to shepherds, remains true today - (END) that peace has come down from heaven to the earth and we, as followers of Christ, each have the chance to hold God’s most precious gift of peace in the palm of our hands.    

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

Magnify

Advent 4 - December 20, 2020
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:46b-55
Romans 16:25-27 
Luke 1:26-38

Magnify

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

We started this sermon series on the Psalms appointed for the Sundays in Advent.  Yet, you will notice that today’s psalm is not from the book of Psalms but is from Luke…a gospel…in the New Testament.  Is this a case of Marcionism where the lectionary believes the God of the New Testament is different from the God of the Old Testament?  Marcionism is a heresy which was condemned in the 2nd century, so I think we can safely assume that an ecumenical committee set up by mainline churches would not be propagating a 1800 year old heresy in their choice of psalm.  In fact, if you remember from what I said on November 29, the first Sunday in Advent, not all the Biblical psalms are in the book of the Psalms.  In fact, there are other psalms in the Bible such as Exodus 15 (the Song of Moses), nearly 75% of the book of Revelation, Philippians 4 (the Christ Hymn) and Luke 1:46-55, otherwise known as the Magnificat.  

But how did Mary get to this point? Her story begins in a town called Nazareth.  She was a virgin and was engaged to man named Joseph.  In those days, an angel named Gabriel appeared to her and told her what God was planning to do. He says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” What an interesting way to say hello. No wonder she is feeling perplexed by Gabriel’s greeting.  And then Gabriel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid…” Why tell someone not to be afraid if you are not scary looking or the news you bring would cause fear? 

Mary is obviously frighten.  It is either his appearance or his message that terrifies her.  Angels are terrifying creatures.  Remember, they are the warriors of heaven.  Gabriel is a part of the Marines.  Think of a guy dressed like Rambo appearing in your room…Lurking in the shadows. Judging by the way Luke writes, I am assuming that Mary is scared of Gabriel’s appearance but the news he brings her would cause alarm as well.  “You have found favor with God...” is never good thing to hear from an angel. It means God has some crazy adventure that God wants you to do.  Any hopes and dreams of Mary getting rich and living the easy life have gone out the window at this point—not that she ever really had any of those plans to begin with.  Yet, what God has planned for her will simply blow her mind.  

“You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” The virgin will conceive a son and she will name him Jesus.  A virgin engaged to another man will conceive a son.  This sort of thing does not happen.  Nowhere in Hebrew Bible has a virgin conceived a child.  An older woman, yes.  It happens a few times, but never a virgin.  It sounds something out a fairytale that nobody would ever believe.  You don’t need to be a biology major to understand how one conceives and bears a child.  And to have this happen at a period in human history where a woman had no rights, where women were seen as property of either their Father or spouse, when a woman convicted of adultery could face death and be thrown out of the family—I am not sure if Mary is more afraid of Gabriel or at the news that he brings.   Yet, Mary does not shriek from the responsibility thrusted upon her by God.  Perhaps that is why God choose her—God knew she could handle this.  Mary does not tell the angel she needs time to think it over.  She says to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

But then she leaves home to visit her cousin.  Luke doesn’t tell us why.  So, many people have speculated and wondered if Mary was trying to run away.  Luke, though, gives us some clues—mainly that Mary wanted to see this other miracle which has taken place:  Elizabeth, an older woman, giving birth to a child.  That is most likely the answer, but our biblical imaginations sometimes run a bit wild here, and that’s okay.  Mary leaves at once for the Judean town where Elizabeth and Zechariah live.  Upon entering the house, the child in Elizabeth’#s belly leaps for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice.  The Holy Spirit speaks through Elizabeth and she proclaims, “‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.” Elizabeth is a proclaimer of the good news just like Mary Magdalene was on the day of Christ’ resurrection.  (START MUSIC) She reveals to Mary the good news that awaits in the world in her belly.  And then Mary sings…

In the midst of such horrible, bad news for Mary, she proclaims that God will not act in the future, but is acting now.  I don’t know how she does it.  Around the time of our Lord’s birth, there was a Jewish rebellion against Rome. This particular rebellion was squelched “when The Syrian legions under the direction of Rome crashed the Jewish rebellions and burned the city of Sepphoris in Galilee and reduced its inhabitants to slavery…Those who could not hide from the Syrian legions “were killed, raped, and enslaved. Those who survived had lost everything.” Nazareth was about 4 miles from Sepphoris. Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth must witness this horrific act.  

Mary knew first hand the power that Rome possessed in the world.  She also knew that because she was not a citizen, she had none of the protections that came from being a Roman citizen.  She also knew that because she was a woman, she had no rights within her own community.  Elizabeth sees in Mary the hope for her people and the world.  Elizabeth knows that in Mary’s belly was the salvation promised to Abraham and Sarah many years ago.  She recognized that Mary was carrying the savior of the world and God had entrusted her with the duties of caring for her son who would be God’s salvation for the world.

“The Magnificat demonstrates that God is concerned with the social and political realities of the daily life of Jews, and God acts on behalf of the oppressed and against the proud and powerful. God brings down the powerful and lifts the lowly. God is God of this moment and the moment to come. God’s salvation is present here on earth and in the coming future. According to Mary, God’s salvific action is present-already and not just future reality. Here we can understand that Jesus’ salvation starts at the moment of the Annunciation and ends at the cross. Salvation is not limited to crucifixion, but the whole life of Jesus was salvific action. God is ruling on earth as in heaven. God rules instead of Caesar. The Magnificat is inviting us to imagine how the world would look like if Jesus sat on Augustus’ throne and ruled with peace and justice. Jesus, the new King, rules on earth without Caesar’s permission. He rules not through violence, but he rules with mercy.”

The magnificat magnifies God’s new plan for the world.  A plan where the mighty have fallen and the lowly are lifted up.  A plan where mercy rules the land and not violence.  A plan where the hungry are fed and and the rich are sent away empty—the complete opposite of what the world offers.  And so my question this day, on this last Sunday in Advent, what needs to be magnified in your life?  What do we need to magnify in order welcome the return of Christ? 

If we are to be truly authentic, then we must acknowledge the role that women play in the early part of the gospel.  The women are the ones who proclaim the good news.  In fact, the only man in the first chapter of the Luke is made mute by God because he doubts God’s ability to give him and his wife a child.  He doesn’t believe God and this guy is a priest—you would think a priest would know and understand that God knows how to help older women get pregnant—he has done it before.  The men are speechless…the women are the evangelist.  A woman who could hav been killed for being found with a child out of wedlock. A woman who spent her entire life being ridiculed for not having a child while younger—who was told by many religious elite that her barrenness was because God was punishing her.  God entrust two women, coming from completely different generations, with the task of proclaiming the good news and bearing the Word of God made flesh.  

If we are going to be authentic this Advent, we must magnify and shine light on the role women play on proclaiming the gospel.  If we are going to be authentic this Advent, we must magnify and shine light on the role that the-least-likely-people have in defining the coming of our Lord: The hungry, the meek, those who show mercy, a nation of people who are being held as nothing more than slaves to the empire.  If we are going to be authentic this Advent season, we must also be willing To our young women when they speak just as we listen to a young, 14 year old Mary sing of the greatness of her God. If we are going to be authentic this Advent season, we must also be willing to condemn the spending of billions of dollars to make Christmas more magical. If we are going to be authentic this advent, we need to promote the idea of the powerful be thrown out of their thrones and the lowly put in their place.  If we are going to be authentic, we need to proclaim the radical nature of the gospel— The gospel is suppose to make us feel uneasy.  God has come to scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, and send the rich away with nothing to eat just like when the rich send the poor away with nothing to eat.  The gospel is good news for some and bad news for others. If you are hearing this message as bad news, then you might need to reconsider your place and role in the world. 

So, what are you going to magnify this day? Who are you going to magnify this day?  What do you want to see changed in your life and in the world around you?  What is God already doing that you couldn’t see until now, this moment?  If Mary has nothing to fear, neither do you.  Mary faced death.  She faced being kicked out of her family.  She faced a lifetime of public ridicule for being that girl who had a child out of marriage.  She risked it all and God blessed her. Why can’t the same be done for you?  What is holding you back?  Not much has changed since Mary first sang this song:  “People are still anticipating deliverance from unjust rulers and unjust law.”  People are still waiting on Christ to return.  How can you be like Mary and Elizabeth this day?  How can you proclaim and magnify the good news of God?  Who can you call blessed?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

 

Restore

December 13, 2020 - Advent 3
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Restore

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

This is one instance where the NRSV translation of Psalm 126 is a bit misleading. The NRSV begins with verbs in the past tense “When the LORD RESTORED the fortunes of Zion…” but as Robert Altar points out, this is very much a prayer to God for restoration to come about.  “When the Lord restores Zion’s fortunes…” The fortunes that the psalmist speaks of is the return of Israel out of exile and back to their land—the land promised to Moses;  to Sarah and  Abraham.  The promised land taken from them by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.  These exilic psalms often dream of that day when the Babylonians would one day be punished for their actions and Israel would be restored to its place in the world.  The psalmist is dreaming of a better day much like Louis Armstrong did when he sang, “What a wonderful world…”. Perhaps, you can relate to the psalmist this day…dreaming of a day when we can come out of our caves and return to a normal existence.  

But with all respect to Louis Armstrong and our psalmist, I don’t know if I can ever just forget these past months. To illustrate my reasoning, I like to turn our attention to the book of Job. In the book of Job, we hear a man from the land of Uz was “sincere and upright, God-fearing and shunning evil.” He was married and had seven sons and three daughters.  Not only that, he had “seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of cattle, five hundred she- donkeys, and very much production; and the man was greater than all the children of the East.” Job did all the right sacrifices and burnt offerings to God.  But unbeknownst to Job, the day came when the angels of God, the Lord, and the Adversary known as the Ha-Satan—not Satan (or Lucifer), came together for a meeting.  

“The Lord said to the Adversary, "Where are you coming from?" And the Adversary answered the Lord and said, "From going to and fro on the earth and from walking in it.”

Now the Lord said to the Adversary, "Have you paid attention to My servant Job? For there is none like him on earth, a sincere and upright man, God-fearing and shunning evil.”

“And the Adversary answered the Lord and said, "Does Job fear God for nothing? Haven't You made a hedge around him, his household, and all that he has on all sides? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his livestock has spread out in the land? But now, stretch forth Your hand and touch all that he has, will he not blaspheme You to Your face?”

The Lord said to the Adversary, "Behold, all that he has is in your hands; only upon him do not stretch forth your hand." And in a blink of an eye, everything that was of value and worth to Job was taken away.  Job was left with nothing.  No livestock.  His home destroyed.  His children all killed.  Job was left with only ashes of the life he once knew and loved.  Job spends the next 38 chapters arguing with his so-called friends who argue that Job must have done something to anger God.  Job defends himself the entire time.  Yet, his friends keep blaming him.  Eventually, God shows up, but does not tell him the truth.  The Lord does not tell him about the bet he made with the Adversary that Job would never blaspheme the Lord even if he were to lose all that he had.  Instead, the Lord says, “Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell if you know understanding…” Eventually, Job’s wealth is restored: "he now has fourteen thousand flocks and six thousand camels and a thousand yoke of cattle and a thousand she-donkeys, And he had fourteen sons and three daughters.” Job lives a very long life and was able to see four generations born. It appears that life has returned back to normal for Job and I have often read the story of job this way, but then then 2020 happen.  I realized this year that Job’s children from the beginning of the story.  They have no names and their lives came to an veery abrupt and violent end all because of a bet made between God and the Ha-Satan.  So much loss of life.  

Back in April, I told of the time when Thomas passed out in the back of my dad’s car and was not responsive.  I still get very choked up when I think about that day—a day when I nearly car jacked a person because I didn’t have a way to get home and rescue my son.  I think about that day and it makes me sick to my stomach knowing that we were so lucky that he was okay.  Even during this virus, my wife and I have taken so many extra precautions to protect our two boys.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose them.  I could not function.  I certainly could not be like Job who just seems to return to his old life unscathed by the past.  Job might have had the things taken away from him restored, he certainly would never have forgotten the day that he learned his life was in ashes. 

When the LORD restores Zion's fortunes.
we should be like dreamers.
Then will our mouth fill with laughter
and our tongue with glad song.
Then will they say in the nations: 
Great things has the LORD done with these."
Great things has the LORD done with us.
We shall rejoice.

If we are going to have an authentic Advent, we need to have an honest conversation—restoration does not mean things return back to normal.  The things taken from us, even if they are restored at double the rate they were taken, will never truly be replaced.  296,000 people have died in the United States.  1.6M worldwide.  You simply cannot replace the life of a loved one who died at the hands of an invisible disease.  Our world, our nation, our community will feel this loss for generations to come.  Every time I see someone walk into a store without a mask on, I shake my head and mumble under my breath.  It will take some time for all of us to no longer look with anger and suspicion at our neighbor.  It will take some time to get use to not wearing a mask.  For anyone expecting God to come down and bring a Job-like Restoration is going to be in for a rude awakening.  Job did grieve the loss of his children until the day of his death.  Job lived with the scars of his loss and there was no amount of restoration that could ever fix the pain the he would always feel.  

God will bring restoration, my brothers and sisters.  Covid19 will be in the rear-view mirror hopefully sooner rather than later.  But we will always have the scars of this time just like our Lord carried his scars from the cross in his hands and feet from the cross even as he was lifted up into heaven to take his rightful place on the throne of God.  To forget what has happened during this time is the same as denying our Lord was crucified.  To only focus on the resurrection means we forget the fact that on the cross our Lord died for you and me.  Restoration means living with the past as a constant reminder so that the future might be filled with less pain and misery. Restoration means we allow the mistakes of the past to educate us in all future endeavors.  Restoration means life, but it also means we will never forget the loss of life felt in the past.  As the psalmist reminds us, “what began in tears and weeping will end with shouts of joy and arms filled with proof of God’s great work in their midst… We are called to live expectantly, fully convinced that the tears and weeping of our day will not have the last word. The God we serve is the God of restoration and reversal…and as Advent reminds us, our waiting is not in vain.”

And so we wait, holed up in my homes, scared of what the future might well hold for us, for you, but we wait because we know God knows how to restore what has been tarnished and destroyed.  God knows how to fix this.  The pain you might be feeling today, the loneliness that you might be feeling today, the fear that you might feel today—God knows how to fix this.  But we must wait and be patient.  Yet, we are not a patient people and that is exactly why we need Advent, each and every year, to remind us of of the importance of waiting on our Lord.  Advent reminds us of this timeless truth - restoration will come and we will be glad indeed on that day.  Amen.  Come, Lord, Jesus.  

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  

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