Readings for First Sunday after Christmas Day, 12/28/14: Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 148, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:22-40 Isaiah 61:10-62:3:
"my whole being shall exult in my God." How do you exalt God with your whole being? We think of ourselves so much as in our heads, so much about our souls, relegating our bodies to just be flesh-things that contain us on earth. But Isaiah sees a whole-body worshipping of God. Do you put your whole self into worship?
I don't usually feel inspired by bride-to-be imagery in the Bible, but I get what it means to convey. Have you ever been part of a wedding and the preparations of the wedding party? All decked out, in the best finery, with so much desire to please the other spouse-to-be. That's how we, God's people, are meant to feel about being ready to meet God.
I like Psalms that are simple and clear in their focus: Praise God, everything and everyone. It is a reminder to me, to us, in our worship preparations, to remember what is our focus: Praise God, everything and everyone. Sometimes we try so hard for something fantastic that we lose focus on why we put together such wonderful music, beautiful liturgies, and carefully crafted sermons. Praise God!
Psalms like this that include things like: sun, moon, starts, mountains, fire, hair, hills, trees, cattle, birds, young, old, men, women, rules, snow, and wind, all in one litany remind us of our relationship with ALL creation. A little stewardship of the earth, please? If the psalm says all creation praises God, we do a good job of putting a stop to the praise when we destroy the creation...
This image sort of reminds me of The Lion King when all the animals come to see the new baby Simba be ‘baptized’ – all creation is joining in. What a picture!
Creation is commanded by the psalmist to give praise because of its existence. Do we require more of God to give God praise? Do we only feel like praising when things are going our way or when we’ve received some desired request? Or do we praise because we are, because we have being?
V. 11-12 say that Kings and the regular people, rulers, young men and women, old men and women, all should praise together. Is that a good picture of worship today? How do we worship together from different walks of life? Who is missing from this full picture in our own congregations?
Adoption language. I have trouble with this language of Paul's. I don't know what to think. Are we only God's adopted children because of Jesus Christ, or are we God's children already because we are created in God's image? I can see good theological arguments either way. If we're God's adopted children, then that means like parents adopt children today, God choosesto be our parent. I like that image. But I don't like an implication that we're only God's children because of Christ. Aren't all people God's children?
What does it mean to be a child of God? Think about the place of children in the Bible - in Jesus' teaching. How are you entering God's kingdom in a childlike way?
Simeon in particular has been waiting for sometime to see the Messiah, even though he had no idea when this would happen. What have you been waiting your whole life to see? What's worth such wait?
I feel sorry for poor Mary, hearing Simeon's confusing and upsetting words about her son. Do you think she thought he was a crazy man, or do you think she already had a feeling about what he said?
When you look at a child, can you envision in them all that they might be? God looks at us that way, I think, even when we are no longer young in years, always seeing all that we might be.
Readings for Christmas Sunday, 12/25/14: Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12), John 1:1-14 Isaiah 52:7-10:
"beautiful feet" - I've known this verse, though not where to find it in the Bible, since I was in a summer-camp production of "Sandi Patti and the Friendship Company" in junior high, where "Beautiful Feet" was one of the songs. I looked all over for lyrics online, but couldn't find them. Beautiful feet - what a great image! Are your feet beautiful? What message do your feet carry from place to place? Do you bring peace with your feet? Salvation?
Isaiah speaks of the joy of Israel returning back home after exile to Babylon. When have you experienced your most joyful homecoming? When have you been away from home and not wanted to be away from home? Homesick? Without a home?
According to Chris Haslam, the reference to "God's arm" is a reference to God's power. Sort of envisioning a God-flexing-muscles picture.
Oof - watch out - there's "God's arm" again, twice on one Sunday!
"Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy." Great imagery. How would you create this image?
This is a psalm of joy and thankfulness for God's action in someone's life, in the life of a whole people. How do you celebrate as an individual? As a community? Do we celebrate as nations? A world? How do we express our joy in God? Through worship? Action?
Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12):
Hebrews talks of Jesus as the reflection of God's glory. I think we are also reflections of God's glory, if we let ourselves be, let God makes us into these reflections. This is what it means to be created in God's image, isn't it?
"exact imprint of God's very being" - This makes fingerprints come to mind, or plaster casts of babies' feet.
I think this passage from Hebrews may be the only non-gospel place that refers to Jesus' birth in the scriptures. But Hebrews' description sounds more like Revelation and less like Luke 2!
This is John's take on a birth narrative. No shepherds, no angels, no Mary and Joseph, no manger. This is how John describes Jesus' coming into the world. The language is rich in metaphor, and though it lacks the characters of the traditional nativity, the point is still communicated without a doubt: 'And the word became flesh and lived among us'.
This is one of my favorite passages in the Greek New Testament, not only because of the easy, repetitive vocabulary :) but also because it is poetic and lyrical through the simple, repetitive structure. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
Passages like this from John provide the strongest basest for our Trinitarian Christian Creeds. Jesus was "in the beginning with God."
I think we are all, like John the Baptist, meant to testify, or witness, to the light. How do you do it? Witnessing means telling what you know about something, like at a trial. What do you know about the light that is Christ?
Readings for Christmas Eve/Day, 12/24/14: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20
This text is particularly meaningful in the midst of December in this part of the world, with the short days and sometimes seemingly perpetual darkness. It can be overwhelming. Our life without God's light is like a perpetual darkness. But the joy of Christmas is the coming of the light in the Christ-child.
The coming of the messiah comes as one who frees from oppression and lifts the burden from the downtrodden. Christmas comes to those in desperate need - sometimes we forget that, and think of Christmas as all for us and about us who can't honestly describe ourselves as oppressed.
"Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." What is your name for the messiah? This year in my congregation, we are focusing on the appellation "Prince of Peace" in particular.
"there shall be endless peace" - what do you think Isaiah means by this? We look around and see that though Christ has come, we haven't experienced endless peace. Are we missing it? Is it yet to come? Do we have to aid in its coming, or does it happen in spite of us? What do you think?
I think we always have to be careful with light/darkness imagery to make sure we're not interjecting any racist overtones to our language. Obviously light/dark imagery is biblical and helpful in teaching, but we also have to watch out for ways talking about light as good and dark as evil can be hurtful to people of color. Just be mindful.
The first verses don't distinguish this psalm for me from many others. Praise God, tell of God's salvations. Great is the Lord, greatly to be praised.
God judges with equity - as a judge is supposed to do. But so often we experience injustice even in the very justice system. God's justice is always - just!
Vs. 11 is some of the anthropomorphic language often found in Psalms, but I find it effective. Heaven, earth, sea, fields, and all that is in earth is glad for God's ruler-ship. The trees sing. To my mind come images from The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia with trees who could indeed sing praise.
We will be judged with God's truth. How do you understand that? With what else are we judged?
Christmas Eve is the only time Titus appears in the lectionary, and I'm guessing people usually don't use the Titus text when we have so much to talk about in Isaiah and Luke. Poor Titus! But there's some good stuff in this short selection.
"The grace of God has appeared." - I really like this - Grace, something we think of as intangible and invisible, has become tangible, literally touchable, certainly visible, in the coming of the Christ child.
"bringing salvation to all" - emphasis mine. Salvation is for all.
"renounce impiety and worldly passions" - what are the 'worldly passions' you need to announce. Instead of a season of joy and abundance, it seems we often make the season instead one of gluttony and selfishness. But here we are called to live lives that are "self-controlled, upright, and godly." What would you have to change to make that true for yourself?
"zealous for good deeds" - I can try and trick myself all I want, but I know I can't honestly describe myself as one who is zealous for good deeds. Can you? I wish I could though - what a great description for someone.
I find it hard to write notes on this text and give a new look at words so familiar. But we have to look with new eyes and read with new ears, don't we? I find it hard to even preach on this text. Often on Christmas Eve I opt for monologues and drama, to try and let the story come alive. My goal is to try to engage the text in a five-senses sort of way: what do we see, hear, smell, touch, taste? And additionally: what is everyone feeling?
Mary, of course, is the star here (aside from the baby, obviously.) What does Mary feel? Is she stressed? Exasperated? Scared out of her mind? We don't know the details, but from the story we can't see that there's anyone there to help her through the birthing process except Joseph.
Why do you think God speaks to the shepherds? We have such warm fuzzy images of shepherds, but we don't really have a feel for the places of shepherd's in Jesus' day. Why are they included in the birth? Why not the innkeeper? A priest? Other townsfolk? What do you think the shepherds felt about what they saw (other than terror at the angels?!)
The shepherds told others about the baby Jesus. I wonder what was made of this news - crazy shepherds? Did years later people still wonder about the child? Know that the man Jesus was the baby they'd once heard about?
"Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart." One of my favorite verses in the bible. What a brave, faithful young woman we find pictured in this text.
The children have already done a good job of proclaiming the
good news for us today, haven’t they? I especially appreciated that refrain,
“Go, Tell It on the Mountain.” That’s what we’ve been talking about – that’s
what you do with good news. You share it! You tell it! You invite others to
hear it and be a part of it. You live it!
But, I am a
pastor, so I can’t entirely give up an opportunity to preach at least a little
bit, especially in this season of Advent, especially when we’ve finally gotten
to something that sounds a bit like a Christmas story. Today we got to hear all
about Mary, in three segments. First, Gabriel tells her she’ll bear a son who
will be Son of the Most High God. The angel calls her “favored one,” blessed
one. Mary asks just one question, “how can this be?” And then she responds,
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
Her faith always astounds me, the way she just absorbs the angel’s frankly
we see Mary go to visit her cousin Elizabeth, an older woman who is also
expecting a child, John, who will be known as John the Baptist. We’ve been
hearing a bit about him these past couple weeks. And Elizabeth is filled with
the Holy Spirit – the first person in the gospels we hear about receiving the
Holy Spirit – as Elizabeth notes that she and Mary both believe that God
fulfills promises made – even these miraculous promises to them.
finally, we get to the part we actually heard first, from Leona in our Call to
Worship today: a song of praise, of hope, of Mary realizing that her child
represents God turning the world upside down. This section of Luke is known as the
Magnificat, “My soul glorifies/magnifies the Lord,” and it is one of my
favorite passages of scripture. This passage is the longest single chunk of
speech from a woman in the New Testament. Mary’s words echo those of Hannah,
mother of Samuel in the Old Testament, who praises God when she is able to give
birth after a long time of believing she could not have children. This song,
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is Mary’s vision of what Jesus’ birth will mean:
the lowly are raised up and blessed by God. The proud are scattered. The
powerful are brought down from their thrones. The hungry are filled, while the
rich leave empty-handed. These words were considered so revolutionary that at
different times in history – in Guatemala, in Argentina, and in India, the
public reading of the Magnificat was banned. After all, if Mary’s words were
taken serious, why, this Christ-child might upset the whole order of the world!
And so we get a little insight into Mary – what she’s expecting in Jesus –
through her response to Elizabeth.
This Advent, I’ve been taking part in a Clergy Bible
Study with some pastors in my area studying the Adam Hamilton book Not a Silent Night. The book focuses on
Mary, and urges us to think about what happened to Mary after the crucifixion
and resurrection, about what Mary went through when Jesus was a young child,
and a young teen, and a young man. And of course, the book reflects on what
Mary must have been wondering about after hearing the news from Gabriel that
she would give birth to God’s son, the Savior. We talked briefly last week
about whether or not Jesus was the Messiah John the Baptist was expecting. John
expected the winnowing fork and the ax at the roots, ready to judge, but Jesus
came preaching grace and forgiveness, and John had to wonder if Jesus was the
person he was preparing for or not.
as we read these texts, I’m wondering about Mary’s expectations. I think of all
of those I know who’ve gone through their first pregnancy. There is so much to
hope for, to expect, to wonder about, to prepare for. But there’s only so much
you can really learn from What To Expect
When You’re Expecting. And no matter how you imagine your child, they will
be different and more than you could have imagined. No matter how you imagined
your life with a brand new life in it, you can never completely anticipate all
that the child will bring to your life. You are full of expectation, without
knowing exactly what to expect. And you have to prepare – you’d be crazy not to
– all the while knowing that you couldn’t prepare for everything.
think about Mary, I think about how long and
short a pregnancy is all at once. The
time goes by quickly, in some ways, but in other ways – how hard it must have
been for Mary to wait to see what this child would really be. We read nothing
of any additional visits from Gabriel from the time he told her she would have
a child until the time the child is born and angels have sent shepherds to meet
the newborn. Did she wonder if she had hallucinated? Was she crazy? Was she
just going to have an ordinary child after all? Did she wish she’d asked more
questions? She must have wondered not only what her child would look like, but
also what he’d be like, a child who
was a Savior. Was she supposed to parent him in the normal way? I just can’t
imagine what was in her heart. On Christmas Eve this week, we’ll hear that when
Jesus is at last born, what Mary does is treasure and ponder in her heart
everything that happens.
angel told Mary she was favored, blessed, and Mary believed it. The angel told
Mary nothing was impossible with God, and Mary believed it. The angel told Mary
she would give birth to God’s child, and Mary said, “Here I am,” and “Now, God
is going to turn everything upside down.” She couldn’t possibly be prepared for
it, be expecting everything that would happen in the next decades of her life.
And yet she was prepared for and expecting God to be faithful as always.
that is what this Advent has been, is,
for you. It is hard to imagine what God has in store for us. But yet, friends,
we can rely so completely on God’s promises being fulfilled that we can most
certainly expect that the unexpected that God has in store will be all that we
hoped – and more. Here we are, servants of God. Let it be with us according to
God’s word. For blessed are we who believe that there will be a fulfillment of
what is spoken to us by God. Amen.
Readings for Fourth Sunday of Advent, 12/21/14: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1:47-55, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16:
David feels bad that he's living in a nice house while God travels via tent in the ark. So he offers to build God a cedar house. And God says, "who says I need a house? I've been doing just fine without one!"
I think David's impulse is ours - wouldn't it be nicer if we could put God somewhere where we would always know where God was? But we get into trouble when our wanting to know where God is turns into wanting just to control God - period.
What would it mean if you would just led God travel through your life, and not try to restrict God to only a part of your life?
context: This is Mary's song of praise, the magificat, a response to her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who is also with child. This is a song, and can be set to music in worship, or read responsively like a Psalm.
Mary speaks as one who sees God's greatness already complete in the not-yet-complete actions of the birth of her baby, we see by the fact that she speaks about what God has done in the past tense. What trust, and what vision!
Mary's images of God are all about God who changes the usual order of things - a God who lifts up the lowly and removes the rich and powerful from their usual places. Obviously, as a young woman going through a strange ordeal, these concepts of God would be extremely meaningful to her, giving her hope.
"the mystery that was kept secret for long ages" - I've never thought of Jesus as a secret that was kept until his coming in human form. Is that what Paul means?
Maybe we keep Jesus a secret or mystery today, by not clearly sharing who he is and who he calls us to be. What do you think?
"my gospel" Paul says. He boldly claims the gospel as his own. Is the gospel yours too?
Gabriel twice names Mary as favored in this passage. Do you think she felt favored? Being favored by God in the Bible usually gets people into trouble!
I can't imagine reacting as coolly as Mary does. Could you take it all in like she does? Say, "Sure, ok." I just wouldn't believe it to begin with. And yet...Mary's nobody special before this happens to her. She's from a certain family line, but so are lots of people. She's just a faithful follower of God.
"nothing is impossible with God." Do you believe this? We have only 2 options really: we believe that really, things aren't always possible for God. That God's power is limited, because somehow, we are beyond God's power. Or, we believe that anything is possible for God, so God could make anything work through us. Those are really the only two possibilities. Which do you choose?
around this time, we see news stories and facebook posts and tv coverage of the
“War on Christmas.” There’s a story about whether or not you can say “Merry
Christmas” anymore or if you must say “Happy Holidays.” People urge us to
remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” and warn against “taking
Christ out of Christmas.” Maybe you’ve even been frustrated by the
secularization of the season. I certainly get frustrated by the consumerism,
the commercialism, as if spending more and more money will somehow bring us a
more joyful and meaningful experience celebrating the birth of Jesus. But I
wonder, as we reflect on this season, what might happen if we worried less
about how others might try to “take Christ out” of Christmas, if such a thing
were even possible, and wondered more about how we, how you and I can produce any evidence that we’re
working to put Christ into our
preparation for Christmas. We can’t control what other people do, much as we
might like to. But we are, in fact, totally responsible for our own behavior.
And so, when it comes to Christ in Christmas, we have to ask: Are we putting Christ in? Rev. Robb McCoy
writes, “Nothing can take Christ out of Christmas as long as I strive to be
Christ in Christmas.” And that’s his sort of slogan for the season: “Be Christ
in Christmas.” He tries to think of tangible, meaningful ways that he can act
and live and interact as Christ in Christmas, and urges us to do the same. How
can we be Christ in Christmas?
Last week we talked about our role as
messengers. I asked what others would know from us about Christmas, about
Jesus, about God, with us as the messengers. We’re the messengers of God in
these days, the ones tasked with sharing the message, the good news. What kind
of messengers are we? Today, we turn our attention to making sure we know
exactly what our message is. What is
the message that we’re delivering? Last week we looked at John the Baptist,
messenger, announcing Jesus’ pending arrival, and today, we’re right back with
John again. But this time we look to Luke’s gospel for a little more insight on
the message that John was sharing.
As our text opens, crowds are coming out to John
to be baptized. Baptism like this was a cleansing ritual, practiced in many
traditions. It signified renewal, a fresh start. So folks are coming to John to
be baptized. But he’s not exactly warm and welcoming when he sees them: “You
brood of vipers!” he hells. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” He goes on to say that the crowds should not
expect to rely on their Judaism, their families, their history, their cultural
identity, to give them a free pass from responsibility. “Do not begin to say to
yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from
these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” In other words, yes, God has had
a special relationship with God’s people. But that doesn’t give you the freedom
to do anything you want. You still have to hold up your part of the
relationship, the covenant. John continues forebodingly: “Even now the ax is
lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good
fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
catches the attention of his audience – they begin asking him what they should
do. He replies to them, to tax collectors, to soldiers – whoever has two cloaks
must share, whoever has food must share, whoever has power , whoever has money
must be fair and just. The people are filled with expectation at John’s words,
and they wonder whether John himself might not be the messiah they are waiting
for. But he insists he is not: “I am not worthy to untie his sandals,” John
says. But, he leaves them, and us, with a compelling images of the messiah.
“His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather
the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
A winnowing fork was a farming tool used to toss wheat into the air, so that
the wind would catch the good grain and separate it from the useless chaff. Our
passage concludes, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good
news to the people.”
Is John’s message “Good News?”
There’s such an underlying tone of threat, between the vipers, the ax, and the
winnowing fork. And yet, obviously his message was compelling enough to have
crowds flocking to him to be baptized, ready to say: I’m changing things in my
life starting now. John is sharing
with the crowds, with us, his vision of what the messiah will be. In
fact, John will eventually have to send word to Jesus to find out if he really
is the messiah, because Jesus certainly acted differently than John was
expecting. John sees judgment, just
as surely as Jesus comes with salvation – a bit different in emphasis.
John has a picture of the messiah that is his own – but the good news still
comes because of the core of what John is preaching, as we read last week:
Repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What John is preaching, at heart, is
that all this preparation is for one who is coming who has the power to free us
from the consequences of our sins, one who has the power to cancel out the
results of our messes. And that, certainly, is good news. Remember, way back to
the summer, when we talked about what the good news was Jesus was talking
about. He came preaching about God’s kingdom, God’s reign, how it was here and
present and not far off and unattainable in this life. Good news. So both John
and Jesus preach the same action in light of this arriving kingdom: Repent. It
means literally: change the direction of your mind. Change the direction of
your life from all the other ways you’ve been wandering, and head in God’s
direction fast, because God’s realm is
right here, and you don’t want to miss out.A good message.
us, though, that we need to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” In other words,
baptism and saying you “repent,” you’re starting fresh is great – but let’s see some signs that will show that we’ve actually
heard – and lived – the message we’ve received. He gives some examples – to
tax-collectors, to soldiers, to anyone who asks – about how they, even those
who might normally be shunned or disliked or excluded – they – everyone – can bear the fruit of
repentance. And not only does John urge the crowds to prepare for the kingdom of God’s imminent arrival by acts of repentance
that make room for God, but also those
very acts of repentance, preparation, and renewal are in themselves signs of God’s kingdom. Whenever I think of John
the Baptist I always think of that phrase “the proof is in the pudding.” The
little proverb is actually a shortening of the original saying, “the proof of
the pudding is in the eating.” It means that you can tell how good a pudding is
not by describing but by actually eating it! Nothing will prove the goodness
like eating it will. That’s what John means about fruit – we can describe our
transformation all we want. But nothing will prove that our lives are transformed
better than our actually transformed
lives. Nothing will better demonstrate that we’re Christ followers than our actually following Jesus. And so, then,
nothing will better help us be messengers of the Christmas message than
actually being the message with our
very lives. Be Christ in Christmas.
Christians, we celebrate what is called incarnational
faith. Incarnation means for us first of all the event of Christ’s birth –
God became human. It means embodied.
Jesus is called God-with-us, Immanuel. As the gospel of John puts it so
beautifully, “and the word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” Our faith is
embodied in God incarnate. Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, come to live among us. We
celebrate it as a sign of God’s great love for us, that when we failed to get
the message in so many other ways, God made the message tangible, made God’s
own self into the living embodied
message in Jesus Christ, the light of the world.
incarnational theology doesn’t end there. It isn’t just that Jesus is the light
of the world. The gospels tell us that we,
then, as followers of Jesus, are the light too. We’re the light of the
world, meant to shine for others to see, so that they might see Christ within
us. We are the body of Christ in the world, the hands and feet of Jesus in the
world. We are the body of Christ, the embodiment of Christ, in fact the incarnation of Christ that lives in the
world today. We’re not just the messengers. We embody the message. We have the
potential, the power, the responsibility to
be Christ in Christmas.
amazing thing. When we seek to be Christ in Christmas, which is exactly
what we incarnational folks are supposed to
be, called to be, created to be doing, we are not only the messengers of this good news. We actually embody the
message itself. If we are Christ in Christmas, we become living, breathing,
walking and talking messages of good news. And when we do that, when we live
and breathe the good news, there’s no way we can miss the meaning of Christmas.
Friends, if you find yourself worrying that we’re losing our grasp on
Christmas, the best thing you can do is look into your hearts, and see if you
find Christ there. Is the light of Christ shining from you? Are you not only a
messenger, but the message? When people meet you, talk to you, interact with
you – and by people I mean all the
people – are they seeing Christ in you? If they do, we won’t have anything to
lament! Be the message. Be Christ in Christmas. Amen.
Readings for Third Sunday of Advent, 12/14/14: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28 Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11:
"The spirit of the Lord God is upon me" - make sure to read this alongside Luke 4, where Jesus reads these words in the synagogue. Jesus does not read exactly what we read here. I like Jesus' spin better ;)
"bind up the brokenhearted" - I love this phrase. This whole passage is how I would prefer to describe evangelism, instead of describing it as trying to get people to "accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior." I think this passage gets at the heart of why we want to share Jesus - he's good news for those who've heard none.
"I the Lord love justice." Do you love justice? What does it mean to love justice for those who are oppressed?
"we were like those who dream." I like this verse - sounds like it should be from some Shakespeare play, some poetry. The psalmist talks about how surreal/unreal/dreamlike it felt to be restored, to be made whole again by God, to be returned to Zion. What, in your dreams, could God make of your life?
What great things has God done for you? For others?
"May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy." A good benediction!
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24:
"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances." A tall order, isn't it? Always? Without ceasing? In all circumstances? Can you do this? Always remember how blessed you are? Paul encourages us to always maintain our connection with God that reminds us who we are.
"the one who calls you is faithful" - Jesus is faithful, even when we are not. Sometimes I think we expect God to let us down because we let God down. We're setting our standard the wrong way. We should take our standard from God, who is always faithful to us.
John 1:6-8, 19-28:
Compare John's poetic introduction of John the Baptist to that found in the Synoptic gospels. John's writing is almost poetry, like he's setting a stage of characters, all of them getting ready for the appearance of Jesus.
John's gospel is the only one where John the Baptist self-identifies as speaking from Isaiah. John portrays a very self-aware John the Baptist, who knows who he is. What do you think? How do you think John the Baptist saw himself?
John describes Jesus as the light, and John the Baptist, not the light, testifying to the light. In Matthew, we read of Jesus saying that we are the light of the world. Do you think Matthew and John disagree, or show us different perspectives? Are you the light of the world? Do you testify to the light? Do you, like John the Baptist, know your role in this story?
week I've been thinking a lot about messages and messengers, and the kinds of
messages we send and receive. We’re bombarded with messages every single day,
certainly, from friends and family, from strangers we interact with each day,
from the media, from TV, from advertisements everywhere. A message is simply
some kind of content communicated from one party to another. And the one
delivering the communication, in whatever form, is the messenger.
particular, I’ve been thinking about what kind of messages I’ve been eager to communicate to others, and what
messages others have been eager to
communicate to me. I still remember learning how, in eighth grade English, to
write what the teacher called persuasive
essays – essays where the main point was for the author, the messenger, to
communicate a message that resulted in persuading the reader to share his or
her point of view on any particular subject. What kinds of messages have you
delivered that seek to persuade
someone? And when have you been persuaded by the power of a message you
received? Maybe at first nothing comes to mind, but I promise you, we are all
messengers and recipients of messages from more or less convincing messengers
multiple times every day. Of course, as a pastor, you might say that I give
what I hope are persuasive messages every week! I won’t deny that I hope my
preaching has an impact. Not only do
I want you to hear my message, a
message that I hope is grounded in how God is leading me to lead you, but I hope that my message has a
more concrete impact. I want you and me (I’m preaching to myself too!) to grow
closer to God, to change our behavior, to turn onto a new path, to follow Jesus
more closely, and I hope that my message is received and is persuasive.
a messenger in other ways too. I love the
musical Jesus Christ Superstar. If you let me talk to you for any length of
time about Superstar, I will try to convince you how awesome it is, how
meaningful, and try to persuade you to watch the movie or listen to the
soundtrack or take in a performance. I was pretty obsessed with the TV show
LOST, and I talked most of my family members into watching it. Can you think of
times when you convinced someone to do something, even something that seems
trivial, like getting them to start watching your favorite show? How did you do
it? What did you say that convinced them? On the flip side, I can think of
times when I was the one who was convinced, persuaded, by a message I heard. My
older brother Jim was the first one to go vegetarian in my family, and he was
definitely a big influence on me, persuading me to take the plunge many years ago.
What about you? When did someone’s message to you persuade you to do something
differently? When have you been persuaded to change your mind, your belief,
your plan of action, because of a message you received from someone?
Bible, the Greek word for messenger is “angelos.” As you can see, it looks a
lot like the word angel. In the Bible, what we think of today as angels are
called “messengers of God,” “angelos tou Theos.” The Greek word in the Bible
for “gospel” is “euangelion” which means “good message.” That’s how we describe
the Bible’s accounts of Jesus. They’re good messages! And our word for
“evangelism” – meaning, the spreading of the good news – comes from these Greek
words – good message. Euangelion. At this time of year, when we think of
angels, God’s messengers, usually our mind jumps right to the angel Gabriel,
telling Mary that she will bear a son, or the angel filling Joseph in on the
plans, or the angel telling the shepherds about Jesus’ birth, or the heavenly
host filling the skies. And those are certainly special messengers that are
part of the story of Jesus’ birth.
today, we’re talking about another messenger of God. Today, we’re in the gospel
of Mark. As I mentioned last week, this lectionary year focuses mostly on Mark.
I’ll tell you that Mark is my favorite gospel. It’s the oldest – it was written
first of the accounts we have in our Bible – and it is by far the shortest.
Mark is in a hurry. He says nothing in three verses that he can squeeze into
one instead. He’s sparse with details. But he gets to the point. He’s a gospel
writer, a sharer of the good message, and it is like he is so excited, so
bowled over by the news, so anxious to have you know about Jesus that he can’t
possibly get the story out fast enough. And so Mark’s gospel starts, “The
beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and by the end of
our reading today, John the Baptist is already preparing folks for Jesus’
arrival on the scene – not as a newborn, but as an adult, about to be baptized
in the Jordan, ready to start preaching and teaching. Unlike Matthew and Luke,
who talk about Jesus’ birth, describing the Christmas story, Mark gets right
down to business. Who needs a nativity story when you can get straight to the
point? Mark writes, The beginning of the
good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as his first verse, and in it he
says who Jesus is – he is the Christ,
the Son of God. And his gospel certainly attests to why Jesus came. Of the birth of Jesus, Mark simply has no comment.
although Mark doesn’t describe Jesus’ birth, he certainly starts out with a
messenger who announces Jesus’ pending arrival. John the Baptist is an angel –
a messenger of God – in a very real way. John the baptizer appears in the
wilderness, in the way of Isaiah, proclaiming baptism, repentance, and
forgiveness, and announcing that someone was coming, the kingdom had arrived.
Israel was then under Roman occupation, and the Roman government was ruling
over the people. Their lives were monitored and controlled by these occupying
forces. So people were coming to John, repenting of their sins and being
baptized in anticipation of the one John said was coming, the one who would
bring with him God’s kingdom. John might be an interesting messenger if you
looked at his outside package. The gospels describe his appearance more than
that of most others, so it must have been notable: He’s described as “clothed
with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and
wild honey.” You get the sense that he stood out in crowd, John the Baptist.
But he was indeed a persuasive messenger. People were flocking to him to be
baptized, flocking to hear someone tell them to repent, turn their life around,
start fresh. He certainly had a compelling message, but clearly John was also
an effective messenger.
message is so compelling to you that you are transformed into an effective
messenger? The Bible is filled with unlikely sorts like John becoming effective
messengers because they’re so compelled by the message they have to share. Next
week we’ll spend more time thinking about the nature of the message John the
Baptist is sharing in particular. But I’m wondering – what messages have been
so important to you that you’ll tell anyone who will listen about them?
month, I’ve given us all the homework of inviting someone to join us in some
part, any part of our life here at
Apple Valley: worship, Bible Study, Caroling, Pageant, Blue Christmas,
Christmas Eve – I want you to invite someone to join you. I want you to be
messengers. The best messengers, though, are the ones who are so excited about
or convinced of their message that it can’t be contained. The best messengers
have had their own lives transformed by the message. As you think back over
your own faith journey, I wonder: who were the messengers who told you about
Jesus? What convinced you? What messengers helped shape your life so that you
ended up sitting here today? I think of the faithful example of humble
servanthood in my grandfather, Millard Mudge. I think of the steadfast faith of
my mom. I think of Sunday School teachers and pastors. I think of professors
and colleagues in ministry. Of authors, of activists – they’ve all shaped me,
delivered to me again and again in a thousand ways the message that guides my
life, the good news, this life of following after Jesus. Who are your
message about God-with-us, about this Christ-child we’re preparing for, have
you been delivering to folks? What would they know about this community and its
role in your faith journey from your life and your words? What would people
know about Jesus from the messages that you deliver with your life and your
words? As we continue to prepare of Christ’s birth, I wonder: What do people
who are not Jesus-followers know
about the meaning of Christmas from those of us who are? What message are we,
the messengers, sharing? If the messages we were delivering with our lives were
being overheard by a group of shepherds, would they make it to the manger? If
we were the messengers, preparing the way in the wilderness, would people be
changing their lives, preparing to meet Jesus, who was just about to arrive?
of God, here and now, we are God’s
messengers. We are. We’ve already
received the message. Let’s deliver it, with the urgency of Mark. With the
conviction of John the Baptist. With the persuasiveness that can only come from
those whose own lives have been transformed by it. Amen.
Readings for Second Sunday of Advent, 12/7/14: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2,
8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8
"Comfort, O comfort my people"
- ah, what gorgeous words. This God is a God who longs to comfort us, even
when we wander and stray.
This text and our text from Mark both
mention the wilderness, or desert. What happens in the Bible in the
wilderness? Think Israelites. Think Jesus' temptation. Lots of deep
spiritual transformation happens in the wilderness.
Where's your wilderness? What's been a
desert place in your life?
"Here is your God!" That's the
good news that Isaiah cries in this text: God is here, is present and real
in your lives.
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
"[God] will speak peace to his
people." What does speaking peace sound like? How would you speak
peace to someone?
"for those who fear [God]" - do
you fear God? We're instructed over and over again in the scriptures not
to be afraid. What does it mean, then, to fear God or to be God-fearing? I
interpret it to mean we're to have an awe of God that is an awe we give only to
Some good imagery in v. 10: Steadfast
love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each
other." Great images. Love and faithfulness bound together. More
intriguingly, to me, righteousness and peace bound together. If only!
2 Peter 3:8-15a:
The author here is writing in response to
concerns, it seems, about the slowly-coming day of Christ's return. They
are ready and waiting for Christ to come again. So where is he
already? The author talks about how God's time and our time is
different. This is always a good reminder!
"regard the patience of our Lord as
salvation." The author argues that the longer it takes for Christ to
return, the more chance people have of finding salvation - God, he argues,
doesn't want anyone to perish, but wants all to come to repentance. I kind
of like his way of looking at things!
The opening of Mark's gospel wastes no
time with those birth-of-Jesus stories we like to hear so much about this
time of year. Mark gets to the point: "The beginning of the good news
of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Sometimes I prefer Mark's method!
He seems to be saying, "Let's get right to the good stuff."
Here's another wilderness passage -
notice the similar language in this text and in Isaiah. John is for Jesus'
time a modern-day Isaiah, announcing the same message: "God is here!
Right here among you!"
John sees himself as facilitating Jesus'
ministry - preparing people for it. His role is so important, isn't it? Do
you know of people who play this kind of supporting role in ministry
As many of you have heard, starting next month I’ll be
working on a research project supported by a grant that I received from the
Louisville Institute that allows pastors to dig a little deeper in whatever
areas of ministry interest them. You’ll be hearing lots more about my research
in the coming months, since I hope to have you all be one of my churches that
participates in my research, but I can tell you that it’s an expansion of the
work that I already did in my Doctor of Ministry project. I’ll be continuing to
look at how congregations do outreach work, and how I can help congregations
become more deeply invested in outreach ministries.
When I was working on my Doctor of Ministry project, the
steps I needed to complete in order to finish my degree were all outlined very
carefully and specifically from the kind of paper I had to print on, to the
font, to the margins, to the forms I had to have people sign to participate in
my research. It was all spelled out – what to do to complete my work. But one of
the first things I had to complete was a research proposal. I had to put
together a 15 page proposal that stated my question – what was it my research
was hoping to answer; and then talked about why, theologically speaking, I
thought it was an important question to ask; and then stated my research
process – how I intended to go about answering the question; and then my proposal also had to include the
results I expected to get and why those results would be important. In other
words, before I even did any research, I had to write out what I expected the
results and significance of my research to be. It felt really strange to me at
first. But it’s really how most research in any field is done. You start with a
hypothesis – the answer you think you are going to get. And then you see if you
can prove, or end up disproving your answer. But you start with where you think
you’re going to end up. Otherwise, research would just be so open ended that it
would be mostly useless. If you weren’t looking for a particular answer, but
just exploring, it would be hard to make anything constructive out of what you
experienced, even if you took in a lot of data. Ok, sometimes, discoveries are
made accidentally, unintentionally. But most of the time, research provides
results because researchers started out visualizing the ending they were trying to reach.
People like to say that “it’s not about the destination,
it’s about the journey.” And in many ways, I believe this is true. But usually
this is true because we still have a destination in mind. The journey is
fantastic because we know where we’re heading. If you don’t know where you’re
going, trying to enjoy the journey is a bit more stressful! So with some
things, we begin by figuring out where it is we’re hoping to end up.
That’s a bit of the strategy with the lectionary readings
for Advent. Remember, the lectionary is the scheduled set of readings for the
church year – they go in a three year-cycle, each year focusing on one of the
synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with the gospel of John sprinkled
throughout. The new lectionary year begins on the First Sunday of Advent each
year – that’s the beginning of the church year. Which means, as I mentioned
last week, today is the beginning of a new church year. This is Year B,
focusing on Mark. And every lectionary year, the first text for the first
Sunday of Advent expresses similar themes: texts that sound an awful lot like
they’re about the end of the world. Isn’t that sort of a strange place to start
if our goal is to prepare for the birth of the Christ child?
In Mark’s gospel, we find ourselves near the end of the
book, with Jesus talking about the Son of Man coming to gather people to him.
Jesus says we’ll know that he is near just like we know summer is near – reading
the signs around us. And yet, at the same time, Jesus says, we don’t know the
day or hour this will take place. No one does, he says, not even Jesus. So the
best strategy: “Beware, keep alert. Keep awake.” When I read these words, they
sound both exhausting and anxiety-producing. How can we live on the edge all
the time? It reminds me of the color-coded terror-alert system we had in place
for a decade following 9/11, that never fell below yellow – an elevated level
of alert – for the entire time the system was in place. How useful is an
anxious system of constant alert, where anxiety becomes the normal level?
Surely, this is not what Jesus means. This is not the destination of Advent
we’re trying to reach, right? What is it that we’re longing for?
often, and especially in this season, I think children lead us. Now, I think children
are excited and anxious for Christmas to come, but I also know that young children
have a very skewed concept of time. Take my nephew Sam. He’s a little wiser now
at the ripe old age of 7 and a half. But for a while, anything in the past happened
ʺa couple weeks ago.” Things that happened ʺwhen he was littleʺ could be things
that were when he was an infant, two years old, or earlier this year. Or Sam
would talk about growing up – he defined this as the time when his feet would
finally touch the floor when he sits on a chair. And when he started
kindergarten, Sam was perplexed over what had happened to his friend from
pres-school, Alex – who is the same age as Sam – since he hadn’t seen him a while.
Sam mused: I think Alex must be a teenager now! Sam is indeed excited for Christmas
to come, as he is excited for most joyful things to take place in his happy
life. But Sam isn’t rushing time by.
Instead, I would say he is ready. He
is ready for the excitement he knows is on the way. A day, a week, a month – they
can all seem long or short to Sam depending on his mood. But he isn’t in a hurry.
He is just happy, and ready for Christmas when it comes, and although he’s
getting older and wiser, I hope he can savor that sweet state of joyful,
hopeful expectation for a few more years.
hopeful expectation – that’s what I think God wants for us. Joyfully, hopefully
we long for God’s will, God’s hopes, God’s dreams, God’s realm to be made
complete in us and in our world. We remain alert, excited, hopeful, on the
watch for signs of God’s kingdom moving among us and in us, and maybe even with
our help. I know I’ll probably drive many of you a little crazy with singing
more Advent Hymns during Advent than Christmas Carols. But the funny thing
about Advent hymns is that they usually do a really great job of reminding us
what exactly we’re getting ready for. Most Advent hymns don’t talk about baby
Jesus and a manger scene. They talk, instead, about the savior we long for, and
why the world stands in need of Christ’s coming in the first place. Take “O
Come O Come Emmanuel.” The first verse talks about captive Israel, mourning,
lonely, in exile, waiting for God to appear. And then the refrain, “Rejoice,
Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee,
O Israel.” Advent hymns are carols that tell us our destination and tell us how
much we need to reach that destination, and then sing with eager longing for
the journey that will help us arrive at that destination.
That’s what Advent is. Advent is preparation with a
destination in mind. We know what happens on Christmas. Jesus is born. But why
is that so important to us? What are we longing for? I wonder how often we’re
hurrying by the days of Advent, the days meant to prepare for Christmas, and we
don’t even really think about what we’re hurrying to or why. And then when
Christmas Day comes and goes, even as we’re really just starting the true
season of Christmas, we already feel like we’ve missed something.
in Advent isn’t to rush the days by to Christmas, and it isn’t to drag our feet in an effort to slow down time. Our
task is to figure out what we’re preparing for, so we can be ready. We are
called as people of faith to be ready for God however God shows up on earth, wherever
and whenever. It seems to happen in the most surprising ways. But always, God
comes to us, God who is with us in the flesh, Emmanuel. And so knowing we’re
heading toward God, joyfully, hopefully, eagerly, wakefully, we wait. Amen.