Good News of Great Joy!

Stained Glass Nativity

“Good News of Great Joy!”

Luke 2:8-16 (2:10) – December 20, 2020

            Do you need Good News? So many are discouraged. Disconnected. Downhearted. This disconnected year of 2020 makes us all feel isolated and separated, even with the computer and social media. Especially at holiday time.

            The shepherds needed some Good News, too. On those hilltops around Bethlehem, they were not exactly welcome in the general society of the town, either. Focusing on today’s Scripture reading, Dr. Luke tells us about the shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. But, he does not mention anything about the low position they held in society.

            Did you ever think you had something in common with those shepherds? This year of the pandemic, we certainly do. We all experience a real disconnect and isolation in society—and so did the shepherds.

            Throughout the centuries, in many situations, Christians have found themselves set at a distance from society at large. As you are feeling a similar kind of discombobulation, it may be that there is some solidarity in our worldwide disconnection.

            Differences in language can be a real barrier between people, too. It does not matter whether a family comes to a new land or a different area in times of conflict, or famine, or some other upheaval. If you are unfamiliar with the common language spoken in the area in which you are now living, that can be a huge disconnect, too. That is a large reason why ethnic groups of people gather together in towns and cities—for solidarity, social purposes, and for ease in communication.  

            I worked as a chaplain at Swedish Covenant Hospital for a number of years. I can remember how particularly touched an elderly woman was when I spoke to her with the few words of Polish I knew. This woman from Poland had dementia, and there was no one working in the hospital that evening who spoke Polish. I heard about this very sick woman when I went to the nurses’ station. I told them I just knew a very few Polish words. However, a few nurses encouraged me to come to her bedside and say those few words—which I did. It calmed the woman immediately, and the nurse and CNA were so grateful to me.

            Even a few words in a familiar language can bridge that disconnect and barrier, and make a stranger feel more at home, more connected.

            But, the disconnect for the shepherds was even more than that. “By the time of Jesus, shepherding had become a profession most likely to be filled from the bottom rung of the social ladder, by persons who could not find what was regarded as decent work. Society stereotyped shepherds as liars, degenerates, and thieves. The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits.” [1]

Imagine the difference in class between the shepherds and the bulk of the townspeople of Bethlehem. Certain people live “on the wrong side of the tracks,” or “on the other side of town.” Or, perhaps they come from the hill country, or down by the river.   

            For that matter, can you believe the disconnect between all people on earth and the angels? When the angels came to communicate their Good News to humanity, who were they sent to, first thing? Not the wealthy, in their expensive houses. Not the leaders of the community, or the rabbis or ministers of the houses of worship. No, the angels came to the lowly shepherds in the hill country, who did not even rate a home or a welcome among the “decent folk” in the middle of town.  

            I know this is not quite the same as the shepherds’ loneliness, but have you been feeling the isolation of COVID-19? Not being able to connect, or go out for coffee, or sit down with a friend or relative for a meal? Isn’t this similar to the shepherds’ isolation and loneliness?

            The angels did not observe the class consciousness of society, or the language barriers or color barriers of so much of our world. No! The angels sent from God brought glad tidings of great joy to ALL the people. Not just some select few, not even to most of the earth’s population. No! This Good News came to ALL the people. To all with a spiritual disconnect, too!          

            The angels came to the “fields of the isolated, the disenfranchised and the forgotten, or in our own painful places of spiritual wilderness, because God speaks the good news of Christ’s coming there. God brings great joy to those who need it most there.” [2]

            Whether we are isolated spiritually, or disconnected in real life, God wishes to draw ALL of us in to the Good News of the birth of God’s Son. Regardless of where we come from, or where we are right now, we are welcome.

            Do you hear? Each of us is special—each one of us has the angel of the Lord bringing Good News to us—personally. Glad tidings of great joy, no matter what!

            Wonderful news for Christmas, for sure. Wonderful news, any time we need it!

Alleluia, amen!


[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1522

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1522

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Fleeing to Egypt

“Fleeing to Egypt”

Matthew 2:13-21 – December 29, 2019

Matt 2-12 Flucht_nach_Aegypten_Meuhlhausener_Altar_Bamberger_Dom

I have been puzzled by the week between Christmas and New Year for some years. Yes, it’s still the holiday season, and yes, lots of people are on reduced schedules, or even taking the whole week as a holiday. But, I realize some people need to keep working regular shifts, to do necessary things that keep the wheels of society rolling and things continuing to happen. As we all know, holidays do not last forever…or sometimes even for a few days.

Remember back to last Sunday? The fourth Sunday of Advent? I talked about the shepherds, and how they got ready to visit the Baby the Angel told them about. Only thing—the shepherds couldn’t afford to take a lot of time off to see the Baby. I doubt whether they could even take more than a few hours, at most a day, to go and see the Baby in Bethlehem. And, the angels in the angel chorus? The angels had gone back to heaven in an instant. They had already left before the shepherds even decided to check out this fantastic story.

Between last Sunday and today, Christmas happened. We sang “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night” and lit our candles around the Advent wreath. But, what does our Scripture reading say happened? How on earth did we get from shepherds adoring the Baby at the manger to the horrible reading we had just now, from Matthew chapter 2?

Thank goodness for the Angel, again! Thank God the Angel came to Joseph—again—in a dream, and told him to flee to a different country, with Mary and the Baby. The Holy Family was fleeing for their lives; or, at least, for their Baby’s life.

Today, when young couples here in the United States have a new baby, even a toddler, usually the extended family, good friends, and often the church family members gather around in a fond shower of gifts, sometimes bringing dinner or other good things to eat. Somehow, I doubt whether Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus had much of a baby shower before Mary went into labor. Our reading from Matthew 2 tells us a whole lot more serious than just not having a baby shower. Matthew describes an evil, manipulative king who was extremely jealous and anxious. He worried about attacks against his power structure.

From all accounts of Herod and his life and reign, he was a tyrant. Looking at writings from contemporary authors of that period, Herod was cruel and bloodthirsty. He was also two-faced, as we can see from a few verses before our lectionary passage today, from his response to the Magi. He sent the Magi to Bethlehem, and requested that they come back after they find this “King of the Jews,” because Herod wished to “worship” this King as well.

I have a pretty good idea of exactly what Herod wished to do to the baby Jesus from what follows. What is even worse is King Herod has demanded that his soldiers go and slaughter all infant and toddler boys in and around Bethlehem. This reading of the slaughter of the innocents? Why this massive horror and carnage to happen? Why now? Isn’t it still the holidays? Didn’t we just celebrate Christmas? We just sang “O Little Child of Bethlehem” just a few days ago.

Sure, those soldiers were military men. I know those in the military have to do some really unpleasant things. But, ordered to kill babies and toddlers? Well. Just look who was giving that horrible order: the cruel, bloodthirsty King Herod.

We can see why the Holy Family left Judea. They fled. They became refugees.

As I have been thinking about this Scripture reading from Matthew 2 this past week, I wondered about the term “refugee.” I know many people use this term, not only in this country, but also internationally, and some of these people are misusing the term. What is the actual definition of the term “refugee?”

For this definition, I went to the United Nations website, where the UN describes and defines a great many words and terms that concern millions of people, worldwide. According to the migrant and refugee section of the official website, “Refugees are persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection.” [1] From everything described in Matthew chapter 2, that definition of refugees describes the Holy Family all too well. Sadly, too well.

As one of my favorite commentators Carolyn Brown said, “It would be nice if everyone had gone happily home and watched Jesus grow up safe and secure with angels watching over him and no problems for anyone.  But it didn’t work that way.  It doesn’t work out that way for any of us.  We all have all sorts of problems to worry about and work on.” [2]

Here in the United States, people are sometimes forced to relocate or are made homeless because of natural disasters or floods or fires – which certainly are on the UN’s list in their definition of the term “refugee.” We know about these refugees, or migrants.

A young man was shot on the Howard St. El platform just a few weeks ago. He had moved from the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s south side to Rogers Park, because he did not want to be actively recruited by gangs. And—he was shot in the back, execution-style, by a rival gang member. He tried to migrate. He tried to get away from feared persecution, conflict and violence by moving to the relatively safer area of Rogers Park.

This is not the sweet story of Christmas we heard on Christmas Eve. This wasn’t the gentle story of a young woman giving birth to a Baby, and angels giving a birth announcement to shepherds, including the words “Peace on earth, and good will to all!” Where—we heard about God breaking into the world, coming to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.

The narrative from Matthew 2, though jarring and heart-breaking, helps us know that God is truly with us. Just look at the state of the world, and the sad—even violent situations people encounter all over. Day in and day out, the days are dark more often than not. People like this young man from Englewood get shot, and stabbed. So many feeling separations of race and class and religion and so many other dividing lines.

Yet—nothing surprises God. Yes, the Holy Family did need to run away to escape from Herod the King. “So God understands when we and our families have scary problems.  God is with us and loves us not just when things are Christmas Eve wonderful but also when nothing is going right.  Right now, on the Sunday after Christmas, that is really good to know.  Christmas is over for this year.  But, soon it’s back to school [and work] and all the old problems and people we will struggle with.  It’s a good time to remember that God was with Jesus and His family in the peaceful stable AND on the scary road to Egypt.” [3]
            He is able to not only help us through our times of trouble, but also to be God with us. Jesus is there with us, even though homes are destroyed and children are slaughtered. Jesus is there with us through all the pain and suffering, through all the wailing and lamentation. We have His word on it. Jesus said “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” What a precious promise! What a wonderful Christmas gift! Jesus is our Emmanuel, God with us.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/definitions

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/11/year-first-sunday-after-christmas.html

Worshiping with Children, Christmas 1, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Moved into the Neighborhood!

“Moved into the Neighborhood!”

John 1-14 word made flesh, circle

John 1:1-14 – December 24, 2019

A long time ago, in a galaxy close by—even, in this galaxy right here, the Word was first. The Word was present before anything else. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.

All right, I have a confession to make. I saw the new Star Wars movie on Saturday. I love the original Star Wars trilogy. I did not love the prequel trilogy, however I really liked the last trilogy of movies. And, the last of the current trilogy, “The Rise of Skywalker,” was a satisfying end to the story—thus far.

What does Star Wars have to do with Christmas? Especially during the past week, I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of Light and Dark in the Star Wars universe; the two flip sides of the Force, that ultimate dyad of positive and negative energy, where Light is Good and Dark is Evil.  I saw a few differences to what we have highlighted this Advent season here at St. Luke’s Church—the Light and the Dark.

Except, different from the Star Wars universe, this galaxy’s kind of Light and Dark are both positive, both are needed. Both are made by the same ultimate Source, or Force, or heavenly Creator at the beginning of all things.

The beginning of the Gospel of John is modeled after the beginning of Genesis 1—except John goes much deeper, and gets theological right away. John chapter 1 tells us a lot about the Word—the Light—the Life—and then, brings those descriptions down to earth. The cosmic Light—the Word spoken before anything was created—that Word—or Light—or Life comes down to earth and gets up close and personal. How much more personal can you get than becoming flesh, becoming a tiny Baby?

I think everyone here is more familiar with the narrative of Luke 2, where we hear about Joseph, and Mary, and the census, and the awkward situation the young couple was in—being still fiancés, still pledged to each other, and not yet married. But wait, there’s more! We hear about the shepherds, angels and their heavenly birth announcement. The shepherds run to visit the newborn Baby, and afterwards go and tell everyone in that town of Bethlehem: “Alleluia! The Messiah is born!”

Somehow, the narrative told by Luke seems a lot more relatable than the first chapter of John. I mean, who can relate to the eternal Word spoken before anything was created? And, the cosmic Light that is also Life? Isn’t that a mixed metaphor, John? Couldn’t you get your metaphoric descriptions straightened out before you set it down as Gospel truth?

This Scripture reading from John 1 is the reading for Christmas Eve, where John tells us of the Eternal Word, part of the everlasting Trinity, becoming flesh. As Luke would say, Emmanuel, God with us, becoming a Baby born in Bethlehem.

Jesus was the name that Mary and Joseph gave to their Son, and John tells us He is “the Light of all people” coming into the world. After a month of Advent, of waiting and longing and talking about the miraculous birth, Jesus is now here! We have also been talking about how Light and Dark are both positive things, both created by God.

As we reflect on the two narratives, the familiar one in Luke 2 and our reading for tonight, John 1, both readings talk about the Light of the world come to earth. Yet, Jesus is both human and divine. “Those two things coexist in him, just like light and dark. John tells us darkness does not overcome the light. The darkness is there alongside the light as it shines. Darkness helps light stand out, just like the stars shining in the night sky.” [1]

We have already talked about how darkness can be warm and friendly. Just think of baby animals and their mothers. Puppies, kittens, calves, lambs, all kinds of animals resting with their mothers. And, think of human babies. They rest with their mothers in the warm, welcoming darkness of night. Not like the good versus evil, light/dark split of the Star Wars universe, but instead all creation created by God, and all is named good.

We can see how there is a natural bridge connecting John 1 (talking about the Eternal Word/Light/Life), and the narrative of Luke 2, telling about the common, every-day birth of a Baby—yet miraculous, too. Both are integral parts of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

“But note: when God decided to get personally involved, God came to tell us that we are loved, deeply, truly, and forever. God loves all of us, but especially wants those who don’t feel loved or lovable, those who regularly feel like they’re on the outside looking in, those who feel forgotten, and those who wonder what the point of life is, to hear the “good news of great joy” that God loves all of us.” [2]

Is it any wonder that our Scripture reading for this evening tells us, in the wonderful translation by Eugene Peterson, that this Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Prince of Peace, Word become flesh, “moved into the neighborhood.” Jesus became one of us, a human being.

That is the meaning of Christmas: Jesus has moved into our neighborhood, and become one of us. As the angel said, Jesus is born for you. For me. For each of us. That is the miracle, come to earth. Glory to God in the highest! Amen.

 

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from the Christmas Day devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.”

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/12/christmas-eveday-c-keep-it-simple/

“Keep It Simple,” David Lose, …in the Meantime, 2015.

 

While by My Sheep

“While by My Sheep”

 

Luke 2-10 angels, shepherds, Rembrandt 1635

Luke 2:15-20 – December 22, 2019

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year, with all of its opportunities to acquaint ourselves with our Lord Jesus once more. Whether in church on an Advent Sunday, or experiencing the wonder of preparation with an Advent calendar, we have many opportunities to prepare our hearts for the arrival of Christmas during the Advent season.

But, now is two thousand years after the first Christmas. We have developed a great many rituals and observances surrounding the birth of a Baby in Bethlehem. The liturgical year has been instituted, with the season of Advent celebrated for four weeks before Christmas even happens; Advent being the time of preparation and waiting before the birthday of the King.

The shepherds around the village of Bethlehem did not even know anything special was happening, that first Christmas night. They were simply going about their normal nightly activities with the sheep. When—suddenly, as Luke tells us, the whole night sky was lit up, as bright as noonday.

Do we remember what the social situation of the shepherds was, at the time Jesus was born? I mentioned it last week, in my sermon. I mentioned that shepherds were among the lowest of the low, as far as social class was concerned. Shepherds were on the outskirts of society, the same way they usually lived on the outskirts of a town or village. A shepherd was not highly regarded by common, decent Jews at that time, at all.

This narrative from Luke chapter 2 becomes all that much more valuable, that much more unusual, with the shepherds among the first to hear about the birthday of a newborn King.

We looked at the arrival of the angel of the Lord last week, delivering a heavenly birth announcement to these most unlikely recipients, the lowly shepherds. The shepherds were so astounded by the Good News of the angelic chorus that after the angels left they talked among themselves. After discussing the news, they determined to go check things out. Or, as Luke said, “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’”

That is one thing our observance of Advent is supposed to heighten: just like small children, Christians are supposed to get more and more excited about the approach of Christmas. a whole month of Advent is supposed to make us look forward to the birth of the Baby in Bethlehem so much more.

Since we live in the northern hemisphere, the coming of Christmas means winter—cooler temperatures, shorter days and longer nights. This time of year is also known as the Winter Solstice; that is, the time of the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Do you think people were (and are) looking forward to the approach of more sunlight, of longer days and shorter nights? This is also an integral part of the Christmas celebration, a celebration of the return of sunlight and warmth, a harbinger of growth and green and all the things that light and life bring back into the world.

And, here we have the shepherds, stuck in the middle of all of this celebration, all this foretelling and forth-telling of God’s Good News. Isn’t that the message the angels brought to the shepherds? “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Good news, indeed!

Although the shepherds were not aware of the deeper meaning at the time, God’s angelic witness was first delivered to those of low station. These who were outcast, the lowest of the low by society’s standards formed for us a view of God’s redeeming love.

In the same way of His ancestor, the shepherd king David, our shepherd king Jesus would shepherd His people through the lineage of His earthly father Joseph and the Oneness with His heavenly Father. The lowly shepherds who were shunned by society, yet responsible for keeping the safety of temple’s sacrificial sheep in the area surrounding Jerusalem, were thus caused to be the first to see and hear God’s great Good News. [1]

As the shepherds excitedly discussed this angelic birth announcement, they did decide to go into Bethlehem and see this newborn Baby. And, as Luke tells us, “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”

Tell me, does anyone here want to get on a street corner and tell others about God’s Good News? That was exactly what the shepherds wanted to do! The people on the outside, on the outskirts of the town of Bethlehem, the outcasts of society were so very excited by the Good News and by the miraculous sights they had seen.

Does that make you want to go and tell? Getting so excited about the miraculous, and yet every-day?  At once, wanting to bow in worship at the manger, and at the same time wanting to jump up and go and tell the blessed truth about Jesus?

Yes, our dear Lord Jesus is creator of al that is dark and all that is light. He is the Light of the world and the Lord of the day, and all that is green and growing. He is the Lord of darkness, too. Lord of all that is scary and fear-filled, yet also Lord of the night and nocturnal creatures, and the warm, welcoming darkness of nurture and strength.

Let us go and tell others about the blessed truth of Christmas, about how Jesus is so much more than just a Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger. Our Lord Jesus is also Emmanuel, God with us.

Glory to God in the highest! Christ is born in Bethlehem. Our response? Go and tell!

Alleluia, amen.

 

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 4 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] http://beambiblebounty.blogspot.com/2015/12/shepherds-joy.html

“Shepherds Joy!” Thomas Beam, 2015.

Happy Birthday, Jesus!

“Happy Birthday, Jesus!“

 

Shepherds adore the Christ child, Jan de Bisschop

Luke 2:4-15 – August 4, 2019

What events are particularly meaningful to children? Birthdays, of course. The birthday is not only a marking of the day the child was born, but is often (in this society, at least) a day for parties, presents and special things like ice cream and cake. And, children naturally love to go to birthday parties, too. No wonder many people celebrate birthdays as something really special.

Our two Scripture readings this morning both tell about the birthday of a really special Someone: the Baby born in Bethlehem, the baby Jesus. Except—I do not think it was common to celebrate birthdays with a birthday cake in those days.

When Isaiah wrote his prophecies six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, he was writing to a contemporary situation, it is true. But there is another situation, another prophetic announcement that people have marked from that point on. But, more about that birth announcement in a few minutes.

Yes, it is common for small children to concentrate on the baby Jesus and his birthday on Christmas Day. But, why did Jesus get born to a teenage girl in Bethlehem, anyhow? Why was this birth announcement made by the prophet six hundred years before the event?

For some of the answer to that question we need to go all the way back to the beginning, in the book of Genesis.

We know that God created the world, and God made plants and animals and humans. God created time and the seasons and great beauty and complexity in this marvelous world, and called it all good. In fact, very good. But, we know what happened. Sin happened, and entered into this world. Sin has caused tons of evil, heartache, misery, hatred, and disaster. We all know how much sadness and badness there are in this world.

Yesterday, in a shopping mall in the city of El Paso, Texas, we saw a horrific example of evil. The young, white shooter took the lives of twenty people, and did horrible harm to the lives of countless more. Is there a more visible example of corrosive sin and evil that can be shown to us? Sadly, violent situations such as this happen all too often, with tragic repercussions.

Yet, God the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity, saw this horrible, pervasive evil of sin and nastiness and hatred that entered into the world, and knew its sweeping, widespread effects. God the eternal Son emptied Himself of all Godhood, and became a tiny, helpless baby human.

As the Apostles Creed tells us, We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary. Every time we say those words of that ancient—most ancient of creeds, we affirm those eternal truths. Are many Christians aware that in repeating this creed, we regularly proclaim the Good News of Christmas, the miracle of God the eternal Son breaking into human history and becoming a tiny baby?

As we examine that ancient birth announcement from Isaiah chapter 9, we reflect on those words that reverberate deep in the soul. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The music that George Frederick Handel used in his oratorio “Messiah” for this chorus ring in my mind whenever this Scripture passage is read.

Yes, God the eternal Son was born as a baby, just as this verse from Isaiah says. But not just a human child, but much, much more! Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This baby was sent into the world to change the world. This baby was sent into the world as the Prince of Peace, to bring peace to a troubled world and dispirited people. This baby was mighty to save.

It is sort of a challenge to communicate all of that difficult, mind-blowing stuff about sin and salvation to little children. I can well understand how the ease of having a birthday party for the Baby Jesus would appeal to them instead. Small children understand about birthdays and birthday parties. That is within their experience. And, we certainly tell them about the Baby Jesus being born in Bethlehem at Christmas.

As we move to the second chapter of Luke, this narrative of the Nativity is so familiar. Is there anything here we haven’t looked at before?

We see Mary and Joseph, check. Knocking on lots of doors in Bethlehem, check. Refusal at an inn, but welcomed to a stable, check. We examine this next important part of the story. “There were shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Suddenly, an angel appeared to them and said, ‘Don’t be afraid! I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be known to all people.”

While Mary and Joseph were busy with the birth of their firstborn Son, our scene shifts to the shepherds on the hills surrounding Bethlehem. We are familiar with this next part of the story: shepherds guarding their sheep at night, and the heavenly angel breaking onto the scene.

Does anyone remember what we just looked at from the book of Isaiah? The Lord God had a wonderful birth announcement, given a few hundred years beforehand. But, this is the time! This is when the prophet was talking about. The angel told the shepherds that a newborn Savior had arrived. He is not only a Savior, He is Messiah, too, with everything that that means to an oppressed, downtrodden people in an occupied country. Believe me, Rome was not exactly a gentle group of overlords. No, the Roman empire was an oppressive regime. I can just imagine how welcome this heavenly announcement was! God-sent, indeed.

Plus, the name given to this special Baby by the angel Gabriel had great meaning. Mary and Joseph did not go to a bookstore and pour over the selection of names in a baby book to help them name their son.  If we go back a chapter to Luke 1, the angel who tells the teenager Mary she is going to bear the Messiah also tells her what His name will be: “You will have a son, and you will call His name Jesus.” In Hebrew, the name Jesus means “the Lord saves.” That is just what the angel tells the shepherds—”Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

What a build-up for this heavenly event! Imagine, repeated birth announcements for this wondrous Child born in Bethlehem. Is it any wonder that this was the biggest, best birthday ever? If we go back to our first example, with the children having a party celebrating someone’s birthday, we could have a humdinger of a huge birthday bash, indeed.

Happy birthday, Jesus! We can celebrate, because Jesus came into the world on that Christmas Day. We can celebrate, because there is no other name given among people that can save us from our sins. Praise God, we have a Savior, indeed!

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

What Christmas Is All About

“What Christmas Is All About”

Chilean nativity scene, 1955.

John 1:1-4, 9-14 (1:14) – December 24, 2018

Christmas expectations can be wonderful. When we think of small—even middle-sized—children, they can be all wide-eyed and filled with amazement at the sense of wonder found in Christmas. That sense of wonder goes away somewhat as children get older, but then their expectations change, too. As people shift into adulthood, parenthood, and even grandparenthood, their Christmas expectations can shift even more.

What are your expectations of Christmas, this year?

I noted in one of my Advent sermons several weeks ago that December 9th was the 53rd anniversary of the first showing of the “Charlie Brown Christmas Special.” Over fifty years of this Christmas special has certainly affected how people in the United States view Christmas.

I wonder—how do we view Christmas? How are our expectations affected?

If we consider the people in and around Bethlehem on that first Christmas eve, there was a lot of hustle and bustle, a good deal of coming and going. The little town of Bethlehem was certainly a popular place, especially since the Roman law had been in effect for a while. Many descendants of King David needed to return to Bethlehem and register with the Roman government. We all know that Joseph was of the house and lineage of David, and that was why he was there.

We have heard about the shepherds, who were the first to receive God’s super-special birth announcement. They not only came to see the newborn King in a manger themselves, but they also alerted the whole town to the new birth, too. I suspect a goodly number of the people in Bethlehem had at least heard about the birth of a possible Messiah, by the time the shepherds were finished.

I wonder—what were their expectations, that first Christmas Eve?

We have the main players, Joseph himself, and Mary, his fiancée. The Holy Family. When the baby Jesus was born and the shepherds—and some others—showed up, I suspect Mary and Joseph were a bit perplexed at all the attention their Child was getting. What’s more, Dr. Luke records Mary treasuring up all these events in her heart, and reflecting upon them from time to time in the years to come.

I wonder—what were Joseph’s and Mary’s expectations from that first Christmas eve?

We shift from the common, ordinary smell of farm animals and the baby Jesus lying in a manger bed that Dr. Luke relates in the second chapter of his Gospel, to quite another scene. We shift to the first chapter of the Gospel of John. We shift from the warm, homey scene of a blessed Mother rocking her Baby to the time eternal before the heavens and earth began.

What kinds of expectations do we have from this particular retelling of the Gospel story, found in John, chapter 1? These verses, this retelling of the entrance into this world of the Messiah, goes like this: “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God. The Word was God. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. To all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God.”

Expectations of such cosmic significance! We go from the intimate, everyday retelling of Luke to the universal, cosmic retelling of John. Mind-blowing, to be sure. Most of the time, I cannot even begin to get my head around this eternal perspective.

The Apostle John was a mystic, a contemplative, and probably the least worldly of any of the disciples. It shows, in his writings. Yet, the beginning of John’s Gospel is a necessary part of the Nativity story. This cosmic retelling lets us know that Jesus broke into this world not only as a helpless Baby born in Bethlehem, but also as the pre-Incarnate Son, eternal from the time before the universe began, and eternal, to the time after the heavens and the worlds in the universe have all passed away.

One of my favorite expressions is “both/and.” I am uncomfortable with “either/or.” I do not like “black/white.” I much prefer “both/and.” Not either this, or that. Not either the Luke 2 Nativity, or the John 1 Prologue. But, both/and. Luke tells us of the very relate-able pregnant teenage mother, having her baby at a very inconvenient time. And at the same time, John tells us of the cosmic Christ, the Word, the One who spoke the universe into being at the beginning of all things. We have both. Often, too much for our puny human brains to grasp, but true, all the same.

What kind of expectations do we have from John’s cosmic retelling of the Nativity, in John chapter 1?

Let us draw closer in to the familiar Christmas story. Charlie Brown’s Christmas story. As with any cartoon, we need a villain. The villain in this cartoon special is no personification, no Abominable Snowman or Grinch, but instead the commercialization of Christmas. This is what is causing such angst and despair to Charlie Brown.

What does make Christmas? What kinds of expectations does Charlie Brown have?

Sometimes I feel like Charlie Brown at the Christmas pageant rehearsal. “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” I know Linus responds, “Sure, Charlie Brown. I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” He then recounts the Nativity narrative from Luke 2. Except—the blessed truth doesn’t penetrate into Charlie Brown’s head. Yet.

These whole four weeks of Advent we have been retelling the Nativity narrative from Luke, in anticipation of this very night. We have been singing the songs, and lighting the candles on the Advent wreath, all in preparation for this main event.

An Episcopal minister, the Rev. John Holton from Connecticut, uses this same Christmas special to relate the Nativity narrative. He says, “The good feeling, that warm fuzzy feeling I get watching A Charlie Brown Christmas is, at its core, a feeling of hope that even I could be loved.  The hope—the knowledge—that God who sees even our unloveliness loves us fully.  Loves us so much that God comes to be among us.  As one of us.  That God won’t let us go.” [1] Isn’t that the true meaning of Christmas? Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

This is a gift that cuts through the commercialization of Christmas. Caring, compassion, and love for one another.

We can thank the Lord for God’s greatest gift, the gift to each of us of God’s Son, of God’s Love. And, we have the opportunity to bring glad tidings to all people right now, to people aching to hear of God’s love for them, for us, for all the world.

Won’t you share your expectation of Christmas with someone, tonight? Won’t you share God’s love with someone, today?

[1] http://www.christchurchnh.org/sermon/2017/12/28/thats-what-christmas-is-all-about-charlie-brown

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

“Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”

Shepherds, Annunciation, Oxford Bodlean Library

Luke 2:8-20 (2:8) – December 23, 2018

Birth announcements are often greeted with great excitement and joy. In the United States, they can be detailed and specific, with details like the time of delivery, the sex and the weight of the baby, and of course, the name of the new child. The new parents are so proud of their new bundle of joy, and the new grandparents often show everyone the latest photos of their new grandchild, sometimes before the baby is one hour old.

Nothing is new about babies being born. As long as humans have been on earth, babies have been born. As the old saying goes, “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should continue.” One particular, super-special birth announcement happened one night, two thousand years ago. Not with fancy paper, balloons, or glitter, but with something a lot more special.

We need to back up a bit. We all are familiar with the basic details of the Christmas story. Since the Roman Empire wanted to discover exactly how many people they had living in all the provinces and regions of their vast empire, a law was passed that said every adult male needed to go to their ancestral town to register, or report. So, Joseph, descendent of King David, needed to go to David’s home town, Bethlehem, to report in.

Except, Joseph and Mary find themselves on the road at an awkward time. Not only were there lots of other people traveling to their ancestral towns, but added to that, Mary was greatly pregnant. So pregnant, in fact, that soon after she arrived in Bethlehem she went into labor. Mary delivered a newborn boy, as Dr. Luke tells us in the verses previous to our reading.

There was something quite different about this birth. Several somethings, in fact.

In most birth announcements, one of the main things people want to know is the baby’s name. This newborn baby had a great name: Jesus, Yeshua, or Joshua, meaning “he saves.” We know—because one of the prophecies from the book of Isaiah told us so—that this Baby, this Child is also known as the Prince of Peace. Plus, the newborn baby is also of the house and lineage of King David. Added to which, the birth of this particular Baby was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. Impressive bloodline and backstory, indeed.

After all this build-up, many people would expect a grand birth announcement, sent to the very best people. People like nobility, royalty, other V.I.P.s. But who is it who receives this birth announcement? Shepherds. Common, ordinary, lowly shepherds. As Dr. Luke records in his Gospel, “shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” For the shepherds, it was an ordinary night. Nothing special, they were just minding their own business. And, if you have worked on a farm or with farm animals, you might know what herding animals smells like. Not very appealing, to modern minds—or noses.

Shepherds were not considered well-to-do, upright citizens. Quite the opposite! Dr. David Lose tells us “And the shepherds? These were the undesirables of the first century, the folks on the lowest of the low rungs of the socio-economic ladder.” [1] Today, we might look on people like these shepherds as street sweepers, or rag-pickers, people who emptied latrines, menial workers of the lowest variety. One step above indigent, homeless people.

Yet, these demeaned shepherds were the super-special chosen ones, the ones God favored with a super-special, divine birth announcement. Complete with a light display that lit up the whole sky, an angelic spokesperson, and angel chorus, God wanted the shepherds to know first of all. Not the rich people in town, or the president of the synagogue, or the elders on the ruling board. Not the King of Judah in his palace in Jerusalem, or the nobility who lived in fine houses with fancy clothes, or the Pharisees or members of the Sanhedrin. No, God wanted the lowest of the low to find out, first.

Isn’t it strange—or odd—or funny that God wanted these shepherds to be the first to know? Actually, no. Since God could choose absolutely anyone on earth to hear about the divine birth first, God must have had a really good reason for choosing these despised shepherds. And, God wants all people to know of the birth of the newborn King, the Prince of Peace.

“In spite of their poor reputation as a class of people, these shepherds seem to have been godly men, men who were looking for the coming of Israel’s Messiah. All the others of those who were directly informed of the birth of Messiah in Matthew and Luke were described as godly people, and so it would seem to be true of the shepherds as well.” [2]

Believe it or not, these despised shepherds were sometimes compared to God, in the Bible. God being the shepherd, and the people of Israel the sheep. As uncomplimentary as it may be, people are often compared to sheep in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

As I have noticed before, the behavior of sheep and the behavior of human beings do have some similarities. Yet despite all of these negative attributes, the Jewish and Christian holy writings repeatedly talk about people being compared to sheep.

I found this lovely poem by William Blake (1757-1827). A poet and visionary, he was a committed Christian. He also was a creative writer and some called him even mystical.

As long as we are considering the shepherds coming to see the baby Jesus, I also wanted us to reflect upon the sheep—the flocks, shepherded by the workers on those cold, windswept hills around Bethlehem.

 

Meditation on the Lamb

 

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee,

gave thee life, and bid thee feed

by the stream and o’er the mead;

gave thee clothing of delight,

softest clothing, woolly, bright;

gave thee such a tender voice,

making all the vales rejoice?

 

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:

He is called by thy name,

for he calls himself a Lamb.

He is meek, and he is mild;

He became a little child.

I a child, and thou a lamb,

we are called by his name.

Little Lamb, God bless thee!

Little Lamb, God bless thee!

 

Jesus is called a Lamb. We are called sheep. Not very flattering, is it?  The lowest of the low, the shepherds, heard of the birth of the Prince of Peace, the Lamb of God. However, it matters nothing to God about our position, or honor, or wealth, or influence.

God does care about our hearts, and how we receive God’s Son.

“In Christ we have the promise that God will not stop until each and all of us have been embraced and caught up in God’s tremendous love and have heard the good news [as proclaimed to the shepherds] that “unto you this day is born a savior, Christ the Lord.” [3]

Let us joyfully follow the shepherds’ example, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.” Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1612

“Something More,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/4-birth-messiah-luke-21-20

Robert L. (Bob)Deffinbaugh graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary with his Th.M. in 1971. Bob is a pastor/teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1612

“Something More,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

In A Manger

“In A Manger”

international Nativity

Luke 2:1-7 (2:6) – December 16, 2018

Nativity scenes are so sweet. You see them frequently at this time of year. Either lit up, like the one outside of our church, or carved in olive wood, similar to the figure I am holding up right now. They can be ceramic, plaster, or painted. Little, small enough to fit under a Christmas tree, or almost life-sized, like the one I saw outside of a big Catholic church in the suburbs.

I suspect we all could mention the cast of characters we might find in a nativity scene. Besides Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, we find shepherds, animals, kings, and sometimes an angel. The nativity pictures look so gentle and perfect, just like a Christmas card.

Mary and Joseph did not have a picture-perfect time of it. As an adult male living under Roman occupation, Joseph was ordered to go to his ancestral town of Bethlehem and register, just as the Roman rulers said. Dr. Luke records it: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.”

There must have been a great deal of coming and going throughout Israel, as every adult went to their ancestral town. Complicating matters was Mary, Joseph’s betrothed, who was greatly pregnant. “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.”

I wonder how Joseph and Mary felt about being uprooted from their small town of Nazareth and forced to travel—that is, walk—dozens of miles through semi-arid, sometimes hilly country. I wonder what Mary and Joseph thought about coming to the very crowded town of Bethlehem, a near suburb of Jerusalem, chock full of extended relatives of King David. And, I have only an inkling of an idea of what Mary thought, being great with child, having to make the long, difficult journey. The forced timing of this whole trip must have been simply awful.

I want us to step back from Mary and Joseph for a moment. Let us leave them in Bethlehem. As one commentator mentioned, “We all see the Bible through an interpretive lens, and many Western Christians tend to read it through a European/American one. We often bypass the culture and customs that were prevalent during biblical times. We even interject our own bias and prejudice. This is a common error that causes misinterpretation to ensue.” [1]

But, isn’t that human nature? Each of us, all of us, relate to biblical narrative through the lenses of our own personal experiences, through our own separate upbringings. How else do we begin to understand some other person’s story, if not through familiar ideas, surroundings, characters, and narratives?

I was privileged to have the opportunity to get to know the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey. I have attended the New Wilmington Mission Conference in western Pennsylvania the last week of July for almost twenty years, where Ken and his wife Mickey also attended. Except, they went to New Wilmington for some decades. The Baileys served as Presbyterian missionaries in the Middle East for decades, too, coming back to the United States each summer before returning to their work as teachers. Ken as a seminary professor, and his wife as a high school teacher.

Ken Bailey knew a vast amount about Middle Eastern culture and customs, both modern and ancient. He also knew a whole bunch of languages fluently, both modern and ancient. He was a man of great knowledge, stature, and influence, and yet also a humble and unassuming person. He wrote a number of biblical commentaries and scholarly discussions which included first-century Palestinian culture, and how it informs our reading of the Bible today.

I hesitate to break this to everyone, but according to current understandings of Palestinian customs and culture of the first century, Jesus was most probably not born in a stable. Where did this idea of a stable come from? It is difficult to tell. People elaborate, of course. You’ve all played “telephone” as young people, sitting in a big circle around a room, one person whispering in the ear of the next, each whispering what they heard in turn, and everyone laughing when the initial message ends up being all garbled at the end of the “telephone” chain.

We know the biblical text of the Gospel of Luke has remained constant, even through many translations over the centuries. However, as generations of people verbally relate the Nativity story, people tend to elaborate. It gets even more complicated when the message of the Gospel crosses the boundaries of different cultures, and crosses lines into different continents.

For example, considering the manger in a stable: “The mention of a ‘manger’ in Luke’s nativity story, suggesting animals, led mediaeval illustrators to depict the ox and the ass recognising the baby Jesus, so the natural setting was a stable—after all, isn’t that where animals are kept?” [2]  That stable is from a European point of view. But not necessarily, although Luke certainly mentions a manger.

Let’s go back to Mary and Joseph. We left this poor, exhausted couple on the outskirts of Bethlehem. The common modern understanding of an “inn” was another elaboration, since the Greek word kataluma is exactly the same word used to describe the upper room of the Passion Week. Its definition: “‘the spare or upper room in a private house or in a village […] where travelers received hospitality and where no payment was expected’ (ISBE 2004). A private lodging which is distinct from that in a public inn, i.e. caravanserai, or khan.” [3]

Mary and Joseph were probably bedded down in an upper room, dormitory-style, with a number of other extended relatives of the great King David. No private room, like they might have at an inn. As Luke said “she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”

Not wonderful accommodations, but at least they were not freezing outside with no place to sleep. There was a communal area where the family’s animals were kept, at one end of the large open room, on the ground floor. I suspect there were animals, too—all watching the Holy Family, Mary, Joseph and the newborn baby Jesus. “Once Jesus was born, I envision the two of them tiredly improvising with a manger and some spare cloth, seeking the chance to rest before their newborn inevitably begins his new routine of squalling every 3 or 4 hours to be fed.” [4]

Where does that leave us, with our pretty nativity scenes under our Christmas trees, in front of our houses, and on our Christmas cards? What is the message we receive each Christmas? The holy God of all the universe became a human baby, born to an unmarried teenager, in uncomfortable, awkward circumstances. Not the best of beginnings from a human point of view, but certainly God-ordained beginnings.

What does all that mean for us? It means that we do not have to have neat, tidy lives, that our situations can be uncomfortable, awkward, sad, lonely, anxious, fearful, traumatic, with a whole host of other “negative” circumstances. None of that matters. What does matter is God is with us. Emmanuel, the God-become-human, God with us, is here in the middle of all those awkward, unfamiliar, even ugly situations. Have you lost a job? Jesus is with us. Have you lost a loved one? Jesus is with us. Have you lost a home, or changed neighborhoods, or are feeling lonely, depressed, or especially anxious? Jesus is still with us.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.ashleyeaster.com/blog/yes-mary-knew

Guest post by: Pastor Gricel Medina, Leadership/Community Developer

[2] https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/once-more-jesus-was-not-born-in-a-stable/

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://modernmetanoia.org/2016/12/09/756/

“Twas the Night Before Birthing”, Emily S. Kahm, Modern Metanoia, 2016.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

O Come, Emmanuel

“O Come, Emmanuel”

O come Emmanuel

Luke 1:26-38 (1:31) – December 2, 2018

Have you noticed when you saw or heard your first Christmas commercial this year? On television, or on the radio? Or, perhaps it’s the first piped-in Christmas music at the store or at the coffee shop. Do you remember where you were? This expectation we go through every year; we pause, we watch the commercials, we hear in the music, we see in the displays of holiday lights and lighted figures outside of our neighbors’ houses.

These four weeks of Advent are weeks of preparation, of anticipation, of expectation. All these things are announcements of an impending arrival. Little reminders of the anticipation of the narrative from the first chapter in Luke. Ours is a fraction of the expectation that Mary had, beginning with the announcement from the angel. The teenage Mary had the angel Gabriel burst in on her, unannounced, giving her the very first Christmas commercial.

The anticipation we feel today is only a shadow of that we find in the Bible. I suspect, the teenage Mary was surprised out of her sandals by this unexpected visitor. Mary is told to expect the birth of the Son of the Most High.

If we go back several centuries, to the time of the prophet Isaiah, we notice the prophet writing about a young woman bearing a child, too.  In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 7:14 reads “a virgin will conceive and give birth to a son.” The Gospel of Luke shows this prophecy being fulfilled. But—not quite yet. Mary needs to go through a nine-month waiting period, a period of anticipation, expectation, and preparation.

As one commentator says, “Let’s be honest. Perplexity is exactly our response when the Lord shows up. To me? Why me? Why now? I think we underestimate the impact of what it means to know that God is actually around. Here. With us. Doesn’t God have better things to do? Bigger things to take care of? More major issues to maintain besides me?” [1]

Mary has a problem. She is not only a virgin (which the angel tells her not to worry about). However, she thinks she is merely a common, ordinary, every-day-type young woman. There is nothing special or extraordinary about her! It is “only after expressing her wonder and dismay, and then hearing again Gabriel’s affirmation and promise, does she manage to summon the courage to believe that God is indeed favoring Mary by working in her and through her for the health of the world.” [2]

This week is the first week of Advent, and we are going to focus on songs during these weeks. The Advent and Christmas seasons have marvelous carols, hymns and songs written during a number of centuries. This week, appropriately, we highlight the Advent carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” An excerpt from a fine article on this carol is found in your bulletin.

If you look at the article, notice several things. This is one of the oldest carols we have in our hymnals today. Christians have been singing it for over 1000 years. Originally written in Latin, it was translated into English by the scholar and priest John Mason Neale in the 1800’s. The translation of this hymn lets us know how much theology was written into the original lyrics. Each verse mentions a number of biblical and theological references.

You know what this ancient Latin hymn reminds me of? Young Mary. Eileen did not read Mary’s song from the first chapter of Luke, the Magnificat, but Mary does exactly that—after the angel leaves her, she breaks into song, and praises God. Not only that, she must have been biblically knowledgeable, because her song is chock full of biblical and theological references.

We know Mary was an introspective young woman, thoughtful and contemplative, since Dr. Luke tells us so in chapters 1 and 2. Does it surprise us that she knew a great deal about the Hebrew Scriptures, as we can tell from reading her song, her response to God?

Quoting from this wonderful song, the Magnificat:

“My soul glorifies the Lord  47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

A modern setting of this song of Mary is the Canticle of the Turning, by Rory Cooney. I keep reminding myself not to get political in my weekly sermons—except when the words of the Scripture we read from the Lectionary are clearly lifting up some direct calling from God. Through Mary’s words, we are called to stand up in this neighborhood, this country, this world, and stand with the humble, the hungry, with those who fear God. We are called to stand against the proud, the rich, and the rulers.

In the Canticle of the Turning, this new retelling of Mary’s song is, indeed, about the birth of a baby. It also talks about how this birth turns a family upside down. Yet, this whole event—the birth of the Son of the Most High—is about God turning the world around. It is through God’s Son, Jesus, God welcomes us all. Not just welcoming the rich and privileged, but everyone, male, female, rich, poor, slave, free, whatever difference one person has from another. All means Jesus welcomes everyone. No matter what, no matter who.

Perhaps God did an extraordinary thing through Mary—just as the angel said—to show the world that through God all things are possible. Just as it was for the prophets, so it was with Mary, and so it is with us. May we all respond like Mary—“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to Your word.”

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3462

Advent as a Way of Life, Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher, 2014

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1611

“Favored Ones,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

On the Lookout

“On the Lookout”

Matt 2-11 Adoration_magi_Pio_Christiano_4th cent. sarcophagus, Vatican museum

Matthew 2:1-12 (2:2) – January 7, 2018

Christmas Day has been over for two weeks. To modern-day Americans, this was a long time ago! But the full holiday isn’t really over on December 25th. There are the twelve days of Christmas (remember the song about the twelve days?), during which many would have parties and feasting and especially Twelfth Night celebrations.

As we think of Nativity scenes or paintings, how often do we see them with shepherds and sheep, as well as the three wise men? All of them at the same time visiting the baby Jesus in the manger?  That is not quite the way it was, as presented in the Gospels. We are all familiar with the Nativity narrative from Luke chapter 2, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. All went to their own towns to be registered.”

For the visit of the wise men, we need to turn to Matthew’s gospel, chapter 2: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi [or, wise men] from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the One who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.”

Here we have some wise men—probably noblemen who know a great deal about stars and constellations. They have been studying the heavens for years and years, as well as studying religious books and writings. Just as it says in the gospel record, a great sign (or star) rose in the sky, so these wise astrologers knew that something momentous was going to happen.

These wise men, or Magi, were not Jewish wise men, but instead were Gentiles. Non-Jews. “Could an unusual phenomenon in the night skies have caught the attention of some of them—interest in the stars was legendary in the region—and led them to set out to Jerusalem? That people of other lands and religions are drawn to Jesus, even as a child, is also significant: in Christ, God is speaking to the hearts and minds of all people.” [1] It is important to point out that they were on the lookout and knew which way to go—towards Jerusalem. And, eventually, they turned up at the palace, on King Herod’s doorstep.

What was King Herod’s response to the question of these noble Gentile wise men? “When Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.” “Why was Herod so frightened? Of a baby? What did he have to lose and how did he see this baby as a threat?” [2]

For the how and the what, we need to look at Herod’s psychological profile, which is not nice at all. He was bloodthirsty, cruel, narcissistic, and always on the lookout for trouble brewing that might affect him. Herod was installed as a puppet king of Israel by the Roman overlords. I suspect he did not feel very secure to begin with. When he heard about a newborn King of Israel, you can imagine how his anxiety level rose. Herod did not want any rival claim to the throne.

Herod is sneaky, and sly, and ruthless. Listen to his response to these wise men: “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

That leads me to ask some uncomfortable questions. We know Herod was threatened by the thought of a newborn King. Are we threatened by the thought of Jesus? Does the newborn King make us anxious? We know that cruel King Herod had horrible plans ahead for the boy babies and toddlers in the area of Bethlehem. But, are our motives clear when we think of our fear and anxiety concerning strangers and visitors coming into our hometown?

A telling observation comes from Dr. David Lose: “Perhaps it is because the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power. Gone from Herod and his court is any notion of the kind of servant leadership prescribed and required by Israel’s prophets. Gone is the memory that God placed them in their positions to serve rather than be served. Herod seeks his own ends and so is immediately threatened by even the mere mention of another – and therefore rival – king.” [3]

What about any self-interest we might have? We know King Herod was a prime hypocrite. But, is there any hypocrisy in our words and actions, when we think of how we treat strangers, visitors from far away? Serious questions, requiring serious thought.

We follow the wise men as they leave Jerusalem and go to Bethlehem. Remember what brought them on this journey in the first place? They had seen a star in the heavens, and by consulting their books of ancient wisdom, they knew that a King had been born. They followed that star, that Light.

We don’t know, and we cannot tell for sure, but perhaps one of the books the wise men consulted was the book of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. Chapter 60 begins: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you, and His glory appears over you.” Maybe this was one of the ancient writings they poured over.

On Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, we sing about the wise men from the East. “We three kings, of Orient, are.” What is the chorus of that Christmas—actually, Epiphany—carol? “Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright.” Although they were Gentiles, they still recognized that the one who was born the king of the Jews was worthy of worship. And, they came to the house where the Holy Family was staying, and offered Him gifts fit for a King.

Here in the United States in many Protestant denominations, Epiphany is not that big of a deal. Yes, the coming of the wise men is incorporated into many Christmas pageants, and is found in nativity scenes and Christmas cards. Except—I want to let everyone here know that this is a totally separate event. The coming of Light into the world—so beautifully mentioned at the beginning of the gospel of John—is the whole meaning behind our celebration of Epiphany.

One of the grand symbols of God is that of Light. Mentioned repeated throughout the Bible, when we picture Light we can think of a star, the sun, a candle, a lamp. We have the Advent wreath lit today, with the Christ candle in the middle letting us know that Jesus is with us right now. We lit those candles on the Advent wreath one by one, and on Christmas Eve lit the Christ candle to remind ourselves that God our Light is always with us. And, at the end of our service today the light from the candles behind the communion table will travel down the central aisle and out the back door to call worshipers to follow the Light of God out into the world. [4]

As the wise men followed the star—the Light—to worship the Child in Bethlehem, so we can follow Him, the True Light. The shining Star of our hearts is the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Do you know He is with us today? He opens His arms wide to all who would come. Come worship the True Light, the Child born in Bethlehem, today. Amen.

[1] http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2012-01-01

“Jesus, Herod, the Magi and Us,” Commented Bible Passages from Taize, 2012.

[2] http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/gold-frankincense-myrrh-alyce-mckenzie-01-03-2013.html

“Gold, Frankincense and Myrhh,” Alyce McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1509  “An ‘Adults Only’ Nativity Story,” David Lose, WorkingPreacher, 2013.

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/11/year-epiphany-monday-january-6-2014-or.html

Worshiping with Children, Epiphany, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)