Star Light, Star Bright

“Star Light, Star Bright”

Matt 2-11 Epiphany star, Magi, angel, 12th century carving, Autun Cathedral

Matthew 2:1-12 (2:9) – January 5, 2020

When I was little, we always kept our Christmas tree up in our living room until Epiphany, January 6th. We did not always have this particular decoration, but sometimes, there would be a small star ornament my mother would place at the top of the tree. And, I can remember sitting in a darkened living room with my mom, filled with wonder. The only lights lit in the room would be the colored lights on the Christmas tree. What wondrous lights!

I wonder, were Christmas lights a big part of your Christmas celebration? They certainly were, where I grew up, on the northwest side of the Chicago. Christmas lights in the front yards of houses, and in the windows, as well as on the Christmas tree inside. And, I can remember hearing from a very young age that these bright, shiny Christmas lights all over were shining to remind everyone about the Christmas star, the Star of Bethlehem.

But, what about the original Star? Somehow, I suspect only a few people at the time of the birth of Jesus really understood the reason for the bright shining Star. That is, until it was shining over Bethlehem for a number of weeks.

Let’s look at what Matthew tells us, again: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi 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.” What do we know about these Magi, these scholars from the east?

Biblical commentators and historians tell us that these scholars were astronomers who spent their lives studying the stars and planetary movements, among other natural events. They were probably well-to-do, if not members of royal houses themselves. They most probably came from the general area of Persia—that is, in the area of modern-day Iraq, Syria and parts of Iran.  In their studies, consulting contemporary books and writings, these Magi had discovered that the appearance of a wondrous star meant that an important king—or ruler—had just been born. That Star—that Light—beckoned to these scholars. So, what did they decide to do? Go and visit that newborn king, of course!

While on their way, they needed directions. What to do? It only made sense for some well-born VIPs from another country to ask directions at the local palace.

We do know what happened when the Magi got to Jerusalem after following this Star for some weeks; Matthew tells us so. “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied.”

Do we see what a traumatic reaction these scholars had on many people in the area of Jerusalem? Lots of people were upset, especially King Herod! However, I do not know whether these scholars understood that Herod was a particularly nasty guy. At least, not at first.

Today, when you and I talk about Advent or Christmas services at our church, I wonder how people react to us when we talk about the Baby in Bethlehem? Have you recently invited people to our church for the holidays? Perhaps our acquaintances are just as cautious or bothered by our invitation as these people were, so long ago?

And, all this was happening because the Magi followed a Star. They had deciphered passages from books and manuscripts about something (or Someone) promised, whose birth was foretold in the skies. The Star was inviting them to follow, to journey into the unknown. These Magi must have been really excited at the prospect of seeing a prophecy come true.

After Herod directed the scholars to Bethlehem, down the road from Jerusalem, the Star moved again. As Matthew mentioned, “After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”

The Star—the Light from on high led them directly to the young King, where they bowed and worshiped. Can it lead us to draw near to our Lord Jesus? Is this Star, this Light a beacon of hope and joy for us, too?

All that was two thousand years ago, but Epiphany is still with us today. The word Epiphany means manifestation, or appearance. Epiphany is when Christ appears among us, offering hope and joy to all who might need it.

This brilliant Star encourages us to leave the darkness and despair behind and to come into the Light. God does, indeed put directional signals where we can see them. Sure, the sign of the Star of Bethlehem pointed the way to the Holy Child in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. But, doesn’t God use directional signals or signs to point to Jesus now, today? We can count on God’s love and presence with us, in Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Yes, Jesus appears when you or I need Him most. May He appear to each of us during this season of Epiphany, in spirit and in truth.

Alleluia, amen.

 

“During these weeks of Epiphany, dare to ask that Star some questions.

  • Where are we being led in this New Year?  Is the Star offering some course correction? Should we be like the magi and experiment with a “different road” that will lead us to new experiences?
  • What might we need to leave behind in order to start on this journey? What burdens or expectations can you and I set aside to lighten the load?
  • As the Light shines into our lives, what might we discover about ourselves? What do you and I value? What new parts of myself do I want to explore?
  • What does the Star—the Light reveal in our world? What needs or injustices are calling out for compassion and kindness?” [1]

(I would like to thank the Rev. Sue Foster for her Epiphany post “Into the Light!” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from this devotional. Thanks so much!)

https://fosteringyourfaith.com/2019/12/30/into-the-light/ On December 30, 2019 By fosteringyourfaith In Epiphany

[1] https://fosteringyourfaith.com/2019/12/30/into-the-light/ On December 30, 2019 By fosteringyourfaith In Epiphany 

@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!

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.

Bringing Good News!

“Bringing Good News”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Luke 2:9-10 – December 15, 2019

Have you ever spent two hours in a dark movie theater, and come outside into the bright sunlight? When people are in the dark for some time, their eyes adjust and become used to the warm, friendly darkness. And, being in a movie theater can also transport people into a whole new world. Then, when the movie is over and they step into the real world, into sudden bright daylight, the stark difference in dark and light can be a shock to the system, can’t it?

That was a little what it was like for the shepherds, so long ago on the hills at night around Bethlehem. Not too far from Jerusalem, only eight or ten miles down the road. That was a much different time, and much different place. Electric light had never even been heard of! Sure, after night fell and the sun disappeared under the horizon, people had candles and oil lamps. Although, those were expensive. If people did not have much money to spare, they simply went to bed with the sun, and woke the next morning when the sun rose.

Our Gospel writer Luke tells us that “There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”  I am certain the shepherds had some kind of night vision, especially if there was some moon shining and a clear night. I suspect they had grown comfortable with the darkness, keeping watch over their flocks by night.  

I wonder whether anyone here can remember back to a time when they were outside at night, far, far away from the city lights and civilization? Perhaps, far north in Wisconsin or Michigan? Or, maybe in the mountains of Colorado? Then, you might be familiar with that kind of night vision, being aware of all kinds of things happening around you in the dark.

Except – these shepherds had no understanding whatsoever about bright lights! I mean, like spotlights, flood lights, lighting up the whole sky! Suddenly, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” What on earth – or, outside of the earth – was this sudden appearance of the angel?

Some people in the 21st century probably are so accustomed to the Christmas story that their idea of shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night is somehow associated with Christmas cards. But, it was life as usual for these working people. An everyday way of life in Palestine. What’s more, being a shepherd was not a particularly high class job. The lowly vocation of shepherd was on the outskirts of society. A possible comparison today is to think of a person selling “Streetwise,” the paper sold for $2.00 outside of grocery stores, drug stores and coffee shops here around the Chicago area.

And suddenly, the angel of the Lord came to these shepherds—came to people in homeless shelters, people selling “Streetwise,” people down on their luck, people on the edge, on the outs of society. The angel of the Lord came to them with good news. Good news. Lighting up the sky in a way the shepherds had never seen before. We can see God breaking through, in an unexpected way, to an unexpected group of people.

The message of God’s Good News certainly did not come to the people we might expect. Are they influential members of the community? Rich movers and shakers? Leaders of the local synagogues and teachers of the Law of Moses? Those would be the kinds of people who I might expect to have an angel sent to them. But God doesn’t work that way. Again, God does the unexpected, and chooses the most unlikely people to receive a hand-delivered angelic message from the Lord of Hosts, the King of Kings.

One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, is a retired Children’s Ministry educator and writer. It is her confirmed opinion that children and families need “To hear the story read or told in an important way on the ‘night it happened’ – Children like hearing the story of their birth on their birthday and celebrating other big events on ‘the very day it happened.’  So, the story which may have been acted out in a pageant and discussed in church school and read at home, feels more ‘real’ when read [at Christmas time] in the sanctuary.” [1]

Last Friday, I was so pleased to be able to welcome the families of the preschoolers here for their holiday program. The highlight of the program was a visit from Santa. Since there are children from such a variety of faith traditions at the preschool, and since this is a preschool that gets help and funding from the state of Illinois, they need to be careful not to make it all about Jesus. It’s fun to think about Santa, but how do we here in the church deal with the tales and legends about Santa?

As Carolyn Brown reminds us, “If Santa is all there is to Christmas Eve once children learn ‘the truth’ [about Santa], Christmas is just a greedy gift grab.  But, if Christmas Eve has always circled around the story of Jesus told in the sanctuary, the truth about Santa can be fit into that context and the Christmas celebration gets richer.” [2]

We can tell our children, our grandchildren, about the bright light seen by the shepherds. We can tell how the angels came to bring the shepherds the Good News that the Baby born in Bethlehem is indeed Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is the Light of the world, God born into this world as a Baby.

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 2 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/12/why-children-need-to-get-to-church-on.html

Worshiping with Children, Christmas Eve/Day, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013. Why Children Need to Get To Church on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day.

[2] 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!

God with Us!

“God with Us!”

Matt 1-23 Emmanuel Greek

Matt 1:18-24; Luke 1:26-38 – December 8, 2019

Have you ever had something unexpected happen? I mean, something huge. Something you never would have expected in a hundred years. Maybe, even a thousand. I know that, with statistics, we can figure out just what are the chances of having something happen. Like, a car accident, or a fall at home, or catching a rare disease. We can even figure out the statistical chances for getting hit by lightning—and a few people have even been hit by lightning twice, and lived to tell about it.

But—what about being visited by an angel? At night, when you are sleeping? Picture this—our Scripture reading from Matthew 1 tells us about Joseph receiving a visit from an angel of the Lord. Statistically, that angel probably would not even factor, because angels are not material, they are not able to be quantified by any earthly scale or system.

Regardless of whatever statistical system is used, I doubt very much whether Joseph would have been considered “the one most likely to see an angel.” And, especially when we consider what the angel had to say to him.

I wanted to focus on the sleeping part. The angel came to Joseph while he was asleep. That reminds me of someone creeping up on Joseph, trying to surprise him. Perhaps, even trying to scare him. I do not think the angel meant that at all, but the first words out of the angel’s mouth are “Don’t be afraid!”

We are considering light and dark this Advent season. Last week, we thought about different aspects about darkness that are warm, friendly, even inviting. We thought about nocturnal animals, gestating animals, and growing seeds underground. All in the warm, nurturing, friendly darkness. These examples give us a whole different view of darkness as opposed to light.

This week, we look at the angel of the Lord coming to Joseph in a dream. But, before we even start with the angel, what was the background to this Scripture reading?

We know Joseph and Mary are engaged—or, pledged to be married. I suspect that it was more than just an engagement thought up by the two young people themselves, with no one else involved. No, at that time, in that part of the world, a marriage was much more. A marriage was an alliance between two families, a merger, a joining of one extended family with another.

When two people got married, it was a long, drawn-out affair. First, both families needed to talk and negotiate. Most times, money or other kinds of valuables changed hands—some kind of dowry or bride price. The man and woman were seen to be engaged, promised to each other. But the actual, official marriage ceremony had not taken place yet. From what I see in the Scripture passage today, this is the point we are at. This is what is going on. Joseph’s family and Mary’s family have arranged the marriage; Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married.

This is where the story starts getting sad, or weird, or surprising—maybe all three. Mary tells Joseph privately, confidentially, that she is pregnant. And, this pregnancy is special. Super extra special! Mary told Joseph that God was the father of her baby.

Now, what did she say? Wait just a minute. What did Mary say? Joseph could not believe this tall tale Mary tried to tell him. And, this certainly seemed to be a whopper, in Joseph’s eyes.

What do you and I do when we have something happen that is statistically unlikely? Even, impossible? What would you or I do if we had someone tell us that they had heard from an angel, and they were pregnant. And, all this had to be kept confidential?

I suspect Joseph had really unsettled sleep for the next few nights. (Wouldn’t you?)

The Gospel reading tells us “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Seriously, if Mary were tried under the law of Moses, and found pregnant before she went through with the marriage ceremony with Joseph, she could be stoned for adultery. Serious, indeed.

This Scripture reading focuses on light and darkness, too. Sailors and other travelers used the light of stars at night to find their way. The stars, of course, were made of light, but the night—the darkness—enabled the sailors to see stars clearly enough to navigate their path. Light and dark worked together to illuminate the way.

It was during one of these nights of agitation and discomfort that the angel of the Lord came to him. In both Joseph’s and Mary’s cases, darkness plays a significant role. Night tells our bodies it’s time to sleep, and sometimes, we can even have dreams. Light and dark can work together in surprising ways.

Do you remember how I started this sermon, and talked about figuring out the statistical chances for getting hit by lightning—and a few people have even been hit by lightning twice, and lived to tell about it? What are the statistical chances of two engaged people each getting visited by an angel?   

I want to remind us all about the words of the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1. “The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.”

Mary and Joseph, both received word from the angel of the Lord, both at home, and both were scared out of their wits. In both angelic visits, the angels say not to be afraid.  We begin with two people who both did not understand—both were in darkness, except the angel brought light and understanding to both people.

The angelic message offers peace, even as Mary and Joseph face an unexpected future. Like the night sky for ancient sailors, these holy visits to Mary and Joseph point the way when they don’t know what to do. And we know, of course, their message is very good news.

What about us, then, today? Would we receive this same news in the same way?

Each one of us is encouraged to ponder our selves, our lives. Let me suggest that in this pondering, we have the opportunity to offer our thoughts, feelings and emotions to God. Each of us can think of times of regret and sorrow, the deep feelings, the difficult memories. And, what about those times of anxiety and deep sadness? Of desperate loneliness and fear.

Like Mary, like Joseph, each of us today has the ability to ask God to take away the distress and anxiety from us. Just like in Mary’s situation, where she accepted the angel’s news with joy. Just like Joseph, who was persuaded to continue with the engagement by the words of the angel. The angels spread light and life wherever they went.

The angels delivered important messages to Mary and Joseph. Another word for angel is “messenger,” and we can all be messengers of hope, light and life. How can you or your family deliver a message of good news today? Take a moment to think of someone who could use a message of love and hope. Then write a note, send a photo by Facebook or Instagram, draw a picture, or send a text to that person or family.

God willing, we can all be messengers of God’s light, life and hope to others.

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 2 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!

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!

We See Your Salvation

“We See Your Salvation”

Luke 2-30 Simeon words

Luke 2:22-40 (2:30) – December 31, 2017

Many of us had a marvelous celebration last week for the Christmas holidays. Gatherings with extended family and friends, special parties and programs, holiday concerts and pageants, often ending with the caroling around the fireplace. And the stockings hung with care, and mounds of gaily wrapped presents around the Christmas tree.

But, too soon after the grand holiday, the main event, and the wonderful days of celebrations, everything is ended. The crumpled wrapping paper is in the trash, the many leftovers packed in the refrigerator. The unexpected visitors have gone home, and we have returned back to the plain old mundane, ordinary routine. What happens now? What next?

Mary and Joseph might have been wondering a similar thing. After the marvelous birth announcement given to the shepherds by the chorus of the heavenly hosts, and after the impromptu visit by the shepherds and others to the newborn Baby in Bethlehem, what happens now? What next? Great question! What does happen?

Reading from the second chapter of Luke: “22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took the child to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

We are told that Mary recuperates and takes the time prescribed for mothers of a first-born son from Leviticus chapter 12. Then, she and Joseph bring Jesus up to the Temple for the Child’s dedication. The Mosaic Law Code is very specific about what needs to be done for a first-born son: forty days after the birth, the parents of the newborn son take their Child to present Him before the Lord.

Now that the grand celebration of the birth is over, Mary and Joseph get down to the ordinary, everyday matter of living. The main way they do that is to follow the laws and rules prescribed for them in the Mosaic Law Code. The laws and rituals of the Jewish people were ancestral traditions. It’s pointed out that these “are a reminder to [the parents] that Jesus is born in the context of the covenant established between God and the people Israel.” [1]

The Jewish people were supposed to be sensitive to the Holy God, and this rite of purification in the Temple is a reminder of that relationship to God. “One way a woman encounters the holy is through the miracle of giving birth. It is a holiness which belongs to and describes the natural rhythm of life.” [2]

Our Gospel writer Luke breaks in right here with a new figure in his narrative. A cameo appearance by a guest star, if you think of things in terms of television or movies, in the birth narrative of Luke chapter 2. We meet the older man Simeon, and we find out about his backstory.

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for Him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took Him in his arms and praised God.”

It is similar to what we covered in the weeks of Advent this year. In the midweek bible study during December, we studied the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew chapter 1. Pretty dry stuff, all of those names, and all of those “begats.” So-and-so the son of the other guy, the grandson of such-and-such. Genealogies were extremely important to the Jewish people, because keeping an orderly and exact account of who was related to whom helped cement the lines of ancestry and inheritance.

Except—the genealogy of Jesus had some surprises. Four women were mentioned in Matthew’s account. We studied the backstory of each of those four women, and found out exactly why each one was included in the genealogy of Jesus. In Luke’s birth narrative, he tells us some backstory, so we can find out exactly what the godly man Simeon is doing here.

Luke tells us that Simeon is called “just and devout,” and was waiting for the dawning of the kingdom of God – “the consolation of Israel”. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. He now sees the fulfillment of this promise. In the power of the Spirit, he sings a song of praise and utters a prophecy concerning Jesus. [3]

What a marvelous expression of faith and trust in God comes from Simeon. He sings to God: “29 “Sovereign Lord, as You have promised, You may now dismiss Your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation, 31 which You have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.” 33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about Him.”

Sizeable words spoken about someone so small. Here we have the baby Jesus, and His mother and adoptive father did marvel at such weighty words!

However, Simeon is not finished yet. He prophecies after this wonderful expression of song. “34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, His mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Serious, solemn words, indeed. Simeon has waited for his whole life for this very moment. After years and decades of expectation and longing, the Messiah has finally arrived. What is more, Simeon spontaneously blesses Mary and Joseph, too, along with Jesus.

Simeon was right there, at the beginning, with Jesus as a baby. He gave witness that Jesus was as foretold, by many prophets throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus had the greatest future, here at the beginning of the Greatest Story Ever Told. “We are left in anticipation to watch as the Child grows strong, filled with wisdom and blessed with the favor of God.” [4]

Where are each of us in our understanding of Emmanuel, God being with us? Is this narrative from Luke just a fairy story, suitable only to be shared with children every December at the holidays? Or, is it more than that? Have we heard the Good News from the angels and are waiting for more assurance, more evidence that the Messiah has come to earth?

The faithful servant of God, Simeon, was waiting at the Temple for years.  He was waiting and hoping for the Messiah, the chosen One of Israel. When we come to church today, do we expect to have an encounter with the Messiah? We fall on our knees with those who came to worship. Jesus has his arms open wide to welcome all who would come to Him. Come to Jesus, today. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=207

Commentary, Luke 2:22-40, Holly Hearon, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyg/christmas1bg.html

“Jesus Grew in Wisdom and Stature,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.  

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=207

Commentary, Luke 2:22-40, Holly Hearon, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008

His Name: Emmanuel

“His Name: Emmanuel”

emmanuel-plainsong

Isaiah 7:10-14  – December 18, 2016

So many people love babies. Look at just about any gathering of people. Church congregation, senior center, exercise group, book club. When anyone mentions that someone has just had a baby, what happens? Lots of comments like, “What did she have? Boy or girl?” How big is the baby?” And, especially, “Oh, I hope mom and baby are happy and healthy!”

Common, everyday occurrences, like young women getting pregnant and babies being born. That is exactly what the prophet spoke of in our passage today. The prophet gave a lot of background, but he finished this passage by talking about the clear promise from God. Let’s go back to the beginning of the passage from the prophet: “Again the Lord spoke to King Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” It sounds like the Lord God wants to give King Ahaz a really big message. But, wait. Why is this stuff happening?

A little backstory. The kings of Syria and Israel (Northern Kingdom) join together to go to war with the Assyrians. They ask King Ahaz of Judah (Southern Kingdom) to join with them, but Ahaz refuses. Both countries send armies to march on Jerusalem to dethrone Ahaz and put a puppet king on the throne.

We have big political intrigue going on in Jerusalem at this time! Remember, it’s about seven centuries before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The Lord sends Isaiah to Ahaz a second time, this time offering to give Ahaz a sign so that he will believe God. From Isaiah 7: “12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test,” and once again Ahaz refuses.

One of the commentators I consulted said, “King Ahaz received an oracle from Yahweh, directing him to ask for a sign as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven. This may refer to a sign announced by an earthquake or in lightning. With seeming piety, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign lest it put Yahweh to a test. Isaiah, however, treats his answer as a refusal to trust God and announces that God will give him a sign anyway.” [1]

What is this sign? A common, everyday sign. There may have likely been just a young woman who was at Ahaz’s court, to whom Isaiah could literally point a finger and say, “Look, she’s pregnant. She’s going to have a son. That birth is the sign that God is with us.” We can see this as a sign that God is in the common, everyday things, the simple, ordinary passages of life.

Do the simple, small things that come into our lives change our course? These verses give us an interesting image. God would save the people of Israel through the sign of something so common and ordinary as a pregnant woman. Isaiah began by offering the opportunity for a great big, splashy sign, but instead gave the king a common image of everyday, ordinary happenings.

The sign was certainly not for the mighty and powerful. Rejected by those in power, God would work wonders among the humble and lowly. In other words, the simple common folk. The original reference for Isaiah was to a child born in his time, and in the near future. For the prophet, the message is that in a few years, both the kingdoms threatening Judah will be no longer a problem. This indeed is historically what happened.

Some centuries pass. The Book of Isaiah was originally written in Hebrew, which was the common language of Israel during the 700’s BCE. By the time we arrive at 300 BCE, there has been a huge turnover in the world. Now, the Greeks under Alexander the Great have conquered most of the known world, and they have spread the Greek language far and wide. Plus, the Jewish people had been scattered all over the Middle East and into Asia Minor.

Many of the scattered Jewish people could hardly read and understand their own Scriptures any more! So, a large group of Jewish scholars translated the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. It is that translation that Matthew uses when he says, “22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

Believers from the time of Matthew’s gospel have pointed to these verses as Messianic prophecies. Yes, there is a technical difference between “young woman” and “virgin.” This tension is evident if we closely examine the difference between the Hebrew words and the Greek translation. Yet—what is the same? It is a message of God’s caring and love that sees pregnancy and birth—simple, everyday happenings—as signs of God’s care and concern for God’s people.

Emmanuel. God with us. Was that true in Isaiah’s day, with the Assyrian armies breathing down the necks of the people of Israel? Of course! Isaiah gave the king a special oracle to let him know so. Emmanuel. God with us. Was that true in the time of Jesus’s birth, with the occupying Roman armies breathing down the necks of the people of Israel? Of course it was!

God has always had concern and love for God’s people, no matter where and no matter when. No matter if the persecuted Christians were running from the Romans, or being chased and persecuted by any one of the occupying forces in the centuries in between.

Jesus came from humble origins. Yet, He changed the world. Likewise, the birth of this child, was a sign that even in the midst of the chaos and destruction surrounding Jerusalem in the uncertain time of Isaiah and the uncertain time of the baby Jesus, God was still with them. Life still did go on. In a very real sense, that was (and is!) a miracle.

What is the simple message we receive from these words of the prophet? God will be with us, no matter what. That is the message to King Ahaz and the people of Israel, that is the message to occupied Israel in the newborn Jesus’s day. And, it’s the message we can take home with us this day.

“Look, she’s pregnant. She’s going to have a son. That birth is the sign that God is with us.” We can see this as a joyful sign that God is in the common, everyday things, like the simple, ordinary passages of life. Like a baby being born, displayed to all of us as a wonderful sign from the Lord God. Praise God! God is concerned about the smallest and every day and ordinary, like babies and new moms and children, like you and like me.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://fontes.lstc.edu/~rklein/Documents/adventa.htm#Advent4, Studies on Old Testament texts from Series A, Ralph W. Klein, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)