Hope as a Way of Life

“Hope as a Way of Life”

Habakkuk 1:1-5; 2:1-4 (1:5) –November 27, 2022

            At the end of October, we celebrated Halloween, the day of scary stories, haunted houses, dressing up in all kinds of scary costumes like monsters, ghosts, and other frightening creatures.

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year. Our Scripture reading comes from the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk, on the look out for God’s response to all kinds of scary and frightening things that were going on in the lives of the people of Israel at that time. Long time ago, at the beginning of the 6th century before Christ was born.

Every October, we observe the season of scary things, and every year, many people truly enjoy being scared down to their shoes. Because – isn’t it true that scary things or frightening places are not so scary after all? Especially when we consider that many scary monsters and creatures turn out to be just like us? And, just like the people in Habakkuk’s day, too?

However, Habakkuk talks about not only scary and frightening stuff, but about violence and injustice, causing so much pain in the world. This was not only true many centuries ago. It’s even more true today, with all the fear, uncertainty, anxiety and dread people encounter each day, In our neighborhoods and towns, as well as nationally and internationally.

How about you? How about me? Don’t we regularly see fear, uncertainty, and anxiety in our individual lives? And what about violence? What about injustice? The world just had several instances of shocking, horrible events. Significant recent disasters include mass shootings of multiple people in the past weeks around our country, and the massive earthquake in Indonesia.

Quite different events, but comparable to the many different kinds of situations that the nation of Israel was dealing with during the time of Habakkuk. And, similar to many different kinds of things going on today, like regional wars, famine, drought, rampant inflation and unemployment! What is a person to do, in the face of all this happening? Where is God in the midst of all these tragedies, no matter what their size, big, medium and small? Where is God in your life, or in mine, or in the lives of our beloved relatives and friends?

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. At first glance, this is a different Scripture reading for the beginning of the Advent season! Or, is it? Advent is the season at the beginning of the church year where we – the Church – prepare for the coming of the Christ child, the Baby born in Bethlehem. The prophet Habakkuk’s “message of waiting with hope in the midst of despair offers a powerful word for both the Advent season and for the world we live in today.” [1]

It’s true that the first words of this prophecy are a personal lament. This cry sounds so familiar to us from the Psalms! “O LORD, how long?” This is the opening of a dozen psalms, and repeated again and again in the books of the prophets! I hear this lament from relatives, loved ones, and hospice patients themselves. “O LORD, how long?” People agonize over dire circumstances, and cry out to the Lord again and again. This has happened for millenia, too.

What we can learn from our reading today is – it is okay to complain to God! And, just like Habakkuk, it is okay for us to call God to account. Just like Habakkuk, we too can give voice to what we perceive as God’s refusal to respond to cries for help. Almost as if God is forgetful, or if the Lord has gone on a journey or is asleep.

“That in and of itself is an important reminder for congregations: that being angry at God, or feeling that God seems absent, is “allowed,” and in fact has biblical precedents—and yet those feelings of despair are never the end of the story.” [2]

The things we really fear – that bullies at school or at work will go after us, that something bad will happen to someone we love, that we will lose our jobs, that there will be a war where we live, that we will never be able to do what we want most to do….   If the thinking about fears leads to talking about real, actual fears and anxiety about jobs, the economy, world conflicts, and more, we all can learn that fear is a very real part of life. [3]

Let’s talk straight. In this fallen, imperfect world, people have been fearful and anxious for millenia. But, God promises that fear, anxiety, violence and evil will not be the final word! We can hold this real fear and anxiety in tension with the blessed fact that our God brings hope! Our God is present with us! We can be ready to hear God’s promise to Habakkuk and us in Habakkuk 1:5. ““Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.”  

Do you hear? Do you understand what God is telling us here? “God’s goal in asking Habakkuk to write the message so big was that God wanted everyone to read it and know that God was on the side of the faithful [that’s us!] and against the evil [violence and fear so rampant in the world today].” [4] The Lord wants us to read this message of hope and faith on billboards, or even to have skywriting planes write this hopeful message in the sky above!

God brings hope! As Habakkuk said, God will be with us through the dark valleys and disappointments and tragedies of life, just as God is right beside us through sickness, poverty, conflict, disaster, and whatever other negative things may try to creep in and surround us.

The great good news is our God will not allow these bad things to overcome. God will have the final word, and will prevail. The Lord has promised, and God’s word is sure!

Alleluia, Amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/faith-as-a-way-of-life-2/commentary-on-habakkuk-11-4-22-4-33b-6-17-19-2

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/10/year-c-proper-26-31st-sunday-in.html

[4] Ibid.

Our Mighty Fortress

“Our Mighty Fortress”

Psalm 46:1-7 (46:7) – October 30, 2022

Here we are at Reformation Sunday, the week of the year when we remember Martin Luther posting his list of grievances against the church establishment of the Catholic Church, more than 500 years ago in 1517. These 95 grievances against the Church sparked a movement of protest that was felt around the world. And thus, the Protestant Church was born.

Our psalm reading today was Martin Luther’s favorite psalm. And, what a marvelous psalm to choose! Martin took this psalm to heart, for a whole host of reasons! These were literal reasons, too. The Lord was indeed his fortress, helping him to stay safe through all danger.

The official Catholic Church hierarchy certainly had it in for Martin Luther! After defending himself against strident criticism from scholars and theologians, and legal challenges for years, the official verdict registered by the Catholic Church was not in Luther’s favor. He broke with Rome in 1521. Because he would not recant his views on God, salvation by faith, and the Bible, Luther was officially on the run from the Catholic establishment.

I think of Martin on the run, like young David, after Samuel anointed him king. Martin Luther needed the Lord to be a strong and secure refuge for him, what with all the military and operational might of the Catholic Church coming after him! Looking at the first verses, “God as a Fortress against the threats of nature (verses 1-3). The dominant theme of the psalm is trust in God, first sounded in verse 1, “God is our refuge and strength.” [1] A mighty fortress indeed!

This brought me to thinking, how do you and I trust? Do we – do you trust God to be a secure protection for us and our families? If not, why not? Just like King David, we can see time after time where people from the Bible – both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament – trusted in God to be their refuge and strong fortress, as Martin wrote in the hymn we sang today.

We also remember Father Martin Luther – for he was a Catholic priest – as a sincere, devout follower of Jesus Christ. He thought long and hard about sin and confession, faith and grace. He thought a lot about God’s Word, and eventually translated the whole Bible – both Old and New Testaments – into German, the common tongue of his day and area of Germany. And, thank God that Martin was not only a theologian, but a skilled writer, translator, preacher and musician, too.

The Catholic Church hierarchy did not approve of the Bible translated into the common tongue, which was one of the reasons Martin was on the run. As we examine Psalm 46, one big feature of this psalm is the word “help.” “’Help’ has a more active sense, identifying God as one who takes action to assist those in trouble. Verses 2 and 3 indicate that God’s people need not fear the worst that nature can hurl at them, whether it be earthquakes or floods. Because no matter what, God will be with them.” [2]

Like Martin Luther on the run in parts of Germany, like King David in the wilderness of Israel, God can be our help and refuge, too. Let’s be clear: this psalm is not talking pie-in-the-sky, or looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. This psalm is clear and realistic. It does not promise “we as God’s people will be free from the ravages of nature or of war or of individual suffering. But they do promise that we will not have to go through these things alone. ‘The LORD of hosts is with us … ‘” [3]

This precious hymn written by Luther was not only a refuge from earthly disasters, but is also personal in nature. Rev. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran minister, mentions that she hears it “as much more personal now, knowing as we do that ‘the old satanic foe’ threatened him with the sorts of ‘woes’ one could only begin to understand if one has been there. The heart-wrenching, life altering death of a child, to name but one. The days and nights of struggling to hold on to faith when the Church which had borne the faith to him no longer lived up to its promises. The fear which must have possessed Luther as his very life was threatened.” [4]

Sure, with everything going on in the world today, we also have reason to be scared half to death! Yet, we have “a God who has been time-tested and, over and over again, can be trusted upon to keep you secure in your time of trouble. Either way – and in all times and circumstances – we have a God who has got us covered. That is what Psalm 46 declares. And that is what Luther wanted to proclaim in “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”” [5]

Can we – you and I – loosen our tight grip on all we are clutching to our chests, knowing that God indeed holds everything? Including us?

This Reformation Sunday, Psalm 46 talks of a refuge, and a help in our great need.

Yes, God is indeed our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. That’s something to truly celebrate. Alleluia, amen.


@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/reformation-day/commentary-on-psalm-46-12

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://dancingwiththeword.com/being-still-letting-go/

[5] “A Mighty Fortress is our God” is not the only English translation of Luther’s “Ein Feste Burg.” Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth century Scottish commentator, offered this version: “A safe stronghold our God is still, a trusty shield and weapon.” Carlyle’s contemporary, George MacDonald, rendered stanza one, verse one, in this way: “Our God he is a castle strong, a good mailcoat and weapon.”

Dance Before the Lord!

“Dance Before the Lord!”

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 14-19 (6:14) – July 11, 2021

            Have you ever been to a worship service where people praised the Lord in all kinds of ways? More than singing hymns and worship songs. I mean, playing all kinds of instruments, dancing before God, and other kinds of artistic expressions. I know some churches regularly have multiple expressions of praise to God, in lots of different ways!

            This full reading from 2 Samuel chapter 6 is a long, extended one. I left out some of the material in the middle, not because it isn’t important. Following God’s explicit instructions and God’s subsequent punishment certainly is important! However, I wanted us to focus on the second part of today’s reading: King David and his joyous dancing before the Lord.

            Have you ever attended a church that had a dance ministry? Where members of that church performed sacred dance before the Lord? I have been a guest in such churches and worship services. This can be a beautiful and expressive way of praising God, and offering up the best of what creative people can give to God. Just as much as singing a worship song as solo or duet can be, or playing an instrument for special music in church.

            Let’s take a closer look at this narrative from 2 Samuel 6. The Ark of the Covenant – or, as our reading says, God’s Covenant Box – had been taken hostage by the Philistine army. That did not go well for them. If you happen to remember the movie made some years ago where the fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones found the Ark of the Covenant hidden away in Egypt, things did not go well for the Nazis who appropriated the Ark from Indy and his friends.  

Meanwhile, the Philistines decided God’s special Covenant Box was too much for them to hold hostage any longer. God convinced them to return the Ark by sending plagues on the Philistines. So, they shipped it back into the land of Israel on an ox-drawn cart with no driver.

King David was so excited to have the Ark of the Covenant back in Israel’s hands. He organized a big procession to bring it back into Jerusalem, his capitol city.

Sadly, I will not have time to take a close look at the sudden death of one of the men entrusted to walk beside the special Covenant Box. Following God’s specific instructions could be a sermon topic all on its own! We are going to continue on to look at the next episode of this narrative: where King David and a whole bunch of priests and Levites – the leaders in charge of all Israel! – dance and praise before the Lord as they march on the way to the Tabernacle.    

I remember several leaders of some churches where I belonged, years ago. I cannot imagine any of these leaders dancing and leaping before the Lord. Either because of embarrassment or pride, anxiety or impatience, or some other emotions altogether, these church leaders probably would never, ever dance in joy before the Lord. Never, ever.

But, our writer tells us that not only David and some priests and Levites dance, but says that eventually almost everyone in Israel joins in! They all join in worship and praise to the Lord. Celebrating God’s special Presence in the Ark of the Covenant, God’s special Box.

  Many people could see the Ark as it was brought into the city. They could sing and march and dance because it had returned from the Philistines. And, the people of Israel could be greatly blessed because now the Ark of the Covenant was back where it belonged, among God’s special people. And, God’s special Covenant Box signaled God’s Presence to all of Israel.

            Today, no one knows where the Ark of the Covenant is, if it even still exists. Nevertheless, God’s Presence is still very much in evidence among God’s people, right now. As one of my commentators mentions, “What symbols, objects or stories help us ‘have eyes to see and ears to hear’ God’s Presence among us? Stories from scripture, such as the exodus from Egypt, can make God present now.” [1]

            What special objects or stories mean a great deal to you? What special objects or stories are all-important to you, so important that you cannot imagine a worship service without them? Some imagine a large cross in the front of the church. Others think of the big Bible on the altar or lectern. Christian worship services often hold special things as quite valuable.

            “The danger, of course, is that the special objects or rituals will become idols in themselves, rather than signs pointing to God-with-us. So we must cultivate dynamic awareness that allows our rituals and objects to act as a sort of hyperlink, moving us beyond them to the larger Presence there.” [2] Just so, today we can connect to God’s Presence in ways that are significant and touch the heart and soul, that are meaningful to each of us – and celebrate others for connecting in ways that are meaningful and soulful to each of them! Whether dancing and leaping, praising in loud voices, praying quietly, singing hymns and songs, drawing and painting, making banners or wall hangings. We humans have a multitude of ways to praise our God!

            What ways are especially meaningful for you to connect to God’s presence?

            Just as David and the other leaders of Israel danced and praised God, we can dance and sing and march. Make some noise, too! Immanuel, God-with-us, the Lord’s Holy Presence is always with us – not just in church. Not just when we open the Bible. We can praise through spiritual practices, through the Lord’s Supper, through God’s beautiful creation, too.

We can all be attentive to God at any time, and at all times. And, the Lord is so pleased when God’s people bring a sacrifice of praise! Praise the Lord!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

(Thanks to Illustrated Ministries for their lesson for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost from 2 Samuel 6, from their 2020 Summer Children’s series.)


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-15-2/commentary-on-2-samuel-61-5-12b-19

[2] Ibid.

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!

David Triumphs over a Bully

“David Triumphs over a Bully “

1 Sam 17 david-goliath, Peter Boon

1 Samuel 17:1, 4, 8-11, 20-24, 31-32, 41-51 – July 28, 2019

Who has experience dealing with a bully? It could be on the playground, or in your neighborhood, or at work, or even in a local church. It does not matter where you or your siblings or children or grandchildren or parents happen to be, chances are that bullies can be found all over.

Our scripture reading features a big bully. Saul is king of Israel, and the perennial enemy of Israel, the Philistines, come to attack Israel yet again. Instead of fighting with the two armies coming up against each other, the Philistines send out their acknowledged champion, a huge man called Goliath, to challenge someone from Israel to fight. Did I mention he was a big bully?

Children often encounter bullies at school or on the playground. As adults, we often have thicker skins and are able to deal with the physical, psychological and verbal abuse bullies so often heap on the smaller and weaker ones around them. Bullies can and do seek out their victims, intimidate, and prey upon them, even if teachers, coaches, administrators and other adults are on the lookout for bullying behavior.

When my husband was growing up on the west side of Winnetka, a neighborhood bully named Adam lived just a couple of blocks away, to the east. You may even have seen him on television or on the big screen after he grew up.

According to common knowledge around the neighborhood, Adam had an unhappy home life, and I feel badly about that. That probably contributed to his negative attitude. Adam was antagonistic to other boys in his neighborhood. He was a sizeable kid, and would intimidate and beat up many other boys. My husband was fortunate, since he never tangled with Adam. I suspect Adam was well known at the local school, and not for a good reason.

Is this similar to Goliath’s backstory? A great question, and one we cannot answer.

1st Samuel 17 tells us for forty days the army of the Philistines were in attack formation, drawn up in battle gear across the valley from the army of Israel. For forty days the large man (some would call him a giant) Goliath would stride in front of the Philistine battle lines to challenge the army of Israel to send out a champion of theirs, to fight. As Ralph Klein, retired professor of Old Testament at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago tells us, “The idea that a combat between two champions could decide a battle is well known in ancient sources. Goliath was 9′ 9″ tall and extremely well armed. His armor would have weighed about 125 pounds.” [1]

Just think—a huge guy with impressive armor and weapons. Goliath was massive!  That alone would be disheartening. But, wait. When we add physical and verbal intimidation to what the Philistine army would be guilty of, we see what a horrible impression they made on the army of Israel. And not only the army of Israel, but for the whole nation of Israel by extension.

Does this sound familiar? Do we have bullies in our neighborhoods? Our schools or workplaces? When we examine and break down how Goliath used intimidation and fear, we can see that Goliath was a master intimidator. (Or, at least, how antagonistic and intimidating were the people who wrote the words for Goliath to say. He might have had great writers.)

What about the other side of this lopsided-looking match-up? We do know what David looked like, from this and other descriptions in 1 and 2 Samuel. At this point, while David is only a teenager, he has not become tall and broad-shouldered yet. He is described as ruddy and good looking. We can also see how full-grown warriors of Israel are afraid and intimidated by the insults and trash talk of Goliath and the Philistine army, and the teenaged David has a very different response. He is horrified at the blasphemies and trash talk Goliath spouts.

Let’s examine what Goliath said, more closely: “Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.  If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.”  And the Philistine said, “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.”

Goliath was a soldier by profession, and very good at what he did. He had probably honed and fine-tuned his scare tactics. We see classic manipulation and intimidation patterns.

I would like to highlight one type of person from our modern context. This can be an office manipulator, a neighborhood busybody, or an overbearing and mocking know-it-all. This type of person is not necessarily a huge menacing presence. They might not be physically intimidating, but their verbal browbeating and coercion can be just as terrorizing. This poisonous activity can induce just as much fear and demoralization in the attitudes and behavior of those surrounding this toxic person. This toxic person can be a virtual Goliath, and might come in many shapes or sizes. We need to be aware and on the lookout for mean bullies like this.

Let’s go back to David. He comes to the army camp with supplies for his older brothers, but the whole camp is away at the battle lines for Goliath’s daily intimidation. “There, David finds his brothers, and as he talks with them, Goliath steps forward to repeat his challenge for the 81st time (see 1 Samuel 17:16). Goliath says what he always does, but this is the first time David has heard him. David listens to this giant’s challenge and his cursing of Israel and her God. He watches the frightened Israelites (including his brothers) draw back, their courage shattered by this man’s words and appearance.” [2]

Wait, says David! Who is this Philistine, and why is the army of Israel cowering in fear?

Great question! We all know the rest of the story. David volunteers to challenge Goliath, comes at him with only a slingshot and smooth stones, and nails Goliath between the eyes with an Olympic-worthy shot from his sling. As the huge man falls to the ground, dead, David hews off Goliath’s head with his own sword, and thus becomes the darling of all of Israel for defeating Goliath. The original David vs. Goliath match-up.

The point of this bible story often displayed for children in Sunday school is that God is with us even when we are afraid, just like God was with David when he faced Goliath. However, from an adult understanding, we can go further. Yes, absolutely, God will be with us in all kinds of unequal, David-versus-Goliath battles. What is more, using God’s perspective can be lifechanging. From God’s point of view, David was the winner even before he used his slingshot. David was a teenager after God’s own heart. He kept his eyes on God and prevailed against a bully, against all human odds.

Are you facing a continuing battle today? Is there a mean bully in your workplace or neighborhood? Finding God’s perspective on the toxic problem is a great help. Continue doing what you know is right, in a winsome and positive way. And, God will continue to be with us, against all the Goliaths that come into our lives.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=331

Commentary, 1 Samuel 17:[1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49, Ralph W. Klein, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2009.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/14-david-and-goliath-1-samuel-171-58

“David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1-58),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@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!

Terrified? Astounded!

“Terrified? Astounded!”

Jesus Transfiguration_Russian icon

 

Luke 9:28-36 (9:34-35) – March 3, 2019

Have you ever been truly terrified? Not of a horror movie on the movie screen, or of a horrific news story on television, in the newspaper or on the computer, but something terrifying that happened in real life? A first-hand experience, when you were an eye-witness to something truly terrifying?

Both Scripture readings today feature people who were eye-witnesses, who were also absolutely terrified. Both situations are so extraordinary, so far out of the observers’ common, every-day experience that they are frightened almost to death.

Let’s take the three disciples, first. Peter, James, and John, his brother. Jesus asks them to climb with Him to the top of a mountain to pray. This was a regular thing that Jesus did—not the mountain part, but going away by Himself—or with a couple of other people—to pray and meditate in depth. (May I say that this practice of regular prayer is a wonderful practice! And, one we will talk more about as we journey with Jesus throughout Lent in the coming weeks.)

So, Jesus and the three disciples retreat up the mountain to pray, and Peter, James and John were pleased and proud to be singled out in this way by Jesus. I am sure Jesus had a regular practice of prayer and communion with God. He probably led the disciples in regular prayer, and His habit of prayer times were a normal, every-day activity to the disciples.

Let us look at the Scripture reading from Exodus, where the people of Israel are at the foot of the mountain while Moses is up on top, meeting with God and receiving the tablets with the Ten Commandments on them. I am sure the people of Israel were living their common, ordinary, every-day lives while Moses communicated with God for days at a time. Other than some thunder and lightning from the top of the mountain, nothing had really changed for the people of Israel.

Except—in both situations—something suddenly crashed into their every-day lives and ordinary experiences and made all of these people terrified. What was it? They were all eye-witnesses, but what could possibly make them so terror-stricken?

Has anything suddenly crashed into your lives, and upended everything normal and ordinary? Something fearsome and terrifying?

C.S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, a series of books for children that featured a mysterious lion, Aslan. Aslan is the Great King of Narnia, who we later see as a Christ-figure. There are talking beasts—animals, in the Narnia books. When the children from this world speak with some talking beavers in Narnia, Mr. Beaver mentions Aslan: “He’ll be coming and going. One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down – and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.” [1] The character of Aslan shows himself in Narnia as a large and terrifying, but also magnificent and wise, lion with warm, kind eyes.

Aslan is dangerous! His roar is both fearsome and magnificent. People in Narnia say “He’s not a tame lion.” Aslan embodies all that is good, and yet is terrifying at the same time. Can you see how something awfully good and magnificent can also be fearsome and terrifying? Both, at the same time?

I suspect that was what the disciples experienced, on top of the mount of Transfiguration as well as the people of Israel, when Moses came down the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Good and magnificent, but fearsome and terrifying at the same time.

The disciples were familiar with the figure of their Rabbi Jesus in prayer. They knew that common sight; it was comforting, even. But, listen to what Luke says: “29 As Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. 31 They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. 32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.”

In other words, Peter, James and John were astounded and terrified. Jesus was manifesting the presence of God, the divine glory, so His face shone and His clothes became brighter than bright. Fearsome, indeed!

In the case of the people of Israel, when Moses came close to them after being in the presence of God for days and days, his face shone brighter than bright. All of the people of Israel were terrified! What’s more, they begged Moses to cover his face, so that they did not have to see the divine glory reflected in the face of Moses.

Have we ever been eye-witnesses to the presence of God? To the divine glory? In all honesty, I have heard God’s voice on two occasions, but I have not seen the divine glory. Yet, in both readings today, all the people seeing the divine glory were terrified. By all accounts, what a fearsome sight, to be sure!

The three disciples saw the transformed Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, discussing His departure, His crucifixion and what would come next. Except, they did not understand all that, yet. The point that fascinates me is that God manifested divine glory in Jesus—made His face all shiny and magnificent—not for Jesus’s benefit. No! God did this for the disciples! They were the ones who needed to see the glory of the transfigured Christ! Not their Rabbi Jesus, who they had been living with for the past few years. They sort of knew He was special, but they did not realize how special! “By wrapping Jesus in a shiny cloud and incredible clothes, God was telling the disciples, ‘Jesus is more than a special person. Jesus is God-with-you.’” [2]

Praise God! Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us! Jesus has great power, magnificence and divine glory. Yet, Jesus is kind and gentle, loving and caring. Astounding, terrifying, and God-with-us in His majesty and power.

Moses and Elijah came to talk with Jesus while He was transfigured with the divine glory. In Communion today, we can imagine ourselves coming to the Lord’s table with Moses and Elijah and a host of others. A traditional phrase from the Communion liturgy is “with the angels and archangels and all the heavenly host.” That is exactly who we are joining as we come to the Communion table today.

Who are you joining at the Communion table today? We are connected to God, our heavenly Parent, to our Lord Jesus, as well as to a whole host of others, both those living today as well as those with the Lord. Yes, a terrifying thought! But, also welcoming. Not either/or, but both/and.

The divine glory surrounding Jesus is terrifying! Yet, also magnificent, and welcoming, with God’s glorious transformative power. Can we be drawn closer to God today? God willing, we can.

Alleluia, Amen.

[1] Lewis, C.S., The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1950), 180.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2016/01/year-c-transfiguration-of-lord-february.html

Worshiping with Children, Transfiguration, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2016.

@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!