God’s Birth Announcement

Luke 2:1-7 – December 13, 2020

Welcoming babies into the world is such a joyous occasion. One of the first things most people do is spread the news about the new baby. When and where the baby was born, how big it was, whether it was a girl or a boy, and what the parents decided to name the baby are all details that are joyously spread, as soon as possible.

             I wonder . . . what would God’s birth announcement look like?

            In the fullness of time, God’s Son came into the world. Prophesied in many passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, foretold for centuries before His coming. Looking at the Hebrew Scripture passage for today, Isaiah 9, the prophet tells his readers about the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace, who is the coming Messiah.

            Throughout the Advent season, we prepare for the coming of this Messiah. Soon we will celebrate the earthly birthday of the Babe of Bethlehem, the Savior of the World, the only begotten Son. Our Lord Jesus Christ, our savior and redeemer came into this fallen world as a baby. Emptying Himself of all His vast, eternal God-ness, and being born as a human baby.

            I wonder: what would God’s birth announcement look like?

            I think we have a pretty good idea, if we take a look at the second chapter of Luke. Doctor Luke gives a full accounting of what went on in those days. What an unexpected sort of announcement!

            Let’s look at the parents of the Baby, first of all. The mother, Mary of Nazareth, is not even married yet. Sure, she’s engaged to this carpenter, Joseph, but they haven’t yet been fully joined in marriage. Marriage in those days, in the Jewish culture, was a several-step process.

            We read in chapter 1 of Luke that the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, and she conceived. Is Joseph the father of this Baby? No. Joseph could not believe this part, until assisted by some heavenly help. An angel came and reassured Joseph that Mary was on the up and up, and that the baby inside of Mary was really the Messiah, the Savior of the world.

            The circumstances of the birth are not quite the typical birth scenario, either. Imagine the birth of a baby today. Chances are that the baby would be born in a hospital, with the latest medical technology available, just in case. Not so for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Not only did she have the baby Jesus in less than optimum circumstances, in terms of hygiene and medical needs, but she was also far from her home as well.

            Mary and Joseph were both far away from familiar people, places and things. They were travelers, like many people in the town of Bethlehem at that time. Luke 2 tells us that there wasn’t any place for them to stay—anywhere. Because of the census ordered by Caesar Augustus, the town of Bethlehem was mobbed.

            Since Bethlehem was the ancestral home of King David, that meant there were quite a lot of people who had to be counted who were descended from David. We can see, from the offering that Mary and Joseph offered to the Lord shortly after the birth of the baby Jesus, that they did not have very much money.            

            Bethlehem must have been very crowded indeed, if a woman about to give birth couldn’t find even a room to have her baby in. We could even take it a step further, and draw some definite similarities between Mary and Joseph and some other young, homeless couple going to have a new baby, searching for a place to spend the night.

            I remember a suburban church I attended a number of years ago. One of the smaller trees near the front door to the sanctuary was practically covered with blue ribbons. A sign was posted next to the tree, saying “While celebrating One homeless Family, these ribbons ask us to remember the homeless with us today.” I had never thought about the Holy Family in that way before. Again, it’s God’s unexpected way of announcing the birth of God’s Son.

            While we’re thinking about where Mary had her baby, what about that manger, anyway? Jesus was a descendant of King David, through both His mother Mary and His adopted father, Joseph. A manger is an unexpected place to find a king. I don’t know about you, but I’d expect royalty to be born in a palace, or at least in a nice house.

            And who are the people who first receive this birth announcement? Are they influential members of the community? 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 a birth announcement sent to them. But God doesn’t work that way. God does the unexpected, and chooses the most unlikely people to receive a hand-delivered message from the Lord of Hosts.

            God sends a birth announcement in unexpected ways to unexpected people, in many situations, all over the world. When and where the Baby was born, the news that it was a boy, and that the parents decided to name this Baby Jesus—for He would save people from their sins—are all details that the shepherds joyously spread, as soon as possible.

            Again, it’s God’s unexpected way of announcing the birth of His Son. Can you think of someone who hasn’t heard about this birth announcement? We today have the opportunity to spread the news about this Baby born in Bethlehem. And, we can joyously praise God, for Jesus is the savior and redeemer of the world, as was proclaimed so long ago.

@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!

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!

The Jailer’s Story

“The Jailer’s Story”

Acts 16-31 Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ stained glass

Acts 16:30-34 – June 2, 2019

A number of years ago, a pastor friend of mine needed to buy some new tires for his car. He had an acquaintance who was an auto mechanic, and went to his auto shop to purchase the tires. My friend Pastor Jamie was fascinated by the machine used for balancing, and watched the tires go round and round. The mechanic watched, too. Pastor Jamie suddenly asked the mechanic, “Did you ever feel your life was just spinning round and round, just like that tire? So fast, that you weren’t sure if it was going to spin out of control?”

As we follow the apostle Paul through the book of Acts, we might get the same idea. Paul’s life seemed to spin out of control time and time again. Trouble certainly seemed to follow Paul; take this week’s Scripture reading, for example. Paul and his friend Silas were beaten and thrown into prison. What is that all about?

We need to back up and see exactly why the people of the city of Philippi were so upset. Last week, we met Lydia, a well-to-do Gentile business owner who became a believer in the Gospel. She invited Paul and his friends to stay at her large house and use that as their base of operations. This week, we continue in Philippi with a slave girl who had an evil spirit, who did fortune-telling to earn money for her owners. She followed Paul and his friends around town for days, calling out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, telling you the way to be saved!”

On the face of it, Paul and his friends might have looked on this slave girl’s hollering to be free advertising. But, no! It got annoying, very quickly! The slave girl was a kind of heckler, constantly trailing after the missionaries. Finally, Paul got fed up, and cast the evil spirit out of the slave girl. The spirit was gone! However, so was the way the girl had earned money, telling people’s futures and fortunes. The girl’s owners were really upset at this turn of events! They got mad at the apostle Paul, too.

Now we start to see why Paul and Silas got thrown into prison—this time.

I am not sure whether life has ever spun out of control so much that you and I have gotten thrown into prison, but things can take unexpected twists and turns, and sometimes drag us into some awful predicaments.

It did not matter whether the owners of the slave girl were lying or not when they accused Paul and Silas in front of the Philippian judge. (They were, though.) The false accusation—that Paul and Silas were trying to lead the citizens of Philippi astray by encouraging them to leave behind good, solid Roman practices—fired up the crowd and got them to shout out against Paul and Silas. What is more, the judge was convinced to have Paul and Silas beaten and put in prison.

To give us a closer look at what their punishment involved, I am afraid Dr. Luke will offer a candid description. I am letting people know, just in case anyone needs a trigger warning.

First, Paul and Silas were beaten with rods—around the size of a broom handle. We cannot be sure in Paul’s and Silas’s case, but the beating with rods was oftentimes so severe that it broke bones and lacerated the skin. Following the painful beating, Paul and Silas had their legs pulled far apart and wooden stocks were clamped around their ankles. [1]

After this acute pain and suffering, the two missionaries actually were singing hymns of praise at midnight. Can you imagine how much Paul and Silas had just experienced? After all that, Dr. Luke reports that they were singing hymns of praise to God, and the other prisoners were listening. What a change from the usual prison noise of shouts, groans and curses.

Perhaps we have not experienced anything as severely agonizing as being beaten and thrown into jail unjustly, but life can spin out of control in any one of a number of ways.

We can see how Paul and Silas singing hymns at midnight is a key part of this narrative, because the Lord sends an earthquake to the Philippian jail as a result of that praise. “Just as the Gerasene demoniac was loosed from his chains by Jesus (Luke 8:35), all the prisoners, including Paul and Silas, are loosed. The work of the Spirit brings freedom to all who are captive.” [2]

Enter the jailer upon the scene. At this climactic point, the Philippian jailer was filled with fear and despair. Dr. Luke says, “When the jailer saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped.”  His prisoners—his duly-appointed charges—had been sprung. The jail had been destroyed, and the jailer thought he would be tortured and killed by the Roman authorities for failing in his duty.

It is at this critical point of despair for the jailer that Paul calls out, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

Remember my friend, Pastor Jamie, and his acquaintance the auto mechanic? Remember how they both watched the tire spinning round and round, almost out of control? Jamie made that comment, and the auto mechanic immediately agreed. The auto mechanic then asked the question of the day: “what’s the use? What can I do about it?”

This is so similar to the question asked by the Philippian jailer: “The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

What can we do to get right with God, get our lives on track, and come into a loving relationship with our Lord and Savior? Paul and Silas’s answer is in the next verse: “They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.”

Pastor Jamie shared the good news of Lord and Savior with his acquaintance the car mechanic. Similarly, Paul and Silas shared the good news with the jailer, another working-class guy. Both gratefully received the Gospel. And, the jailer and his prisoners were ultimately freed—both in this world, and the next.

To take that sudden out-of-control moment and transform it into something God-sent is truly a gift of God. We can all pray with Jesus in our reading from the Gospel of John, our Gospel reading for today, “26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

The narrator Dr. Luke so skillfully expanded the apostle Paul’s groundbreaking adventures in the city of Philippi into an elegant story or drama in Acts 16. Using the backdrop of Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew [Paul and Silas] or Greek [Lydia, the slave girl, the jailer], there is no longer slave [the slave girl] or free [Lydia, Paul], there is no longer male [Paul, Silas, the jailer] or female [Lydia, slave girl], for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” [3]

God’s power acts to bring together the most unlikely group of people for God’s glory. We can celebrate, because God has arms wide open for all who believe. Even me, even you.

Praise God! Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.christianlibrary.org/authors/John_L_Kachelman_Jr/phil28.htm

[2] Landers, Richard M., Homiletical Perspective on Acts 16:16-34, 7th Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 527.

[3] Walaskay, Paul W., exegetical Perspective on Acts 16:16-34, 7th Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 527.

@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!

 

Mary and Joseph, Unafraid

“Mary and Joseph, Unafraid”

angel with trumpet

Luke 1:26-31, Matthew 1:19-21 – August 5, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

When a woman is pregnant and expecting a baby, it can be a marvelous experience. However, an unexpected pregnancy can be surprising, even worrisome. I know I have heard of several unplanned pregnancies over the years, and I suspect many of you have, too. An added complication can occur when the parents of the unexpected baby are not married.

That was exactly Mary and Joseph’s situation. Both were unmarried, only engaged. Both were very much involved with the birth of this unexpected baby. And, both had angels appear to them, telling them “Be not afraid!”

Just imagine: Mary and Joseph, considering the exact same unexpected situation, with two very different reactions and quite separate expectations. We are not told, but I cannot help but wonder whether Mary’s fear and Joseph’s fear of the unknown was compounded by fear for the other. How were their fears for the other encountered, and addressed? [1]

Both Mary and Joseph have angels suddenly come upon them. Both angels immediately say, “Be not afraid!” This occurrence is starting to become familiar to us by now, after two months of this summer sermon series. The sight of angels must be terrifying, since the first words out of their mouths is almost always, “Be not afraid!”

Mary must have been completely flabbergasted at the appearance of the angel. Even though she had heard about miraculous and angelic appearances in synagogue on the Sabbath for years, it’s a quite different thing to have it actually happen to her. Mary probably was interrupted while she went about her usual routine at home.

In Luke’s account, the angel Gabriel—God’s special messenger angel—comes to Mary and reassures her with the words “Be not afraid!” In this longer narrative of the birth of Jesus, the angels come to several people (and one group of people). What is more, according to commentator Shively Smith, “the simple phrase, “do not be afraid,” offers comfort and hope to those without hope, as in the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7, 24-25); miracles to those not looking for miracles, as in the case of Mary (Luke 1:26-27); and even disruption to those going about their daily routines, as in the case of the shepherds (Luke 2:8).” [2]

Matthew tells us that Joseph was interrupted by the angel of the Lord in a dream. From the short, spare account of Matthew—only a verse and a half!—we do find out that Joseph was called a righteous man. Joseph certainly was considering the unexpected news that Mary had brought to him. Both Joseph and Mary considering the same situation, but in different circumstances.

We all realize that today’s cultural references are different from those of first-century Palestine. The cultural marriage practices of the Jews of that time were patriarchal and highlighted the joining together of two families, not of two individuals, as marriage is seen today here in the United States. Nevertheless, we can see how God breaks apart first-century cultural practices and societal expectations through this miraculous birth narrative.

Joseph was, indeed, a righteous man. When his fiancée Mary first came to him with this unexpected news, he first thought she had been unfaithful. Wouldn’t you? Isn’t that the first thing anyone would think of? Either that, or that Mary had been raped, which is even more unpleasant and shocking. (But, the Gospel doesn’t go there.) Joseph does not want to expose Mary to public disgrace. So, how to deal with this unexpected situation?  

I suspect the situation was looking pretty desperate to Joseph. That is where the angel of the Lord steps in—or, flies in—to the situation.  The angel reassures Joseph that the baby within Mary’s uterus is indeed holy, conceived of the Holy Spirit. What is more, that the baby will be the Messiah! The words of the angel: “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

This is quite similar to other appearances of supernatural wonder in the Gospel of Luke. Commentator Shively Smith tells us “each instance is accompanied by an awe-inspiring, even unusual moment that reasonably sparks wonder and even fear. Indeed, the practice of offering a word of assurance at moments of supernatural wonder and disruption to the norms of daily life is something Jesus takes up in his ministry later in the gospel (Luke 5:10; 8:50; 12:32).” [3]

Let us come back to Mary and Joseph, two individuals going through a difficult, even traumatic time, in terms of society’s expectations as well as cultural norms. This is a different way of thinking about the birth of Jesus than that we are used to, every Christmas. Commentator David Lose tells us “let’s not forget the distress, sense of betrayal, disappointment, and a host of other emotions that Joseph must have experienced, or the fear and hurt that Mary would likely have also felt as they sorted out their divinely complex relationship.” [4]

On one hand, Mary has this assurance of supernatural power and presence within her from the angel. On the other, Joseph gets a reassurance of supernatural power and presence concerning Mary from the angel. We might presume from all this that there is some far greater plan that neither Mary nor Joseph has any clear idea about. The injunction “Be not afraid!” is a part of this greater plan.

A supernatural plan, a plan that overarches all time and space, whereby the Savior of the world is going to enter in to our everyday lives, and blow apart every cultural norm and societal expectation. It blows our minds, just thinking about the birth of Jesus, two thousand years later. The encouragement “Be not afraid?” Don’t be afraid to step forward with TRUST, as part of a larger plan that comes from above.

You think the situations we find ourselves in today are complex? God understands the complexity and the ins and outs of every situation, every predicament, every sadness and trauma and difficulty each of us might find ourselves in. As we take a closer look at Mary and Joseph, we see that they are not just figures from some stained glass window, but instead flesh and blood people with the same emotions and fears and family difficulties we might have today.

“And the more we can imagine them as people like us — with ups and downs to their relationships, for instance — the more we might imagine ourselves to be people like them — that is, people who go through all kinds of things, some quite damaging, and yet whom God uses nevertheless to accomplish God’s purposes.” [5]

The angel’s words, “Be not afraid!” We can take them to heart, too, and be encouraged, reassured, that God is with us, today, just as much as God was with people in bible times, just as much as God was with Mary and Joseph, all the way through their wonderful and frightening and even shocking experiences. Even though we may go through all kinds of things, God will never leave us, nor forsake us. Be not afraid!

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Ivaska, David, Be Not Afraid (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 97.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3531

Luke 1:26-38 Shively Smith, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3531

Luke 1:26-38 Shively Smith, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2961

“Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2013.

[5] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2961

“Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2013.

@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!)

Risen Indeed!

“Risen Indeed!”

Easter word cloud

Mark 16:1-8 (16:6) – April 1, 2018

            Have you ever had something completely unexpected happen to you? I mean, something so unexpected and unusual it is disorienting? Perhaps it leaves you with your jaw hanging open. I might say that the Cubs winning the 2016 World Series reminds us of that, but, no. I am talking much bigger than that—of cosmic significance! And, much more disorienting. Astounding.

            It wasn’t as if the Rabbi Jesus had kept it a secret. No, He had spoken of it to His followers, a number of times before His crucifixion. But, really, it is a bit farfetched.. Jesus, being raised from the dead? Come on, Jesus. You must be joking. Seriously?

            We know more about what happened on that Easter Sunday from the other Gospel accounts. But, Mark? Not so much. Mark writes in his usual concise, blunt manner. Short on details and description, heavy on action. Let’s take a closer look at our Gospel reading.

            “After the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices to go and anoint the body of Jesus. Very early on Sunday morning, at sunrise, they went to the tomb.”

            We already know the men disciples of Jesus scattered as soon as Jesus was arrested. This was for very good reason! The men were very much afraid that they would be arrested, too! But, this left just the women disciples of Jesus at the foot of the cross, and at the tomb.

            How often is it that women take care of the body of their loved one after death? In many cultures and all around the world, for millenia, washing and dressing the dead body, anointing the body with spices and with perfumes, holding a vigil or mourning or sitting shiva. How often is this the responsibility and privilege of women?

To continue, from Mark 16: “On the way they said to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (It was a very large stone.) Then they looked up and saw that the stone had already been rolled back.”  The big stone rolled over the entrance to the tomb must have been worrying the women. Mark even mentions it. I suspect they already were discussing how their combined strength was probably not enough to even budge the stone. But—what is this? The stone is already rolled away! It’s the first inkling that things at the tomb are not as these women first thought.

            “So they entered the tomb, where they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe—and they were alarmed.“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here—he has been raised!”

I can’t help but smile as I read my commentator’s view on this verse: “seems to be on Jesus not being present because he has better things to do than wait around at a tomb. The “young man dressed in a white robe” (angelic messenger) delivers the good tidings of Easter morning like an administrative assistant explaining why you can’t have a quick word with the boss: “You’re looking for Jesus? Sorry, you just missed him.” [1]

Wait a minute—did I hear that right? Jesus just stepped away? These women are left holding the spices, and they only have a vague idea of where their Rabbi Jesus might have gone.

I realize this whole situation is astounding, but can we put ourselves in the shoes of these women? They had absolutely no idea where Jesus was. Plus, they are faced with an angelic messenger. How often the first words out of any angel’s mouth are “Don’t be afraid!” Angels must be frightening, and awe-inspiring, and enough to make these women shake in their sandals.

Is anything clouding the sight of these women as the angel speaks to them? Is anything clouding their hearts from discerning what it is the angel has to say? We all know the grief and cares of this world, some more than others. What else did the angel say? “Look, here is the place where he was placed. Now go and give this message to his disciples, including Peter: ‘He is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Again, these women were flabbergasted. Amazed, half in disbelief. As our commentator Dr. Pape tells us, the angel’s instructions to the women “is to tell the disciples, and especially Peter who had denied him, that they had better get on the move (Mark 16:7). Jesus had explained already that after he was raised up, he would go ahead of them to Galilee (Mark 14:28). Now the “young man” reminds them of this scheduled rendezvous. If it’s Jesus they want, they will need to head back to Galilee.” [2]

This is a tall order. The angel orders the women to tell the disciples that they are to go clear across the country, to Galilee, and there they will meet the risen Jesus. I suspect the women already knew how skeptical the men disciples would be of their claim that Jesus was alive. And then, on top of that, the whole group of disciples were told to remove to Galilee to go and meet with the risen Jesus? Kind of far-fetched, if you ask me. Looking at this passage, we read of the women’s response: “So they went out and ran from the tomb, distressed and terrified. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

I wonder how much of the women’s response was fear and anxiety? How much was unbelief? And, how much was other emotion, and distress, getting in the way of them hearing the message of the angel clearly?

Yet, along with the Rev. Janet Hunt, “I find myself wondering about those women now… those who were looking on from a distance: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome.  And I wonder then if it was force of will that kept them there at the foot of the cross for as long as they stayed or if time stood still for them and all other responsibilities just faded away.

“And I wonder about the people who will gather in all of our places of worship this Easter morning to hear again a story many of them have heard over and over again.  I wonder what grief, what loss, what worry, what fear will be clouding their hearts as they step into a place bathed in lilies and the sounds of trumpeted Alleluias.  I wonder if for them this hour shared will be a distraction to be gotten through before they get back to other matters pressing on their minds and hearts or if they will hear in the ancient story retold a promise that will then somehow come alive right before their eyes as they return to their lives in a world.  A world which all too often seems to hold a whole lot more despair than hope, more cynicism than trust, more death than life.  I wonder if some among us, like those women on that first Easter morning, I wonder if we will see God’s promises kept in unexpected ways and places on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning or Wednesday night.”  [3]

We know now, from the other Gospel accounts, that this was just the beginning of the story, the beginning of that Good News, that Jesus has risen, indeed! Despite worry, anxiety, despair, loss, and cynicism, we know the tomb is empty. We know that with the risen Jesus, hope, love, mercy and forgiveness have come into the world again. We can say with the angel in the tomb, “Jesus is not here—He is risen!” Jesus Christ is risen, indeed. Amen, alleluia!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2406

Commentary, Mark 16:1-8, Lance Pape, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/a-gap-in-the-story-easter-thoughts/

@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!)

For the Least of These

“For the Least of These”

Matt 25-35 for whatever, words

Matthew 25:31-46 (25:40) – November 26, 2017

This Sunday—today—is the last Sunday in the liturgical year. This Sunday is also called Christ the King Sunday. We celebrate and lift up the might of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ today! Dominion, honor, power, authority, glory, majesty! Crown Him with many crowns! Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!

We have many marvelous hymns we can choose from for today. I love many of the words and tunes of the hymns that refer to our Lord Jesus having all power and authority in heaven and on earth, being King and ruler of the universe, and all creation.

I think all of us are familiar with the stories Jesus tells in His ministry, featuring real life situations. The Rabbi Jesus tries to get His listeners to understand some deeper truths through these stories, or parables. Jesus Himself talks about an all-powerful King at the end of the world, in this final parable from Matthew 25. The all-powerful King from this parable is the exalted Lord Jesus, ascended to heaven, as we declare every time we say the Apostle’s Creed.

As we did two weeks ago, let’s pull back from this particular parable, and look at the larger situation where the Rabbi Jesus tells it. This is midway through Holy Week in Jerusalem, where Jesus is being asked when the end times will come. That’s why He gives this long discourse called the Olivet Discourse, several chapters long in Matthew’s Gospel. Similar to now, people all through the centuries have been aware that the Bible has certain mysterious, even unclear prophecies concerning the end times, just before when the Messiah will come.

However, something does not fit. Something is very puzzling about this parable.

Here in Matthew 25, we have the exalted Lord Jesus, the almighty King eternal, sitting in judgment over all the peoples of the earth.

At first reading, even at second, third, tenth or twentieth reading, this final parable from Matthew can be really scary. Just like in the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the prophet Ezekiel, all sheep and goats are separated, just as all the people from every nation in the world are separated. All people are divided into two groups: those who the King is pleased with, and those who the King is not pleased with.

The people listening to Jesus in Jerusalem that day were extremely puzzled. Scratching their heads, they might have said, “Rabbi, you just don’t make any sense.” Especially the people who had followed Jesus for months might have been particularly lost. Things just don’t add up!

On one hand, we have Jesus, the caring, nurturing Shepherd. This is what the prophet Ezekiel starts off with in our reading today. In many parables, in many situations throughout His ministry for three years, Jesus has shown Himself to be loving, caring, gentle, and welcoming to everyone—no matter who, no matter what.

But, wait. Let’s go back to this final parable from Matthew, where the King at the end of all time is talking to the vast assembly of people from every nation, tribe and tongue. Let’s remind ourselves of the words of the Son of Man: “Then the King will say to the people on his right, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world.  I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.”

I am certain that many people listening to Jesus and His parables were absolutely floored by these words. What on earth are You talking about, Jesus?

Dr. David Lose said, “When we think of God, we typically think in terms of power and might and glory and all the rest. And, indeed, the [final] parable begins by describing the coming of the Son of Man in glory to sit on his throne attended by angels, seemingly only reinforcing our preconceptions.” [1] This word picture is absolutely the picture we associate with Christ the King Sunday, with dominion, honor, power, authority, glory, and majesty!

Yet, we also see a loving, caring, nurturing Shepherd, as expressed by our Lord Jesus Himself any number of times during His ministry. And, there are glimpses of that Shepherd here in the parable, too. We have two different, disparate, even disconcerting pictures of Jesus here. What gives? Which is the real Jesus? What is going on here?

The people in the parable are puzzled, too. Let’s listen to their reaction: “When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?  When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you?  When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?”

As if the two very different pictures of Jesus are not enough, the King in the parable adds a third. I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these members of my family, you did it for me!”

Here, Jesus tells us He is right with the chronically hungry and thirsty. He is among the strangers and refugees. He is among the indigent poor and sick, and is right there with the many hundreds of thousands all across the world who are in jail. Jesus, the Son of Man, would rather hang out with the bums on Skid Row rather than with the fancy people in their religious country clubs or with the fine Pharisees in their first-rate houses of worship.

Does anyone else feel challenged when they hear these serious words of Jesus?

As Dr. Lose tells us, “No one expects to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and all those who are in manifest need.” [2]

Jesus gives us a judgment scene in this final parable. This is a cautionary scene described here, at the end of all time. Here, in this parable from Matthew, we have three separate pictures of Jesus. Yes, He is the King! All honor, power, majesty and glory be given to Him! Amen! Yes, Jesus is the Gentle Shepherd, the loving, caring, nurturing one who gathers the lost lambs into the fold. And, third, our Lord Jesus is seen in the faces of those who are difficult to love, and a challenge to care for.

Jesus shows up in those unexpected places, in the concrete and real needs of our neighbors next door, and around the world. But, you and I are not at the end times, yet. We can take action, and see the face of Jesus in others around us. The disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and in need.

Jesus calls us to serve others. By serving others, we will be serving—loving—caring for Jesus. How can we serve Jesus, today? How can we help others? How can we extend our hands and hearts to be loving, caring and giving, today? The best part? God will be right by our sides as we extend our hands to serve and care for others. And, God promises to change us from the inside out as we extend our hands—our hearts—ourselves—to others.

Here, in this final parable, Jesus the King tells us He is right with the vulnerable, the unlovely, the indigent, those difficult to love and those who are such a challenge to care for.

Next week, we will begin the liturgical year with the season of Advent, those weeks when we await the coming of the Baby in Bethlehem at Christmas. We await the mystery of the Incarnation, of the Eternal Almighty God the Son emptying Himself and becoming a baby. Becoming vulnerable, becoming human. Just like us.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

 

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/christ-the-king-a/ “The Unexpected God,” David Lose, …In The Meantime, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)