Today we’re beginning a new series of sermons called “Unafraid – Living with Courage and Hope.” This series is going to help us look at some of the fear, worry and anxiety affecting million of Americans today. We’ll be using a book written by United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton, who launched this series with his own church in Kansas City last year. And I want to encourage you to pick up a copy of the book and join us at 9:15am on Sunday mornings as we delve more deeply into each week’s theme. There will be a small group meeting in the conference room for youth and adults, as well as a “Fearless Kids” Sunday School class for children at the same time. We will also have daily devotions and scripture readings posted on Facebook and on the Worship tab of our website, so there are multiple ways that you can commit in this New Year to grow in your faith along with this series.
Pastor Adam has conducted a series of surveys to find out what fears most Americans struggle with, and he has interviewed professionals in the therapeutic community to research some of the causes as well as therapies for these fears. And then he points us to scriptures and spiritual practices to help us frame our fears in light of our faith. As we jump into our sermon today, I think we can all agree that we are living in a day and age when we need a series like this. A series that names the real-life fears and worries that many of us struggle with. As Americans, we are living in a time of school shootings, and terrorist attacks, and increased pressure from a world run by technology; our kids today seem to be pushed to participate in enough activities to fill up every waking minute of their day, and adults are struggling just to keep up with the barrage of new information coming from all directions. My smartphone vibrates or, if I have the sound on, dings every time there is breaking news. Usually, when I wake up in the morning, there are already at least two messages for me on my screen telling me about something I should be aware of. And these days, with the 24-hour news cycle, ‘breaking news’ is always framed as something alarming, and more often than not, it truly is. Today we know about natural disasters and outbreaks of war and violence instantaneously in places we may not even be able to find on a map. So we are constantly being thrown into a state of panic or worry every time we hear of an earthquake, or stock market declines, or a terrible accident, or a mass shooting. We really are living in an age of high anxiety!
And then, there’s the chronic worry that each of us feel over our families, or our kids or grandkids, or finances. On top of that, for many of us there is constant stress from our jobs. For me personally, I worry about my kids being happy and successful, I worry about letting people down, I worry about all of you, and your spiritual needs, and I worry about whether we’ll be able to pay our mortgage on this new building, whether we’ll be able to afford a stove and hood for the kitchen, whether we’ll be relevant or make a difference in the lives of our neighbors, and whether we’ll be able to save our historic chapel. I worry about whether I’ll have anything worthwhile to say on Sunday mornings! We all experience some kind of worry and stress; and these can be chronic, and can gnaw away at us, even show up in our dreams as our subconscious minds try to help us solve our problems. So what about you? What do you worry about? What makes you fearful?
As much as these worries and stresses plague us, there is another level of anxiety that affects over 57 million Americans – one in six – who suffer from some type of anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress syndrome, and the list goes on. Some of these individuals may feel like they are having a heart attack; their chest tightens or feels heavy, their palms get sweaty, they may break into a cold sweat, and their flight or fight mechanism breaks into full gear. This is the most common mental illness in America.
What’s puzzling is that, according to all the latest data, we are actually living in one of the safest periods of human history; we have less to fear today than ever before. We’re living longer, and at a higher standard of living; crime rates are down drastically over the past twenty years; most of the terrible childhood diseases of the past have been defeated; and less people are dying in wars. Daniel Gardner, in his book The Science of Fear, notes that, “We are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid. This is one of the great paradoxes of our time.”
But fear is nothing new; it is something that human have struggled with for all of human history. Did you know that there are over 400 references to fear in the bible? The most repeated phrase in response to those fears is, “Don’t be afraid.” These words, in one form or another, appear over 140 times in scripture. They remind us that ordinary women and men from the age of Israel’s patriarchs to first-century Christians struggled with fear. But they also show us that faith can be pivotal to overcoming fear and finding peace in uncertain times. That’s the good news of this series – that in addition to therapies and medications prescribed by the medical and care community, that faith can play a prominent role in helping us to deal with our fears.
Now, fear itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Our brain has a system in place to let our bodies know, even before we can rationally process a situation, that there is danger. It’s what kept us safe from tigers and snakes and other predators in early human history. We call it the fight or flight response, and it is controlled by these tiny, almond sized glands in our brains called the amygdala. You may have even heard this part of the brain describes as the reptilian brain. It is what causes us to act by instinct or reflex instead of by rational thought. In situations of actual danger, this is a very good thing! The amygdala acts as a kind of smoke detector, an early warning system. When it detects a potential threat, even before you can rationally process the situation, the amygdala releases hormones in the brain that trigger a cascading series of effects in your body: your heart races, your blood is diverted away from parts of your body to your muscles, your blood pressure increases, your pupils dilate, and your body is prepared to either run away, or stay and fight off the tiger or put out the fire, or whatever other physical response is needed to the impending danger. The flooding of adrenaline in these situations are what help people accomplish seemingly super-human feats, like lifting a car off someone. So we give thanks to God that we have been designed with a brain that can help protect and preserve us in times of danger!
There is a second system in our brains that helps us anticipate future needs, like food, water and shelter, as well as potential threats. It’s what helps us remember to wear our seatbelts, because we know the potential threat of getting into a car accident, or to make sure the kids have their scarfs and gloves on a cold day. The problem with this system is our own imagination. Our imaginations, coupled with things we hear from others or from the news, or from unhealthy thoughts that play over and over in our minds, or from memories of traumatic experiences, can actually convince us to be afraid when there is no real danger. So from here on out, we’re going to be talking about what happens when our brain’s alarm system is triggered, and there is not an actual threat; when we’re plagued by false fears and unhealthy worry.
Anxiety disorders run in my family. There is a genetic predisposition to mental illnesses such as anxiety, and I first became aware of my own anxiety right after my first child was born. My mom came to stay a few days with us when we came home from the hospital. And I had read, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” from cover to cover, so I thought I was all prepared for taking care of the baby when we came home. But nothing prepared me for what I was going to experience. For those predisposed to anxiety and depression, the hormonal changes of pregnancy and childbirth can create the perfect conditions for the manifestation of these disorders. After being home for two days, my mom though it would be good for me to get out of the house for a while, so she suggested I make a trip to the store to exchange one of the two strollers we received. She volunteered to stay home with the baby. So off I went, and as soon as I pulled out of my apartment’s parking lot, I had a massive panic attack and had to turn around. I was overcome with the vivid images of my apartment bursting into flames while I was gone, and simultaneously my car crashing, and all of us meeting our demise. I could not understand why this was happening. We tried later that day to go to the store with my mom driving, and Thomas staying home with the baby, and the same thing happened. The next day, we tried going with my mom driving and the baby and I safely buckled in the back, and again, we go no farther than the parking lot.
We were never in any danger. But the chemical and hormonal changes in my brain had convinced me that getting into a car would result in horrible tragedy! Mine is an extreme example of how false fears can grip us. But many of our fears today are a manifestation of our imagination getting the best of us. One acronym for fear that I’ve really come to appreciate is : False Events Appearing Real. When our brains have latched onto something that is not a real danger, but convinces us it is anyway, that’s fear. You know the little sticker on the rear view mirror that says, Objects in Mirror may be closer than they appear? Well, fear is like the opposite of that: obstacles or threats may appear larger than they really are. In the book, Pastor Adam reminds us that when the Israelites were led by God out of Egypt and to the land God had promised their ancestor Abraham, that only two of the 12 scouts or spies that surveyed the land believed that God would be with them and help them take the land. But the rest of them said, “No, the wall is too big, too strong, and all of the people are like giants, and we are like mere grasshoppers.” That’s what we do with our fears, sometimes. We see them as giants, and we feel small and helpless against them.
One of the suggestions from the therapeutic community in light of these false fears is what they call exposure therapy. We might just call it facing our fears. The idea is to put yourself in the situation where you are experiencing fear with someone who can remind you that you’re safe. And that once you begin to experience that situation several times with no catastrophic outcomes, that your fear lessens. Often when we feel anxious about something we avoid it, and the worry, anxiety or fear remains. Exposure helps you clearly identify the source of your fear or anxiety, and then to slowly face your fear by exposing yourself to it, usually starting with small steps and gradually increasing the level of exposure. Since our fears are typically unfounded, when we confront them we find they no longer control us. Instead we conquer them. Pastor Adam gives us a great example of this in his book. He heard a radio broadcast of the radio journalist helping his 10-year-old daughter overcome her fear of roller coasters. They went to a Six Flags amusement park and started with the kiddie coaster, which she rode and enjoyed. So he kept suggesting the next size coaster, and she would eventually agree to ride, and to her surprise, found that she both survived, and enjoyed the rides. She was having fun. They ended up riding every roller coaster in the park. When they came to the biggest and scariest of all, it was over 9 stories high, with steep drops and revolutions. And the journalists made an audio recording of her riding that last ride. As the ride came to a stop, she said, gushed, “I just rode a looping roller coaster for the first time in my life. And it wasn’t even that bad. I am a different person than I was a minute ago!”
“I am a different person than I was a minute ago.” Medications, therapies, facing our fears – these can all help us to find ways to keep fear from robbing us of peace and joy! I mentioned that in the Bible, the most repeated phrase in response to fear is “Do not be afraid,” but I didn’t mention that it is usually accompanied with, “for I am with you.” Our scripture from Isaiah today reminds us of that.
Don’t fear, because I am with you;
don’t be afraid, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you,
I will surely help you;
I will hold you
with my righteous strong hand.
God gave these words to Isaiah to speak to God’s people at a time of great fear. They were being conquered by Babylon, their temple was eventually destroyed and they were forced into captivity. And it’s important to know the historical and cultural context of scripture, because we can trace God’s promises and faithfulness throughout the record of scripture. But we also believe that God’s Word is living and breathing today – that God still speaks to us through these ancient words. So one of the spiritual practices that is suggested is to read scripture as if God is talking to you, and to respond to each line of scripture as if you are talking to God. It is a way of praying the scriptures. And it might sound like this:
Don’t fear, because I am with you;
(Yes, Lord, thank you so much for your presence in my life.)
don’t be afraid, for I am your God.
(Yes, Lord, I place my life in your hands.)
I will strengthen you, (thank you for your strength, Lord)
I will surely help you; (thank you for your help, God)
I will hold you with my righteous strong hand.
(God, please wrap your arms around me, and hold me, and lead me forward in your will.
Thank you God for loving and caring for me. Amen.)
Our second reading today was one of the Psalmists own prayers in a time of fear. Before David became king, he had become the object of the previous King – King’s Saul’s – mad obsession. King Saul eventually tried to have David killed, and so David had to go into hiding. Spending long amounts of time alone, on the run for his life, David would write and sing these prayers to God.
3 whenever I’m afraid,
I put my trust in you--
4 in God, whose word I praise.
I trust in God; I won’t be afraid.
Singing is another spiritual practice that can help us cling to our faith as we confront our fears. I had the great gift of sitting with two of my grandparents in the hours before their deaths. And when I couldn’t find words to speak, I would sing.
I was with my grandfather on his last day. He had fought a long fight with lung cancer, and towards the end of his life had to be put on a ventilator. I brought my hymnal the day he went into ICU. We knew he only had hours left. And I was in the room when he became partially alert, and you could see his hands move as if to find his bearings. I held his hand at that point and told him I was there, and that I brought my hymnal. I told him I wanted to sing some of his favorite songs. And I could feel his arms and body begin to relax as I sang.
A few years later, it was my Dad’s mother who was in a coma after a fall and brain bleed. I flew down to be with her and my family as we gathered in her hospital room for her final days. Like most of the memories I have from my dad’s side of the family, anytime most of us can get together, someone asks us to sing. So we did. We sang my grandmother’s favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace.” And we held on to our faith that she could hear us even in her state, and that she was singing with us on the inside, and that the faith that we sang about would carry her into the arms of Jesus, where she and all of our loved ones will be waiting there for us one day. Our faith – that’s what we have to cling to in the face of all our fears. Do not be afraid, for God is with us. Thanks be to God!
Merry Christmas! Today is the sixth day of Christmastide which began on Christmas Day and lasts for 12 days until we celebrate the season of Epiphany, or revealing of Christ, beginning on January 6. So today, our candles and lights are all lit to remind us that we are in a season of celebrating the incarnation of Jesus – of God becoming human, and taking on our flesh to show us how much God loves us, to show us that God is with us, to reconcile us to one another and to God, and to bring the kingdom of God to reign on earth as it is in heaven. On Christmas Eve, we read the scriptures and sang the familiar carols that tell the story of the birth of Jesus. And now that Christmas Day is past, many of us have already packed up the decorations and put Jesus and manger back in its box until next year, when we once again go to Bethlehem to kneel with the shepherds and sing “Gory to God” with the angels. We spent the four weeks of Advent, patiently waiting for the Christmas moment to arrive, so we could light all the lights and sing all the songs and celebrate that the waiting is over. It was a spiritual discipline to spend four weeks acknowledging the dark moments in our lives and in our world, and to admit that we are not the people we want to be, and that things in our world are not what they should be. But today’s scriptures will challenge us to another form of spiritual discipline – one that lasts much longer than four weeks. Because when Christmas is over, our work is really just beginning.
Our Gospel Reading for the Sunday after Christmas is Luke 2:41-52. In Luke’s gospel, just as soon as we’ve heard about the birth of Jesus, we are given a brief description of Jesus’ dedication at the temple, eight days after his birth, according to Jewish tradition; and then we get one story about Jesus’s childhood – the only story in the gospels about the time between Jesus’s birth and adulthood. In this story we fast-forward to Jesus at the age of twelve – nearly as old as his mother was when she was told by the angel Gabrielle that she would become his mother! In the ancient Jewish tradition, males officially became adults at age thirteen. The twelve-year-old tween-age Jesus would have been at that awkward age of being not quite child and not quite man.
It’s interesting to me that on this Sunday after Christmas, while we are wanting to linger at the manger and cradle the baby Jesus, we are being challenged to refocus our attention not on the Christ-child, but on the Christ-pre-teen! The growing-up-way-too-fast, almost-a-man Jesus, who we encounter in this story of a family road-trip for a religious holiday. Some of you can relate to this setting. Some of you have had this type of road trip with your own family – you may even be on one now. So think of that tween- or teen-age child you know – the one you want to put a brick on their head so they don’t grow up too fast; the one you’re already worried that you don’t know as well as you used to because of how much they’ve matured since the last time you’ve seen them, who’s likes and interests are changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up with. Parents, think of your own children whose attitudes and behaviors make you pray or swear more than you think may be normal, and who the next minute seem more adult than child, and whose passions and wisdom and insights are so astonishing!
Think about these dear ones as we hear the gospel proclaimed:
41 Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival.42 When he was 12 years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to their custom. 43 After the festival was over, they were returning home, but the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know it.44 Supposing that he was among their band of travelers, they journeyed on for a full day while looking for him among their family and friends.45 When they didn’t find Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.46 After three days they found him in the temple. He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them.47 Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were shocked.
His mother said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!”
49 Jesus replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they didn’t understand what he said to them.
51 Jesus went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. His mother cherished every word in her heart. 52 Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
"The Finding of the Savior in the Temple" - William Holman Hunt
“Supposing that he was among their band of travelers, they journeyed on for a full day while looking for him among their family and friends. When they didn’t find Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple.”
Can you imagine being Mary or Joseph, frantically looking for your lost child for three days before finding her? Can you imagine being one of the aunts, uncles, grandparents and other relatives in the caravan? Would you be helping? Would you be criticizing? Would you be annoyed that you had to turn around and go back? And teens, tweens, twenty-somethings – maybe you can imagine being Jesus in this story… feeling like you’re old enough to make your own decisions, to pursue your own interests, without having to check in with others. If you’re like me, you may wonder why Luke included this story in his gospel. After such a wondrous story about a miraculous conception, giving birth in a barn, or supernatural beings visiting a field full of shepherds, maybe it was to offer a more relatable story, of the holy family on a family road-trip, with a strong-willed pre-teen, worried parents, and a caravan full of extended family who get caught up in the drama.
The Christmas story is poetic, mysterious – God taking the humble form of a tiny, wrinkly baby; angles appearing and singing to shepherds; kings bringing elaborate gifts; even the threat of mass murder by a cruel, deranged mad King. And our Christmas celebrations are romantic and nostalgic – lighting candles, singing carols, roasting chestnuts by an open fire. To me, the difference between these two stories of the holy family are like the differences between the movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” or between “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Home Alone.” The story of Mary and Joseph loosing track of their child represents something most parents have worried about – it’s our worst nightmare. And more than that, it represents the fear that all parents and guardians have that we might fail in some way to protect our children, or to instill the right values and beliefs in them, or to raise them to be successful and happy. And yet, as parents and caregivers, it tugs our heartstrings to see the first signs of independence, to see them becoming their own person, to see the ways that they either agree, or disagree, with our own beliefs and values. In essence, this story of Mary, and Joseph and Jesus forces us to acknowledge that Jesus, like all children, will eventually grow up. And it doesn’t happen all of a sudden, one day in the distant future. It begins happening from the moment they are born. We humans are designed to grow! And so this story shows us that even Jesus – God in the flesh of humanity – went through the same physical, mental, neural and psychological growth as all humans do.
So I want to take a moment to lift up the children and youth in our congregation and in our families and in our lives. Growing up is not easy. It can be hard to manage the way that your body keeps changing sizes and your emotions seem even harder to explain or control sometimes as your brain and your arms and legs and feet keep growing. Your interests will change, too, and even the foods you like and don’t like will probably change. You’ll make friends, and you’ll probably loose friends, and you may be good at math but really struggle with reading, or you may love history but can’t understand science. All of these things will be part of growing up and becoming the person God made you to be. But think about Jesus in this scripture; he, too, seemed to be trying to understand how to fulfill his purpose in life. Instead of following his family home, he stayed behind so that he could talk to the religious teachers and ask his big questions about faith, and even give his own answers to these questions – answers that weren’t expected. Scripture says that the teachers and all who heard his were amazed, or astonished by what he had to say.
Adults, I think that too often we discount the views and opinions and insights of the children and youth in our communities today. In 2018, some of the most passionate activists for justice and change in our world have been youth! And while adults continue to label people and groups according to political or religious affiliation, or according to race or class, our youth and young people are being vocal today about their desire to see and treat all people as equal. So children, youth, and young adults – you have valuable gifts to share with our church and our world – not someday, but today! You are not the church of tomorrow – you are the church right now. And you have wisdom and insights that we need to hear today.
For all of us as Christians, this story challenges us to allow Jesus to grow up; to not leave him as a helpless, dependent baby in a manger, sleeping in heavenly peace. Remember that Jesus was raised by the same Mary we read about last week – the one who, as an enlightened teenager herself, seemed to recognize an opportunity to join God in turning the world upside down. In the teenage Jesus, we see glimpses of the adult Jesus will become, who will continue to ask questions that challenge the understanding of the religious rulers of his time.
In acknowledging Jesus’ own growth, we are led to a confrontation of our own resistance to growth – in our children, as well as in ourselves. Just as in Jesus’ day, there are some religious teachers and leaders who may presume that they have all the answers already, or at least all that they need. They don’t want someone like this Jesus to come along and question everything they think they know, and propose something contrary to what they were taught to believe. But as humans, we don’t know it all. We always have more to learn, and more ways to grow. Jesus came not just as a baby to demonstrate God’s love and presence, but Jesus grew up. Jesus became a teen who questioned things. And Jesus became an adult who challenged the status quo, who called fishermen and tax collectors to be in his inner circle, who ate with sinners, who touched and healed the unclean and undesirable, and who calls each one of us to be reconciled to one another and to God.
Following Jesus’ way requires us to do more than worship him at the manger; it requires us to grow up our faith right along with him. To do our own study of the scriptures, and to ask our questions and wrestle with answers that come too easily. And to always keep on searching for Jesus for we, too, realize that we’ve misplaced him, or that we’ve left him in that box with the manger. To find him in the young and in the stranger, in the sick and in those in prison, in the hungry, cold and lonely, and in each person who crosses our path each day. As a new year approaches, many of us make resolutions to start new or different habits to help us become better versions of ourselves. So maybe this is the year you decide to begin every day with scripture and prayer. Maybe this year you decide to start attending Sunday School so you can grow your faith with deeper study. Maybe this year you look for ways to be more generous, giving away what you don’t need to those who do need, and giving in ways that increase the work for God’s kingdom. Maybe a new spiritual practice for you this year will be showing radical hospitality to strangers and those who are not like you. We all have room to grow up in our faith as we consider the ways the Jesus is calling us to mature in wisdom and in favor with God and with people.
Our Epistle reading for today, Colossians 3:12-17, gives us practical ways for just how we can allow Jesus to live and grow in us:
12 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people.16 The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts.17 Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.
As I close today, I want to leave you with one of my favorite readings about the ways that we can take Jesus out of the manger, and take Christmas with us into the rest of our days, allowing the love of Jesus to grow in us, to change us, and to reach others through us.
KEEPING CHRISTMAS (Henry Van Dyke)
ROMANS, xiv, 6: He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord.
It is a good thing to observe Christmas day. The mere marking of times and seasons, when men agree to stop work and make merry together, is a wise and wholesome custom. It helps one to feel the supremacy of the common life over the individual life. It reminds a man to set his own little watch, now and then, by the great clock of humanity which runs on sun time.
But there is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.
Are you willing to forget what you have done for other people, and to remember what other people have done for you; to ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world; to put your rights in the background, and your duties in the middle distance, and your chances to do a little more than your duty in the foreground; to see that your fellow-men are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy; to own that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life; to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness--are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.
Are you willing to stoop down and consider the needs and the desires of little children; to remember the weakness and loneliness of people who are growing old; to stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough; to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear on their hearts; to try to understand what those who live in the same house with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you; to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you; to make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open--are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.
Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world--stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death--and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love? Then you can keep Christmas.
And if you keep it for a day, why not always?
But you can never keep it alone.
Today is the fourth Sunday of the season of Advent – the four weeks of waiting and preparation for Christmas when we celebrate the inbreaking of God into our world, as Jesus, the very Son of God, takes on our flesh and becomes one of us. During this Advent season, we have been acknowledging the dark times in our lives and in our world, as we wait for the coming of the Light of the World to expose those things that rob our hope, our peace and our joy. Today we turn our faces toward the dawning of that Light. We have just passed the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Light is returning to our land; the daylight will continue to grow until it overtakes the length of the night, and we can once again enjoy long days and greening growth.
Going through these advent rituals in the life of our faith each year can help us to put the dark, winter seasons of our lives into perspective with our faith in the God of Light and Life. That’s why we take the time to fully appreciate the Advent season of waiting instead of rushing into Christmas. But the waiting is nearly over. And as we’ll hear from Mary’s own lips today, the waiting will not have been in vain. Because God is getting ready to do something truly revolutionary, something that will turn the world upside down. In fact, portions of our scripture reading today are so revolutionary that they have been banned from being recited in liturgy or in public in several countries, including India, Guatemala, and Argentina!
Please rise in body or in spirit for the reading of the Gospel of Luke 1:39-55:
39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”
46 Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47 In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49 because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50 He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
51 He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52 He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
55 just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
Prayer: My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great, and my spirit sings of the wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait. You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight, and my weakness you did not spurn, so from east to west shall my name be blest. Could the world be about to turn? My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn! (Canticle of the Turning, Rory Cooney)
Before Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the angel Gabriel has just delivered the news to Mary – a 14 to 15 year old girl, who was promised in marriage, but not yet married to a man named Joseph – that she will become pregnant and bear the Son of the Most High, who will be given the throne of his ancestor David. When she asks how this can happen, since she is not married and has never been with a man, the angel tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.” He goes on to explain that God has caused another miraculous pregnancy in her cousin Elizabeth, who has conceived in her old age. Elizabeth’s child, of course, will be John the Baptizer, the one will prepare the way for the ministry of Jesus. Mary takes a moment to consider all that the angel has told her. And we have to wonder what this young girl must have been thinking…
Young. Unwed. How will I explain this to Joseph? To my parents? To those in my church? My parents will be shunned! This will bring shame on our whole family, on our whole tribe. I’m not sure if those were Mary’s worries, but I can tell you that they were my worries when I found out I was expecting. I was young – not as young as Mary; but I hadn’t finished college, I wasn’t married, and I wasn’t ready to become a mother! I was just getting my own life back on track, and I had already put my family through enough embarrassment and worry over my lack of responsibility and the amount of trouble I had gotten into in my late teens and early twenties. And now, at age 22, just barely an adult, I learned that I was expecting. How will I explain this to my parents? What will my Dad’s church say about the daughter of a preacher becoming pregnant out of wedlock?
But behind the fears and worries over whether or not I was ready for this, or whether or not this would cause me shame or embarrassment, I began to think about the baby, and the possibility of a family. Thomas and I had only known each other a few months! Was this even the person I wanted to have a family with? And even if I did, would he? Did we love each other enough to do this together? Would I be left to do this on my own? If everyone in the world abandoned me, would I still have the ability or the resources to have and raise this child?
When Mary was given this news, whether or not she considered all of these possibilities, she seems wise and mature beyond her age when she simply replies, “Let it be with me just as you have said.” Let it be. Paul McCartney wrote a song that echoes Mary’s answer to the angel: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” It’s hard to know really if Mary was consenting to what the angel said would happen, or if she was accepting in faith that, no matter what happens, it will be OK. That if God is involved, then God will bring something good from it.
After Mary’s “Let it be,” her first action is to rush to her cousin Elizabeth for help in unpacking and understanding just what God is up to through both of these miraculous conceptions. We see in the coming together of these two women, one very old and one very young, that God is choosing to work in unexpected and scandalous ways! In this ancient time, women were considered property. Women were not educated, women were not the authorities on scripture and prophecy. Women had no power in social or religious community, no control over who or when they would marry, and sometimes, no agency over their own bodies. But the angel visited both of these women, and told them that God has seen and noticed them, and has chosen them to be the bearers of the ones who will help bring in God’s new reign. And these women were not even women of prominence; Mary is described as a lowly servant girl. But these women knew something of God, and of God’s promises for their people, and they believed the angel and they became participants in God’s work of reversal and justice.
Mary’s song begins the way we might expect, full of praise for God, and thanks for looking on her with favor and blessing her. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor in Denver who has a reputation for being very progressive and cutting-edge; she’s covered in tattoos and preaches at a church called, House for All Saints and Sinners. But she grew up in a very traditional and conservative church, and recalls visiting her family’s church as an adult, and being surprised but excited to see that their closing song that day would be a musical setting of the Magnificat, of Mary’s song. She says she couldn’t believe the implications of what it would mean for this very wealthy, prestigious group of mostly white upper-class Americans to sing about God’s raising the lowly while casting down the proud and filling the hungry while sending the rich away empty-handed. She says, “Finally the moment came. The congregation sang a praise music setting of…and I can’t make this up…the first half of the Magnificat. They proudly sang a nice praise song based on the Magnificat about how their soul ‘magnifies the Lord who had looked with favor on them and that generations will call them blessed because the mighty one has done great things and holy is his name.’ And then the song ended.” (Sermon on the Magnificat, Nadia Bolz-Weber)
As I mentioned before, parts of Mary’s song is completely outlawed in some places because of its dangerous implications to those in power because of God’s favor to the anawim, the Hebrew word which means, “bowed down” and which was used most frequently in scripture to describe those who were “the poor of every sort: the vulnerable, the marginalized, and socio-economically oppressed, those of lowly status without earthly power… [those who] depended totally on God for whatever they owned.” (The Anawim: who are they? by Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J.) These are the lowly whom Mary reference, on whom God will have mercy, who God will notice, who God will feed, who God will lift up and to whom God will give God’s kingdom. Her song celebrates that God is about to do something new in the world, to turn things upside-down so that those who are always on the bottom rungs of society, those who are always getting overlooked or overworked, those who do not have access to the privileges others enjoy – like clean water, full pantries of food, adequate healthcare, a democratic government, or living in a world free of bullets and missiles – so that these people will know the good news of God’s love and mercy.
In Mary’s song, we get a different image of the mother of God. This was not some meek and mild Christmas card character, this was a teenager who understood the injustices of her world and was ready to join the resistance. Her song could more accurately be understood as a rebel yell! In fact, just this week I read an article from fellow United Methodist pastor Roger Woolsey who says that he can see the teenage Mary as a punk-rocker, with a ‘raucous song of protest’ in the vein of AD/DC’s salute to all those who are ready to rock. All those rebels with a cause who are ready to join God in turning the world upside down.
Elizabeth and Mary would raise their sons to know this good news as well. They would take responsibility for passing on the rich heritage and faith of their people, and in helping their sons to live into God’s purposes for their lives. Yes, Jesus himself was fully divine, but he was also fully human, and needed the guidance human parents to teach and instill faith and wisdom in him as he grew. In the upside-down reversals of God’s kingdom, it is not at all a stretch to think that Mary had a profound effect on Jesus’ ministry. I can imagine her singing her rock anthem as a lullaby, and of the family talks at the table being about the injustices in the world. And I can imagine Jesus growing up in a household that practices generous hospitality, and radical inclusion, and kindness and compassion to everyone they meet. And then Jesus, as he comes to fully understand his mission as God’s representation in the world, comes back to his hometown synagogue.
Maybe his experience was similar to that of Pastor Nadia’s. He sees that on the lectionary calendar for the day is a prophecy from Isaiah. He knows already the implications of its meaning for this group of church-goers who have bought into the social and religious hierarchy of the day, who have managed to become wealthy landowners and prosper off the backs of their slaves and servants. And he knows the hope it holds out for the anawim, the still bowed down of his region, those who are still being excluded or oppressed. We read this same prophecy from Isaiah last week – about bringing good news to the poor, and release for the captives, and healing for the brokenhearted, and proclaiming the year of Jubilee. Jubilee was the year when all the slaves and servants were freed, and property was restored to those from whom it had been taken; it was a time of restitution and recovery. So Jesus chose this reading and this moment to take up the resistance, likely handed down from his mother and her cousin, and to proclaim that this scripture is being fulfilled – through him. That now is the time for God’s work to begin, to restore what was broken or taken, to free those entrapped in servitude or poverty, to bring justice and equity to those on the margins. And all those who heard it did what?? They drove him to a cliff on the edge of town and tried to throw him off.
But, Pastor Melody, aren’t you supposed to be preaching about love today? I’m getting there.
You see, the anawim of the world are also those of us who are bowed down by too much reliance on jobs, or money or government or other principalities and powers that we look to for security, for meaning, and for happiness. And they are also those of us who are bowed down by mental or physical or spiritual illnesses – cancer, depression, despair. They are not just the physically hungry, but all of us who hunger for connection and relationship and purpose or meaning in life. They are all who are enslaved – in addictions, in the rat race, in sex trafficking, in proving our worth to others or to ourselves. Mary’s song is a song for all of us – that God has looked on us with favor. That God, who is Love, cares deeply for each one of God’s creations. And that when we find ourselves brokenhearted, or being held captive by things that cause us harm or despair, or being stepped on or overlooked, or when we are just struggling to make sense of life, and to find our purpose and meaning, that God is ready to break into our world with Love. This love is powerful. This love will cancel out the powers of darkness, and fear, and sin, and death. This love will shine a light on the injustices of the world so that we can see the way things should be. This love will cause people to reach out in compassion with friendship and food and help for those who are being oppressed or marginalized by others. This love will topple the empires of greed and hate and will welcome, clothe, feed, visit, include, and heal. This love will even risk death itself to give others life. This is the love that comes to us at Christmas.
I remember the first time I encountered Mary’s song. It was the Christmas that I was expecting my first child. I had been asked by my voice instructor to sing Mary’s song as part of her church choir’s Christmas concert. I remember sitting in the choir loft that year. I don’t really remember much about singing that particular song. But I do remember the part in the concert when this teenaged girl came walking down the aisle, draped in a bright blue headwrap and robe, accompanied by a teenage boy, and carrying a baby. A live, wriggling, fussing, baby. And I remember feeling the baby inside of me move, and feeling this sudden kindred with Mary. A realization that like me, Mary was unwed when she conceived and when she gave birth. That like me, Mary may have received more than a few disapproving glances, or even endured being shunned and shamed by others. But that when Mary gave birth, it must have all been worth it. To hold a real flesh-and-bones, wriggling, fussing baby and realize that God had entrusted you to be a mother. And to feel a love like you never knew you could feel. Love that could endure embarrassment and abandonment, if necessary. In that moment, I became overwhelmed with this Love – not just the love I already felt for the child that I was bringing into the world, but Love that I knew God had for me, as God’s own child. That was the moment that I said, “Let it be.”
If the words to all those scriptures I’ve heard and all those songs I’ve been singing are really true, then be born in me! If God really is looking down on me with the love that I see this teenage representation of Mary looking down with on this baby in front of me, and with the love that I feel in my heart for this not-yet-born child of mine, then thank you, God, for loving me. Then thank you, God, for seeing past the mess I’ve made of my life and giving me this wonderful gift of motherhood. Then thank you God for turning my world upside down, for lifting me up out of my brokenness and giving me a future with hope. For meeting me in my need and filling me with good things, for freeing me from the old ways of my life, and binding up my broken heart. Today I rejoice, Thank you God for giving me a husband and three wonderful children, and inviting me to join you in the resistance to the world’s greed and power in order to help grow your kingdom of incredible hope and good news and unconditional love for all.
Can you sing with Mary today? What is the good news that God has given you to share with the world, to help turn it right-side up for others who are still living bowed down? The Love that came down at Christmas is the love that everyone wants to feel. So let’s make room for more of that this year – in our personal lives, in our church, in our community. Let’s share this dangerous song of Love with the whole world!
Prayer: Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me, and your mercy will last from the depths of the past to the end of the age to be. Your very name puts the proud to shame, and to those who would for you yearn, you will show your might, put the strong to flight, for the world is about to turn. My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn! (Canticle of the Turning, Rory Cooney)
Earlier this week, I had one of those really difficult conversations with a friend, who just needed a sympathetic ear so that she could process some things out loud. She was leaving the funeral of an infant, the only child of a friend from her hometown, and also part of the home day-care group of children to which her youngest daughter belongs. The pain and grief were too much for her to bear alone, so I held the phone and we talked for her hour-long drive home. We talked about how unfair life can be, how it doesn’t make sense that sometimes babies can be healthy one day and die the next, due to no trauma or discernible illness. We talked about how hard it must be for the parents, as well as the daycare provider who found the child unresponsive, to always be wondering if they could have or should have done something differently that would have prevented the tragedy from happening. And that even though there was an investigation and no wrongdoing or injury had taken place, that the parents and extended family seemed to be projecting their grief toward my friend, and others in the same daycare group simply for the fact that their children were perfectly healthy and alive. For the parents of the child who is gone, it is unimaginable grief that has no answers. And for the parents of all the children still here, there is guilt for their survival. Which led us to the question, “How are you supposed to go on with your life now, and enjoy your child’s preschool Christmas program, and have fun and laugh with your family, knowing that a family down the street no longer has a child to watch grow up and play and laugh with?” How can you enjoy the blessings in your own life in the midst of the pain, grief, and struggle around you? Or, if you are the one grieving, or in pain, or suffering in any way, how do you find joy, especially at this time of year when the celebrating and merry-making are all around you?
In our Advent journey toward Christmas, we’ve been reflecting on those times when we do struggle, when we perceive more darkness than light, when we feel conflict, anger, sorrow, or despair. But today, the third Sunday of Advent, is Joy Sunday, so named from the Latin word, “Gaudete,” meaning “Rejoice” – a day when we start to turn our attention to the joyful anticipation of Christ’s birth, and Christ’s kingdom breaking into our world. So today, we’ll be looking for clues in each of our scriptures as to the ways that we as God’s people are meant to rejoice, or find joy, in light of the coming of the One who is the Light of the World.
Our Old Testament Reading today is from Isaiah chapter 61, verses 1-4 and 8-11. These verses are part of Isaiah’s words to God’s people who have returned from exile to find their homes, their city and their temple destroyed. This set of writings began with our scriptures from last week, in which God instructed Isaiah to speak tender words of comfort as the Israelites returned to Jerusalem to find devastation and ruin and loss. Towards the end of this part of Isaiah’s text, he announces to them the Good News of Deliverance, as one translation describes it, or Joyful Proclamations, according to another translation.
Hear now these words from the Prophet:
1 The Lord God’s spirit is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me
to bring good news to the poor,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release for captives,
and liberation for prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and a day of vindication for our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 to provide for Zion’s mourners,
to give them a crown in place of ashes,
oil of joy in place of mourning,
a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.
They will be called Oaks of Righteousness,
planted by the Lord to glorify himself.
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins;
they will restore formerly deserted places;
they will renew ruined cities,
places deserted in generations past.
8 I, the Lord, love justice;
I hate robbery and dishonesty.
I will faithfully give them their wage,
and make with them an enduring covenant.
9 Their offspring will be known among the nations,
and their descendants among the peoples.
All who see them will recognize
that they are a people blessed by the Lord.
10 I surely rejoice in the Lord;
my heart is joyful because of my God,
because he has clothed me with clothes of victory,
wrapped me in a robe of righteousness
like a bridegroom in a priestly crown,
and like a bride adorned in jewelry.
11 As the earth puts out its growth,
and as a garden grows its seeds,
so the Lord God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations.
Today’s New Testament reading is from the apostle Paul’s first letter to the newly converted Christians, or church, in Thessalonica. This letter is the earliest written part of our New Testament, written around 50 A.D. – written even before the gospels were put down on papyrus. Like Isaiah, Paul is also giving words of encouragement to God’s people – to a new community of faith who were once exiled, or excluded, from the religion practiced by the Israelites. These Gentiles were now being included as an extension of God’s family. But, as they were previously what we would call today the “unchurched,” they were learning how to build a new community as a counter-cultural expression of God’s selfless agape love in the midst of a culture that practiced an “anything-goes” religion with multiple deities, and forms of cult rituals that allowed the worshiper to indulge in practices of self-gratification. In the face of persecution and ridicule from their neighbors, they needed encouragement to live lives that witnessed to the good news of Jesus Christ in the way they cared for and nurtured one another.
Hear now this reading from I Thessalonians 5:16-24:
16 Rejoice always. 17 Pray continually. 18 Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 19 Don’t suppress the Spirit. 20 Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages, 21 but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good. 22 Avoid every kind of evil. 23 Now, may the God of peace himself cause you to be completely dedicated to him; and may your spirit, soul, and body be kept intact and blameless at our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming. 24 The one who is calling you is faithful and will do this.
This is God’s Word for God’s people today. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray:
This is the day that You have made!
This is the day you have called Holy:
Sabbath day, a rest day, a time-out,
out of the world and into the presence of God: a day for rejoicing.
Make us glad this morning in the House of the Lord.
Remove from us our distractions, our heart-worries,
our to-dos and should-haves and all the constant stress & strain.
And in its place, O God, give us more of You.
Here in your House, our hearts are filled with peace
our mouths with laughter,
our tongues with shouts of joy.
Fill us to brimming and overflowing with the joy of the Lord:
A good measure of God, pressed down,
shaken together and running over.
We are glad, yes, we are glad indeed,
to be together in the House of the Lord!
~ posted on Literature & Liturgy.
Our passage from Isaiah today may seem familiar – not just because it is one of those advent readings we have come to recognize every three years; but because these are some of the very words that Jesus himself read when he had the opportunity to preach in his hometown synagogue. Luke tells us in chapter 4 of his gospel:
17 The synagogue assistant gave [Jesus] the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
19 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. 21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
When Isaiah delivered this good news, it was to those who had been exiled; those who had been captive and oppressed, those who were returning poor and empty-handed. And he delivered this message in the midst of a time when God’s people saw their captivity and the desolation of their city as a consequence of the time before, when they let their acrimony cause divisions, let their leaders pay for privilege, and ignored the poor and oppressed among them; a way of living which they believed was a direct cause of the fall of their nation! It must have been difficult for them to hear these words from the prophet and find reasons to rejoice. They were coming face to face with the total devastation they believed was their own doing. So how could they hear any news as good news? What would make this seem like a joyous proclamation? In other words, is it possible for them, or for us, to experience joy in the midst of sorrows?
We seem to always be living in the “in between” times – the time between the way things are now and the way things should be. Think for a moment about how things are now… there’s certainly a fair share of acrimony in our society and political landscape today; people have responded to research polls saying that they feel more divided as a country today than every before. If you’ve seen any news headlines recently, you see that there is corruption in leadership and a blind eye for the poor, the oppressed, those in prisons, those who are homeless, and those who are strangers in our midst. People we know and love are grieving losses, are suffering illness or addictions, are loosing their jobs, their marriages, or their homes, or are just loosing their sense of worth, their sense of belonging, and their sense of purpose. Our world, our community, even our homes are not always what they should be. We long for God’s justice to put these situations right; to bring good news, to bring freedom, to bring wholeness.
The joy that is promised in the words of Isaiah is the joy of everything being as it should be, of ‘shalom,’ of the world restored to the way it was intended. This is the joy of salvation that God offers, and that comes in Jesus – Jesus, whose very names means ‘God Saves.’ This salvation is not limited to an escape plan at the end of life in this world, but gives us a quality of life that comes with the reign of God in the here and now, through the advent, or coming, of Jesus Christ. In Isaiah 61, salvation looks like a restored city, and a thriving garden. It looks like good news, liberty, healing, release, and comfort. Those who live in the kingdom, or reign of God, live differently because of their response to God’s reign and rule in their lives. Isaiah says that the nations of the world will see what God has done for Israel and will know “that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.” God’s salvation is real, tangible and visible in the here and now. To live with this kind of joy means that we understand the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God, when God favors those who are sick, excluded, poor, weak, grieving and suffering. When Jesus notices and has compassion – not for the haughty and self-righteous and power-hungry, but for the outcasts, the sinners, the tax collectors, the adulterers, and the demon-possessed.
If Jesus were walking through the rural towns and suburban neighborhoods of Iowa today, who would Jesus notice and be drawn to? The poor, rural farmers? The unwed mothers on Medicaid and Snap? The heroin- and meth-possessed? The undocumented immigrants? The LGBTQ community? The chronically ill with little to no healthcare? The aged and elderly, lost and forgotten? The bullied? The sexually assaulted college student? The battered and bruised at home? And can you imagine what it might mean to one of these to hear a word of God for them? That Jesus is coming to bring them freedom and release from their addictions, oppressors and assailants? To bring healing and comfort for the injured, the ill, the lonely, the ignored; those who have been tossed out or locked up? Would that news give them reason to rejoice?
If we as God’s people have the capacity to be joyful in the midst of the shadows of our own sorrows, then how much more joy could we experience by bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to those who do not know him, by living a life that shares the good news of God’s care for others in the way that we ourselves offer welcome, compassion, healing, comfort, kindness and freedom from judgement to those living on the margins today?
Participating in God’s kingdom means living out God’s salvation in ways that show the nations God’s good news, liberation, justice, healing and comfort, and which creates a longing for them to draw near to God who longs to draw near to them. This is the mission of God – that through us, others would come to know Jesus, and would be willing to change their lives in order to live together in God’s kingdom, until the whole world is restored back to its intended wholeness, the way it should be. Our church’s mission statement echoes this same idea: the mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Being a disciple, or follower of the way of Jesus, is supposed to change us and the way we live. And our living in a way that is different than the world around us, is supposed to change the way the world is – it is supposed to transform the world.
When Paul wrote to the new Christian community in Thessalonica, he was making this very point. He urges them to be ready for Christ’s coming, to be ready for this transformation. For us today, that is what the season of Advent is all about – making our spiritual selves ready for Christ’s coming to transform us and our world, once again! He gives them three practical ways to engage in a spiritual preparation. He tells them: “Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every situation.”
We’ve already asked, how can we be joyful always, even in the midst of sorrow and despair. Author and theologian Henri Nouwen puts it this way: while happiness usually depends on circumstances, joy runs deeper. “Joy," he writes, "is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing - sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death - can take that love away.” Being loved unconditionally is really good news! It’s the sort of good news that can transform a person’s life when they are accepted, when they belong, when they are beloved. It gives them a reason to love themselves, which opens the door to being more loving toward others, and before you know it, you’ve changed one little corner of someone’s world.
I read once that the way that Christians rejoice and the way that Christians give thanks is by praying. Put the other way around, constant rejoicing and regular thanksgiving are themselves perpetual prayer. Praying continually is one of the ways that our transformation serves as a witness to the culture around us. It keeps us connected to the saving graces of God, which gives us reason to rejoice and give thanks, which changes the way we treat others. It grows agape love within us, a love that reaches out to those we’ve already mentioned as being on the margins.
One of my favorite contemporary Christian writers is Anne Lamott. She recently wrote a book about her own experiences with prayer titled, “Help. Thanks. Wow.” In it she says,
“Prayer can be motion and stillness and energy—all at the same time. It begins with stopping in our tracks, or with our backs against the wall, or when we are going under the waves, or when we are just so sick and tired of being psychically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something. Or maybe, miraculously, we just release our grip slightly. Prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken. (In fact, these are probably the best possible conditions under which to pray.) Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up. The opposite may be true: We may not be able to get it together until after we show up in such miserable shape. So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold.”
She goes on to explain that in their simplest forms, her three forms of prayer are: “Help.” “Thanks.” and “Wow.” “Help” is the first prayer we learn to pray on our own, the prayer that pleads for God’s mercy or forgiveness, or for the puppy we really want our parents to let us have, or for the cancer to go away, or for someone to come home. As we mature in our faith, we begin to notice more and more the ways that God’s help is present in our lives, and the way that God is present, and God is Love, and God is Light and Goodness, and we begin to say, “Thanks.”
Lamott says, “Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and in the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back." (Lamott, Anne. Help, Thanks, Wow. Penguin Publishing Group.)
She says her third great prayer is “Wow.” Wow, look at that sunset, or wow, listen to that glorious music, or wow, I never expected that. We say, “wow” when the heavens open and the glory of God is revealed – to us! When we realize that heaven is breaking into our world, that God is Emmanuel – with us; when the world seems just a little more like the way it should be. That’s the miracle of Christmas, when the angels sang their tidings of great joy which were for all people, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
Living between the way things are and the way things should be, the already but the not yet, can be a challenge. It can be hard for us to wait for Christmas, to wait for God’s reign, to wait for the world to change. But it begins in small ways. An unwed teen says yes to becoming a mother; a baby is born in a stable; a rabbi reads a scripture in his hometown which begins a movement for a new world order. Today, someone is grieving, someone is barely making ends meet, someone is running out of options, someone is running out of time, or patience, or lies. How can we share the good news so that that person’s life becomes a little brighter, a little more hopeful, a little more joyful?
I want to challenge you this week to practice at least one intentional act of kindness each day from now until Christmas. And maybe by Christmas, we will have committed ourselves to this way of finding and spreading joy. And maybe by Christmas, we will have found that this way of living changes us and a small part of the world around us. Maybe we will find it easier to do this in the name of Jesus, and even to share the good news that this kindness and compassion comes from the unconditional love of God that is for everyone, yes everyone.
I’m using an Advent devotional this year called All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas by Quinn Caldwell, and among its descriptions, it says, “These daily readings offer the skeptic, the over-committed the opportunity to make room-perhaps just enough room for God to show up.” I’m going to close with one of Quinn’s prayers – a prayer that offers a joyful response to the challenges of today – a song.
Come, Loneliness, and we will sing to you of Emanuel, God with us. Come, Death, for Hark, the Herald Angels sing that Christ is risen with healing in his wings. Come, Depression, and we will sing “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” and we will hold that long o until you are no more. Come, Power, and we will sing to you that the first Noel was to poor shepherds. Come, Despair, and we will sing joy to your world. Come, Racism. Come, homophobia. Come sexism. For tonight is your silent night. Come, War, and we will sing you to sleep. Come, all ye faithful, and sing. Lord, we may not be able to read music, or carry a tune in a bucket. But we’re going to sing your praises anyway. Amen. (Caldwell, Quinn G.. All I Really Want . Abingdon Press.)
Last Sunday we began our four-week Advent journey toward Christmas. And I shared with you that this season in our church liturgical year is one I have come to appreciate more and more each year. I mentioned last week that advent give us time and permission to acknowledge the dark times in our lives; the times when must look forward with hope for a better day. For me, it seems a little disingenuous to jump right from Halloween to Christmas as if October to New Year’s Day is one long festive season. Now, I love parties and celebrations as much as anyone, but I’ve witnessed and experienced enough pain, sadness and brokenness in my life to know that life is not always a party! Sometimes, life is hard. Sometimes, we don’t feel like putting on our party clothes and our party smile and being around a lot of happy party people. And Advent gives us the time we need to say, for me, the celebrating will come – but right now, I just want to sit and wait. I’ll get to the party later – just give me some time first. So we keep that in mind today as we continue our advent journey. It is okay to slow down, to take time, to reflect on where we are right now in order to more fully prepare to receive the promises that are on the way.
Let’s pray: Lord, in the midst of our busy time, when we are in the rush to Christmas, you burst into our lives with the tantalizing promise of something new. Open our hearts and spirits to the glorious possibilities of hope and peace to come. Help us to slow down in order to fully prepare our lives to receive you. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.
It’s important to understand that this advent waiting is designed intentionally with the end at the beginning. Last week, we sort of flashed-forward in both the Old and New Testament readings. In Isaiah, we see the Israelites, who have lived for over a generation in exile after the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem, being given permission to return home under the new rule of Persia. But they came home to total destruction of their city, their home, and their Temple. The prophet cries out to God on behalf of the people, to open the heavens and come near. So we began last week with the end of the first Temple, but also the end of exile. Today, our Old Testament reading backs up to the time when the Israelites have been taken into captivity in Babylon. After years of battling their neighbors, they have been defeated and taken into captivity; their exile has begun. And God gives the people words through the prophet Isaiah, which would bring comfort to them as they entered this period.
Hear now these words from Isaiah 40:1-11.
1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
If ever there was a time when God’s people needed to hear a word of comfort, it was now. In another translation, verse 2 says:
“With gentle words, tender and kind,
Assure Jerusalem, this chosen city from long ago,
that her battles are over.
The terror, the bloodshed, the horror of My punishing work is done.
This place has paid for its guilt; iniquity is pardoned;
its term of incarceration is complete.
It has endured double the punishment it was due.”
These words were meant to help the people to face and endure a time of captivity and occupation. Being taken away from their promised land must have felt like an ending. But God is speaking words of comfort and assurance. This will not be the end of God’s promises. There will be a time of waiting, a time of exile, a time very much like another exile when God’s people spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness. But God reminds them that God is eternal, and that God will come to them again with strength, and gather them together, as a shepherd gathers its lambs. It’s important to note here that when the Israelites returned under Persian rule and the temple was rebuilt, they continued to live under government occupation up to and including the time of Jesus.
In Mark’s gospel last week, we also began with an ending. Jesus was meeting with his disciples before he entered Jerusalem for the last time. And he’s trying to prepare them for his crucifixion, for the end of their earthly time with him. And he warns them that there will be difficult days ahead, but assures them that God will make everything right in the end. So as we turn back to the beginning of Mark’s gospel today, we’ll be staying in chronological order for the rest of our Advent journey to Christmas.
Today’s reading is from the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. Mark was one of the first gospels written down, and it was meant to be read aloud. It was, in essence, an almost poetic form of storytelling that gives us both Jesus’ own stories, and stories about the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus that were meant to be shared with others in order to give them the gospel – or good news – about Jesus! Mark himself named his writings the gospel or specifically, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Now, gospel was not a term Mark invented; any news in those days could have been termed ‘good news’ – but it was typically used in the context of the military, as when someone would return from the front lines of the battlefield bringing the “gospel” of victory. In fact, just prior to Jesus’ birth, there was an inscription attributed to Caesar Augustus as the “son of god” – a title used by many emperors in those times – and which declared his birthday as “a beginning of good news, [or gospel], for the world.” So as we’ll see in Mark’s writings, the use of these words “Son of God” and “gospel” as references to Jesus, and not to the ruling emperor, were extremely subversive at the time, and were meant to help change the listener’s way of seeing and understanding their lives, their community and their world in light of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Please stand as you are able for the gospel reading from Mark 1:1-8.
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Mark’s good news about Jesus does not begin with a long genealogy, or even with Jesus’ birth. Instead of beginning with Jesus’ arrival, he begins with Jesus’ introduction. And it’s important for us on our own advent journey of waiting for that arrival to know who this person is introducing Jesus, and what he’s trying to prepare us for. What does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord?
Let’s begin with the scriptures from which Mark begins his good news. Taken from Exodus 23:20, Isaiah 40:3, and Malachi 3:1, these opening words create images for us of the divine guidance the Israelites experienced during their exodus, or escape from slavery in Egypt; then, of the promise that they will be able to go home again after a time of captivity and exile in Babylon; and finally, that before God’s arrival again, that God will send a messenger. Mark is telling us that John the Baptist is that messenger, announcing the arrival of God!
John the Baptist may have seemed a strange choice of messenger to announce the coming of the Messiah. He was not a political or military leader. He lived in the wilderness, and was completely dependent on God’s provisions for his food & clothing – wearing camel hair and eating locusts and honey! A strange character, indeed. But here is one who has given up all pretenses, possessions and preoccupations in order to devote his life to the message of the coming reign of Christ. And notice the wilderness aspect of both our readings today. This is an important theme in understanding the way that we prepare for God’s work in our own lives. In the Exodus story, God’s people had to learn complete dependence on God before they were spiritually prepared to receive God’s promised land. In the wilderness, they learned to let go in order to be shaped by God as a worshiping people. Remember that when they first settled in encampments, they began to complain about their lack of meat! Some even suggested they would have been better off to remain enslaved in Egypt where, at least the food was better! But with time, they learned that God’s promised future was much more important than holding onto their nostalgia for ‘the way things used to be.’ Then, after generations of living in city God gave them, God’s people once again found themselves exiled from the home and way of life they had always known. But God reminds them with words of comfort that God will not forget them, that God has a plan for the future, and that God will come again with strength to restore.
Now, we enter the wilderness with John the Baptist, and with scores of God’s people who are still living under occupation in a land that doesn’t always feel like home. And John doesn’t go into the Temple to deliver his message, he holds retreats in the wilderness – outside of the Temple – to remind people of the wilderness times in their past. And to help them understand that, once again, in order to be spiritually prepared for the coming reign of God, we must make room by letting go of all of our other pretenses, possessions and preoccupations so that we can receive the blessings that await us in Christ’s new kingdom.
John’s message is to repent – which means to change course, to turn around. God’s people had been looking for a new military leader and king ever since they had been conquered by Babylon in the time of Isaiah. Their hopes were for a Messiah to come and overthrow the government – to topple the ruling empire. But John, who would be seen by his people as an archetype for Moses or Elijah, is preaching a message of a Messiah who will come, not as a military leader, but as a prophet, healer and teacher. He is preparing them for the kingdom of God’s reign which will not be an earthly reign, but a spiritual one – one that will extend beyond the city walls of Jerusalem, and into every corner of the world. One that does not depend on governments ruled by humans, but that overrules all earthly powers.
This week’s advent focus is on the peace that Christ brings. As we look back over the course of the history of God’s people, we see that military conflict was a nearly constant part of their story. At the time Mark wrote his gospel, the Temple had been destroyed for the second time. This time as a result of the Jewish revolt against the Roman occupation. Mark’s gospel, or good news, about Jesus, could not have been more relevant or needed for God’s people. If they had not seen or believed Jesus when he was on earth, then they needed to hear this message of good news that God’s kingdom was taking shape, and that they no longer needed the Temple to find God’s presence with them. Jesus had come! And Jesus would come again! And the reign of Christ’s kingdom would be a kingdom of peace – where wolf would lie down with the lamb, and swords would be beaten into ploughshares, and people would study war no more.
Peace, true peace, is different than the absence of conflict. True peace can only be known through Jesus, the Prince of Peace. This peace is the result of completely letting go of our pretenses, possessions (and the things that possess us!) and preoccupations in order to let Christ’s love be the prevailing motive for all of our thoughts and actions. It requires us to commit to practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, bible study, worship, giving/serving and witnessing to the ways that Christ has transformed our lives. That’s easier said that done, though. So let’s think about it this way. To what situation in your own life do you long to hear the voice of God speaking, “comfort, comfort?” What would it look like for you to spend some quiet time each day this week reading through scriptures and praying that God opens your heart to feel peace in that situation? You see, Christ’s kingdom is all around us. Christ is with us, and longs to fill us with his Spirit of Peace. When we have let go of the things that hold us captive to fear, resentment, worry, jealousy, bitterness, and anger, then we make room for Christ’s love and peace to be born in us, so that we can go out as one of God’s messengers to proclaim the good news of God-with-us – God who brings comfort and peace in our wilderness days; God who levels out the path ahead of us, removing the mountainous obstacles that would keep us from pursuing God’s ways.
Once we have experienced God’s peace in our own lives, then we are called to join with God in becoming peacemaker ourselves – by offering love and acceptance instead of hate and intolerance, by offering comfort and care to those experiencing conflict and grief, by offering our attention, our friendship and our resources to those living in fear. This is what we celebrate at Christmas – when we have found peace in our own darkness, then we are ready to join with others who know this peace; to celebrate the already and the still coming rule of the Prince of Peace in all the dark corners of the world. We believe in resurrection, in restoration. And we confidently look forward to the day when the whole world be again as it should be.
Prayer: God of patience and peace, as John the Baptizer called the people to repentance, so you call us to new life in your Spirit. Help us wait for your promised coming, and prepare your way with faithfulness and steadfast love. Amen.