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The Baptism of Jesus

“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.”  9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”” – Mark 1:4-11

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“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;  3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.  5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:  6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,  7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.  8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.  9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” – Isaiah 42:1-9

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The apostle Mark is a man of few words – and today’s Gospel reading is a prime example.  In these eight short verses, there is little detail, little context; if we didn’t have the other three gospels we would know very little about what’s going on, here on the banks of the Jordan River.

And yet, in these eight verses, everything is here: the gospel message in a nutshell.

But we really do need some context in order to uncover all the gems Mark has tucked away into this text.

We need to begin by saying, first off – last week, we were still celebrating Christmas and Jesus was a baby-in-arms.  This week, Jesus is a grown man, roughly 30 years old, about to start his public ministry.  (For those of us who are grandparents, it does seem like they grow up that fast doesn’t it?)

Mark gives us a little bit of background on John the Baptist.  He tells us that John was ministering on the banks of the River Jordan; and that he was dressed like the prophets of old, and ate locusts and wild honey – which were the foods of the poor and of travelers.  He tells us John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins.

Other gospel writers give us more detail: John is Jesus’ cousin, son of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, born in their old age – a miracle baby whose birth was announced by an angel, and who told Zechariah, John would be “great in the sight of the Lord… filled with the Holy Spirit from before his birth… (and he would) make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

So that’s John’s background. But have you ever wondered how John got his start? I know I have. Think about it: did he just one day head out into the wilderness wearing camel’s hair and start preaching by the riverside? If so, how did people know to go hear him?

Luke suggests a little bit of an answer when he writes:

Luke 3:3-4  [John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,  4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…”

So it sounds like John started out as an itinerant preacher, preaching a message of repentance, and inviting people to be baptized in the Jordan. And after a while, as his message spread, he was able to stay in one place, in the wilderness by the riverside, as people came out to him. Matthew’s gospel seems to support this scenario. He writes:

Matthew 3:5-6  “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea [which is the southern half of Israel], and all the region along the Jordan [which runs the length of Israel, north to south] were going out to [John],  6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

What the gospel writers don’t tell us – because they probably didn’t need to when speaking to their contemporaries – is that John the Baptist’s message and baptism were quite out of the ordinary.  Baptism itself was familiar to the ancient Jewish people, but not as a means of repentance or of making peace with God – repentance and peace with God came by means of animal sacrifices in the temple.

Baptism – or the symbolic act of immersion – goes back as far as Moses, who led the people of Israel through the water of the Red Sea out of slavery and into freedom. But generally speaking, baptism in the Old Testament had to do with ritual purification: for example, after contact with a dead body.  Or if a person was about to enter into God’s service, such as a priest, or the men of Qumran who copied the ancient scrolls – they would immerse in water before taking on their duties. Or if a Gentile converted to Judaism, immersion might be part of the ritual of acceptance into the Jewish faith. So in the Old Testament, baptism was a symbolic action, something a person did in order to be ritually clean.

But in the Old Testament, forgiveness of sins was not involved, except symbolically. As one ancient Jewish authority writes: “Just as a mikveh (that is, immersion in water) purifies the contaminated, so does the Holy One, blessed be he, purify Israel.”

This symbolic interpretation was the only one that was known – until John came along. John’s task was to prepare the people of Israel to meet their Messiah – to meet God!  So he preached a message of repentance: telling the people to change course, change direction. He told soldiers not to extort money but to be content with their wages. He said the same to tax collectors. He told people with extra clothing or extra food to share with those who did not have enough. In other words, he preached justice and compassion as a way of life.

And people came from all over to hear John, and to stand in line for hours, to confess their sins out loud in front of everybody – as an act of change, of a new beginning, and then to be baptized full-body in the Jordan River. Nothing like this had ever been done before.

And on top of all this, John was saying that someone was going to come after him, greater than himself, more powerful than himself, who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit.  This could mean nothing else but that the Messiah was coming.

And then one day, Jesus arrived at the riverside.  Picture the scene: Jesus is standing knee-deep in the water, next to his cousin John. We don’t know if the two had ever met before (post-birth, that is – John had recognized Jesus while in the womb); but they know who each other is.  And Jesus steps up to be baptized, and he confesses… nothing! He has nothing to confess.  And John says to Jesus in Matthew’s gospel:

Matthew 3:14-15  “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

And in saying this, Jesus steps up and takes our place. He becomes one with his people, symbolically taking on our sins so that they can be washed away: a prophetic action that foreshadows the Cross.

And immediately after John baptizes Jesus, the heavens are torn open and the Holy Spirit lights on Jesus like a dove; and a voice from heaven is heard saying:

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)

I can’t even begin to imagine what this moment was like – for John, for Jesus, for the crowd watching on the banks of the river.  But I hear three things in God’s words:

  • “You are my Son” – confirming Jesus is in every way, spiritually and literally, God’s Son
  • “The Beloved” – some versions of the Bible translate the opening phrase, “you are my beloved son” and some translate “you are my Son, the Beloved”. Both translations may be considered correct from the Greek; but I like the latter better because it puts the emphasis on God’s love. It’s like God is saying, “I love you so much – I cherish you.” And Jesus is going to need to know this because in the very next verse he’ll be out in the wilderness for 40 days being tempted by the devil. He needs to know God the Father is with him 100%.
    The other reason I like the translation ‘the beloved’ is because ‘beloved’ is the English translation of the Hebrew name ‘David’. It’s like God is giving us a double-meaning, pointing to Jesus as the Son of David that Israel has been waiting for, for so long.
  • “With you I am well pleased” – The longings of God the Father’s heart are completely satisfied in Jesus. And our Old Testament reading gives us the opportunity to begin to ‘count the ways’. Let’s take a look.  God says through Isaiah:

Isaiah 42:1  “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights…”

Why? Because (v 1) he will bring forth justice; (v 3) he will faithfully bring forth justice; (v 4) he will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.

Three times God speaks of his servant bringing justice – not the imperfect justice of human courts but the compassionate justice of the kingdom of heaven.

God says in (v 2) a bruised reed he will not break; a dimly burning wick he will not quench; (v 4) he will teach (v 6) he will be a covenant to the people and a light to the nations; (v 7) he will give sight to the blind, he will give release for the prisoners and for those who sit in darkness.

This is God’s champion! This is the One who will do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven! This is the one in whom God’s soul delights!

So what does Mark’s brief vignette mean for us today?  Where do we find ourselves in this story? As we picture the scene of Jesus’ baptism in our minds: Are we one of the ones in line to confess our sins and be baptized? Are we one of the ones standing on the shoreline observing? Are we craning our necks to look up into heaven, when the dove comes down, to try to see what’s up there? Are we one of the ones maybe standing a little too close to the ‘brood of vipers’?

I think two things would have been clear to anyone who was there that day: (1) Both John the Baptist and God are telling us that Jesus is The One – this is the Messiah we’ve been waiting for; and (2) John’s ministry – and now Jesus’ ministry – are on a collision course with the Pharisees and Sadducees and the powers of this world.  And every observer present will need to decide for himself or herself which side we’re on. What we decide will make all the difference, in this world and the next.

Almost as an aside, I should mention baptism briefly, because today is an appropriate day to do so.  If anyone here today is a believer in Jesus but has not yet been baptized, or isn’t sure if they’ve been baptized, please see either Fr. Paul or myself after service. Because this is one way all of us follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus, and it’s a joy to do so.  And if anyone here has been baptized, but feels a need for further repentance – it is not necessary to be baptized a second time, but it is a healthy habit of growing Christians to confess sin and ask God for forgiveness. Here at Incarnation we do offer the sacrament of confession, for those who want it, and we can also offer suggestions for prayers of confession to use in one’s own private prayer life.

But coming back to the main point: Most of all I think the take-away from this passage is simply to take in – to soak in – God’s words “this is my Son, the Beloved, in you I am well pleased” – and to join the Father in being well-pleased with Jesus. To join John the Baptist in looking at Jesus and saying “the thong of whose sandals I am unworthy to untie”: this Jesus, who identified with our human weakness and set us free from the prison of sin and darkness. This Jesus, whose arrival tells us the former things are passing away, and behold, the new has come.  Be well-pleased with Jesus. AMEN.

 

Preached at Incarnation Church (Anglican), Strip District, Pittsburgh, 1/7/18

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The Baby Jesus in the Temple

“When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”  Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.  It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.  Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” – Luke 2:22-40

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This past week a couple acquaintances of mine got into a heated discussion on Facebook. Before I dive in to this story I want to assure everyone: I am careful not to repeat things people say to me from the pulpit. But if somebody puts something on Facebook, which is a permanent, public record that can be read and quoted by anybody in the world – I consider that fair game.

So the argument went something like this. (Keep in mind these are two theologians talking.) One friend was saying basically: “I’m so glad that God is a loving God, so people who don’t have their theology perfect can still be brothers and sisters in Christ. They may slip into…” (and here she named a couple of strands of ancient theology that were debunked a long time ago but are making a comeback in recent years). She said, “they may stray across the borders of these theologies, but they love God and love spending time with God, and in God’s mercy they can still be counted among God’s people even though their theology isn’t what the church considers acceptable.”  The other friend was saying, “but if people really have a relationship with God their theology wouldn’t stray outside of correct beliefs because God wouldn’t lead them there.”

Of course their argument misses two things: (1) no human being has perfect theology, and (2) no human being understands God perfectly. So whether we approach the faith from an intellectual standpoint or from the standpoint of religious experience, either way our human understanding is imperfect, or at the very least incomplete.

In more practical terms what their argument boiled down to was the difference between living by the letter of the law (which has the tendency to become a bit Pharisee-like), or being led by the spirit into religious experiences (which appeal to the heart but have the tendency to get a little flaky intellectually). So many of the arguments and divisions and rumors of divisions, within the realm of the Christian faith, really come down to this.  Even within our own selves sometimes, we debate between doing what our minds say is right vs. doing what our hearts say the Spirit is leading us to do.

Our scripture reading for today gives an answer to this debate by satisfying both sides. Let’s take a look.

The scene is in the temple in Jerusalem. The time is eight days after Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ parents, have brought Jesus to the temple – as the law of Moses commands – to be circumcised, and as the firstborn male, to be redeemed. They bring two sacrifices: one pigeon for Mary’s rite of purification and one pigeon for Jesus’ redemption. These gifts tell us that Mary and Joseph are not rich; because Moses actually commanded one bird and one sheep – but he said “if they can’t afford a sheep a second bird will do.”

All of this was an experience common to every Jewish family, so there was nothing really remarkable about all this… until Mary and Joseph were approached by an elderly stranger. A man by the name of Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God, saying God had promised him he would not die until he saw the Messiah – and now he can die in peace because God’s word is fulfilled.

And then another prophet, Anna, recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, and starts to praise God and tell everyone in the temple who this child is!

Mary and Joseph are dumbfounded by all this. They take it all in; but then they just sort of carry on with what they’re doing.  They don’t ask questions; they don’t start passing baby Jesus around the temple or anything like that; they just finish the sacrifices and return home to Nazareth, where Jesus grows up, and grows strong and wise, with God’s favor resting on him.

But Mary and Joseph do store up all these words in their hearts. Most likely when Luke wrote his gospel he visited Nazareth and interviewed Mary, and she told him what was said about Jesus when he was a baby.

As we start to dig into this passage, looking at the text, we notice the phrase “the law of the Lord” appears five times in this short reading; and the Holy Spirit – or being led or guided by the Spirit – is mentioned three or four times depending on which edition of the Greek New Testament you’re using.

So basically the Law and the Spirit are on equal footing in this passage.

We’ll take a look at the ‘law’ side first. Luke begins by saying “when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses”.  He’s referring to Leviticus chapter 12, which describes the religious rite:

“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:  2 Speak to the people of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days… 3 On the eighth day the flesh of [the male child’s] foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Leviticus 12:1-3)

A few verses later Moses details this saying:

“When the days of her purification are completed [that is, after the seven days] whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb… for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. […] 8 If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.” (Leviticus 12:6, 8)

There was also atonement for the child that was spoken of in Exodus.  God commanded the people in the book of Exodus through Moses saying,

“The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.” (Ex. 22:29-30)

So the firstborn of any person or animal was claimed by God. The reason God gives for this law was because God gave the firstborn of the Egyptians for the life of Israel.  God explains this further in the book of Numbers when he says through Moses:

“all the firstborn are mine; when I killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both human and animal; they shall be mine. I am the LORD.” (Numbers 3:13)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve often wondered about ancient Egypt and the story of the Exodus. I’ve wondered: didn’t God care for the Egyptians? God had a legitimate grievance with Pharaoh, but all those plagues God sent hurt the people just as much as they hurt the king.

In this passage it becomes clear God cared very deeply for the Egyptians. And God wanted Israel to remember that and not forget it. So he claimed the firstborn of people and animals as his own. But in his mercy God allowed the people of Israel to redeem a firstborn child by sacrificing a lamb in his place.

Does this sound familiar?

The irony is that Jesus, being the Lamb of God, didn’t need to be redeemed. But as Jesus himself explained later on in his life:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt 5:17-18)

And later on in Jesus’ ministry the apostle Matthew records this story:

The collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?”  25 He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?”  26 When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free.  27 However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.” (Matthew 17:24-27)

Jesus in this passage declares himself exempt from the temple tax because he is the Son of the God who is being worshipped in the temple!  But he submits to the law anyway so as not to offend.

Coming back to our story of Jesus being presented in the temple, we see the law of Moses being fulfilled.  But the fulfillment of the law is not all that happened. People experienced God’s grace as well.

While Mary and Joseph were there, Simeon – whose name in Hebrew means “he who hears” – a righteous and devout man – came and spoke to them. And Luke says ‘the Holy Spirit rested on him’.  In other words he had a relationship with God, rooted in deep love, and he had been gifted with the gift of prophecy.

God told Simeon through the Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah with his own eyes. Guided by that same spirit, Simeon takes the baby Jesus in his arms, looks into the eyes of God with love, and says, “Lord, you have fulfilled your word; now let your servant depart in peace, for with my own eyes I have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people; a light to reveal you to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Simeon knew the Messiah would bring revelation – revealing God to the Gentiles, revealing God’s word and God’s heart to the Jewish people, and revealing the inner thoughts of all people who met him.

Simeon also knew that Mary would bear a heavy cost. He said to her, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel… and a sword (and the Greek here is more like ‘javelin’) – a sword will pierce your own soul also.”

Simeon’s vision and prophecy had their foundations in the experience of the Holy Spirit, and of walking with God for a lifetime.

During the same visit in the temple, the widow and prophetess Anna also recognized Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit and praised God for the coming of the Messiah. She went around telling everyone she knew that the Messiah was here!  In the ears of the priests and Pharisees her words must have sounded a bit crazy. But she spoke by the Spirit, rooted in her long relationship with God, and she praised God continually for the arrival of Jesus.

So we see in this story the law of God being obeyed and fulfilled, as well as the Spirit of God leading people to share the good news with any who will listen.

What this means for us today is that the commandments of God and the sense of being led by the Spirit of God are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they go together, they belong together: mind and heart; knowledge and passion; truth and praise.

So for those of us who love to experience God, who revel in the joy of knowing God’s presence: don’t be afraid of God’s law.  As the Psalmist says, God’s law is good.  God requires truth and holiness in the inward being, and our joy will increase as we know God better.

And for those of us who love to know God, who love to explore the heavenly logic and laws that help us understand God’s awesome mind: don’t be afraid to experience God’s heart. Welcome the Spirit, place control of your life in God’s hands. Because God is love, and those of us who love God have nothing to fear.

And for all of us: let us join with Simeon and Anna in thanking God for God’s faithfulness and for the birth of this holy child, the light to the Gentiles, who has come to save his people. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/31/17

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Luke 2:1-20  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3 All went to their own towns to be registered.  4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,  14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

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Hymn Text: O Little Town of Bethlehem

1 O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

2 For Christ is born of Mary, and, gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wond’ring love.
O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.

3 How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.

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We made it!  Christmas is here!  The busyness is over, and what’s done is done, and what’s not done is probably not going to get done at this point.

Here at Carnegie United Methodist, over the past month, we have been observing Advent by focusing on the Songs of Advent. And we have heard in these songs – and in the scriptures they were based on – how the world has been watching and waiting for the arrival of the Saviour.  How, in our dark and weary world, we long for the light and the peace that God’s Messiah will bring.

We’ve heard in these songs how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies: the promise that a Saviour would come, from the line of David, and save God’s people; and how this Saviour came to earth and was born in a manger in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. And tonight, we celebrate: the baby has arrived!

But the ancient prophecies also promised a King: and King Jesus is yet to come. So during Advent we remembered how God sent Jesus as a baby, to save us from sin; and we also remembered that Jesus will be returning one day as King, to restore the world to God’s design.

Those of us who love Jesus, who are full of joy at his coming, are citizens of that Kingdom… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tonight I wanted to finish out our series on the Songs of Advent by taking a look at the songs of Christmas. And I wish I had time to talk about all of them! But for tonight I’m going to focus on two: the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, and the song the angels sang in our scripture reading tonight.

So starting with the carol. “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.”  These words were written shortly after the end of the Civil War by a pastor serving a church in Philadelphia. Which is cool, because so many of our carols and hymns come from Europe – it’s nice to have one we can call our own, from our own country and our own state.  The pastor, whose name was Mr. Brooks, had recently traveled to the Holy Land and had been deeply moved by seeing Bethlehem. So he wrote a poem about it, and gave it to his organist to set to music.

The organist tells us the story in a letter that he wrote to a friend. He says, in part:

“As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, ‘have you written the music yet to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”? I replied, ‘No’ but said he would have it by Sunday. On Saturday night… my brain was all confused about the tune. […]But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the melody… and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony.” He adds: “Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol… would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”

…and here we are, still singing it, 149 years later.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.”  If we were to go to Bethlehem tonight, it would not be quiet and still.  There would be thousands of worshipers from around the world, from every church and denomination, crammed into the city, celebrating Christmas. And the city itself, being disputed territory, is surrounded by a wall topped with barbed wire and guarded by men with machine guns, who look at every passport at every checkpoint. Even when it’s not a holiday, these days, Bethlehem is not quiet.

But 2100 years ago – was it quiet back then? Probably not, actually – because Bethlehem had thousands of visitors there for the census. There were so many people there were no more rooms available in the guest houses. And of course there were always Roman soldiers around, with their swords and their armor.  And in the middle of all this a young couple arrives, with the woman clearly in labor – and quickly the midwives gather, and they clear a spot near the manger, and the baby is born and cries out, and all that doesn’t happen quietly either.

Back then, just like it is today, the world is in darkness and confusion and there is no peace.

But on the hillsides around Bethlehem it was quiet.  There were sheep on the hills and shepherds to look after them.  Far from the crowds of the city, peaceful among the tall grass and olive trees, the men watched over their flocks.

All of a sudden the peace of the night was shattered when a heavenly being appeared! The Bible never tells us exactly what angels look like, but going by how people reacted to them – they must look a bit fierce.  In the Bible, whenever an angel appears, people tremble, or fall to their knees, or sometimes faint dead away. So the first word out of the angel’s mouth is “Fear not!” Don’t be afraid. And something in the way the angel speaks gives courage to those who hear.

I think the angel’s word to us tonight is also “Fear not”.  Fear not, in the darkness. Fear not, in these violent times. Why?  Because…

“I bring you good news of great joy, which will be for all the people.”

Great joy. Joy is a word we hardly ever use any more, except at Christmas-time.  I think we may be in danger of losing the meaning of the word. Joy is not just happiness or pleasure – in fact some have said that happiness and pleasure are cheap imitations of joy.  The dictionary says joy is ‘felicity, bliss, delight’ – but it goes even beyond that.

The psalmist says in Psalm 30, “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Ps. 30:5)  Joy can be found in that moment when our spirits soar beyond themselves, and we lose ourselves in the moment.  Joy takes us outside ourselves.  C.S. Lewis says “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”

This joy, the angel says, will be for all people. Not just the ones in charge. Not just the rich and privileged. All people.

And the angel continues: “To you is born this day in the City of David a savior, who the Messiah, the Lord.”

God’s promises, given by Abraham and Moses and David and Isaiah and all the prophets, have been fulfilled tonight. Christ is here – in Bethlehem – the anointed one, the Promised One – the Lord and ruler over all.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host” – that is, thousands of angels, rank on rank, almost like heaven’s military.  So there’s this multitude of the heavenly host – singing – “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace among those whom he favors.”  God is above all, greater than anything, more important than anything, more majestic than anything. And this child will bring peace between God and God’s people – by conquering sin and death and giving us holiness and life. Praise be to God!

When the angels went away the shepherds did the only thing they could do: they set out for Bethlehem, and they found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, lying in a manger. And they told Mary and Joseph what the angel said.  And then they went out and told the rest of the city what the angel said. They got the city so excited that rumors of what they said even reached the palace in Jerusalem, which troubled King Herod – but that’s another story for another day.  For that night, the shepherds shared their story, then returned to their flocks rejoicing and praising God for all they had seen and heard.

O Little Town of Bethlehem concludes with these words:

“So God imparts to human hearts / the blessings of his heaven
No ear may hear his coming; but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him / still, the dear Christ enters in.”

We give gifts to each other at Christmas, in honor and in memory of the greatest gift ever given to us, on Christmas night.  And to this day, where gentle souls and open hearts make Jesus welcome, Jesus enters in, and lives with us forever.

This is the message of Christmas, and the call of Christmas.  Will we set aside all the rushing and busyness? Will we set aside the TV and the newspaper and the Facebook feed – and simply receive Jesus into our hearts?  Receive him as savior, because he will save his people from sin and death – and receive him as Lord, because he is the greatest power in the universe and the ultimate authority.

“Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”  This is my prayer for all of us tonight.

❤ Merry Christmas ❤

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Christmas Eve, 2017

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“O Come O Come Emmanuel”

Luke 1:46-55   And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;  for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

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Advent Hymn: O Come O Come Emmanuel (Methodist hymnal)

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Refrain:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

2 O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show
and cause us in her ways to go. Refrain

3 O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times once gave the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain

4 O come, thou root of Jesse’s tree,
an ensign of thy people be;
Before thee rulers silent fall;
all peoples on thy mercy call. Refrain

5 O come, thou Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
The captives from their prison free
and conquer death’s deep misery.
[original lyrics: Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode. Refrain]

6 O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
our spirits by thy justice here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Refrain

7 O come, Desire of nations, bind
all peoples in one heart and mind
From dust thou brought us forth to life;
deliver us from earthly strife. Refrain

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“Is it Christmas yet?” the kids keep asking.  Almost!  Only hours away now!

Today is the last in our series on “Songs of Advent” and it will lead us into Christmas.

In our scripture reading for this morning, though, it’s not quite Christmas yet for Jesus’ mother Mary – she is still about six months away from giving birth.  She knows she’s pregnant, and she knows she is carrying the Messiah. She knows it has been the hope of every Jewish woman down through the centuries that her son might be the one to grow up to be the Promised One, who will deliver his people. And she knows out of all the women in the long history of Israel God has chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah. She knows this child she’s carrying is literally the son of God.

Can you imagine knowing all this and not being able to tell anyone? Yes, she told Joseph, her fiancé – he didn’t believe her at first, until he was visited by an angel in a dream.  But nobody else is going to believe this story… that a poor peasant girl is pregnant, and God is the father!  And Mary needs somebody to talk to.

So she turns to her cousin, Elizabeth.  Elizabeth is also pregnant, in her old age – another miracle baby, given by God to a woman past child-bearing years.  Elizabeth will understand.  So Mary went to visit her, and when Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, the baby – who would grow up to be John the Baptist – leaped in her womb for joy. And Mary responded in these words:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…”

These babies had been a long time coming.  From the Garden of Eden, when the first couple disobeyed God, and God promised that one day the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head – through to the exodus, and the reign of King David, and the nation’s exile into Babylon, and then their return but under Greek rule – over thousands of years the prophets kept sending God’s message: one day there would come a Messiah, a prince of peace, who would free the captives and heal the sick and bind up the broken-hearted. Thousands of years the people of Israel waited.

Our Advent hymn for today talks about waiting for the messiah, both from the perspective of the Hebrew people and from the Christian perspective of waiting for Jesus to return as King.

O Come O Come Emmanuel was first written in Latin sometime around the year 750AD – which makes it one of the oldest songs in our hymnal. It has been translated into many languages, and it’s not unusual for there to be minor differences in English translations from one hymnal to another. The song was originally a chant. In fact this was one of the first chants that became known as ‘Gregorian’ chant – so if you can imagine this song was cutting edge popular music at the time. (and people were probably talking about all this new-fangled contemporary music in church even back then…)

The writer of the words of the song used a technique that’s rare in Western poetry, but fairly common in Middle Eastern poetry: the first letters of each verse, if you string them together, create a sentence. In Latin it says ero cras which translated means “I will be with you tomorrow” – a message of faith embedded into the very structure of the song.  And each verse of O Come O Come Emmanuel is meant to illustrate one of the names of Jesus. Follow with me in the hymnal, #211…

Verse 1 cries out to God to come and save God’s people. It calls on Emmanuel – which means ‘God with us’ – to come quickly, because we grieve in his absence.  Without Jesus in the world, God’s people are held captive.  In the Old Testament, God’s people were held captive by invading armies; and in both testaments, God’s people are held captive to sin and death, and unable to free themselves.

But the refrain between each verse calls on God’s people to “Rejoice!” Rejoice, because Emmanuel is coming.

Verse 2 calls Jesus the ‘Wisdom from on high’ or ‘the wisdom of God’. This is a deep, deep wisdom – deep enough to understand and create the universe (“all things, far and nigh”). And the songwriter prays to God to show God’s people the path of wisdom so we can live our lives moving in God’s direction.

Verse 3 calls Jesus ‘the Lord of might’ – the King. The one who gave the law to Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness after freeing them from slavery in Egypt. The Ten Commandments, given on Mt. Sinai, in cloud and in fire.

Verse 4 calls Jesus ‘the root of Jesse’s tree’ – Jesse being the father of King David.  This calls to mind a confrontation Jesus had with the Pharisees. In Matthew’s gospel it says:

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question:  42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.”  43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,  44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ’?  45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to give [Jesus] an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:41-46)

In calling Jesus ‘the root of Jesse’s tree,’ our hymnwriter explains what the Pharisees missed.

Verse 5 continues that thought by calling Jesus ‘the key of David’ who will be able to open the door to heaven for his people… to set free all who are captive to death and unable to save themselves. The Messiah would overcome death.

Verse 6 calls Jesus the ‘Dayspring’ – or in some translations ‘Daystar’ or ‘Morningstar’.  There are many, many names Jesus is given in Scripture but this is a name Jesus gives himself. In the book of Revelation Jesus says:

“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

I love this name for Jesus because when we look at the stars in the wee hours before sunrise, the “morning star” is the first star to appear in the eastern sky, before the sun’s rays begin to appear. It’s been said ‘the darkest hour is just before dawn’ – and in the darkest hour of night, the first light we see is the morning star. And isn’t that just like Jesus, in our darkest hour, in our weary world, he is the first light we see – and the promise of the day that is coming.

In verse 7 Jesus is called ‘Desire of the nations’ and the songwriter asks Jesus to unite the hearts of all people… to heal our divisions, and bring peace that will last.

How beautifully Mary’s song goes along with this Advent song!  A Jewish teenager living in Palestine 2100 years ago – and a poet living somewhere in western Europe 1400 years ago – share the same vision, and sing the same song. And today we gather on a continent on the opposite side of the world, to sing about the same Messiah.

Mary sings of her joy in God, who passed over all the princesses in their palaces and all the daughters of high priests and chose a peasant girl to be mother to the Promised One. She sings of God’s mercy and compassion for all who fear him.  She sings that the time of reckoning has come – when the rulers of this world – those who have satisfied themselves on the fat of the land – will be pulled off their thrones and the people who have been oppressed will be lifted up.  She sings, “God has thrown in his lot with his people, in remembrance of his mercy” – Emmanuel, God-with-us.

What both songs tell us today is that we are an Advent people.  We wait, as Mary waited, praying for the time when God’s will is done here on earth as it is in heaven.  We know, as Mary knew, that the time is coming. We know, as Mary knew, as our hymn-writer knew, that God loves God’s people and will have mercy on us and will be with us. We see, as Mary saw, the bright Morningstar on the horizon.

The world we live in is still dark. The night is still with us. And while we wait in the darkness there are people who need to see what we see – who need us to point to the Morningstar so they can have hope too… so they can join with us in celebrating the coming King. We know the time is coming… but it’s not here quite yet. We are an Advent people.

It won’t be long before we will be a Christmas people.  2100 years ago a baby was born in Bethlehem. He conquered sin and death on the cross, died and rose again,  the beginning of the end of the darkness.  He will come again, not as a baby, but as a King, the Ruler of Kings, the Commander of Lords. And on that day we will be a Christmas people.

Until then, we wait, and we sing O come, O come, Emmanuel. We praise God for what God has done so far. We pray for the needs we see in the world around us. And we look to the east, for the coming of the Morningstar.

Our story continues… tonight. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/24/17 AM

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“The Lord’s Anointed”

[The Prophet Isaiah writes:] “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

“For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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Advent Hymn of the Day: Hail to the Lord’s Anointed

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Well here we are on third Sunday of Advent already, only eight days away from Christmas! Are you ready? Are you ready for the coming of the Messiah?

Our Advent hymn for this week, and our reading from Isaiah, talk about what it’s going to mean for this world when the Messiah gets here: things are going to change in a big way.

Our scripture from Isaiah puts me in mind of some friends I knew back in seminary, who moved to Troy, NY, after graduation to serve in the inner city.  Troy is near Albany, a couple hours north of New York City, but the place is like Pittsburgh in that it has an industrial past that died out in the 1970s. But unlike Pittsburgh, Troy is only now beginning to come back from the loss of its industry.

So my friends moved to Troy, found some inexpensive housing, and then started prayer-walking the neighborhood. They met people and talked to them and listened to their hopes and their fears. People who lived there thought my friends were just a little crazy. Didn’t they know this was a dangerous place? Didn’t they know you don’t just walk up to strangers and start conversations? But my friends prayed, and listened, and shared scriptures when they could, and when they didn’t give up, and it became clear they weren’t going to move out, people started to listen to the Good News.

My friends started a Bible study group among the people they met on the streets. And they did things like organize candle-light Christmas caroling on the streets of the city, or offering a free hot dog night in the park. They took over an abandoned café and started holding church services there. They started an after-school safe-place for the kids. And then they added an “open-mic night” for budding musicians. They provided food, and friendship, and they taught the kids about God’s love… and the kids went home and told their parents about God. And now, in the inner city of Troy, a church is growing, and faith is growing, and hope is growing.

My friends named the church “Oaks of Righteousness” taken from the words of Isaiah in our scripture reading today (Isaiah 61:3). Isaiah says:

“to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.”

Isaiah chapter 61 also tells us why God is sending the Messiah.  In fact, Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 in his very first sermon, which is in Luke chapter 4.  Jesus says:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. […] Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)

So Jesus got up in the synagogue one Saturday, read a passage that everyone knew was about the Messiah, and then sat down and said, “Here I am!”  Luke says “the people were amazed…”  (By the end of Jesus’ sermon they were also about ready to throw him off a cliff, but that’s another story for another day.)

So according to Isaiah, God is sending the Messiah to:

  • bring good news to the oppressed
  • To bind up the brokenhearted
  • To proclaim liberty to captives
  • To proclaim release to prisoners
  • To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance for God
  • To comfort all who mourn, to give them:
    • flowers instead of ashes
    • oil of gladness instead of mourning
    • a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit

It’s tempting to hear these words and start thinking politics: it was tempting in Isaiah’s day, it was tempting in Jesus’ day, and it is now.  But if we try to fit God’s words into human institutions, there’s not enough room. God’s thoughts are too big for the organizations of mere mortals.  God’s words go beyond justice, to righteousness and mercy. They go beyond a fair legal system, to liberty.  They go beyond mere peace, to gladness and praise.

So to anyone who is oppressed: God says, “Good news! The time of the oppressors is over.”  To anyone who grieves, God says, “Your broken heart will be mended.”  To anyone who is in prison or in bondage God says, “You are free!”

And then Isaiah says something that may sound a little scary: “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance for our God.” We don’t like to think of God in terms of vengeance. But scripture makes clear the ‘day of the Lord’ will not be a pleasant day; it will be violent and dark. But fear not.  For those of us who have faith, who trust in God, Isaiah proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor.  And for those who don’t care what God thinks, and who oppress others and use others and do violence to others: the day of reckoning has come.

And then, Isaiah says, God’s people:

  • will be called oaks of righteousness
  • will build up the ancient ruins
  • will raise up the former devastations
  • will repair the ruined cities
  • will be called priests of the Lord, ministers of our God

‘Building up ruins’ and ‘repairing ruined cities’ in many cases may start with re-establishing the church – but it doesn’t stop there. It reaches out to rebuild the community as well.  The communities our Partnership churches find themselves in have all seen better days.  All are scarred by abandoned homes and boarded-up buildings, to say nothing of neglected families, in neighborhoods where family used to be the most important thing.  Isaiah says, in the year of the Lord’s favor, God’s people will build up the ancient ruins, repair the ruined cities; they will be called ministers of God, oaks of righteousness, and in God’s hands the fruit of their labors will bring righteousness and praise where there has been evil and despair.

The writer of our Advent hymn for today – Hail to the Lord’s Anointed – a man by the name of James Montgomery – knew this passage in Isaiah very well.  In fact he used it to encourage missions and outreach.

Montgomery was born shortly after the Revolutionary War and died shortly before the Civil War, although he probably didn’t think of it that way as he was born in Scotland.  He was a Moravian – which is related to the Brethren Church – and son of a Moravian minister. He was editor of a newspaper in England for many years.  During that time he wrote and published over 400 hymns, including a couple we still sing today: Go To Dark Gethsemane and the Christmas carol Angels from the Realms of Glory.

Montgomery was also one of the founders of the missionary movement in England in the 1800s; and it was during a missionary meeting in a Methodist church in Liverpool, England, that this poem (which became our hymn for today) was first read in public. Follow with me in the hymnal (#203)…

Montgomery writes:

“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, great David’s greater son…”

In the Old Testament, the promised Messiah was called ‘the son of David’, and Jesus is known as the ‘son of David’ because he descended from David’s lineage. And so the first line of the hymn identifies Jesus as the one who all the nations have been waiting for.

“Hail, in the time appointed, his reign on earth begun!”

Begun is the key word here.  We live in the “now and the not yet”.  Jesus has come and is on the throne, but the mopping-up operation still continues. Jesus’ reign on earth has begun… and during Advent we are reminded Jesus will come back to finish what he started.

“He comes to break oppression, to set the captive free,
To take away transgression, and rule in equity.”

…quoting straight from Isaiah. And then the songwriter assures us the good news of the Messiah is for all people everywhere: the rich and the poor, the sick and the healthy, the weak and the strong.

“He comes with succor speedy to those who suffer wrong
To help the poor and needy, and bid the weak be strong;
To give them songs for sighing, their darkness turn to light;
Whose souls, condemned and dying are precious in his sight.”

Jesus brings more than mere justice – He brings healing and loving-kindness. He brings help and encouragement. And for those who have not yet heard the good news of Jesus, who are caught and enslaved by sin, Jesus brings complete and total forgiveness and freedom and eternal life.

“He shall come down like showers upon the fruitful earth,
Love, joy, and hope, like flowers, spring in his path to birth.
Before him, on the mountains, shall peace, the herald, go
And righteousness, in fountains, from hill to valley flow.”

This third verse is mostly just praising Jesus – and it’s the right thing to do after the first two verses.  In this verse peace is described as a ‘herald’ who goes ahead of King Jesus and proclaims his arrival; and righteousness – which means not just ‘right’ but sin-free and whole in every way – righteousness will flow out over the whole earth.

Verse four…

“To him shall prayer unceasing and daily vows ascend
His kingdom still increasing, a kingdom without end”

There’s a preacher over in England these days by the name of N.T. Wright who says God’s kingdom – and Jesus as the king – is THE central message of the Christian faith.  He says it’s not so much ‘believe in Jesus so we can go to heaven’ as it is ‘believe in Jesus so we can become citizens of God’s Kingdom both in this life AND the next. And I think that’s what our hymn-writer sees too. A kingdom without end, to which we pledge our loyalty as citizens. We pray to our king for what we need, and we praise our king for who he is and what he has done.

The hymn concludes:

“The tide of time shall never his covenant remove
His name shall stand forever; that name to us is love.”

It says in the Bible “God is love,” and Jesus taught us that to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength – and to love our neighbors as ourselves – is to fulfill all the law and the prophets.  Love is God’s nature, and we find the perfect expression of that love, in Jesus.

And so in this Advent season we watch and wait, not just for the baby, but also for the King. The King of Love. And while we wait, we praise God, and we do our part in the mopping-up operation, wherever we can, as God leads us.

May the remainder of your Advent be blessed, and may you have a wonderful Christmas. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), 12/17/17

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“All the Earth is Waiting”

Advent Hymn: Toda la Tierra (All Earth is Waiting) – Alberto Taule

  1. All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
    and open furrows await the seed of God.
    All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
    it cries out for justice and searches for the truth.

    2. Thus says the prophet to those of Israel:
    ‘A virgin mother will bear Emmanuel,’
    one whose name is ‘God with us’ our Saviour shall be;
    with him hope will blossom once more within our hearts.

    3. Mountains and valleys will have to be made plain;
    open new highways, new highways for the Lord.
    He is now coming closer, so come all and see,
    and open the doorways as wide as wide can be.

    4. In lowly stable the Promised One appeared;
    yet feel his presence throughout the earth today,
    for he lives in all Christians and is with us now;
    again, with his coming he brings us liberty.

 Scripture Reading: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.  3 A voice cries: “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 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”  6 A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  7 The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on 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 news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”  10 Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” – Isaiah 40:1-11

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In the darkest days of the Civil War, a poet had a son who was serving in the army.  The poet, whose name was Longfellow, wrote a poem that later became a Christmas carol. Some of you may know it:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth good will to men

And in despair I bowed my head: “there is no peace on earth” I said
“For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men”

Then pealed the bells more wild and sweet: “God is not dead nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth good will to men”

Our Advent hymn for today is called All the Earth is Waiting – and it has roots in a similar kind of background.  Where Longfellow’s carol has a backdrop of the Civil War, our Advent hymn has a backdrop of World War II and the civil unrest in South America in the 1960s and 1970s.  All the Earth is Waiting was written by a Catholic priest named Taulè, who lived in Spain but was educated in Italy just after WWII.  So he lived through WWII, and he had personal experience of life during wartime. For those of us who have parents or grandparents who lived through WWII (and some here may still remember WWII) you know it became a defining moment for that generation. It effected their lives from that point forward. And the same is true of these poets.

Neither Longfellow nor Taulè were personally involved in the wars, but they had deep relationships with those who were.  And in both cases the poets, in their songs, grieve the evil they see in the world: the hate, wrongdoing, mockery of good, violence, injustice, bondage, and despair.  And in both cases the poets find their hope in God.

Sounds like songs for our time, don’t they?

Taulè takes many of the ideas in his hymn from Isaiah 40, which is our lectionary reading for this morning. And Isaiah’s words are exactly what the poets were longing to hear in those violent days. Isaiah writes:

“Comfort, comfort my people” says your God. “Speak comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, her iniquity is pardoned.” A voice cries in the wilderness: “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

And when the mouth of the Lord speaks, things happen. Remember Genesis: God says, “Let there be light” and light happens.

This is what the hearts of our poets are crying out for. And is this not the message our world needs to hear, and longs to hear?

Isaiah continues:

A voice says: “Cry!” and I answer, “what shall I cry?”  All flesh is grass and all its goodness like the flower of the field. The grass dries, the flower falls, because the spirit of the Lord blows on it. Surely the people are grass. The grass dries, the flower falls, but the word of the Lord stands forever.

Go up onto a high mountain, O Zion, bringing good tidings; lift your voice without fear and say to the cities of Judah: “Behold your God!”  Behold – the Lord God comes with a strong arm to rule. His wages are with him and his recompense before him. 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 those with young.”

This passage in Isaiah is not all sweetness and light. It speaks of the end of the world as we know it. It speaks of a time when people will be rewarded for what they have done, for good or for evil. And then the new world begins, where God will ‘gather the lambs in his arms’.

So the coming of the Christ Child is the beginning of the end for the powers of this world. And the powers of this world know it. That’s why, when Jesus was born, King Herod wanted so badly to put an end to this baby in the manger – why, when the wise men returned to their country without telling Herod where Jesus was, Herod ordered the slaughter of all baby boys under the age of two. The powers of this world don’t like being told they’re only temporary and their replacement has arrived!

With this prophecy in mind, then, we turn to our song for today. Verse one opens with the words: “All the earth is waiting” – and it sure is. As Paul writes in Romans:

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;  23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves… while we wait for adoption…” (Rom. 8:22-23)

All the earth is waiting. This is the definition of Advent: waiting for the Christ Child to arrive, and waiting for King Jesus to return. Advent looks forward to both the birth of the baby and the return of the King.

“…waiting to see the Promised One…”  “Open furrows await the seed of God”

The poet takes his word-pictures from the farmlands of Spain and South America, as well as from Jesus’ parable about the seed and the various types of soil it might land in. The seed is the Word of God – that is, Jesus. The open furrows are the hearts of people who prepare for the arrival of Jesus by waiting and watching and praying.

The song continues:

“All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
It cries out for justice and searches for truth”

If these words sound like something from the protests of the late 1960s – they are.  But we can still find meaning in these words for our own time.  Our world is indeed struggling. We see this on the news every day, even on Facebook.  Our world is bound – as Pastor Matt said in his letter this month, when he wrote: “all around us we see folks in slavery to greed, to lust, to pride, to violence, to anxiety, to alcohol or other drugs, and most sadly, to despair.”  With the poet our hearts long for freedom and a better world.

And so we go on to verse two. “The prophet says to those of Israel” – that is, to God’s people – “a virgin will bear Emmanuel” – which means, ‘God with us’.  This verse is a direct quote from Isaiah 7:14 where Isaiah says:

“the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”

In verse three the songwriter turns back to Isaiah 40, where he writes:

“Mountains and valleys will have to be made plain;
open new highways, new highways for the Lord”

This is a quotation from both Isaiah 40:3-5 and from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  For example, in Matthew 3:1-3 Matthew writes:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,  2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

So Matthew quotes Isaiah 40, and so do Mark and Luke. What these passages make clear is that John the Baptist’s ministry is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: John is the one Isaiah predicted whose voice would cry out in the wilderness. And the raising of valleys and the lowering of mountains is a metaphor that stands for repentance.

Jesus’ mother, Mary, sings about the same thing in Luke 1 in the Magnificat, when she says:

“he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

There’s a double meaning here.  If we look at John the Baptist’s message, which is a message of repentance – he says “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” – this is a spiritual interpretation of valleys being lifted and the mountains being lowered.  Those who know they are sinners, who are ‘lowly of heart’ as Isaiah would say, who are ‘meek’ and ‘poor in spirit’ as Jesus would say – will repent of the sins of self-reproach and fear, and will be forgiven and will be lifted up.  And those who know they are sinners, who have been puffed up or proud or rude, will confess their sins and will be forgiven, and will be permitted to return to their proper place. (And the ground becomes level.)

The second meaning of the double meaning is found in Mary’s message: and that is repentance in society. The needs of the poor will one day be filled; and wealth of the great ones will one day come to nothing. (And the ground becomes level)

I do want to warn against one mistake that crops up sometimes in the interpretation of this hymn. The wording the songwriter uses in verse three – for example, “Mountains and valleys will have to be made plain…” – may lead people to believe we need to get busy lowering mountains and raising valleys. But it is not our job to usher in the second coming of Christ.

This error in thinking began in the middle of the previous century, where there were two equal and opposite social movements, one on the left and one on the right (echoes of which are still with us today), that made this mistake.  Both were built on what were originally Biblical principles, but both became movements that were willing to use political power and force if necessary to achieve their goals. Both are mistaken because they try to bring in God’s kingdom through human power. In other words, they believed if we properly set the stage by the perfection of our society, then Jesus will have to return. And that is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches this world will continue to be a mess until Jesus comes back. God’s kingdom will arrive in God’s timing, by God’s power, in God’s way. It’s not our job to remake the mountains and the valleys.

That said, Isaiah’s words still stand. There will come a time when the high will be lowered and the low lifted up and the crooked made straight and the rough made smooth, and the glory of the Lord will be revealed.

Which takes us back to our hymn, in verse four: “In a lowly stable the Promised One appeared” – this is the heart of Christmas! God so loved the world that he gave us his Son. Jesus left the glories of heaven to become one of us, to live and die just like us, to experience all the joys and sorrows of life here on earth, God with us, and we still feel his power and presence in the world today.

And as the song says, God lives in all Christians through the power of the Holy Spirit.  But that’s almost beside the point, because it’s not primarily through us that God sets the world free. We have the privilege of sharing in the work of heaven: we do our part to care for others and set people free, because as children of God, we are learning to become more and more like our heavenly Parent. But Jesus is the one who sets us free from captivity to sin and death.

Our Advent song for today is not an easy song to sing. It talks about hardship and heartbreak, captivity and injustice, and it reminds us that our world is a world of great need.  It calls us to work to meet those needs. But I think the songwriter’s hope in writing this hymn was that we would find in it a sense of expectation, that we would look forward to the Promised One who is ‘God with us’ – who comes in the virgin’s womb, who comes in the stable, who comes on earth today, who comes in all Christians, and who is with us now; and that we would see Jesus as a bringer of liberty, and justice, and truth. “God is not dead, nor does He sleep.”

So during this season of Advent, let’s prepare for the coming of our Lord Jesus by repenting of sin – and not ours only, but also the sins we see in the world around us. When we read the newspaper, or watch TV, we can bring what we see to God in prayer, and pray for the day when the world will be set free from captivity to sin.

We live in the ‘now and the not yet’. Jesus has come, Jesus has won the victory, and we are set free, but the mopping-up operation isn’t over yet.  So be watchful while we wait. Thank God for what He has already done, and thank God for what is yet to come… and keep watch, because the King is coming. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/10/17

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[Jesus said] “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;  15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.  16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.  17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.  18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.  19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.  20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’  21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’  23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;  25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.  28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” – Matthew 25:14-30

[The apostle Paul writes:] “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.  2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!  4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief;  5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.  6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober;  7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.  8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.  9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,  10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.  11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” – I Thessalonians 5:1-11

 

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Well today is kind of a weird Sunday. We’re at the end of Fall but not quite at Christmas. Next Sunday we celebrate Christ the King and the week after that Advent starts. This week is Thanksgiving, and that’s sort of today’s theme, but there are no turkeys in Scripture, and our readings for today talk about Jesus coming back to earth at the end of time, which is usually something we hear about in Advent.

So we could consider today a sneak preview of Advent.

So at this time of year, when the days are getting shorter and the weather is getting colder, I think a message of encouragement will be a good thing. And of the two readings for today, Paul’s words in I Thessalonians are more encouraging, so I’m going to leave Paul for last, and we’ll start with the story from Matthew.

Our reading in Matthew is a familiar parable. Jesus told this story to the disciples a day or two before he died on the cross, so in a sense, these are a dying man’s last words. (There are actually three parables in Matthew 25, and together they make up Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples – and to us – on how to live a life of faith when Jesus is no longer here on earth in the flesh.)

Just to kind of fill in the rest of the chapter briefly – the first parable is the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, five of whom took extra oil with them and five of whom did not – and when the groom (who was late) finally arrived, the five who weren’t ready ran out of oil, and had to go get more, and they ended up being locked out of the wedding feast. The moral of the story being, stay awake and be prepared.

The third parable in the chapter is the story of the lambs and the goats on judgement day. The King says to the lambs on his right hand “welcome into my Father’s kingdom – for I was hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and in prison and you took care of me…”.  And then he says to the goats on his left, “depart from me, evildoers, because you didn’t do these things.”  And both the sheep and the goats reply, “when did we ever do this (or not do this) for you?”  And Jesus answers, “just as you did it to one of the least of these (or didn’t do it), you did it (or didn’t do it) to me.”

Both stories tell us that what we do with our lives matters.  Yes, we are saved by grace through faith.  Salvation is totally a gift from God; but as Martin Luther pointed out, faith without works is dead.  If we really believe, what we believe in will show up in how we live.

Today’s parable about three servants and their talents reinforces this point. So turning to the story…

There’s a rich man – a very rich man – who is going away on a long journey. While he’s away he wants his servants to take over management of what he owns. The rich man of course represents God, and the servants represent us – not just us present here today, but all people.

As for the talents – in Jesus’ day a talent was a measure of weight that was used to weigh things like gold or silver or bronze.  We don’t know exactly how much a talent was worth (depending on which book you read, a talent may have been worth anywhere from tens of thousands to 1.5 million), but the point is: each servant was given, basically, a lifetime’s wages. And that amount would be somewhat different for each person, just like it is for us.

The talents, then, represent what God has given us: our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our souls, our families, our abilities, all the things that make up who we are. These gifts are all God’s, but he hands over to our care.  He gives one servant five talents, another two talents, another one talent.

Is God playing favorites here? No. God knows each person, and gives what’s appropriate to each person.  Having more talents doesn’t make someone a better person – it just means that person has more work to earn!  And having fewer talents doesn’t mean a person’s efforts are less important. Remember the story of the widow’s mite: Jesus said the poor widow who gave two pennies gave more than anyone else because she gave all she had.  So it’s not about how many talents we have – it’s what we do with what we’ve been given.

So the first and second servant go out and trade with their master’s talents, and they double what they’ve been given: the one with five talents makes five more, and the one with two makes two more.  But the third servant… I’m going to come back to him in a moment.

Up to this point the story reminds me of Shark Tank on TV. Shark Tank is a reality show about rich investors (called “Sharks”) and average people like you and me who go to the Sharks with business proposals. And if the ideas are good a Shark will invest, giving the business owner money and advice on growing their business, and in a matter of years (or sometimes just months) an investment of a few hundred thousand dollars turns into millions. And both the Shark and the business owner are thrilled!

Of course God doesn’t need money, but God is an investor.  God invests in us!  And our job is like those business owners on Shark Tank: to take the talents God gives us, and the guidance God gives us, and make a profit with it.

So what would a profit look like in the kingdom of God?  It could take on many forms. Winning souls for Jesus, perhaps. Providing food and clothing to people after hurricanes. Building friendships between people from different countries. Bringing justice into an unjust situation. Welcoming strangers. Could be any number of things. Through prayer God guides us in investing the talents we have been given.

And imagine the joy of standing before God on that day and saying, “Look, you gave me these gifts and I made more!” And hearing God say, “well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master!”  No matter how many talents we’ve been given, the reward is the same: “Well done!”

So what’s up with the guy with the one talent? I could never figure out where he’s coming from.  Look at the things he says to God: “Master, I knew that you were a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” (Matt 25:24-25)

Where does he get this? How does his brain get to the point of saying to God, “you’re a hard man” when God is neither hard nor a man?

For those of us who know God, this guy sounds completely out in left field. So where are his words coming from?  One theologian makes a good point when he says (paraphrasing) “one way or another, every stubborn sinner ends up blaming his sins on God.” In other words, what the man is saying is what psychologists would call denial and projection: looking at someone else and seeing a reflection of himself instead of what’s really in front of him.

So servant number three blames God for his own shortcomings, insults and falsely accuses God to his face, and then hands him one lousy coin covered with dirt. Is it any surprise the master says, “you wicked and lazy servant! The least you could have done was earn some interest! Take away his talent and give it to the one with ten, and throw him out into the darkness!”

Bottom line, we do not want to be this guy. We want to see God as God is: the loving Lord, the gracious God, the source of all good things, who wants us to do well and wants us to enter into the joy of our master.

And at this point, then, we turn to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.  Paul and his hearers would likely have been familiar with this story Jesus told here.  And Paul picks up the theme, saying, “you know the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”  Paul writes, “When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them” (I Thess 5:3).  (I think the “they” Paul is talking about are those guys with the one talent. “They” are false prophets.)

Paul continues: “But you, beloved, are not in darkness” (I Thess 5:4)  Darkness may represent lostness, confusion, lack of direction, lack of meaning, lack of purpose, lack of knowledge, lack of connectedness with God. Darkness is where people hide when they don’t want to be seen.  And darkness is where the guy with one talent ends up living.

But Paul says, “you belong to the day.”( v. 8)  Therefore, he says, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (I Thess 5:8)

Look at that equipment for a moment: faith and love, as a breastplate, to protect our hearts… and the hope of salvation as a helmet to protect our minds. And faith, hope, and love, these three (the greatest of which is love) which will direct us in investing our talents.

Paul adds, “so awake or asleep we may live with him.” (I Thess 5:10)

Therefore encourage each other. Encourage each other to good works, to investing talents wisely, to investing ourselves in God’s kingdom.  And likewise encourage the church to good works, and to faith and hope and love.

And I would add, when you see something, say something.  If you see someone using their talents, or see the church using its talents, say so.  Spread the good news! Give thanks to God, and give thanks to the people involved.

See… I knew we’d get around to Thanksgiving somehow.  Thanks be to God, who gives us the talents, and who gives us the hope and the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip, 11/19/17

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