Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.  2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.  3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.  4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.  5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.  6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.” – Isaiah 60:1-6

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,  2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;  4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

“Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. –  Matthew 2:1-12

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Happy New Year! And may this year be better than the last one!

Our Close to Home Advent journey wraps up today, and I like that it extends to the end of the Christmas season and includes the Wise Men and the Twelve Days of Christmas. So many times our seasonal studies just kind of leave us in that time of ‘Advent waiting’ but the story goes on! So I’m glad we’re continuing this week.

Sabbath

On the Sabbath

I’m going to get to the Wise Men in just a moment. But before I do, there’s one thing in the Close to Home series that we haven’t mentioned yet: the Saturday pages. Did you all notice them? Every Saturday Close to Home recommended that we observe the Sabbath in some way. They suggested making a commitment to do at least one of the following: “Go for a walk outside – Sit quietly and meditate – Plant something – Spend time with a friend or loved one – Explore a new area of your town or city – Cook or bake something – Do yoga or exercise in a way that feels good for your body – Write and mail a letter to someone you haven’t talked to in a while – Organize or redesign an area in your home – Draw or create something – Dance or play music – Write a poem or a song – Watch a movie – Take a nap – Read a book.”

Just out of curiosity: how many people here today actually tried doing one of these on at least one Saturday during Advent? [Author’s note: there were no hands raised at either service.]

To be honest I wasn’t expecting to see a whole lot of hands, because keeping Sabbath is something we’ve kind of forgotten about in our culture. It used to be, a long time ago, that Sunday was everybody’s day off – but that changed around 50 years ago or so. And I’m not saying I want the “blue laws” back.

But for the faithful, Sabbath-keeping is one of the Ten Commandments, right up there with respecting parents, and not killing, and not stealing, and not lying. So if it’s that serious to God, why do we think this one commandment can be ignored?

The thing is, when we keep Sabbath, we begin to become – from the inside – the kind of people who wouldn’t dream of breaking any of the other nine commandments. We become people more in tune with God’s kingdom.

When God gave us the Sabbath God knew we needed it. God knew we needed rest, relaxation, and time for pure enjoyment of God’s creation. God knew if we deprived ourselves of these things, we would end up with a warped view of the world and our place in it, which is the first step in the direction of injustice and violence.

sabb2

Christians don’t necessarily observe Sabbath the same way Jewish people do, but I think we can learn from and borrow some ideas from Jewish practices. In Judaism, Sabbath is observed for 24 hours every week: from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Sabbath begins with lighting candles, and praying a prayer that begins “Blessed art thou O Lord our God, King of the universe…” and then goes on to ask blessing on each member of the family at the dinner table. Those of you who have seen the movie Fiddler on the Roof have seen what the Sabbath meal looks like. It is traditionally the best meal of the week, made with the finest ingredients. And then after dinner the family has time to spend together, catching up with each other, playing games together, playing music if they choose to.

There are long lists of things Jewish believers can’t do on the Sabbath, and as a Christian I don’t get tangled up in these regulations, but I do sometimes use them as guidelines. For example: one rule says you may not carry anything across the threshold of the house on the Sabbath. This is meant to prevent people doing work on the Sabbath; I personally interpret this to mean something along the lines of: don’t go grocery shopping on the Sabbath. (In fact I find it helpful not to shop at all, or do anything involving money, on the Sabbath.)

Another rule says ‘don’t turn anything on or off during the Sabbath’. For Jewish people who observe strictly this includes TVs, cell phones, computers…! Personally I can’t go that far, but I do say “no work may be done on the computer or on the cell phone on the Sabbath”.

All this may sound a little strange… and I’ll admit it’s different. But I can also tell you it is such a joy! I look forward to the Sabbath every week, like it’s a mini-vacation. And why should Sabbath feel strange if God commands it? Jewish theology tells us the Sabbath is meant to be a foretaste of heaven – a hint of what our eternal rest will be like. Is there anything more important in this life than preparing for eternity?

So I cannot recommend strongly enough keeping the Sabbath, as the Lord leads us to. It’s a blessing that shouldn’t be missed!

wise men

On The Wise Men

Having said all of that, our theme for today is “Home By Another Way” and it focuses on the Wise Men.

Isaiah predicted that “Nations shall come to your light [that is, Israel’s light] and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Is 60:3) And a few verses later Isaiah says, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.” (v 6) This prophecy is fulfilled in the actions of these travelers from the east.

So who were these men? Were they royalty? What did they know and how did they learn about Jesus?

Out of all the Gospel writers, only Matthew mentions the Wise Men. Matthew doesn’t say anything about there being three kings – the number three is guessed at from the number of gifts given. And Matthew also doesn’t say anything about kings – the concept of royalty comes from the Isaiah prophecy. Most likely the wise men were traveling with a fairly large entourage; they were most likely leaders in their society; and most likely they were from their country’s priestly caste than the royal caste. They were specialists in astrology and other works that we today might call “magic”. What’s cool is that God reached out to them in a way that they would understand. They knew astrology: so God gave them a message in the stars. God met them where they were, and brought them to where God was; and that’s exactly what God does for each of us.

We also know the Wise Men did not arrive at the manger on the same night as the shepherds. Assuming the Wise Men saw the star when Jesus was born, they would have talked about it, planned a trip, packed, and traveled on camel-back for 1000 miles. This probably took months, possibly years.

It’s believed that Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem after Jesus was born, at least until He was presented in the Temple and until the time of Mary’s purification was complete, which makes a lot of sense because it was a long journey from Bethlehem to Nazareth and back. Scripture tells us that when the Wise Men arrived, they found Mary and Jesus in a house – which also makes sense, because people who had been there for the census would have gone home and now there were places to stay.

When the Wise Men came to Herod, Herod questioned them closely about when the star appeared. King Herod was famous in the ancient world for being paranoid and brutal: he had even had some of his own children killed because he was afraid they would steal his throne. So when Herod “inquired” about when the star appeared, and when and where the Messiah was to be born, he was trying to “ascertain exactly” – and not with the purpose of worshiping Jesus.

So when the Wise Men followed God’s instructions to go home by another road, Herod – in his paranoia and fury – ordered all the male babies in the Bethlehem region two years old and under to be killed. Can you imagine being a parent in Bethlehem in those days? Can you imagine being one of Herod’s soldiers, and having to carry out that order? Matthew only mentions the children very briefly; but they have been remembered by the church ever since. Their ‘saint day’ is December 28, the day of the Holy Innocents, and they are considered to be the first Christian martyrs.

So Jesus might have been a year old, maybe as old as two, when the Wise Men arrived.  He survived because God warned Joseph to take his family to Egypt before Herod gave his horrible order.

Before we leave this scene let me point out a contrast between the people who should have been welcoming the Messiah and the foreigners who found him. God’s people – Herod, the scribes, the Pharisees – should have been thrilled to hear that the Messiah was finally coming in their lifetime. They had been watching and waiting for hundreds of years! But instead they focused on fear, oppression, and murder. Meanwhile, people who had never read the Old Testament, who knew little about the God of Israel, came to see Jesus with an attitude of acceptance, love, justice, and worship. Jesus’ whole life would be like this: he would be loved by foreigners – Samaritans and Syrophoenicians and others; and he would be killed by the leaders of his own people.

Regarding the gifts the Wise Men brought: First I found it interesting that the Greek Bible mentions the Wise Men having huge treasure chests containing all kinds of gifts fit for both a king and God. These chests in Greek are called thesauri – which is the word we get thesaurus from (a ‘treasure chest of words’ so to speak). And out of these thesauri the Wise Men presented to Jesus:

  • Gold – for a King
  • Incense – representing prayer, for a God
  • Myrrh – a perfume often used in embalming or at funerals

gifts

Having presented these gifts to Jesus, and having greeted Mary and Joseph, and having shared the story of their journey, the Wise Men headed home. But having been warned in a dream, they did not go back by way of Jerusalem or Herod. They went home another way, by another road. Which other road is (looking at a map) a little puzzling, and it’s a question Google can’t answer; but one thing becomes clear: obeying God’s command made their long journey considerably longer.

So coming back to the close of our Close to Home journey: Where does this leave us? Do we need, or want, to go home by another way?

Quite honestly in this day and age it’s a challenge just to get home. It’s easy to lose sight of which direction our heavenly home is. So as far as heading home by another way, I would say we might do this under the following conditions:

  • We are certain that God is God: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God and Father of Jesus. There is no other God, and Jesus is the only way.
  • If God tells us to go another way. The Wise Men were “warned by a dream to go home another way”. If we receive heavenly direction: a clear, unmistakable message from God, then we need to follow it.
    • If God does tell us to travel a different road, this new road might easily:
      1. add mileage
      2. not make sense to us at the time
      3. be a matter of life and death
  • We do not, however, want to go home another way if:
    1. God isn’t directing it, or if we’re not clear on God’s direction
    2. If we’re just craving novelty – we’re getting bored and want to try something new
    3. If a course change would lead us away from God or into breaking God’s commandments

The wisdom of the Wise Men is that they chose to obey God rather than human authority – which is something the early disciples also did in the book of Acts (Acts 5:29). The story of the Wise Men teaches us that Jesus is THE true King. The Wise Men could have conspired with King Herod; they could have enriched themselves by betraying Jesus; but they knew Jesus was the greater King and deserved the greater loyalty. It was worth more to the Wise Men to know the baby Jesus than to know King Herod.

Think for a moment: if we were given a choice between going to dinner at the White House or presenting a gift to a poor woman’s baby – which would we choose? The Wise Men chose wisely.

The wisdom of the Wise Men is also found in that they studied together, traveled together, worshipped together, and interpreted God’s signs and God’s dreams together. They were moving together. They were of one heart and mind.

The Wise Men traveled over 1000 miles to meet Jesus. They risked their lives to meet Jesus. And when they finally met Jesus, they were full of joy. They had found what the one they were looking for. They had found the one whose birth the stars announced. They were overjoyed “with exceeding great joy” Matthew says.

The Wise Men challenge us to be willing to risk much; to be willing to make this baby king more important than all the kings and rulers of this world. The Wise Men challenge us to put Jesus first in every way and over every thing. Let’s take this wisdom into the New Year. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, January 2, 2022

Read Full Post »

          “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined.  3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.  4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.  5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” – Isaiah 9:2-7

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

          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. – Luke 2:1-20

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Merry Christmas!!!  On Christmas Eve I always feel like I’m skidding in, breathless, like a baseball player sliding into home plate. But we made it!

For those who are visiting tonight: for the past month we as a congregation have been working our way through an Advent/Christmas series called Close to Home.  This evening the theme of the lesson is “Invited Home” – so even if this isn’t your usual church home, you are most welcome here.

We gather again on Christmas Eve to hear the familiar and much-loved story of the birth of Jesus: to hear about Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds and the angels, and the fact that there was no room for them in the inn, so Jesus had to be laid in a manger.

Our scripture reading tonight from Isaiah tells us who this baby really is. Isaiah says:

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” (Is. 9:6-7)

That’s a pretty tall order for a newborn baby! But in case we should doubt it, the angels appear to the shepherds and enhance Isaiah’s words with their own words. They say: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

This isn’t just one more cute little baby in a world full of cute babies. This is God Himself!

It’s a lot to take in – but the shepherds got it. They caught on right away and ran to where Mary and Joseph were, to see for themselves. And Mary pondered everything in her heart, as she nursed her baby boy.

We also are invited to enter in, to gaze at this amazing sight and take it all in. This is Christmas!

Just out of curiosity, as I was getting ready for tonight’s service, I decided to Google “Christmas Eve” to find out what non-churchgoing people are talking about regarding Christmas – what’s the buzz?

The most-asked question about Christmas on Google was: “what should I wear on Christmas Eve?” When I entered that question into Google, Google gave me 270 million web pages as a result. More than that actually: Google basically said “here’s the first 270 million, click here if you want more…”

What should I wear on Christmas Eve?

Here’s what I decided to wear. This is one of those things that… you know how you go shopping for somebody else and you end up buying something for yourself? This is one of those things. I got these for my sister-in-law and I got two for me. Check it out.

Socks

“Master has given Dobby a sock. Dobby is free.”

Any Harry Potter fans here tonight will know what this means. And for the rest of you (who are probably tired of hearing about Harry Potter) I promise I will move on quickly.  But this line in the movie is one of those moments. It gets you *right here*. In short, the story is this:

In the wizarding world, rich and powerful wizards sometimes have “house elves” who are basically slaves and are very badly treated. One house elf named Dobby becomes friends with Harry Potter, and one day Harry asks him why he always wears the same filthy outfit. And Dobby explains that it is the mark of the house elf – the slave. If his master ever gives him clean clothes, he will be free.

So Harry arranges to have Dobby’s master – without knowing it – hand Dobby a sock hidden in a book. When Harry whispers “open it”, Dobby sees the sock and says, “Master has given Dobby a sock. Master has presented Dobby with clothes. Dobby is free!” (I once saw this in a movie house filled with 5,000 people – and at that moment in the film all 5,000 people leaped to their feet and started cheering. The slave has been set free!)

Watch the scene here.

That’s what we’re seeing tonight in the manger. All of us, human beings, who are slaves to sin, who cannot be perfect no matter how hard we try, have just been set free.  Tonight is our moment! This is the night when we can, spiritually speaking, take off the filthy rags we’ve been wearing and put on clean clothes. This is the night when we are welcomed home – not as visitors but as family.

So going back to the question of what to wear on Christmas Eve: for those who are into fashion, the question is actually not “what are you wearing?” but “Who are you wearing?” (“I’m wearing Gucci, I’m wearing Prada, I’m wearing Stella McCartney…”)

Speaking as someone who has no fashion sense at all, and who was raised on science fiction, the question “who are you wearing?” sounds a little weird. It reminds me of the movie Men In Black, where an alien spends most of the movie wearing an Edgar suit. But what the question really means is “Who is the designer?”

On this holy night, Jesus might have said, “I’m wearing humanity.”  Jesus, who was fully God, co-creator of the universe, King of kings and Lord of lords, put all that aside in order to put on – and become – a human being: limited as we are, except without sin.

Why would Jesus do this? To make it possible for us to wear God.

The apostle Paul explains in Romans chapter 13. In this chapter Paul looks around at the world (which was as much a mess back then as it is now) and he says:

“You know what time it is, that now is the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ… (Romans 13:11-14)

So who are we wearing this Christmas? Are we wearing something the boss said this past week? Are we wearing an argument with a family member? Wouldn’t it be better to put away the filthy rags of a house elf and put on clean clothes and be free?

Some people tonight may be wearing sadness or grief in this holy season. If this is the case, know you are not alone; Jesus has an outfit a lot like yours.

The fact that God has put on humanity and come to the manger makes it possible for us, by faith, to put on Christ and become children of God.

Glory

So who do we want to wear this Christmas and into the coming year?

Why not wear the best?  AMEN

Preached at Carnegie UMC and Fairhaven UMC, Christmas Eve 2021

Read Full Post »

          “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.  3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.  4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;  5 and he shall be the one of peace.” – Micah 5:25
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,  40 where she entered the house of Zechariah 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 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

          46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,  47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;  49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  51 He has shown strength with his arm; 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.  54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,  55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” – Luke 1:39-55

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

We have arrived at the last and final week of Advent! This morning our Advent candle is the candle of Love, and our Close to Home series focuses on “Seeking Sanctuary”. These two things are related, but a person could easily speak for a half-hour on each subject, and I hope to cover both in less time – so hold onto your hats!

Advent 4

I’m going to start with Love today because I’ve preached on love before so we just need a brief overview. First Corinthians 13 – that great chapter on love – tells us what God’s love is like, and gives us something to aim for in our own relationships. The apostle Paul writes those unforgettable words: “love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; love is not irritable or resentful; love does not rejoice in the wrong but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails… In the end only three things remain: faith, hope, and love: and the greatest of these is love.”

I believe if we could live out this one chapter – put these words into practice for an entire lifetime – we would fulfill all the requirements of God’s law and then some. Of course this is impossible for imperfect people, but it’s a goal to shoot for. Besides, it’s a lot easier to memorize I Corinthians 13 than the entire book of Deuteronomy!

This morning we want to remember that God loves each one of us like that. And that’s where our faith really begins.

As we turn to look at sanctuary, we immediately see that sanctuary is – or can be – an expression of love. The Close to Home devotional invites us to think of sanctuary as a form of love: sanctuary defined as a place of quiet, of safety, of rest, a safe haven. And as the devotional says, “Sanctuary is not only a place, it is also people who say “here I am – I’m here for you.””

Taking these two words, then – love and sanctuary – let’s turn to our scripture readings. In Luke’s gospel we see Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, welcoming her relative Mary into her home. Luke tells us that Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit” – which was a rare thing before the coming of the Holy Spirit in the second chapter of Acts. This puts Elizabeth in the ranks of the prophets.

As we listen to what Elizabeth is saying, bear in mind she is speaking before Mary speaks, and Mary did not call ahead ­or email ahead to tell Elizabeth she was coming. Elizabeth didn’t even know Mary was pregnant. But in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth calls Mary blessed, the mother of our Lord, and says her own baby John is leaping for joy in her womb at hearing the voice of the Mother of the Messiah. And she blesses Mary for believing and trusting what God told her would happen. Then Elizabeth, who loves Mary dearly, gives sanctuary to her young, unmarried, pregnant relative.

Eliz and Mary

As we listen to this story, we may ask “what can we be doing?” The answer to that varies from person to person. But Mary gives us some suggestions when she says: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” In any time and in any place we have faith in God, we can praise God, and we can rejoice in all that God has done.

Moving now into the concept of sanctuary: where it comes to sanctuary, in the words of CS Lewis, this morning I’d like to take us “further up and further in” – starting with a solid definition of the word ‘sanctuary’ and a short history of how it has been used.

The dictionary offers four definitions of the word ‘sanctuary’:  (1) a place of refuge or safety… (2) a place where one is protected (3) a holy place (4) the… holiest part of a church; the altar or high altar. The word ‘sanctuary’ comes from the Latin word sanctus which means holy… or from the Latin word sanctuariam which means sacred place. So the original meaning of the word sanctuary is deeply rooted in the holiness of God.

Seeking sanctuary is something people have done almost for as long as we have written history. Back in the Middle Ages a church’s sanctuary – just like the room we’re sitting in now – was a sacred place where someone accused of breaking the law could go to request sanctuary and mercy.

This practice had its roots in the book of Leviticus [chapter 26]. Back in ancient Israel, when the Israelites moved into the Promised Land and divided the land up between the twelve tribes, God commanded the Israelites to give the Levites – the priestly tribe – six cities to use as cities of refuge – where, if a person accidentally killed someone, they could run to a city of refuge and be safe from capital punishment (which was the law of the land at the time). Even in ancient Israel, as today, the courts recognized a difference between murder (which is deliberate) and manslaughter (which is accidental).

So God created cities of refuge. And in the Middle Ages the churches picked up on this. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says: “Historically, churches have been places where fugitives could seek at least temporary protection from the law. In Anglo-Saxon England [925AD and earlier] churches and churchyards provided 40 days of immunity, and neither the sheriffs nor the army would enter…”

The United States traditionally has had similar practices, not written into law, but respected as tradition. If someone claims sanctuary in a church, most government authorities in America will not challenge the church’s jurisdiction. For this reason, in the 1800s churches were often stops on the Underground Railroad. In the 1980s churches gave sanctuary to people from Central America who were fleeing the wars there.

And in recent years many churches have given sanctuary to people whose lives are in danger and are seeking asylum but have not yet been legally recognized. Just a few of the churches who provided sanctuary in this year of 2021 – and this list comes from the Washington Post and/or Christianity Today (I only had time to check two sources – there were more available):

  • Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Charlottesville
  • The First Unitarian Church of Denver
  • Unitarian Society of Northampton (Mass)
  • Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh
  • First English Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio
  • New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia

Flores Sanctuary 1st UMC PHilly.jpg

(and here’s another: First United Methodist Church, Arch St., Philadelphia – credit WHYY)

Please understand: when I talk about churches giving sanctuary, this is not about politics. This is about obeying God’s word to take care of strangers and people in need. The church’s practice of giving sanctuary is ancient and time-honored and has its roots in the Old Testament.

By way of illustration I wanted to share with you something that happened a few years ago not far from here. In fact some of you may be aware of it. [Church member] KS was involved, and I’m sharing this with her knowledge and permission.

There was a family who worked and went to school locally: a mom, dad, and three kids, with a fourth one on the way. They were from Central America, and they were here in the country legally. They were in the process of becoming permanent residents and were working to become citizens. The Dad was self-employed, and the mom worked in the family business, and the kids were doing great in school – the older kids often got their pictures in the local school magazine for their schoolwork. One of the younger kids was in K’s preschool class, and the mother was in my English as a Second Language class, and that’s how we all got to know each other. And the mom used to say to me – she’d point to her belly – and she would say “I have an American citizen!” She was so proud to know that her baby, the child who would be born here, would be American (which by the way is one of my favorite laws in our country: anybody who exits the womb on American soil is automatically an American citizen).

One day K called me to say that the Dad of the family had been arrested and taken away by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). They had cuffed him and perp-walked him out of the house into their car in front of all the children – who were understandably distraught – and they took him to a facility for foreign prisoners four hours away.

I could hardly believe what K was telling me. This family are such good people, and they are better at being citizens than a lot of citizens I know! Of course I asked what happened and what we could do.

As the facts became known over the course of a few days, it became clear that the family’s immigration attorney had dropped a ball. I don’t know if it was criminal or just stupidity, but the bottom line was he had failed to file some required paperwork by a given deadline, and as a result the family – literally overnight – had gone from being here in the country legally to being here illegally. Just like that.

K and I kept asking: What can we do? And the answer came back: write letters to the judge – who would be meeting with the Dad in a few days – asking the judge for leniency, asking for a second chance, explaining what good citizens this family would make, asking to let this family stay in the country, and explaining why.  So K and I got as many people to write letters as we possibly could, saying how much we were hoping this family would become citizens, and how hard-working they were, and how amazingly well the children were doing in school, and asking for the father’s release. Which we did. And then we waited.

I’m pleased to say everything worked out in the family’s favor. The Dad was released, things were straightened out, and the young family is still in America working towards citizenship. I haven’t seen them for a while, but K tells me they visited her last Valentine’s Day and brought her some of the kids’ artwork.

I’m glad things worked out this way. But if they hadn’t, this family could have become one more family seeking sanctuary in a church. In fact Pastor M and I talked about which churches the family might approach if it came to that – it was that close.

Taking sanctuary in churches is not something people plan on doing. It happens because people have nowhere else to turn.

When a church offers sanctuary, we bear witness to the world that God’s law is higher than human laws; that God’s mercy is higher than human justice. And this is just one example out of thousands.

Of course the ultimate sanctuary – the holiest of holies – is the Kingdom of God itself. This is the home God creates for all who love him. This is the mansion Jesus said he was going to prepare for us, and that he would come back to take us to. This is the promise that Mary and Elizabeth were so excited about: that Mary’s baby would turn the power structures of this world on their heads, lift up the lowly, and fill the poor and hungry with good things.

Kingdom

It has already started: Mary’s song is both ‘now’ and ‘future’. We live our lives in Advent time, between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’.

But we can be sure of this: our God is a God who not only stands for justice, but whose character defines justice. Our God acts with compassion. Our God not only wipes away our tears but collects every tear in a bottle. Therefore we who love God and follow God are called to go and do the same: to welcome the stranger, and the neighbor, and to say to anyone who needs sanctuary: “in the name of Jesus, I am here for you.” AMEN.

(preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, December 19, 2021

Read Full Post »

It’s the season for giving! And I want to encourage everyone’s generosity.

I also want to make sure people’s gifts go where people intend them to go.

Holiday cash

During the holiday season, when everyone is celebrating and buying gifts, it’s a fundraiser’s favorite time of year. People want to give at the holidays, especially to their favorite nonprofit organizations.

Unfortunately scammers know this too, and con artists crawl out of the woodwork this time of year.

A few tips to avoid charity scams:

  • Don’t let anyone pressure you into giving. Any legitimate organization will still be there tomorrow
  • Watch out for phony caller ID’s
  • Watch out for misspellings of the charity’s name
  • Don’t give gift cards as donations (unless to a food bank or church)
  • Don’t give via Western Union or other wire transfers

All this is fairly common information.

What I wanted to add to the usual advice are some proactive giving tips gathered from watching how foundations work.

Foundations are organizations created to give away large amounts of money. They are often sponsored by large corporations and sometimes by very wealthy individuals or families.

A foundation is directed by its founder(s) to give money in areas the founder values. For example, the goal of Microsoft Philanthropies is to enhance peoples’ lives through technology.

So think of yourself as a very small foundation. Like the larger foundations, you have a certain amount of money you can budget to give away each year. You also have causes that you believe in. And like a foundation, it helps to set goals. For example, “I would like to support the arts in a 50-mile radius of my home” or “I would like to help give children an education.” (It’s OK to have more than one goal – many foundations do!)

decor3

Then it’s a matter of matching your goals to organizations requesting funds. With a foundation, organizations send in a grant proposal asking for money. Everyday people usually just receive a letter in the mail requesting money and an envelope to send it in.

Take a look at which letters describe charities that match your goals and priorities. Maybe run some Google searches in your area(s) of interest. There may be only a few charities that match your goals, or there may be dozens and you’ll need to whittle down the list. Decide how you want to spread out your donation budget among the different envelopes, then write your checks. And you may want to set aside a little bit of cash for “mad money” donations later in the year.

The benefit to this process is that (like foundations) you’ll find you’re able to give more than you usually do, and your money accomplishes more because it’s better targeted.

Something to think about, and maybe to try. If you do let me know how you like this approach!

Read Full Post »

The prophet Isaiah writes: “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.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.  The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” – Isaiah 61:10 – 62:5

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Apostle Paul writes: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” – Galatians 4:4-7

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Luke writes: “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] 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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Merry Christmas! 

Yes, I know Christmas was two days ago. But like the old song says, there are twelve days in Christmas, and my plan is to celebrate all twelve.

And today’s sermon is part of that.

For the past month here at the Partnership we have been holding an online study group called “Lessons From Carols” and on one of the evenings someone mentioned it felt like Advent and Lent have some common ground – which was a great observation.  Both Advent and Lent look forward to history-changing events: Advent looks forward to Christmas – the birth of Jesus; and Lent looks forward to Easter – the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Fact is, if Jesus hadn’t died on the cross and then walked out of the grave alive on that first Easter, we wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas. If Jesus is still dead then Easter is pointless and so is our faith. But the truth is Jesus IS alive, and because he lives we too will live. The good news of Christmas is that the King of Kings, our Saviour, has been born. And because he is here we have hope and a future.

But I’m getting way ahead of our scripture readings for today!

I’d like to start with our reading from Isaiah, who gives us a thought to keep in mind: Christmas – or as Isaiah understood it, the coming of the Messiah – is about God’s gifts to us. We give gifts to each other at Christmastime because God first gave to us. We show our love for others because God first loved us. With that in mind, let’s listen to the words of Isaiah:

“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.”

God’s first Christmas gift to us is a robe of righteousness. Clothing. But not physical clothing: clothing that covers our imperfections and our weaknesses and our faults. The robe of righteousness is not self-righteousness because we don’t earn it or deserve it. God gives it.

Robes1

When we talk about God’s righteousness we understand this is not a narrow concept but a very broad one. The Hebrew word for righteousness (tsedek) includes both the religious obligation to do what is morally right and the religious obligation to do what is just.

In the Jewish world, righteousness and justice are bound together: two sides of the same coin. And there’s a third aspect: generosity – giving to those in need – no matter how rich or how poor we may be. Remember Jesus’ words about the widow’s mite: the woman who gave two pennies, who – Jesus said – gave more than anyone else because she gave all she had. No matter how much or how little we have, we can always share what we have with others.

Scripture tells us there will be a day of reckoning, when everything we’ve ever said or done will be made known. I don’t know about you but that makes me a bit nervous to say the least. I am not the holiest person in the world by a long shot, and I sometimes find myself hoping God will grade on a curve, or that God will believe me if I tell Him the cat ate my homework. But I know that’s not going to happen. If my eternal future depends on me, then I’m in trouble.

The good news of Christmas is that my eternal future – all of our eternal futures – don’t depend on us. God has given us a robe of righteousness and garments of salvation. God says: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication (which is the same thing as righteousness, it’s the same word in the Hebrew) – until her vindication shines like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations will see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.”

That’s the second Christmas gift from God: a new name, to go with the new clothes. Isaiah explains it: it’s like a wedding. Isaiah says: “the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

Can you imagine – God – rejoicing – over us?

Scripture tells us God and sin cannot exist in the same space. It’s like matter and anti-matter, they can’t both occupy the same space at the same time. So how is it possible that God will rejoice over us imperfect human beings?

That’s where the robe of righteousness comes in. God gives us what we need so that our righteousness can shine like the sun and we can be objects of God’s rejoicing.

During this pandemic year we’ve all been slogging our way through, a lot of people have been talking in whispers about the end times. I’m not going to speculate when that may happen, but I do know it’s a good thing to think about the end times now and then, and to remember that God is in charge and all will be set right one day. Remember the words of Jesus about that last day, when he separates the sheep from the goats and says to the sheep: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and in prison and you visited me” – and both the sheep and the goats are surprised at what Jesus says. Those who did these things, don’t remember doing them; and those who didn’t do these things don’t remember not doing them.

While we wait for the end times to come – whenever they may come – we need to be doing our very best to be feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting those in need – because in doing so we grow to become more like our Saviour. And yet at the same time we know salvation is a gift, and always has been.

God will cause us to be clothed with righteousness. God will cause our vindication to shine like the sun.

Why?

Because God is our Father and God loves us. God is our creator, and God made us for a purpose, each one of us, you and me and our friends and neighbors and even (in some way) our enemies.

The end result is that all nations will see God’s righteousness and the vindication of God’s people. Isaiah says we will be like a crown of beauty in God’s hands.

And this is not just about individuals: the church itself will be purified: church defined as the body of believers, the community of God’s faithful people. During our Zoom Advent series, one evening’s discussion turned to what a mess organized religion is these days: the scandals we hear in the news; the jealousies between different churches and denominations; how churches are torn apart by politics and corruption. There’s no denying it, and it’s sad to see. Though it may help to know we’re not alone: even back in Isaiah’s day people saw the same things in the temple and in their religious leadership. But one day God will purify the community of the faithful and drape a robe of righteousness over it and hold it up to shine like a crown of glory.

How can this be?

Because it doesn’t depend on us.

As Christians we believe in miracles. And we trust a God of miracles.

And most of all we trust a God who came to us as a baby, as the child of a poor teenager in a backwater town in Galilee: a God who is able and willing to become one of us, so that we can be like Him.

Which leads us to the connection between Christmas and Easter: Jesus was born to be our salvation. This is why Simeon takes the baby Jesus into his arms and says “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all the nations…” – and this will be both for the glory of Israel and for the salvation of the Gentiles (which is us).

Jesus was born to keep God’s commandments perfectly, because we can’t. Jesus was born to die on the cross and rise again – and in doing that, destroying the power of sin and death, for all of us, for all time.

Simeon in the temple took the baby Jesus in his arms and said that Jesus was “a sign given so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” There are powers in this world, often hidden, that literally feed on poverty and death. This is what makes (for example) racism so difficult to overcome: because there are people who profit on violence and death, and it’s not always who you think. It’s what makes war so impossible to put and end to: because people literally make profits on death. It’s what makes poverty so hard to overcome: because there are people who make money on the misfortune of others. It’s a truism on Wall Street that where there’s a crisis in the world there’s an opportunity to make a profit: and most of the time the people who do these things are hidden under a cloak of respectability.

Jesus has come to reveal what is hidden and to destroy the power of sin and death.

This also is God’s Christmas gift to us.

So what can we give God in return?

We can sing to him the words of the psalmist: “Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!” For he has raised up a horn of salvation for His people.

Manger2

We can come to the manger, with the shepherds and the wise men, and kneel before our newborn King.

And where it comes to Jesus being our King: we Americans generally don’t have a lot of experience with royalty. It takes practice. We can start with the understanding that God’s Kingdom is not a democracy and go from there.

But for now we approach the manger with faith and with trust that what God has spoken is true, and that Jesus our saviour has come, and that his life and death and resurrection will provide for us robes of righteousness and a glory that never fades.

AMEN

Preached for the South Hills Partnership of Methodist Churches, online, 12/27/2020

Read Full Post »

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence —  2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.  4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.  5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.  6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.  8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.  9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”Isaiah 64:1-9

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth  2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!  3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.  4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?  5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.  6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.  7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved […] 17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.  18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.  19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[Jesus said] “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,  25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.  27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 

 

28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.  30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 

 

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.  34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  35 Therefore, keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,  36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”Mark 13:24-37

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Well here we are… at the beginning of Advent once again, in what is probably the strangest and most troubling year I can remember. And the scripture readings for this morning don’t take away any of that sense of strangeness or trouble.

I don’t think they’re supposed to.

I think God’s words for us today are meant to meet us where we are.

Even in so-called ‘normal’ years, by this time in the year we would find ourselves surrounded by expectations that we shop on Black Friday and do our part for the nation’s economy. Even in so-called ‘normal’ years we would find ourselves hip-deep in solicitations for ‘Giving Tuesday’. Even in so-called ‘normal’ years we’d be rushing through Thanksgiving weekend to dive into a commercialized Christmas and then fall exhausted into New Years just to start the whole process over again.

More and more I hear people say “we’re not doing Christmas any more.” While I understand, I think that’s sad. So just out of curiosity I googled the phrase “alternatives to Christmas”. I was presented with a selection of over 92 million websites full of ideas! Suggestions included things like “stop doing gifts”… “volunteer over the holidays”… “eat Chinese food” (this I could do)…  “host a movie marathon at your house” (this was obviously written pre-pandemic)… “go Christmas caroling”… “write a personal, heartfelt letter to each person on your gift list.” One website suggested “celebrate all 12 days of Christmas” – and I liked what they said so much I wanted to share it with you. The website lifehack.org said:

“Ironically, today we consider the most traditional thing – celebrating the 12 days after Christmas – to be non-traditional and quaint. In most Christian cultures Christmas used to be celebrated in a [completely] opposite fashion to what we see today. Instead of pre-holiday hype lasting for most of November and the entire month of December, people quietly waited for the coming of the Christ, with the 12-day period after December 25 as the centerpiece. Why not try to do things the old-fashioned way…?” – https://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/8-fun-yet-non-traditional-ways-celebrate-christmas-this-year.html

Now that’s what I’m talking about!

“The entire month of December waiting for the coming of the Christ” – that’s the definition of Advent. There’s a reason why people used to do that, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. We need to step away from the world’s celebration of “sparkle season” because quite honestly it has no meaning. Doing things the world’s way, by December 26 all the noise is over and the celebration is forgotten and the Valentines are in the stores already. But if we wait patiently in Advent through December, and then start celebrating Christmas on the 25th, we will still be celebrating Jesus’ arrival on January 5 – and what a way to start a new year, refreshed and rejoicing!

Especially this pandemic year Advent makes sense to me. And I find it jarring – to put it gently – when people are trying to conjure up a feeling of ‘a holly jolly Christmas’ while so many people around us are ill or losing their jobs or living in fear. Facing the reality of our situation in 2020 doesn’t lead to celebration – but if we face it with God we don’t face it alone.

The whole message of Advent is that our world is sick. It is sick with COVID, and it is sick with sin. Our world is sick with division and fear and loneliness and pain and longing.

Advent meets us in that darkness. Advent begins in sorrow but ends in joy. The scriptures for Advent, many of them, take us back to the Old Testament when the people of Israel were in captivity in a foreign land. And that’s basically where we are today: in captivity to a pandemic; in captivity to economic forces that we can’t change or control; in captivity to political and media leadership that’s more interested in self-promotion than in service. Advent meets us where we are – and if we are patient and stay with it, Advent doesn’t just meet us in the darkness, it leads us out of the darkness and into God’s glory.

In the darkness a light begins to shine: distant at first, but day by day, week by week, it gets a little closer. And we hear the word of God echo through the ages: “come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…”

The word ‘advent’ is an ancient word meaning ‘arrival’ – specifically, the arrival of Christ – both the for first time and for the second time.

The hope of the world is about to arrive.

That’s the backdrop against which we hear God’s words this morning.

Both of our scripture readings today speak of exile: separation from God and God’s goodness. Both readings grieve over this separation and long for a revival of faith in the nation and in the world. Both of them cry out to God to hear us and restore us.

Isaiah cries out to God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” He grieves that his nation is facing all kinds of difficulties from within and from without. He also grieves that the people of God aren’t doing well – that the nations around them look at them and wonder what’s happened to God’s people. Not unlike us today, as the world looks at our churches growing smaller and appearing to fail. Isaiah doesn’t focus on the difficulties; instead he focuses on God. He says: “O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Isaiah doesn’t give up hope, because in spite of all he sees around him, he knows God. As we enter into Advent we share Isaiah’s experience: the world around us is a mess, and the light of God’s people seems to be fading, but we focus on God, on God’s faithfulness, on God’s promises, and knowing God gives us hope.

God meets us here. God hears the prayer of the psalmist, saying: “You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth… Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

As we turn to the reading from Mark, Jesus tells us what that ultimate salvation will look like. Jesus is speaking these words to his disciples just a few days before his death. Palm Sunday has already taken place, and now he and the disciples are waiting on the Mount of Olives for Passover to begin. Jesus is telling his disciples what’s about to happen, and what they should be doing while he’s gone. And Jesus promises he will return – which will give them hope during difficult times ahead. Jesus’ words describe what we call today the ‘second coming,’ and we read this today because Advent is about both Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ return.

Jesus tells us very straightforwardly that the days before his return will be more full of trouble than any the world has ever seen. The last days before his arrival will be filled with “wars and rumors of wars… nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes… famines…” persecution of God’s people… hatred and death… false messiahs… and a desolating sacrilege in Judea. Also the gospel will be proclaimed to all nations. Jesus says if these days hadn’t been cut short no one would survive. (Mark 13:5-23 edited)

After all these things happen, the Son of Man will come in great power and glory. And all God’s people will be gathered from every place on earth where they have hidden or have been scattered. Jesus promises these words are true; he says: “heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away” (v 31).

The darker our world becomes, the brighter Jesus shines.

Today many Christians are tempted to think, “Since we don’t know when Jesus is coming, we don’t need to be thinking about that.” The apostle Mark disagrees. In fact he says just the opposite: because we don’t know, we should be thinking about it all the time! The second coming of Jesus is a reality that has meaning for our daily lives. Everything we see on TV or on our computers, everything we hear, everything we read, needs to be seen and heard and understood in light of Jesus’ return. What will matter on that great day? And what won’t? Advent delivers us from the emptiness of our time, so that we can spend our energies on things that matter: things that will last.

There is no shame in looking forward to the return of our king!  One seminary professor writes: “The season of Advent invites us to wait impatiently for the consummation of hope, longing to know God as fully as we have been known… to love as we have been loved; to experience Jesus Christ as he is, and in so doing, to become like him.” (Mark Allan Powell, Trinity Lutheran Seminary)

This is the hope of Advent.

The duty of Advent is to be watching and ready. We don’t know the time. But we do know the Lord. Jesus tells us: Stay awake, keep watch, and while we wait, be doing what God commands – as faithful servants of God’s household.

In Advent we remember that God meets us where we are… so that one day we can meet Him where He is.  This is our Advent Hope. AMEN.

`

`

`

`

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/29/20

Read Full Post »