“Emmanuel Any-ways”; John 1:1-14 and Isaiah 52:7-10; December 24, 2019; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Emmanuel Any-ways”
John 1:1-14 and Isaiah 52:7-10
December 24, 2019, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

There’s lots of talk every Advent season of keeping Christ in Christmas or reclaiming the meaning of Christmas. Goodness knows, I have preached a Christmas sermon or two about that. 

But something that revolutionized my thinking this past week was reading United Church of Christ pastor, Quinn Calldwell‘s All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. He writes about how often the Christmas of secular culture and the Christmas of Christ are pitted against one another and how it’s a false dichotomy, because God’s presence is not limited in that way.

He writes, “Mightn’t God be powerful enough to co-opt the culture’s co-optation of the day of [Christ’s] birth? I think God can work with the traditions we hand to God.” He continues with some examples, “here are some Christmas things that have nothing to do with Jesus’ birth, but in which I believe God is at work anyway:

  • Elvis’ Christmas Album. If it can make my whole family sing together while performing a complex operation involving a saw, a tree, a small living room, electricity, and water without us killing one another, it’s holy.”
  • “Shopping,” he writes, “yes, it can get out of hand, but searching for a great gift to make someone happy can be a profound experience.”

When it comes to keeping Christmas about Christ there are two things that are contradictorily simultaneously true: Jesus needs us to be God’s hands and feet in this world working to point to his birth, death, and resurrection AND Jesus is going to come no matter what we’ve done or left undone, whether we focus our entire celebrations on Jesus’ birthday or whether we’ve spent all of our time watching the Hallmark channel and shopping. And I mean that genuinely, goodness knows I love those Hallmark channel movies and shopping to get the perfect gift for those I love . Every bit of this season can be holy if our celebrations are done with genuine love and we are open to seeing God revealed in our midst.

Very similarly, God comes into this world in Jesus as fully God and fully human. Both things at the exact same time. God didn’t manifest as some entirely different creature than us, because God’s intent was to be in relationship with humankind. 

And so, with God in Jesus Christ as our example, we can experience the divine in that which seems worldly. We can sing God’s praises in the beauty of Letting it Snow. We can be reminded of the one who separated dark from night as we marvel at the simple beauty of Christmas lights. We can bask in the joy of creation in making snowmen on our lawns. We can share table fellowship with friends and family with gingerbread and hot chocolate. We can remember the boundlessness of God’s generosity in the generosity of a jolly man in a red suit. 

God’s presence is not limited to the places where we extend God an invitation. It is the gospel truth that, as our reading today said, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Everything begins as God’s creation and is saved by Christ’s redemption. There is no where that God cannot be found.

There’s also been some balking at the broad use of the words “happy holidays,” but do you know the origin of that? It’s “holy days.” If someone’s wish for me is to have more happy holy days, I am all for it. God’s holiness is certainly not constrained to one day in this season or to the activities that happen within the walls of churches.

And so I ask you, and I genuinely would love to hear your own examples,  what experiences of this season have made it holy to you? Where are the places  that God has invited God’s self into your celebrations? Feel free to offer a story or even just a phrase:

I’ll share some of my own as you think of yours:

  • The Christmas Carol (even the Muppet version) causes me to reflect on my actions towards others and makes me want to display more of Christ’s generosity.
  • I am reminded of the divinity of the baby Jesus, when I watch Leah laugh and reminded of the humanity of the baby Jesus when I change her diapers.
  • James Taylor singing, “River,” reminds me of the bittersweetness of this season for so many and the way that as a community of faith carry one another and believe on each other’s behalf when we can’t connect with the story Christ’s birth on our own.

What about for you? How have you unexpectedly experienced God in this season?

God will use whatever we offer, but also, and this part often gets overlooked, God will be present in this Holy Day no matter what. And that is very good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“A Righteous Man”; Psalm 80:1-7 and Matthew 1:18-25; December 22, 2019; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“A Righteous Man”
Psalm 80:1-7 and Matthew 1:18-25
December 22, 2019, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Our text today gives us a different perspective than we usually associate with the stories of Christmas. The narrative we’re most familiar with is really a combination of all of the Gospels, the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, the trip to Bethlehem, the manger, and the magi, they’re all spread out throughout the gospels. But in Matthew’s account, the focus is not so much on Jesus’ birth itself, though it’s in there. There’s no trip to Bethlehem or shepherds in a field. What there is however, is a focus on Joesph and his experience of Mary’s surprising pregnancy.

Joseph’s mostly a background character in most depictions of the nativity of Jesus. He’s the one leading the donkey, the one inquiring with the innkeeper. He shows up in paintings of the Holy Family and in nativity sets, but we don’t know a whole lot about him in particular. After the story of Jesus staying behind in the temple when Jesus was 12, we really don’t hear about Joseph again.

We do know him a little though through the world that surrounded him. We know that his ancestral hometown was Bethlehem, but our narrative begins with him living 90 miles north in the town of Nazareth. Once thought to be rural, recent archaeological discoveries have pointed to a perhaps more established community. We know also that he was a carpenter or builder, likely as a part of the family business. He would’ve known how to read Hebrew, learning it in order to be Bar Mitzvahed. He would’ve spoke Aramaic and could’ve known Greek and Latin to engage in business.

We know also of his lineage, he was a descendent of the house of David. The first verses of the Gospel of Matthew giving us a detailed account of who all was included in that lineup. I’ve always found it curious that Joseph’s family tree is the one detailed out in the first part of the first chapter of Matthew, then we’re immediately told that this child to be born is not a biological descendent of Joseph at all, acting as a testament to the strength of God’s trust in Joseph as Jesus’ adoptive father.

By, eventually, accepting this role in Jesus’ life, Joseph would be giving up his right to a biological first born son, something that was of high importance in the patriarchal culture of that time. It is a big ask.

And so for a great many reasons, we hear of Joseph’s hesitation. Upon hearing about the pregnancy his first impulse is to “dismiss Mary quietly.” I can’t imagine how that would’ve actually worked out for her, as women of that time did not have the ability to own property on their own. She would’ve certainly struggled to get anyone else to marry her after giving birth to a child that appeared to not have a father.

It’s hard to fully understand what’s going on in the text from a twenty first century Christian perspective, but former Luther seminary New Testament Professor Arland J. Hultgren explains the context of their relationship a bit more clearly than is captured in simple translations of the text. He writes:

“Mary is said to be “engaged to Joseph” (1:18, NRSV), but the English word “engaged” hardly captures the meaning of the Greek word that it represents (mnesteuo). The variety of translations in some of the most widely known English versions show how translators have struggled to render the word appropriately. The RSV says that Mary “had been betrothed to Joseph.” The KJV says that she “was espoused to Joseph,” and the NIV says that she “was pledged to be married to Joseph.”

The problem with the word “engaged” (NRSV) is that an engagement can be broken off informally; there is no need for a legal action. But the situation of Mary and Joseph was more complicated than that. According to the custom of the day, there were two stages for a couple to go through in what can be called a marital process.

First came the betrothal (Hebrew kiddushin), a marriage contract, typically arranged by the parents, that could be broken only by divorce (cf. 1: 19, where apoluo is used, rendered as “divorce” in the RSV and NIV; the NRSV has “dismiss”).

That was followed by a second step (Hebrew nissu’in) considerably later (sometimes a year later), often including a marriage feast, after which the groom took his wife to his home. The verb paralambano (“to take”) in 1:20 and 1:24 can actually mean “to take home” one’s wife, thus referring to what happened after the second step. The drama of our text, however, takes place between the two events in the lives of this young couple. The first step had taken place; the second is in jeopardy.

Joseph’s reaction, when he hears that Mary is pregnant, is to suspect her of adultery, one of the grounds for divorce in Jewish law.1 In light of that, Joseph “planned to dismiss [RSV: “divorce”] her quietly” (NRSV). It may seem surprising to many in our day that Joseph is called “righteous” as he contemplates divorcing Mary in her time of need (1:19), but the accent must surely be upon the clause saying that he was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” wanting to keep the whole matter quiet. Moreover, law and the culture of the day would virtually say that Joseph had no alternative but to divorce Mary.”

Thank God, literally that Joseph took on this role as Jesus’ father, shaping all of human history by trusting the word of angels and of his wife, Mary.

And I think that is the message that Joseph’s narrative can have for us, that there is great value in being a background character in God’s great story. By looking for opportunities to trust God we can support God’s kingdom coming to fruition on earth as it is in heaven. Sometimes that looks like angels giving direct instruction, but more often than not it comes through trusting the direction God has given to others’ in our lives. We can support one another in the vocations God has given us, as we each endeavor to bear Christ into the world. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

“Are You the One?” Matthew 11:2-11; December 15, 2019; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“Are You the One?”
Matthew 11:2-11
December 15, 2019, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“Surprise!” It’s a common movie and tv trope, I’m sure you’ve seen it: a room full of people all prepared to surprise a guest of honor and then someone else comes in right before. And the moment is ruined, the good surprise used up. 

Reading our text this week a scene of a ruined surprise came to mind. John asks the question, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The messiah, after all, had been greatly anticipated. Not just for a few minutes of people crouched behind a couch ready to welcome a guest of honor, but for hundreds of years. And the people really didn’t want to be wasting the good welcome, the good celebration for some person who wasn’t the messiah.

Today is our Advent week of Joy, but unlike the other lectionary texts that highlight Mary’s Magnifcat, her song of great joy at learning she is to be the mother of Christ, this passage is much more tempered. It’s trying to decide if there’s something to be joyful about. It’s cautious, wary of getting too excited.

There is so much in this world that tempers our joy, environmental crisis, divisive politics, and social unrest. In this polarizing world, we are wary of that which doesn’t come right out and identify itself. “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for?” We want salvation from everyday trivialities and from the overarching unrest of earthly existence.

The lectionary narrative this week takes us out of the manger scenes of the season and into John the Baptist’s prison cell and among Jesus and his disciples. It’s towards the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Right before this story Jesus is commissioning his twelve disciples and sending them out. So, while we’re in the season of celebrating the baby Jesus entering into the world, this text draws us forward to the adult Jesus’ entering into his ministry.

“Are you the one?” It’s a haunting question really. And one that it takes a certain level of gumption to ask. John wasn’t really known for being subtle. He’s described as some sort of unkempt man of the wilderness. He rolls into town preaching and prophesying, his radical nature landing him in jail.

“Are you the one?”It’s one thing for the question to be asked by those who don’t know Jesus or those who are new to his company of followers or by those who oppose Jesus and his teachings. But this question is asked by the one who perhaps had the most intimate knowledge of Jesus. From John’s first time in the presence of Jesus he seemed to react to his divinity, leaping in his mother’s womb.

Tricker still, this question was being asked second hand, as John himself was in prison and unable to ask. I’m not sure what disciple it was that was tasked with asking this question, but can picture those who had talked to John drawing straws to see which one of them would have to be the one to ask Jesus:” are you the one?”

I don’t know about you, but John specifically being the one to ask this question feels like the pressure being taken off a little. It makes it easier to be vulnerable with our own questioning when someone this in the know has doubts too. I can imagine the disciples breathing a sigh of relief that someone was willing to bring this up, at that it was one with such thorough knowledge of Jesus. I’d hazard to say, that as Christians, approaching our faith with our own questions showcases a vulnerability that invites others to be a bit more transparent with their own doubts too.

Jesus responds to John’s question by sharing accounts of the ways that the world has been changed in the wake of his coming. He says to that messenger disciple, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

This is not just a report of what’s transpired, it’s a reference to the prophecy that preceded Jesus. In Isaiah 35 we read, “Here is your God… He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

Our Advent wreath theme of the day is Joy, and while it is very present in Jesus’ account of what the world is like now that he has come and prophecy is being fulfilled at that very moment, John’s question holds joy at a distance, not wanting to jump in too soon, to be too excited if there’s still more waiting yet to come.

“Are you the one?” When we’re not one hundred percent assured that God’s Good News is good news for us, we can find ourselves asking that same question. Are you Jesus, the one that can transform our lives, our hearts? Or should we wait for another? There are so many idols of this world that can look like salvation when our joy is not fully rooted in Christ.

But salvation is not just meant to be personal, it’s meant to be for the whole world. So, while we might not always be able to identify how God is at work transforming our world and our lives specifically, Jesus’ list in this passage invites us to view these radical healings and transformations already taking place all around us. One of the greatest joys of being community, of being the Church universal is that the Good News of Jesus Christ is not just for us, but for all of us. Thanks be to God.

In this season, may we be willing to ask the difficult questions so that we can make way for Christ to be revealed in this world around us and received more authentically by all those who are awaiting his coming.

Amen.

“Stumped”; Isaiah 11:1-10 Embodied; December 8, 2019; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Time for Wonder*
A Reading of Isaiah 11:1-10 NRSV Embodied [motions in brackets]

[One arm flat, other arm rising beside it]

A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
    a branch will sprout from his roots.

[Hands on shoulders for each line]

The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
    a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    a spirit of planning and strength,
    a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
He will delight in fearing the Lord.

[Cover eyes]

He won’t judge by appearances,

[Cover ears]

nor decide by hearsay.

[Extend hand in offering a hand up]

He will judge the needy with righteousness,
    and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.

[Open mouth]

He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth;

[Strong exhale]

    by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.

[Hands on hips]

Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
    and faithfulness the belt around his waist.

[Form claws and release]

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
    the calf and the young lion will feed together,

[Gesture as if introducing young child]

    and a little child will lead them.

[Act as if chewing cud]

The cow and the bear will graze.
    Their young will lie down together,
    and a lion will eat straw like an ox.

[move arm like snake]

A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
    toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.

[Arms form mountain]

They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.

[Arms form valley]

    The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,

[Arms make a wave]

    just as the water covers the sea.
A signal to the peoples

[One arm flat, other arm rising beside it]

On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious.

“Stumped”
Isaiah 11:1-10
December 8, 2019, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.” These words that we read and acted out today are curious. We’ve all seen stumps, right? Stumps are what’s left when you cut down a tree. Often that tree is cut down because there’s something wrong with it, disease or other forces of nature causing it to no longer be viable.

In the verses just preceding our passage we read that God had been the one to reduce those who have been opposing God’s will to a stump. In Isaiah 10:33-34 we read, “Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”

So now we have before us a people who have been cut down completely due to going against God’s will for them. The history of this is a bit complicated, but essentially, the military rulers tried to get around what Isaiah had advised by trying to work with the powers that be against a rebellion, which caused societal collapse and ruin.

Those originally hearing this prophecy are still seeking the redemption promised by the branch growing out of the stump. They remain in exile, utterly stumped by their circumstances. Their lives are devoid of peace, both from within and without. They need this promised resurrection of their people’s viability, but struggle to dare to expect what has been promised. What will become of them?

Hope in the midst of seeming hopelessness is a familiar story both in the Bible and in our media, as that variety of redemption is very compelling. Adam and Eve starting over from exile from the Garden of Eden, Noah’s family rising out of the devastation of the flood, Moses’ redirection from a burning bush in the wilderness, and, of course, Christ’s death and resurrection. We are a resurrection people, after all, and operate from knowing that resurrection is on it’s way, whatever the circumstances may be.

But, that is not where these people find themselves yet. They are yearning mightily for the peace forecasted in Isaiah’s prophecy. And it’s important to name that faithfulness within desperation can still look pretty desperate.

 

Yesterday, Calvin and I went to see Frozen 2 in theaters. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but there’s a scene, as there is in so many heroes’ journeys when it seems like all hope is lost. The song that the main character sings in that time was especially gripping to me because it worked from despair to hope. Anna sings:

“I’ve seen dark before
But not like this
This is cold
This is empty
This is numb
The life I knew is over
The lights are out
Hello, darkness
I’m ready to succumb

…Can there be a day beyond this night?
I don’t know anymore what is true
I can’t find my direction, I’m all alone
The only star that guided me was you
How to rise from the floor
When it’s not you I’m rising for?
Just do the next right thing
Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing”

When your context is despair, choosing to do the next right thing can be a revolutionary act.

The next right thing. For the despairing Judeans in the face of ruin, it looked like placing hope in the leadership of a new king, a young Hezekiah, who just might have it within himself to turn things around. He is the shoot beside the stump. Isaiah’s hope in what seems hopeless.

A stump is most often the end of the tree. But in our text we hear of a tenacious branch coming up alongside, it’s unexpected, and reflects hope in the midst of hopelessness.

Something else that seems impossible In these verses is the account of animals who are naturally enemies laying down beside one another. Working Preacher, a lectionary website and podcast from Luther seminary, points to how these passages don’t say that the wolf is no longer around the lamb or that the snake is no longer going to be terrifying to the worried parent, but that this peaceable Kingdom, as it is often called, removes the wolves desire to hurt to hurt the lamb and leave the snake to no longer strike in the hands of a child playing near. I can imagine a child being naive to the risk of being around a serpent, but struggle to imagine a lamb choosing to lie down beside a wolf. Achieving the peaceable kingdom causes not only peace, but also  the internal reformation of impulse to see the enemy as an enemy. It is not instinctual.

And so that brings me to us. We live in a world that is not always, or some may say often, peaceable. There are wolves in this world that are far more than mere metaphors. But the hope of peace is that God can transform the motivations and desires of those who seek to harm us as well and at the very same time liberate us from our fear. This does not mean we are to be doormats to those who want to harm us, but that only when we are willing to see the image of God at work in our enemy are we able to begin to work towards true restorative peace.

Peace, our Advent Wreath word of the day, is so much more than a graduation speech platitude or a hand sign thrown out by a surfer. It is borne through the active work of seeking justice. It is seeking the next right thing when at the impasse of misunderstanding and pain.

In 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. responded to an accusation that he was “disturbing the peace” by his activism during the Montgomery Bus Boycott by saying, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”

Where in our world are we witnessing injustice? How can we do the next right thing, seeking peace right where we are? What is the new life that God is springing up alongside our desperation? May we be agents of God’s peace. Amen.

 

*Time for Wonder is what we do at Boeuff Presbyterian as a time for people of all ages to engage with the scripture/sermon in a more interactive way. In other contexts it is often called “Time with Children” or “Children’s Sermon.”