(Un)predictable, Matthew 24:36-44, November 27, 2016, FPC Holt

(Un)predictable
Matthew 24:36-44
November 27, 2016, FPC Holt

2016-11-27-slide-1-calendarThink of some of the most life changing days of your life. So many of these days we can’t see coming: when you were downsized from the job where you’d worked for many years; when you happened to be in just the place at just the right time and met your significant other; when you wake up in the morning to find your beloved pet isn’t acting quite right and then suddenly you have to say goodbye; when you found out that you were expecting a baby;  or the moment you received the call with a frightening medical diagnosis. Times when, for better or for worse, your life is suddenly altered, your daily patterns are askew and you move forward in a different direction than you predicted.

That is the type of occurrence that we read about in our scripture today. It describes how everyone is simply going about their day, eating, drinking, marrying, planting, cooking, and then all of a sudden God incarnate shows up and shakes up everything.

2016-11-27-slide-2-noahFirst Jesus references Noah and the flood. A terrible and frightening occurrence, that has some surprisingly cheery depictions in some children’s curriculums. What about the other animals? What about the other people? It’s a grim tale of God’s creation being swept away in God’s wrath. And yet, in those paired off animals and rainbowed sky, we are given the hope that this is the worst there is and will ever be.

2016-11-27-slide-3-cross The second account in this passage is that of the coming of the messiah, a new way to save the world from the blight of sin. This time God doesn’t erase that which God has created, but rather erases that which separates the people from God: the pain of sin and death. They’d likely heard the story of Noah and knew how frightening that all turned out, but the coming of the Messiah was an unknown.

2016-11-27-slide-4-awaitingBack in this time they had no sort of Advent calendar counting down the days to Christ’s birth and we can be quite certain that Mary wasn’t given a due date. What they do have are instructions to “keep awake.” A call for vigilance was all they received for an itinerary, with what may seem like dismissive direction they are told to go about their business, and to do some knowing that at any moment God’s presence will be among them and the reign of heaven will come to earth.

2016-11-27-slide-5-jesus-preachingThese were a people who’d heard the prophecies of a messiah coming to bring salvation for humankind, so these stories Jesus was telling weren’t news exactly, but more of a clarification of how things were to come about. What they didn’t understand was that God’s own presence was before them: the God, “who is, who was, and who is to come.” And yet, God’s incarnate self in Jesus wasn’t just letting them off the hook because he had arrived. God’s realm continues to be revealed, as God’s people seek for God’s kingdom to come and will be done “on earth, as it is in heaven.”

There’s a huge difference between knowing that something is coming and knowing when. Even many of the anticipated events in our lives don’t come with a known time and date.

2016-11-27-slide-6-pregnancyMany of you know the sort of anticipatory energy I had for an event that happened in my life four months ago to this very day. For nine months previous I had been living in both fearful and joyful anticipation of my dear son Calvin’s birth. At the end there it was truly such a strange season: I felt a bit like a ticking time bomb. I knew that at any moment Calvin would come into the world and shake everything up. It made it tricky, to say the least, to plan our preaching schedule, let alone buy too many groceries for fear that Calvin’s birth would prevent me from preaching or allow our food to spoil. People would tell us, “your life is about to radically change,” and I would respond, “I sure hope so!” I knew he was coming, and that pregnancy wouldn’t last forever, but when he was nine days overdue it did become hard to believe that was the case.

2016-11-27-slide-7-martha-and-kathleenAnother event happened in my life recently that I also knew was coming, but in a much more general sense. Friday, September 16th I received a message from my mother: My beloved Grandma Martha had had a stroke and the prognosis did not look good. I knew on a base level that she would not live forever. No one does. But she was such a presence in my life, and the lives of those around her, that it seemed impossible to imagine her gone. Upon receiving the news we got in the car and drove straight to Toledo to be with her. 2016-11-27-slide-8-martha-handThough she was only occasionally responsive, I held her hand and told her many of my memories with her, family vacations every summer at Higgin’s Lake, the road trips the two of us had, our bi-weekly phone calls on my commutes to or from church. And then just a few days later, she was gone.

2016-11-27-slide-9-no-regretsIn both life and in death, we want to live without regret, doing all we can for the safety and well being of not only ourselves, but those around us. This very desire is what keeps insurance companies and estate lawyers in business.

2016-11-27-slide-10-missionKnowing that something is coming doesn’t mean we’re prepared for it. We prepare for our predictions, what we think will happen, for the direction we anticipate our lives taking, but ultimately we are not the ones in control, God is. But knowing that God is in control and even surrendering our own will and praying for God’s will to be done doesn’t mean we lose agency or responsibility. We are called to work as we wait.

2016-11-27-slide-11-searching There’s a song that came to mind when I read this text, called “True Love Will Find You in the End.” The words go: “True love will find you in the end This is a promise with a catch Only if you’re looking can it find you ‘Cause true love is searching too But how can it recognize you Unless you step out into the light? Don’t be sad I know you will But don’t give up until True love finds you in the end.”

For me this song speaks to the paradox faced when anticipating something, both patiently waiting and anxiously working towards transformative love.

2016-11-27-slide-11-manger We are called to wait for Christ’s coming, but it is not a passive act. While we wait, we work. We eat. We drink. We marry. We plant. We cook. Knowing that God’s reign is coming doesn’t preclude us from seeking to make God’s kingdom manifest while on earth. This Advent Season may we live in this tension: ever waiting for and working towards God’s will on earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.

“Anticipation of the Journey”; Luke 1:68-79; November 29, 2015; FPC Holt

 “Anticipation of the Journey”
Luke 1:68-79
November 29, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Today’s sermon will be a little bit different. I will be telling you the story of Zechariah, but what makes this sermon different, is that I will be telling this story in first person, taking on the perspective of Zechariah. So far we’ve heard the “canticle of Zechariah,” the joyful proclamation at the birth of his son, John, later to be known as John the Baptist. But, this story is much more interesting than a proud father’s exclamation, with many unanswered questions for us to explore. And so together let us listen to what Zechariah might’ve said and thought, and may we hear in it God’s message for our own lives as well.

SLIDE 1 - ZechariahI’m not used to being quiet. As a priest, I spend many of my days surrounded by words, teaching what other priests throughout time have understood about the meaning of our sacred texts, preaching so that those who can’t read may hear what God has told them to do, and debating with others in the temple so we can better understand.

Then the silence came, and nothing was the same. At first it was hard to remember what had happened. I’d wake up in the morning and begin to say my prayers, and my lips just moved wordlessly. I’d see a friend approach me in the synagogue and start to say hello and couldn’t even manage a squeak. Eventually it set in and I’d try different ways to communicate. I could always write things down, but not everyone could read what I was trying to tell them. Even those who could didn’t always have the patience to follow along with what I was trying to convey. After all that had happened, to be silent was maddening.

SLIDE 2 - Zechariah and ElizabethYou see, I’ve lived my whole life waiting for what was now happening. My wife Elizabeth and I had waited our whole long, long marriage for a child, someone who could carry on our legacy and family name. But at our age? Impossible. Or so I thought.

SLIDE 3 - TorahAs a priest, I’ve read over and over again the scriptures of the prophets, telling of a Messiah, one who could start a new future for us, saving us from the oppression of the Roman emperor, saving us from the oppression of our own sinfulness. And for year we’d waited for the opportunity for me to go to the Holy of Holies and offer incense. You see, we priests serve in a group, two times a year for a week we would draw lots each day for the chance to approach the temple Holy of Holies. Again and again, my lot was not called.

SLIDE 4 - Zechariah and ElizabethFor years I’ve wondered what my purpose was as a husband, and as a priest, if all I’ve been waiting for and hoping for just weren’t happening. Had God forgotten me? Was I so stuck in going through the motions that somehow what I’ve been doing has ceased to honor God? I thought God was through with me, that is, until the day of the silence. That day that changed everything.

SLIDE 5 - Jerusalem TempleIt seemed like just a typical day, traveling to the Jerusalem temple with my fellow priests. Chatting with each other as we walked, sharing our joys and our frustrations. I knew the way this worked, we would go to the temple draw lots, and I’d try my best to graciously support whoever was chosen that day. But then, my name was drawn, and I was to experience the Holy of Holies!

For all my training and years of experience, as I entered into the chamber I’ll admit my hands shook a bit. I was about to enter into the very presence of God! I knew what that space was like by rote, and had heard others talk about the stillness, but couldn’t imagine it fully until I was there. Lighting the incense I suddenly felt like I wasn’t alone. SLIDE 6 - AngelI looked and gasped as I saw…well, it’s hard to put it in words… but there was a presence in front of me, winged and bright and powerful. I was terrified! Wouldn’t you be?

This, this… angel spoke me, I’ll never forget this part, it said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.  You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,  or he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

I was shocked, incredulous, frightened, and I’ll admit, a bit angry. What on earth was this thing telling me? We’ve never been able to have a child and now, we’re being given instructions not only what to name him, but also what he should drink? This was absurd!

SLIDE 7 - Angel touching lipsI made the mistake of expressing my… disbelief and was immediately admonished. The angel said, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

I started to object again, but found my mouth would make no sound, try as I might. SLIDE 8 - Zechariah trying to talkStumbling out of the inner sanctuary into the daylight I’m sure the gathered crowd thought I was stunned. And well, I guess I was. Try as I might I couldn’t tell them anything of what had happened, couldn’t explain my silence, couldn’t explain my incredulous joy. Then after the week was up I headed home to Elizabeth.

SLIDE 9 - Zechariah and ElizabethIt was one thing to not be able to tell the other priests, but to not tell my wife? Especially about something so dear to us, so immediate to her own body, it was maddening. Try as I might I couldn’t speak a word. And my dear, darling wife, had never learned to read, so I couldn’t begin to share this story.

But soon, she knew for herself what miracle was happening within her, the family forming between us, the journey that was before us. We’ve been waiting so long, that this additional nine months of waiting seemed like nothing, but in the silence, it was so, so hard.

For so, so many years we had hoped for this, but after so many years, we dare not plan for this. Even after the birth of our child we couldn’t be sure of our own ability to support him into adolescence, or adulthood. What would be come of this child of ours, this John. His name was John. But I couldn’t tell Elizabeth that. I couldn’t share the promises of the angel. I couldn’t say a thing.

But I could listen. And in listening I heard Elizabeth weep with joy. She told me of so many times she was overlooked in the synagogue, in the town, in our own family, for not being able to be a mother. She spoke of her pain. And all I could do was hold her and listen.

In this silence too, my prayers changed shape. I was so used to talking, sharing with God the ways I had been left out, the way I wasn’t getting what I hoped for. But in the silence, I learned to listen, listen to the ways that God’s bigger plan was unfolding. The way that my meager hopes could be used for eternal glory.

SLIDE 10 - John birthFinally the day came when Elizabeth gave birth to a son, our son. The one to prepare the way of the Lord! Over the past many months I had made peace with my silence, and with the future that lay before Elizabeth and me. My incredulity had been transformed into joy, my distrust into steady belief. I knew that God had a plan for this child, our child who was so much more than ours. The one who would make a way for the Messiah.

After so much silence the family knew Elizabeth spoke for the both of us and so asked her directly what our son’s name should be. She said “John,” the name I had been unable to share with her for months, the name I had heard in the temple. How could she know his name? Surely she had felt God’s presence too. SLIDE 11 - His name is JohnWhen those at the temple for his circumcision questioned it I confirmed by writing “His name is John.” And all at once I could talk again. My voice had come back and I had so much to say, no longer bitter from waiting, no longer fearful from mistrust, I had nothing to share now but praise: And so I began: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. For God has looked favorably upon God’s people, and has redeemed them.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Great Expectations” Luke 2:22-40 February 2, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Great Expectations”
Luke 2:22-40
February 2, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

New Years Eve I was delighted to count down the New Year with David, my best friend Claire, her husband and their son, sweet 2-year-old James. This past week I was able to spend a bit of time with former interim pastor, Christine and her dear son Jacob. I remember hearing the news of each of these pregnancies was quite exciting. There were baby showers, advice given, well wishes, and I’m sure their stomachs were rubbed more often than they could count. Ever since the babies were born they’ve had visits from excited family members and friends, countless memorable family photos, and birth announcements of all sorts.

Slide03Over 2000 years ago, Isaiah prophesied Christ coming into this world. Angels told Mary she would be a mother and Joseph that he would be a father. There was even a Heavenly birth announcement in the form of a bright star in the sky. But aside from a visit with her cousin Elizabeth, Mary had no real baby shower. Jesus’ birth happened in a crowded manger heated only by the warmth of barnyard animals. They were visited not by family and friends, but by wise men, shepherds, and angels. I’d like to see that odd crew try to bring their frankincense and myrrh past hospital security these days.

Slide04It’s strange to be talking again about the birth of Jesus, but our church calendar brings us today to the “Presentation of Jesus,” celebrating Jesus’ introduction into their community, into the world he had come to save.

Slide05Galatians 4:4 tells us, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son.” The fullness of time means that Christ’s birth was not intended to be a surprise, Christ came exactly when and where and how and to whom He was meant to come. Yet, the world was not ready. Just as the inns of Bethlehem were occupied, the people’s thoughts were occupied by their own schedules and census travel plans.

Slide06Pregnancy carries it’s own “fullness of time.” There is a set amount time that a woman is pregnant. If she gives birth any earlier, it is cause for concern, any later and most doctors will induce the labor to help the mother and child along. Knowing of the pregnancy, one can begin to prepare, decorate a nursery, and celebrate with family and friends. It is an exciting time of anticipation and hope.

Imagine how different a pregnancy is without this sort of preparation. There are pregnancies that carry more fear than hope: The couple who has suffered a miscarriage and is wary to expect that this time, things will be okay; a young unmarried mother who just wants to hide what is happening insider her, and doesn’t dare speak it out loud; or a woman who doesn’t know she is pregnant, something that doesn’t happen all that often, but just often enough that there is a series on TLC about this experience. Each of these circumstances carries it’s own fear, pain, and yet still, hope.

Slide07Ever since Isaiah’s prophecy the Judaic world had been looking for a messiah. But over time it seems the anticipation inflated expectations. A savior for the world had to be a great king, right? Surely he would be born in a fortress, or castle, or temple, or at the very least, a nice home. Excited for the messiah, they forgot how God works. Since God created all things, God does not place a value system on a person based on how the world sees potential. In fact, more often than not God picks the least and the last and the meek.

Slide08It seems people forgot that Abraham who became the father of many nations, was first cowardly about his marriage to Sarah and so unsure of how God was going to give them an heir that he had a child with his wife’s servant. Slide09They didn’t remember that Moses who led the people out of Egypt was also a murder and poor public speaker. Slide10 They forgot the long list of faults David carried with him even while becoming a great king. So while we can look at first century Bethlehem with clear hindsight and see that of course God would chose to become incarnate as a meek and humble infant to serve the humble and meek, this was not so clear to the people of that time.

Slide11So when Jesus showed up in the midst of a census, in a town with no vacancies, the bright star in the sky seemed to be no more than coincidence to the devout religious scholars. They were so busy trying to follow God as they had been told through stone tablet commandments and wound up scrolls of Torah law that they were unaware that God incarnate was living and breathing in the world. While the world was given many signs of Christ’s birth, they were not throwing baby showers, keeping an eye out for young pregnant women, or looking towards young children, looking in their eyes for a savior. Rather they react more like a mother who didn’t know she was pregnant. When they hear of Jesus’ birth they react, not by worshipping their savior, but with disbelief and fear.

Slide12One of my favorite characters surrounding Christ’s birth is Simeon, who Joyce read about in our text today, and who was acted out by Rich Bucknell on Christmas Eve. Simeon has been waiting for the birth of the Messiah. The Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that he would see the Messiah before his own death. The Biblical account doesn’t tell us much about the character of Simeon, but early Christian folklore provides some interesting stories on this “righteous and devout” man.

Slide13One such story, places Simeon as one of 70 original scribes who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. In this story, Simeon was assigned to translate the scroll for the book of Isaiah, and as he worked, he came to a verse we hear often in our Christmas scriptures, Isaiah 7:14, which says “and the virgin shall conceive, and she will bear a son…” and Simeon hesitated, questioning the believability of this statement. Simeon concludes that somewhere along the way someone must have written this wrong, so he decides to correct the error himself.

But just as Simeon’s is about to write out his new translation, an angel appears to him, telling him the prophecy is correct as written, a virgin will indeed conceive and bear a son. Simeon questions the angel, who then promises him he will not die until he has seen the prophecy’s fulfillment in the form of a Messiah. Now, historians tell us the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible was finished somewhere around 132 BC, so if this folk tale is to be believed, it would mean Simeon would be somewhere in the range of 150 to 200 years old at the time of Jesus’ birth.

I still like this story. I can imagine Simeon as a young scribe, excited about this unbelievable miracle that he is going to witness. A messiah is coming to save his people. I like to imagine this man walking among the people, smelling of the burnt offerings of the temple, praying for peace for those he passed. Well, time passes, and Simeon grows older. I can’t imagine him keeping the story of his interaction with the Holy Spirit a secret, so there might be others waiting with him, for a while at least. Maybe they question the believability of all of this as well. Maybe they question his sanity. But, finally, so many years later the Holy Spirit comes to him again and guides him to the temple.

It is now eight days after Jesus’ birth and as Mary and Joseph enter the temple, Simeon approaches them excitedly. The Holy Spirit helps him to recognize the child and he takes him in his arms saying, “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.” Then he turns and says, specifically to 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.” So much for a happy birth announcement.

The angel told Mary earlier in Luke’s gospel that Jesus would be called “Son of God,” but was not really given much detail about what else would happen to this infant, “Son of God,” child of hers. In the Gospel of Matthew an angel comes to Joseph and says, “[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” But there isn’t much more instruction to that either. What will this saving son look like?

Slide16Simeon fills in a bit of the details and at first they seem exciting, “a light for revelation and glory.” This would make a great bumper sticker.  Can’t you just see it on their donkey cart now? But then he continues: “falling and rising of many,” “a sign that will be opposed,” a sword that will pierce Mary’s soul. Now this is not something a mother would like to hear.

Previous to this encounter we read of angels coming to Mary telling her of Jesus’ birth and  “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” An angel has to reassure her, telling her not to be afraid. Later we read of the shepherds and that “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Now, Simeon tells them of the pain that comes with being the earthly parents of the messiah. I’m sure this terrified them too.

Every new parent dreams of what the future will hold for their child. If a child kicks their feet we may predict a future of soccer or football, if they point their feet, maybe ballet. If a child has long fingers we may say they will be a musician or an artist.

Slide19In Korean culture, there is a tradition along these lines called Doljanchi. This Korean tradition celebrates the birthday of a one-year-old baby. The most important part of the dol is a ritual in which the child is placed in front of a table of foods and objects such as string, books, brushes, ink and money. Family and friends gathered watch the child to see what object they will pick up. This object is said to foretell the child’s future. If they pick up the brush or book they are destined to be a scholar; if money, they will be wealthy; if cakes, they will be in government; if a sword or bow, they will be a military commander, if the thread, they will live a long life. Over time, the objects have changed based on societal perceptions of successful occupations. Nowadays there might be a computer mouse for success in a technological field, a toothbrush for a dentist, or a gavel for lawyer.

I imagine the type of table Mary and Joseph would set up at Jesus’ dol. They would likely put a hammer, wanting Jesus to be a carpenter like his father. They might place a scroll, hoping him to be a temple scholar. They might put a fish, so he might be a fisherman, and a string, hoping also for a long life. However, nothing in Simeon’s prediction would likely be on that table.

Slide20In a few minutes Olivia will sing “Mary Did You Know?” This song is a beautiful but haunting song that speaks of the daunting reality awaiting Christ, this tiny baby resting in Simeon’s arms. The works of his ministry, the impact of his faithfulness, the implications of what it will mean for him to be the savior.

If Jesus’ heavenly Father were to set up a dol,  it would have fishing lure, so Jesus would fish for people. There would be sheep’s wool, for leading. Next to those would be things no earthly father would set on the table, nails and a crown made of thorns. God knew Jesus would pick up all of these things.Slide23

The nativity story is not the story of a birthday party. Yes there are guests and gifts, but it’s also a scary and complicated time for this young family. It was not an easy journey to Bethlehem. It was not easy to find a place for Jesus to be born and shortly after Jesus’ birth Herod is already trying to find and kill him. Simeon further complicates things by singing one of the oddest birthday songs you will ever hear; a song filled with joy, gratitude, and pain.

This is indeed a strange birthday, because this baby comes not to receive gifts, but to give them. Jesus comes into our lives Christmas after Christmas, as an infant, but lived in our world as a Messiah. Today we celebrate his entrance into this community, his introduction into the world he had come to save. He is eager to share in our every complication and joy. Jesus comes to give us the gift of life everlasting. We are welcomed to this birthday to receive. May you, as Simeon, be open to the Holy Spirit and eager to experience God in your own life. Amen.

“Lamb of God” John 1:29-42 January 19, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Lamb of God”
John 1:29-42
January 19, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01 “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” this bold declaration of John the Baptist names Jesus, putting Jesus future right out in front of them: Jesus had come to die for their sins.

It draws to mind a long ago promise from father to son. In Genesis 22 we read:

“God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”  So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.”

“Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, Slide04“God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.  When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.  But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.”

“God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

And here we are, with John’s declaration, “here is the lamb of God!”

The story has turned dark from the baptismal declaration of last week, and the pictures of a rosy-cheeked baby from our scripture passages less than a month ago. In this narrative we are confronted with the reality of who this Jesus is, what his mission will be here on earth, and by extension, what our response should be to God come to earth.

On the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it seems fitting to quote another influential African American theologian and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman. He wrote:

SLIDE 7 - HowardThurmanWhen the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with the flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal those broken in spirit,
to feed the hungry,
to release the oppressed,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among all peoples,
to make a little music with the heart…
And to radiate the Light of Christ,
every day, in every way, in all that we do and in all that we say.
Then the work of Christmas begins.”[1]

At stores all around Christmas displays have come down and depending where you are they might already be on to Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day, but here in the church you will notice by our paraments here on the pulpit, lectern, and communion table, we are still in the season after Epiphany. This is the season that celebrates the birth of Jesus, the manifestation of God come to earth. In the liturgical calendar of the church we are still being drawn into this mystery, drawn into the hope and promise of what it means for God to be in human form among us.

Slide08At Jesus’ birth there was a great gathering at the manger, all were drawn to experience Christ for themselves. This was more than just a birthday party for a baby, this was people drawn in to experience God, come to earth, come to human form, come to us.

In our scripture today, when Jesus is questioned about where he is going his answer is “come and see.” “Come and see,” is a call to have your own experience of the Christ.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks of his disciples following him. I would ask the same of you today. What are you looking for: what peace, what reconciliation, what answers? Might they be found in the pursuit of Jesus?

SLIDE 9 - Baby LambHow do we respond to Jesus come to earth? How do we respond to this beautiful baby, this grown man, this lamb of God?

Might we be a bit more like John the Baptist? John the Baptist is a rather interesting character in scripture. He is the cousin of Jesus, son of Elizabeth, and somehow he finds himself out in the wilderness, compelled to point people to Jesus. He is described as a hairy, unclean man. Many artists’ portrayals of him are far form flattering, kind of a wilderness man of sorts.SLIDE 10 - John-the-Baptist

And here this wild man comes into the scene saying, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

John would see sin not as a moral category of making decisions of right from wrong,  but as a separation from relationship with God. Jesus taking away our sin then, establishes relationship between the people and God. Jesus has become real among them, real in his physicality as a man, but also real in his capacity to be the messiah, the savior, the one who came before.

We read in John 1:2-14: “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Slide13Biblical Commentator Richard Swanson explains the significance of the “lamb of God” in this way: “The lamb is burned as a whole burnt offering, not for sin but simply for extravagant sacrifice, which puts the one who offers the sacrifice (of the future of his flock) in the position of having to rely completely on God. The lamb is the long-awaited son, provided by God as part of a promise long-delayed, who walks with his father, the two of them together, on the way to the slaughter of the son and of the promise.”

May we live into the promise of our salvation, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Savior, Messiah, and lamb of God. Amen.

Folk/Indie/Bluegrass Holy Week Playlist

cross-silhouette1

Here are some of the songs that have been buzzing around my brain this Holy Week. They’re not all direct reflections of the gospel, but for me have evoked the emotions of what this week is about. I hope they might bring similar reflection for you:

Palm Sunday

“Passion Song” by Sean Carter

I was with him when he rode into town
And crowds gathered round him like a king
Their smiling faces, joined a sea of branches waving
Thou they were masquerading in the end

And my heart rose in my throat
When I heard them sing
Hosanna, in the highest

Maundy Thursday

Last Supper

“Bread and Wine” by Josh Garrels

Of the places we left behind,
No longer yours and mine
But we could build a good thing here too
So give it just a little time,
Share bread and wine
Weave your heart into mine

If I fall, I fall alone, but two can help to bear the load
A threefold chord is hard to break
All I have I give to you if you will share your sorrows too,
Then joy will be the crown upon our heads
My friend

“Forget Me Not” by The Civil Wars

Forget me not my dear, my darling
Forget me not my love
I’m coming home real soon

“Break Bread” by Josh Garrels

Let us break bread together on our knees
Let us break bread together on our knees
When I fall on my knees, with my face to the rising sun
Oh Lord, have mercy on me.

“Timshel” by Mumford and Sons

And death is at your doorstep
And it will steal your innocence
But it will not steal your substance

Garden of Gethsemane

“Kingdom Come” by The Civil Wars

Run fast as you can
No one has to understand
Fly high across the sky from here to kingdom come
Fall back down to where you’re from
Don’t you fret, my dear
It’ll all be over soon

Good Friday

“Good Friday” by Josh Garrels

I didn’t recognize that look in his eyes
When they cried
With a sorrow that no man has ever known

Hang him high, watch him die, hear the cry
Crucified up on that God forsaken tree

“Free Until They Cut Me Down” by Iron and Wine

When the men take me to the devil tree
I will be free and shining like before

Easter

“Roll Away Your Stone” by Mumford and Sons

That’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home
that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with the restart

All sorts of great Easter music free from Noisetrade: https://www.noisetrade.com/goodmorning

“What Has Happened Here” by Kris MacQueen (Good Morning. Happy Easter. 2)

I went to the place where I knew he was
But I did not find what I thought I would
An empty cave discarded clothes
No trace of the flesh that had contained my Lord.

Anger and rage, feeling misused,
Were the first things I felt, when I heard the news
His body was taken, his grave was defiled
Was there some other tale of wonder or woe?

What has happened here?
Do I dare believe?
What has happened here?

“Awake My Soul” by Derek Webb

‘Cause no one is good enough to save himself
Awake my soul tonight to boast nothing else

I trust no other source or name
Nowhere else can I hide
‘Cause this grace gives me fear, and this grace draws me near
And all that it asks it provides

“Kingdom of Heaven” by Jenny & Tyler

Set your mind, your mind, your mind, on things above
Set your eyes, your eyes, your eyes on the risen Son

Where there shall be no night
Nor need for sun to shine
The Lord Himself will be the light
In the Kingdom of Heaven

“Simply Giving;” Luke 3:10-18; December 23, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Giving”
Luke 3:10-18
December 23, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

An angel came to his mother telling of his surprising and miraculous birth. He lived life as a revolutionary, an outcast of society. He preached the truth of God’s judgment and God’s grace. He proclaimed the coming reign of God and the establishment of God’s Kingdom among the last and the lost and the lonely.

AJohn the Baptistny guesses to who I might be talking about?

Since we’re in church, just a couple of days away from Christmas, Jesus seems like the logical answer. And that’s correct of course, but this same biography belongs to Jesus’ cousin, John, also known as John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ,  “the voice crying out in the wilderness.”

John the Baptist is not who we typically think about when we think about Christmas. His stories understandably take a back seat to that of his ever more famous, ever more eternal second cousin, Jesus of Nazareth. But John too was born out of an unexpected pregnancy and called into a counter-cultural life. SONY DSCAngels announced both of their births. An angel came to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, and told her that even in her old age she would have a baby. An angel came to Mary and told her that even though she was a virgin she would have a baby. Surprises all around.

The two cousins, Elizabeth and Mary met together and share their news. When Mary told her cousin of her pregnancy, John leapt in his mother’s womb, excited to be in the presence of Jesus. But then, they grow up and the Biblical narratives are silent about any interaction the two of them might have had throughout their childhoods or adolescence.SONY DSC

 Thirty or so years pass and we are told that, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This was before Jesus’ ministry officially began at the wedding in Canna. Before Jesus had worked a single miracle, John was proclaiming God’s will with strength and conviction.SLIDE 4 - Saint John the Forerunner John is often depicted like this picture here. Here in this otherwise formal portrait, John is disheveled, a wild man who lived out in the wilderness. He was described wearing a leather belt and a tunic of camel hair, living off locusts and wild honey. His message was not for those who were concerned with appearances, but for those concerned with God’s work throughout our lives and into eternity.

Here in this place he speaks out to a gathered crowd. This is the message we heard a few weeks ago, John the Baptist speaking of how when Jesus’ kingdom comes to fruition “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Though the end result of this kingdom is a great and glorious thing, such perfection requires eliminating the parts of our lives that are not pleasing to God and fully submitting to God’s will for our lives. John preaches of this refining fire to a gathered crowd and they are, of course, concerned:

SLIDE 5 – John Preaching to Crowd“What should we do?” asked the crowds.

“What should we do?” asked the tax collectors.

“What should we do?” asked the soldiers.

To each, John replied with a message of giving, a message of generosity. What he says is neither complicated nor spiritual. To the poor crowds: share what you have. To the tax collectors: take only what is fair. To the soldiers: don’t extort. In everyday language, these are the rules of the playground: share, be fair, don’t bully.

John gives them very practical commands of how to move forward with their lives, how to redirect their lives towards God’s will. John does not tell them to leave their current lives, but rather to go forward just where they are, but with hearts bent towards God’s will.

 Luther Seminary Professor, David Lose writes about this saying, “Caught between eschatological [end times]  judgment and messianic consummation [the coming of the Messiah], the crowds hear John speak of a role in the coming kingdom they can play. It demands neither monastic asceticism nor spiritual pilgrimage. John invites them to participate in God’s coming kingdom wherever they are and whatever they may be doing. All they need just enough faith to God at work in and through the ordinary and mundane elements of our lives.”[1]

We are told in our passage in Luke that, “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” He answers their unspoken question saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

How wonderful to imagine that John was such a reflection of God’s desire that he could be mistaken for the Messiah. What an incredible image, living a life so in tune with God’s will that a divine connection was assumed. The apostle John tells us in John 1 tells us: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”SLIDE 11 – John with Water and Dove

When we say, “what should we do?” John provides an interesting example. He is not Christ and does not pretend to be Christ. But he is so assured in God’s call on his life that he’s willing to go out to preach and baptize. He is so assured in the coming of God’s Kingdom through Jesus Christ that he lives his life pointing to Christ. After that first womb-concealed leap in Jesus’ unborn presence, John continued to rejoice in Christ’s incarnation throughout his life.

John gives this gathered crowd specific measurable instruction on how to give and receive in this world, all having to do with money. John also provides a very specific example on how to give and receive in this world that has nothing to do with money and everything to do with relationship. SLIDE 12 – Hand extendedJohn lived his life rejoicing in the company of Jesus Christ. As we are already in the midst of this season of giving, this is an important example to remember. In this Christmas season we will both give and receive gifts, but we needn’t get caught up so much in the gifts themselves, but rather on the relationships that surround them. When we give let us remember John’s command for sharing, fairness, and consideration, but also the simplicity and unconditional nature of John’s joy in God’s presence.

SLIDE 13 - PresentMy sister and I were talking the other day about some gifts we have given and received over the years. No matter what the material gift was that was received, the ones that had the most impact were those that reflected a genuine, unsolicited knowledge of the recipient. These were gifts that required listening, required paying attention, required being in relationship. The greatest gift we can receive was the gift of being known.

SLIDE 14 – Wise Men GiftsWith this in mind, the gifts of the wise men initially seem quite strange. They are coming to celebrate the birth of a baby and bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Seems like quite the strange baby shower presents. Surely these were not gifts that Mary and Joseph would’ve registered for at Babies R Us. But the gifts are also right on track because they point to a knowledge of who this little baby Jesus will become. These are gifts of knowing Jesus’ future. The gold was the symbol for the king; frankincense for the priesthood, and myrrh for healing. These gifts, then, point to a greater gift: the most important gift of this season that cannot be wrapped up in a box or written on a check.The most important gift is the gift of Jesus’ life, which is offered at his birth. Even as a baby, these gifts tell us that Christ is the great king, the priest of all priests, who came to heal this broken world. SLIDE 15 - Jesus as Present

This Christmas let us remember that Christ has come to exchange with us the gift of being known. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead… I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”[2] Say this with me, “I want to know Christ because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” May we desire to know Christ with that sort of intensity, secure in the knowledge that Christ desires us to reveal ourselves to him as well.

SLIDE 18 - Leaping But let us not let our leaping with joy in Christ’s presence be contained to the wombs of our world, the places where we are comfortable, secure, and nourished. Let us leap throughout out lives, sharing the love of Christ. May we, like John, be a witness to the light of Christ, giving the gift of Christ’s love into this world. Amen.

“Simply Hoping,”Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 3:2b-6; December 2, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Hoping”
Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 3:2b-6
December 2, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - Journeys of SimplicityThere’s this book I have called, “Journeys of Simplicity: Traveling Light.” In it are accounts and inventories of many well-known individuals, some historic, some contemporary, including: Thomas Merton, Gandhi, Annie Dillard, Henry David Thoreau. Each account acknowledges a simple collection of possessions.

When someone chooses to live meagerly, what they do have reveals quite a bit about what is important to them. This is choosing to live with your answer to the question, “what would you bring with me when stranded on a deserted island?” Taking what is special, what is precious, what is essential. Things made sacred by intentional scarcity.

Slide02Thomas Merton had a broken rosary and a wooden icon of the Madonna and child. Gandhi had three porcelain monkeys and spittoon. Annie Dillard had bird skeletons and whalebones. Henry David Thoreau had a jug of molasses.SLIDE 5 - Molasses

Many of the contributors held onto words. Books of the movements of Catholic worship, Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Websters Unabridged, and Tolstoy.Slide06

Some of the items are sacred not by their functionality or identity alone, but by their origin: furniture built by husbands, technology gifted by sons.

In the church we acknowledge the season of Advent. It begins four Sundays before Christmas, and ends on Christmas day. There are four Sundays in Advent, no more, no less, every single year. In the liturgical year, the season of expectation is restricted to these four weeks.Slide07

Anyone who has turned on a television in the past two months will have heard: Christmas is coming, Christmas is here, there is shopping to do, there are so many days left, there are only so many of that special toy available, there are only so many of that new gadget in stock. We must hurry, we must rush, we must buy.

In the Church, the season of Advent actually begins today. There’s sacredness to this allotted time. There are things to do this month to prepare, but they don’t have a whole lot to do with Black Friday or Cyber Monday or 50% off on Christmas things even before Thanksgiving. They have to do with coming to worship, seeing those without, and living in the hope of a Messiah come to earth who lives on through us even now, more than 2000 years since his birth.

I’m not saying that you can or should turn on and off your excitement for Christ’s presence by looking at a calendar. But let’s treat these weeks as special. Let’s treat this month as more than a to-do list of shopping, baking, and decorating. This time of Advent is a time of expectation, a time of hope, a time of remembering the gift of Jesus Christ, the rarity of his birth, and the exceptionality of his life.

SLIDE 8 - Thoreau2Henry David Thoreau is writer known for his poetry, but is equally as famous for the way that he went and lived out in the woods as a recluse and a hermit. Thoreau once wrote,

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.”

I’m not suggesting we should all become Henry David Thoreau, go out into the woods and strike out on our own in order to get right with God. But there is great value in living lives deliberately focused on the hope and expectation of God incarnate in this world. And it is very possible to live deliberately within the lives we currently inhabit.

Holiday dream-3As a young child I remember trying to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, electric with the excitement that tomorrow would bring and specifically thinking, “tomorrow something could happen that would change my life.” I wasn’t delusional enough to imagine that I would be receiving a pony or a car or my own mansion or anything else extravagant, but I remember the distinct hope that Christmas offered: the chance that something new would enter my life that would make things a little bit more fun, or a little bit easier, or in the very least, something that would make me a little bit more fashionable.

Over the years there were gifts that changed things for me: as an eight year old there was a piano keyboard that allowed me more flexibility in my budding musical skills, when I was eighteen there was a computer printer that allowed me to print my assignments all throughout the school year, two years ago I received a financial contribution that helped me travel to Switzerland and Rome. Each of these things enabled me to live just a little bit differently, made my life just a little bit easier.

Not every gift that we give and receive this year will change our lives, and I don’t think that’s necessary, but it does help us to have perspective of the one gift that always does, Christ’s presence in our lives and in this world.

SLIDE 10 - Baby JesusThroughout the Biblical accounts, prophets speak with excited hope about the coming Messiah: In our Old Testament passage we hear the promise that justice, righteousness, and salvation is coming. In our New Testament passage we hear that when the Lord comes “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Talk about life changing. This amazing gift, the promise of our Messiah come to earth, is far more than the gimmicks of commercials, far more than that keyboard piano to my eight-year-old self. “He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”[1] “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[2] These are not empty promises, these are real and true guarantees of the salvation that accompanies the fulfillment of Christ’s Kingdom in this world.

We can make a decision what we bring with us into this Advent season. Will we bring our to-do lists? Our anxiety at failing to meet expectations? Our anger towards disconnected family members? Our fear of what may come in approaching year?

Or will we bring our openness to God’s movement in our worship? Our expectation in Christ’s life changing presence? Our hope in Christ’s power in this world? Our contentment in the promise of God’s grace?

Whatever we bring with us will inevitably shape our experience and color our emotions. We have a choice of what this Advent will be.

SLIDE 11 - Simple GiftsOne tool that our church is giving to each of you this Advent season is an advent calendar called, “Simple Gifts.” This calendar provides devotionals for each day with scripture, a lesson, and a small, simple action we can take. Through the reading of these devotions and our response through action, it is my prayer that we may draw nearer to Christ. As we take our offering today, we will also be handing out Advent calendars. There are plenty for each person to have one, so please feel free to take one for yourself and someone else you think would be blessed by it, but if you are able to go through the calendar as a family, you are welcome to take just one for your family.

This is a calendar for your own devotional experience with Christ. Your salvation doesn’t hang on your ability to read each entry on the calendar or accomplish each simple gift action it suggestions, but it just might enrich your experience of God in this Advent season, it just might change your life.

This year, allow yourself to quiet your mind, clear out the clutter of what the world expects you to accomplish this season. Allow yourself to receive the gift of Jesus Christ come into this world. Allow yourself to hope that Christ’s presence in your life will change your life.

I’d like to close today with a poem by an author best known for her book, “A Wrinkle in Time,” Madeleine L’Engle[3]. Please listen for what God is saying to you today in this message of expectation and hope:

God did not wait till the world was ready,
till…nations were at peace.
God came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

God did not wait for the perfect time.
God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. God did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy God came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame
God came, and God’s Light would not go out.
God came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,

God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Amen


[1] Jeremiah 33:15b

[2] Luke 3:6

[3] This past Thursday, November 29th, would have been Madeleine L’Engle 94th Birthday.