“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.

“Broken Bibles, Mended Hearts;” Psalm 119:9-16, 103-105 and John 1:1-14; May 12, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Broken Bibles, Mended Hearts”
Psalm 119:9-16, 103-105 and John 1:1-14
May 12, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01When I was in third grade I received my first Bible. This red “Good News Bible,” with my name printed on the inside cover. I remember standing up in the front of the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, Ohio and being handed this brand new fresh Bible. I was so excited, beaming from ear to ear, proud that my church was entrusting me with such a very important gift: the word of God!

And then, after the service I went up to Sunday school, Bible in hand. A friend of mine grabbed mine to check it out and I’ll never forget this moment, she opened it and I heard a distinct ripping noise. Slide13I was horrified. I’m not sure if I started crying or not, but I know I thought about it. Here I had this brand new Bible and now it was ripped! It was no longer new. It was no longer special. I was so upset.

Though it is rational to get upset when something you have is ripped, I was upset for the wrong reasons. I wanted my Bible to stay clean and pure, to stay just like I had received it. I thought that this rip meant that I had messed up God’s word! I thought it meant that I was not responsible enough to have such a holy book in my library.

Slide03I didn’t understand that though one page was ripped ever so slightly, the words were intact. The importance of this book was intact. God’s promises were intact. The troubling thing with this sort of reaction towards a slight marring of God’s word is that it places the emphasis on the physicality of scripture, as if somehow my copy was the only one, and my “ruining” of this book was messing up God’s message. Thankfully, maintaining scripture was not the sole responsibility of my third grade self.

Slide04For thousands of years scripture was transmitted from person to person by storytelling. God’s truth was whispered in back alleys, told over kitchen tables, drawn out in the sand, and shouted from street corners. God’s message of love and hope and redemption and grace and joy can no more be contained to this little red book than God can be contained by our human understanding of God. As a third grader, I didn’t understand that.Slide05

I begrudgingly opened my now less than perfect Bible and tried to figure out what it had to say to me. And you know what, even though it was not so perfect in physical appearance it spoke to me a message of grace and truth. It told me that I, Bible-ruining as I may be, was a child of God. It told me that God has a call for my life. It told me that God loved the whole world and that I was a part of making sure that the whole world knew that truth. I was now tasked with whispering this word, writing it in the sand, and shouting it from street corners. These messages of less than perfect disciples and inadequate preachers whom God had tasked with the bringing about of the Kingdom of God leapt off the page and into my heart.

 Over the years, I became less concerned with one individual Bible, and more concerned with my own ability to engage with scripture as a whole. As one translation became not quite as compelling to me, I would get other translations to shake things up in my scripture reading life. I have bought or received different Bibles in different seasons of my life. Slide07 I have a Message Translation that I got in high school when scripture seemed too old to be relevant. Slide08 I have several Hebrew and Greek Bibles that I used throughout seminary when English translations seemed too new to be accurate. I have study Bibles that I’ve used at different times to help me connect with what different theologians have said about scripture throughout time.

Though each of these versions helped me to read scripture in a new way, they were still pointing to the same God, the same truths, and the same Gospel grace.

Slide09Our New Testament lesson today speaks about the enduring timelessness of God’s word throughout time and tradition. It says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 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.” [1]

The word of God is more than the Bible itself, this passage tells us the Word was God. Through the person of Jesus Christ, the living incarnation of God, the holiness of God was lived out in human experience. Through a blameless life and a selfless death Christ lived the Gospel message that love is stronger than hate and life has the final word over death.

The truth of this living word echoes throughout our Biblical texts, breathing life and grace into the written word. When we read this written word we too are welcomed into this eternal story of God’s enduring truth, of the lived reality of grace.

Each and every Bible is a unique sort of book because it is so much more than a work of literature, a book of poetry, or a nice story about the history of people who lived long ago.

Frederick Buechner, a prominent contemporary Presbyterian minister writes about the lasting messiness and importance of scripture in his book, “Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC,” “One way to describe the Bible, written by many different people over a period of three thousand years and more, would be to say that it is a disorderly collection of sixty-odd books which are often tedious, barbaric, obscure, and teem with contradictions and inconsistencies. It is a swarming compost of a book, an Irish stew of poetry and propaganda, law and legalism, myth and murk, history and hysteria. Over the centuries it has become hopelessly associated with tub-thumping evangelism and dreary piety, which superannuated superstition and blue-nosed moralizing, with ecclesiastical authoritarianism and crippling literalism….Slide11And yet just because it is a book about both the sublime and the unspeakable, it is a book also about life the way it really is. It is a book about people who at one and the same time can be both believing, innocent and guilty, crusaders and crooks, full of hope and full of despair. In other words, it is a book about us. And it is also a book about God…One way or another, the story we find in the Bible is our own story.”[2]

 Our Psalm today, Psalm 119 gives us instructions on how to take in this amazing story, the story of God and of us. In verses 12-16 it says, “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes. With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth. I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”

To truly get into God’s word, we need to experience it. We can’t mediate on God’s word if we have not read it. We cannot fix our eyes on God’s way unless we learn about God’s way through scripture.

If I let myself get caught up in that torn page, I would have never actually gotten to the truth of God’s scripture, God’s own message for my life. In a way, it helped me that that page was torn, because once it was already broken into I didn’t feel like anything I could do to it would be ruining it.

Slide14 This was also liberating for my own understanding of the condition I needed to be in in order to receive God’s grace. God wants us just as we are, and no tears in our conditions or messes in our lives can keep us from God’s plan for us. God used a messed up Bible to speak healing to my own messy heart.

It is my hope and prayer that these Bibles that our third graders received will not stay in such great condition as they are today. If you really use these Bibles you might take a highlighter or pen to the page to write some of your own thoughts about scripture, these Bibles might get ripped, and eventually the covers might fall off. But as these Bibles disintegrate, you will be strengthened to love as God would have you love, serve as God would have you serve, and to hope in the great good promises of salvation by Jesus Christ; and that is worth so much more than pristine pages and a binding that’s never been broken.Slide15

There is a great beauty in the Bibles of people who read scripture from them every single day. They will likely look more run down than anything you’ll find in a bookstore, but in all of their writings, bookmarks, and tears they become a living witness to the faith life of that Christian. Here’s a truth, the worse shape your Bible is in, the better shape your heart is in. (Now of course my lack of focus on any one particular Bible keeps me from showing this in my own life, but I still believe it to be true.)

SLIDE 15 - Plan BPresbyterian author, Anne Lamott, writes in her book, “Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith” about how to absorb scripture. She writes: “There’s a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”[3]

Immersing ourselves in scripture, showing up at church each Sunday to hear God’s word read and preached, reading God’s word before we go to sleep, all of these things may run-down our Bibles, but will help to heal our hearts. May we open our hearts to receive this message of wholeness that God has for us. Amen


[1] John 1:1-4

[2] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: a Seeker’s Abc, Rev. and expanded [ed.]. ed. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1993), p. 9.

[3] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts On Faith (New York: Riverhead Trade, 2006)