“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.

Three Wise Women: A Service of Lessons and Carols

This service of lessons and carols is based on the wider narratives surrounding the Christmas story, encompassing the stories of the Three Wise Women[1], Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna. This service was assembled by Rev. Kathleen Henrion for worship at First Presbyterian Church of Holt, MI on December 28, 2014.

All poetry, songs, and scripture belong to the attributed authors and publishers.

Three Wise Women: A Service of Lessons and Carols

Call to Worship: “First Coming,” by Madeleine L’Engle [2]
Leader: God did not wait till the world was ready, till…the nations were at peace.
People: God came when the heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.
Leader: God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.
People: God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait till hearts were pure.
Leader: In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
People: To a world like ours of anguished shame God came, and god’s light would not go out.
Leader: God came to a world which did not mesh, to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
People: In the mystery of Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born.
Leader: We cannot wait til the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
People: God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Carol: “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout,” Verses 1 &4 [3]

Prayer of Illumination: Emmanuel, ever-present God, open our ears and our hearts to your presence here among us today. May we come to know you better through the scriptures read, the old and new poems shared, and the feelings evoked in own personal reflections. Amen.

Carol: “For All the Faithful Women,” Verse 1[4]

First Lesson: Luke 1:5-20 NRSV

5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13But the angel said to him, ‘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. 14You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for 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. 16He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17With 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.’ 18Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ 19The angel replied, ‘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. 20But 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.’

A Reading: “Zechariah” by Craig Joseph[5]

My silence speaks volumes:
Speaks of hollow reverberations in an empty womb,
Of my beloved’s muffled cries, hopeless, late at night,
Of unbroached topics between man and wife,
Isolated in their grief.

Speaks of a mute God
Who would not stoop to answer
The cacophony of impotent noise made by the righteous,
Striving to keep his commandments.

All this – echoes of despair, lost faith, abandonment.

My silence is God’s silence.

The lack of sound then resounds:
With the rustle of angels’ wings,
The gentle roar of a majestic announcement,
The metallic ring of a sword drawn in anger
Upon a fearful gasp
(An inrush of air
That cloaked a more resounding unbelief:
Faith as barren as a womb).

My silence is God’s answer, disbelieved.

But now I, mute and wildly motioning,
Fill the air with your laughter and endless queries,
Hearing what you cannot be aware of –
That to which divinely-imposed silence has bent my ear:

A distant cry from the beginning of time – from Creation –
Declaring that God will make the hearts of his people fertile again.
Yelled through the prophets (though most were deaf to this meaning),
Hollering through my son (hear that, and do not scoff,
Lest you be considered, Like I,
the town clown),
To announce itself shortly in a Bethlehem stable,
Calling to God’s people in stereo-surround sound.

My silence, alas, is God’s provision
That will not be silent for long.

Hymn: “You are Mine,” Verses 1 & 2[6]

Second Lesson: Luke 1:26-38 NRSV

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’* 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’* 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born* will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

A Reading: “Liturgy” by Irene Zimmerman[7]
All the way to Elizabeth
and in the months afterward
she wove him, pondering,
“This is my body, my blood!”

Beneath the watching eyes
of donkey, ox, and sheep
she rocked him, crooning,
“This is my body, my blood!”

In the moonless desert flight
and the Egypt-days of his growing,
she nourished him, singing,
“This is my body, my blood!”

Under the blood-smeared cross
she rocked his mangled bones,
remembering him, moaning,
“This is my body, my blood!”

When darkness, stones, and tomb
bloomed to Easter morning,
she ran to him, shouting,
“This is my body, my blood!”

And no one thought to tell her:
“Woman, it is not fitting
for you to say those words.
You don’t resemble him.”

Carol: “On Christmas Night, All Christians Sing,” Verse 4[8]

Third Lesson: Luke 1:39-45 NRSV

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

Responsive Affirmation of Faith: Luke 1:46-54 NRSV
Leader: And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
People: and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
Leader: for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
People: Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
Leader: for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
People: and holy is his name.
Leader: His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
People: He has shown strength with his arm;
Leader: he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
People: He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
Leader: and lifted up the lowly;
People: he has filled the hungry with good things,
Leader: and sent the rich away empty.
People: He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
Leader: according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
People: to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

A Reading: “Visitation” by Mary Southhard[9]
Each woman listens
Each speaks:
Ah! the life within you, within me –
a new revelation:
God’s saving love
impregnates the universe
in woman…
in joy…
Magnificat!
Again today
women tell their
stories to each other –
magnificat!
Listen sisters, listen brothers,
A new outpouring.
This time: resurrection!

Carol: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” Verse 1[10]

Fourth Lesson: Luke 1:57-66 NRSV

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ 61They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ 62Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. 64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Responsive Affirmation of Faith: Luke 1:67-70 NRSV
Leader: Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
People: for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
Leader: He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
People: as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
Leader: that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
People: Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
Leader: might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
People: And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
Leader: to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
People: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
Leader: to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
People: The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

A Reading: “Zechariah and the Least Expected Places” by So Elated[11]
Jerusalem and the holy temple filled with smoke
Zechariah shuns the news from the angel of hope
Stuck behind an incense cloud of religion and disappointment

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both your eyes.

Prophets and kings and poets can contribute their work
just like eggs in a nest are alive with the promise of birds
But the Lord of Creation will not be subjected to expectation

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both your eyes.

Elizabeth, barren, her knees black and dirty like coal
her consistent prayers float to the sky and revive her soul
God we will wait though we don’t understand your redemptive story

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both our eyes.

Carol: “Blest Be the God of Israel,” Verses 1 & 3[12]

Fifth Lesson: Luke 2:1-7 NRSV

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

A Reading: “A Christmas Carol” by G.K. Chesterton[13]

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all alright.

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast
His hair was like a star.
O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood on Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

Carol: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” [14]

Sixth Lesson: Luke 2:8-19 NRSV

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

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

A Reading: “Let the Stable Still Astonish” by Leslie Leyland Fields[15]
Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child,
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.

Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said: “Yes,
Let the God of all the heavens and earth
be born here, in this place.” ?

Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
and says, “Yes, let the God
of Heaven and Earth
be born here —-
in this place.”

Carol: “Away in a Manger” [16]

Seventh Lesson: Luke 2:22-24,36-38 NRSV

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

36 There was…a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child* to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

A Reading: Selections from “Anna” by Mary Lou Sleevi[17]
Exuberantly, Anna recognizes a child
at his Presentation in the temple.

Anna of the free Spirit is no solemn ascetic.
She talks to the baby, as well as about him,
She shoulders him closely, absorbing his softness, his heartbeat, his breathing—
experiencing a Benediction of Years between them.

Once upon his time, she welcomed The Promised One.
“She talked about the child…”
And talk Anna did.
She is more than prophet: she is a grandmother!

Because it is the Christ-child she hugs,
Anna, as prophet, is particularly aware
of the vulnerability of less-awaited children
and parents, who also have dreams.

Anna. Dimming eyes, still forward-looking, crinkle with joy.
Anna is Anticipation.
She is an Image of constancy and change…
the progression of peace and purpose at any stage of life.
Hers is the Holy City.

Carol: “Still, Still, Still” [18]

Prayers of the People

Offering: A Reading from Bernard of Clairvaux who lived from 1090-1153; “You have come to us as a small child, but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts, the gift of eternal love. Caress us with your tiny hands, embrace us with your tiny arms, and pierce our hearts with your soft, sweet cries.”[19]

May we respond to this greatest of offering with our own offerings of our times, talents, and tithes.

Response: “What Child Is This,” Verse 3[20]

Charge and Blessing: “Christmas Poem,” by Jim Strathdee[21]
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the magi and the shepherds
have found their way home,
The work of Christmas begins
to find the lost and lonely one,
to heal the broken soul with love,
to feed the hungry children
with warmth and good food,
to feel the earth below,
the sky above!
to free the prisoner from all chains,
to make the powerful care,
to rebuild the nations with strength of good will,
to see God’s children everywhere!
to bring hope to every task you do,
to dance at a baby’s new birth,
to make music in an old person’s heart,
and sing to the colors of the earth!

Carol: “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” Verse 3


[1] Inspired by Dandi Daley Mackall, Three Wise Women of Christmas (Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2006).

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, “A First Coming,” in A Cry Like a Bell, Wheaton Literary Series (Wheaton, Ill.: H. Shaw Publishers, ©1987), 57.

[3] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[4] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[5] Craig Joseph, “Zechariah’s Poem,” Plan A :: it all started in Ethiopia stories from our family of five (blog), December 12, 2009, accessed December 29, 2014, http://planaethiopia.blogspot.com/2009/12/zechariahs-poem.html.

[6] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[7] Julia Ahlers, Rosemary Broughton, and Carl Koch, Womenpsalms (Winona, Minn.: Saint Mary, ©1992).

[8] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[9] Mary Southhard, “Visitation,” in Julia Ahlers, Rosemary Broughton, and Carl Koch, eds., Womenpsalms (Winona, Minn.: St. Mary’s Press, 1992), 10.

[10] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[11] Ben Thomas, Zechariah and the Least Expected Places, So Elated, Ben Thomas B001LJVXNC, CD, 2008.

[12] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[13] “A Christmas Carol” by G.K. Chesterton. Public domain.

[14] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[15] Leslie Leyland Fields, “Let the Stable Still Astonish,” Leslie Leyland Fields (blog), December 2012, accessed December 29, 2014, http://www.leslieleylandfields.com/2012/12/can-stable-still-astonish-and-6.html.

[16] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[17] Mary Lou Sleevi, Sisters and Prophets: Art and Story (Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 1993).

[18] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[19] Bernarrd of Clairvaux, in The Harper Collins Book of Prayers: A Treasury of Prayers through the Ages, compiled by Robert Van de Weyer (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993), 64.

[20] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[21] Jim Strathdee, in response to a Christmas poem by Howard Thurman, 1969, quoted in Ruth C. Duck and Michael G. Bauch, eds., Everflowing Streams: Songs for Worship (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1981), 33.

“God’s Love Endures Forever” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Praise; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19:28-40; March 24, 2013, FPC Jesup

“God’s Love Endures Forever” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Praise
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19:28-40
Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Today is our last sermon in our series on Spiritual Practices. Throughout this season we’ve traveled through the Lenten wilderness of God’s instruction, hopefully growing closer to God’s will for us on the way. Since there are at least as many ways to experience God as there are believers we’ve certainly not exhausted the many ways to get to know God, but I pray this series has revealed at least a few more ways that you are able to connect to God.

Slide02Today in worship we’ve all already participated in today’s spiritual practice! As we watched or walked our processional of palms, sang our songs, and read our call to worship we were engaging in today’s spiritual practice: Prayers of Praise. So we can just check it our your list and I can just sit down, right?

Not quite. Even though “prayers of praise” are something we engage in all of the time, it’s still important to examine what exactly we are doing when we say our prayers, sing our songs, and wave our branches.

Prayers of praise are not an act of going through the motions, checking something of a list, and fulfilling an obligation. Prayers of praise are an act of love responding to love.

Slide03Let’s think about this, if you are talking to your significant other and say, “I love you,” in a monotone voice, once a week, and then go check that off your to-do list, how will they feel? Will they believe you? Will you believe you?

It’s important to know that God’s love of us is not conditional on our response, but we miss out in our own experience of loving God when we fail to notice acknowledge the depth and breadth of God’s love for us. We might even take God’s love for granted.

I know I fall into this problem sometimes, assuming the love of God, rather than joyously celebrating God’s love. When I get into a rut with expressing my love to God, I appreciate reading the Psalms. Like someone in love quoting a sonnet to their beloved, the Psalms give us words we can use to rekindle our appreciation for God’s love. The Psalms are filled with prayers of praise, including our Old Testament reading, Psalm 118.

Slide06Bookending today’s Psalm we hear the refrain: “give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!”In the Hebrew, the word we have translated as “steadfast love,” is “hesed.” “Hesed” is rich with meaning, it has been translated in older versions as “lovingkindness.” It is also used throughout the story of Ruth as the “covenant love” between Ruth and Miriam.

Slide07It appears in the stories of the Old Testament over and over as God insists on loving the people of God. It is an ongoing, unstoppable sort of love. It reflects loving acts of God throughout all of history, as well as our own, individual, immediate experience of God’s love and care for us. [1]

Psalm 118 was originally written as a hymn of praise. The Messianic Christ was a hope for the future, but eternal salvation seemed quite far off. However, God’s desire to provide for God’s people was a historical certainty.

Slide08With the waters of the flood all around them, God brought a rainbow and a dove to give Noah hope of a new world.

 

Slide09

Through the faithfulness of a terrified mother God raised Moses from river basket to leader of a nation. 

 

Slide10In seemingly hopeless circumstances, God brought a child to impatient Abram and laughing Sarah. This passage is regularly read in the Jewish tradition in connection with the Passover as a prayer of praise for God delivering God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom.

Slide11In the New Testament God’s saving power is brought to realization in Jesus Christ. Our New Testament passage today also provides an account reflecting God’s immediate presence and presence throughout history. It is the familiar account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. This is a story we’ve seen enacted year after year. We’re used to waving palms and celebrating with joy the beginning of Holy Week. This scene of crowds, palm branches, and a donkey carries a history far beyond what we see in this scene. It is a fulfillment of several prophesies from throughout scripture:

One of the prophesies is our Psalm today, Psalm 118:26: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.” This verse is echoed in all four Gospels as Christ enters Jerusalem.

SLIDE 12 - Triumphal Entry Psalm 118 even gives instruction for the very procession that arises around Jesus’s journey. In verse 27 it says, “Bind the festal procession with branches.” And the crowds do, waving palm branches as Jesus passes.

Jesus’ chosen mode of transportation is identified in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Jesus, himself quotes scripture by reciting Habakkuk 2:11, telling Pharisees who were nervous at the shouts of the crowds that even “if [the disciples] were silent, the stones would shout out.”[2]

All of these references to historical scripture were not coincidences, but were enacted to show the people that Jesus was the Christ that they had been waiting for. He is the embodiment of the God of Hesed. He is the one who carries out the covenant of love. He is the one deserving of praise.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was surrounded by prayers of praise. Luke 19:37 tells us that “The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” They were welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem, but not as some celebrity they had only heard tell of. This was not their first experience of Jesus, they were responding to all the amazing miracles of Jesus’ ministry.

It’s also important to notice that they understood that they understood that Jesus’ actions were not only his own, but were an extension of God’s divinity, and they “praise[d] God joyfully.” They were acknowledging God’s “hesed,” God’s everlasting love that was presented to them through the ministry of Jesus. We too are called to praise God for the many ways God enters into our lives.

In Philippians 4:4, the apostle Paul calls us to “rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.” When times get difficult this seems like a strange thing to do. There are certainly times that we don’t feel like praising God, but Paul encourages us to draw close to God especially in these difficult times.Paul continues saying, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6) By lifting up our concerns and directing them to God Paul tells us that, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

So how do we engage in this practice of prayers of praise? It is more than the recitation of prayers, it is a prayer that taps into a joy brought by love of God. It is an exultation, it is a dancing, a laughing, a forgetting our own selves for a moment so that we can more fully focus on God. It is letting ourselves be giddy in love with our God who loves and created us. Revelation 4:11 affirms our call to praise God: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:11)

Psalm 150:1-6 gives suggestions for how to praise: “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!  Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

This text is not a simple description of what happens in worshiping God. In this text “praise,” is in the imperative sense. We are being urged, provoked, commanded to praise. This is the Psalmist saying, “hey you there, pick up an instrument, jump to your feet, and PRAISE!” We might find ourselves looking around and thinking, well hey, “the praise band does a great job, so they should be praising,” or “wasn’t everyone in the procession of the palms great with waving their branches?” But the Psalmist doesn’t leave this up for discussion, saying, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” This means me, this means you, this means all of us! If we have air in our lungs we have the capacity to praise.

Praise might look a bit differently from person to person. Some may praise God through song, or instrument, some may praise through writing poems or creating art, some may praise God in showing appreciation for creation. The point is, we are all called to praise God, in whatever way we can.

In a few minutes we will sing our Doxology, a call for all of us to praise. May this be our prayer today:

“Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow; Praise Him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Amen!


[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 149.

[2] Luke 19:40

“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.