Rev. Joanne Blair
December 31, 2017
Today’s scripture closes the loop on Luke’s birth narrative of Jesus. Last Sunday we came to the manger, and today we are in the Temple for the presentation of Jesus, and the purification of Mary. There is a unique encounter with Simeon and Anna, and then when all is said and done, Joseph and Mary and Jesus head for home. We don’t hear about Jesus again until he is 12.
So, what’s the big deal? This story could easily just be a wrap-up to the birth story – a transition piece to let us know how they got home - yet it leaves us with the question, “What Now?” But before we get to that, we should delve a little deeper into why this story made it into scripture, and why it matters to us today.
First, it matters because it demonstrates Mary and Joseph’s continued dedication to their faith. Luke wants there to be no doubt that Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews and did their part in fulfilling the requirements of Jewish law. Judaism revolved around following the law and its rituals. And praising God in all of life is essential to Judaism.
The rites of circumcision and naming marked the child’s acceptance into the covenant community, and gave the child an identity. And for Mary, who was considered “ceremonially unclean after childbirth”, the ritual of purification would again allow her to enter the Temple. After a prescribed time, she would offer a lamb, or, in her case, “a pair of turtledoves or 2 young pigeons” … reminding us that Jesus was born into a very financially humble family.
Simeon’s blessing relates Jesus’ birth to the promise in scripture for the salvation of Israel. But it also foresees the inclusion of Gentiles into this promise. Just as we were shown the inclusion of all in the visit of the magi last week, so Luke again tells us that no one is excluded from this open invitation. And that invitation still holds today.
When you think about it, it is rather amazing that Simeon recognized Jesus as the Messiah when he saw this child. After all, sometimes they all begin to look alike.
I recall only too well (over 20 years ago) when our daughter was swimming in a meet, and we rooted and cheered for the wrong swimmer because we didn’t recognize our own child! To be fair, our daughter didn’t usually swim as proficiently as she did that day, and with their matching suits and caps … well, “they all looked alike.”
Having come to the Temple for decades and decades to see the Messiah, how was it that Simeon was able to distinguish this one child from the hundreds or thousands he would have seen? The Holy Spirit rested on him. And adding to his certainty, the prophet Anna also recognized the very special nature of this child.
Not only does today’s reading affirm the special nature of Jesus, it also brings attention to the work of the Holy Spirit and the inclusion of women … something Luke does not want us to forget or overlook. The universal nature of the Gospel is absolute for Luke … just as it is for us today.
Today’s reading also foreshadows things to come … and it surely was not all “sunshine and roses.” But amidst it all, we are reminded again that God’s promises will prevail. God keeps God’s promises.
So, what is the “big finish” to today’s reading? There is none. Mary and Joseph and Jesus head for home. We know “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”
After the amazing proclamation in the Temple, once again declaring that this baby is the Messiah, they all go back to their everyday, humble life where they struggle to make ends meet. A humble life where Jesus learns the skill of a carpenter, and how to be a good Jew. There were good times, and bad times, but mostly just ordinary times.
And after decades and decades of waiting to see the Lord’s Messiah, Simeon may now be released in peace … but what has really changed?
Nothing … and yet everything.
God has kept God’s promise, and God continues to keep God’s promises. We just don’t know when or how.
Let us never confuse promises with bribes. There is absolutely nothing in Scripture which promises that things will go our way, if we but follow Jesus. That is what’s known as the “Prosperity Gospel” and it has nothing to do with scripture or the promises of God. In truth, following God’s lead often takes us down a rougher road than the one we were on before.
Simeon, Anna, Joseph, and certainly Mary can all testify to that. God allows us to be tried, tested, terrified, and even hurt. This is part and parcel of walking by faith. If we followed God simply to ensure easier lives, we would be selfish believers … looking out for our own best interest.
What today’s Scripture reminds us is that following God is often not easy. And, as Simeon, we must have patience. Let us all seek the faith and obedience of Mary and Joseph, and the patience of Simeon.
An astounding occurrence, such as the birth of the Christ-child, or his being revealed as the Messiah to Simeon, does not mean that everything is fine. But it sure is better. We have an assurance that God is here, that the Holy Spirit is active … and that we can trust God to fulfill all of God’s promises.
We, like Simeon, must wait with patience. And as I mentioned some weeks ago, we can “actively wait” … following God’s lead until all is revealed and reconciled. We have a part in these promises.
So … what now?
In another week, we’ll return to what the church calls “Ordinary Time.” After extraordinary happenings, Mary and Joseph returned home with their child to their most humble and ordinary life. And they continued to be faithful to God and trust in God’s goodness. So we, after this season of hope and celebration, return to our ordinary lives … and we shall live our “ordinary days” filled with hope and celebration and praise of a God who loves us and guides us ... if we but follow.
Tonight, we celebrate the end of the year 2017. Some of us are ready to say goodbye to this year and look forward to opening a new calendar, filled with fresh hopes and promises and resolutions. But the promises of God are not new … they are ongoing. And whether you consider 2017 to have been a “good year or a bad year”, it is the only 2017 you will ever have. The same is true for each day, for each minute.
So often we make grandiose resolutions for the New Year, and once we’ve broken them, we turn them aside. We don’t need to wait for a New Year to realign ourselves with God. We don’t need to wait at all.
This, right now, is the only time you will have this minute. And so, the challenge this week is to continually ask ourselves: “What now? What am I doing right now to follow God’s lead and make me a better disciple of Christ?”
Do You Hear What I Hear: Welcoming God
Rev. Joanne Blair
December 24, 2017
A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with a friend of mine from Poland, and asked her the “probably most asked question” at this time of year … “Are you ready for Christmas?” She happened to grow up under Communist rule, and we have the most interesting conversations! Anyway, her reply to my question got me thinking.
She answered that while she hadn’t totally finished her shopping, her house had been scrubbed top to bottom … windows, blinds and walls washed, carpets shampooed, furniture vacuumed and polished … and so on. Naturally I assumed she was having lots of company, and I shared with her that a lot of people these days do “surface-cleaning” before the guests come, and do the “deep-cleaning” after they leave. She replied that she wasn’t having company this year … that she was going to her sister’s house. The reason for the deep-cleaning is a long-embedded tradition to make sure your home is clean to welcome the Baby Jesus. This really struck a chord with me, and I’ve been pondering it ever since.
It got me to thinking: Is my home clean to welcome Jesus? Now I know for sure that my house isn’t … but what about my home? My inner dwelling? If we were only talking about physical surroundings, then I guess none of us have anything to worry about. After all, let’s really think about the birth narrative for a minute. It was not a pretty picture! And though we are not here this morning to celebrate Jesus’ birth (come back tonight at 5, 8, or 11:00!), we all know the story. But so often as our emotions get ahold of us, we “pretty-up” the story and too seldom do we really consider the harsh realities of the situation.
The stable had to have had quite an odor, (let’s be honest, it would have stunk!), and I can’t imagine the bands of cloth used to wrap the baby were very clean, and … Jesus was placed in a feed trough… which would have been covered with animal spittle and leftover feed.
It’s important to pay attention to this story because what is so spectacular about it … is that it is so ordinary. We often have a tendency to think that living modest, unassuming lives in small unknown places insulates a person from the extraordinary. Well, Luke’s story certainly discredits that theory! Mary … an ordinary, unknown woman from an unknown place was chosen by God for a singularly distinctive role that would reorder her entire life … and that of the whole world.
Mary accepted God’s call on her life, but surely, she must have felt overwhelmed, unprepared, and perhaps unworthy. Surely, she must have questioned (or at the very least not fully known) the struggle she was to endure. But God chose her, and she “opened the doors of her home” and welcomed God into it.
In the book of Luke, after Jesus is born, the first ones to see the baby Jesus were the shepherds living in the fields. The creches we lovingly set out each year display a tender scene of those gathered around the baby Jesus, and there is always a shepherd or two with some sheep huddled near to the manger. They’re beautiful, and creche’s are something many of us cherish. But the reality of the scene that night was anything but beautiful! Most shepherds were boys among the ages of 8-14, with two or three grown men to supervise them. These ordinary boys and men were held in low esteem and not considered to be a part of “polite society.” In fact, they were considered tainted.
Walking around in sheep dung, smelling of wet and dirty animals, it was impossible for them to ever be considered clean … hence, they were never allowed to enter synagogues or the Temple. And to a Jew at that time, religious life revolved around the Temple. Shepherds were deemed unclean, both physically and ritually. For certain, shepherds would not be considered trustworthy messengers of news as great as the birth of the Savior of the world. Yet it was to them that the angels appeared. These dirty, smelly, “nobodies” (mostly not much younger than Mary) were who the angels summoned to go see the Christ-child and tell of his birth. And they said yes. They were called, and they responded to that call. Just as Mary did. They “opened their doors”, and trusted in God.
And what about us? Do we trust God? Do we respond to God’s call? For while we may not have an angel appear to give us a message, God does call each and every one of us. It is only through Scripture that we know of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds centuries later … they were just ordinary people … chosen for extraordinary things. And to be honest, we are all ordinary. Few, if any, of us will be remembered in the centuries to come. In fact, few of us will ever be known outside of our work and personal life circles.
But that doesn’t mean that we ordinary people are not called by God. And it doesn’t mean that we are not called to great things. We, ordinary people, are called to receive and live out the love of God … and there is no greater thing we can be called to than that.
Today’s scripture tells us that we do not know ahead when or how God will call us … but God does call… each of us. Some of us are called to be loud and public. Many of us are called to live quiet lives of faithfulness. But we are all called. And it is up to us to say yes. Think you’re ordinary? Well, “God has big plans for you” … living as a disciple of Jesus Christ, and making God’s love manifest in the world. And no matter how clean our personal home may be, we can all “open our doors” and invite God in. And if we keep our doors open, God will help with the cleaning and show us where we are called.
But like Mary and the shepherds, it is up to us to welcome God in, and say “yes.”
So, when tonight comes and we celebrate the birth of Jesus, look closely at your creche. If God used these unlikely, ordinary people … then won’t God use us too? And let us ask ourselves… “Though my home may not be clean, are my doors open to welcome God in, and hear God’s call? And am I saying “yes” to that call?
Do You Hear What I Hear? Hoping for God
Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 17, 2017 (8:30 am)
Isaiah 61:1-6; Luke 1:46-55
It appeared to be hopeless. They were surrounded with no way out. The temperatures were well below freezing, the snow was flying and the Germans had Ben and his comrades surrounded at Bastogne almost exactly seventy years ago this week. For those of you who don’t know the story, in December of 1944, at almost exactly seventy-four years ago next week, the German army counterattacked the advancing Allied armies in the what we call the Battle of the Bulge. As the Germans rapidly advanced, they cut off a great number of soldiers from the 182nd Airborne, including Ben, a member of my former congregation, who would be severely wounded in the battle. Many of the men retreated to the city of Bastogne where they were, as I said, surrounded. I’m not sure how his participation in the battle came up in conversation and so I asked him about it. He described just how hopeless it seemed and yet, he said, no one gave up hope. I asked him how that was possible. He thought for a moment and then said, “We had hope because we knew that we were not forgotten and that help was on its way.”
That conversation has been swirling through my brain as I thought about how Mary could have had the hope necessary to burst into her song that we call the Magnificat. In that song, she proclaims that God has shown the strength of God’s arms. That God has brought the high low, and lifted the low to a place of honor. The rich have been sent away empty and the empty have been filled. This is a song of hope, which would not seem to fit considering that Mary was in a hopeless situation. Her situation was hopeless because domination by Rome was not a possibility but a reality. And the Romans did not simply want to occupy, but like the Borg of Star Trek fame, they wanted to assimilate the people into the Roman way of life. They told the people that resistance was futile. So how was it that Mary found the hope to keep her going? The hope to proclaim a victory that had not occurred? I would argue that this hope came from the fact that she learned that she and God’s people had not been forgotten and that help was on the way.
To understand Mary’s hope, we should return to the angelic visitation that she had experienced prior to her song. What this visitation said was, God has not forgotten you. On the surface, this visitation might not seem like much in terms of the Biblical story. In scripture, angels seem pop up all over the place. But even for Mary, this was a big deal because an angelic visit was not simply an extraordinary thing, but it was a sign, a signal that God was back in the game. That God may have been away for a while but now God was in the house. That God was listening to the cries of God’s people, even as God had heard the cry of God’s people in Egypt. To have an angel arrive, regardless of the message, meant that God’s silence was being broken and that God was about do something amazing.
This takes us then to the second part of the angelic visit. The angel let Mary know that help was on the way, and that help would be coming from her unborn son. The angel said, “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” This was the message for which she had been waiting. This was the message that said she could be filled with hope. This was the message that allowed her to burst forth into her song where she could proclaim, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.” God had not forgotten God’s people and help was on the way God had always promised it would be.
This message is why Advent matters. Advent matters because there are moments when we want to give up hope. When we want to say, chuck it all. Nothing will ever change. Why bother. We think and say these things in part because we feel ourselves surrounded and cut off, without a way out. It is into those moments that Advent comes; that Mary’s Magnificat comes. They come as a reminder that we have not been forgotten. God may appear to be silent, but God is not gone. And God will send us help; help in the form of friends, forgiveness, restoration, eternal life and a host of other ways. For God is the one who fulfills God’s promises according to the promises made to Abraham, long, long ago.
My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourselves, How am I allowing Advent to give me hope, that I might continue to live as a child of God, in even the most difficult moments of life?
Do You Hear What I Hear? Looking for God
Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 10, 2017
Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
What were they supposed to be looking for? What were they supposed to see? The people listening to these words from the prophet were beaten down, exiled, oppressed and far from home. Everything they had known had been destroyed. They were lost and without hope. Into that moment came this prophet saying a bunch of strange, and frankly, absurd things. The Jewish people have served their term of exile. Someone is supposed to go out and make a highway for God, tearing down mountains and filling in valleys. The people are supposed to see the glory of God; and not only the glory of God, but the power of God like a mighty arm. Finally, God will care for them like a shepherd cares for his sheep. All of this was a bit over the top considering the people were captives in a foreign land. So, what was it that they were actually supposed to be looking for? What was it that they were supposed to actually see?
What were they supposed to be looking for? What were they supposed to actually see? The people listening to these words form this strange guy named John were beaten down, in internal exile, and far from the spiritual home that they had once known. Everything they had known, trusted and believed in was slowly vanishing. They were becoming lost and without hope. Then along comes this guy in his Daniel Boone wannabe costume, eating bugs and saying things like, “One who is more powerful than I am is coming. I am not worthy to even serve him. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. So, everybody come to the river and get baptized.” All of this was a bit over the top. All of this was extremely vague. What then were they actually supposed to be looking for? What was they were supposed to see?
What are we supposed to be looking for? What are we supposed to see this Advent season? This week’s Advent theme is, “Looking for God.” So, what are we supposed to be looking for? Unlike those who first received these messages, we are not beaten down, oppressed, lost and without hope. This is not to say that our lives are perfect, far from it. Many of us this morning are struggling with cancer, the effects of aging and disease, issues with parents, children, friends, relationships. Many of us are struggling with job issues and addictions, politics and finances. Yet, even with all of that we are a free people, living in a time of abundance unheard of in the history of humanity. We not only have enough, but we also have enough to share, which you all have done in so many ways throughout the year. What is it then, that we are supposed to be looking for? What is it that we are supposed to see?
What are we all supposed to be looking for? What are we all supposed to see? The answer is simple and yet extremely complex. What we are looking for is another chance to become the people of God. Let me explain. The people who first heard the prophet and went out to be baptized by John were in the situations they were in because they had forgotten how to be the people of God. The people who were listening to the prophet had forgotten how to treat the poor and oppressed. They had enslaved their own people. Greed had overtaken them. And their pride was so great that when the Babylonians showed one moment of weakness, the leaders decided that God was on their side and would protect them from their own bad choices. And even when Jeremiah the prophet told them not to rebel, but they did and they lost everything. The people coming out to see John the Baptist were under the thumb of the Romans because their leaders had forgotten that God called them to be humble; to be servant shepherds. And so instead of working together to lead the people of God, they had fought and wared among themselves to the point that each side in their dispute went to the Romans for help. But the only help they got was when Rome helped itself to their nation and all freedom was lost. And with the coming of the Romans, more and more people forgot what it was to be the people of God and simply went with the flow of the Empire. What the prophet and John were asking the people to look for was another chance, another opportunity to be the people of God.
This is what you and I are to be looking for as well; another opportunity to be the people of God. Though we are not in the same place as those who first heard and lived these stories, my guess is that most of us can look at our lives, whether it was this week, or some time in our past, and acknowledge that our thoughts, words and actions were not representative of what it means to be part of the people of God. Perhaps it could be as simple as misplaced anger, gossiping about someone at work, choosing not to help someone that we could have helped or ignoring the needs of someone close to us. Or it could be as complicated as abusive language or actions, or perhaps a refusal to share what we have been given. We can also look at this in terms of our community. We can see where the church has not always been as welcoming as it ought. Where it focused only on its own needs and not the needs of others. Where it failed to speak for the poor, the weak, the abused and the marginalized. It is in these moments, in this moment that we are called to look for another chance. We are asked to see that God is coming toward us offering an opportunity to try again.
Another chance is what they were supposed to be looking for because that is what God does; and what God did for them. In one of the great comebacks of all time, the nation that had devastated the people of God was itself devastated by the Persians, who not only let God’s people go home, but sent with them funds to begin rebuilding their nation, Temples and lives. God gave God’s people another chance just as the prophet said God would. God gave the people living under Roman rule another chance as well. God sent God’s only son into the world to establish an alternative kingdom; a kingdom based not in power, but in servanthood; not in hate but in love. In that kingdom, many rediscovered what being God’s people looked like and eventually they would help to transform the world. God gave them another chance. And this is what God does for us as well. That same Christ who lived, died and was raised offers us another chance; through forgiveness of sins we are offered another chance to forgive and be forgiven; to serve rather than be served; to build up and not tear down; to help and not to walk on by. Each day, a new chance comes to us, to live and act as God’s people.
This morning then let us look for that other chance that God offers us to live as God’s people. My challenge to you this morning then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I taking advantage of the “another chance” that God is giving me to live as one of God’s own people?
Do You Hear What I Hear? Waiting for God
Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 3, 2017
Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37
He wasn’t there. The hour had arrived and the professor was not in the classroom. It was my first semester of college and I wasn’t sure what to do. I was on time. My classmates were on time. But the professor wasn’t. Soon there was this buzz going around the room. It was a discussion about how long we had to wait for the professor to show up before we could leave. This discussion included the fact that you had to wait longer for a full professor than an assistant professor…and the length of time you have to wait for each. Finally, we reached a collective decision that we would wait until 20 minutes passed class time and then we were out of there. And so, when the professor had still not arrived at twenty past, we were all scattered to the winds.
How long do you have to wait? My guess this is a question we have asked ourselves far too many times in our lives. How long do we have to wait before we give up and go on our way? If you have ever been there then you have a sense of how the people around Jesus were feeling. They wanted to know how long they were going to have to wait for God to act to establish God’s amazing and life-giving kingdom. They had been waiting for about one-hundred years. They had been waiting since the Roman Empire had pushed out the Jewish leaders and had taken control of the nation. Even though there were local Jewish leaders in place, everyone knew that they were merely the surrogates of the Romans, doing whatever Rome wanted. And what Rome commanded was more money, more wheat and more adherence to Roman culture and civilization. These demands were tearing at the heart of not only the nation but of the faith of the people. So how long were they going to have to wait for God to act?
Why did they think that God would ever act? The answer can be found in both of our passages this morning. For more than seven hundred years the people of Israel knew that they were chosen by God; that as long as they were faithful, God would protect them. God would liberate them. And by the time of Jesus, this belief had morphed into what we call Apocalyptic visions of God’s arrival and liberation. Jesus states that, “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” The implication here is that not only will God act and act decisively, but that God will act sooner rather than later. So, the question with which the people wrestled was how long should they have to wait before they gave up and simply quit believing? Or before they took matters into their own hands and rebelled against Rome. How long should they wait?
How long should we wait? In a world that now seems once again at the brink of nuclear war. That seems to be moving backwards rather than forwards in terms of freedom. In a world in which more than half of the people on the face of the earth live on less than one dollar a day. In this world, how long should we wait on God before we either give up or decide we must bring about the Kingdom ourselves? The answer is, as long as it takes. We are to wait as long as it takes for God to complete the work that God has begun in Jesus of Nazareth.
If that is so, then the question before us is how long ought we to wait. At Advent by Candlelight, Rev. Joanne talked about this sense of actively and not passively waiting. This idea of actively waiting goes to the heart of this story. It does so because at the end of Jesus’ apocalyptic vision he tells the story of the land owner, who, on going away puts his servants in charge of the property. Each was given a task to do to maintain what the owner had left in their trust. Jesus then reminds his listeners that not only were the servants to be faithful in their task, but they were to be faithful in those tasks regardless of how long it took for the master to return. They were to actively wait as long as it took. You and I are those servants. We have been tasked with the work of keeping up creation until Christ returns, even if it is another two-thousand years. We are tasked with actively waiting.
. What I want to do now is to take a couple of minutes before we end to expand on the idea of active waiting. The image I want to use is that of waiting from the inside out. Our active waiting begins with our own inner spiritual development. Through prayer and spiritual disciplines, we are to deepen our relationship with God in Christ. We are to seek God’s will for us. We are to ask “What does God desire of us and who does God desire us to be.” Next, we are to take those insights and put them to work among our neighbors. We are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison and in general, actively love and serve those near to us; those we encounter every day. Finally, we are to wait by working in the wider world for justice. Justice is one of the most frequently used Biblical words. It means working in the larger community, nation and world to right the wrongs and address the injustices that exist. It means working with others to bring about a world that looks a little more today than yesterday, like the Kingdom of God.
After two-thousand years it would be easy to give up and simply go our own way. On this morning however, I want to challenge you not to, but to ask yourselves this question. How am I actively waiting from the inside out, as a faithful servant of the one who has asked me to care for his creation?