The Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 27, 2020
I want you to think about the last drive you took from point A to point B. it doesn’t matter what points A and B are. They could have been from home to work, or the store to home, it is not all that important. What matters is that along the way you passed by homes, stores, shops and perhaps parks, and yet, if you are like me, they were just markers along the way. They were simply the stuff you had to pass by to get from point A to Point B. They were of no particular interest to you and so there was no reason to give them a second thought. Ever done that? If you have then you understand how I feel about this morning’s text. I say this because this is the way I have always thought of this scripture about Jesus’ family and its adherence to Jewish rituals, as well as the story of Simeon and the baby Jesus. These are interesting but are merely markers along the way from point A, -Jesus birth to point B, -his ministry and nothing more. They are hardly worth examining because we need to get to the meat of the Gospel as Jesus teaches, heals, dies and is raised. But what if there is more here than meets the eye? What if there is something here that we should not miss because it turns out to be critical not only to the rest of the story, but to our lives as well? This morning then, I invite you to put your car in park, get out and take a closer look at this story.
I realize that at first glance there is nothing of note here. As good Jews, Mary and Joseph know what is expected of them at the birth of a child. First, they have him circumcised on the eight day. Second, after Mary is declared ritually clean following the birth, they bring their child to Jerusalem in order to redeem him for God, meaning that they are to make an appropriate sacrifice at the Temple. In this case the sacrifice of the poor which was a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons. So far there is nothing unusual in the story. But even when things take a turn toward something out of the ordinary with this guy named Simeon, we readers know that what happens next isn’t unusual at all. As a reminder, Simeon is a man who regularly comes to the Temple looking for the messiah and believes he will not die until he sees the savior. When Simeon sees Mary, Joseph and Jesus, he takes Jesus out of Mary’s arms and gives thanks to God for sending this child, whom Simeon believes to be that messiah. Again, while this is a bit out of the ordinary, it doesn’t surprise us at all because we know who Jesus is. Again, nothing out of the ordinary except one word…Amazed. “And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.”
The word amazed in the Greek means to wonder greatly about, or to be astonished out of one’s senses, or perhaps to marvel about something that is completely unexpected. It is this response of marveling amazement that should cause us to take a closer look. I say this because Mary and Joseph should not have been amazed by this at all. In order to remind ourselves why this is so, let’s recap Luke’s story. First, Mary meets an angel who tells her that she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and give birth to a child who will be a king in the line of David and will rule forever. Next, Mary visits Elizabeth who asks, “Why should the mother of my Lord come and visit me?” In Matthew’s telling of the story it is not only Mary who receives an angelic visit but Joseph has one as well when he is told that his son will save the people from their sins…a messianic task if there ever was one. Then, on the night of Jesus' birth shepherds arrive with the same message that Jesus is the messiah. And finally, there is the visit of the astrologers from the East who bring gifts fit for a king. We might figure then that Mary and Joseph get it; get it that there is something special about their son and that he will be the savior of his people and of the world. So why are they still amazed, astonished and marveling at what was said? Perhaps because that is the reality of Jesus…he is always someone who is supposed to amaze.
We can see this in that Mary never fully understands her son. She is amazed when he wanders off in the Temple to visit and learn from the teachers of the Law. She is so amazed when he begins his ministry that she and her other children go in search of Jesus in order to bring him home because, as the Gospel of Mark puts it, they believed him to be out of his mind. The disciples don’t do any better. The disciples are always amazed. It doesn’t matter how many times he eats with the wrong people; they are amazed. It doesn’t matter how many times he feeds the hungry; they are amazed. It doesn’t matter how many times he speaks of humility and forgiveness that they are amazed that he means it. It doesn’t matter how many miracles he does; they are amazed. And finally, regardless of how many times he speaks of his resurrection they are amazed when it happens. No this is the way that Jesus is…he is the one that amazes.
The problem with many of us, me included, is that we have become so accustomed to Jesus that we miss how amazing he really is. What I mean by this is that we have domesticated Jesus. We have turned this amazing, life transforming, world changing messiah into someone that doesn’t make us nervous, that doesn’t challenge us, that doesn’t push us into being more faithful God followers. If we are conservative, we have made him into a conservative. If we are liberals, we have made him into a liberal. If we desire to be comforted, he becomes a warm blanket. If we need a friend, he becomes our buddy. If we need someone to forgive us, we turn him into someone who doesn’t really care about our sins, but just let’s them slide. And in the process, we are no longer amazed. We are no longer amazed that Jesus changes lives, transforms lives, recreates lives; that Jesus is capable of doing far more in us than we can imagine. We are no longer amazed when Jesus changes and resurrects churches; that Jesus can give new hope and meaning to what it means to be a community of believers. We are no longer amazed when we experience the absolute height, breadth and depth of God’s love that can change the entire world; that is capable of offering reconciliation across lines of race, gender, language, sexual orientation, nationality and ability. A domesticated Jesus cannot amaze. But the fact is that Jesus is still the one who can and does amaze. Jesus is the one who has done, is doing and will continue doing what should amaze us all.
My challenge then for each of us in this coming new year, is to set aside our domesticated Jesus and go in search of the Jesus who still amazes; the Jesus who can do amazing things in us and in the world, asking ourselves this question, “How is Jesus amazing me?”
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
December 20, 2020
Isaiah 54:4-8; Luke 2:15-20
For five days in elementary school my best friend did not save a swing for me on recess. Samantha and I had started the tradition to swing the whole recess together when we were in the same class in 2nd grade. In 3rd grade we were in different classes, but our teachers were friends so they would take their classes to recess at the same time so they could talk, so we still had many of our recesses together.
Whichever of us got to the playground first grabbed two swings and waited for the other. Samantha was my friend because she was a great listener. She remembered everything! I loved that characteristic about her.
On day one I ran to the playground and found Samantha swinging but no other swing for me. I assumed there wasn’t another one available so I said hi and went to play with another group (which we would do from time to time). The second day again, no extra swing and I started to feel hurt. I was also hurt that she didn’t stop swinging and come play something else with me.
By day five I was crushed. I thought my friend had abandoned me and I had no idea why. The pain and fear and sadness of abandonment ate me up all weekend. On Monday I delayed going outside as long as I could before my teacher dragged me out. I sat on a bench waiting for recess to be over.
When it was time to line up Samantha came over to me to ask what was wrong, and I broke down crying. She listened as she always did and it turns out another friend of ours had told Samantha I was sick of swinging. This friend had done this to get the saved swing Samatha had saved for me on day one. Samantha, the good listener, listened to our mutual friend and gave up the swing.
My fear of abandonment prevented me from asking questions about why she hadn’t saved me a swing. For five days my fear forced me to assume the worst. I assumed she was acting out of character and was purposely excluding me. My action of not engaging made the lie of the mutual friend seem real to Samantha, and we went a week without talking about the problem.
If I would have taken a moment to remember her true character it would have dawned on me something wasn’t adding up. If I would have thought about the reason I trusted her as a friend was because she always listened, I might have convinced myself to talk to her earlier.
Checking behaviors with someone’s character is a good ground rule. Even when it comes to God this rule is a huge help. God’s character does not change. We can depend on God to be God in every situation. This is why scripture is so valuable. It tells us what God’s nature is. God is love. Where there are good fruits, God is there too. There is no height, nor depth, nor death, nor life, nor angels, nor government, nor things present, nor things to come that can separate us from God’s love. This is the character of God in every interaction with humanity from the beginning to now. We can depend on God to never change.
There is one slight problem though, what do we do then with scripture like this: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you.” If God is love, what do we do with that?
There are two camps of thought for this problem. One is to see and read those words literally. This leads to the theology that God at times does abandon us, that we can be separated from God.
The other way to read passages like these is to pause and remember God’s true nature. The nature that the rest of the Bible tells us about (love, good fruits, no separation) and ask the question, “Why does this seem to be a moment where God is acting out of God’s normal character?” The answer for Christians who think this way is, we are not interpreting the situation correctly. There is something else happening around the text, in the con-text. Con as a prefix means “with” or “thoroughly” so when we take into account the con-text we are reading thoroughly and WITH all the meaning it encompasses.
When we run into scripture like this we have a choice. Completely ignore all the verses that talk about a loving God and any experience in our personal lives of God’s love and affirm what this verse says...that God abandons us at times, OR look at this verse again through the lens of the knowledge that God’s true unchanging nature is love.
The eight-year old me will encourage you to use the second option and save yourself a weekend of tears thinking your friend hates you.
I took the latter option and went to my personal library of commentaries to see what biblical scholars say about this passage. You know what they all said? Nothing. They jump from verse 6 to verse 9. EVERY SINGLE ONE!
I went online and found one reason why no one has cared about this hole in our discussion, this section of scripture is in the lectionary once every three years. And even then, it’s one of six verses that a preacher can choose from. No one wants to talk about these verses. So naturally that’s all I want to talk about.
Let’s look at the rest of this Isaiah passage first, the part scholars do write about. The metaphor being presented is of a young bride who does something to be ashamed of and it causes her to be cast aside by her first husband. BUT then God steps in and redeems her. We know a bit about this process of redeeming and see it play out in the book of Ruth. In that book Boaz is the redeemer and he sees value in Ruth even though she is a widow. He has to go to a few different places to get the okay to marry her. Leaving Ruth alone to worry about what is happening. Boaz does end up getting all the approval he needs, thus taking Ruth out of a dangerous, lonely, and disgraceful situation and placing her in a situation of honor.
We can totally see where God’s nature shines in this part of the passage. God is love. God sees Israel disgraced and ashamed and God steps in to redeem them. Then we get to verse 7 where God says God abandoned us. Verse 8 God turns their face away from us. It does line up with the majority of scripture which tells us we cannot be separated from God. It does not line up with my own experience with a God whose nature is love. So we stop, affirm God is a loving God by nature, and give the passage another read.
With the lens that God’s true unchanging nature is love, suddenly to me, these words stood out: “…with great compassion I will gather you” or as it reads in other translations, “…with great compassion I will bring you back.” Sounds a lot more like the God I know but now I am wondering about the grammar.
If God was the one who stepped away, then saying God is “bringing us back” does not make a ton of sense. Shouldn’t it say, “I will come back to you?” God moved away and God will come back. Not God moved away and WE will come back. When I looked at the Hebrew for this, it was translated correctly. God moves, “abandons,” and then “brings” us back to God.
I’m a visual learner, let me show this another way. God moves, and then God brings us back. That is what is happening here. God is bringing us back into a new situation. A turned face then is God turning to look for the better situation and moving there to then turn to us in everlasting kindness and pull us forward into the new situation with God. Bringing us out of the place of shame and into the place of honor like the redeemer from the rest of the verse. The metaphor continues on but if we are too quick to read these words and hear “abandon” and allow our fear to shut us down we miss the fullness of the image Isaiah is presenting.
God is a God of love, there is nothing that separates us from that. And if we feel abandoned it could just be that God is beckoning us to join them in something new.
Unfortunately, the fear of abandonment is a strong deterrent. There is a trend right now on tiktok where two people are walking and one of them stops to see how long it will take the other person to notice they are walking alone. I saw one where the partner is wearing thick winter gloves and slips their hand out of the glove so the person walks off holding an empty glove thinking it contains the hand of the person they are walking with. Sometimes these people walk a long way. Blocks.
From one perspective, the person who stopped abandoned the one who kept walking. But someone watching might think it’s the other way around. If someone sees one person walking away from the other they might assume the person still walking forward has abandoned the person standing still.
Who has abandoned whom? If God is going forward and we are standing still, it hardly seems fair for us to then cry out, “Why did you abandon me?”
But we do this all the time. We feel abandoned by God when the reality is God is reaching back for us to catch up. The Christmas story celebrates God moving. God moves to earth. And that movement causes lots of people to feel abandoned. Elizabeth and Zechariah thought God had abandoned them. Mary feared Joseph would abandon her when he found out she was pregnant. Joseph thought Mary had already abandoned him so he should call off the wedding. The sheep must have been looking around for their shepherds thinking we have been abandoned.
The reality was that God was already blocks ahead of them with a situation that would change the world. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son would proclaim the coming of the Lord. Mary and Joseph would raise the Son of God. The shepherds would come back with amazing stories and renewed hope. Christmas celebrates God’s moving and how those moves redeem humanity.
This year has been…fill in the blank with whatever you want. You may very well have felt abandoned by God a few times. Maybe you still feel that way. But the promise in Isaiah is that God is a redeemer which means wherever God went is the place we need to move to. Wherever God is we need to listen to the call of being brought back so we can be with God again.
The place where we were this time last year is NEVER going to be the right place to be again because God is moving us forward, redeeming us into something we were not ready for last year. This year has been a forging fire for everyone. That is not something that happens often. We all have personal experiences of forging fires that strengthen us and burn off impurities, but those happen at different times in everyone's life. EVERYONE has been through the fire this year. This shared experience will change us, if we are willing to move forward. We will never and should never be who we were last year because God is not there anymore. God has abandoned that place and is calling us back into something new.
This Christmas is a reminder that where God is, it is a place worth being. Scripture says God is where we see the fruits of the Spirit, where we find love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is where we find God. Those places will be different than they were a year ago.
Let’s not sit in the comfortable fields with our usual evening of sheep chewing on grass. God has abandoned that place in order to redeem us. Let’s go see where God is and be brought back into something completely new.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 13, 2020
Isaiah 9:1-7; Luke 2:1-14
I’m not sure any of you have ever experienced this but let me ask you if this sounds familiar. You are calling a support line to get some help with your electronic device, or you are calling a retailer to make a purchase, or perhaps a clinic to make an appointment. You click through all of the numbers to get to the correct person…and then you are put on hold. If you are fortunate there may be some music and an occasional electronic voice that comes on and says, hold times are longer than normal but that you are a valued customer. Other times there is nothing but silence. You occasionally look at your phone to make sure that you are still connected. As time goes by you begin to wonder if they have forgotten about you altogether. Then it happens. Instead of the music and the electronic voice or silence, you hear it, the beep, beep, beep of having been hung up on. And then you know that they have forgotten you.
Being forgotten is not only one of the great annoyances of being human, it is also one of the great fears. I would guess that since the dawn of human consciousness, since the dawn of human beings having a sense of self, we have feared being forgotten. We have feared it because to be forgotten is the equivalent of never having existed at all. This is why people build monuments to themselves, draw on cave walls, write “Kilroy was here” and all the other ways we try and remind people that we once existed. This is the reason for the ancient Israelite practice of Levirate marriage. Levirate marriage was the practice of a childless widow marrying her husband’s closest male relative in order to have children in her deceased husband’s name. This was done as the Torah says, so that the husband’s name might not be “blotted out of Israel,” meaning so that he will not be forgotten and in essence, never existed. To be forgotten then is a frightening, depressing thought as well as one of humanity’s greatest fears.
I offer you that thought because being forgotten is at the heart of both of our stories this morning. In each story, the people of Israel believed that they have been forgotten…forgotten by God. The people addressed by Isaiah believe that God has forgotten them because they are on the verge of annihilation. The mighty Assyrian Empire was on the move. The Empire had utterly destroyed the northern branch of the Israelite people, the kingdom of Israel. Those who had not been killed had been deported, never to be heard from again. Now the Assyrians had set their sights on the Southern branch of the people of Israel, the nation of Judah and its capital Jerusalem, with the intent to destroy them as well. There appeared to be no hope of survival and God had forgotten them. Similarly, the shepherds would have had the same feeling. They lived under the thumb of a foreign power who could order them to travel in order to be counted and taxed, steal their land, build temples to foreign gods and slowly but surely absorb them into the Greco-Roman culture. It was as if God had forgotten God’s own children again…and soon it would be as if they never existed at all.
Into these two moments though came a sign from God; a sign of a child, who not only brought hope as we talked about two weeks ago, but who brought joy. What I want to do is pause from our two stories for a moment and talk about joy. For many of us joy is a feeling of elation, ecstasy, happiness or pleasure. It might be a word we would use to describe how it feels when the Lions actually win, rather than lose a game in the fourth quarter. But what I want to offer is that Biblically speaking, joy is different from all these other emotions. All these other emotions are a temporary phenomenon. We can be happy one moment and sad the next. We can feel pleasure one moment and pain the next. We can move from elation to depression in the blink of an eye. Biblical joy is different because it is not a momentary emotion. Joy is a state of being. Joy is a state of being that is caused by the realization that we have not been forgotten by God. Instead we are remembered, we are loved, and we are valuable. Let me say that again. Joy is a state of being that is caused by the realization that God has not forgotten us, but instead we are remembered, we are loved and we are valued. These three attributes that bring about joy, being remembered, loved and valued are central to the entire Biblical story. They are central to God’s mighty actions across time in which God desires the restoration of God’s people in order that through God’s people, all of creation is blessed. Story after story reminds us that God remembers God’s people wherever they are and whatever they have done. Joy then is to be the bedrock of our lives as God’s followers. Joy is to be a constant in all the equations of life.
We can see how this works in both of our stories. As I said a moment ago, the stories are set in times when people’s joy was at low ebb because they believed that they had been forgotten. But then comes the sign of the child. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder… For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The sign is of a child being born into the royal family who will save the people from extinction and will bring them back into a time of peace and prosperity. This sign is a reminder that Judah has not been forgotten, but is remembered, loved and valued. It was a moment in which joy was renewed. The same can be said for the sign that came to the shepherds. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” For those shepherds this was a sign that God had not forgotten them; that God had not forgotten God’s people; that God had not forgotten God’s recreative plans for the world. God remembered them, loved them and valued them. This was good news of great joy.
In many ways joy is what this season of the church year is all about. Though we often think about Advent as the run-up to Christmas, it is intended to be a season of joy because it celebrates the coming of Jesus into the world, thus reminding us over and over again that we are not forgotten, but that we are remembered, loved and valued. I realize that this may be difficult for us to believe in the midst of the pandemic when we are isolated, worried and wary of others because of our appropriate fear of catching COVID-19; when we have friends and family members who have contracted the virus; when we have lost jobs because of it. In these moments it becomes harder and harder to hold onto happiness; to feel ecstatic about anything. Therefore, joy matters. It matters because joy is a state of mind that God offers us through God’s ongoing presence with us in and through Jesus and the Spirit. It matters because joy can lift us even in moments of sadness and despair. It can lift us when nothing else can. This week I would like us to practice joy. And here is how, close your eyes and repeat after me. “I have not been forgotten. I am remembered. I am loved. I am valued.” Then repeat these phrases every morning and evening and in so doing, experience the joy of Advent; the joy of being remembered by God.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 6, 2020
Watch (video partially frozen - sound is good)
Zechariah 8:9-17; Luke 1:46-55
I had never paid much attention to them. They were just old books sitting on my grandmother’s bookshelves. But then one day, being a bit bored and curious, I pulled one out. Then I became fascinated. They were a set of Encyclopedia Britannica from the early 1930s. The article that interested me the most, being a boy, was the one on The Great War. At first I was confused by the title, yet as I read it became apparent that I was reading about the First World War. Somewhere in the article the war was also referred to as the war to end all wars. It was referred to in that way because the authors and society at large evidently hoped that the utter brutality and senselessness of the war with its killing fields, use of mustard gas and overall slaughter of a generation of young men would convince people that peace was preferable to war. Yet, as a young history buff I knew how wrong they were. The rest of the 20th century became one of the deadliest in history…though as I have grown older, I have discovered that there were other conflicts and periods that were worse. So why is it that we did not learn from that war to end all wars? Why is it that even today there is violence around the world and in our nation? Why is it that peace, real peace, seems almost impossible to bring about? The answer I would argue is that we did not listen to Mary, because Mary had the three-step plan for peace that she believed her son would implement and bring peace to the whole of creation.
We begin with step one, which is humility. In verse 51 we hear Mary say, “(God) has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.” There can be no peace without humility. As long as people believe that they are superior to other people, peace cannot be achieved. It cannot be achieved because the belief in superiority leads to oppression, derision and domination of others. The belief in superiority, not arguments about religion, is what led to most of the violence and wars in this world. My clan is superior to yours so we can kill you. My race is superior to your so we can enslave you. My religion is superior to yours so we can oppress you. Humility changes those equations. Humility allows for people to share in life and living. Without humility, there can be no peace.
Step two in Mary’s plan for peace is justice. In verse 52 we read, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” There can be no peace without justice. What I mean by justice is that there is shared power in which all persons are treated fairly and justly. We can hear this in Zechariah when the prophet proclaims, “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace.” Rendering in the gates true judgments means applying the law equally to rich and poor, powerful and powerless. The problem with power is that those who possess it are tempted to use it to pervert justice and dominate the weak and marginalized. They use their power to rob, steal, cheat and oppress. When this happens there can be no peace because oppression causes anger and resentment from those who are the victims of injustice. So, when justice reigns, all persons know that they are worthy of being treated as fully human, with equal value and worth, and making peace is possible.
Step three in Mary’s plan for peace is equity. In verse 53 we read, “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” There can be no peace without equity. What I mean by equity is that all persons have enough; enough food, adequate housing, decent medical care and meaningful work. This is not equality in which all persons have exactly the same of everything. It is instead a willingness for society to equitably distribute its resources; to organize itself in such a way as to insure sufficiency for all. This means insuring that all persons have enough to eat, clean water to drink, adequate housing and in our society, health care. This is the Biblical understanding of equity…no one has too much, and no one has too little. The issue with inequity is that once again it causes anger, resentment and diminishes the lives of those who are left out of the distribution of the goods in society. So there can be no peace without equity, but establishing equity creates societies, nations and a world in which peace is possible.
Many of you may say, “John this seems to be political theory.” I would argue that it is not political but Biblical. It is Biblical, first because it is the essence of the Law and the Prophets. All one has to do is to read the Torah and the prophets and one will see that humility, justice and equity are the life blood of those writings. We can also see that this is Biblical because it is the essence of the life of Mary’s son Jesus, who came to bring peace to the world.
Jesus lived with humility, first becoming fully human and then eating and drinking with sinners, tax collectors, women and children. Jesus urged justice. He made it clear to his disciples that they were not to “Lord it over” one another, but instead they were to be servants of one another. Jesus lived with equity by feeding the hungry and commanding his followers to do likewise, along with clothing the naked, caring for the homeless and giving water to the thirsty. Jesus was the living example of Mary’s plan for peace.
I understand that this plan might make many of us uncomfortable, perhaps even afraid because it cuts across the grain of much of our national narrative of radical individualism; pull yourself up by your own bootstraps; what I earned is mine. But we are called to not be afraid to bring peace; to work for those things that make for peace. We are called to not be afraid to listen to Mary and emulate Jesus.
So, as we come to the table this morning and we partake of the bread and cup, my challenge for each of us, is to ask ourselves, how I am helping to bring peace to this world, by living humbly, and working for justice and equity, a world for which Mary sang and Jesus lived?