Sunday, December 20, 2020

Bearing God into the World

December 20, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 1:26-38

Frederick Buechner, a theologian and storyteller, renders the scene with Mary from Gabriel’s point of view:

She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it.  He told her what the child was to be named [Jesus – YHWH will Save], and [he told her] who [the child] was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her.  “You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,” [the angel] said.  As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.[1]

OK, it’s up to you.  You have to bring the Savior into the world.  Can you handle it?

Luke’s Gospel tells us how this teenager named Mary came to understand her call to ministry. Her ministry was to be the person God called her to be – both in and in spite of her own culture. She would be the God-bearer.

She is to be a mother – something fairly normal for a young woman of those times.  She was to be married.  She wasn’t supposed to be pregnant before she was married.  So, she starts out on precarious cultural footing.  Joseph wanted to leave her, until God gave him a talking to as well.

Who am I? Mary may have wondered.  And God replied, “You are my favored one, beloved and beautiful to me.”  In truth, Mary does not stand much chance for an identity apart from God.  She is too young to have had time to achieve much on which to base her identity.  She is too poor to purchase her place in society.  Add to this the fact that she is female, which means that even if she did have accomplishments or social stature to her credit, they likely would have gone unrecognized because of her gender.  All of this makes Mary a most unlikely candidate for helping God save the world, which is precisely why God enlists her.  Nothing about Mary suggests that she can be who she is apart from God’s favor of her.[2]

None of us can do this alone.  The real miracles, the really hard acts – creating, saving, giving of good gifts – those can only come from God working in us.

The Eastern Orthodox tradition calls Mary Theotokos, or “God-bearer,” because she quite literally brought God into the world.  In the biblical witness, God seems especially fond of calling upon unlikely suspects for such missions.  Young people – impetuous, inexperienced, improbable choices by all accounts – figure prominently among God’s “chosen” in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  And while God does not ask any of us to bring Christ into the world as literally as Mary did, God calls each of us to become a God-bearer through whom God may enter the world again and again.[3]

God works in the world through our hands, our voices, our actions, and our relationships.  What gifts have you been given?  What opportunities have been presented to you?  Have you ever felt called?  How did you respond?

God’s message to Mary and to us has two parts – affirmation and expectation.  Because Mary is beloved by God, because she has found favor in God’s eyes, God has a plan for her.  It is an astonishing plan: never mind the angel in the living room, never mind the impossible conception. This child will grow up to be who he will be, and Mary will be witness to it all.[4]

Sounds like too much for such a young girl to handle, especially all on her own.  But she is not really alone.  Joseph does stay by her side.  Her cousin Elizabeth loves and encourages her.  And remember, this is God’s miracle, not ours.  God is with her.  That is the meaning of the name by which Gabriel calls the child – Immanuel – God with us.  God is with Mary, and God is with us through all of the challenges of our life.

God’s salvation is coming with or without Mary’s help.  But God does not seize Mary and take her by force.  God does not enter this girl, or any of us, without our consent.  After all, we don’t know how many stops Gabriel made before he got to Mary’s house.  What sets Mary apart from the rest of us is quite simple: she says yes, a yes that changes her life forever and, because of her, the world in which she lives.  The ministry and the mission do not end with Mary’s transformation; they begin with it.[5]

And what happens when we say yes, when we fling open the doors of our souls so that grace no longer needs to sneak in through the cracks?  The Holy Spirit rushes in “like a mighty wind” and fills us, overshadows us, transforms us by forming Jesus within us, restoring us to the image in whose likeness we were created.

We too bring God into the world.  It’s a difficult task, it will be hard.  Some may not like what you have to say – unconditional love can be threatening to those who desire only power – they might try to take your life.  But you are not alone.  God was with Mary, God is with us, and God will be with us always.  Amen.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper-San Francisco, 1979), 39.

[2] Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998), 44.

[3] Ibid, 17-18.

[4] Ibid, 46.

[5] Ibid, 48.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Witnesses to the Light

December 13, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8,19-28

I have this cup. We all have one kind of like it. It is the cup that holds joy inside us. One of my favorite musicians, David Wilcox, wrote a song about the cup that holds love,[1] but I want to bend that metaphor just a little. The cup gets filled up with joy, you see, whenever we experience joy. Sometimes just a drop or two gets added to my cup, like when my son gives me a hug. Sometimes it feels like an open tap is pouring joy into my cup, like when I hear a beautiful song.

The thing is, there’s a break in the cup. There are little holes in my cup of joy that let the joy leak out. This hole was made when I heard Errol Hamilton had passed away. This one is from a young person who is having a hard time feeling like she belongs. I have lots of little ones lately from things I hear on the news.

There are some big holes in my cup, too. In my role as a minister, I sometimes hear the stories of tragedy and heartbreak in people’s lives, and I wouldn’t be human if it didn’t affect me. I have heartbreak stories of my own, like the death of my sister-in-law from cancer.

Some of these holes will heal. Some of these holes can be patched up with time and effort. Prayer and repentance can close some of the holes. But new ones will take their place. There will always be holes in my cup. And I’m sorry to say, there will always be holes in yours as well.

So, I try to recognize and be grateful for each trickle of joy. I try to be thankful for every person who has shown me some light, some joy in the world. And I try to show some light, some joy to those around me as well. We are, all of us, witnesses to the light.

John the Baptizer was a witness to the light. He made it clear to the priests and Levites from Jerusalem that he was not the light. He was not the Messiah. But John was here to cry out in the wilderness, to prepare a way, and to show us where we could find the light.

I am thankful for the fountains of joy that have filled my cup lately. I am thankful for seeing my family and celebrating the birthdays of my parents, even if it was only over Zoom. I am thankful that Bonnie is expected to make a full recovery from COVID. It gives me joy to see that my wife’s cousin, Caleb, has graduated from college. It gives me joy to talk on the phone with an old friend.

Grady Nutt, from the old TV show Hee Haw, had a saying, “Laughter is the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world.” Laughter is a gift of God, a gift that we need today, in this Advent season, when the news is filled with division and sickness, when all is not calm and all is not bright.

Joy and laughter are a gift we need today.  But laughter does more than fill up our cup of joy. Laughter bring us to life. There is a Proverb in the bible about this gift of laughter and our need for it: “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17. 22).

We all need the joy that brings us to life, like a desert blooms after the rainfall, because without joy, we’re just empty cups. And when we have been drained of all joy, that can be dangerous. We might try to fill the empty space with something that feels like joy, but isn’t. We might try to fill the void with overuse of alcohol or drugs or food. We might overindulge in other unhealthy behaviors which make holes in the cup as fast as they fill it.

We need genuine joy, the joy that comes as a gift from God, which flows freely from the beauty of nature, the love of family and friends, and the sharing of our stories of joy with one another.

The lectionary scriptures for this third Sunday of Advent speak of the power of that kind of joy:

The prophet Isaiah said:
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my whole being shall exult in my God” (Isaiah 61:10).

Psalm 126 says:
“Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:2).

And the Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians:
“Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).

The message of the prophet Isaiah is so relevant for us because it acknowledges the pain and loss and the devastation the people of Israel had endured; and at the same time, it points to something beyond the present condition. Isaiah shares God’s promise that there is light and love and joy yet to be found.

Creation will be renewed. 
The ruined cities will be rebuilt. 
The exiles will come home. 
The oppressed will hear the good news. 
Those who mourn will be comforted.

When we witness to the light of Christ that shines into our lives, we build up the ancient ruins and repair the ruined cities. When we witness to the joy that we see in the world, when we share joy with one another, we help fill up that cup that holds joy inside us. And the more we practice witnessing to the light, the more it becomes a part of who we are and how we live our lives.

Another song by David Wilcox illustrates this way of living:

I went to see an old friend, who was soon to pass away. 
He said “This life has been so good to me, now I’ve still got one more day.” 
He said that as he watched the morning sun, and then he smiled my way; 
Because he said that every morning, he’d lived his life that way.[2]

There is the kind of experience that can fill us up with joy long after it has passed. Maybe you have some moments like that in your memory. Here is one of my joyful memories.

The summer after I graduated high school I went on a trip to Oregon with some other young people from Colorado. One day we went on a tour of the waterfalls that flow into the Columbia River. We made a stop at one place where the waterfall was back from the road through a narrow ravine. The only way to get there was to walk up the creek. People were taking off their shoes, but the rocks were slippery and hard to walk on. I remember looking at my new shoes and thinking, “I will never be here again.” I walked up the creek in my shoes to swim under that beautiful waterfall. It remains a golden moment of joy in my memory.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in that region there were shepherds. They had a golden moment of joy in their memory:

“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’” (Luke 2:10).

Have you seen the light of joy, peace, hope, and love? Be witnesses to the Light.  Amen.

[1] David Wilcox, “Break in the Cup” on Big Horizon © 1994.

[2] David Wilcox, “Sunshine on the Land” on Nightshift Watchman © 1987.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

A Way in the Wilderness

December 6, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8[1]

Imagine that you live in Israel, in the year 70 CE. Life is hard enough for most people, most of the time. But add to that the war. A group of radicals has revolted against the Roman occupation, and Jerusalem is under siege. Anxiety is in the air as people fear the Roman soldiers, the rebel guerillas, and the uncertainty of a world in turmoil. Some want God to bring military leaders to push the Roman Empire out of the Holy Land. Others advocate submitting to Roman rule as the only path to peace and security.

There is one group that doesn’t choose either side, the followers of a Galilean holy-man named Jesus, who was crucified some forty years ago. The rabbis say they’re heretics, the rebels dismiss them as ineffective against the Roman occupation, and the Romans assume they are continuing the insurrection of their founder. Interestingly, the followers of “the Way,” as they call themselves, say that the death of Jesus is “good news” for Israel. They make some other bold claims as well: that he was the Messiah and that he was the Son of God.

This “Son of God” business, well that’s a pretty direct challenge to the authority of Rome. That title in Latin, divi filius, is written on coins next to the images of the emperors. That’s might have been what got him killed. No one besides the Roman Emperor is supposed to call themselves the son of God.

To claim that he was the Messiah is a threat to the religious leaders, and probably doesn’t look good to the rebel zealots either. After all, the Messiah was supposed to be the return of a ruler like King David, who would restore the fortunes of Israel and usher in the reign of God. If the Messiah was crucified like a criminal, that pretty much buries any hope of getting rid of the Romans.

Sometime around the year 70, Mark wrote down his Gospel. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” From that title you might expect the story to talk of rebellion. But it begins with John the Baptizer calling for repentance. John calls people out of the city, out from their farms, into the wilderness, saying: confess your sins, be washed clean in the river, and prepare for one who is to come.

Repentance and confession sound more like bad news than good. They both require taking an honest look at ourselves and our past, and changing the direction of our lives. Yet they do speak to a longing for something different, something better. They speak to that longing within us for a deeper experience of life, for a closer connection with the holy. Repentance prepares us for the restoration of our relationship with God. We need to renew that relationship because we’re lost, lost in the wilderness, lost from who we’re supposed to be, in exile spiritually if not materially.

Mark sets the stage for what is about to unfold by taking us back to the prophets of Israel. Isaiah spoke of God restoring Israel after the exile in Babylon. In the sixth century BCE, Babylon invaded Judah, destroyed much of Jerusalem, and exiled the leading citizens to Babylon. What were once sources of stability and security – the temple, the monarchy, and the covenant – were broken, destroyed. God, it seemed, had abandoned the Israelites, or perhaps had been defeated by Marduk, the Babylonian god.

In the depths of their despair, God responds to the exiles with a word of hope. “Comfort, O comfort my people.” Isaiah offers a different source of security. Hope that is based on human institutions is destined to fail. People are corruptible and break their promises. There is only one sure source of security: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” Though everything else will fail, God’s Word endures, and God will lead us home.

Although the Jews in Mark’s time are not in exile, they are under foreign occupation, exiled in their own land. Again, the sense that God has abandoned them is palpable. John the Baptizer offers the comfort of Isaiah to these first-century exiles. “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The crowds listen to John’s words of hope. There is a way out of despair, and it is a way already known to God’s people: it is a way in the wilderness.

To be in the wilderness is, in a sense, to get lost. It is to be disturbed from our every-day, carefully ordered, predictable lives. It is to wander without a planned destination. It is to be alone, and yet open to the presence of God. There can be a peace in being alone when we realize how tiny we are, and yet we are one with the universe. In the wilderness we can be still and know the presence of God.

Many of us are living in a metaphorical wilderness, a spiritual exile. Our consumer lifestyle makes our lives into commodities to be measured by our contributions to the economy. Our thirst for ever more scarce resources has us at each other’s throats, in our communities and around the world. We can hardly find the time to share a meal with our family, to play with our children, to talk with a grandparent, or write a letter to a distant relative. Add to that our current circumstances, coping with a pandemic that we know will continue for months yet, with all the stress that is putting on our hospitals, jobs, and schools. It grows more and more difficult to keep connected to God.

It is in the loss and the feeling of being lost that we find ourselves in the wilderness. It can also be in the literal wilderness that we feel the greatest need to be with God. In his book, Renewal in the Wilderness, John Lionberger says: “This is why people, from ancient times to modern, continue to seek out the wilderness: to leave the everyday, to simplify, to open our lives to the possibility of God’s personal interest in us, and to experience the transcendent.”[2] Whether we seek out wilderness, or discover ourselves to be already lost, it is there that we are more open to God entering into our lives to transform them.

We need the wilderness, whether it is the wilderness of the natural world, or a more metaphorical wilderness of the spirit. We need to get lost from the ordinary and steep ourselves in the extraordinary. We need to encounter our mortality, to know that we are small beings in a vast creation; and we need to know that we are not insignificant in the eyes of God. We need to be shaken out of the ordinariness of our days and awaken to the peace that comes when we drink deep of the living water.

Isaiah cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” Get out of the ordinary and get ready for the extraordinary. The messenger calls to us in our spiritual exile to prepare for the one who is to come. It is in the wilderness that the path is made straight for the coming of God. John the Baptizer calls us to the wilderness to shake us from our complacency. Repent and confess your sins. Prepare for something new. Prepare the way, he says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” Get ready for the changes that are taking place by preparing a welcome for the Lord.

So, we repent, and prepare to start anew. And it is powerful to feel the refreshing wind of the wilderness blow through us and stir the flames of our smoldering spirits. But our journey is not over once we return from the wilderness. Our personal spiritual fulfillment is not our ultimate goal. Our work has only just begun. After all, there are others around us who are still lost, who still feel exiled from God’s presence. A friend who was a professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Richard Ward, wants us to know that we have a great responsibility as those who prepare the way:

We like to cast ourselves as the shepherds who hear choirs of angels broadcast the startling announcement of God’s coming. But these words are not just for us to savor like food at a holiday feast. We are in the position of the celestial ones, trying to find a way to speak the Word to God’s people.[3]

We are the angels. We are the heralds of the Messiah’s birth. “God with us is now residing,” says the hymn. God is entering into human life to bring us out of our exile. God’s compassion will bring us comfort in despair. God’s light will bring us out of the darkness of our spiritual exile. God has not abandoned us, and God’s forgiveness will restore us to right relationship. God’s peace will bring an end to the turmoil.

What hope this was to the exiles in Babylon! What joy the baptized must have felt on the banks of the Jordan. What good news this is for a world in crisis, for those who are lost in the spiritual exile of today! This Advent season is the time for us to be angels. We are the heralds who cry out in the wilderness: Behold! “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”[4] O come, Emmanuel. Gloria in Excelsis Deo! May the peace of Christ be with all of you. Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] John Lionberger, Renewal in the Wilderness: A Spiritual Guide to Connecting with God in the Natural World (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2007), p. 24.

[3] Richard F. Ward, “Homiletical Perspective on Isaiah 40:1-11” in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 29.

[4] Luke 2:11.