Come and See.

John 1:43-51

Jesus Calls Philip and Nathanael

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Come and See.  Invitation.  It’s always good to be invited to something isn’t it?  We want to feel included.  It can also be a bit scary to accept an invitation or to come and see?  Yet, when we do, even thought we may not know what to expect, new things can bring growth.  

I know many of you can relate to trying new things.  Probably some of you even this morning are sitting here thinking, “what is this year going to be like?  Will it get better than 2020?”or “what is this sermon going to be like?  And how long will it be?  What is going to emerge at Fleming Road UCC this year?  What things can we depend on?  Where are we going as a community?  As a church?  What am I being asked to be a part of?”  

Well, trying something new or “experiencing” something different can be scary…it cal also be the best thing to ever happen.

When I was in high school, there was this older guy that kept on coming on our campus.  Which, looking back on it, in these times, would be kind of weird.  But, his name was Ken Goss.  He met me one day and we talked about a lot of things.  He seemed genuinely interested in me.  But, in the back of my mind, I was wondering “what’s the catch?”  He told me that he was a part of a thing called Campus Life and they were starting it at my school.  He invited me to come to it.  It sounded great.  Sure enough, a few weeks later they had their first Campus Life club at our school.  It was at my best friend’s house, Jeff Hume.  When I went, I thought it was crazy and there was no way that this could be a “Christian” deal!  It was too much fun, it was off the wall…plus, there were people there who I thought would never even show up at a Christian deal, but here they were, having a great time.

Ken also invited me to go on a ski trip that year with Campus Life, so I signed up.  At first I was a bit scared as I was the only kid from my school going.  Yet, I went.  From the very beginning, it was fun and my Campus Life leaders were simply great.  I went skiing for the first time (and, while trying to look cool and impress the ladies, I did fall off of the ski lift…and couldn’t get on it….they actually had to stop it for me!).  I went snowmobiling on this huge frozen lake, and stayed up really late talking to new friends.  They also had these crazy meetings with great music, games, and this guy who was about 70 years old at the time spoke.  Honestly, at first I thought he would be really boring (just like some of you may be thinking about me!)…but, as he spoke, I began to think he was talking directly at me.

In short, I didn’t know what I was getting into…but I really enjoyed it and kept going to Campus Life every week.  I had many more adventures and by the end of my senior year, I knew that my life was somehow dramatically changing!  It actually changed the trajectory of my life…I went into youth ministry the very next year while at UK and went on to seminary eventually and becoming a pastor.

I don’t know if you can relate to this story, my hunch is that as you sit wherever you are today, that you can relate to it.  Being invited to something, being curious, starting a friendship, and seeing, over time, your world change and grow.

It reminds me of a story in the Bible about Jesus and some folks that he called out and invited to come along with him that we read earlier.  

In this story, Jesus goes out and personally invites Phillip to hang out with him, to follow him.  That’s the only time that happens in the New Testament where Jesus personally invites someone.  Pretty wild.  This guy Phillip was kind of a reluctant guy, maybe kind of slow, always trying to figure things out (I can relate).  Yet Jesus sought him out.  He was from an area called Bethsaida, not a local boy to Jesus, yet Jesus crossed over this boundary.  

Well, Phillip starts following this Jesus guy and starts to get his friends to come along.  Kind of like what many of you do, when you see something good…you may not completely understand it, yet you know you want your friends involved.  One friend in particular was Nathaniel.  Phillip goes after Nathaniel and brings him to meet Jesus.  At first Nathaniel wonders if anything good can come out of Nazareth where Jesus was from.  Now this isn’t a put down on Nazareth, it’s probably more like a community rivalry thing.  Kind of like Finneytown, or Springfield Township…or name a neighborhood in Cincy…sometimes there is a bit of division, but we can all come together when there is something curious that we know that we need to check out.  Yet Phillip persists and simply says “come and see”.  In this story, these words are what we call “imperatives” in the Greek translation, a command or invitation.  In this case, it is simply an invitation.  You see, Jesus never forces himself on anyone, he simply invites people to check out what he’s saying, what he’s about.

So, Nathaniel does.  Nathaniel was a good guy and Jesus comments on that…but, here’s the kicker, Jesus and Nathaniel had never met.  When Nathaniel asks Jesus how he knows him, Jesus responds that he saw Nathaniel under a fig tree.  Now, Jesus is not some kind of stalker, Jesus wasn’t at that tree.  Yet, he simply noticed Nathaniel from a distance and knew things about him.

This was a BIG indication to Nathaniel that there was something more about this Jesus guy.  It drew Nathaniel in…he didn’t understand it all, but he knew that Jesus was something special.  After Nathaniel’s statement of belief, Jesus says something else, in effect, you haven’t seen anything yet!

Friends, we are a lot like Nathaniel this am.  We may not know a lot about this Jesus guy, but we know that there is something more to him that makes us curious and draws us towards him.  You may be asking this morning, “what good can come out of Cincy?  Or, our country at this moment?  Or Fleming Road UCC?  Or even my own life?”  Well, the best “good” you could ever imagine.  And, to know that Jesus notices us!  Jesus sees us…not just some sense of seeing us from a distance, like when we see a neighbor walking our way…but, really notices us, sees the deeper parts of us…and is drawn to us just as we are drawn to something deeper in Christ.  

You see, what Jesus was inviting Nathaniel, and all of us throughout history, is to follow him into a deeper understanding of how the world could be…an alternative community in the middle of the world’s systems.  To be in friendship with God and extend that friendship to one’s self and to others.  To know that we are all connected, all made in God’s image, all loved by God and called to live in God’s presence, God’s reign or Kingdom if you will, even as we live within a world dominated by narratives that are more about power, control, or even violence.  My hope is that we will “come and see” this year together what Jesus is doing in our lives and in our community, with our neighbors.  He has already noticed you.  And, guess what, he wants be with you in the struggle of life…and to “abide” with you in more experiences than you could ever imagine, no matter what age we are…  Friends, I know that this church has taken lots of risks over the past years.  Well, I’m asking us to take some more risks, to be curious, and to “come and see” what Jesus has in store for us.  Even in our weariness of this past year, and the current events that we find ourselves, let’s take a risk of deepening our relationships with one another, and with a God who is with us and won’t give up on us and is inviting us into journeying together.  

Baptized.

Mark 1:9-11

The Baptism of Jesus

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I’ve shared this story before, but so appropriate for this week’s gospel lesson…when I was 8 years old, my best friend, Rob Waddles was baptized.  When I saw him get baptized, I thought that was pretty cool.  So, I asked my parents if I could be baptized.  We set-up a meeting with our Baptist pastor, we talked about it, I got real excited…and the next Sunday, I was immersed in this huge tank that was in our Sanctuary behind our choir. 

I don’t remember much about my conversation with our Baptist preacher.  I just remember that it was something that my best friend did and he was glad…and it sure did make my parents happy.

Jesus comes to the river Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John.  As we’ve said in the past, John came preaching a message of repentance, of a change of heart and mind to a new way of living.  Baptism symbolized a dying of the old and living into a new life.

As followers of Christ, we need to recognize this need in our lives daily.  It is tempting to be in a church setting, and in our lives outside of this church building to live as we always have, which oftentimes looks much like how everyone else in this world lives.  We settle into old patterns that bring only death and decay over time, rather than living into a new life of being present with God’s imagination and creative spirit.  And, we forget that there is only one Lord as the early church subversively proclaimed, not Caesar, not kings, dukes, or even presidents.  Our allegiance is to God alone and living in God’s reign. 

God doesn’t promise life will be without suffering, but God does promise to be with us in it and as we cultivate a sense of God’s Presence in our lives, a life filled with live giving and growing relationship with God and with others.

Yet, it is so hard to break free of those old patterns isn’t.  Often, in church world, those patterns are reinforced in the way that we do church.  Too often we let how the world operates in a negative way determine how we operate in our lives together in the church.  We fall into patterns of negative thinking, of gossiping, scapegoating others, control, etc.  Whereas God calls us towards freedom, positive engagement with others, honoring others when they are around us and when they are not (which, by the way, political correctness or “saying it like it is” are not excuses for being mean spirited in front of others or behind their back), and of self-awareness to where we ask ourselves how can we serve others rather than blame others.  

We cannot live in the way of Jesus without help.  We cannot love others, God, or even ourselves until we’ve learned to receive love.  That’s why we have to live in recognition of Christ’s baptism for us.  

This is Jesus’ example to us in his baptism.  When he came to John, John didn’t think he should baptize Jesus, that Jesus should baptize him.  Yet, Jesus says no, that in order for righteousness to be demonstrated, that Jesus should be baptized by John.  Jesus knew who he was, that he was representing all of humanity and that he was God’s son, God’s human representation on earth.  He was connected to the flow of God that created, saved, and sustains all of life.  Yet, he also knew that to be righteous, or right in relationship, means to submit to someone else, to live in humility.  So, he submits to John’s baptism.  

His dying to self on our behalf cuts to the core of who we are, tells us that we too are a part of the flow of God that changes everything.  The question for us this morning, is our we willing to let go of those old ways of thinking and being and live into the new reality that Christ’s baptism represents?

When Jesus is baptized, we read that the Spirit of God descends on Jesus life a dove.  God’s Spirit is always with Jesus, even before this, and also with us.  In the story of Noah, when the floods recede, there is a dove flying over the chaos, reminding us of the hope of new life.  

Friends,  the same spirit of God is descending upon us even now, are we willing to receive God’s Presence in our lives and live fully in this new reality?  If we are, then we will see evidence of changed behavior on our part, we will see our lives change and this church become all that God intends.  

As Jesus comes up from the water, there is a voice from heaven, God’s voice that has these amazing lines.  “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I’m well pleased”.

Jesus represents all of us, God is telling us that God is well pleased with all of us!  God does believe in us, now let’s get on with being the people God’s called us to be…to not be arguing over minor things, not to be focused on things that defeat us, but to live into the dynamic presence of God, to be live into our baptized new life in Christ, and to say “YES” to the opportunities for growth in our lives and “YES” to the opportunities before us to become the church together in a new way, a way that isn’t about one group or persons over another, but a way of living filled with humility and love as we model what it means to be the body of Christ.  

Hear these words from author Jim Kast-Keats wrote in 2016, but are so true for the year that we just had!

“These are turbulent times. 2016 was a turbulent year. But the waters of baptism invite us to hope. We hold our breath, the water splashing against our skin. We hold our breath, anticipating what is to come. We hold our breath, we remember our baptism, and we have hope.

Jesus, raised from the waters of the Jordan River became the hope for those who followed him, inviting them to discover a new way to live in the world, loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us, realizing that the reign of God is already among us, with us, and within us.

Hope must be as tangible as despair. The greater the chaos, the greater our hope. Whatever waters wage around us, we remember a story of God hovering over the surface of the deep, the people of God walking through the parted sea, and the son of God rising from the river to hear the words that echo at every baptism to follow: “You are my Beloved.”

Salvation.

John 1:10-18 (NRSV)

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[d] full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,[e] who is close to the Father’s heart,[f] who has made him known.

Have you ever been in a dark place?  When I was a kid, we would go to Mammoth Cave National Park in KY a lot. 

I remember the cave tours when the park ranger would turn off the lights in the “great room” of a large cave.  You could not see anything, even your hand in front of your face!

Later in life, I did some spelunking, cave exploring.  If your batteries on your headlamp would go out, it was always important to have a backup flashlight and extra batteries!  

Darkness is disorienting.  

The very definition of the “darkness” means to be in a state of dark, it is an abstract noun.  Yet, it does not mean that one is “dark”, just living in a state of darkness.  That “state” or existence can be changed.  

Try an experiment this week.  Go into a dark room.  Pause for a moment, take in the darkness, look into it.  Then turn on a light and notice the difference.  Notice the change. 

In our lives this past year, we may have experienced things that have been bleak, dark, and we may have felt like we are in an “in-between place” as well.  We have remarked on it a lot, the pandemic, social unrest, political nonsense that is traumatic, and a disconnected world yearning for connection.  We may have been sensing even before this year that a change is necessary, but this year has forced us into a season of change.  We have longed for the warmth of hope, just as we may have longed for the hope of warm sunshine in the spring after a long winter.  Our days get shorter, we experience darkness as we move through the changing seasons.

The changing of seasons is a good metaphor for our worshipping community called Fleming Road.  As a collective group of persons, it seems like we have been in an “in-between” place.  We may fill like we are on our way towards something, but we are still incomplete, not fully there.  All of this can be good eventually, we are moving towards something, people inside the church and outside have remarked that there’s something different at Fleming Road UCC, and even different in our own lives, but we are still in between and not yet fully where we are called to be.  

Our identity as Jesus followers gives us hope for in the midst of darkness and change, Jesus says this in Matthew 4:16 quoting from Isaiah.  

the people who sat in darkness

    have seen a great light,

and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death

    light has dawned.”

In darkness, we cannot see others around us as we should.   We stumble around often in relationships and because we are not able to see, we experience a break in relationship from folks because of something we’ve done or said, or something that was done or said to us.   We often sit in darkness and darkness often leads to brokenness which can feel like living in the shadow of death.   

A past spiritual director gave me a great book a while ago by Parker Palmer called  Let Your Life Speak, In it Parker talks about depression and darkness.  He states that we need to embrace our wholeness as persons in those dark moments, look into them, and use them as times of understanding who we are, our true selves as Thomas Merton, the great catholic philosopher and mystic might say.  

Parker says this in his book:  

embracing one’s wholeness makes life more demanding–because once you do that, you must live your whole life. One of the most painful discoveries I made in the midst of the dark woods of depression was that a part of me wanted to stay depressed. As long as I clung to this living death, life became easier; little was expected of me, certainly not serving others.” 

Our passage from John gives us a glimpse of where real life comes from, or who it comes through.  Jesus is described as the light that shines into our lives, exposing everything through love, and enabling us to move through the darkness in our lives to find out true selves.  Jesus not only sheds light, but gives us an example to follow, an example of service and generosity.  Listen to these words from Eugene Peterson’s translation of our gospel text that we read earlier:  

9-13 The Life-Light was the real thing:
    Every person entering Life
    he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
    the world was there through him,
    and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people,
    but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him,
    who believed he was who he claimed
    and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
    their child-of-God selves.
These are the God-begotten,
    not blood-begotten,
    not flesh-begotten,
    not sex-begotten.

14 The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish.

Friends, like a thief in the night, we can let darkness overwhelm us, but that is not our identity, that is not our true selves, we were not created to live in darkness, this great light has entered the world and our lives.  As we stumble around in the darkness, we seek out light…and darkness flees when light is introduced.  Darkness does not win.  Jesus, the light of the world, entered into our neighborhood, became flesh and bone just like us.  Jesus came to reveal to us what it means to live in the fullness of who we are called to be in our truest selves.  We have received grace upon grace, we are given new opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to experience rebirth even in the midst of the in-between times.  The light of Jesus is here, we may not always like what we see, it may cause us to ask deep questions, but the light does transform us and can bring us into places of beauty in our lives in our neighborhood, work, and even in our church!  

This light was the word made flesh, Jesus, who invites us into this sacred moment where we can catch glimpses of his glory and experience salvation…and salvation is deeper than just being rescued from something…salvation means a deeper awareness that we are in this life connected…to ourselves, not afraid to go to dark places in our lives, with others, not afraid of being vulnerable and authentic…and all through God, where we find true salvation waiting for us, shedding light, in the darkness.    

Present.

Luke 2:22-40

Jesus Is Presented in the Temple

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”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon[c] came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,

according to your word;

30 

for my eyes have seen your salvation,

31 

which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

32 

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At 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.

The Return to Nazareth

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

When our kids were younger, they used to get pretty excited for Christmas (and they still do of course).  The anticipation for Christmas morning or going to relatives’ houses was great.  Especially going to grandparent’s houses who always seem to give better gifts than their parents!  Of course, this year was a little different as we were not able to visit with folks as we usually do, but, still getting packages delivered was kind of fun.  

Point being, the waiting makes Christmas so much more meaningful doesn’t it?  The excitement seems to build from day to day.  It’s an event that we all look forward to, even with this season of pandemic and so much adaption and change…we can still find a way to  celebrate the coming of Jesus.

Sometimes, it can be sort of a downer on the Sunday after Christmas, but it’s kind of like life in general.  We build up to great events, then they are over, and we have to move on.  But, what do we move on to?

Many of you have heard my story of meeting Debbie.  I had to wait 7 years after we met before we got married.  It was a long season of dating others, comparing, wondering and wandering…kind of a soap opera, but a good one!  

Eventually, Debbie and I got back together.  We had a wonderful wedding, emotional (yes, I cried…and Debbie’s been crying ever since…). 

Yet, after the event, after the honeymoon, life begins to happen.  We live in the everyday.  What holds things together?  What gets us motivated in the here and the now?  How do we stay committed even in the midst of so much change in our lives?

In our passage this morning, in Luke, the writer is painting a picture of an amazing event.  Israel had been waiting for a Messiah, a savior to come and to make things right.  They had waited for their entire history for deliverance from the hands of different oppressors.  

Then, this event, this birth happens.  There is a buzz around Bethlehem and Jerusalem.  There really isn’t much geography between the two places and word has travelled fast about the event that we just commemorated last week, the birth of a King, the promised one.  

Mary and Joseph were devout Jews.  The very word Jew means someone who is a believer in God.  The very name Jew comes from the word Judah, one of the sons of Jacob, and the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel.  It has a meaning of being identified with God.  A sidenote:  the term gentile meant one who didn’t believe.  But, that’s another story for another day.

Being devout Jews, Mary and Joseph took their son Jesus to the temple at the appropriate time to be dedicated and to follow the customs of their religion.  Simeon had waited for this day and had been told that he wouldn’t die before he met the Messiah in a word from God.  

Could you imagine his anticipation built upon generations of his ancestors?  He must have been so excited.  Yet, I’m not sure if he knew exactly how things would happen, yet he followed what he believed to be right and went to the Temple and made this great statement. 

Then the writer introduces Anna.  The writer of Luke often puts women and men together, which is amazing considering the patriarchal society at the time.  It’s also one more beautiful reminder that God’s faithfulness is for everyone, and a subtle, and powerful message that God does not show favoritism.  

Anna is described as someone well into her 80’s.  A prophet respected by her peers because of her faith and stability.  She must have been quite a person.  When she met Jesus, she shared some powerful prophetic words about him.

I wonder what Mary and Joseph thought about all of this?  I’m sure they were proud, but also a bit overwhelmed I’d imagine.  Yet, here they were, not knowing what to expect next, amazed at what they were hearing, but also probably a bit afraid.  They were committed to their son though, and they were family.  After all of the great events they were witnessing, and would witness throughout their lives, they were still a community of persons called into a family.

My friend Peter Block talks about commitment.  When someone makes a commitment to something like a job, a move, or something more like joining a group of folks like a community or a church, or even getting married…you don’t know where that commitment will lead.  We may have an inkling of an idea, we may do a ton of research, but, at the end of the day, there are contingent realities that one must deal with…however, if you make a covenant commitment, a deep promise to do something, then you work through it, you adjust, and you grow.  In many ways, the monks that I meet at the Abbey of Gethsemani also demonstrate this sense of commitment, they call it a “vow of stability”, a commitment to place and people.

Another friend, Walter Brueggemann states that one must make a prophetic statement, however grand or hard to hear or even joyous to hear, then work out the pragmatic ways to work towards it coming to pass.

The last few years of my life have been a reflection of this sense of commitment, stability, and prophetic words.  I have known for a while that I could not keep on doing church and ministry as I’ve always done it.  In previous calls, I have had the privilege of working with some great folks as I’ve built some fantastic teams.  We had a lot of numerical success and great relationships built, most of which are still strong.

However, I began to sense God moving me in a different direction as the church and culture changed.  I began to question more things and this led to some hard conversations and decisions with others. Eventually, really over so many years, this led me to Fleming Road UCC, with it’s desire to be “community engaged” and desire to adapt to the cultural and community changes.

Honestly, I believe the desire to grow and adapt as a church, long before I came here 3 years ago, has helped us in this time of pandemic and disruption.  We’ve been flexible, we’ve adapted, and we are growing in different ways.  

So, friends, the words that Simeon and Anna spoke about Jesus also apply to us.  For, you see, Jesus is the one true human, our bridge between God and humanity, our savior and identity as Jesus followers.  There is a word that is coming to us from so many others, telling us that we are “here” now and present with each other and with God.  We have had some amazing events these past three years, and many more are yet to come…and I am so glad to be together with you in this…I don’t know what the future will hold, but God has placed us, here, in Cincinnati, for some great adventures and for deep relationships as we live in the in between times, the everyday.

Friends, you’ve waited for a long time for some things to happen.  You’ve been blessed in more ways than anyone could imagine these past few years, even with some of the hard things.  I can relate in different ways these past few years.  I’ve also waited for a long time during this transition as well to come to a place like Fleming Road UCC, and in my neighborhood.  I believe we’ve been given gifts in each other.  Now we are “here” so let’s practice presence with each other and with our community and God as we listen to what God is doing in our neighborhood and as we witness some great events…even as we commit deeply to each other and to a God who is “here” and present with us. 

Into The Night.

Luke 2:1-20 

The Birth of Jesus

2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And 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.

The Shepherds and the Angels

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,

14 

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c]

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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

And, yet, here we are.  We have been through a lot these past few months, but tonight, even with this Christmas Eve service that has adapted to the realities of this pandemic, we are together in some way, whether here in the sanctuary, or on Zoom, Facebook, or in the parking lot, we have gathered to hear this story again!  

I love the traditions of Christmas.  Whether it’s Christmas cookies, Christmas dinner at my mom’s house, Christmas trees, all of it, I mostly enjoy!  This year, we’ve had to cancel so much, but we have also realized on a deeper level what Christmas is about, it’s about something new being birthed…in us and in the world around us.  Childbirth isn’t easy, or so I’ve been told, it’s painful…yet, what do we call babies after they’ve arrived?  “Little bundles of Joy”.  Possibility, mystery, love, struggle, suffering, growth, and presence are all wrapped up into babies.

I can vividly remember the birth of our both of our kids.  McKenzie came out with a smile on her face, that turned quickly into a scream when she realized that she was out of the womb and into this world.  It was like, OK, I’m here, not sure what to think, doesn’t feel comfortable, but let’s do this!

My son’s birth was quick, which makes sense, he’s a fast runner and swimmer!  But, before he was born, even though it was a quick labor, it was intense and I know Deb was ready for him to make his appearance.  I, not really knowing what to do or say, tried to comfort Deb, but she punched me in the arm…to this day, she says it didn’t happen…but, I remember, and she was a bit out of it.

And, as we said last week, those babies grow into adulthood through the throes of life.  Our faith does as well.  Sometimes we have to remember that things are formed in dark places, like the womb.  Faith, also is birthed in darkness.

Many of us know that December 25 is not actually Jesus’ birthday.  No one really knows when he was born.  So, why December 25?  It was decided by the early church because it is close to the annual winter solstice.  

The winter solstice is also known as the “longest night”.  It is the day of the year where it’s darkest the longest.

The winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, when the Sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky.

Wikipedia

The symbolism is great.  Throughout history, people and culture have known “dark times”.  Times when things are in upheaval.  Unless we aren’t paying attention, we must know that we are also in a time of great change and upheaval.  Politics, families, relationships, and even the church are facing schisms, divisions, scandals, and seem to be failing all around us.  We see it, we experience it.  

So many times the church has practiced program after program in order to be relevant or preached a message that is easy and overlooks the hard and dark aspects of life.  We proclaim growth but not with the hard lessons and dissonance that must occur in our lives in order to have growth.  This pandemic and the upheaval in our culture and country has forced us to face some hard realities and ask some deeper questions. 

We truly live in a time where we cannot see what is going to happen next.  It is a struggle and many would say that these are dark times personally and in the larger world around us.  

Into these times, God has called and placed us.  We are asked to embrace the dark night, because in the darkness we can learn so much.  

Our ancient German and Celtic ancestors understood that darkness forces us to search even in our blindness or lack of light.  Darkness also forces us to rest as we can’t work without light.  It also forces to wait until the morning comes.  

So, our early Christian fathers and mothers decided to put Christmas on this day of the longest darkness.  

In the darkness of Christmas night, there is a great stirring, movements towards hope and something new.  There are shepherds seeing and hearing miraculous news while dutifully minding their flocks.  There are wise men and women seeking knowledge and growth.  

The passage that we read tonight is full of subversive beauty!  Caesar August, the Roman emperor was the head of a political cult that set him up to be divine, a savior, the lord, one who didn’t have any failings, a winner at all costs…and he lived in imperial power exacting a census that was a sign of his authority and ability to collect taxes and contribute the wealth of Rome.  Yet, Jesus comes to us impoverished, on the run, and in a dirty stable.  His coming is announced to a group of outsiders, literally, shepherds and not some great proclamation to the entire empire, this proclamation came from the heavens to a few shepherds and wise men and women so that it can be carried to and for all of creation.  Amazing!

Into that dark night, a baby is born.  Emmanuel or “God with us”!  Jesus, Emmanuel, born to us, humanity.  God, entrusting God’s self to us, in darkness, and to a couple of teenagers who were still trying to figure things out!  God, who gives hospitality and relationship receives hospitality and relationship.  The “uncreated” creator giving over itself to its creation.  For the first 1200 years of the church, Christmas was not as big as Easter.  800 or so years ago, St. Francis began to change that by announcing that the miracle of Jesus, of God becoming flesh, was the turning point in all of history!  God, incarnate!  In the flesh, being born, living, loving, suffering, losing his life, and rising from the dead. 

Into the night, a small light, or as my friend, Dr. Alexander Shaia says, a “radiance”, came on to the scene of history that grew to a blazing fire illuminating hope, peace, grace, friendship to ALL, welcoming the outsider, showing radical hospitality.  This Jesus that says he will be with us in the darkness birthing new life and possibility to us and to those around us!  This Jesus that reminds us that the church is not the latest program, fad, building, numbers, or whatever but that we are the very body of Christ!  We are becoming more and more radiant as we acknowledge the hard and struggle of life, share that life together, and look at each and see the “glory on each face”!  

In so many ways, this is the most exciting time and age for the church and of humanity!  We have opportunity after opportunity to meet God in the darkest places and to grow into people of radiance as we wait for the morning light!  

Friends, in this new year, may we walk together in whatever darkness that we are in.  May we embrace where we are on this journey together.  And, may we look into the darkness for the hope of Christ to be born again in us and around us…and may we proclaim and rejoice in this king, this savior, this lord, this friend to us.   

Favor.

Luke 1:26-38

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 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. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The 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. 36 And 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. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then 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.

Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent, the Joy Sunday!  I also found out that this Sunday is often called the Sunday of birth, and also the waking of the church.  That fits, because love, as we talked about last week, gives birth to new things, it also awakens us to new realities.  Now, in full disclosure, I’d have to say that last comment about the church being awakened could have also been influenced by the Star Wars movie, “The Force Awakens”, loved that movie.  

But, still, Love is an interesting word.  And love can be hard at times.  It gets tossed around quite a bit in our culture.  

I also found this description online:

Love is unconditional affection with no limits or conditions: completely loving someone. It’s when you trust the other with your life and when you would do anything for each other. You hide nothing of yourself and can tell the other anything because you know they accept you just the way you are and vice versa. 

Regardless of how love is defined, it’s safe to say that love has lots of meanings to different people.  I would say, at its core, that love is a deeply relational term that has a meaning of commitment, loyalty, faith, compassion, grace, honesty, struggle, passion, and deep affection….that can also lead to joy.  

In our gospel passage today, we see this kind of love expressed in many ways, especially the hard part of love.  Mary, a soon to be teenage mom, has just been told that God has given her favor.  That she will be the mother of God’s son.

Mary is also from a working class family, she doesn’t have much status in society.  She is taking this in I’m sure with some trepidation.  It’s also an uncertain time in her life, and then to have this news, had to put her in a more uncertain place.  Now, the angel appearing before Mary tells her not to be afraid…but, she has some questions.  How can this be true if I’m a virgin?

Now, in the first century, there is some nuance here.  As we said in previous weeks, if you were engaged, you were pretty much married.  Yet, she was still not legally married.  

Yet, love worked it’s way through the conversation, and it must have been compelling.  She embraced the role, she trusted, and even in the hardship that followed…of giving birth, of fleeing to Egypt as refugee, of seeing her son crucified, love won and a deeper sense of joy carried her throughout life.  A joy not defined by things going the way that she would have planned, but of living in God’s love and trusting God’s movement in her life.  

The authors of Luke are not trying to give out facts, they are telling a story of promise and deliverance for all who are enslaved to something, which is everyone.  They make a point to say this is a journey, just like the Israelites were on a journey in the wilderness.  This deliverance is a process that takes time and struggle, but something good is being produced in us in the journey.  Both both Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, have been promised that they’d be blessed with pregnancies, although both pregnancies have difficulties:  one has the stigma of being a teenaged mom without status who isn’t married yet, the other is an older woman with status, but well past her child-bearing years.  Yet, they trust God and God’s love.  

This passage is conveying to its readers that God makes promises to us, gives us favor, loves us, dreams big dreams for us, yet those dreams involve risk and may bring some anxiety…and seem complicated.   We may even be in a wilderness experience, right now…it certainly seems that way.  Yet, God has given us God’s self, and God’s self, at God’s core, is about a crazy love for all of us, we can move through life with purpose and peace even in complicated, anxious times.

This love carries us, give us peace and hope, that does produce joy.   This love can be experienced through friendships, moments of great importance, during hard times when we feel like giving up yet something holds us together, through simple things like sunsets, music, or a small gesture of kindness.  This love permeates everything and always wins!  And, it’s for everyone! 

We have come to this 4th Sunday of Advent to celebrate the coming of Christmas, the coming of God into humanity as a human.  We come to celebrate a God who keeps promises of being with and of loving us radically and unconditionally.  

As my friend Brennan Manning would say, “God loves you just as you are, not as you should be, because you never will be as you should be.”  This is the kind of message that should permeate our thoughts about ourselves and others.  This is the kind of message that people should be hearing from Jesus followers, and experiencing!  

We should be telling others, as well as ourselves, that NOTHING can separate us from God’s Love as it says in the book of Romans.  Nothing.  This love is like a stream that keeps on flowing.  It carries things, moves things, shapes things, fills every nook, and is relentless.   This love changes us, just as streams grow into rivers and rivers flow into oceans…it is unstoppable.  We can even nail that love to a tree, try to kill it, yet even death can’t overcome God’s love…it keeps moving!

I don’t know if this was on purpose, but New Year’s follows Christmas.  Change happens as love is birthed into us and the world around us…and, out of hardship, even a crazy year like 2020, joy can be produced as we adapt to the changes around us and in us…and embrace the moment we live in and know that we are in God’s favor that cannot be stopped or taken away, by any pandemic, political or social unrest, or even killer hornets and whatever else 2020 gave us.  

Friends, may the Love of Christ cause us to move towards faith where joy is present.  May we be awakened to God’s delight and God’s Spirit washing over us and be reminded of God’s faithful and loving relationship with us.  

Uncertain.

John 1:6-8, 19-28 

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 Testimony of John the Baptist

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”[the Christ] 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said,

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,

‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”

as the prophet Isaiah said.

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,[the Christ] nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

There was a period of about 3 years where we literally spent every day together, with maybe just a handful of exceptions.  I loved Robby, and he loved me.  Of course, we were in preschool and and elementary school, so we didn’t use the word “love”.  But, we genuinely enjoyed being together, playing all sorts of games, slaying imaginary dragons, getting the bad guys, riding bikes, and exploring the woods around his house and mine.   

We also thought pretty highly of ourselves and each other!  I remember one conversation at about age 10 or 11.  We liked to compare ourselves to great kings…I was, of course, Richard the Lionhearted, King of England, and he was, of course, Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland…which, was kind of ironic considering his ancestors were English and mine were Scottish and Welsh…but, point being, we thought only of present and future greatness of each other.

We even told each other that the women who would get us would be the luckiest women in the world!  Of course, you may want to ask Debbie if she feels that way…

In those young years, we were pretty certain of who we were…actually, pretty amazing.  It should tell us about the power of having someone believe in you and you in them.  

That friendship with Robbie was especially important when he moved away from Louisville to Berea, KY where his dad became the school superintendent when we were in grade school.  Yet, through that uncertain time, our friendship was not only sustained but it grew.  It helped that his dad and my dad were also best friends and we vacationed together almost every summer growing up.  

That friendship with Robbie was especially important when he moved away from Louisville to Berea, KY where his dad became the school superintendent when we were in grade school.  Yet, through that uncertain time, our friendship was not only sustained but it grew.  It helped that his dad and my dad were also best friends and we vacationed together almost every summer growing up.  

Our gospel lesson in John is set against the backdrop of uncertainty.  First century Palestine was a place of unrest.  There was a recent revolt against the Roman Empire by the Jewish Maccabees.  They reigned for a while, but the might of the Roman Empire eventually crushed them.  Jewish zealots were still active, and there was a Jewish religious and political structure that appeased to a certain degree both the zealots and much more the Roman rulers, as well as trying to maintain the cultural status quo and their place of comfort within it.

And, there was this backdrop of a Messiah, or the anointed one, the Christ, a concept that was in Jewish tradition and in their religious imagination.  A savior that would deliver them from their oppressors, bring justice to those on the margins, restore Israel as a sovereign nation, and place it on a hill, a light for all nations and peoples.  Pretty grand images.

So, the legal scholars and priests come to John, a strange man who had wild hair and a crazy sense of fashion…sounds familiar…and my kind of person!  But, these folks wanted to know if John was the Messiah, the Christ.  Not only were the living in uncertain times, they were uncertain of who John was…and they so wanted to believe that their visions of grandeur would be coming to their nation.  And, if he wasn’t the messiah, the Christ, was he Elijah, the prophet coming to proclaim the coming Messiah?  

Who are you?  They ask.  

John responds.  No, he’s not the Messiah, he’s not the Christ.  But, he does say that he is a voice crying out in the wilderness.  And, that the one who is coming, John is not even worthy to tie his sandals.  John also says that he baptizes with water.  And, we know that baptism symbolizes dying, being buried in the waters…and rising again to life, a new life.  A new identity, one based on the story of Jesus, the story of God, our story.

Friends, we’ve said this before, we are also in the wilderness.  This is an in-between time, not only for our culture, our church, but also, maybe for each of us.  If we are willing to be honest, deep down, we are also searching for a Messiah, the Christ.  

And, we are uncertain about where to look…maybe we look for it in political leaders, or celebrities…maybe it’s something else.  We want someone or something to deliver us.  Maybe the wilderness we are in is deeper than a pandemic, and we can’t find the right vaccine to get us whole.

Maybe we are also asking the question , not “who are you?”, but “who are we?”  “Where are we going?”  “Will we ever get out of this wilderness?”  Maybe we are uncertain if we can or will get out.  Maybe we don’t even know where we are heading or who’s on the journey through the wilderness with us.

At some point, we realize that the worldly systems that we have adhered to, the “isms” that we have put faith in, don’t work as well as they used to, if they worked at all, they are not what God intended.  Maybe we have come to a point that looking for a messiah in someone else or some thing has not given us peace, joy, love, or hope, and we are ready for something to change.  

Maybe it’s time that we, again during this advent season, look to this Jesus that John is pointing to, this Jesus who will come to us with a baptism of Presence, of God self.  

A Presence that brings Love, deep love, love that shapes and reshapes us, Love that stays with us in the wilderness, that walks with us, that struggles with us, a Love that is above and more dangerously beautiful than any ism, politician, celebrity, country, ideal can offer us.  A Love that lasts forever, a Love that cannot be separated from us as Paul talks about Romans.  

A Love that is present in the Christ, exhibited in a God emptying God’s self into a baby called Jesus.  A Love in Christ that God also put into each one of us.  Again, as Paul states, Christ is all an in all things and people in the book of Colossians.  

People ask sometimes in this season randomly, “do you ‘believe’ in Christmas?”  Well, maybe a better question is do you know that the Christ in Christmas BELIEVES in you and that belief is wrapped up in a deep love.

Friends, this Christ believes in you, loves you, and has come, is here, and will come to give you Love.  You already have it!  What are you waiting for?  Cultivate, go deep in the soil of your lives, let God love you unconditionally!  

And, know that love will carry you, even into an uncertain future!

Messenger.

Mark 1:1-8

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

    who will prepare your way;

the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

    make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

How many of you are ready for this virus to be over and done with?  I know I am.  

I know that I have to have patience and do all of the things that the CDC and our scientists say to do, but I’m tired of this…and, how many of you are tired of waiting for peace to come?  I mean, look at our horrible political discourse in this country!  Look at folks talking past each other.  And, then what about wars, famines, other pandemics and injustices that continue to separate us.

I know that I have to have patience and do all of the things that the CDC and our scientists say to do, but I’m tired of this…and, how many of you are tired of waiting for peace to come?  I mean, look at our horrible political discourse in this country!  Look at folks talking past each other.  And, then what about wars, famines, other pandemics and injustices that continue to separate us.

Yet, I’ve come to realize over the years, that takes time and patience to move forward towards peace.  Which is a good thing.  And, waiting can produce character and other benefits.  

Now, waiting doesn’t mean not finishing or moving something along.  There are markers, goals, and lists that can be checked off in moving towards the development of an idea or project.  

And, throughout the Bible, there is a sense of waiting.  John the Baptist was waiting, yet he was also proclaiming something that faithful Israelites had been waiting for.  

Hundreds of years before, in the book of Isaiah, this was said:

11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

Scriptures also tells that this Messiah would have good news for the poor, the oppressed, and would give release to those held in bondage, in captivity…and will bring peace, or shalom.

Now, it’s hard to be at peace with everyone.  Peace is a rare commodity, when we look at events in the world around us.  As I watched events unfold this past year around the pandemic and the political and civil unrest and other things that are dividing us, I couldn’t help but to wonder if peace can be possible.   

Yet, we are called to peace.  I am amazed at folks like Martin Luther King who were able to work towards justice while rejecting violence and seeking peace.

We also experience a lack of peace within ourselves.  We are filled with self-doubt, insecurities, and a sense that something is simply not right.  We often look around in a state of discontent that can lead us to question who we are and to wonder if there is something more.  Sometimes that discontent can lead us towards growth if handled in loving community with God and others.  But, oftentimes that discontent left on its own leads us to despair.  

As we embrace who we are in Jesus and identify with his example and live in obedience to him, we can experience true peace, even as we wait to see it play out in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  It is a peace that passes understanding.  We will also be able to extend that peace to others and work towards peace.  We may not be able to control what others do to us or to others or the circumstances around us, but we can live in Christ and strive to respond to others as Jesus would.  

As we embrace who we are in Jesus and identify with his example and live in obedience to him, we can experience true peace, even as we wait to see it play out in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  It is a peace that passes understanding.  We will also be able to extend that peace to others and work towards peace.  We may not be able to control what others do to us or to others or the circumstances around us, but we can live in Christ and strive to respond to others as Jesus would.  

In our gospel lesson, John comes along preaching this message of repentance, as well as hope and this peace…and sharing about the coming of Jesus.  

John was making a statement, I will live a simple life in order to make my message heard and simple as possible:  “Repent, have a change of heart and mind from the way you’ve always thought and lived.  Be baptized to symbolize that the old way of living is dead, be raised into new life in the way that God intended…living simply in love with others, serving all, especially those on the margins.  And, know that someone is coming after me who’s sandals I’m not worthy to tie”.  John doesn’t want anything to get in the way of his message pointing towards Christ.  It’s also interesting to note that John also did his ministry outside of the temple, outside of institutional norms and processes.

And, the people came in droves to hear him and be baptized.  It’s as if they knew that they needed change.  Yes, they had hopes for a Messiah, they knew that John was pointing them towards someone to come…yet, they were also ready for a change.  A change that would include everyone, that would be personal yet connectional to community. 

Friends, hear this clearly, John is reminding us that Jesus is coming, that this Jesus will show us how to love and will love us no matter what.  This Jesus is worth the wait, and while we are waiting, it’s a good thing to prepare by confessing our vulnerabilities and the ways that we have missed the mark of God’s loving intentions…and to prepare our hearts and minds to be receptive to God’s voice through Jesus in our lives.  

Something in us may need to die in order for us to hear God’s voice.  That also applies to us as a community.  God’s voice is rising up in us, what do we need to clear out of the way to hear what God is saying to us?  We cannot rest in our identity as church members or even as Christians, we have to ask ourselves what does it mean to receive Jesus into lives personally, and into our collective lives together as a church.  

As we do that, may we be reminded that this Jesus gives us courage and voice to ask the hard questions, first with ourselves, then with each other, and to wait, even as we work towards peace or shalom.  This Jesus, in his life and even now, because we are his body, reminds us through the taking of the elements of communion that we are bound together in him and that he is speaking deeply in and through us through the power of God’s Spirit, God is present with us!

Awake.

Mark 13:24-37

The Coming of the Son of Man

24 “But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,

    and the moon will not give its light,

25 

and the stars will be falling from heaven,

    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 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 Lesson of the Fig Tree

28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he[a] is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

The Necessity for Watchfulness

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert;[b] for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Full confession here, I’m at a disadvantage when it comes to Advent.  You see, I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church as many of you know.  Advent was just something that we didn’t put a lot of emphasis on, at least in our particular church.

But, I do understand now through my experiences with the PCUSA, UCC, Episcopal and Catholic Church what Advent means, to wait.  

Now as a kid, I knew what it meant to wait, and I wasn’t very good at it.  Especially at Christmastime…I loved it when December hit, but I hated waiting.  We had one of those Advent calendars every year where you’d punch out something for each day…it was torture.

I also understood hope, I would hope that my parents (or Santa Claus) would get it right and give me the gifts that I wanted.

And, Santa?!  I so believed!  Who doesn’t?  A mythical figure that knows you, is jolly, mysterious, magical, and works with elves.  I put my hope in him as a kid.  

But, what about when the disappointment came, after the gifts were opened, and after the magic wore off?  Where’s the hope, what were we waiting for?

Now, we know that Christmas and Advent, especially in our tradition, mean so much more.  It is the coming of Christ, more than gifts, it’s about the hope of humanity.

So, what does our gospel text from the lectionary say to us about waiting and for hope?

A lot.  Again, we have to remember that some of the imagery and references were written for a 1st century audience.

But, I think we can relate to these hard words about apocalyptic times as described by the writer of Mark…no sun, no moon to give light, a great darkness, stars falling, earth being shaken etc.  Ugh, sounds horrible!  Yet, these are words to describe suffering, hardship.  Have you ever gone through a hardship in life where you thought that the world was ending around you?  Isolated, alone, in a dark place…and, then, something breaks open and you walk out of it, or towards the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

These are images, metaphors, for the real and felt hardship of life.  And, yes, here we are as a culture experiencing the political divisions, hardships, pandemics, and personal darkness.  Mental and emotional health are in crisis modes across the world, just as our hospitals and healthcare systems are overrun.

What can we do in a time like this?  Well, we wait.  And, we hold on to hope.  And, we recognize again and again, that Advent is about this kind of waiting.  Advent is realizing that we are in what my spiritual director, Fr. Bollman, tells me about my own life this past decade, an “in-between” time.  And, there is suffering, the world is changing for us, things are ending.  

Yet, what is the hope of Advent?  That Christ, God in the flesh, has come to us, is coming to us, and will come to us!  

Just like the fig tree, there are signs all around of something new beginning to blossom.  It stinks to not have Advent services in this beautiful space, I miss all of you, I miss gathering in coffeeshops and breweries with friends and sharing life together physically.  But, this may also be our best season ever.  Why?  Because we are being awakened, we are hearing in this story to be alert and we are on the look out for the hope of Christ.  

Waiting is not just sitting around…what if waiting means to simply embrace where we are in this moment and to know that we can be present with ourselves, with others, and with God’s flow?  What if what we are waiting for, we already have inside of us and in each other?  What if the true gift of Christ’s coming is realizing that what we’ve always hoped for, we’ve always had?  

Friends, in Colossians, the writer says “Christ in you, the hope of glory”!  What is God’s glory?  For us to be fully alive no matter where we are!  To be fully human!  God’s glory is wrapped up with us in a beautiful dance!!!  Our glory is God’s glory, God’s glory is our glory!  We live in communion with one another and with God!

Our hope is planted deep within our DNA, our hope is in this universal Christ that is binding us together, even in the darkness and the division of this current age!  Christ says to live in him, he’s already living in us!  May it be so, may we be awakened and stay away to this Presence, this reality!  

Decide.

Matthew 25:31-46

The Judgment of the Nations

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

So, I have done yoga over the years very sporadically.  During this pandemic, I’ve found myself doing yoga almost every day.  It’s been a great release for me, especially as a runner…runners tend to use the same muscles and aren’t too flexible…yoga has given me a good release and a bit more flexibility.  

One form of yoga that seems to have become quite popular, but I just don’t get, is “goat yoga”.  

It is what it says, doing yoga while goats are around.  It’s supposed to be soothing, but I don’t see how it can be.  I have not done goat yoga, but, upon occasion, my two dogs have come into the room in our house where I do yoga if I forget to shut the door.

I can say with confidence, they are cute dogs, but there is nothing soothing about doing yoga with them in the room!  Quite the opposite.

Of course, that’s where my mind went when I thought of this week’s gospel lesson.  Goat yoga…

Our passage talks about the Son of Humanity, the Christ, the Messiah, the person who exemplifies the reign of God, being a shepherd.  A metaphor that we’ve heard before in Scripture.  A good shepherd, one that looks after his entire flock, including leaving the 99 to go after one wayward sheep.  

And, yet, this shepherd is separating the sheep from the goats…with the idea that goats are not welcome and deemed to separation from the sheep.

Now, one thing that we have to remember, Jesus is not making a statement on heaven or hell, or eternal damnation here.  Throughout scripture, there isn’t really a notion of “hell” as we have constructed in modern times, but there is mention of “Sheol”, this is, in Jewish understanding, a place of waiting for God’s judgement, a holding pen, a pause between this life and when the invisible reign of God becomes visible for all to see.  

And, another term in the New Testament is “Gehenna”, which is a place outside of Jerusalem that is a garbage dump, where things are thrown away…and sometimes, as we saw with the crucifixion of Jesus, even people were thrown away, or cast out.

But, it does seem rather dualistic, or black and white, or an an either/or proposition.  But, we have to remember, we are reading this 2,000 years later…Jesus is using dualistic language to point to a non-dualistic, or “both/and”, universal truth.  

In the world that Jesus was living, some folks wanted to be comfortable, not associate with folks deemed less than them.  Seems like that’s still going on today.

Jesus is conveying to folks that his presence, his friendship, and thus friendship with God and with everyone, should be extended to everyone.  That those in prison, without clothes, foreigners, immigrants, prostitutes, widows, children, and even thieves are made in the image of God.  He’s flipping the script on what was commonly practiced and actually using dualistic language to point to a deeper non-dualist God reality.

He was also saying that he is with those on the margins, always.  And, if you are looking for Jesus, looking for the divine, don’t waste your time on looking towards some future time or some super hero type myth, but that Jesus is with us know, all of the time, and we can see Jesus in those on the margins.  And, how we treat them, or ignore them, is how we treat God’s very self.  

We want to see Jesus as an earthly king, as triumphant, superman if you will.  But, what Jesus is saying is the opposite, look for him in the lowly, the down and out, the ones that we may often judge or look down upon.  

In essence, Jesus is saying to not judge until we want to be judged…now, here’s the kicker, Jesus is also reminds us that God is found everywhere, even in Sheol, and in the garbage heaps of Gehenna…there’s no place or thing that can separate us from the love of God as Paul reminds us…and that Christ is all and in all…

So, if you want to meet Jesus, become engaged with those around you that you may or may not be engaged in…look for the “other” and don’t have a mindset of of “us and them”, rather just “we”.  

And, if you do find yourself with the goats…know that God loves goats also, but you may be waiting a while as you figure out that God loves all and is in all.   

And, remember, no matter where you find yourself, even in this crazy season that we are all living in, that Love Wins…always, and eventually, and that Love will carry us through all things and with all people.  Let’s live in that!