God has heard, have you?

1 Samuel 3:1-10

1 The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

2 One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” 5 And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.

6 Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

8 A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

I heard a comedian recently talking about how good kids have it today. It was one of those “back in my day…” kinds of sketches. One of the things he said that made me giggle was, “Back in my day, we used to have to answer the phone to know who was calling.”

Caller ID is a great thing. So is the “ignore” button on the phone. I try not to ignore calls because people don’t usually just call me to chat. If my friends or people from church call me, they probably need something. So if I’m available, I answer. However, this week I was playing around online looking at refinance options for our home. I’m always looking for a way to save a little money, and I think that we might be able to get in on a HARP refinance deal. I put some information into a website, which I thought was a government website. I hesitated a bit when they asked for my phone number, but I clicked “submit.” And of course, there was a disclosure that said, “By clicking submit you are agreeing to our terms and conditions.”

Yeah, cuz I read those.

I just wanted to see if I was eligible for the program, and I kid you not, within two seconds of clicking “submit” my phone started ringing. I didn’t know the number, so I answered. “Hello, Kevin. I’m from Quicken Loans. We have your inquiry and would like to ask you a few more questions.” And before he could get out that sentence, my phone started beeping. I was getting another call from an unknown source.

What I thought was a government website that would tell me if I was eligible for a reduced cost refinance, actually turned out to be a third-party who immediately sold my contact information to several loan agencies.

I’ve been thankful for that “ignore call” option.

What do you do when your phone is ringing, but you don’t recognize the caller? It probably depends on your personality and your line of work. Before the refinance fiasco, I would usually answer in those situations because I do get a number of calls from people in the community and in the broader church whose number I don’t have stored. But often those calls are informing me that a car I sold five years ago is eligible for an extended warranty or that because I’ve stayed at a certain resort in the past I’m now able to get a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

Even with all of our technology and all of our experience, it can still be really hard to know who is calling. And don’t even get me started on how hard it is to tell whose phone is ringing when they all have the same ringtone! How can we sort it all out?

Our scripture for this morning is the calling of Samuel. Samuel is the prophet who will go on to anoint the first king of Israel, Saul, and his successor, David. It was Samuel’s mother, Hannah, who prayed to God for a son, and promised to give him back in service to the Lord. The name Samuel means “God has heard.” (Samuel can also mean “name of God.”)

Young Samuel goes to live with an old priest by the name of Eli at the synagogue in the city of Shiloh. Notice what we find in verse 1: “The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.”

I sometimes hear people say things like, “Miracles don’t happen anymore.” Or “God doesn’t speak to us like he used to in the Bible.” This may be true, but notice that God didn’t speak often in those days, either. The Bible is a collection of stories spanning thousands of years, and when we put them all together in one place, it seems like God was always doing miracles and speaking to the people. So maybe God speaks less today than in the biblical days, but I don’t know for sure. But I would guess that the heavens could seem pretty quiet at times in those days, too. And maybe God was speaking, but they didn’t know how to listen.

So things have been a little quite around the synagogue in Shiloh. Some historical figures suggest that Samuel is about 11 years old at this time. Samuel lies down and someone calls him. But there is no caller ID, so Samuel assumes that it is Eli, the curator of the synagogue, who is calling him. So Samuel gets up, runs to Eli, and says, “Here I am.”

Then Eli says, Why are you waking me up? I didn’t call you. Go back to bed!

Samuel goes back to bed, and he hears someone calling again. There must not be anyone else in the synagogue because again Samuel assumes it is Eli. So again Samuel goes to Eli and says, “Here I am!” And again, Eli says, Go back to bed.

            A third time someone calls out for Samuel. Whoever is calling is even more persistent than Quicken Loans, who eventually got the idea that I didn’t want to talk. Samuel again goes to Eli, and all at once, Eli realizes what is going on. They haven’t heard this voice for a while in this synagogue, but after the first few attempts, Eli recognizes the caller. Verses 8b-9a say: “Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’””

And when God called the fourth time, Samuel was ready. “Speak Lord,” he said. “For your servant is listening.”

Why was it that Samuel did not recognize the voice of God, and Eli eventually did? Look at verse 7: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”

I hear people use the phrase “know the Lord” differently today. This verse isn’t saying that Samuel didn’t believe in God or follow him, but that he hadn’t had a personal experience with God. Again, we are talking about a boy of about 11-years-old, and verse one said that God had been quiet for a while. But the old man Eli, he could go back in his memory banks and recall. Maybe God had spoken to him in the same way many years ago. Or maybe he had a different, yet consistent experience. Either way, after the third try, Eli recognized it was God speaking to his young apprentice, and Eli was the one who gave Samuel guidance on how to proceed.

Like all times and places, we in the modern, western world value certain personal attributes. We value the self-made man or woman who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps. We value youth. We value beauty. We value celebrities who are famous simply for being famous. And all at once we have this new term, a new class of people who are looked up to known as “YouTube Celebrities.” I don’t get it, you just video your day, upload it, and people watch this? My children have been talking about JoJo Siwa recently; I seriously feel old and out of the loop. I had no idea who JoJo Siwa was. But thanks to the public school system, my kids do, and now I do. As of Friday, January 12, 2018, JoJo Siwa has over 324,000 followers on Twitter, 428,000 likes on Facebook, and 6.5 million followers of Instagram. And in my opinion, after watching portions of two videos, she isn’t that talented, either. Her songs are all voice-overed.

What is she? She’s young. She’s cute. She blonde. Evidently 6.5 million people value these things.

Some cultures have totally different values. Rather than the young and the beautiful, they value the elderly, the experienced, the wrinkled, the gray-haired people. Because with every wrinkle and every gray hair comes wisdom.

I think we in the church would do well to slow down and listen to the voices of experience. I’m not suggesting that older people have all of the answers, but I also think that there is wisdom in the words of Ecclesiastes 1:9b, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

In a few weeks our conference will be losing two more churches over the issue of inclusion of people in same gender relationships. We’ve lost a number of conservative churches, and now we are losing a few more progressive churches. This is dividing our denomination, our conferences, and our churches. How do we deal with this divide? I wish I knew! But I think there is wisdom in going to our elders and asking about how they dealt with divisive issues, what they would do the same, and what they would do differently. I bet they would say we got some things right and some things wrong. Though this may be a relatively new issue, there have been issues before. We need people like Eli to help us discern God’s calling. We need people who have heard God’s voice before to help us hear God’s voice today.

We also could do better at utilizing the people around us, people who know us. Our church, our community, our friends. These are the people who can help us discern God’s voice.

Each month our Church Council meets to discuss the work and mission of the church. Sometimes I think we could call this group the Church Counsel rather than Council. We do counsel one another and I believe it is helpful to bounce ideas off one another. We gain more insight this way. Perhaps you hadn’t thought of it from a certain perspective.

One of our deep discussions this past meeting was the pronunciation of the word spelled A-U-N-T. It is my observation that those born south of the Mason-Dixon Line pronounce this word awe-nt, while those of us born north of the Mason-Dixon Line pronounce it…correctly. When asked why he pronounced it awe-nt, one insightful individual said, “Because that’s how it is spelled.” Add another letter or two and you get words like taunt, haunt, flaunt. Many people on council contributed their opinions, but finally, I just asked the question, “Where do we live?” We live in Staunton (pronounced Stan-ton).

But that was just a warmup for our meeting. We went on to talk about how we might be able to help a refugee family who had to leave their home in Florida because of Hurricane Irma. A mother with three children, the husband is not in the picture, is living in our community. One person on our council has a personal relationship with the family, a senses God’s calling to help. How can we be of help? How is God calling us to help? What is God calling us to do? What are we overlooking, and how might we do the most good? I can try to help and think through these problems on my own, but we do a much better job asking questions and digging deeper when we gather to discern in groups.

But what about those who don’t have a Church Council/Counsel at your disposal? A couple of years ago I was invited to participate in a process known as a Clarity Circle. This is a practice that traces back to the Quaker tradition, and probably much further. When someone had a decision to make and they were trying to discern God’s calling, they would invite people from the church to meet in a circle and just ask questions. This is often used when someone is considering changing jobs or moving. Trusted friends ask questions like, “How will this affect your family?” “Are you happy doing what you are doing now?” “Will this be financially advantageous?” This is an extremely vulnerable situation. Some Quaker traditions even invite people considering marriage to participate in the Clarity Circle process. “Have you thought through how you will spend your holidays?” “Have you talked about how to divide up household responsibilities?” “Are you sure you want to marry him/her?” J Often it is people who have experience asking questions that the younger couple may have never even considered.

The Clarity Circle that I was a part of was for a young couple considering doing international mission work. The challenge for them was that they had an established life and would be leaving a lot of things behind. He co-owned a construction company with a friend; she was a school teacher. They owned a house. They were very active in their church. They were very aware that their decision would affect many people, and they wanted to make sure that the voice they heard saying “Go to a land I will show you” was the voice of God and not just simply their desire for something new and exciting.

They went, and it was a great experience for them. They spent six years ministering to and teaching an underserved population. I have no problem saying that God was calling them to the mission field.

In historical Christianity, there is a concept known as the Deus Absconditus, which is Latin for “The hiddenness of God.” To abscond means to leave secretly. Deus Absconditus can be used to describe the situation in 1 Samuel 3:1, where the word of the Lord was rare and rarely heard. And I believe many of us can feel the same way today. The word of the Lord can be very difficult to hear, and when we do hear something, how do we know that it is a word of the Lord and not just something of our own fabrication?

I believe that the Deus Absconditus is not the result of God retreating from our world, but our own lack of perception of God’s word and activity all around us. I think we would do well to learn from Samuel when learning how to discern God’s call. We don’t have a caller ID that will inform us when it is God, or when it is Quicken Loans. So like Samuel, we go to those with more experience than we have, to learn from their successes and from their failures. And like the Quakers, our Church Council, and so many groups before us, we gather together to discern God’s word together.

The name “Samuel” means “God has heard.” Now the question is, have you heard God? Let us discern together.

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An Open Invitation

Matthew 2:1-12New International Version (NIV)

2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,\are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for out of you will come a ruler/who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

It seems to be widely accepted that the wise men rode camels as they followed the star in search for the one born King of the Jews. There is really no evidence for this, but when you think about it, it is rather obvious. These are, after all, wise men. And if you know nothing else about camels, you know that they can go for a long time without water. This would have been very important information for the wise men as they began their trip, because the wise men had heard that in Israel, there was noel (no well).

Today is Epiphany Sunday, which marks the end of the Christmas season in the church. Epiphany is usually celebrated on January 6, which is the twelfth day of Christmas. So if you ever hear someone complaining that their Jewish friends get 8 days of Hanukkah and they only have one day of Christmas, remind them that Christmas has traditionally be a twelve-day-long event. We start with Christmas day and end on Epiphany.

Epiphany is the celebration of the wise men’s arrival in Bethlehem where they worshipped the baby Jesus. I have no idea how they decided that these travelers arrived on January 6, and many scholars will say that they may not have got there until almost two years after Jesus’s birth. That’s okay, we really don’t know when Jesus was born either. The important thing is that we remember the birth of Jesus and the visitors who came to worship him.

I read this week about one strange way to remember this visit. Some traditions celebrate Epiphany by swimming in icy rivers and lakes. We are talking about churches in places like Siberia. Aren’t you glad that we celebrate with 12 drummers drumming around and a glass of wassail around here! Though it wouldn’t be too hard to find an icy place to swim this time of year.

On this Epiphany Sunday I want to look at the visitors who came to see Jesus soon after he was born. Who were they, where did they belong, and what did they believe.

When we look at the Christmas stories found in the Bible, we go to two different books: Matthew and Luke. Each of these books of the Bible tells the story a little different, offering various details and other snippets into the birth and early years of Jesus’s life. This doesn’t surprise me, as I’m sure I would tell the story of our children’s birth differently than my wife would. That doesn’t mean one of us is wrong, but that we emphasize different parts of the story.

One of the differences that we find is that each gospel tells the story of different visitors who came to see Jesus. Our text for this morning tells about the wise men who come from the East to offer gifts and worship the newborn king of the Jews. We will come back to this story shortly. Luke also describes visitors who come to visit the baby. We usually refer to them by their occupation: they were shepherds.

Shepherds have received a bit of a bad reputation over the last century or so, and I’m not sure that it is entirely accurate. Many people assume that they were thieves. There might have been thieving shepherds, but it wouldn’t be fair to assume that they were all thieves. Some claim that shepherds were despised, but we don’t have a lot of reason to believe this either. If shepherds were such terrible people, I would think that the Psalmist would hesitate to say “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Furthermore, God is described by Jesus as a shepherd who leaves behind the 99 to search for one lost sheep. Jesus even calls himself a shepherd, which seems like a strange thing to call yourself if all shepherds are thieves and are despised by others.

I’m just looking out for you and your reputation, farmers around the world.

Yet while it might be a stretch to call shepherds thieves and despised, they also weren’t the social elite of the time. Watching sheep by night for multiple nights in a row probably meant these folks didn’t bathe as often as some others. And we know that animals, and particularly what comes out of animals, can have a—how shall I put it—pungent fragrance. It stings the nostrils. The things that they touched, the work that they did, probably caused many shepherd to be ceremonially unclean. And we find from the writings of Aristotle some 300 years before the birth of Jesus that many considered shepherds to be lazy. Because really, how hard is it to look after a docile animal.

So while shepherds surely weren’t all despised thieves, they weren’t the most respected people in the world. And that is why it is surprising that they are invited to be the first non-parents to visit baby Jesus.

But what if the Jesus story had a different beginning? What if he was born in a big city, the capital city, in a castle among servants and laid in a shiny and new bassinet? First of all, the shepherds probably wouldn’t have been able to get past security. And if they did, they probably would have felt pretty awkward in such a luxurious setting. They are used to sleeping outside, and here’s this infant, sleeping in a fancy bed in a fancy room in a fancy house surrounded by fancy people.

But Jesus wasn’t born into that scenario. No, he was born in a little Podunk town, in an animal stable. And his bed was an animal feeding trough. These things would have been very familiar to the shepherds and their animal husbandry experiences. They might have even been familiar with the very stable where Jesus was born. Going to see Jesus in some ways probably felt quite comfortable and normal to the shepherds, while being quite new and exciting in other ways.

It almost seems as if God entered into this world in such a way so as to meet the shepherds where they were. There was something familiar and something novel all wrapped up into one.

But that’s Luke’s gospel. We are looking at Matthew today and this story of the three wise men. Or are they three kings? I think that it is amazing that of these four words that we use to describe the visitors in Matthew’s gospel, none of them are actually in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew never says that there are three, he never calls them “wise” or “kings,” and he never says that they are men.

Why do we call them wise men or kings? I think they probably were wise people; they found a baby in a manger using little more than a star. I have problems finding my car keys. When we come right down to it, we call them wise men because King James called them wise men in 1611.

Matthew uses the word “magi” to describe these visitors. We still call them magi sometimes today, and the NIV chooses to not translate this word and just calls them magi. But what do we know about magi outside of this story?

Magi actually has similar roots to our English word magic. These were magic men, and it isn’t their first appearance in the Bible. The Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, makes several references to the magi, such as in the books of Esther and Daniel. In one case, Daniel and some companions are captured by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and questioned during the Babylonian exile. In Daniel 1:20 we read, “and in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters (Greek magi) in his whole kingdom.”

And for a quick geographical review, can anyone tell me which way Babylon would have been from Israel? To the east. These are magi from the east.

In these stories, many of which are from the exilic period, we find the word “magi” translated as wise men. So it isn’t surprising that King James would simply call them wise men.

We also call them kings because it seems to fulfill several OT prophesies. For instance, Psalm 72 includes the line, “May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts.” And Isaiah 30 includes, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…and all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”

Were they kings? Perhaps. Were they wise men? Sure. But Matthew intentionally calls them magi, and I’m glad that the NIV leaves this word in its original language because Matthew isn’t trying to sanitize this encounter. These were magic men, they were astrologers who attempted to discern the future by looking at the stars, and likely members of a religious group known as Zoroastrianism.

Adherents to Zoroastrianism believe in two competing gods: one good and one evil, but each equal in power and strength. Furthermore, Zoroastrianism teaches that stars were angelic or heavenly beings, perhaps deceased relatives, who could reveal the things that would happen in the future. This is what the magi in the book of Daniel were doing, and this is what the magi in Matthew appear to be doing. They seem to be able to discern the events about Jesus’s birth by studying the stars. I don’t know how that works, and I’m going to guess that most of the time it didn’t. But in this case, it seems to work quite well.

Like the shepherd in Luke’s gospel, God uses something that these people were familiar with to lead them to Jesus. It has a kind of “Paul and the altar to the unknown God” feel to it. Following a star to find Jesus in some ways probably felt quite comfortable and normal to the magi, while being quite new and exciting in other ways.

I think these stories from the gospels of Luke and Matthew are very important to us today. Outsiders are the first to recognize Jesus and to worship him.

Over Christmas break we decided to go to Washington, DC to take in a few of the (free) museums and get a little culture for our children. One of the things that always impresses me about the DC area is the ethnic diversity. We didn’t have much of that in rural Ohio growing up, and I think that we were worse off for it. So we went to the American History Museum and the new African American Heritage Museum. I actually got to see a pair of pants worn by MC Hammer, now that’s high culture!

We also had a chance to enjoy some ethnic foods. We went to multicultural restaurant for breakfast one morning. It was called the International House…of Pancakes, or IHOP for short J. Okay, the IHOP isn’t actually what I think of when I think about ethnic foods, but the staff there sure was diverse. The man who seated us, the wait staff, and the cashier all appeared to be first-generation immigrants (based on their accents). Our waitress was clearly of Indian decent, wearing elements of culture under her uniform.

After all the pancakes, eggs, and sausage were consumed (don’t judge, we were on vacation!), the waitress brought us our check and said, “Have a Merry Christmas!” I replied, “You, too!”

I was immediately embarrassed. The woman, coming from India, was most likely a Hindu, and her apparel suggested as much as well. I wasn’t embarrassed because I wished her a Merry Christmas. And I sure don’t get caught up in the whole “Happy Holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas” debate. We aren’t saved by the well-wishes we exchange, and I don’t think saying a phrase that isn’t even in the Bible is going to lead people to follow Jesus. My embarrassment came from the fact after I had wished a Hindu Merry Christmas, I realized she knew more about my religion than I know about hers. I couldn’t even come up with the name of a single Hindu holiday. And it turns out that there are a lot of Hindu holidays, which isn’t that surprising when you consider that they have 330 million deities.

But I had read a book on a major Hindu holiday, and I was drawing a blank. I couldn’t come up with Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Diwali is one of the big ones, and is celebrated by several religions. I didn’t even care enough about that holiday to remember its name.

Here’s the thing, God didn’t tell the shepherds that they needed to go take a bath before they came to see Jesus. Nope, the dirty, smelly, ceremonially unclean people were told where to find the Messiah. And he was in a dirty, smelly, perhaps ceremonially unclean stable. God didn’t tell the Magi to first repent of their wicked ways. Nope, God used their practice of interpreting the future from the stars to lead them to Jesus. Because even though forbids astrology, God loves the astrologers more than he hates astrology.

I’ll be honest, Hinduism makes me uncomfortable. All of the statues of all of the deities stand in opposition to some of the most foundational teachings of the Ten Commandments. But like God, our love for people must be greater than anything that makes us uncomfortable about them.

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Think Big, Act Small

Luke 2:22-40

22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

I hope that everyone had a great Christmas. I got some new shirts, a few tools, and a new spare tire this this year. So I’ll be starting a new diet here with the new year. I recently heard about a diet called the “Whole Foods Diet.” You only eat food that you can buy at the grocery store Whole Foods. I figure I can stick to this diet. I’ve never been to a Whole Foods, but they are the ones that sell donuts, bagels, Lifesavers, and Cheerios, right?

In case you are not aware, this is the last day of 2017, which means that around the world, millions of people are making New Year’s resolutions. Many will make an effort to stop smoking, to lose weight, to change jobs, or go back to school. And I know that I can be a bit tough on New Year’s resolutions, but I am all for setting goals. It is always good to be moving toward something, unless, that is, you have already reached perfection and simply cannot improve upon yourself. If that is the case, then I’m sad to be the one to tell you that it is only going downhill from here J.

The good news is that most of us have not reached perfection, so things can go one of three ways: you can stay the same, things can get worse, or you can make progress. One of the challenges that I see when people make New Year’s resolutions or set personal goals is they set long-term goals, big goals, and if they fail to reach those goals, the get frustrated and quit.

Well today I’m going to suggest a different way forward for 2018. I believe that it is really important to set big goals, or to think big. But it is also just as important, maybe even more important, to act small. By act small I don’t mean that we are to pretend to be little, or to act like a child. I mean that we need to make little changes, little decisions, which will add up to the big changes in the end.

But before we get to that, let’s start by looking at today’s scripture. And at first, you are not going to see how I’m going to connect these things together. Hopefully by the time we are done it will make perfect sense.

There is a lot going on in our text for this morning, but I think that what is not explicitly stated is even more interesting. One of the things that we notice is that Mary and Joseph were observant Jews. In the verse just before our text we are told that Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day, just as is commanded in the Torah. Then in verse 22 we read that the time had come for the purification ritual for Mary. She would have been considered ceremonially unclean for the first 40 days after giving birth, and would need to make a purification offering and a sin offering for herself. Luke is specific, stating that she gives two doves or pigeons as the offering, which would have been the option for the poorer class of Jews.

But this trip wasn’t just about Mary’s purification rituals. No, they traveled a bit to get to Jerusalem, so they were going to kill two birds with one stone. Maybe that isn’t the best saying to use, since they were there to kill two birds. But you get the point. They were going to be efficient. Verses 22b-23 tell us: “Joseph and Mary took [Jesus] to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”).”

Mary and Joseph weren’t just there to make purification sacrifices. They were there to present Jesus to the Lord, because the Law says that every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord. That word “consecrate” is a little weird to me, so I looked it up. The dictionary defines consecrate as: “make or declare something sacred; dedicate formally to a religious or divine purpose.”

This commandment is found in Exodus 13, and in this context, the parents aren’t supposed to declare their firstborn male child as sacred. The second part of the definition seems more accurate: they were dedicating him formally for a divine purpose. This commandment is given just as the Israelites are leaving Egypt, before they even cross the Red Sea. God says that each firstborn male is to be dedicated to his service. It is the firstborn men who are to be the leaders of the religious aspects of the Hebrew people. They are the ones who are to offer sacrifices, to offer prayers, to be the liaison between God and the rest of the Hebrew people.

Right about now, those of you who know your Hebrew Bible well are thinking, “That sounds a lot like the job of the Levites.” And if you are thinking that, you are correct. In the book of Numbers, chapter 3, we find God taking the responsibility from the firstborn male and giving it to the descendants of Levi. Verses 11-12 say, “The Lord also said to Moses, ‘I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine.’”

No reason for the change is given, but some place the blame on that whole Golden Calf thing. Numbers goes on to say that the firstborn must be redeemed, they must be bought back by their parents from their service to God. The price is set at 5 shekels of silver, or about two ounces of silver. This is still practiced in Orthodox Jewish communities in a ceremony called the Pidyon Haben, the redemption of the firstborn. Essentially, the parents were paying the Levites for taking the place of the firstborn male children.

There are also examples of people choosing not to redeem or buy back their firstborn male children. For instance, in the book of 1 Samuel, you find the story of a woman named Hannah. Hannah longed to have children, but she was barren. Her prayer is recorded in 1 Samuel 1:11: “And she made a vow, saying, ‘Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.’”

Hannah dedicated her son to service of the Lord rather than buying him out of service.

Now remember that I started this look into our scripture by saying that I find what is not mentioned just as interesting as what is mentioned. Luke mentions the two doves or pigeons, but he doesn’t say anything about the five shekels. And again, in verses 22b-23, “Joseph and Mary took [Jesus] to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”).”

Mary and Joseph are offering Jesus to God as a servant of the Lord. They are dedicating him to the service of the Lord.

That’s really a small thing, to be honest. I’ve done a number of child dedications where parents do something similar. We had dedication services for each of our children, and it wasn’t just because I didn’t want to pay the five shekels. We dedicated them to the Lord because we want them to grow up to be people who have Christian values like love, grace, forgiveness, and caring for the least of these. So dedicating them was a really small thing, a small gesture. If we really want them to grow up to have Christian values, we need to do more than just dedicate them. We need to teach them Christian values. And here’s the really difficult part. We can’t just teach them these values out loud. We need to practice them ourselves.

So yes, we want our kids to grow up to love God and to love their neighbors and to love their enemies. That’s a big goal! And we started it by dedicating our children to God, knowing very well that even our best efforts might not be enough. FYI, they can still choose otherwise!

So I come back to this idea of setting New Year’s resolutions. I think it is important to have big goals. But to achieve those big goals, you need to act small. You need to make little changes and little decisions that will add up. For instance, if you want to lose 10 pounds, don’t just set a goal to lose 10 pounds. Make it your goal to not eat junk food today or to go for a walk today. If you want to stop smoking, make it your goal to go all day without a cigarette. If that’s too much, try to make it all morning without a cigarette. It’s would be a great goal to run a marathon in 2018, but if you try to run a marathon your first day of training, you probably won’t have a second day of training.

The same is true when we start setting goals for our spiritual life or our Christian life. It is a good goal to try to read the Bible through in a year. But it is even better to say that you are going to read a little bit each day. An average reader can get through the text in a year if they spend about 12 minutes a day reading the Bible. Or my pulpit Bible has 897 pages in it. Divide that number by 365, and you get 2.5 pages per day. I can read 2.5 pages a day, right?

Improving your prayer life is a great goal for 2018. But that’s really big and undefined. How about starting with praying for five minutes every day. Then maybe increase to six, then seven.

Be specific with your goals. Achieving your Christian goals really isn’t that different of a process than achieving your fitness or work goals. If you decide to be a more forgiving person in 2018, that’s a good goal, but how can you measure that? I suggest breaking it down and being more specific. Think of someone you need to forgive, and say, “Today I will only think good thoughts about that person.” That may be too much of a challenge for some people, and I get that. But it is a lot easier to think good thoughts, or at least neutral thoughts, for 24 hours than to totally forgive someone. And if you make a mistake or fail, try again. All isn’t lost if you fail one day.

Ending poverty is a good goal, but maybe we should start by saying that we will work a day with Habitat for Humanity or giving a set dollar amount to the Valley Mission. World peace would be a great thing, but as the Christmas song reminds us, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” What changes can I make today to make the world a better place, to make God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?

Let’s turn back to our scripture for this morning again. We are told that there are two old people who hung out a lot at the Temple who were waiting to meet God’s messiah. The man, Simeon, was said to be righteous and devout. Anna, the woman, was said to be a prophet. This is what Simeon said when he first laid eyes on Jesus: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (verses 29-32).

Those are some really big goals and expectations for such a little baby. I’m sure that Mary and Joseph would normally have been surprised by such a statement, but we also know that Mary had some pretty high expectations of her firstborn son as well. Nonetheless, that’s a big goal! And that big goal was achieved when Mary and Joseph and later Jesus himself took small steps, like dedicating their child to the service of the Lord.

It is great to think big, to set lofty goals and to have high expectations. And if you really want to achieve those goals or to make progress towards them in 2018, start by taking small steps. Start by dedicating yourself just as Mary and Joseph dedicated Jesus.

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The Meaning of Christmas

Luke 2:8-14

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to 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. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

I heard that someone saw Santa at the local Wal-Mart today, doing some last-minute shopping. Strangely, eyewitnesses claim that he was there with twenty-two reindeer. And they weren’t the well-known reindeer like Rudolph, Dasher, and Dancer, but a bunch of unknown, and likely unproven, reindeer. When asked about this, Santa, who doesn’t often deal with money, said that he heard that what he needed to purchase would cost about 20 bucks. To make sure he had enough, he brought along some extra doe (Reader’s Digest).

Maybe one day we will spend a significant amount of time talking about the real St. Nicholas, who seems to have been a pretty interesting guy. Nicholas was a bishop and a part of the Council of Nicea, which debated the nature of Jesus in 325 AD. Another bishop named Arius argued at length that Jesus was simply human, and subordinate to God the Father. The story goes (and there is little to corroborate this story) that Nicholas had heard enough, so he got up, walked over to Arius, and punched him in the face as he spoke. Some versions of the story say that Nicholas took off his sandal and hit Arius with it. Yeah, how do you like that as an image of the guy that sneaks into your home every December 24?

The real Nicholas did some wonderful things that seem to have really happened, including helping women avoid a life in the brothels, negotiating food prices for the poor, and providing presents for needy children. So it isn’t entirely surprising the way that gift giving and the story of St. Nick have been connected over the years.

But is Christmas about giving gifts? Sure it is! I’m not going to be a Grinch and tell you that there’s no place for giving gifts at Christmas. Christmas is about a lot of things.

My wife and I spent yesterday celebrating Christmas with her family and we will spend time in Ohio celebrating with my family. We are going to eat too much food, laugh at bad jokes, tell pointless stories, and enjoy one another’s company. Is Christmas about spending time with family? Absolutely!

People have to sign up well in advance to serve meals at the Valley Mission around the holidays. I hear that they get so many presents that they stockpile them for a later date and to give to other families. Is Christmas about performing good deeds? You know it is!

We can go on and on, naming the things that occupy our time around Christmas. Attending Christmas concerts and Christmas plays, watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and drinking eggnog are all wonderful things. And they are all a part of Christmas and there is nothing wrong with that. But, and this is a big but, they are not at the center of this season. These things radiate from the center.

We give gifts because Jesus received gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh around the time of his birth. And if you are looking for a good way to stand up to the consumerism that tends to run rampant this time of year, I like the idea of only giving our children three presents for Christmas. You shouldn’t get more presents than the birthday boy (idea stolen from Tripp Fuller).

We give gifts, we celebrate with family, we perform acts of kindness, we sing carols, all because the central meaning of Christmas: the birth of Jesus. Look at the angel’s pronouncement in verse 10, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

Do not be afraid. I love the cartoon “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” in part because I can relate well with some of the characters. Charlie Brown never seems to be able to get anything right. Lucy is often offering questionable advice. And Linus is kind of a scaredy cat, always carrying his blanky, his security blanket, with him wherever he goes. The next time you see “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” notice that as Linus recites our text for this morning, just as he says, “Do not be afraid,” he drops his security blanket. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but Linus seems to drop the object in which he found comfort, and placed his trust in the one born King of the Jews, who brings tidings of comfort and joy…comfort and joy!

The angel said “I bring you good news,” euangelion in the Greek. I bring you the Gospel. And it will cause great joy for “all the people.” Not all Jews. Not all Gentiles who perform a certain act of obedience. Great joy for all the people. Period. Full stop.

Let’s go on to verse 11, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Look at some of the nouns used here. Savior, Messiah, Lord. I think that we can fall victim to using these words as synonyms. They aren’t. Each of these words is used to describe Jesus, but a different aspect of him. Savior, for in him is the forgiveness of sins. Messiah, the chosen/anointed one. Lord, the one with power and authority.

Let’s put that all together, and we get, Fear not! I bring you good news, the Gospel, in fact. There is reason for all people, all people, to celebrate. That reason is the birth of the one filled with grace, love, and forgiveness. He is God’s chosen one, filled with power and authority.

So if someone tells you that Christmas is about presents, I want you to say, “You’ve got it!” If someone says Christmas is about spending time with family, tell them, “You are right.” And if someone says that Christmas is about peace on earth, goodwill toward men, tell them, “Absolutely.” Christmas is about these things, but only because Christmas is first and foremost about Jesus.

In fact, I would want to take it one step further. Christmas is about everything that is good, everything that is lovely, everything that is wise, everything that lifts up the downtrodden, everything that heals the broken. Christmas is about all of these things, because without the birth of the Jesus, none of these things would matter. All would be meaningless without the birth of the Savior of the world, the promised Messiah, the Lord over all.

As you gather with friends and family in the days to come, remember that all of this matters because a poor, unmarried couple welcomed the Savior, Messiah, and Lord into this world. Born in a stable, laid in a manger. The most powerful being in the universe entered our world in the most vulnerable way. And the world will never be the same again.

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Songs of Hope

Luke 1:46-55

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

One of the most challenging things about preaching during Advent is that you’ve heard these stories before. Maybe even many times before. I could preach from Jeremiah 5:14 and give that passage a new interpretation for you, enlighten you with a few phrases from the Hebrew language, and send you on your way to bake Christmas cookies. But what do you say about the early chapters of Luke’s gospel that hasn’t already been said? Even Linus from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has a significant part of this scripture memorized, and he isn’t even real. Worse yet, I’m going to be preaching from these chapters today and next Sunday. How am I going to say something new next week?

Every year we sing these song. Every year we read these verses. We do this year after year after year, so what’s left to be said that hasn’t already been said?

Nothing, and that’s okay. Because no matter how many times I sing these songs, I’m moved. It doesn’t matter if it is “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel,” sung in a minor key, or “The Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy,” performed in the style of Reggae with steel drums. I’m still moved. The story of Christmas is a story of hope, a story of restoration, and a story of reconciliation. That doesn’t get old! And as long as there is sin and suffering in this world, I need the story of Christmas because I still need Jesus.

What I want to do this morning is to remember the situation that Mary found herself in, her life and her experiences. Because if Mary was able to find hope in her situation, maybe we can too.

So what do we know about Mary? If her son was the Prince of Peace who grew to be the King of kings, then she must have been born into royalty herself. I’m guessing she must have been a young woman, probably in her mid 20’s, married to the king, and doing well for herself. Servants. Riches. Power. Or maybe just the opposite. Let’s start with her age.

In the first century, it was common for a young woman to get engaged significantly younger than we are used to today. Many people guess that Mary was between 12 and 14 as the customary age for a Jewish girl to be betrothed in the first century was the age of 12. And if you think about it, this makes good sense because the parents could send their daughters away right as were entering that difficult time known as the teenage years.

Many of us today get a bit queasy at the thought of getting married at such an age. I was 23 and Sonya was 22 when we got married, and many tell us that we were young. That’s a full decade older than Mary. Obviously, a lot has changed, and there were cultural and biological reasons why people were married so young back in those days. But the reason I like to emphasize how young Mary was when she received news that she was going to give birth to Jesus is because Mary shows a remarkable amount of maturity for a 12-14-year-old! I’m probably three times as old as Mary was here, and I’m not that mature.

If we look at the way the story unfolds in Luke’s gospel, we find the angel Gabriel showing up unannounced and telling Mary that she has found favor with God and will give birth to Jesus. This very mature young woman then asks a very mature question in verse 34, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

A very good question. So Gabriel explains to her that God will give her this child, and it will be God’s own son. And if that isn’t confusing enough, on the other end of the age spectrum is Mary’s older, barren relative, Elizabeth. And she has a special baby growing in her womb, too.

As all this is going down, Mary asks the very practical question, “How can this be?” And the next thing that she says is found in verse 38, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary goes from “How can it be?” to “Let it be.” And yes, this is where the Beetles got their song title from.

Mary isn’t exactly your average 12-year-old. As I’ve said before, I think that Catholics sometimes make too much of Mary. But I also think that we Protestants often don’t take her seriously enough. Mary is a pillar of faith.

Great, now remind me, who was Mary married to at this point? Nobody. She was betrothed to Joseph; some translations say that she was promised or pledged to be married to Joseph. But they were not locked in the bonds of holy matrimony in the way we might think of it today.

Recall that it was the Hebrew tradition of the time for a couple to be betrothed for about a year or more before they actually got married. And the betrothal ceremony was a binding covenant. Some livestock was probably exchanged, some vows were made, and then the man and woman lived apart while he built them a house. And important for our story is the practice of the man and woman never being left alone with one another until the man had completed their living quarters. Wink, wink; nudge, nudge. If you get my drift.

So Joseph and Mary have not been together, yet Mary is pregnant. Joseph knows it isn’t his child, and he probably also knows that Deuteronomy 22 lays out the punishment for someone who has relationships with a person who is betrothed to another. Mary should have been taken out in the street and stoned.

We know that Joseph made the decision to dismiss her rather than put her to death. Thankfully, the angel visited him as well.

But at least Jesus’s family had money and power. If you have money and power, you can get away with stuff like this, even during inflexible times like the first century.

Wait a second. In the second chapter of Luke’s gospel we find the story of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. 40 days have passed since his birth and it is now required by law for both the dedication of the child and for Mary to perform the postpartum rituals of purity. In Leviticus 12:6 we find the requirements: “When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering.” This is not a sin offering for the child, but for the mother, who has not been permitted into the Temple/Tabernacle since giving birth. She has been ceremonially unclean.

The lamb offering is to restore her ceremonial cleanliness; the pigeon or dove is for a sin offering to atone for her sins. She needs one of each. Now look at Leviticus 12:8: “But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.” Pigeons are cheap. You can catch them yourself if you have to. Lambs come at a price.

Now if we turn to Luke 2:24 we read, “And they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” If they had the money to pay for a lamb offering, they would have. Mary and Joseph most likely catch their offering in order to comply with the Law.

Just to recap, Mary is a young, unmarried, poor woman who is now forced to deal with the consequences of an unexpected pregnancy. She’s going to be rejected by her friends, maybe disowned by her family. And her response is…Oops! Oh, No!

Not even close. Mary says, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.”

Mary sings. And her song isn’t entirely original. It seems to borrow a bit from Hannah’s Song, found in 1 Samuel 2, when Hannah finds out that she will give birth to the prophet Samuel. Mary seems to borrow a bit from Isaiah 61, which Jesus reads as his first public sermon. What we find in Mary’s song can best be described as hopeful resistance.

A poor, pregnant, unmarried girl living in Roman-occupied, 1st-century Palestine chooses to sing a song of praise, a song of thanksgiving, a song of hope. She totally could have gone the other way with that one and nobody would have blamed her.

I think of the African American spirituals sung by slaves as they worked on the plantations. Songs with biblical themes, adapted for their current situations. “Wade in the water, wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s a gonna trouble the water.” A reference to the Israelites crossing the Jordan River to escape their pursuers and the healing waters of John 5. “Swing low, sweet chariot. Coming for to carry me home.” A reference to the prophet Elijah being taken away by a chariot from heaven.

In one of the bleakest times of American history, these slaves sang songs of hope, songs of resistance. Times are tough, but God is here.

I wondered what songs of resistance and songs of hope we sing today. Of course we can sing Bob Dylan, “The times, they are a changing.” Or “Get up, Stand up!” by Bob Marley. I thought of songs by NWA reacting to police brutality, which we won’t quote in church. I also thought of “Fight the Power,” by Public Enemy. But really, who can take Flavor Flav seriously with that clock around his neck?

After I had written this sermon I thought of another song of resistance, this one by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The song is simply called “The Message.” The chorus from “The Message” is in a kid’s movie about penguins, and my kids saw the movie about a year-and-a-half ago, right around Hadley’s fourth birthday. A few days later I took her in for her four-year-old doctor’s checkup, and she really didn’t want to be there. She was twenty-five pounds of stubbornness. When the doctor came in she asked me to set Hadley on the edge of the bed and the word “edge” must have reminded her of the song from the penguin movie, because she starts to sing it. And the doctor didn’t know what was going on, all she saw was a little girl who didn’t want to be there singing, “Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge. I’m trying not to lose my head.”

Proud moment for this daddy.

But in all honesty, I’m not sure that’s what we are going for here. “Fight the Power” and strongly-worded songs about law enforcement will get people motivated and prepared for action. But it also causes a lot of reaction. Sometimes riots break out and people are hurt. Music can be powerful, for sure. There’s no question about it, Mary calls for the “rich to be sent away empty,” and for the hungry to be filled, and for the humble to be lifted up. But Mary’s song isn’t about rallying the troops. Mary’s magnificat isn’t a militant song. It’s about resistance through hope.

What are our songs of resistance and our songs of hope in the church? Well, we have entire hymnals of them.

At every funeral I’ve ever been to there has been singing. Some funerals are extremely sad, especially when people die tragically or too soon. But without fail, someone’s going to sing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a retch like me.” A song of hope for the future, a song of resistance to dark place people can go in such times.

Eastertime is one of my favorite seasons to sing the songs of hope and resistance in the church. “Low in the grave He lay, Jesus, my Savior, Waiting the coming day, Jesus, my Lord! Up from the grave He arose, With a mighty triumph o’er His foes, He arose a Victor from the dark domain, And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.”

Just yesterday I gathered with Christians and even non-Christians of all kinds at Gypsy Hill Park for the annual caroling in the park event. Voices from people of every race, color, and even different religions gathered together and sang, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!”

That is a song of resistance and a song of hope. Joy in a time of darkness and sadness. The King has come. Not Herod, not Caesar, not even Elvis. Jesus, the King of kings, Lord of lords has come.

Mary doesn’t sing her magnificat because she knows life is going to be easy. Mary sings her magnificat because she knows who God is. Mary’s song is a song of resistance. Resisting the temptation to be afraid, resisting the pressures of the community around her, resisting the rich and the powerful. We sing songs of resistance and songs of hope because we know who our God is. And that God will see us through whatever we are facing.

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Glaciers, Rivers, and Bulldozers

Isaiah 40:1–11

1Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”

9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

I grew up in the rolling hills of northeastern Ohio. Not too flat, not too hilly. But just right. The hills are such an important part of our landscape that many businesses and organizations use the word “hill” in their names. Just down the road from my parents’ home is Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. I was baptized at Crown Hill Mennonite Church. And we affectionately referred to my friend William, who lived on a sizable hill as a Hillbilly.

But one doesn’t have to go far in Ohio to notice a change in topography. If you go to the northwest part of the state, things are extremely flat. If you go just to the next county south of where I grew up, those hills double in size and continue to grow right up to the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia.

My mother explained to me many years ago why there was such a sudden change in the land as we drove south to celebrate Thanksgiving. She said that long ago there had been a glacier that moved south and east down through Ohio, making it about as far as our neck of the woods. And this is why the farmland in our area was so productive. The glacier had brought with it minerals and nutrients from the northern territories and when it stopped and melted, it left these things in our fields. And because of its sheer size, weight, and force, a glacier is able to level off hills and valleys.

All of this came back to me this week as I read our scripture from Isaiah 40. Verses 3b-4 say, “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

So I looked it up, and my mother was correct. I even found some interesting maps from a journal, published sixty years ago, showing the line where the glacier stopped.

If you know much about glaciers, you probably know that they are slow. In 2012 a glacier in Greenland set a new world record when it was observed moving 10.5 miles…in a year. The average glacier moves about one adult human step per day. That’s slow. Three-toed sloths make fun of glaciers for being slow.

So I was under the impression that parts of Ohio were pretty flat until I married a young woman from Nebraska. Oh, I’d heard stories about the farmland in the Midwest before. I’ve heard about how farmers would start plowing their field in the morning, reach the end of the field at noon, stop for lunch, turn around, and drive back. I never believed that story, but all at once it seemed plausible.

So I looked this week at why the region known as The Great Plains is so very flat. Apparently, there was a time when this region was all under what is called the Western Interior Seaway. A shallow river flowed from Canada down through the Gulf of Mexico. It is really strange to think about because in the middle of Nebraska, they find shark skeletons. And to this day, there is one of the largest underground sources of water in the world lying below the Great Plains in the Ogallala Aquafer.

When comparing a river to a glacier, it is clear that a river doesn’t have the brute force of a glacier. But it moves a lot faster. And we have probably all seen how a river can erode a creek bank or carve out a canyon.

If speed is what you are after…I’d probably not choose either of these two methods.

No, if I was trying to level something, I’d probably start with dynamite and bulldozers. A good bulldozer would speed the process up significantly. I think of the paths that have been carved through the mountains with bulldozers and dynamite, tunnels through the middle of mountains, roads that make the high places lower and the low places higher.

In order from slowest to fastest, that would be glaciers, rivers, and bulldozers. Unfortunately, we don’t always get to choose.

Let’s look at the verses that I mentioned a few minutes ago. From Isaiah 40:3-4: “A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

Recall that the Israelites have completed their time in exile and that they have been granted permission by Cyrus, the Persian king, to return to Jerusalem. God is speaking words of comfort to them; their iniquities have been pardoned. Then there is a voice. And you may notice that different translation begin the quote from that voice at different places. Is the voice calling from the wilderness, or is the voice saying to prepare the way for the Lord in the wilderness? The original Hebrew didn’t have capital letters, let alone punctuation, so it is hard to tell. But I lean toward the first option. The voice is coming from the wilderness.

This voice says to make the high places lower and the low places higher. Level off the rough places and make them into a plain. That’s right, my friends. The goal here is to make the world into Nebraska. No, we are just making a path here. The goal seems to carve out a road like I-64 crossing Afton Mountain. Rather than going all the way up and all the way down, we are to prepare a path that makes the journey as easy as possible.

But notice that we are not the ones making the journey. We are to prepare the way of the Lord. The imagery of Isaiah 40 isn’t one of making the paths straight for the people to return from exile and back to Jerusalem. The imagery is for the people to make the paths straight because God is coming to them.

How consistent is this with the teachings of Jesus? God is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 behind and searches for the one lost sheep. God is like a woman with 10 coins who loses one and turns the house upside down to find it. God is the one who is going to make the journey to the lost Israelites in exile, so they better do whatever they can to make the journey easier.

Though the text doesn’t state it explicitly, it would seem that God didn’t leave the people. No, the people left God.

I love the imagery over verses 10-11, “See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm…He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

Here is the big, powerful, sovereign Lord. He rules with his mighty arm, which could snap you in half (in my best professional wrestler voice), holding his people in his arms, close to his heart.

This is the reunion we want. This is why we prepare the way for the Lord.

Jumping ahead to the New Testament, it is pretty clear that the gospel writers connect the events described in Isaiah with the birth of Jesus. But we also know that there was one who came before Jesus, one who paved the way. We know him as John.

Look at what Mark does in chapter 1, verses 1-4:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way—a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Mark is actually quoting from several sources here, with a focus on Isaiah 40. This is the good news, the Gospel, about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Very political language here about the identity of Jesus. But the focus here is on the messenger of the Lord. The messenger is angelos in Greek; this is an angel from God. In the Bible we find both immortal and mortal angels. Gabriel and Michael, those are non-human angels. John is the son of a priest and his elderly wife. But he has a message from God, and therefore is an angelos, he is an angel.

The word order is a little different in Mark: it is clear that the voice is calling from the wilderness, instructing someone to prepare the way for the Lord. The voice is coming from the wilderness, not from the temple. You would expect some kind of religious pronouncement to come from the center of the religion. It should come from the Vatican, from Jerusalem, from Mecca, or from Harrisonburg. No, the voice doesn’t come from the established center of power, it comes from outside. It comes from the margins. From some homeless guy living in a tent out in the woods.

John is said to have worn cloak made of camel hair and a belt of leather. Why is this significant? First of all, that wasn’t the style of the time. Camel hair was itchy and wool was not only more comfortable, but readily available. But in 2 Kings we find a story about a prophet who was called by God to bring the people of Israel back to the Lord. This prophet makes a pronouncement against the king, and the king starts to ask about this prophet’s identity and asks his servants to describe the man. Chapter 1, verse 8: “They replied, ‘He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.’ The king said, ‘That was Elijah the Tishbite.’”

Just for your information, “a garment of hair” can also be translated as “He is hairy and had a leather belt…” I could be a prophet, just saying.

John’s choice of clothing is intended to connect him with the great prophets of the Old Testament. In Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel says that John will go before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah. And later Jesus will say that off all men born of a woman, none were greater than John.

John’s job was a bit different from Elijah’s, though. John worked for VDOT. He was in the road construction business. It was John’s job to prepare a road for the Lord.

Recall that Isaiah said to make the path easier for God to come to the people. In Jesus, we believe that God did come to the people. And what Jesus said wasn’t always easy for the people to hear. Nobody wants to be told to sell their things and give the money to the poor. Nobody wants to hear that they need to forgive and love their enemies. Nobody wants to give up comfort and prestige to serve the least of these.

That’s why we need people out there, paving the way. We need people making the high places lower, the low places higher.

So if I am reading these scriptures correctly, and I know that there are other passages that indicate a different story, God is searching for us, pursuing us. God is coming to find us, and there is only one thing that can keep him from actually getting ahold of us.


We are the only thing keeping God away from us. The almighty creator of heaven and earth can set the world in motion and create the sun, moon, and stars. But God can’t force us to love him back.

All of these hills and valleys, rough and rugged terrains are self-imposed. And we are called to make the way smooth so God can come into our lives. And that is easier said than done. Many people have been hurt by the church and by Christians who were believed to be on the side of God. Some people have no need for God because they have all that they need, and they got it all on their own. If you have money, health, and good relationships, why would you need God? To the person who has it all, I would simply repeat the words of Solomon and say that it is all meaningless without God.

Like John before us, we are called to be way-pavers. Sometimes we can remove obstacles quickly, like a bulldozer, plowing through the mountains. It can be as easy as making an apology or offering to help. Other times we need to flood someone or something with love, like a river, slowing eroding and carving out a plain. And still other times things move as slow as a glacier, inch by inch, making the high places lower and the low places higher.

Fast or slow, that’s not always up to us. Regardless, we are called to make the high places lower and the low places higher.

God wants to meet us in exile. God came to this world in Jesus. Now the question comes down to are we going to be an obstacle to grace, or will be make the way smooth?

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Let it be

Isaiah 64New International Version (NIV)

1 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! 2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! 3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. 4 Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. 5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved?

6 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. 7 No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.

8 Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people.

My wife and I have been members of the local YMCA for about nine years, pretty much since we moved from Harrisonburg to Staunton. Every time you go in, they scan a card with a barcode on it to identify you as you. They gave us two options for a membership card: we could either get a full-sized wallet card, or one of those little keychain cards. I didn’t want to bring my wallet in every time I came to the Y, so I opted for the keychain card.

I despise these things.

I have 57 different keychain cards, give or take. I have one for each of the three local grocery stores, one for the two local drug stores, one for a hardware store, and three for the YMCA. These things bother me so much. I have been in stores where they ask me, “Do you want to join our VIP shopper club? You’ll save money every time you shop with us.” That’s appealing to me. I like to save money. Then they go on, “We just need you to sign this and we will give you a little card for your keychain.”

Nooooo! I’d rather pay that extra $.15 than carry another keychain thingy!

Anyway, after nine years of shoving my keys into my pockets and dropping them on the kitchen counter, my keychain card for the YMCA had become damaged to the point where the scanner could no longer scan it. So the front-desk attendant kept my keys this week and replaced my worn-out card with a new one. She removed the old card, updated my information, and then put the new card on my keyring.

There’s just one problem. She put it on backwards.

All my other keychain cards have the barcode on the same side. The new one is directed the wrong way. Now I realize that if this is the biggest problem I face this week that I am doing pretty well. But it does bother me, and I know that I’m not the only one who is bothered by things like this. If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right!

This experience made me think of an episode of the television show “The Big Bang Theory.” If you aren’t familiar with the show, it is about a bunch of scientists who are socially awkward trying to make their way through dating, work, and life in general. The episode that came to mind involves Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a theoretical physicist, and his girlfriend, Amy, a neuroscientist.

Amy is trying to help Sheldon get over his need to experience a sense of closure in all situation. She has used her skills as a neuroscientist to devise a program to help Sheldon let things go. She starts by saying, “Sheldon, closure isn’t always an op…”

She acts distraction until Sheldon breaks in and yells, “shun. Closure isn’t always an option.”

Amy engages Sheldon in a game of Tic-Tac-Toe on a white board, only to erase the board moments before Sheldon wins. They spend time setting up dominos, and then pick them up without first knocking them down. They sing the Star Spangled Banner together, and Amy stops with “and the home of the.” And my favorite, Amy hands Sheldon a jack-in-the-box. He turns the crank as the familiar tune, “Around and around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel” plays. And Amy takes it away just before it pops.

I find this humorous because I get it. For sure, Sheldon Cooper is a bit over the top, but I too like to see things through until their end. I like closure. And as my keychain cards remind me, I like order, too. I also would bet that to some extent, you do as well.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time of anticipation as we await the birth of our King. Advent is meant to be a time of hope, a hope that builds a little bit each week.

But we also begin Advent knowing that not everything lines up the way we would like it to. And we know this story. We know that in four weeks we will be celebrating the deliverer, the mighty one, counselor, the Prince of Peace, almighty God! We know that this is reason to celebrate!

But like Sheldon Cooper, we don’t get our closure. At least we haven’t yet. We are still waiting.

Our text for this morning comes from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah is often broken into two or three parts. The two sections are pretty clear: pre-exile and post exile.

Chapters 1-39 present a lot of warnings. This is what is going to happen. God will allow x because you did y. Then in chapter 40 there is a major change, and we will look at that next week. Chapter 40 is where we get some of the best material from Handle’s Messiah. Comfort ye my people. Speak softly to Jerusalem…Tell her that her iniquities have been pardoned.

Chapters 56-66 seem to be a bit different. They aren’t filled with warnings like 1-39, nor are they filled with hope like 40-55. 56-66 is more of a collection of wise sayings, oracles of the prophet. So the book of Isaiah is divided by time, but also by genre.

Chapter 64 is one of those oracles, which begins with a request, a plea, really: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!”

Split the heavens in two and come here, our God! Isaiah goes on to say that God has done this sort of thing before. God, you’ve done awesome things that we did not expect. You’ve shaken a few mountains in your days. Now we want you to do it again.

So what’s going on here? My understanding is that the Israelites have been released from their exile, permitted to go home, only to find that their homes and their lives are a shadow of what they had been. This doesn’t line up. We need closure to that whole exile experience. But this just isn’t what was expected.

Some scholars even go so far as to say that the enemies spoken of in verse 2 are not enemies from outside, but enemies from within their own people group. These families have been separated for a couple generations, and now they’ve been brought back together, and they don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on how they should be worshipping, how they should be rebuilding, and how the people should be governed.

The enemy, it seems, is “us.”

Surely the Israelites are calling out to God, asking, Where are you? And where is this comfort? I can still hear the songs from Isaiah 40, is this all we can expect?

And in the midst of this disappointment and family division, the prophet prays, “Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people” (V. 9b, emphasis mine).

I think we have all seen the ways that stress can cause division, even among the closest of families. I’d share a few personal stories, but that would just cause more stress in my family and divide us further. But I think that it is important to point out, especially during these stressful holidays, that in the middle of darkness, in the middle of all the stress, we need to hold on to hope.

The Israelites prayed for God to split the heavens and come to this earth. And as Christians, we believe that he did just that. In the form of Jesus, God broke into this world to save us from our sin, and to reconcile us to one another. And yes, I do think the teachings of Jesus include showing us how to get along with our family, no matter what they have done or said to us.

We can be right with God, right with one another, and right with all of creation. That’s what Jesus promises, that’s what Christmas symbolizes, and that’s what I hope for.

Regardless of who you are and what you experience, you surely hope for a better tomorrow. And though Christmas can be depressing to some, we are surrounded by symbols of hope.

For instance, there is a lot of debate about Christmas trees, holiday trees, or whatever you want to call them today. (I’ve never actually heard anyone call them holiday trees.) The practice of bringing evergreens into a home does not originate with Christianity. Rather, it is a pagan ritual surrounding the celebration of the winter solstice that we adopted. And I’m kind of glad we did. Though we live in sunny Virginia, remember that there are places where the ground is often covered with snow and very little sun shines all winter long. It’s called Ohio. Evergreens are a sign of hope in the middle of the coldest part of the winter. When everything else is brown and dead, we can see life in the evergreen. We find resilience and perseverance in the evergreen. We find reason to hope.

How about the poinsettia? Poinsettias are native to Mexico and are sometimes called “the star plant” because of the shape of their leaves. The star shape draws our memories back to The Star of Bethlehem, but the reason that they are so common around Christmas is because these plants “bloom” in the cold months. Granted, here in Virginia we make sure that they are at their peak in mid-December, but if left in their native habitat, they bloom in late November and early December. Just as everything else is dying, the poinsettia is bursting forth with color.

There is a beautiful story from 16th-century Mexico about the origins of the poinsettia. A girl named Pepita was stressed that she did not have any gifts to share for the birthday of Jesus. Pepita was visited by an angel who encouraged her to gather weeds and lay them at the altar. So Pepita gathered what she could find, brought them to the altar of the church, and the weeds began to bloom in beautiful shades of red. (We always have poinsettias at church during Advent, and I never see them carried in. I’m just saying.)

Let’s do one more. We all know about mistletoe. If you meet someone under the mistletoe, you are required by law to kiss that person. Many people trace this practice back to a Norse tradition—think Vikings. According to tradition, the Norse god Loki killed a rival god, Balder, by shooting him with an arrow cut from a mistletoe tree. As a symbol of this unnecessary tragedy, the Vikings would hang mistletoe sprigs throughout the city. And when two people met under the mistletoe, friend or foe, they were obligated to drop their weapons and embrace. Out of this practice grew the tradition of showing affection for someone when you meet them under the mistletoe.

My friends, I understand why some people get depressed this time of year, and I’m not going to promise you that everything is going to be perfect or straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. But together we can pray for God to split the heavens and come down. Maybe I don’t have it as bad as you, and maybe you don’t have it as bad as the next guy, but we all know what it is like to sense that things aren’t lining up. We know what it is like to need closure.

So this Advent I want to encourage you to look for symbols of hope all around you. The evergreen tree showing life in the dead of winter; the poinsettia bloom, breaking forth with color from an otherwise ordinary weed; and the mistletoe, a symbol of love and affection, even among sworn enemies. And as we navigate these territories, may we be there to help one another through the difficult times.

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