Fourth Sunday of Advent ‘15
Luke 1: 39-56
20 December 2015
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” Amen (Ps 19:14)
We say in the creed that Jesus became incarnate from the Virgin Mary. But what does it really mean? Incarnation. My World Book dictionary says simply that incarnation has to do with the notion of a divine being taking on human form. My theological dictionary goes on for a page and half discussing the meaning of incarnation generally and Jesus’ incarnation particularly. Imagine Jesus, solid, warm and real as we each are, flesh and blood, hair and bone, eyes that shone with joy and teared up with grief, a voice that sang praises and whispered in prayer, arms and hands that reached out to touch others. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth”. That’s what John had to say about it. That statement isn’t really very theological or sophisticated but according to the teachings of Christianity it is the way things are. The Word, God’s creative spirit that hovered over the waters of chaos and called all that is into being, became flesh. And dwelt among us, a human being, a human body. As modern Christians here in the U. S. we tend to think of people as having a body that is born and later dies and a soul that will continue on. That may or may not be how things really work but it isn’t the Biblical view of things. The Biblical view is not that we humans have bodies but that we are bodies. Our physical nature and our spiritual nature is one. The incarnation affirms the goodness of our physical selves because that was something that even God was not ashamed to wear. The other piece of good news in the incarnation is this, that all the earth is Holy Ground because God did more than just make it. God came and walked around on it, worked and played on it, lived and loved and died on it. We are made right with God, saved, right here on earth and we are saved just as we are, particular human bodies, particular human selves. That sounds like good news to me. What do you think? This morning’s gospel lesson brought to mind a favorite memory. It was late July or early August in the summer of 1985 and I was working as an RN at St John’s Lutheran Hospital. St. John’s is a small hospital in a remote Montana community so like all the nurses I worked where I was most needed. On this night we had a good handful of patients on the general floor, one in intensive care, one in maternity and a baby in the nursery. I was caring for four general patients as well as the new mom and her baby.
Fortunately for me most of my patients were recovering nicely and settled down to sleep midway through the shift. I say lucky because that baby was not settling in as well. She was happiest being held more or less upright and not at all happy lying in her bassinet.
She let everyone around know how unhappy she was in fact. She had been delivered in the late afternoon after a long labor, her mom was exhausted and really needed to rest.
After nursing her baby she drifted off to sleep. Knowing the baby was well fed I made sure she had a dry diaper and was warm enough. Still she continued to fuss. I had a good bit of charting to do so I settled down in the nursery with my charts and that little girl. I can still remember the weight of her resting against me as I wrote. I can picture her small head with its crop of peach fuzz hair. I remember her tiny hands. I can almost feel her warmth, hear her breathing and her tiny baby sounds. I think I remember it so well
because I was about seven months pregnant myself. As I worked and as the newborn drifted off to sleep my own baby seemed to wake up from a nap. She shifted and kicked and rolled around under that newborn. I wouldn’t say that she leaped as John did when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting but she certainly did respond to that newborn. It was an amazing moment. I was so aware of the new lives that I held, one in my arms and one in my womb, what a miracle those new lives were. As I sat in the quiet nursery office I had one of those experiences of knowing, in that very ordinary place and time, that God was near. The reality of God was, right then, very clear to me. It was a moment of grace, one that helps me to understand a little better what is meant by the gift of the incarnation. I think Mary and Elizabeth had a real awareness of that goodness and the way God was working through their physical selves to do a new thing in creation. I hear it in Elizabeth cry “blessed are you…blessed is the fruit of your womb…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And in Mary’s response, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior…the mighty one has done great things for me.” Those two wonderful women knew for sure that they were blessed by God and given an opportunity to play a role in fulfilling God’s plan for salvation right then and there. Understand, they were not particularly powerful or wealthy. They were simply ordinary Jewish women who were blessed with the knowledge that God was working through them. It was as simple and ordinary as any woman bearing a child but then God’s Kingdom begins and is worked out in countless small decisions and small acts done by particular individuals going about their ordinary daily lives. And that is very good news indeed. It is good news because we can also say, with Elizabeth and Mary, that God is working through us. God can, and does, work through our ordinary daily lives, however small and insignificant we may think them. In this time of bigger is better it’s easy to think that we must do something spectacular in order to do God’s work. But think about Jesus himself, born to a young woman who was pregnant a bit to soon for conventions sake, born into a people in a small country that had been conquered and ruled by others for centuries. Even Jesus’ adult ministry looked small and insignificant at the time. He was an itinerant preacher
who never traveled far from home. He offered a compassionate word here, an act of forgiveness there, a healing touch in another place and then was executed as a criminal.
Of course each of Jesus’ words and acts planted seeds of God’s Kingdom, seeds that have grown steadily over time. They grew in the disciples who proclaimed his resurrection. They grew in Paul who carried his story out into the empire. They grew in countless nuns and monks who kept Christianity alive through the dark ages. They grew in…well, who do you know? Who told you the story? Who reached out to you at some point with compassion or forgiveness or a touch that healed an old wound? We all have opportunities to plant the seeds of God’s Kingdom and to keep it growing while we wait for the day when Jesus returns in power and great glory. May God be born in us this Christmas season and so grow in our lives that with Mary we can sing out our praises
proclaiming the greatness of the Lord, rejoicing in God who saves us, and knowing that the Mighty One has done great things for us. Amen
Third Sunday of Advent, Year C ‘15
Luke 3: 7-18
13 December, 2015
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen (Ps 19;14)
Did you hear the strong note of rejoicing in today’s lessons? It was there in Zephaniah. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion:…Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” It was there in the letter to the Philippians. “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice.”
Maybe you heard it in the canticle? “Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy.”
It’s just that, well, given all the troubles of the recent past, how can we rejoice today?
We have had several mass shootings of late. Those act of violence, of evil, come on the heels of so many others events like it and spawn further dissension as they are discussed in the media. On a more personal level we have recently faced the deaths of two old, respected, members of our church family. How can we not have some level of worry or of alarm day to day? What are we to make of these lessons that celebrate God’s promise of freedom, forgiveness and healing, that focus on hope? It’s an interesting thing about that first lesson from Zephaniah and the response taken from Isaiah. Both capture a note of rejoicing, at the coming of God into our midst. And yet. Those ancient prophets, if we were to read them more entirely, set that rejoicing in the light of God’s judgment. Oh yes, indeed. God will come, God will come among God’s people, neither prophet has any doubt about that. They each spoke the word of the Lord to the people and into the situations of their own time. And they each speak the word of the Lord for us as well.
We well know, in the midst of Advent, that God has come among us. In fact, God came as one of us in the person of Jesus. This season of Advent, after all, helps us to prepare our hearts to celebrate the memory of Jesus’ birth in a particular time and place, even while we look for his coming again in glory. There is no doubt that Christmas, our annual celebration of Jesus’ nativity, will come. Still, our prophets, Zephaniah and Isaiah both hold up a question for us. What effect will that coming have when we re-experience the reality of it? What impact will Jesus’ coming have on our lives? As with all our lessons we read only a bit of Paul’s letter to the Philippians this morning. We began with the word “rejoice” What we miss is the word “therefore”. “Therefore” sets Paul’s words on the foundation of what came before, strong words of encouragement for the Christian community at Philippi. The thing is, in Pauls’ mind, Christian people can rejoice, not because of their own efforts, not because of what we might do or create on our own, but because we live all our lives in the context of our Lord Jesus Christ’s power. Paul reminds us that our Christian lives are not lived as a job to be performed but as a privilege experience in our relationship to God in Christ. Paul calls us to active lives of faith that allow us to always, every day, in the face of all anxiety, take a deep breath, pray, and then take the next needful step confident that, despite all appearances, God is indeed with us. The Gospel According to Luke said it clearly speaking of John the Baptist. “With many other exhortations, he proclaimed good news to the people.” I’ll confess it freely here. One of the first notes I jotted down while getting ready to preach today was this: “Good News???” I guess I must not, right at that moment, or earlier in these past weeks for that matter, have seen how this passage from Luke, translates into good news. Certainly John the Baptist’s words are those of a prophet. You heard how he began in today’s reading. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” But his words are not a simple insult, they do so much more than point a finger and call us names. John confronts us with the very real danger of self-deception. John recognizes how humanly easy it is to approach our practice of religion as a kind of good luck talisman or a holy insurance policy. How often do we hear that all the ills of our culture are clearly the result of how we have pushed God away, perhaps by not allowing school prayer or, maybe, by allowing some change in the freedoms we allow others?
It’s not just bad theology. It’s terrible theology. It’s a theology that says that we in some way control God. It says that our actions, our decisions, in some way act to limit God’s authority over all creation. And that’s just the opposite of the point that John makes in our Gospel today. John calls us to the clear recognition of God’s authority over all human life. It is that recognition of God’s authority that leads us then into godly living. Our faithful living is a response to God. We respond to God, who is always and everywhere with us, with altered lives. John gave us some examples. Those who have plenty are called away from selfish self-interest and into generosity motivated by a concern for others. Those whose position might tempt them to dishonesty, tax collectors in John’s world, are called to honesty and fair dealing. Those who hold power, soldiers in this Gospel passage, are called away from the too easy abuse of their power and into contentment with what they have. Of course we each have to ask the question for our own selves. What then should I do? What is that need to change in my life? Are you quick to judge, does your temper flare to easily? Do you sit back in discouragement or in fear when taking a stand or speaking a word is what God needs? How do you reflect God’s presence, God’s love, in this world? Think about it. John the Baptist stands in a long line of prophets who point to God’s judgment and promise God’s presence. But don’t forget the entirely surprising way that judgment and that presence, is revealed.
First it was a baby, tiny and helpless, born in mumble circumstances, born poor. It was revealed as that child grew into a man who offered a bold ministry of compassion, a ministry that challenged “the way it’s always been”. The depth of God’s love was revealed again in Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross,and yet again in the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Oh yes, John the Baptist’s preaching is “good news” indeed. But it is not easy news. God’s values are not our values. God does judge us in relation to God’s own values. And God gives us the power to repent, to turn again and live altered lives.
Lives that reflect the reality of God’s abiding presence with us at all times and in all places. John’s preaching calls us out of our fears and discouragements, out of our need to hold tight to that notion that we are somehow in control of our lives. How can we rejoice in the face of all that we face in this life? We rejoice with God’s help. And we go forward with God’s help. John calls us to altered lives that reflect the reality of God’s presence with us and let others clearly see the reality of God’s loving presence in their lives as well. Amen
2 Advent, Year C ‘15
6 December 2015
Take my lips, Oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Here it is, the second Sunday in Advent, that season of expectation, of preparation and of repentance. Did you notice the collect for today? “Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings…,” but let’s start with a story. It’s a pretty good Advent story and I want to give credit where credit is due. I found the story in a sermon by Mother Amy Richter, who, at the time, was rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, MD. I don’t know if any of you have ever had occasion to use MapQuest to find the best directions from where you are to where you want to be. I have. Sometimes MapQuest is very good, sometimes… well… let’s say it has its limits. Anyway, while getting ready for a much needed vacation with his family a man searched MapQuest for the best way to the vacation lodge he had rented near a National Park. Several hours into the journey, with the kids dozing in the back of the car, he turned off the highway onto a secondary road. Shortly he came to a sign: “Construction ahead. Proceed at your own risk.” And that was all the sign said. There was no indication about how long the stretch of construction might be or what kind of condition the road was in. Trusting those MapQuest directions the man continued along. The pavement was obviously new, it still lacked the usual painted markings. Then, after a few miles the pavement gave way to gravel. The sound of gravel pinging against the bottom of the car, predictably enough, woke the children. The family had stopped for lunch and a swim some hours before and the kids had been napping through what must have seemed to them like a dull drive through thick forest. Anyway, they were awake now and, as is the way with kids, full of questions. You know the sort. “Are we there yet?” “How much further?” “We have a ways to go yet” said the father, and “honey, can you find the map? I put it in the door pocket. ”It was when the gravel ended and the road turned to bare dirt and rock that he started to worry. It was not reassuring to realize that he had seen no other cars for quite a while. And then the dirt began to turn to mud. His worry grew but… he’d come so far, it would be hard to turn around, and hopefully this was just the worst of it. Surely the “real” road, the one that was passable, the one that would get them where they wanted to be would be just ahead. After all, the sign said construction ahead not road closed ahead. And so he continued. It was when the pinging of gravel against the underside of the car began to quiet and was replaced a wet slurping as the tires began to kick up mud that the kids got very quiet. His wife spoke up, “should we just turn around do you think?” “I have to keep going”, the man replied, “if I can just keep the car moving forward I think we’ll get out of the mud and onto drier ground.” But the mud got deeper. The car began to slew to one side, to slow, and then to sink. He gunned the engine, pretty much expecting exactly what he got. Within seconds the car was buried up to the axels in mud. They were stuck beyond a hope of getting out. The man turned off the engine. Into the silence the kids began to ask; “what’s up, Dad.” “Are we there?” Where’s our cabin?” His wife just sighed. I think it was probably tempting for the man to just lie at that point. “Sure kids, this is just what I planned. This is a beautiful spot with lots of really interesting things to do. I have a tent in the back, let’s get going and make camp.” Or maybe he was tempted to swear a little and put all the blame on MapQuest and the department of transportation with their useless sign. The man chose a third option though. This is what he said; “O.K. kids we are going to need to be patient for a just while until help comes. Maybe you could teach me some of the songs you learned at camp this summer while we wait.” The sun was getting down behind the trees when help finally arrived in the form of a tow truck with really big, really heavy, tires. That truck, you see, traveled along that stretch of road back and forth all day and all night checking for disasters of just this sort. It took a while but the car was pulled free and towed back to the pavement. Directions were given for a longer, but securely passable, route to the park lodge. Mother Amy calls this part of this fictitious vacation “the repentance trip”. That fits, doesn’t it? The thing is repentance is an active process. It involves turning around to go in a new direction instead of following along in the same old path especially when that path is leading someplace dangerous or around in circles or just nowhere in particular. Repentance means a real change of mind and heart, one that results in some movement, some change, some action. While repentance might start from regret or remorse they are not the same thing at all. Guilt might be a starting point but, again, repentance takes it a step further. Regret, guilt, the awareness that we could be a better people by ourselves can, and often does leave us spinning our wheels, stuck tight, standing still, going nowhere. It is as though what we really need is to come to our senses about where we have been, where we are going, and how we’re going to get there. The prophets of both the Old and New Testaments offer an important perspective on repentance. For the prophets repentance is all about letting ourselves be grasped by God, turned around and sent down the road equipped with new directions a new action plan. We heard it today from John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the LORD, …and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. John is calling for a fresh start a new direction. John is calling for action because God is always coming to meet us on our own roads through the wilderness. Frederick Buechner makes the point that true repentance lets us spend “less time looking at the past and saying. “I’m sorry” than to the future and saying “Wow!” (Buechner, F., Wishful Thinking: A Seekers A B C, HarperSanFrancisco, 1969, p 96) It can happen suddenly when we face some disappointment or regret or sense of remorse. Maybe it’s something like wishing a word unsaid or an action undone. Maybe it comes with the sense that this life is not forever and there is more you could be doing or a way you’d like to be growing to give just a bit more glory to the God who has already given you everything. The point is that we can come to repentance in many ways. But, when we open ourselves to God working within us, God will pull us out of the holes and ruts we dig ourselves into, turn us around and send us down the road with a new set of directions. But there’s more, did you notice? John the Baptist, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, tells us that God will even build us a new road, leveling mountains and filling in valleys to smooth our way and let us walk in safety. God has big plans for us in a future we can’t even imagine. God is always there for us, giving us just exactly what we need. All we really need to do is turn ourselves to God and say thank you. Amen
Reverend Carol Ann Bullard, is our interim Priest and there is a quick bio on the home page.