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Sermon: Light

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 5, 2020, Christmas 2A

Genesis 1:1-5; John 1:1-9

Light

This table here is looking a little empty, isn’t it?

No shepherds, no Magi, no Mary or Joseph, no animals. It’s a little bare.

And yet as the author of the gospel of John would have us understand, this seemingly bare setting is the most essential thing for us to know.

The four gospels deal with the birth of Christ (or don’t) in different ways. I have to throw in the “or don’t” part because of the gospel of Mark, which…doesn’t report on the birth of Jesus at all; the story picks up straightway with John the Baptizer in the wilderness. Luke’s narrative, on the other hand, is fairly extensive, including not just the birth of Jesus himself but also reporting on the unusual birth of John the Baptist; recording multiple “songs” as part of the story, including Mary’s well-known Magnificat and also songs given to multiple other characters; relating the familiar parts of the story including the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the angels’ appearance to the shepherds; the presentation of the eight-day-old Jesus in the Temple, with a couple of prophets present to call out the child and his significance; and even the account of the twelve-year-old Jesus getting separated from his parents and being found in that same Temple, deeply in conversation with the scribes and teachers there.

Matthew’s story, which is rather terse by comparison, does nonetheless include the Magi and their visit to Jesus, observed as Epiphany, as well as the repercussions of that visit in the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem and the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, and eventual settling in Nazareth.

John has something quite different up his sleeve. There is no story of what happened at Bethlehem – there’s no mention of Bethlehem at all, nor of Mary or Joseph or shepherds or Magi or any such thing. There is, instead, a story of light.

I hope you were able to notice the resonance between the first reading of the day, from Genesis 1, and the reading from John. It seems deliberate. When you begin your gospel account with the words  “In the beginning…” you are inviting, practically begging your readers and hearers to remember those opening words from Genesis. When you then launch into an evocation of light, the very thing first brought into being by the words of God in that Genesis story, you’re only making the connection even more explicit.

But what about this light? We are told about John, who came to bear witness to the light, the true light, coming into the world to enlighten everyone. We are told that this light, the “light of all people,” is found in the life of this one, the Word, the one that was in the beginning with God. But maybe the most interesting thing about the light comes in this sentence: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

That sounds odd in our ears, doesn’t it? Grammar teachers everywhere cringe at this, probably. The mix of present tense – “shines” – and past tense – “did not overcome” – doesn’t work immediately in our hearing or reading.

As awkward as this sounds, I don’t think it’s an accident or a grammar mistake. The light indeed shines in the darkness. Goodness knows the world knows darkness enough today, and anyone with even a small awareness of history realizes that the darkness of human existence and conflict has never been absent.

It’s like this candle here, on the table with the Christ child. It doesn’t matter how much of the light we dim here, it still shines.

(put out lights)

Admittedly this isn’t the darkest room, even with all the lights off and blinds drawn. But even so, and even if this were in the middle of the night, this candle’s light would still be evident. In fact, if this were done at tomorrow night’s Epiphany service, the light of this small candle might be even more evident or obvious if every other light were out.

So it is with the light of which John writes; it shines in the darkness and even shines despite the darkness. And the darkness, either the darkness of the void into which God spoke light or the darkness of the hour of Christ’s crucifixion, did not overcome the light, and in fact cannot overcome it. Ever.

This light of which John speaks isn’t a huge light. It’s not like being blinded by the lights of a full stadium or concert or other venues, but it is persistent, it is consistent, and it is undying light, which no darkness can ever quench or extinguish.

Maybe this is the thing we most need to hear from John’s flight of poetic mystery. The light shines. It doesn’t necessarily overwhelm, or drown out all darkness, but it shines, and no darkness can drown it out. If anything the light becomes more evident in the darker times.

So it is with us, if we’re following Christ. We don’t overwhelm the darkness, but neither are we drowned out by it. And if that life of which John speaks, the Word who was from the beginning with God, is truly the source of our light, the darkness has already failed to overcome it. No matter how grim it seems all around us, no matter how overwhelming or hopeless it might appear to be light in a dark and angry world, the darkness has already failed to overcome the light, if it is the true light that is shining in us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #134, Joy to the World!; #123, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear; #137, He Came Down; #136, Go, Tell It On the Mountain


Sermon: Massacre

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 29, 2019, Christmas 1A

Matthew 2:13-23

Massacre

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

 

These are the opening lines of a poem titled “Home” by the Kenyan-born, London-based Somali poet Warsan Shire. Published in 2015, the poem gained a great deal of attention for its bracingly stark portrayal of the horrific challenges faced by refugees fleeing from despotic regimes in many parts of the world, often with no clear hope of what is to come, but clear on the impossibility of facing certain death or torture or starvation by staying home.

The horrific challenge faced by refugees across the world is, for all its seeming currency, not a new thing. Refugees have been faced with the choice to flee into unknown dangers or to stay and be subject to certain dangers, frankly, for as long as governing powers of whatever kinds have existed. And indeed, we are reminded in today’s reading from Matthew that when we speak of our Lord having faced sufferings and persecution like as humanity has faced, that common trouble began as far back as his childhood.

The reading for today is, in effect, in three movements, like a sonata, sections marked (in order) by two dreams (only one of which is recorded in today’s reading), the nightmare, and two more dreams. We have already encountered dreams as a means by which Joseph, the earthly father of God’s Son, was instructed by God to take Mary as his wife despite her unexpected pregnancy (not to mention an earlier Joseph, back in Genesis, who also had some experience with dreams). Now, after the child is born, and after that strange visit by those star-followers from a distant land, another dream brings another angel messenger to Joseph, this time with a much more urgent message.

 

Movement 1: Bethlehem to Egypt

 

We begin in Bethlehem. At this point it is probably best if we put out of our minds a great many of those elements that we tend to think of as “the Christmas story” – events recorded in Luke but not in Matthew, such as the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, or the angel visitation to the shepherds and their journey to Bethlehem. To hear what Matthew is trying to tell us, it’s best not to confuse the two narratives. It’s not about preferring one to the other, but hearing each gospel with integrity matters, and today is Matthew’s turn to tell his story, no matter how ugly or despairing it may be.

In Matthew’s account the family is pretty clearly living in Bethlehem. Verse 11 of this chapter speaks of the Magi “entering the house” where the child was with his mother Mary – no stable or manger to be seen. All things considered, once the Magi had gone, it’s hard to say that the family would have done anything other than settled down to a life as normal as possible when your son is the Promised One, were it not for this new and urgent dream after the Magi’s departure.

The dream is a stark warning: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Here warning of the dream is needed in reaction to the consequences of another dream, one in which the Magi were warned not to return to Herod, as Herod had requested in their initial meeting. Herod got angry and threatened, and immediately set out to remove, by whatever means necessary, this unknown child in this forgotten backwater town who somehow convinced these foreigners that he was a future King of Israel. That’s what tyrants do.

But in the meantime, the first move; from Bethlehem to Egypt.

(Move Holy Family)

 

Movement 2: The Massacre

 

This isn’t the kind of text to which the Revised Common Lectionary typically leads (there are plenty of battlefield slaughters in scripture that don’t get read). This isn’t the kind of text for which hymn writers typically write hymns (and I tried). Over time you may have noticed that when I’m putting a service together, I do try as best as possible to choose hymns for the service that somehow reinforce or “go with” the scripture reading or readings being read and proclaimed. That’s not really possible for this text; that Coventry CarolJulia played is one of very few songs to tell this story. If anything, the hymns today are, almost of necessity, jarringly dissonant with the scripture, and maybe that’s the best thing to do in this case – let the contrast point out just how horrible this story is.

There are scholars who point out that this particular slaughter is not recorded in any place other than this scripture, even by scribes who were hostile towards Herod. To be honest, maybe it’s not as surprising as they want to make it out to be. Let’s be blunt about this: we remember a few big names – Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland – but how many mass school shootings or synagogue shootings or movie theater shootings have we already forgotten? What happens in a small backwater town is easily brushed aside by history; a few dozen children of families of no importance are easily swept aside by a tyrant determined to maintain his grip on power; again, this is what tyrants do.

Bethlehem was a small town, maybe of two hundred residents; a best guess might be that somewhere between ten and twenty young boys under the age of two were killed for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The trouble with Luke’s Nativity story is that it is so easily to sentimentalize beyond all meaning. It’s just a series of pretty pictures or verses, something you can gather up a bunch of children and put them in bathrobes (or dress some of them as sheep) and pose them on stage and you have a pageant guaranteed to make every grandparent in the room go “awwww…” and every parent snapping pictures to the point of blinding the poor kids on stage. Matthew will have none of that. As Matthew desperately wants us to see, this birth takes place in a world that knows hideous cruelty and violence –the very sinfulness and rebellion this child came down to earth to bear witness against – and this child was very close to being caught in it, but for the quiet but urgent intervention of God.

Human depravity doesn’t go away just because the Son of God shows up on earth. It’s not exactly a heartwarming story, but we are unprepared for the world if we do not remember this.

 

Movement 3: Out of Egypt

 

Time passes. We don’t know how much, but it could possibly have been as long as two years, when another of those dreams gives Joseph the heads-up that Herod was dead, and it was time to return. The family had spent this time in Egypt as…immigrants? refugees? asylum seekers? Whatever it was, that time was over, and a journey back to Israel awaited the family.

Except…

While Herod might no longer be ruling over the Roman province of Judea, someone potentially even worse was: Herod’s son, Archelaus. This set off alarm bells for Joseph, and (as if he had come to expect these dreams to help him get through this time of trial) he hesitated to return to Bethlehem of Judea. Joseph’s instincts were correct; Archelaus would go down in history acknowledged as an even worse and more abusive ruler than his father, so bad that his Roman superiors (who never worried overmuch about how brutally their puppet rulers did their job) decided he was going too far and removed him from office. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Joseph’s hesitation here; after all, he’s only been told to return to Israel, not necessarily to Bethlehem or Judea proper.

Sure enough, one more angelic dream comes to him, redirecting him further north, to the province of Galilee and the town of Nazareth. As Matthew has done all along, he jumps in to tie this new address to ancient prophecy – just as he had with the flight into Egypt, citing a prophetic line about God calling the son out of there, now an apparently obscure prophetic proclamation about the Promised One being a Nazarean comes into play. Not to mention the very resonance of Egypt in the history of Israel – the whole Exodus story probably came crashing into the mind of every one of Matthew’s Jewish readers in the first century at the mere mention of Egypt. So at last the family would make their way to what would be Jesus’s hometown.

(Move Holy Family)

It’s not easy to know what to do with a story such as this, and frankly I’d run like mad from any preacher who tried to sell it with any kind of positive or triumphalistic spin on it. Trying to draw out some sort of “big finish” to a sermon seems all wrong, and yet it does seem that there are two things that we, so easily seduced into taking all meaning out of Christmas that goes anywhere beyond ‘awwww…’, need to hold on to from this horrific story that Matthew insists on putting before us. All the dreams make us modern educated types a little uneasy, and reading about a slaughter of children by a cruel and desperate tyrant doesn’t lend itself to easy sermon points, but maybe we should remember this:

  1. Human cruelty and wickedness does not cease simply because the Son of God is incarnate among humanity. If anything, it seems as if that wickedness ramps up, determined to hold on to its own power or wealth or status without regard to the work of God on earth. Jesus is not a magic spell that we cast about to ward off evil spirits. Wicked people will continue to do wicked things.

But at the same time, this is also true:

  1. Human cruelty and wickedness will not stop God’s movement among humanity, any more than it stopped the Son of God from being incarnate and living among us on earth. This may be the harder one to remember. It can be easy to despair of the Kingdom of Heaven making any headway in a world that displays so much hatred and vindictiveness. How can God possibly be at work in all this?

And yet it is precisely in all this that God is most at work. Among the poorest, the most desperate, the most “least of these” among humanity, the Spirit of God is most moving, most active, if we take Matthew 25 seriously. The Spirit isn’t always heard very well in places of comfort or power, on the other hand, like, say, a tyrant’s palace or the homes of those who support him (and it’s pretty frequently “him,” it seems).

No, to quote the old Christmas hymn, “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” God is still at work. God is still moving. That is not the question, despite the best efforts of the worst of humanity. What is the question? The question is whether we will join with God, follow Jesus, and be led by the Spirit in the work of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #143, Angels, from the Realms of Glory; #127, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing; #159, O Sing a Song of Bethlehem; #113, Angels We Have Heard on High

 

(Image: Léon Cogniet, Scene of the massacre of the Innocents, 1824; Musée des Beaus-Arts, Rennes)


Meditation: Let My Crying Come Unto Thee

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 22, 2019, Blue Christmas

Psalm 102:1-11; James 5:7-10

Let My Crying Come Unto Thee

It was thirty years ago this past Wednesday that my mom died.

It was seven years ago on the 14th that I had one major surgery, and seven months ago this past Friday that I had a second one, the results of which are still an ongoing adjustment I have to make in my life.

When in seminary they tell you that an anecdote is a good attention-getting way to start a sermon, what I just did isn’t what they’re talking about. I think, though, that there are times that there is no good or right formula to begin with, other than to lay bare the fact of human existence – that at some point in our lives, in some way or another, if we have even a tiny shred of humanity about us, we all suffer.  And despite our best efforts to avoid doing so, we all end up learning that, as C.S. Lewis put it, “there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it…”[i].

Now there are books upon books out there that will give you all manner of advice or instruction on how to deal with this kind of thing, and their counsel will not be much like what C.S. Lewis had to say about it. You’ll get language about “overcoming,” for example. Maybe “breaking free.” A favorite exercise of mine is to go on Amazon dot com to look for book titles that include the particular word in question, and when one enters just the word “suffering” here are some of the titles one might get:

  • More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us
  • Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense
  • Suffering is Never for Nothing
  • Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores
  • Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering
  • 101 Ways to Find Meaning in Suffering
  • Making Sense Out of Suffering

You get the idea. If you’re suffering, whether physically or emotionally or any other way, something is wrong with you for feeling that; or just hold on because this is going to make you into a superhero! (or something); or somehow your faith is off and you need to fix it.

Even the reading from the epistle of James, while it doesn’t go quite that far, begins with the admonishment to “be patient.” I don’t know about you, but in times of grief or pain the last thing I want to hear is to be patient. Like I have a choice, James, come on. There is a time for that counsel, but there is a time not for that counsel too.

As usual when it comes to suffering in scripture, it’s the psalmist who gets it.

For what turns out to be eleven verses in our modern reading of Psalm 102, the psalmist does nothing but pour it all out to God. “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come unto you.” It starts from there and keeps on pouring out; challenging God to listen and not to turn away from the pain being poured out, not just to listen but to answer. And from there, the psalmist does not hold back.

Some of these images that sound odd to us are fairly commonplace in this style of Hebrew; we would speak of them as metaphors or similes, means by which the speaker’s own grief and distress can be expressed in the most vivid and affective terms possible. Some of them, like verse 9’s image of eating ashes like bread and mingling tears with drink, are found elsewhere in the Psalms as well. The psalmist does not care how weird or pathetic he (or she) sounds; it only matters that God hears, nothing else.

For all of the preachers and scholars and others who have pored over the Psalms over the centuries, it is my suspicion that the one who “got” this psalm most of all was not one of them, but a composer. The great English Baroque composer Henry Purcell set out, we think, to create a choral setting of this psalm; we have to say “we think” because Purcell’s setting, as far as we know, never got beyond that first verse – as the King James Version Purcell would have used renders it, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee.” Those are all the words used. But by bringing his own technical skill to the text – using voices at the extremes of their vocal range, eight different voice parts overlapping and echoing one another, letting the volume rise and fall and rise but never letting the music come to rest – Purcell interprets the verse into a surging, overwhelming act of pleading, crying out indeed to the Lord to be heard, to be able to voice the grief and the suffering of the psalmist.

It’s not clear if Purcell was somehow prevented from setting the rest of the psalm, or if indeed the one verse was all he meant to use. My personal suspicion (or hope) is that once he had completed that much, he knew there was nothing more he could say.

Whatever else may come, whatever may happen after the onset of the suffering or grief, the first thing to be done, as C.S. Lewis might say, is to suffer it. Not to hide it or try to conquer it by sheer willpower or any such thing, but to pour it all out before God. Hear my prayer, we say. Let my crying come unto thee. We cry out, and we trust that God indeed will hear.

For the God who truly hears our prayer, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #797, We Cannot Measure How You Heal; #824, There Is a Place of Quiet Rest

 

Music During Meditation:

J.S. Bach, Prelude in C, BWV 846

Frederic Chopin, Prelude in C minor, op.20

Edward MacDowell, Woodland Sketches, op. 51: “To a Wild Rose”

Amy Beach, “Canoeing,” op. 119 no. 3

Edvard Grieg, Lyric Pieces, op. 12; no. 3, “Watchman’s Song”

 

 

[i] From A Grief Observed.


Sermon: Rejoice

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 15, 2019, Advent 3A

Luke 1:46-55; Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Rejoice

A conversation that happened in the church office this past week has stuck in my head while preparing this sermon. While Sherry Crane was in the office on Tuesday, she wondered aloud to Ivette Cardoso, our administrative assistant, and me whether Christmas was somehow managing to sneak up on us this year. I had to admit it felt true, and due to the nature of my job I have to think about Christmas well in advance. I could easily see how it might feel “all of a sudden” to others who don’t have to start thinking about Christmas in October or so.

But then, it’s almost impossible not to start thinking about “Christmas,” in some ways, isn’t it? Thanksgiving got conquered long ago, and Halloween put up a good fight but now it seems to be increasingly overwhelmed by the commercial build-up to “Christmas,” by which I mean the holiday shopping season, Christmas movies starting to show up on certain TV cable channels, and some radio stations starting to play Christmas music. I guess Labor Day is next to fall. Anyway, given that relentless commercial pressure that starts building up so early (far, far beyond what Charlie Brown fretted about in that famous Christmas special), I suppose it can seem like a shock when the actual holiday itself is upon us all of a sudden.

The pink candle that was lighted today on the Advent wreath almost serves as an alert signal. While the rest of the candles on the outside of the wreath are purple, befitting the liturgical color of the season, the candle to be lit on the third Sunday of Advent is instead pink. This is a means of pointing to the particular nature of some of the scriptural texts for the day, texts which contain expressions of joy at the ongoing work of God and of the promises to be found in God’s ongoing words to the people of God.

Take today’s responsive reading, for example, the wonderful song known as the Magnificat, sung by Mary during her visit to Elizabeth at that time when both were pregnant with highly unexpected and unconventional sons. The joyful tone is set right away, from the very opening statement “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The song goes on to sing of how God has blessed his servant Mary, and to describe more generally attributes of who she calls the Mighty One.

Now admittedly there are those for whom Mary’s song might not sound terribly joyful: the proud, who are “scattered…in the thoughts of their hearts”; the powerful, “brought down…from their thrones” as the lowly are lifted up; the rich, “sent…away empty” while the hungry are filled. If you’re one of those, then perhaps the pink candle isn’t for you. But as Jesus notes in the reading from Matthew, “the poor have good news brought to them” (we’ll get to that more later), so perhaps we should simply acknowledge that Mary’s song here fits quite nicely with what her son would define as part of his mission and his call. So, joyful indeed is this song of Mary, a good incipit to the Sunday of rejoicing. One might even say that it is the most Advent thing in all of the gospels, if not perhaps in the entirety of scripture; it is that strong a statement of the coming reign of God, and one of which we could stand to remind ourselves often.

But let’s get back to that Matthew reading. The little snippet quoted above comes from Jesus’ response to messengers from John the Baptist, who is in a far different state than he was in last week’s reading, when he was preaching and baptizing in the wilderness and giving religious leaders some serious reprimanding. By this time John has been arrested and thrown in prison for having the gall to tell Herod, the Roman-sponsored ruler over Judea at the time, that it was wrong for him to take his brother’s wife for his own (although we don’t get that story until Matthew 14, told retroactively).

Being imprisoned has a way of breaking a person, and John seems to have suffered its effects. Since their first meeting in Matthew at Jesus’s baptism, it was pretty likely that John had kept tabs on what Jesus was doing. In fact, in Matthew 9 we see an encounter in which some of John’s disciples ask Jesus why he doesn’t engage in regular and frequent fasting, as John’s disciples (as well as Jesus’s sometime adversaries the Pharisees) did. John had taken up a rather ascetic life in the wilderness (remember the camel-hair coat and locusts-and-honey died), while Jesus traveled freely from town to town and city to city and was known to join in a banquet or two. Feeling the strain of imprisonment, and knowing that most folks who entered Herod’s prison didn’t leave alive, he began to experience something that not at all characteristic of his public ministry: doubt. And so he sends some of his own followers to Jesus to ask, “are you the one…or are we to wait for another?

At first, Jesus’s answer might seem to chide John or his disciples, just slightly. He gives a rundown of what’s been going on – sight restored, mobility restored, health restored, hearing restored, life restored, hope restored, when you break it all down. And then there’s that little shot at the end: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” This could sound like a slight at his older cousin, but then there were probably folks in the audience of the moment to whom such statement could have been directed as well.

At any rate Jesus goes on to show that insulting John was far from his point, noting that “no one greater than he” was to be found among humanity. But still, the moment of doubt is telling. Is John simply worried that his time is nearly done, or is there concern about how Jesus is going about his ministry in a very different and seemingly less, well,holy way than John had lived out his call? Was Jesus not living right enough for John?

As Jesus will note later in the chapter (vv. 18-19), both Jesus and John get picked on by the Pharisees; of John and his ascetic life they say “he has a demon,” and Jesus gets called “a glutton and a drunkard” for his non-fasting. You can’t win either way, so it’s probably best not to get into some sort of holiness Olympics with each other. But perhaps even more the point is that, for all the awfulness and injustice of John’s situation, Jesus’s ministry is still healing and restoring and bringing good news to the poor. Sadly, as long as we live on earth, we will not all know joy at the same time; one experiences true joy while another faces tragedy. But one’s tragedy does not eliminate another’s joy (again, more on that later). All of those being healed and restored are still joyful.

Meanwhile, there is a similar dynamic at play between today’s other two readings, from Isaiah and James. Isaiah brings the joy, in what might be the most over-the-top of the readings assigned for Advent from this book. Right away the image of the desert blossoming and rejoicing takes us to a place we aren’t accustomed to seeing, at least not without an astronomical amount of rainfall to set off the desert bloom. The passage also includes encouragement for the fainthearted, and a short insert that sounds a bit like Jesus’s description of his own ministry in verse five, where “the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” But the predominant images are of the desert and wilderness, with waters breaking forth, streams in the desert, pools and springs and even swampland breaking out. Imagine Palestine turning into Florida, in other words.

If Isaiah says “the desert will blossom,” James responds “you’ll have to be patient.”

If anything, the time in which we live is characterized by the opposite of what Isaiah describes; lands that once were fertile turning barren and fruitless under the pressure of a rapidly heating planet. Even normal lands, James reminds us, don’t bloom or produce fruit without water, and lots of it. James engages in his own bit of agricultural metaphor to remind his readers that patience in waiting for the coming of the Lord is a must. What he describes is not unlike what takes place in the growing of crops like wheat in the central part of this country. First you need rain – the “early” rain – to make the soil ready to bear and nourish the seeds that are to be planted. Then you need rain – the “late” rain – to enable the seeds to ripen and grow to maturity.

If you’re not that farmer, though, the coming of those rains might be more hassle that hope. It ruins our plans, maybe, or just makes it a hassle to get around town or to work that day. And indeed the rain can be bad for that farmer, too, if it comes too early or too late or too much or not enough at a time. But in God’s economy, the rains come as meant to come, and we wait patiently for them, and in this is joy. So it is with this Advent (second Advent, if you will) for which we wait.

For all that we like to toss around the word this time of year, we often have trouble with what it means to rejoice, or even to know joy. We far too easily confuse it with pleasure or happiness. Those two sensations can admit of no counterweight; the moment one feels pain, one no longer feels pleasure. Happiness is taken down by sorrow. Those two cannot endure under such pressures.

Joy is different, and rejoicing as these scriptures suggest is also different. In the words of author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis (in his memoir Surprised by Joy), “All joy reminds (emphasis mine). It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’”  Joy knows sorrow, and does not pretend that sorrow is not there. Joy recognizes that the crazy vision promises of Isaiah’s prophecy are still in the distance, that the rains must come, and we still live in a world where injustice and cruelty have sway. Joy even motivates us to act against injustice and cruelty because joy knows that what we most desire cannot tolerate those things. Joy knows its incompleteness. That’s a thing that comes up in John’s gospel a few times, as in John 16:24, “Ask and you will receive, that your joy may be complete” – it isn’t completed now, it is to come.

It’s a complicated burden for this pink candle to bear. Joy does not rejoice only in what is but in what is to come. Pleasure is easily thwarted, happiness crumbles at the coming of sorrow, but joy endures knowing itself to be not yet finished. Like this empty stable without a nativity, like the family with the empty place at the table that wasn’t empty a year ago, like the farmer waiting for the rains, joy knows its unfinished state; and yet still joy, and those taken by joy, rejoice in the babe to be born, the manger to be filled, the knowing that in the ultimate and final coming of the Savior – that babe yet to be born to Mary, that teacher John suddenly wasn’t sure about – in that second Advent there our joy will, at last, be full and complete.

Let that pink candle be our wake-up call; let it be our reminder that Christmas is suddenly near; but let it also call us, in spite of…even though…nevertheless…to rejoice and be glad.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 1-4); #—, See, the Desert Shall Rejoice; #100, My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout (Canticle of the Turning); #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 5-7)   

 


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Sermon: Prepare

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 8, 2019, Advent 2A

Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Prepare

The description is from Isaiah 40:3. Because Matthew apparently refers to the Septuagint, the very early Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture that would have been highly circulated in his time, his quotation is slightly different from what you’d find if you looked up Isaiah 40:3 in your pew Bible. Still, it’s the same bit of prophetic outcry that was made famous by Handel in one of the early solos in his oratorio Messiah [note: it’s around 2:15]:

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness:

Prepare ye the way of the Lord!

Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

If Broadway is more your speed, you might remember the opening song from the musical Godspell, first sung by a solo singer, then eventually by the full cast.  Pre-ee-ee-pare ye the waaaay oooooffff the Lord…..”

It’s a catchy little bit of prophecy, you might say, and easily set to music.

It is also in some ways a high point of a panel of readings that come togther on this second Sunday of Advent. The responsive reading we spoke together gives a glimpse into the people’s yearning for a just and righteous king. From the very beginning of the psalm we hear the plea for a ruler who embodies and enacts two things that were far too often lacking in the kings of Israel and Judah: justice and righteousness.

You can read, back in the eighth chapter of 1 Samuel, how at a time when Samuel the prophet was getting old and his sons weren’t living up to his legacy, the people of Israel took their grievances to Samuel, complaining and asking to have a king “to govern us, like other nations.” As God pointed out to Samuel at the time, it wasn’t Samuel the people were rejecting, but God’s own kingship over them. Nonetheless God told Samuel to give them what they wanted.

Suffice it to say that by the time of both the Psalms and Isaiah readings, the people had experienced plenty of opportunity to regret that choice, even if they never admitted it. The psalm reading demonstrates clearly what the people had given up in rejecting God’s rule all those years before. Justice and righteousness were absent from their rule far too often, oppression ran rampant, and the poor and needy were defenseless and abused routinely. The psalmist pleads for a king who rules with justice and righteousness, with favor for the needy and oppressed – in other words, a king who ruled the way God ruled.

The account from the prophet Isaiah comes from an even more stark and bleak perspective. By this time Israel and Judah have both been conquered, and their leaders, unjust and unrighteous as they were, turned out also to be quite powerless and incompetent in the face of those kings the people of Israel (the ones Israel had apparently been jealous about back in Samuel’s time). The people of the two kingdoms saw their rulers hauled off like common prisoners and humiliated, sometimes brutally, before all the enemies of Israel and Judah. Rather than becoming a big and tough and powerful kingdom standing tall on the world stage, Israel and Judah had become laughingstocks. Imagine that; putting your trust in a human leader only to be humiliated and become a joke to the world.

Given that devastating experience of the consequences of rejecting God’s leadership, the prophetic oracle recorded here in Isaiah 11 is remarkable indeed. Jesse of course refers to the father of David, so pretty clearly the promise is of one from David’s line emerging as a true ruler, in not only David’s lineage but in God’s own path, an exuberant hope indeed. The promise of a leader upon whom God’s spirit rests, characterized by wisdom and understanding and good counsel and might and knowledge and fear of the Lord, one who judges in righteousness – yes, there’s that word again – and favors the lowly and meek – another repeated idea; again this promise is coming from Isaiah at a particularly bleak and seemingly hopeless time in the history of the two kingdoms that were once one.

The sheer overwhelming hopefulness of this promised leader then leads to this ind-twisting, yet characteristic image from Isaiah; a world in which the things we think are fixed and unchangeable no longer hold. Predators and prey live at peace, and not at a safe distance like at a zoo or a Disney park. Wolf and lamb, leopard and baby goat, calf and lion, cow and bear, are being together all cozy and comfy. Lions don’t prey; they graze. Children can play with snakes and not be hurt. (This is where I insert the warning: don’t try this at home, children.) Even nature is repaired and restored by this Promised One.

Of course, by the time we get to the events of Matthew’s gospel, centuries have passed and neither the king sought by the psalmist nor the branch of Jesse’s family tree proclaimed by Isaiah have come along. Exile has ended and come again, and after many years the Roman Empire has established its rule over the people of what once had been Judah and Israel. Those words still rang in ears of the people, though, and more than a few would-be prophets had sought to tickle the ears of the people claiming to be the long-awaited deliverer, only to find out what happened to those who dared challenge the Roman Empire (they disappeared quickly).

So when the word started to get around about this guy preaching out in the wastelands away from Jerusalem, maybe it was a hopeful thing for some. Might this possibly be “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” from Isaiah 40? Or maybe there was a mixture of hope – “maybe this is the one” – and cynicism – “oh, boy, here we go again” – in the reaction of the folks in the city. Whatever their reaction, they came out to see him. And what they saw, as it turned out, wasn’t anything like they expected.

For one thing, he would admit that – unlike so many of these wannabe prophets – he wasn’t preaching about himself, as he himself admits starting in verse 11. For another, well…look at the guy. That’s not a normal wardrobe. And munching on wild locusts and honey adds to the look. Also, he’s not really promising the kind of things the folk were hearing in the psalms and the prophets. No glossy visions of predators and prey at peace, no idealized versions of a coming ruler are found here; John’s message is pretty one-note. The note is this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That’s it, as far as Matthew records.

The kicker is yet to come. John’s message does change on one occasion: when the religious leaders started showing up. Anyone who thought John was a odd but fiery preacher got something new to see and hear.

By the time of Matthew’s gospel, it was pretty well-established that the religious leaders of Jerusalem were, to put it bluntly, collaborators with the occupying Romans. It was a calculated thing to be sure; cooperate, and maybe fewer people get hurt. Go along and get along, don’t let any trouble get started, and everything stays peaceful (and you get to keep your power to some degree). This would have been less the case outside the city. At any rate, hearing this crazy guy in the camel-hair coat rip into the religious leaders as soon as they got within earshot of him probably had its own particular entertainment appeal as far as this wilderness-preaching scenario went.

Still, this? Really? This is the prophet? This is the setting? No beautiful sweet Hallmark-card visions of wolf and lamb lying down together? No idealized vision of a just and righteous leader to rescue us all? Just “repent,” and some guy coming with a winnowing fork and baptizing with fire somehow? You might not know whether to be amused or slightly disturbed.

No, it doesn’t appear that God chose a very traditional prophet to be “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” And the message delivered by this unconventional messenger felt a bit darker and less hopeful. Still…maybe? By this time any hope was something. But what to do about it?

Well, repentance sure seems necessary. That level of self-examination and change of life – not merely saying sorry for your sins, but changing your life so as not to live in that sin anymore – seems to be a first and indispensible step in preparing for the Promised One, for the reign of God come near. John’s not ambiguous about it, and the message especially seems to apply to those who would seem to be at the top of the food chain, so to speak – those who claim, or are trusted with, any kind of spiritual authority. It’s fearful stuff to contemplate from this pulpit, you can be sure of that. But nobody is off the hook; the call to “repent” is for all who seek the One to come.

What else? Maybe we take our clues from the early church, the folks to whom Paul (among other apostles) was writing and preaching and teaching. These are, after all, our ancestors in the life of Advent as a two-way street – living in the wake of the first Advent while longing for the second.

Mind you, “Christmas” had not, so to speak, been invented yet. It wasn’t a big huge festival occasion for the early church the way it is today (for one thing, no one agreed on the date). But certainly the birth of Jesus was a known part of their theology and learning – the Savior born of a human, born like one of us, was as an essential a part of the church’s understanding then as it is now. And at the same time, those Romans and others to whom Paul was writing were also waiting, perhaps with even greater, more imminent expectation, for the return of that same Jesus. While by the time of this letter to the church in Rome it was becoming clear that such return wasn’t going to happen quite as quickly as Paul had hoped, it was still something he expected and taught the churches he visited and experienced to expect as well.

So what was expected in living the perpetual life of preparation for that Advent? Well, be steadfast, have hope, and be encouraged by the scriptures. Live in harmony “in accordance with Christ Jesus,” and glorify God by doing so. Welcome one another – Gentile as well as Jew as things stood in the Roman church, fulfilling the word of the prophets that this Promised One was promised for all. These all seem simple, or maybe not. Hope is hard to come by. Harmony is a challenge. Welcome seems quite countercultural these days. And yet living in preparation seems to involve these things, somehow.

Preparing, and being prepared, doesn’t have quite the same ring here as it does in the world around us. Being prepared, if it’s not being used as the Boy Scouts motto, can take on a darker tone these days. You have to have health insurance and life insurance to be prepared for your health to fail; you have to put in a massive security system to be prepared for someone to try to break into your home; you have to stock up on supplies to be prepared when a hurricane is coming. But Advent is not about preparing for a threat; it is about preparing for hope, for the reign of God to come near, for the fulfillment of all that has been promised. We may not get petting zoos where wolves and lambs cavort together, but we do await, and watch for, and prepare for that reign of God to come. Let us prepare, and live prepared.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #106, Prepare the Way, O Zion; #—, Prepare Your Hearts; #96, On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry; #105, People, Look East

 


Sermon: Watch

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 1, 2019, Advent 1A

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

Watch

“Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.”

The old words of the King James Version of verse 42 of Matthew 25 conjure up an image that is developed in many different sources, including that first hymn we sang today – “Watchman, tell us of the night.” The image of a guard, possibly a lone guard, keeping watch from a tower over the bleak, dark night, watching for who knows what? Invaders? Lost travelers? Wild animals?

The NRSV version in your pew Bibles and that I read a few moments ago goes with the translation “Keep awake,” which may likely be slightly more accurate but doesn’t have quite the air of vigilance as that word “watch.”

Another advantage, I have come to believe, is that while the instruction to “keep awake” certainly makes sense in the context in which Matthew was writing, I’m not completely sure that it speaks to the situation in which we read the scripture today. Keep awake? Frankly, I have the strong suspicion that all of us could stand to get a little more sleep.

But keeping watch? Now there’s a challenge. We live in an age in which distraction if the order of the day. I started to say “busy-ness” there but I’m not even sure that quite catches the correct meaning. We live in a world that seems bound and determined to go off the ledge, and our own country might well be leading the way. There are more multiple-victim shootings per year than there are days of the year. We seem bound and determined to melt the polar icecaps at both ends of the planet, which just might bring oceanfront property to Gainesville. And yet with these and many other crises, wars and rumors of wars all about us, we manage to keep pretty well distracted. Sports (which don’t always promote a lot of good will), social media (which often seems determined to seek the opposite of good will), an entire entertainment industry devoted to distraction by whatever means necessary, and many more shiny things compete for our attention, leaving us not very watchful.  (And I didn’t even mention Black Friday.)

And on this first Sunday of Advent, this is the world, a world that can barely keep track of its own attention, into which Jesus says “watch, therefore.”

What, then, are keeping watch for?

Matthew’s recounting doesn’t initially seem all that helpful. It does begin with the helpful remonstrance that no one, not even Jesus, knows when all this is to come to pass – “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, or the Son, only the Father.” It isn’t merely about waiting out the night, or waiting for the holiday with relatives pouring in; whatever this is, we do not know when it will be.

And what, exactly, is all this for which we keep watch? Well, back at the beginning of the chapter, the disciples got a private meeting with Jesus to ask “what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?”, so we know we’re getting into that end-of-time stuff that isn’t extremely comfortable to talk about. Some of the persecutions and tribulations in the chapter seem to refer, in retrospect, to the things that happened at the time of the Roman conquest and destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Other sections, including today’s reading, seem more pointedly eschatological – referring to the end of times. And the clues offered here are fairly bleak; a reference to the time of Noah, with, as you might recall, the Great Flood wiping out a large swath of humankind (which is a lovely story to tell our children); cryptic sayings about two working and one being taken; a thief breaking in during the night.

Not exactly the stuff of rejoicing, on the surface. On the other hand, if you’re the one living under the thumb of the empire (the owner of the house, so to speak), maybe the Son of Man breaking in at an unexpected hour to undo the bondage of empire does sound a lot more hopeful.

Still, Isaiah’s poetic prophecy sounds a lot more joyful, yes? All the nations of the earth streaming to the mountain of the Lord to learn the ways of God; weapons of war beaten and broken into farm implements; yes, that’s the stuff of rejoicing. Yet somehow we take both of these words, the prophetic utterances of both Isaiah and Jesus and hold them in tension, and learn why we are to keep watch and what we are to keep watch for: the ultimate in-breaking of the reign of God, and un-doing of the broken and destructive ways of fallen humanity.

The reading from Romans may seem an odd fit, but here we are reminded of the hard truth that keeping watch (or being awake, whichever you prefer) doesn’t happen unless we put aside those things that distract us. Again, we are good at finding so many things to distract us, and they certainly don’t have to be the big obvious vices that Paul names out to his Roman readers and hearers. Being sober and living clean itself does not guarantee watchfulness with so many other possible distractions available to us.

Whatever that distraction is, we really have to lay it aside in order to keep watch, whatever it is for which we do keep watch. It requires a trust we don’t do well; trust that the day and hour do not have to be solved to our satisfaction for the coming of the Son of Man to be our hope and our salvation, nearer now than when we became believers.

Keep watch.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #97, Watchman, Tell Us of the Night; #—, Keep Watch; #384; Soon and Very Soon; #83, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

 


Sermon: How to Think Thankfully

Grace Presbyterian Church/Covenant Presbyterian Church

November 27, 2019, Thanksgiving

Philippians 4:4-9

How to Think Thankfully

“…think about these things.”

Whoa, Paul, careful with statements like that. You want to be more cautious about the company you keep.

The whole business of telling people how to think or what to think or some other variant on the concept is the kind of thing that gets used, frankly, to sell stuff. The always-fun exercise of using good ol’ auto-complete in your web browser on Amazon.com, for example, yields some of these chestnuts:

Think and Grow Rich – a title I remember mostly from very annoying television commercials and even infomercials.

Or how about this subtitle from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series – “Think Positive, Live Happy.” That could have been an infomercial all by itself.

Then there’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, a title all about how our brains work with instruction on tapping into the more deliberate part of our mental processes, which leads us towards the variant of this genre that specifically starts “how to think.” For example:

Two different books with the title How to Think About God, one a combination of two writings by the ancient Roman stoic philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, the other a more modern volume by Mortimer J. Adler.

How to Think Theologically, a volume that is occasionally put before new seminarians, also comes up. It’s now into a third edition, so evidently somebody out there thinks it’s important.

Getting away from religion, there’s How to Think About Money (I apologize, I said ‘getting away from religion’), How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, How To Think Like a Roman Emperor, and probably the best and most worthwhile of the bunch, How to Think Like a Cat. Anything that gets humans to wait on you hand and foot has to be worth considering, right?

This kind of “thinking about thinking,” so to speak, doesn’t just show up in book titles for that matter. Take, for example, one of the songs from the Broadway musical (and movie) The Sound of Music. You know the one. In the movie, after the von Trapp children get frightened by that thunderstorm and Maria sings to them something about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens…and it ends up “I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad…

In no way will I claim that I’ve read those books, but the song I will give credit for getting one particular aspect of all this right: in order to have the desired result (not feeling so bad when the dog bites or the bee stings), the pattern of thought (remembering her favorite things) has to be cultivated. It doesn’t just happen. If one of us gets stung by a bee it’s going to hurt and we’re going to feel, probably, well beyond “bad” (or far worse if one is allergic), and simply remembering my favorite things isn’t going to be the first idea to pop into my head, unless that habit of mind has been deliberately cultivated. You have to decide to do it, so to speak.

If you were wondering how all of this could possibly connect with this reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, there it is.

We’re getting near the end of the letter, and as is not atypical, Paul launches into a final series of encouragements as he comes to a close. The language is fairly typical at first; that exhortation to “rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” has parallels in many of his other letters. Instruction about how to show one’s faith, instead of merely talking about it, is also fairly common, as in verse five’s encouragement to “let your gentleness be known to everyone.” The encouragement to pray is also common and unsurprising.

Where this wrap-up pep talk gets interesting is in verse eight. Here, in this seeming list of adjectives out of nowhere, Paul is getting down to the business of the habits of mind that go into the Christian life. And by the way Paul gives this instruction, Paul clearly indicates that these things don’t just happen; such habits of thought have to be developed and cultivated.

When we spend time in deliberate reflection on “whatever is true … honorable … just … pure … pleasing … commendable” or on the things that are excellent or worthy of praise, there are a lot of possible outcomes. One of those is certainly applicable to tonight’s occasion: Thanksgiving, or gratitude (if you want to use a more theological-sounding word). To think with deliberate attention and observation on these particular virtues brings us to greater awareness and understanding of the God in whom such virtues originate and who through Christ makes it possible for us even to approach such virtures in our own lives and hearts. So yes, such a pattern of thought and reflection might be a good start on a new self-help bestseller, “How to Think Thankfully.” But again, such reflection doesn’t just happen; it has to be chosen and engaged deliberately and intentionally. The habit has to be cultivated, again and again.

There is something about which we need to be careful in approaching such a pattern of reflection and cultivation of habit. The results might not lead us where we expect.

True, a greater sense and expression of gratitude (or thanksgiving) is a pretty likely result of such reflection, but it is not the only such result. Let’s look back at verse seven to remind ourselves of how this list of virtues has been set up. After all the instruction about rejoicing and not worrying and being in “prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” (see?), we get this sentence: “and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

It sounds like a nice conclusion to verses six and seven, and it is. That is not, however, all that it is. It’s a bridge of sorts; it serves both the ideas that come before it and the ideas that come after as well. So after we do all the praying, the peace of God will guard our hearts and our minds in Jesus. As the peace of God guards our hearts and our minds in Christ, we think on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy, we then do these things, the things that Paul himself has striven to show the Philippians in his behavior towards them. It isn’t about just a peaceful and thankful mind or heart; it shows up in how we work and act and speak and do and live as well. It’s not a passive thing, but an active and even animating thing as well. We don’t just think differently, we act differently as well.

As if that weren’t disturbing enough, that activating and animating tendency might even lead us into places we might not go otherwise. When you start to contemplate those things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy, you can’t avoid noticing those things in the world around you that are not true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Even worse, it might no longer be possible to avoid noticing those things that are not true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy in yourself.

And if the God of peace is truly guarding our hearts and minds in Christ, well, guess what? Those things are no longer going to be acceptable. You might find yourself in a spot where you have to speak up, to insist that the church or the nation or the world or, most frightening of all, your own self must be better, must be true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy.

This may not be the stuff that makes your auto-complete function fill up your browser window with happy-sounding things that make you want to buy them. And it might sometimes make you something other than happy. After all, do we really want to be happy about lies, or dishonor, or injustice, just to name a few? But here’s the thing; those same things also grieve God’s own heart. And if we’re seeing these same anti-virtues in the world and knowing the same grief and heartbreak and maybe even anger at them as our own God feels, maybe we are just a little bit closer to that God we claim to worship and to serve. And I would hope we would find that something truly to be thankful for.

So no, if you’re looking for a mind perpetually at ease and free of care, this may not be the prescription or exhortation for you. But if you can live with a heart marked with true gratitude for what God has given, that also knows what it means to live most fully in the mind of Christ even if it hurts, this may be a path to follow. If you’re ready for a thankful mind that leads to a thankful life, even if it’s a little bit challenging life, then indeed think on those things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. And indeed, the God of peace will be with you.

For the invitation and opportunity to think thankfully, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #336, We Gather Together, #659, Know That God Is Good (Mungu ni nwema); #654, In the Lord I’ll be Ever Thankful; #643, Now Thank We All Our God