“A Promise.” Luke 2:1-20

If God wanted to make an impact on people, then he should have picked a better means of coming to them.

Few even noticed this birth.

Angels had to be sent out to the shepherds just a round up an impromptu audience

Luke is adamant in showing that the rich and powerful are fully detached from the events of God coming.

The Emperor is preoccupied with his Tax plan.

The Governor is busy keeping things peaceful in the local province while floods of refugees make their way to their places of birth.

No, God could hardly have chosen a poorer way to come if God really wanted to capture the attention of the masses!

God should have tried something a bit more spectacular, and we know that God could have.   God could be pretty showy back in the day when he wanted to be.  Employing Pillars of Cloud and Fire in the desert to lead Israel out of Egypt.

Burning bushes, floods, earthquakes, the sun standing still in the sky, plagues of various kinds, the parting the sea if needed.

Oh, God has a deep pocket of flash and pizazz when it comes to special effects and shows of power, just ask Pharaoh!

But God had tried all of that before, and with varying degrees of success.

The trouble of flash, pizazz, and special effects is it becomes harder and harder to impress to “top” what you did last time, and we are fickle when it comes to being impressed.

What “new thing” can you show me?

What new feature do you have to entice, or inspire?

So maybe in the birth of a baby God is NOT out to make a flashy impact on this world.   God is not shaking the world up with fiery displays.  Not waltzing in with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand.

Maybe the birth of a baby is meant to do something else.

Maybe God is tapping into what we tend to do when we see a baby, speculate a bit on what this little one will be.

Maybe what God is really doing is keeping a promise.

“To you is born this day in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord.”

The shepherds who heard that phrase would have known.  “The city of David” is the tip off.

On this day a promise is being kept.   A promise spoken to King David so long ago, that God would establish his house and would bring an end to the things that afflict people.

“Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict… I will give you rest from all your enemies.. your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand forever.” 

That was the promise given by God to David long ago.

Tonight, a promise is kept, in the birth of the Christ child, an heir to a throne comes.  Surely as the shepherds gathered they must have thought of that, and they would have done what we all do when we first see a baby.  They would have engaged in a little speculation.

“Just look at his arms, he will be a mighty warrior, a leader, a king for sure!”

“Look at his head.   That is the head of a king!  See how the crown will fit it.  That is a head who will figure out how to deal with these Romans.”

We can guess that the shepherds might have conjectured like that, because that is indeed what many thought the promised child would be.

Everyone expected the heir of David’s throne to be great leader, a king, a warrior… but there is more to this promise born tonight than meets the eye.   More here than even the most far-sighted Shepherd, or relative, could imagine.  For, born tonight is a promise that is more than David ever dreamed of, more than any of the people of Israel ever hoped for.

Born this night in the city of David is the promise that God will come to be with his people in a way that God has never been with us before… intimately.

It is a baby, just a baby.

And, while we might imagine great things in any birth, this one exceeds our wildest imagination of what God will do, and the lengths to which God will go to in order to reach us.

This baby has come to reach all people, a whole world.

This baby has come to do more than just establish an earthly kingdom or rescue an oppressed people.

This baby has come to bring a promise of everlasting life, salvation, and hope for all.  That whoever, whoever; believes in Jesus should not perish, but have eternal life.

And how is it that God chooses to do this?

Not as a military leader.

Not in the garb of the rich or the powerful.

God comes as a baby so that we will do what God has always longed for us to do.

Love him.

God you see, is out to capture our hearts and imaginations this night, in a way that only  a baby can do that.

You see, we will do things for a baby that we won’t do for anyone, or anything else, and God knows that.

We will cradle a baby.

We will stare in wonder at a baby, speculating on what the birth of a baby might mean for us, what they will be when they grow up, what they will see.

We will long to get to know a baby, watch it grow, and look for it in our lives.

We will do silly things for a baby, irrational acts of caring, nurturing, giving of ourselves because their very life depends on us not looking out for our own comforts first.

Babies will make you dive elbow deep into the mess.

Babies will make you rush to protect.

We will love, protect, and make sacrifices for the sake of a baby.

Those are all the things that God has called upon God’s people to do for one another from the very beginning.  But adult hearts grow cold, and ideologies grow rigid, and the “bean counters” remind adults of what they can afford, and of what they ought to keep for themselves, and how it’s not really in one’s own best interest to care about other people so much, or to provide for them.

You don’t want to make people “dependent” after all.

But by coming as a baby, God reminds us how we all enter this world naked, cold and alone, with nothing to call own.

We sometimes think more highly of ourselves and our privilege than we should when we forget that. We close out the neighbor, or shirk the call to love and to serve.

Born this night is a promise that is meant for each of us.

When the water was splashed, and the words were spoken, we were joined to this baby and we are now a part of the fullness of his life, and a part of one another.

Born this night is a promise that when this babe grows to break the bread, and to pour the wine, we will have immediate access to God’s very presence in our own lives.   Connected to God, and Christ, in mystical union that reminds us we are all in this together, this life and the promised Kingdom.

Born this night is a promise.

In the manger there is a God who is so intent on reaching us that God will become as one of us, if for no other reason than through this action God will remind us of our own mortality and humanity.

God becomes frail, shivering, and fragile, dependent upon those whom he comes to save, so that they might be reminded that they were once dependent on others as well.

God is so ready to reach us that God will give up all the trappings of majesty and heavenly glory so that we might do what God has always longed for us to do… to come to him, to cradle him, to wonder at what God will do to us, what God will be for us, and maybe then remember what we are to be for one another.

Beloved, born to you this night is a promise, Christ Jesus our Lord.

Receive him.

Learn from him.

Love him and learn to love from him, one another.

Hold the Christ Child close as you would hold your own child in your own arms.

It is for you that God has come in this way,

It is for you that he waits with the promises of everlasting life, forgiveness, and healing.

It is for you that Christmas has come.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.

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“The Beginning of Love” Mark 1:1-8

I want you to take a moment right now and do a memory exercise with me.  Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and clear your mind.

Take another deep breath, and let it out slowly, and I want you to bring to mind a moment when you knew – were absolutely sure– that you were loved.

Let it sit there for a moment.

Maybe it’s a memory involving a parent.

Maybe it’s a memory of the first flowering of love with that special person, when the emotion of love and acceptance washed over you, or the heart skipped a beat, and you were overwhelmed, bringing the flood of tears, the catch of breath, or the lump in the throat.

Live in that moment… for a moment… and hold on to it.

Now I want you to take another deep breath, slowly let it out, and I want you to bring to mind a very different moment.  This was a moment when you were loved but it didn’t feel like love at first.

Maybe it was a truth about yourself, spoken by someone whom you love and respect, — a word that stung in the moment but that needed to be said, and you knew that it was said in love, though it made your cheeks burn and your eyes sting.

Maybe it was the moment of a quarrel with the beloved, when harsh words were exchanged that made eventually for a breakthrough in your love and understanding of each other, but in the moment of heated exchange truly hurt.

Perhaps your moment of being loved when it didn’t feel like it was love was when the parent lifted you as a misbehaving child and escorted you out of a room to correct your behavior or attitude.

Maybe it was a person berating you for your performance because that person knew that you were capable of so much more, and wanted you to see yourself in that way.

Maybe it was the tender hands of a nurse or loved one changing a bandage after an injury, or work you through therapy after a surgery.  You did not want them to touch the wound, work the joint for the pain it would bring.

They did not want to unbind it, pull the tape, press or stretch or open the wound for the pain they knew they would inflict.

But you both recognized that the actions taken were born of what needed to be done to heal, and was done as caringly as it could be for the sake of healing and future.

Live in that moment, for a moment… hold on to it.

Now hear the beginning of Mark’s Gospel again, and hear it like that second moment.  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness:”

I think the Gospel of Mark is all about the love of God that does not always feel like love at first.

There is a lot of truth telling in Mark’s Gospel.  John appears proclaiming a baptism for repentance, which of course implies that you’re going to be doing some soul searching.  You don’t do repentance without first considering all the things you’ve done wrong, all the screw-ups you’ve made, all the things that are amiss in this world of which you have been a part.

Those things will get drowned out in the waters of repentance, but they don’t die easy.

It takes a truth-teller, a lonely voice crying in the wilderness to bring you to the waters.  You don’t just make your own way to the river, you come at the cry of the one who is like Elijah, who does not come to stroke your ego and tell you what a wonderful person you are, but is much more like that parent who scoops your misbehaving butt up in his arms to whisk you away for consideration of what you’ve done.

And the way that John prepares?

Well John is preparing the way for Jesus, not for you.

No one is clearing any pathways to make your life easier.

John is clearing the path for God to get to you!

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight.   John’s work is clearing the way for God to get to you.  There will be no pew to duck under, no hill to hide behind, no obstructions to slow God down as he comes to grab you.

That can be perceived as comforting.   At last to be safe in the arms of God!

Or, if can be disconcerting if you’ve spent your life trying to stay just one step ahead and a little out of reach of God’s grasp.

Take your pick, it’s love that is coming for you, but what kind of love?

Is it the love that makes for the lump in the throat and the heart welling in the chest, or is it the kind of love that stings in the eye and reddens the cheek, for both are possible here!

Both are,(in fact) needed.

You cannot have love without the telling of truth.

You cannot experience love without unbridled acceptance of where you are right now.

Mark’s gospel ends up full of stories about how when love comes near and does what love does, the reactions are varied.

Love as it comes near brings joy, but it also drives out demons.

Love in Mark’s gospel will lead some to be saddened, some to be disappointed, others to be ecstatic and still others left to wonder what it was that just happened to them.

That’s the way love works.

On our best days, we see love clearly.

But most days, well it’s only the beginning of love that we behold.  The start of something that continues to unfold, and love (like a highway for our God) both leads us somewhere, and brings something to us that we had not anticipated or expected.

This week in Advent we look for love.

We hear the beginning of the Good news that comes from preparing for the Son of God.

We live in moments.

Moments of repentance.

Moments of realizing that this is all about God, and not so much about us.

Moments where we find ourselves simply passive bystanders to the activity of God in our midst.

And other moments, where we are all too keenly aware that God has come near.   One more powerful that John with his promises has spoken to us, and to our hearts.

One who wields the Holy Spirit, and who drenches us with it has come near.

Sometimes that love, and the drenching of the Holy Spirit upon us comes as a warm affirming presence.

And at other times, it is like a shock of cold water to us.  A chastening urge that expects more of us, wakes us up, and demands of us because of who we are and whose we are.

So, how are you feeling the love this Advent?

God is coming for you, and the way has been cleared.   Are you ready for a new beginning, for that is what love always brings?

“God Is Near” Mark 13:24-37

It may well be that you will hear this Gospel lesson a little differently this Advent.  Perhaps, I dare say, more as those first century Christians might have heard it.

Why do I say that?

Because most scholars agree that when Mark penned this Gospel and particularly this chapter where Jesus seems to talk right at us in the first person, he was writing into the face of the world as he knew it coming apart at the seams.

It is widely understood that this little apocalypse is penned right after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., prompted by a Judea insurrection and revolt against the Empire.   The city is placed under siege.  Food is scarce. Insurrectionists are rounded up and crucified, at the rate of 500 per day Josephus recounts, so that the Legions ran out of wood to build crosses.

The Temple rebuilt by Herod the Great was constructed of massive, Herodian construction stones, each weighing from several to hundreds of tons.  You still see the immensity of scale on the remaining Western Wall or “Wailing Wall” where Jews go to pray to this day.   Stones so massive and well carved that it was all but impossible to put a knife blade in the seam.  In all, the message meant to convey by Herod in the building of the Temple was “this one will stand forever.”

The Temple is burned and then dismantled stone by stone until it stands in ruins.

The world is coming undone.

It was Judea’s Pearl Harbor, it’s Dunkirk, or its 9/11.  Watching something fall that you thought would be there forever.

As the Temple falls, so also goes the economy and the social welfare structure.  There is no place for the poor, the widow, the orphan to go for relief.

The destruction of Jerusalem is the collapse of all social structures, all means of commerce, all means of welfare, health care and the vaunted “Pax Romana,” the promise that society would continue to operate as normal made by the Roman Empire is replaced with war, siege, and the end of all local governance.

The world is unravelling before the author’s eyes.

So, this Advent, as we watch our own “world unraveling” we might hear this lesson differently.

We are watching the careening of tax plans, the indictments of high officials, the unraveling of state and national government agencies, the reversal of policies, the saber rattling of nuclear nations, and the uncertainty of who to trust anymore for a variety of reasons.

The world as we know it feels like it is coming undone around us.

It’s perhaps small comfort to realize that what we experience is not nearly as bad as what Mark’s audience lived through, but still there are parallels.

Some seem to delight in the deconstruction and unraveling of things.

Still others are made anxious and fearful.

When we hear biblical texts talk about impending doom, darkening skies, falling stars, rolling clouds approaching, and the shaking of powers.  We might therefore be filled with the same kind of anxiety as Mark’s audience.

What’s next, we wonder?

We live in that kind of a world of dread these days, where you’re not sure what next shoe will drop, or what new allegation or threat to the world as you know it, expect it to always be, will pop over the horizon.

It’s important therefore that we hear what it is that Mark asserts in the face of an unraveling world; for it is not what we might assume from other apocalyptic visions.

Normally the words of warning in Apocalyptic would be followed by the great and terrible things that will happen and how the world will be sorted out in the end.   There would be accounts of who would be judged, and who would be saved, and who would thrown into the outer darkness.  We just heard such predictions from Matthew’s Gospel.   Sheep and goats and all of that.

But for Mark, these darkening skies, falling stars, rolling clouds and shaken powers signal something else.

Not more doom and disaster, but rather visions of hope.

“He is near!”   Mark confidently asserts to the visions of an unraveling world.

How can that be?

You might be forgiven if you don’t know how that works, or maybe better, if you don’t remember how that works, for we all have a bit of a selective memory when it comes to experiencing adversity and uncertainty.

We remember that as a difficult time.

We remember the details of how awful it was, much as I list off the events of the Jerusalem revolt.

While you are in the midst of trouble and difficulty, it is terribly hard to see any way out, any hope of return to normalcy.

If, however, you search your memory of the tough times, the really tough times you have lived through, you might begin to recall something else.

You might begin to recall how it is you made it through.

I remember with stark clarity the stories my grandparents told about the 30’s, about the uncertainty, the people who walked away from their farms, the lack of food, the failure of crops and dust storms.

But I also remember the stories of how they found God to be present.  “We didn’t have much but we always had something… enough.”

It takes a little more work, and maybe a little more encouragement.

It might also take an outside witness.   For, while you are in the midst of the awful experience, it might not be possible for you to see any glimmer of hope at all, not until someone points it out to you.

That’s what Mark does here.

Just when it looks like the last string of the world is about to unravel, “then you will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds.”    Jesus confidently promises.

Just when it looks like all is lost, then Jesus in Mark looks at us directly and asserts that you will see that the Son of Man comes not to mete out punishment, dread and judgment, but rather to “gather the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth.”

From the Fig Tree that Jesus cursed back in chapter 11, that looked like it was finished; “look for the tender new growth…and know that summer is approaching.”

“He is near!”

When is Jesus near?   Well, watch for him in the evening, midnight, cock-crow and dawn…. All those hours of the Crucifixion that will read about in Mark 15.  The very times when we might expect Jesus to be farthest from his disciples, that is when he is actually nearest!

How can that be?

Well, I’m not exactly sure how it works, except to say that is exactly how it works.

Looking back over my life, I recognize that my prayer life was never better than when I was deeply worried or experiencing significant hardship.  When the diagnosis came, when the treatment was being endured, when the call was ending, when the conflict was at its most intense…that was when I prayed best.

I needed God to be near then.   I could not feel God’s presence, and so I sought it out, and discovered that he was near!

That’s not to say that I would recommend getting neck deep in trouble or hardship as a prayer discipline to enhance your ability to pray and trust, I’m just telling you that’s how it works.  When I thought God was most distant, that’s when God was nearest!

My Stewardship is never better than when I have made a decision to give even when it didn’t seem like I couldn’t afford to.    There was something about deciding to give that re-organized all my other priorities, and the way I viewed and used all my resources.  When I made the decision to give, I discovered that I had more than enough.  God was near!

I’m not saying that if you give, God is going to shower blessings upon you in some “quid-pro-quo” prosperity Gospel fashion.

I’m just telling you that though I felt I had little to give, or that giving was a significant sacrifice, it nevertheless gave me greater joy and I discovered God was near.  God was found in the daily decisions of what I could and should spend on myself as opposed to on helping others.

My bible reading is never better than when I am struggling to understand a particularly vexing passage.   When I am beating my head against the words, that’s when God seems closest to me, struggling with me, present with me in a way that makes me question, and ask, and inquire and to listen anew.

There is, in other words, something about adversity that lends opportunity for God to be near in a way that we do not experience God’s presence if life is always rosy.   It is at that express moment when it feels like the world is unraveling that you therefore must be most vigilant and awake and open to the signs of God coming near, to the sign of new life, to the gathering from the furthest reaches, to the entrusting of things to you with the promise to return.

That is the promise that exceeds all others.

Stones will topple, but that does not stop the Son of Man from coming near.

Systems will fly apart, but that does not keep God from gathering the elect from the four winds and the far reaches.

It may seem as though God has left the building, but the promise of return is most acutely felt.

Keep awake, keep alert to the moment and see what God is about to do.

Sometimes it takes darkening skies, falling stars, rolling clouds approaching, and shaking powers to get our eyes off ourselves long enough to look in hope for what God may be doing, in our very midst.

You might hear these Advent Gospels differently, because your world may indeed be unraveling in so many ways.

But, dear ones, do not hear them for warnings of awful things yet to come.

Hear them for the promise they bear witness to, that “He is near, at the very gate!”

Be awake to God’s presence.

See what God is up to, and look for the signs of hope in the midst of the unraveling, for God is surely near.