“By Decree or ‘Go and See'” Luke 2:1-20

I have no illusions about this night.

I know that there are two primary motivations at work in the annual Christmas worship or holiday celebration.

There are those who are moved by decree, and those who are motived by “Let’s go and see.”

For most of us, it’s a mixture of the two at work really.

“You will go to church….” The parent informs the child.

“You will go to your parent’s….”   The spouse informs her partner.

“You have to get a gift for …”

“You have to attend the office party, the social gathering, the play we have tickets for…”

All kinds of decrees are issued this time of year, (whether you realize it at first or not.)

It may not be Caesar Augustus directing your travels or compelling your actions, but we all have felt the compulsion of family pressure, or of expectations placed upon us, or of spousal obligation, family responsibilities, societal expectations, or ….well, you name it.

You name it because you have felt it, perhaps still feel it.

We are under decrees of one kind or another, and so part of what resonates with us about this night and this story is recognizing that Mary and Joseph couldn’t catch a break either.

There are certain things required to be done.

Certain expectations that must be met.

No one likes it, but we do them anyway.

And then, as “Murphy’s Law” dictates, if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong, especially if you are you are under decree to do something.

So it is that Luke records that while the couple are complying to Caesar’s decree, the time came for the child to be born.

Perfect.

One more complication in the midst of the unwanted trip, like a flat tire on the way to your mother-in-law’s.

One more thing you were dreading that might happen, that actually does happen.

Ill prepared, and in the worst of possible situations the child is born without any of the things you had laid up back at home for this event.

No “pack and play.”

No diapers.

No place to stay, no doctor, no midwife, and no family nearby to help out.

Under the pressure and obligation of the decree, you make do as best you can given the circumstances.

The baby is laid in manger.

Swaddling clothes are fashioned out of whatever you are wearing or have packed along.   The spare tunic is now catching urine and poo as it is torn into strips to wrap the child.

Living under decree is often not much fun.

We feel the imposition of it on our lives, the “nothing went as I thought it was supposed to go” disruption, and we wonder what it is that we’ve done to deserve this.

If it is not decree that motivates you this holiday, then it is most likely curiosity.  There is a “go and see” element at work this time of year as well.

“Let’s go and see how they’ve decorated (the church, the public space, union station, etc.)”

“Let’s go and see the children’s program, there’s always one or two laughable mishaps by the kids there.”

“Let’s go and see mom, or the old home place, or drive past the old house, the old farm, down the old main street of the hometown once again while we’re there.”

If we aren’t being compelled out of guilt, we are sometimes we are pulled out of gratitude, desire, nostalgia or curiosity.

The Christmas story has that element as well, of shepherds wanting to “go and see” if Angel’s words are true.

You have to admit that it’s not much to look at really, just a baby wrapped up in a manger, an inconvenienced family, the mess of animals and straw.

Still and all, it is what was promised, and it is curiously a touchstone to the words of the messengers.

Much like our wanting to go and see the old home, the old farm, the old main street, …as shabby and unimpressive as it might be to anyone else’s eyes, to your eyes it is confirmation of something important.

A tangible sign of a life once known.

A reminder of a time when we were loved, or felt safe and secure, or at least knew predictably how the next day would unfold.

Our “go and see” travels in locations and memories anchor us to promises made, and better times, and a sense of faithfulness that somehow reaches into the here and now.  As tears well up and emotions rise looking out over the changed but familiar scenes and the flood of memories, we might even whisper to ourselves, “what have I ever done to deserve this?”   This sense of privilege in living, this sense of giftedness, this joy of what has been and is promised to the future.

So, I’m not sure why you are here tonight, out of a decree made to you, or out of a sense of curiosity to go and see what all the fuss is about.

I’m not sure if you’re finding what you expect to see or whether you’re wondering why you came in the first place.

I only know that if you are feeling either decree or “come and see”, you are in good company, for those are the things that made up that first Christmas.

This is real life, and this is what God comes stumbling and tumbling into.

God comes into a world of obligations and mixed motivations.

God comes vulnerable and yet insistent, as only children can be.

God comes both to capture our attention, and to escape the notice of kings and princes.

God comes, in the midst of decrees and “go and see’s, and our lives are not the same because of it.

And we might even find ourselves asking, as we contemplate it all, God made flesh and coming into this world.  “What have we ever done to deserve this?”

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“Looking for Hope In All the Wrong Places.” Luke 1:39-55

Where does one look for hope?

Here we are once again on the precipice it seems.

The rich and the powerful are blustering.

World and regional leaders are fuming about how to get their way, drive through their policies, and establish control over the flow of citizens and refugees.

Border and security are invoked as a means to shuffle the political agendas.

The world is a mess.

And Mary and Elizabeth meet in Galilee.

Oh, you perhaps misunderstood?

I’ll bet when you heard me start down that road of a “precipice” your minds went to the current government shut down, to an ill-tempered President owning, and then not owning his own actions or decisions.

Your mind might have gone to the “Nancy Pelosi’s Civics Lecture,” or to Schumer and Trump’s man-spreading displays in the Oval Office, or perhaps to McConnell’s iron fisted stranglehold on what comes up for a vote, or Ryan’s demurring to “whatever”, as he tries to make a hasty exit.

I can see how that might have happened.

But truth be told, I was referring to the circumstances of this Gospel, and to Judea of the 4th Century B.C.

It was a time when King Herod was building his grand palaces and huge stoned structures on the backs of his own people to impress Rome and hold on to his own power.

It was a time when Caesar was preparing to undertake a tax registration, a census to ascertain what kind of revenue could be extracted from the provinces, (Judea included.)

It was a time when local governors were dispatched and appointed to crack down on any indigenous opposition to a Roman occupational government.  Quirinius (clearly a Roman name) has been put in place in Syria to keep the locals in line and the manage the garrisons stationed there.

Pilate will come later.

Luke wants to make perfectly clear to us as he begins his “orderly account” of Jesus that the coming of hope and of great things often happens in the midst of much darkness and uncertainty.

In fact, that’s a theme throughout scripture.   God moving, doing hidden, unseen things in the midst of apparent disaster.   God making promises that the eye cannot yet see, nor the ear hear, nor the mind yet comprehend.

Micah’s prophecy we heard a moment ago was spoken after Bethlehem had been under siege.  It was a plowed-over ruin of a backwater town, ravaged by Assyria armies centuries before.

It is while overlooking the rubble of the town that Micah proclaims:

“From you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth the one who is to rule Israel…”  

It’s like someone today looking at the burned-out shell of Paradise, California right after the fire; or looking over the devastation of Joplin Missouri or Greenville Kansas right after the tornados that flattened them and saying, “This is where the future will be born!”

No one can see it yet.

No one can even imagine it, because everything you see is devastated.

But as is so often the case in scripture, God is unperturbed by the outward appearance of things.

God will work another way, a hidden way.

And so Mary and Elizabeth meet, and what no eye can see, no ear can hear, no visible sign can convey will pass between them.

A knowing glance will be exchanged as they see one another for the first time in a long time.

Old Elizabeth will see in Mary the flush and glow, the rounding of the belly that marks the beginning of a pregnancy.

Elizabeth will groan and wince at the movement of foot on the bladder, the eye bug, “oof!” and catch in the step, or the lean into the back of the chair that marks a baby on the move.   Mary will see her catch and wince, and then the smile as Elizabeth greets her and tells her what is up.

This will pass between them, and they will both be filled with joy and hope, one at the other’s good fortune in her advanced age, the other at the promise and possibility, (and yes, the riskiness and complications) of bearing a child.

Both will look at each other with full joy upon their faces and a song upon their lips, and in this moment they will begin to talk of the future, fulfillment, blessing, and joy, and the troubles of the world stage will fall away for a time.

This is how it is with God.

We forget this.  We look at the “big things” happening around us and wonder where God is in the midst of those things?

Our eyes are distracted from the miracles of daily life and our interaction with others, and we fret about the things happening on the world stage.

We are made to feel powerless, impotent, unable to effect any change.

We wonder why the old, old wounds continue to fester?   Why the wars cannot cease?

Why the old fights over land, possessions, resources, riches, power and control repeat themselves, over and over again?

Why can’t we all just learn to get along? To share the abundance the earth provides?

We keep our eyes focused, (or distracted) by looking to these big things, the worldly powers and principalities, the “movers and shakers.”

But that is the wrong place to look for God at work, or a change in those things.

God is instead at work in the underside, for God knows that the temptations of power, the imposition of order, and the pursuit of this world’s solutions to conflicts and troubles are a never ending repetition of abuse.

Today’s heroic leader becomes tomorrow’s despot.

Today’s best way of governing becomes tomorrow’s corrupted system.

Humans are prone to idolatry, to brokenness, and to sin.

The scriptures remind us in the story of Cain and Able that in the very beginning when we started worshiping God and considering offering our gifts to share, we started comparing ourselves to each other, and in the midst of doing that, started down the road of killing each other to get ahead.

When these children promised to Mary and Elizabeth grow and begin their ministry, the Gospel writers will remind us that it was John who called for repentance, renouncing the ways of this world.  Part of his message will be directed to the old sin, encouraging care for one another.  “If you have two coats, share one.   If you are a soldier, be content with your pay and do not extort.”

The Gospel writers will also remind us that Jesus took a long, hard look at playing the part of Savior on this world’s terms.  He debates with the Devil in the wilderness about it, enduring the ever-present worldly temptations to care for one’s self first, take shortcuts in compromising one’s ethics, and the temptation to become too assured of one’s own position and abilities.

Jesus comes to the conclusion that there is no use playing the game according to the rules of this world.

Jesus too, joins with John in pointing out that hope is found not in finding someone who can finally beat the world at its own game, but rather hope is found in God undermining the whole endeavor, and making it collapse and crumble from within, and to do that, you work under the world’s radar, in the common interactions of daily life.

This is what Jesus did, never pursuing to be made messiah, but rather pursuing one follower at a time, making a difference in this moment, wherever he happened to be.

You will not find hope in the actions of world leaders and big events.

You will find hope in the exchange of glances with another human being, someone who shares your secret, or shares or know your situation, or who feels your pain as you feel theirs.

You will find God at work in the person who knows that the long game of God is to thwart the powers and the principalities; not by going “toe to toe” with them, but rather by changing the conversation one person at a time.

This is Mary’s song, confidence in something she has not yet seen, but something that she knows to be true because of the events long past, and her own experience in the moment.

The rich are always sent away empty in the end.  They may have their toys, their walls, their titles and their momentary whims, but such things do not last.

What lasts is what passes between us right now, care, hopefulness, that’s what the future is built upon.

The hungry are filled with good things.  They are filled with a thankfulness in the simple things that the rich will never understand.

The hungry are filled in the breaking and sharing of the bread, in the looking out for one another instead of always having to look over your back in worry of who is out to get you.

The hungry are filled with mercy that the powerful and the rich can never appreciate or exercise.  Tenderness and forgiveness that will always elude those who carry anger and live in fear.

You will not find hope in the actions of those who shuffle chess pieces on the world’s gameboard, or who play the game of Thrones.

Thrones are brought down in the end.  They cannot rule forever.  History is replete with thrones, and all of them falling in the end.

What brings hope is found in the aftermath of that, in the picking up of pieces and that is one-to-one work.   Hope comes in the interactions shared between those who look to something else besides the stuff of this world.

Where does one look for hope?

Turn to your left.  Turn to your right.   Look into the eyes of the one closest to you.

If you’re looking for hope from the big boys and girls of this world who move across the world stage, you’re looking for hope in all the wrong places.

Hope comes in the meeting with the neighbor, and the caring for them.

Hope comes in the dreaming of the future, and you can only do that with someone who connects with you and who is willing to understand what you are going through, right at this moment.

This is what we learn from Mary and Elizabeth.

Hope is found in this moment, and in the meeting and the greeting of one another.

“Things Are Looking Up” Luke 21:25-36

I’m a little tired of all the warnings that seem to have become a part of everyday life.

I flip though the television channels and some new breakthrough drug is being pitched to me for an ailment that I never really knew was a problem before, and I wouldn’t have known it if the company didn’t warn me about it.

Then after the company has shown me bright and cheery images of people living their lives free of the ailment that I didn’t know I was supposed to worry about and that the medication is supposed to treat, here comes the list of side effects and the warnings.

“Don’t take _________ if you have______.  If you develop these symptoms stop taking _______.   Suicidal thoughts and depression may accompany some people as they take _______.   ______ may cause constipation, diarrhea, heart palpitations, a change in mood or appetite.  Stop taking ________ if you experience sudden weight gain, weight loss, hives, boils, a plague of frogs, insects or gnats.

Ask your doctor if _______ is right for you.

Warning upon warning.  One often wonders if the side effects are worse than living with the condition?

The evening news is full of warnings and urgings to be vigilant as well.  Scam upon scam is mentioned out there, or more things to worry about.

Crime and violence “may be coming to your neighborhood.”

Personal information has been hacked and may be compromising your identity.

Global Climate change is shaking the heavens and the earth.

I’m under a constant barrage of urgings to be vigilant, to watch for suspicious activity or behavior, (whatever that may be to me), to take measures, put in a security system, to get a “cop cam”, to change my passwords, etc. etc.

It is all so very wearying.

Maybe you find it wearying too.

We hang our heads and slog on through another day, wondering what will come at us next.

So it doesn’t really strike me as a cheery moment to hear the Gospel put forth its little apocalypse today and issue its warnings as well.

Signs, in the sun, moon and stars, distress among the nations, people fainting with foreboding and fear.

I have plenty of fear and foreboding already, I really don’t need it from Jesus!

I think when we first read or hear this lesson it is the fear that jumps out at us, the list of things for which we think we ought to be watching out and worrying.

We tend to hear this as a warning from Jesus because our ears are so fine tuned to listen for warnings and to draw conclusions from this world.

But I would urge you to read and listen to this again, this time without your “warning weary ears,” for when we do that, we catch the real force of Jesus’ words.

This is not just a warning about the awful things that are about to happen.  Nothing mentioned here is really any different from the things that have been happening since the beginning of this world.

Signs in the Sun, moon, and stars, …. Those happen on a regular and cyclical basis.  Just ask any teacher or law enforcement offices what a full moon will mean for them.

Distress among the nations?   When has there not been a time when competing national interests, or tribal differences didn’t set one people against another?

Confusion at the roaring of the seas and the waves?   When hasn’t weather and ocean been unpredictable and downright scary when considered or experienced?

These things will happen, and they might be scary if dwelt upon, but the real point of what Jesus has to say is that all these things are nothing to be scared of really.

They are reasons for us to look up!

What, Pastor, the world is going to hell in a handbasket and you’re telling me that things are looking up?
Well, yes, as a matter of fact, not because of all the things we see that have always been around anyway, but rather because looking up is what is commanded to us by Jesus!

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

That’s what Jesus says to the otherwise scary events.  Stand up and raise your heads!   Look up!  Look for God!

It can be scary to think of God as entering into the places where we usually have free reign, mostly because we’re not sure what God is going to do when God arrives.   Is God to be found in more force, in the raging of the wind?   In the desolation of battle or the power of despots?   Do we find God in the unraveling of the world as we know it?

No.   Abraham and Sarah, Elijah and the Widow, Moses and Miriam and all the prophets of old saw many a great and terrible sign, but God was not found in the unraveling.   God was rather found working in the midst of those things to bring about redemption, promise, and fulfillment of God’s word.

Now in Jesus, (the Son of Man incarnate,) we get a glimpse of what it is that God actually does when God does enter this world and it’s not at all scary!  It is (in fact) what God has always done when God shows up.

Good news is preached to the poor, and the powerful are overcome.

Sight is given to the blind.

The hungry are fed.

The naked are clothed.

Demons are cast out and those with afflictions are set free from suffering.

The Prisoners are set free, and the hungry are filled with good things.

Outcasts are welcomed, and the forgotten remembered.

There isn’t much scary about what Jesus does.

Well, I should qualify that a bit.   What Jesus does is scary if you have your eyes fixed firmly on the things of this world and look to them for your comfort and your hope.

If what you are preoccupied with is getting rich, then to hear that Jesus shows partiality and favor to the poor, or hear to him say, “do not be anxious about what you will eat and what you will wear” is incredibly threatening.   It topples the economic system we have in place, the engine of our way of life!

If your livelihood depends upon hiding things, on people being blind to your actions, then to hear from Jesus that “nothing will be hidden that is not revealed” and to hear the promise that in the coming of Jesus God brings the “light to shine in the darkness and the light is not overcome.” That is incredibly threatening for someone who depends upon clandestine operations, hidden agendas, and operating in the shadows of this world.

If you are most comfortable with the current divisions, with some people having more than others, with labels and prejudices that hold people and ideas in the status quo, then to hear that Jesus welcomes the outsider, casts out the demons, and bridges the divisions long held between people may very well be threatening to your comfortable way of looking at the world.

The Gospels remind us that looking at Jesus is like looking at God.  We “see” who God is and what God is like through the actions, words, and concerns of Jesus.  What we “see” Jesus do is good news if you are caught up in the signs and turmoil of this world.

If you are a part of keeping the world in chaos, to hear that God is present is a very threatening thing indeed!

What Jesus drives home here is this.  When the world looks scary, it is time to raise your head and look for Jesus!

Look to God!

God is about to do something, and it will not be found in the power or “eye catching” events, but rather the Word and action that arises out of it or in the face of the scary.

The warning given is not to avoid the scary stuff, but rather to not be weighed down so much that you miss God coming in the midst of these things happening, the little signs of hope and power in the midst of big distractions.

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, Jesus says.

That’s the trap, letting your heart be so weighed down or trying to cope with the scary stuff in life with the things of this world will sucks the joy out of your life and cause you to miss the signs of God’s Kingdom coming in your midst.

Letting your heart get weighed down by the cares for this world causes you to lose sight of the God who created this world with all its wonders.

Look up!

Dissipation is a distraction deeper into the cares of this world.  Getting lost in a life of material goods at first promises shiny toys and temporary joys, but it clouds your judgment and blinds you to the God who provides all good gifts and whose intention is for all to enjoy the goodness of creation.

Lift your head up out of the fog of materialism, of running after the things of this world, of being consumed with consuming or bedazzled with celebrity!

Drunkenness lets you escape the cares of this world for a brief time, but there is a price to pay for your temporary relief, and it numbs you to what God may be up to in your very midst.

Be alert!

It is the Word of God that lasts forever, not the ups and downs of daily life here on this world.

Advent focuses our attention on the coming of Jesus, and we sometimes let that “coming” be reduced to preparation for Christmas, but really Advent is about looking for the signs of Jesus’ return, and do you know where you find those?

You find those in the little things, in the words and action that are Jesus-like that seep in around all the noise and bluster of big signs and scary events.

You won’t find God in the roaring blaze that destroys, but you will find Jesus at work in the firefighters who look up and assess and work diligently to contain and to make a stand against the overwhelming.

You won’t find God in the devastation, but you’ll see the hands and feet of Jesus sifting through the rubble and offering aid, comfort and recovery to those devastated.

You won’t find God in the earthquake or the flood, but you will see Jesus in the picking up of the pieces and the rebuilding of lives in their wake.

You won’t find God in the fainting and the foreboding, but you will see Jesus at work in the care and redemption of bringing hope to the hopeless.

You’ll find it hard to see God at work in the sending of troops to protect a border, but you’ll see the actions of Jesus in those who work to reunite families separated, and to bring refuge and shelter to those who wander.

So look up, get your head out of the scary stuff and remember how it is that God comes.

Not in power and might and with fanfare, but as one who is vulnerable, a babe in a manger who is bent on getting our minds off all that wearies and scares us.