Today marks the beginning of a new Advent Season, a new year for the Christian Liturgical Calendar. Some of the passages for this special day pulse with the theme of peace and call us to a mental posture of prayer and sobriety. It feels right to stop and think on peace in such times of disagreement, civil unrest and conflict around the world.
Perhaps we can embrace a posture of seeking and desiring more peace. Perhaps getting drunk on power and lust is not going to make the world so needed by our millions of hurting neighbors. Perhaps we can begin in this new advent Season to speak more and act decisively and help create a greater peace in our homes, school, communities, nations and world. Perhaps the only question is if we will, not if we can.
Allow me to share some of today’s good stuff.
Today’s Collect… Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
From Psalm 122… Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers. For my brethren and companions’ sake, I pray for your prosperity. Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek to do you good.”
From Isaiah 2… For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
From Romans 3… You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
And from Jesus in Matthew 24… Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
And I’d like to end with a benediction we often hear at St. John’s, attributed to the Rev. William Sloane Coffin. It makes for in inspiring and challenging close to worship!
“May God give you Grace
never to sell yourself short!
Grace to risk something big
for something good!
Grace to remember
that the world is too dangerous
for anything but truth
and too small
for anything but Love!
The Blessing of God Almighty, Father,
Son and Holy Spirit be with us
now and remain with us this day and always.
I’ve been so wearied and heart sick from the on-going violence and hate speech across our country and world. Most days I say something like “Well, my sinuses are acting up” when someone questions me, but the truth is that I’m simply soul fatigued by the darkness that is so often heard exploding from stages, pulpits and the barrels of guns. Preparing for this day’s Advent message on Love, I am reminded that there is a remedy for the hate. There is a prophetic voice that answers the bigotry and fear. It is not a fight fire with fire kind of answer or a choice to out-shout, out-hate or out-bigot the worst that we hear on a daily basis. It is love. Love released, love shared and love unfettered among us.
It was a challenge to prepare this sermon, sort of like those occasional nights as children when we woke in the darkness and groped along for what seemed like hours to find the light switch. All we wanted was to get to the bathroom and have some relief, but it seemed so impossible in the darkness to get there. We will get there. We will love. We will keep the prophetic voice of our faith. In humility and my in own soul-weary dance, I offer this message and reminder that we have a purpose higher than the politics and brighter than the darkness. We have love.
The Second Candle of Advent: LOVE
December 6, 2015
Our scriptures are big enough and old enough and engaged enough with humanity that within them there will always be some things that confuse me, things that anger me, and things that frighten me.
But within them I also find again and again the great themes and underlying truths keep me bound to God and to Christ, such as the prophetic themes of love, justice and mercy. The theme of God’s great love that cannot be taken from us is one of the constants of our scriptural narrative and record. The theme of our essential goodness and the struggle to avoid the darkness which will hide it is another great theme which calls us to renewal. I cherish the theme of needful justice for the oppressed and disenfranchised, and then mercy for those who have abandoned justice and need to be restored.
Our scriptures continue to inspire, comfort and convict, even in the midst of the challenges I mentioned before, because they are prophetic. They are prophetic, and the prophetic voice of scripture is love.
What does it mean to say that the prophetic of scripture voice is love? When we use the word prophetic we think of oracles and predicting the future, but we also are talking of the past and the present and a voice which often loudly and coherently binds them all together in a meaningful narrative and message. Such is love. Love is our past, our present and love is our future. Love is the meaning of our effort and struggle, the hope of our need and the joy of our suffering.
So the narrative of love begins in scripture with God’s great love for us and all creation, and God’s understandable discontent when the darkness of our hatred and violence kills and destroys. But God’s love continues, and so much of the Psalms are verses singing about that steadfast and deep love. And even though God’s anger is understandable at our failure to match that steadfastness, God’s love rolls on and on.
And in Isaiah 11, the prophetic voice of love reminds the downcast and the oppressed that hope is not lost. That prophetic voice casts a vision of a coming reality when love reigns in the coexistent harmony of so many seemingly incompatible things: infants and serpents, bears and cows, lions and lambs, the wise and the old being led by children and the unlearned. Can we just stop for a moment and notice the obvious truth here, that love is more often unlearned in our species than learned? The children lead us in love for they have not yet had its light extinguished by our older fears, bigotry and hatred.
The prophetic voice of love rings in the most difficult teachings of Jesus. If we are honest with each other, and I hope we are, the most difficult teachings of Jesus for our lives are not the “stop sinning” kind, but the “start loving” kind. Love enemies. Love and pray for those who persecute. Love one another. Love God. Love neighbor. Love as he Christ has loved. (Matthew 5 & 22, John 13)
These are the teachings that often confound us, but also that shape and create a coming future in which the seemingly incompatible can exist in peace.
We live and make our way in a time of global terrorism, gun violence in our streets, schools and places of work. Domestic violence and sexual abuse scandals are not uncommon in our headlines. Bigotry seems to have become a popular political platform on which to win elections. Neighbor turns against neighbor in fear and ignorance of those Muslims, those Christians, those Republicans, those Democrats, those refugees, those gays, those, those, those…
The prophetic voice of love says not those, but we. Love is patient when patience and civility have become lost virtues; love is kind because kindness is more powerful than fear or hatred. Love isn’t envious of others or lacking in hospitality or generosity. Love doesn’t divide us into factions and parties to put others down and feel better about itself. Love isn’t proud to the point of insufferable arrogance, insult or discourtesy. Love is not rude, violent, or in the habit of making jokes about its neighbors. Love accepts others when they are different in thought, belief and background. Love is not waiting to be angry or carrying old resentments just waiting for a chance to pull them out and inflict the world with more angry hateful speech. Love is not excited by violence or thrilled by vengeance, but committed to making peace. Love carries burdens. Love believes the best of its neighbors. Love kindles hope in darkened lives. Love only grows stronger when resisted. Love cannot fail, end or be extinguished for it is the past, the now and the future. Love casts out and ends the fear that threatens our weary souls. Love is God among us, God in us and God through us. (My personal mashup of some of 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4.)
Our candle called LOVE is burning. This is our reminder and our calling to let love so burn in us. Love is our prophetic vision, our voice and oracle of all things to come, and we must not ever let the darkness hide it or take it from us. We cannot allow fear or ego to dampen it. We must answer it’s call and remain in it’s path.
May love’s Advent never end, but may the arrival continue, lighting the dark corners of our lives and the world around us. May we never lose hold of the goodness with which we are made and continually chosen by God to experience and share enduring love. May we never exchange this great prophetic voice for any other message or meaning. For in this endeavor, in this embrace of love, we join the deepest narrative and truth of scripture. We enter into the millennia old work of God to enact justice, to promote mercy and to the humbly journey together.
How could we choose any other voice of prophecy? How could we allow any fear or worry to obscure this love? How could we claim any truth above this love? How could our identity be known by any other mark?
Jesus said… “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” from John 13:31-35, NRSV
So Christmas week got a bit busy and I didn’t get a fourth blog out for the introduction to Jesus from Mark’s Gospel. I hope you all had a beautiful holiday with friends and family and I’m praying that you have an amazing new year! Today, I’d like to combine that missed week with the text we used this past Sunday at Church in Bethesda, because they are linked in a special way.
Mark doesn’t give us the dramatic birth narrative or any youthful Jesus at all. He begins with the prophetic voice of Isaiah and then the contemporary voice of John the Baptizer telling the people to pay attention, “The One is coming.” And the One who is coming is all about Good News.
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”– 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” 4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark 1:1-8
Jesus is the awaited good news. Jesus is the intersection of the vast narrative of God with humanity in a special way, the fullest way, and he comes to us with Spirit. It’s a brief yet exciting introduction in my humble opinion.
And then the One arrives to be baptized by John and we finally have a bit of good narrative drama… the sky is torn wide open and that previously mentioned Spirit falls on Jesus as a dove and the voice of God proclaims, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-13
And so we meet Jesus, the very image and presence of God’s love and favor. In Mark’s Gospel we find the beginning of the story with Jesus rooted in the prophetic story of God and fueled by love and favor. God is pleased and announcing love. It must have been an amazing time for Jesus. I believe it was also formative for Jesus as love and favor become the core of his ministry and message.
Yesterday we turned back to Luke’s Gospel for a passage that is often described as the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry. We know from the Gospel accounts that he has already been traveling and preaching, but it’s a special time in Nazareth when he sits in the synagogue and again we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, which Jesus claims as his own. He truly is inaugurating something special…
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. Luke 4:14-22
God’s love and favor expressed at his baptism seems to become the core of what Jesus sees as his ministry, and he announces just that very favor in the synagogue of Nazareth. Again, there is the Spirit upon Jesus that now speaks through him to announce good news: favor for the poor, liberty for prisoners, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and a time of God’s favor. He sets his ministry firmly in the soil of God’s raging favor, rich love and grace for the least expecting, least powerful, most disenfranchised and often the least deserving.
He doesn’t announce a new reign of greater power for the powerful. He doesn’t promise greater glories for those in authority. He doesn’t come with reward for the faithful, but instead he offers hope to the hopeless and favor to those without merit. The weak and without power, the blind and captured ones, find sight and liberty. The guilty ones, the prisoners who have been captured in their own culpability, find freedom.
Jesus brings favor to those most needing it, not to those most deserving it. This is a fundamentally important aspect of his ministry and purpose that we must not lose. We must hold to the Jesus who brings God’s favor to all the unsuspecting and unexpected. This truly qualifies as good news.
So, what will your 2015 be like? Have you made plans? Have you laid out goals for the year? Do you understand that you are not trying to attain God’s favor, but you already have it? Have you breathed deep the love and favor of God to fill your lungs with vital life and readiness? Can you stop for a moment and imagine the sky torn asunder and the Spirit wrapping you in a warm embrace while God whispers, “I love you. You are amazing and I’m so happy you are mine.”
Go into the new year daring to stand in that embrace. Go into 2015 believing in the favor and the love of God. If you need to see, if you need to be freed, this is the what the favor does. If you struggle against a poverty of body, mind or soul, this is what the favor comes to help you with. Jesus is the image of favor offered, not favor earned. Claim it, for it is yours.
“You don’t have to change
for God to love you.”
Anthony de Mello SJ
It’s the second week of Advent! Woot! At Church in Bethesda this past Sunday we dug into the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel to explore his introduction to Jesus. Matthew begins with a lengthy genealogy of Christ (which we’ll skip over for now), but he then moves into a birth narrative, the subject of our discussion this week. Let’s take a peek at that in Matthew 1:18-25…
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Matthew stands alone as the Gospel writer giving us the story of the annunciation to Joseph, something we usually associate with Mary (and which we’ll see in Luke’s Gospel). Joseph stands in a similar situation to Mary in that his marriage plans and future marital hopes seem to be coming apart at the seems… his betrothed has turned up pregnant. He would be understandably upset, angry and hurt. He would understandably feel betrayed, and most of us would lash out at Mary in our hurt and anger.
But Joseph is a good man, a righteous man, and that leads him to grace instead of disgrace in his dealing with Mary. He’s a righteous man. The Greek word there means that Joseph is a keeper of law, both human and divine, and is as he ought to be. And that leads him not to judge or to disgrace Mary, but to move in a way that protects her from any further hurt or harm. The circumstances look about as bad as they could be for Mary and as hurtful as they could be for Joseph. She’s not yet fully married, but now unexpectedly pregnant, and Joseph moves to shield her from further trouble.
When it says that Joseph did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace the word in the Greek does mean to put on display. Isn’t that what we so often do to deflect any blame or wrong-doing that might be accredited to us? Isn’t this what we do to punish people when they hurt us? We usually make sure everyone knows who deserves disgrace and blame. Joseph shows us a better way, a way of grace.
Still, Joseph does plan to divorce her, right? He does plan to end their betrothal. I’m glad he is a righteous man and plans to do so quietly, but I’m even happier that God steps in and expands on the grace Joseph would show Mary. When God enters the picture Joseph is called to greater faith and less fear. He is called to courageously embrace the very circumstances which had caused him pain and embarrassment, and to love Mary without fear.
This Advent Season let us remember that the arrival of Jesus is shrouded and immersed in grace, grace shared between people. Can we become a people who daily advent grace into our lives and communities? Oh, yes. We can choose to put aside a righteousness that demands others be judged and demeaned and choose a righteousness that honors others and protects them, even in the worst of circumstances.
Choose grace. That is our Advent message for the week. Choose to look past the circumstances and be not afraid. Protect those around you, even if they seem to deserve worse than they are getting.
God of no fear,
and God of greater love…
May we not ever be a people of disgrace,
but a people who plant a seed of grace
in the worst circumstances of life,
and then watch you it into grow a beautiful thing!
May our righteousness always be a gift
to those most in need of our best.
People are worth the effort and the cost,
now and ever more, world without end. Amen
It’s my favorite time of year… I mean I do love me some Lent and Easter, but I LOVE Advent and Christmas! To celebrate the season and help make Advent a little more meaningful I am creating a daily devotional guide that can be used with prayers, or for any kind of creative exercise from poetry to photography, from sketches to prose. Each Sunday of Advent I’ll post the new week’s seven day guide. You’re invited to use it as you’d like; each day has a reading (some person or piece of the Incarnation narrative), a creative focus (a word or short phrase) and a few words for the day (one or two thoughts or questions). That’s the link to the pdf at the top of the blog. =)
You can resonate right off the text of the day, or just use the Creative Focus of each day as a spring board for some kind of an artist endeavor. You can use the guide to keep a personal Advent journal, fill a 25 page sketch book, or inspire us all with cool Facebook posts. It’s yours to enjoy and put to use however you choose. The devotions will cover every day of December right through Christmas Day!
My prayer is that your Advent and Christmas celebrations are rich with all the best blessings of Life: God’s presence, fun times with family, deep prayer, lots of rest and delicious food! May your body and soul be filled by the best!