Friday, December 21, 2007

Sermon for December 16, 2007

Joy of Mary
Matthew 1:18-23; Luke 1:26-38

There was a perfect man who met a perfect woman. After a perfect courtship, they had a perfect wedding. Their life together was, of course, perfect. One snowy, stormy Christmas Eve this perfect couple was driving along a winding road when they noticed someone at the roadside in distress. Being the perfect couple, they stopped to help. There stood Santa Claus with a huge bundle of toys. Not wanting to disappoint any children on the eve of Christmas, the perfect couple loaded Santa and his toys into their vehicle. Soon they were driving along delivering the toys. Unfortunately, the driving conditions deteriorated and the perfect couple and Santa Claus had an accident. Only one of them survived the accident. Who was the survivor?
Answer: The perfect woman. She’s the only one that really existed in the first place.
A Man’s Response: So, if there is no perfect man and no Santa Claus, the perfect woman must have been driving. This explains why there was a car accident.

The longer I’m married, the more I realize that there are some real differences in the ways my wife and I go through life. There seem to be some differences between Mary and Joseph when they first receive the news of Jesus. The first is given in the Gospel according to Matthew.

This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her fiancĂ©, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:
“Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God is with us.’

I can imagine how Joseph must have felt. The poor guy comes home from a hard day’s work at the carpentry shop. He cleans up a little and goes out to see his wife-to-be at her parent’s house. When he gets there, she pulls him aside to a private spot and says, “Joe, I’m pregnant. This angel appeared to me and told me I’m going to give birth to God’s Son. Then the Holy Spirit came and put a child in my womb” . . . I don’t know . . . I guess if I were Joseph, I’d be a little upset. My first thought would be that my fiancĂ©e was fooling around behind my back. Of all the excuses, this one would have seen most pathetic. Notice that the text calls Joseph just, which probably means he was careful to observe the law. According to Jewish law, if a virgin promised to a man had sexual relations with another, she and the other man could be punished by death. But not wanting a public scandal or a harsh punishment, Josephs decided just to divorce her. He would publicly declare that she had been defiled, and the marriage contract would be annulled.

It’s not until the angel appears to Joseph that Mary’s bizarre story is confirmed. The angel then tells Joseph to take the woman home to be his wife. Good News is about to be proclaimed to the entire earth. The long-awaited hope of a Messiah will be fulfilled.

Joseph models one that people act when they are confused and uncertain. Mary offers another response to the situation.

Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!” Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she’s now in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.” Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.

I have a difficult time relating to Mary. Her unselfish attitude makes me uncomfortable. Here is a young lady, maybe as young as 15. She is pledged to be married to a working man. Her future seems to be shaping up well. All of the sudden, out of nowhere, this angel appears and tells her that she is going to give virgin birth to God’s Son.

I would not have been happy with news like that. As a matter of fact, I would be scared out of my wits. I would have complained. I would have said , “You know, I’m really not worthy of such an honor, sir. Maybe you should find someone else. I’m sure Sarah down the road wouldn’t mind giving birth to the Son of God. Maybe you should give her a try. If you need anything else, though, don’t hesitate to call.” Because of this news, she would be outcast from society. People would accuse her of adultery. If she told the truth, people would think she was crazy.

Mary’s real attitude confirms my own selfishness. She doesn’t try to get out of it. She doesn’t even sound uncomfortable. She says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said,” She later praises God saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” These are not words of disappointment. They are acclamations of praise. I am humbled by her acceptance of duty. Her faith and willingness leave me astounded.

There’s something different between the reactions of Mary and Joseph. Joseph tries to find a way out. God has to send a messenger to get him to change his mind. Mary’s obedience is marked by instant joy. Her excitement bubbles out in splashes of praise. She goes a step beyond obedience. In the midst of uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety, she expresses her trust in God. She had the faith to understand that the world would be changed through her.

On the surface Mary and Joseph’s story may seem far removed from us. After all, not many of us can claim to have had a virgin birth induced by the Holy Spirit. But think about the feelings and reactions that lie underneath. How do you react to troubling or confusing news? What do you do when everything seems to be going wrong? How do you respond when the future seems uncertain?

Some of us react like Joseph at first, trying to run away or avoid the problems. It may very well take something miraculous to help us regain focus.

There is another attitude – a posture like Mary’s – trust that God has something wonderful planned for your life. It’s the knowledge that God wants to do great things through you, just as you are. In the midst of our despair . . . our fear . . . our uncertainty, we know that God can transform us. God turns fear into courage. God transforms uncertainty into assurance. God can take despair and turn it into a song of praise.

During Advent, we remember that there is who shows us the full scope of God’s love. His name is Jesus. When we hear and believe the Good News that God has come to bring wholeness and new life to all, our lives will be transformed. Jesus Christ, God With Us, has come to mend fractured lives. We are changed when we meet Jesus. This is cause to rejoice and sing!

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you are a typical man or a typical woman . God looks at the heart. God is searching for those who can look upon the future with joy.

I hope you can find the joy and hope of God this Advent season. In the face of fear, loneliness, and uncertainty, may you know peace.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Sermon for December 2 -- Advent 1

The Radiance of Christ
December 2, 2007

I learned about Jesus' birth while wearing a bathrobe. Each Advent season I got a part in the Christmas pageant, generally as either a shepherd or a wise man. At the appropriate moment, I shuffled into place and said my line—usually only one, occasionally two -- “Let us go to Jerusalem!” or “We have seen his star shining in the east.” The idea was to show Jesus' birth as history, but effort at historical authenticity never went too far. I always thought we should have real sheep and camels in the pageant. My ideas were always overruled by the Sunday School superintendent.

There are troubling parts of the Christmas story that were never told. Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents doesn’t get a lot of stage time in Christmas pageants. But it’s part of the story. We are not even aware of another violent subplot to our Christmas story. It comes from the Hanukkah story. Hanukkah is not the modern Jewish alternative to Christmas. The holiday actually began 200 years before the birth of Jesus. Hanukkah is the story of the survival of the Jewish religion against impossible odds. It is the story of a bloody fight for Jewish independence. It was a world suffering from political and religious stress, a world more like modern Afghanistan or Iraq or Israel than anything I learned by wearing my bathrobe during a Christmas pageant.

After Alexander the Great died, his empire was divided into different regions. Israel and its surrounding countries were ruled by a dynasty called the Seleucids. Our story begins with the reign of a Seleucid king named Antiochus IV. He decided that all of his territory would become unified under Greek language and culture. He sent messengers to Jerusalem, instructing Jews to stop practicing their religion and to adopt his national unity religion. Antiochus banned sacrifices in the temple. To make his point, he sacrificed a pig on the temple altar and erected a statue of Zeus in the holy place. The Jewish religion was outlawed. Anyone who resisted was executed cruelly.

In reaction, the priest named Mattathias and his sons led a bloody guerrilla uprising against Antiochus and his successors. They mostly succeeded, winning some independence for the Jewish state. On the eve of battle, the troops prayed to God for victory. They fasted, they read the Law. They were pious, devoted Jews. They were also courageous and ferocious Jews whose bravery ultimately defeats their enemies. The greatest hero was Judas Maccabeus, an outstanding general who led his outnumbered army to victory upon victory.

Hanukkah began when the victorious Jews returned to their desecrated Tample and rededicated it to the worship of God. That’s why Hanukkah is sometimes called the Feast of Dedication. We read about Jesus attending the Feast of Dedication in the Gospel of John.

In Jesus' day, 200 years later, the political situation remains strikingly similar. Instead of the Seleucids, the Romans now Rule. Instead of Antiochus, Jesus faces King Herod, the vicious puppet King of Rome. Instead of The Maccabees, Jesus is born to a world where a group called The Zealots oppose Rome through violent resistance. There were other groups who chose peaceful responses like Saducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. They all defined themselves by answering two crucial questions: "What do we do about Rome?" and, "What kind of people should we be?" These are the same questions asked today by Kurds facing Iraq, by Palestinians facing Israel, by Basques facing Spain. They are, by their nature, highly emotive questions, and they frequently lead to violence.

The birth of Jesus inaugurates a new way to answer those questions. He is called the Prince of Peace. He is a new king, born in humility. In his adult life, Jesus does things that anger almost everybody. To the Zealots he is not enough of a revolutionary. Jesus rejects the way of the Essenes by mixing with and ministering to society. He horrifies the Pharisees in his disregard of ceremonial purity. The Sadducees call Jesus a blasphemer.

Jesus is also anti-Maccabean. Understand the impact of this. It’s the same as saying that an American is anti-George Washington – against the revolutionary heroes who defined our nation. But Jesus resistes the ways of the Maccabees. When someone strikes you, he says, turn the other cheek. When someone forces you to carry a load for a mile, give him another mile. Love your enemies. Judas Maccabeus could not have followed Jesus without giving up the way of revolt and taking up his cross.

Against the backdrop of Jewish History, Jesus changes the terms of Israel's faith. The natural tendency is to accentuate our differences with our enemies, to draw clear lines and to assault the foe head on. That’s part of the story of Hanukkah. Jesus, however, does not follow the script. Jesus suggests that the truly evil empire is not headquartered in Rome. The power to do good or evil resides in human will. We can choose to hide our light, or we can choose to let our light shine. For some, it may shine like a beacon – like a Christmas star. For others, the light may shine like a humble Hanukkah candle. Either way, light shines in the darkness and exposes the places where evil intentions lurk.

Hanukah is time to remember when the Jews took back their Temple and rededicated it to the worship of God. They relit the temple torches, celebrating that the light of God had returned to the people.

Our second gospel reading tells the story about Jesus being transformed into radiant light on the mountaintop. We usually read that story right before Lent. But imagine if this is really a Hanukkah story. I think Matthew wrote his gospel as a collection of Jesus stories for Jewish worship. The earliest Christians were still considered themselves Jewish. They wanted to hear the stories of Jesus during their important holidays. The synagogue had a liturgical year in which the great moments of Jewish history were relived. Matthew’s gospel allowed worshippers to remember Jesus in the context of their own worship. And the text for Hanukkah would have been the story of the transfiguration.

In this story, Jesus becomes the new temple on whom the light of God rests. Jesus becomes the new meeting place between God and human life. Hanukah celebrates the light of God being restored to the Temple. Transfiguration celebrates the light of God resting on Jesus.

Well, up to this point you put up with a lot of history and theological thinking. Here’s the point. The radiance of Christ does not shine upon you. It shines from within you. We need to go only as far as our own hearts to make contact with the divine. Life might be better if we can remember that this Advent season. The light of Christ can transform our lives and the lives around us. But in doing so we will be challenged to change. The radiance of Christ challenges us to see who we really are, and love each other not just because of what we know but also in spite of what we know about each other. We very easily choose to live in darkness if it were not for the light of Christ that calls us, and compels us to live a new way as co-creators of a new life of peace and justice. We are challenged to help create a world where the meek will come out on top; the hungry go to the front of the food line; the powerful wash the feet of the homeless; where children are protected and life is cherished. We work for justice, seek peace, give ourselves away in service to others, love our enemies, show respect to the elderly, honoring one another and ourselves.
Take some time to reflect this Advent season about who you are. Even as we live our lives in this world, we don’t belong to it. We belong to God. So let God’s light shine.

I close with poem from Marry Oliver called “When Death Comes.”

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I made my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Sermon for September 16, 2018

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