Scripture: Titus 2:11-14 (NRSV)
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”
For the grace of God has appeared! Sit in an easy chair thinking about this passage. I am looking at a tree covered with lights and waiting for family to arrive so we can njoy a Christmas lunch and supper. But since my mind wonders I began to read and pray.
I do not minister in a Meeting or church where we have midnight services or Christmas morning services, although I guess if I suggested it we would. So while many of you have already or are worshipping, I was just sitting here thinking of the awsomeness of Christmas.
Have we ever really thought of what Jesus did for us when he came to be born that cold morning in Judea? We quickly turn our attention to the salvation and sacrifice he provided for us on the passion cross, but that is just a small part of His ministry. Jesus came live among us.
When I was studying at Friends University my theology professor Dr. Christian Kettler continuously rant about the vicarious humanity of Christ. I thought I knew what he was saying. I mean I read books about the subject. I have even read some of Dr. Kettler’s books. I guess I understood the concept but never really considered the emotional and mystical aspects of this mysteriously divine exchange.
God’s grace appeared as a child, hidden from pomp, in a stable. Mystery number one. God’sgrace came in under the radar so to speak. I have not really considered this mystery before, but it somewhat ties into the parables this baby will eventually tell. The treasure is found and then suddenly the world changes around the one that find it. It was hidden from everyone except those that seek, or have eyes to see. I know that that sounds like God is being exclusive but that is part of that mystery. How many times have I walked or driven by a tree or a stone formation that has some unique beauty without ever actually seeing, or maybe you can only see the uniqueness in a certain light? That is the mystery I am speaking of, God is there but often we are overlooking it.
The grace of God appeared in a common public inn shed. He was not hidden but shrouded in mystery. How many people came and left their animals in this barn? How many people even noticed? The shepherds in the fields were the first. It is striking that the Holy Family was there in town and the first people to bother coming in to see this amazing thing were the sheep herders out in the fields…out side of town.
The grace appeared yet did we notice the unique beauty and importance of it all. This little child appeared as most children but it brought salvation to all. The next group of people to visit the Family mentioned in scripture is the magi from the east. These by all indications are not Hebrew people, and may actually be priests from other religions. Yet here they come bringing gifts to the king of the Jews. The shepherds then the pagan priest, salvation to all people.
This child grew as any boy. Offering friendship and comforts to those He met, just like many other children. Yet with this just beyond the surface was a mystery that people could only see in passing and then it was gone. The boy and eventually the man trained us to be humane. This boy king, God man taught us how to be human. He taught us how to live a life devoted to loving God and mankind. He came to be human for us. The vicarious humanity of Christ.
How many times do we let time and other distractions get in the way of our relationships? Time flies. It feels as if time just slips faster away from us each day. Have we been loving God, our families, and our neighbors in this time? Have we even introduced ourselves to the people who live just on the other side of us? Jesus spent time talking. He was rarely in a hurry. Even when a small girl as deathly sick he spent time to encourage a poor sick woman. I am not like that. I am constantly rushing to and from, which is probably why I received a speeding ticket for Christmas. Jesus taught his disciple and us to slow down, and to take time to pray. It is when we join with Christ we can truly become human, that lovely social being that was created to live in communities, we need social interaction we need families and friends and if we are left to our own devices we would destroy the spirits of those around us in our self seeking pursuits. But Jesus lived the perfect human life for us, and then he continues to train us to be human as we slo down and draw close to him.
The mystery is that we often forget how precious life is when we rush from one thing to the next. Grace appeared as a baby. Salvation was brought to all but hidden in plain sight. And this unique person both God and Man and Man and God taught us and provided the way for us to actually find who we are.
What an amazing gift. I encourage you all to take some time to slow down and just reflect on this mystery of Christmas. I hope you will see the treasure that will turn your world upside down.
Scripture: Luke 1:39-55
How often do we really step back and sit in the stories surrounding Christmas? Have we ever really considered what our own thoughts and feelings would have been if we in their shoes? Imagine a scared teenager in a very religious community. Imagine the wife of a priest; a wife who had been barren as long as you can remember and who in advance years ends up pregnant. To top it off the priest is no longer long winded because he cannot even speak and has not spoken for around six months. Ok I think maybe some people might like the silent priest. Have you imagined it just beyond the surface?
Today’s passage begins with Mary setting out in haste to a Judean town in the hill country. In the 2000 years of telling this story we often forget the intensity of the situation. Have you like me so many years just quickly read over this passage as if Mary was just rushing over to Judea for a Thanksgiving meal? I do not really know why, other than the fact that this portion of scripture is usually read between the end of November and December. I know that sounds juvenile but then I hope you weren’t under the impression that you had a really mature pastor.
Imagine Mary after the angel came to speak to her. She was a young girl, she was considered a woman but that mainly means that she was over the age of twelve years old. She was betrothed to Joseph a carpenter. The betrothal process usually took a year, unless the marriage needed to be rushed so her age probably would have been above thirteen years old. This is about the closest we can probably get to knowing her age. She was young and unmarried. She was caught in a situation where she was with child and the announcement she had to make was not one that would be easy to speak of. I will let you in on something, around 14 years ago I found myself in a very similar situation. I was filled with mixed emotions: joy, hope, excitement, dread, and fear. I can explain my situation though. I was able to tell my parents just exactly happened. Mary could not explain. I sat up the night I heard the news for hours. Finally after hours of wakeful sleep I slowly rose from bed, walked the hallway from my bedroom to speak with my mother.
Mary had to say something. She was excited to be obedient to the will of God. In many cases she was like every other woman of that time, hoping to be the one chosen to give birth to the long awaited king. She was excited, she had a religious and spiritual devotion that was off the charts, yet how was she going to tell her folks. By all traditions and legends Mary’s parents were very devoted followers of God. Some accounts say that her father was a priest and her mother was much like Elizabeth. We cannot really know for sure who or what she was in a way that we can know our own friends and family members. Mary in the excitement knew that her parents would have questions of which she could not explain.
Now let us consider Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim. We know very little about these two people because very little was told about them except in tradition. We can learn something from our own emotions though. Imagine if your daughter came to you and told you that she was with child. You are Joachim. What is the first thought that comes into your mind? What is the first words you would say? You are Anne. What is your initial reaction? Are your arms reaching out to a crying confused child or are your hands covering your mouth holding back your own cries. Imagine once again that you are the Mary’s father, are you searching your mind trying to consider the wisdom of your own choices, considering if you or the family had unwisely let Joseph and Mary spend time unattended.
Do you understand the raw emotions that surround the miracle of Christmas? Anne and Joachim knew that there was something different going on. They chose Joseph to be Mary’s bridegroom for a reason. He was honorable. No matter how he thought about it, no one could find a way or a moment of any dishonorable activity. So what exactly will you do? You love your daughter, you trust her even though the story seems a bit far-fetched. Yet you also know that the community will find this hard to believe. They needed some time, they knew that Anne’s sister was with child and they decided that it would help their daughter to help her aunt. So quickly they sent her down to Elizabeth’s.
It is not that far fetched to think that Mary was in many ways sent away in some form. A birth in this manner was not taken lightly in the first century community. At the mere mention of any infidelity an individual could be brought to trial where the end result could be death. The parents had to discretely confirm what was going on without the rest of the community talking about the maternal glow growing around Mary.
Now back to Mary making that journey to the hill country. Imagine the walk. As she walk up the inclines singing the praises of God and the hope for Israel. Giving thanksgiving for having the opportunity to participate in the unfolding or emerging kingdom of God. Then as the path wound down the hillsides and the footing became more treacherous she began questioning why she was chosen, the reality of the situation began to set in. What was she going to do? She was too young to have a baby, she was not married, what were people going to think? Then in the distance she saw the homestead of her relatives and began to grow nervous. She was really about to enter into a life totally out of her control, people were going to say what they say and she was going to have this baby, and the first test was just before her. What would the priest’s family say?
It is odd that we know more about Mary’s aunt and uncle from scripture than we do her own parents. I think there is a reason for this. Mary’s parents were common people, they did not necessarily stand out in the community. I am not degrading from their status or importance to our faith traditions; I am just saying that they were for the most part common. They were well respected and loved but they were not seekers of power. Zechariah was a bit different. He and Elizabeth may have been a bit more important in the community. We know that Zechariah was selected to tend the incense before the most holy of accessible areas of the temple. At least for a moment he was a very important priest. How was this righteous family going to react to Mary?
Did Mary hesitate or did she boldly approach the house? Either way she approached and she greeted her aunt; this meeting is one of the most important events in all of scripture. I say this because the response of Elizabeth could either encourage Mary in her faith or cause Mary to lose heart. With a loud voice Elizabeth cried, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
Our faith tradition was confirmed by those words. It was at that moment that all hesitation from this little girl exited and she was prepared to face the world. The course was set and Jesus would be born. Even in those ancient days a woman could choose to stop a pregnancy, but from the encouraging words of an old aunt Mary chose life.
She chose life. God chooses to work with willing people. At any moment if Mary decided in her heart that she could not handle this task, God would have honored her decision and Jesus would have been born of another. It is true that God knew that she would be obedient to His call, but he also allows us to choose as well. God does not control every action in our lives like a divine puppeteer but he uses our choices and actions to mold us into the people we are to be. We can only fully see our potential when we open our lives and release ourselves into His hands.
Mary is blessed among women because it is through her devotion and obedience to God that the hope of the entire universe hinged. Mary provides us an example of just how important one life willing to follow God can change the world. One life. One seemingly insignificant life is important. Do we recognize the full value of life? As Friends this is central to our beliefs. We encourage people to live in simplicity, so that we can be free to use all the tools available to us to encourage the lives around us instead of consuming the energies of others. We promote a testimony of peace because each life no matter how much we disagree with them is important. We live lives of integrity because without truth and honesty we cannot encourage others in their life journeys. We encourage the building and support of communities because this opens communication between people so that we can embrace the life in others, and ourselves and we recognize that all people are loved equally by God and should be treated likewise. Life is important.
Mary took a journey from her home to the hill country of Judea contemplating her future and that of her people. She was sent away quickly by her parents who also had to spend time contemplating the future of their daughter and their people would they allow this to continue? Elizabeth stood there and upon hearing the voice of her niece she was filled with the spirit and saw the hope of the universe in the eyes of one life. Each person each had to choose if life important.
I imagine the tears shed between these two women after Elizabeth’s joyous cry. The hope that Mary found as well as the strength that filled both by just recognizing that obedience to God was the beginning of true life. And Mary sang to her aunt:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)
She sang a song about the kingdom of God, a kingdom based on the love of God and mankind. She sang a song about the end of an age and the beginning of something new. The new kingdom is not based on the success in the eyes of the world, but on the honoring of life in others.
How important are the lives around you? How would each of us respond to this pregnant teenager? We do not know how God will mold the lives of those around us. The only thing we can control is how we live our lives and how we respond and encourage the lives around us. Mary could have left her aunts house rejected and broken discouraged from embracing a life with God, but instead she sang.
This is the heart of Advent, and Christmas. It is the hoping for the end of one age and the beginning of another. This week many in the world sat in anticipation wondering if the end of the age would come, many of those people woke up Friday morning thinking nothing changed. But what if the last age did end? What if a new age did come? What if in each of our lives, like Mary, chose to be obedient to God no matter how crazy the path sounded? What if we were to look on the lowly people and cry out joyfully that they are blessed among mankind and highly honored by God? If that happened then we may just see a new age.
As we enter into this time of open worship and as we anticipate the excitement of Christmas. I pray that we will take some time just to consider and image what the emerging kingdom of God in each of us will bring.
Scripture: Luke 3:7-18
Again we come to this meetinghouse looking for peace and hope in a dark world. The season of Advent is one that highlights the difference between and the battle between the light and dark. The season of Advent is during the darkest period portion of they year, and we today realize just how spiritually dark the world can be as we watch the news and wonder what went wrong.
We truly are sitting in a day of anticipation! I like everyone else looks out and say the world cannot get any worse and I think now would be a great time for the Lord to come. At the same time where my depression rises and darkness seems to overtake the light within, I see or hear a story that bring light shining back in the world. Just like the presidential election the news of today threatens to rip our communities and nations in half. Everyone has an answer that they feel will keep a tragedy from happening again. None of which solve anything.
I think about today’s news and I am reminded not of the future events of Apocalypse but of history. We think that everything around us is in total chaos but I remind you that there is nothing new under the sun. I grew up in Kansas so the stories of Dodge City and the Wild West have been part of my life. I have read stories of my own ancestors and the risks they took just to survive. Life was rough and dangerous. There was threats everywhere: rouge bandits trying to take advantage of sparse populations and little law enforcement, nature threatening through violent storms or vicious animals, and medical emergencies that today would be easily taken care of at home could then draw life short. Mankind is a rough bunch of people; we live in a world that equally challenges us. Yet we are also full of ingenuity and grace.
The history of our nation is not all that unique. I would venture to say that every nation has had a similar story, one of ambitious adventurers, privateers, pirates, tyrants, and benevolence. The main difference between our nation and that of others is our nation is young, we know our history, where other nations and cultures have existed for millennium. I would venture to say that the passage we read today took place in a dark time just as we feel all around us.
The people we read about in scripture we often gloss over the situations. For example we often forget how volatile the province of Palestine really was. Earlier in this chapter we are given a list of political leaders: Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas. Often we rush over the names of scripture because we can’t pronounce the names. But these names are important because there is a story behind each of those names. Herod and Philip were brothers, sons of Herod the Great who ruled over all of Palestine, which included all of today’s Israel, and parts of Jordan and Lebanon. This kingdom was split in thirds, not because it was so large but because it was so violent and unruly. It was not uncommon for riots and rebellions to break out in these areas on the last frontier of the Roman Empire. One state broken up into three, two of these states were ruled by the children of Herod, but the third was ruled by roman appointed Governor, appointed directly by the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Also listed is the rulers of the province to the north and the south of Palestine, each listed because these are people that could be traced, tracked and confirmed.
Along with the list of political leaders of the provinces of the frontiers of the Roman Empire were the leaders of the dominant religion of the indigenous people of the land. We have two strong forces at work right before our eyes. The state and religion, the physical and the spiritual. The ministries of John and Jesus spoke deeply of these aspects. To separate government and religion is very difficult to do because both deal with two very real aspects of humanity. To remove one aspect can cause the empire to slowly crumble.
John’s ministry is right in the middle of a clash between religion and government. But it is not exactly what you might think. He has not taken a side with any of the officials listed; he did not side with the politicos or the religious leaders. His ministry is barely in Israel. It is on the eastern banks of the Jordan. It goes back to the stories of Joshua and Moses. Prior to coming into the land of Promise Israel is camped out in the east. They traveled completely around the land of Canaan, from Egypt. They could not enter the land because they were unclean; they were not holy enough to enter into the land so Moses and the children wonder for 40 years and again they camp on the banks of the Jordan. This second time they are committed to God and are willing to fully devote their lives to His ways, willing to live a lifestyle of Loving God and loving their neighbor. Only then can they cross the river and enter into the land. John’s ministry is calling the people to remember.
Remember what is most important. Remember why we are here. They gained the land by being faithful to God and governing their nation with justice, but they turned their backs on God and Mankind seeking selfish ambitions before justice and in the process they lost the land. John is telling them “We do not deserve this land!” The passage begins, “you brood of Vipers.” Not my countrymen, or my friends, but you cold-hearted snakes. You broad of venomous, sinister, death filled serpents of sin. Ok I guess my dislike of snakes has seeped into my sermon, I apologize. But not fully, a viper is poisonous. We know vipers; a viper there is similar to a rattlesnake (pit viper) here. They strike out at unsuspecting prey and consume them after they infect them with their deadly poison.
This is not a sermon to get people to fall in love with the giver of the message. He is saying everyone listening to these words is filled with venom: the religious, political, and everyone in between. “Who warned you of the coming wrath?” These people are pouring out of the surrounding cities to listen to this guy lay it all out on them. He says do not even begin to think because you have a great heritage that you are safe. The ax is ready to cut you down just like all the other snakes.
It is a pretty intense sermon. It is quite frightening if you really stop and think about it. It is saying that the land is filled with dangerous people coiled up ready to strike. No one is safe, no one is worthy of any grace, but everyone from the top down is infected with the venom of the serpent. Everyone is coiled up around themselves thinking “I am like a god myself, with full knowledge.” That is an image that will keep me up at night. I dislike snakes, I have nightmares of snakes and I will probably not sleep tonight because I’m talking about snakes, but to imagine that everyone is a snake has got to be the darkest most depressing thought I can have. I am not safe.
It is no wonder the crowds rush to the banks yelling across the waters what must we do? There are three people groups listed: common people, tax collectors, and soldiers. It is easy for us to look quickly at the soldiers or the tax collectors, so I will begin there. To the soldiers he says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with you wages.” I ask you who are the soldiers? The soldiers are the law enforcement of the legal arm of the empire. In ancient Israel the soldiers were terrifying, they were often the judge, jury and executioners of the law. Today I want you to imagine not men and women defending a nation but lawyers and judges. Do not extort money, threat or falsely accuse. In our world we have warning labels on everything. Warning labels on a lawn mower stating that it is not to be used on carpet, our coffee cups warn us that the contents are hot; all these labels come from a lawsuit. Some are legitimate lawsuits, like the warning not to smoke while filling up the fuel tank of your car, while others we know are there because someone sued a company and won over things that they should have already known. “Be satisfied with your wages.” Or work for what you want, do not demand something that you have not earned and do not take more than you deserve.
The next group is the tax collectors. For our conservative friends I want you to notice that he does not condemn the office of tax collector. The government has all authority on earth to demand whatever taxes it deems necessary. When there is a government then there is a responsibility of the government to collect and utilize funds for the good of those ruled. What John says is, “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” I want us to look at this as the government as a whole; do not take more than necessary to do what is needed. Remember that the people you rule must live. But in the same breath John is telling everyone else to pay what is required. Let us be realistic in our governing. Fund the things we deem necessary. Fund them fully or not at all. This goes for every governing body: a city, state, nation, or any other organization. Do not be a people ruled by greed; instead be a people willing to give.
The last group is the common people. This is the top group. This is the group that most of us would identify with. Most of us are not soldiers, most of us are not tax collectors, but we are all people. To the crowds John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Think about this. If you have two coats give one away. John is literally saying only live on what you need, if you have any extra it should be given away. He does not say plan for the future, he says give it away, not tomorrow but now. Keep what you absolutely need to survive but everything else is to be shared.
I proceeded in reverse but I did so for a reason. If the crowds were doing what they were supposed to do, the governments would not be forced to do it for them, and if the governments were doing what they were supposed to do the soldiers would not be forced to extort. It is a cycle that starts with each of us. John is saying that this world is messed up. The venom of the viper has corrupted it and not one person is living the way that they should. It does not matter who it is talking they are all not living up to a standard of righteousness. Each person is looking out for themselves and in the process people are going hungry, houses are being repossessed, people are losing jobs, and many are dying of hopelessness. Tragedy has struck our nation and people are pointing fingers. It is guns, it is lack of guns, and I even heard someone say that it is the fault of drug companies. Not one of those answers gets to the heart of the issue. Our nation is what it is because our people are who they are. We are a nation and a people filled with venom, we are a people that will sue another to gain financially, we are a people that will strike to get wages we have not earned, we are a people that will take for ourselves before we pay our employees, we are a people that will hoard instead of share. John says you brood of vipers. Yet they came in crowds to hear his message.
They asked are you the one, are you the messiah that will bring in the kingdom of heaven? His answer is no, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Imagine this. We all know water can clean. Fire can transform. It is in the fire that gold is purified; it is in the fire that ceramics transform from dust to rock. Water of baptism is a symbol, or a sign that says I recognize I’m dirty and need help. It is the life transforming fire of the Holy Spirit and a life devoted to God that transforms us into something new. No longer just a lump of mud, but something new.
How are we doing? I would say that the fires of transformation are all around us. I do not want to lessen the sting of the tragedies, I mourn with the families in Connecticut, and in Oregon. But these are just signs that we as followers of God have failed our communities. We will not solve the problems of our hurting nation by making laws, but only in repentance. Acknowledging that we have and are failing, admitting to everyone that we have not lived how we should. Then we need to bear fruit. We need to look at our communities and be moved by the Spirit to act. We need to become a people loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit and Living Christ’s love with others. We need to start here, and let that grow to our community as a whole. We need to forget the things of the world and focus instead on the mission that God has written on our hearts. Let us lay down ourselves, lay down our claims to our own lives and let God be God. Darkness is surrounding us but the Light is coming, the Kingdom of God is near. The kingdom begins in each of our lives and will spread to those we serve. That is the true meaning of this season. There is hope in the hopelessness if we are willing to let the light shine.