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Birth of Hope and Salvation (Sermon December 31, 2017)

Luke 2:22–40 (NRSV) simeon_anna

Jesus Is Presented in the Temple

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29   “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,

according to your word;

30   for my eyes have seen your salvation,

31      which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

32   a light for revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

The Return to Nazareth

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.


 

Most of us are just coming down from the hurry and busy of Christmas this week and are looking forward to the new year, which will start tomorrow. The thing is Christmas is not just a day but a season. It is a day and season where we celebrate the incarnation of God, Emmanuel God with us. To explore this amazing aspect of faith we need than a mere day. The traditions of the church throughout history have celebrated the incarnation from Christmas Eve night through January 6th also known as Epiphany. This season, known as Christmastide, they focus on various aspects of Jesus being fully man and fully God.

So much of our faith focuses on the sacrificial aspect of Christ and the hope found in the resurrection. How much time do we just spend reflecting on the amazing thought and joy of God loving us so much that he sent his son? Do we really reflect of the vicarious humanity of Christ in our daily devotions and reflections? Do we consider how amazing the love God has for us by coming from his throne in heaven to be born as a human child, to dwell among a human family, to teach and live among human friends, and to sacrifice his own life to provide us hope. Do we contemplate how Jesus in his humanity redeems every aspect of our humanity and through that redemptive life, we can become children of the Highest God?

When I consider these things it often stops my thoughts and prompts me to praise God. While I am at work I consider the holy family and their interactions within the work force. Jesus just as my own children waited with eagerness for his father to return home from work. Jesus, like my own younger self, became excited for that day that he could go to work with his dad and help. We often hear the song Mary Did You Know as we get ready for Christmas day, but do we know? Jesus is like us but more, and he wants us to become like him.

Let us consider that for the next few weeks, Jesus is like us but more, and he wants us to become like him. What would our life look like if we were to become like Jesus in every aspect of our lives? What if Jesus became incarnate in our life?

It is often hard to think of Jesus in human terms because we think so highly of him. We often fail to consider the humanity of Jesus sleeping, or eating with his disciples. We often neglect the thought of Jesus blowing his nose or sneezing when dust is heavy in the air. Or that Jesus might shiver when the cold winter winds blow. But he was fully human in every way, born of a human mother and raised by a human father.

Today we consider this humanness of Jesus. He lived within a Jewish family and that family participated in all the feasts and festivals of that faith. Mary and Joseph lived according to the teaching of their leaders, and offered the appropriate sacrifices. Mary gave birth to a son and gave him the name Jesus on the eighth day according to the traditions of their faith. Then after the appointed time Mary traveled with her husband Joseph to the temple their purification.

At times I do not really think deeply about this event. But after thirty-three additional days, if she bears a son, she is required to offer sacrifices to the lord for purification. Mary required purification after giving birth to Jesus. Think about that. The whole point of the purification period is allowed the body to heal before they enter into the normal routines. The mother is unclean for the first seven days after giving birth. During this period of time anyone who comes in contact with the mother and any of the furnishings she touches must wash themselves and their clothing. It seems like a pretty steep sentence towards women, but lets look at this from a different perspective. The mother has just spent a great deal of energy giving birth, she is tired, uncomfortable, trying to get adjusted to motherhood and the tasks associated with that. She is unclean because she needs her space. If you bother her you better have a good reason because you will have work to do after that. The ones that would risk this are going to be the ones closed to the mother, they will take the added work because they love the woman and the child. So, the husband will be near his wife, caring for her. That same law requires that if he is going to be involved he must stay home with her until all the laundry is finished. For seven days the family of a son will only be in contact with their closest relations, but on the eighth day they go out into the community. On the eighth day the child who was unclean because of his close proximity to the mother, was washed and the circumcision and naming ceremony was performed. If a daughter was born they would wait two weeks for this community appearance, again it sounds like it is being hard on the female portion of the population, but it gives the family time to adjust without constant visits from well-wishers.

There are also scientific reasons for this, if males are going to be circumcised, their blood needs to be ready. While in the womb the blood is thinner it has less platelets to prevent clotting while the nourishment moves from the mother to the child. Once the child takes its first breath the body goes into overdrive converting systems to function properly. After a week the blood generally has more platelets than when the child is born so to perform the circumcision at that time minimizes the risk. Because the females of the Jewish population are not required to have this minor surgery the Law give the mother an extra week of undisturbed peace at home, while the mothers of sons have to endure the congratulations of the masses.

That is the first week, but after that there is just over another month of impurity. I have always wondered why. The answer is found in basic biology of the human body, I will not go into the details but will only say it takes time for a woman’s body to physically heal and recover from birth. For nine months she held a human being within her body, a human being that grew from a single cell to a person the size of a watermelon. She carried that person inside and that person stretched, twisted and pushed everything around. God said give that woman some time to adjust and leave her alone. Oddly enough doctors actually give similar advice even today.

I understand the timing issues, but the ideas of impurity still are unresolved. What makes a person impure or unclean? There are many thoughts about these issues. Most I find a bit prejudice and some even demonize basic human systems. Systems that God created and declared very good. As I read all these various theories a teaching of Jesus came to mind. “What goes into the body does not make a man unclean but what comes out.” Whenever there is discharge from the body that person is unclean. If you do not believe me, why do healthcare professionals put on gloves? In most places if there is blood involved they must treat the situation as if a potential outbreak of disease may occur.

Blood is symbolic to life and in the Jewish culture. Even the blood of an animal was considered sacred to the point that after they removed the blood they would have to place kosher salt on the outside to draw the most minute trace out of the meat because to eat the blood was considered contrary to the law. The spilling of human blood is an even graver sin. When Cain murdered his brother Abel, God said that his blood was crying out to God from the ground. Without blood their life ceases to exist, and the shedding of blood symbolizes the fragility of our lives. A simple cut was seen as life pouring out of the body. Even today there are religious communities that hold tightly to this image, and refuse blood transfusions because it is seen as removing life from one person to preserve their own. From their perspective that would be participating in the murder of the donating person.

With child birth there is blood. Even today the birth of a child can cause harm to the mother so though it is not in itself sinful, it has an aspect of separation attached to it. This goes all the way back to Eden and our first mother. The punishment for Eve and her daughters was that the pains of child birth would greatly increase. As most mothers could attest that is still a factor to this day. This initial sin, the original sin the sin that needs purification. With every new life there is a chance of separation and that separation is sin. Sin is anything that happens in life that can separate us from our relationship with God and with others. New life carries within it an opportunity for great separation.

On the eighth day, Jesus was circumcised and after that Mary waited the additional thirty-three days to go to the temple to offer sin and purification sacrifices. Mary endured pregnancy and everything that goes with it. She participated with every other mother in history in that original punishment for sin, the pain and potential loss of life during child birth. She did this for one reason, she wanted to participate in the redemption of all people.

Mary endured bearing life so that through her God could repair the damage caused by sin. She sacrificed herself so that the entire world might be saved. I do not want to deify Mary, but there is something about her life that should inspire us. She lived for her God. Her faith was not just something she did because of the culture, it was deep in her heart. Her love for God and her people Israel was at the core of her very being. She participated in the incarnation in a way beyond what any of us can experience. Yet with every birth we can get a glimpse.

That weighed heavy on my heart this week. I considered all the potential risks that could have occurred. Yet both Mary and God said yes. They said yes for each one of us. And through her obedience to God’s will she gave us the opportunity to be called children of God. I will have to be honest, I did recite a hail Mary as I contemplated this. I thank Mary for all she did.

Mary was there at the temple offering her doves for sacrifice. I must mention this, the law required that a lamb be sacrificed for a sin offering, yet there was a clause in that law that stated that if the person could not afford a lamb they could offer a dove in it’s place. She offered a dove for the sin offering and one for the purification offering. She did this because they were poor. They were obedient to God yet financially they did not always know how they would get by. You might think that the mother bearing the messiah would have had great blessings since she was bearing the king of kings, yet she offered in the temple doves.  She gave birth to God incarnate yet she was left right where she was before, broke and only able to offer a pair of doves in celebration of life to her God.

God does great things through the seemingly impossible. Mary and Joseph lived in poverty, they lived as refugees in the land of Egypt for a while, they were common but skilled laborers. God came to live among the common and poor, God lived as an exiled person as a stranger in a foreign land, God lived like us. The Holy family had nothing but they had all they needed. The closing line in the newest Star Wars movie makes a reference to this very idea. The question is asked how can we lead a revolution with so little? And Leia answers, “We have all we need.” Because all God needs to redeem is people willing to be obedient to him where they are at that moment. He only requires lives that are willing to trust that He will provide even when the seed of hope is as small as a mustard seed or a new born child.

Mary went to the temple, and she to offer the pair of doves. She entered that place knowing full well what was being said about her, and knowing in her heart that the child she carried was the hope of humanity. I am sure there were some in the background that were saying that she probably should be offering a few more doves because she was holding a child born in sin. You know those rumors. There were probably a few others that made remarks about God’s displeasure with her because she was offering doves instead of a lamb, because the common understanding of the day was that God’s favor rested on those with financial blessings. Yet Mary walked through the comments made in the background. She walked until a man approached named Simeon. We do not know much about Simeon. All we really know about him is that he was a righteous and devout man. Many theories have been made about who he really was. Some say that he was a priest, possibly even the priest that performed the sacrifices on Mary’s behalf. One theory was that Simeon was the son of the great rabbi Hillel. You may not know who Hillel was but he was the rabbi that started the order of the Pharisees, he was the one that wrote interpretations of scripture that the first century Jewish faithful followed, but not only them the contemporary Jewish groups still revere Hillel as the great rabbi today. Any way some scholars have theorized that Simeon was the son of this man, and that is why he was considered righteous and devout. Both of those theories cannot be proven and could probably be rejected through the simple fact that if either were the case one of the gospel writers would have mentioned it. All we know is that Simeon was a man of faith, and he listened to the spirit of God. Through his life, he had discerned in some way that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. And on that day that very day when the Holy Family came to offer sacrifices he was lead by the spirit to go to the temple. When he arrived, this devout man saw the family and he took Jesus in his arms and praised God and blessed the child and the family. He spoke to Jesus, saying to him to release his servant for he has seen his salvation. Imagine that scene. The salvation of mankind was seen that day by Simeon. That salvation was God with us, before Jesus did anything other than eat, sleep, and keep his mother awake all night the salvation of the world was among us. God came to mankind.

After this meeting, there was someone else approaching. It was the old woman that had spent her life sitting in the temple courts talking, praying and fasting. She came over to the family and began to praise God and proclaiming that this child is the redemption of Jerusalem. This probably caused quite the stir. And all this is happening while Mary and Joseph are walking into the temple to offer sacrifices to God according to the customs of their day.

Incarnation. It is a powerfully loaded word. God in the flesh living among us. This is what Christmas is all about. God with us: then, now, and for the ages to come. It was that incarnation that bring our salvation, because it was at that moment that we see that God so loved the world that he sent his son not to condemn the world but to save the world. This child would be the cause of rising and falling of many, he would become the foundation and the stumbling block. He will become the lamb who was slain, but at that moment he was the child. Do we live the incarnation today? Are we willing to be like Mary bearing Jesus within us? Are we willing to let the risks of carrying Christ to others so that He can be born in them even if it could potentially cause a separation? Are we willing to look that risk in the eyes and say yes and out of the great hope of love boldly walk forward trusting that God will provide even if it only amounts to a pair of small insignificant birds? Are we willing to be like Simeon, able to see God’s salvation in a face that everyone else rejects? Are we like Anna, even in advanced age, willing to rush to the family before us praising God and his redemption? Are we willing to let the incarnate Christ this Christmastide to live through us?

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Lessons and Carols (Meeting for Worship December 24, 2017)

A Service of Lessons and Carols
Carol: “O Come, All Ye Faithful

Psalm 96

Sing to the Lord a new song:

Sing to the Lord, all the earth!


Sing to the Lord and bless God’s name:

Tell the good news of salvation from day to day.


Declare God’s glory among the nations, God’s marvelous works among all the peoples.

For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.


Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world, and those who live in it.


Let the whole creation sing for joy at the presence of God, who is coming.

God is coming indeed, to judge the earth with righteousness, and the peoples with equity and truth, Praise the Lord!


Carol: “Once in Royal David’s City

The First Lesson: Genesis 3:8-15, 17-19

8 They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” 14 The LORD God said to the serpent, 

“Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 

15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” 

17 And to the man he said, 

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

Carol: “O Little Town of Bethlehem

The Second Lesson: Genesis 22:15-18

15 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” 


Carol: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel

The Third Lesson: Isaiah 9:2, 6-7

2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 

6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. 

Carol: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

The Fourth Lesson: Isaiah 11:1-4a, 6-9

The Peaceful Kingdom 

11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 

2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 

3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 

4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. 


6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 

7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 

8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 

9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. 

Carol: “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

The Fifth Lesson: Luke 1:26-35, 38

The Birth of Jesus Foretold 

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 


38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. 

Carol: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

The Sixth Lesson: Luke 2:1-7

The Birth of Jesus 

2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 


Carol: “Away in a Manger

The Seventh Lesson: Luke 2:8-16

The Shepherds and the Angels 

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, 

and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 


Carol: “Angels We Have Heard on High

The Eighth Lesson: Matthew 2:1-11

The Visit of the Wise Men 

2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; 

for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 


Carol: “We Three Kings of Orient Are

The Ninth Lesson: John 1:1-14

The Word Became Flesh 

(Gen 1:1–2:4a) 

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 


Carol: “Silent Night, Holy Night

Open Worship

The Lords Prayer:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, 

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 

Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; 

and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen


Carol: “Joy to the World”

Hope in Exile (Sermon December 17, 2017)

John 1:6–8 (NRSV) John the Baptist discussion

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

John 1:19–28 (NRSV)

The Testimony of John the Baptist

(Mt 3:1–12; Mk 1:1–8; Lk 3:1–20)

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said,

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,

‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ”

as the prophet Isaiah said.

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

 

No matter what your current situation is, there is much to look forward too. There is something we can anticipate. This season of Advent is a season to remind us that good things come to those that wait. Which is great because people in the Society of Friends seem to like to wait, so our chances of seeing good things may actually come…eventually.

The season of Advent comes during one of the darkest times of the year. The days get shorter with each rotation of the earth, which leads many individuals into darker emotions. Cycles of light and dark can play on our emotions. They can make us think that things are worse than they actually are, and when you place the materialistic stress of holiday shopping on top of it, the joy of the season can dwindle to the point we can believe that there is nothing to hope for. I sincerely hope that this is not true in your life, because there is much to look forward to.

Throughout Church history, religious people have tried to curb celebrations and holy days because so many have connections to pagan festivals. One of the greatest examples of this is the holiday of Halloween. There are pagan roots to the celebrations, it is the celebration of darkness overcoming the light because it occurs near the time where the cycle of day and night shift dominance. But there is much more to it than that singular pagan observance. All ancient religions used cycles of the moon and sun to mark the year and to organize religious holidays, even the ancient Jewish and Christian faiths. Every holiday has connections to various religions. Advent is one of those seasons. We can get caught up in the pagan aspects or we can allow God to redeem it and use natures cycles to speak the gospel. So, what does this season tell us? There is much to hope for in the future.

Halloween is dark. It marks the time when days begin to get shorter and nights are longer. But coupled with this is the ancient Christian holiday of All Saints and All Souls day. Both of these days celebrate the hope of Christ overcoming the darkness and bringing light. Advent occurs during this winter season when the days continue to get shorter, until that time when night become the longest and cycles again reverse. Light overcomes the darkness. During Advent we celebrate the hope we have in Christ. We celebrate that even though things may look bad, they will not last.

Ancient Israel cycled through periods of light and dark just as our nation cycles. There were times where there were revivals among the people and times when the faithful seemed to be a minority and unrighteousness ruled. Yet even during those dark times there were some that remained faithful, they lived with this holy anticipation that God was going to turn things around. They remained in a state of expectation that God would come to redeem, and restore that God would draw his people back to him so that they could be his people and he would be their God. The interactions between the religious leaders and John the Baptist give us a glimpse into this state of holy expectancy they experienced.

The writer of John’s gospel begins his teaching speaking of light. Light is a profound spiritual illustration. On the first day God said let there be light and there was light and he pronounced that the created light was good. The first words of God, the first revelation of God to creation is light. Because of this light took on the symbolic representation of God’s wisdom and presence. Notice how the apostle John describes the Baptist. There was a man sent from God who came to testify to the light. He was not the light but he came to testify to the light. This has a twofold meaning, it describes john as a light bearer, a man that spoke with authority and wisdom from God. But it also speaks of that holy anticipation where we hope that in the darkness of our current situation that God would bring true wisdom and light, and that hope would come in human form.

The scripture then provides a narrative of John the Baptizer. John, as we considered last week, came out of the wilderness to speak and initiate religious experiences among the people. He cried from the banks of the Jordan to repent because the kingdom of God was near. This caused quite a stir among the people of faith, so much so that the religious establishment sent people out to interview this unusual person clothed in camel’s hair and existing on a diet of bugs and honey. These leaders come asking a very important question, “Who are you?”

Who are you? Many days each week I ask this question or am asked. Who are you, who am I? What defines our represents the most important or foundational aspect of our personalities? We might have several answers to this question, and they may change depending on the circumstances surrounding our lives. Who are you?

John give an interesting answer to this question and the ones to follow. He says, “I am not.” The interviewers or interrogators have ideas about who john might be, are you the Messiah?” John responds by saying, “I am not.” Are you Elijah? Again, John says, “I am not.” Are you the prophet? John says No! Do you sense the expectation in the words, the anticipation and hope for something greater to occur around them?

Who are you? They ask John and he say, “I am not.” Reading these words, I am reminded of the future questions these same people ask Jesus and the responses that Jesus gives that spawned so much trouble among the religious establishment. John says, “I am not,” and Jesus says, “I am.” These words carry weighty meanings. I Am is the response God gave in response to Moses’s question of what is your name. It is difficult to grasp the meaning of that simple phrase, because it encompasses everything. It is action and existence, it is in many ways without definition because it just is. In the studies of origin there is always something that just is. The universe just is in the theory of evolution, the universe is that aspect that is just accepted that is hard to explain or relate because it just is. Faith and science meet in that, there are some things about life we just have to accept because they are constant, and faith calls that constant God.

But John says, “I am not.” He is not the Messiah, he is not Elijah, he is not the prophet. He is not the center of existence and he is not God. Who are you? So often people answer that question in a way that places themselves in the center of everything. They become a constant in themselves. I am important they say. I am a teacher, I am a pastor, I am a business owner. Each of those statements defines us in some way, and each also is self-centered. I am. Such simple words that can tell us a great deal about our faith journey. John speaks differently than we do. “Who are you?” They ask, and he responds I am not. There is something profound in those words. But those words actually strike fear in many, because how can you grasp or understand someone who places little importance on one’s self?

They persist, in their question of Who are you? But they change their tactic, describe who you are to us instead. “I am the voice of one in the wilderness crying out make straight the way of the lord.” Let those words sit with you for a moment. I am the voice of one in the wilderness.

The concept of wilderness is one that is consistent with John. The wilderness is that place just outside the bounders of society. It is the end of faith and the beginning of the land of exile. This statement comes from the prophets of ancient days. It comes from Isaiah 40:3 and speaks of the return of the people out of exile to be restored. “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

This week I sat with those statements and considered John. For so long I neglected this passage and just allowed it to be what it is with little consideration to the message it might have for me. John says he is the voice of one in the wilderness. In his own words he is says I am in exile. I am a man without a nation, without anything in myself. I am the voice of one in the wilderness. John lives in a world of sin, the wilderness as I said before is where the sins of the nation were carried out to on the back of a goat. We live in the wilderness, in exile longing for redemption and a return to God. We live in the wilderness with John. But Isaiah is saying something about that wild and sinful land, he is giving us wisdom from God about what we should do in that land of exile. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” We are not to escape the wilderness but to live there in exile among the people. In that wilderness we are to prepare the way of the Lord.

I sat many nights thinking about this. While I stocked the shelves with all the goods of the season I considered this. So often I thought John heralded in the messiah, that his only purpose was to announce the coming of the king, but there is more. He was in the wilderness, he was an exile even among his people because the people of faith, the established religious norms spoke of righteousness yet rejected it. They used God for their own selfish motives, making themselves into I am instead of I am not.

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. God is telling us both through the prophet Isaiah and John that we are to be in that wilderness among the people but not of the people. We are to be beacons of light in the darkness revealing the dangers that lay ahead. We are to be in the wilderness people living in exile, roots in the land but aliens and immigrants from a kingdom unlike the kingdoms of mankind. And while we are there in exile we are to prepare the way of the Lord.

Live our faith every day. Express our faith in the very actions we make. In all things preach the Gospel and if necessary use words. Preparing the way of the Lord while in the wilderness is to let the spirit of God saturate every aspect of our lives so that all our neighbors see in us is a reflection of the light of Christ.

We cannot do this if we are living in an I am state of being, because that type of life does not reflect Christ. We are to put on the life of Christ, to live in his lifestyle of worship, prayer, and service to others. Or as Paul tells us, do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but think of others more highly than ourselves. This means we to prepare the way of the Lord we must keep our eyes focused on Christ and not on our own desires trusting that if we do God will provide for our needs as well.

To live in this advent season, to live with holy anticipation and holy expectancy we must adjust our perspectives, recognizing that we are not in the promised land but we are exiles in the kingdoms of mankind. Yes, even here in this great nation. This is not our homeland but it is the wilderness and the prophets are calling out to us, “In this wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” Are we doing this? Are we living the lifestyle that Jesus taught? Are we making highways in the desert so those around us can begin their journey toward God? The world around us may seem to be chaotic but there is still hope, the kingdom of God is all around us and in us, even in this wilderness. Let us look forward to that day of the Lord, where all things will be restored and redeemed but as we wait let us live for him today participating in the joy of all the saint proclaiming that there is hope in the future.

Image from: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=29352

Jared A. Warner

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