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Advent 4, December 18, 2011

Advent 4B RCL December 18, 2011

2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 16
Canticle 15, p. 91
Romans 16: 25-27
Luke 1:26-38

It would be interesting if we could have a Google: Earth approach to the Nazareth of 4 BC. We might fly over the temple in Jerusalem and then veer northward, up into the Galilee, that crossroads place far from the centers of power, as far from the temple as you could get. For us today, the scandal of this Annunciation is hard to grasp. We are used to hearing the story of Mary, the courageous young woman of Nazareth.

But this is not where people would have expected such an announcement. In  the preceding portion of Luke’s gospel, the birth of John the Baptist has just been proclaimed to his father, the priest Zechariah, as he was ministering in the great temple in Jerusalem. This is expected, that the beginning of the good news would occur here at the temple, where the ark of the covenant resides, where the power of God rests, and that the news would be given to a faithful priest such as Zechariah. But that is not the way it’s going to happen.

We have heard the story hundreds of times. Let us imagine it again in our mind’s eye. Let us open the eyes of our hearts and envision this wonderful story. Mary is young. She is not a priest like Zechariah. She does not live in Jerusalem, the City of David. She is betrothed to a carpenter, Joseph, a good man. A year after the engagement, Joseph will take her to his home, and the marriage will be complete.

The angel Gabriel, a powerful, light-filled messenger of God, suddenly appears to Mary as she goes about her daily tasks. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Think of it. You’re washing the dishes or shoveling the driveway and this luminous, electric, pulsating, powerful representative of God shows up. Of course she’s afraid! But he tells her not to be.  She is going to give birth to the One who will bring in a whole new realm, a whole new way of life. She is going to give birth to God walking the face of the earth.

For a young woman, someone who, because of her gender and her age and her geographical location, ranks pretty low on the scale, and for us, this is shocking.  God is not going to do this through kings and rich CEOs and hedge fund managers. God is going to do this through the little people, the 99 percent who live in little places like Nazareth and Sheldon.

Mary has much more presence of mind than most of us would have in such a shattering situation. She asks a completely logical question. How can this be? And Gabriel tells her that the Holy Spirit can do anything. And, to prove it, Gabriel tells Mary that her relative Elizabeth is pregnant. Of course, Elizabeth is way past childbearing age, just as Sarah was when she had Isaac. Miracles are happening all over the place, This is part of a long line of miracles.

And then Gabriel says that wonderful thing, that thing which gives us hope. Gabriel says, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary says, “Yes!” Yes, God, I trust you to lead me through this. Yes, I am scared. But I know, dear God, that you love me and that you are going to be with me. So, Yes!

Someone has said that courage is fear that has said its prayers. Well, Mary is a person of great courage, and she is going to need it. We know that, as we think ahead to what she is going to have to go through. When most of the disciples run away, there is Mary, with some of the other women, and with John, at the foot of the cross.

This is a person of profound and steely courage.

But now, she sings the Magnificat, and this song is one of the blueprints for the kingdom, the shalom, of her Son, Jesus. God looks with favor on God’s lowly servants, the little people. God scatters the proud in their conceit. God puts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. Gods fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.  In God’s shalom, everyone has enough—enough food, clothing, shelter, medical care, meaningful work to do that will help to build God’s shalom. In the words of the prophets and in the ministry of Jesus, God tells us that God loves the little folks.

This happens in a little place like Sheldon or Franklin or Montgomery or Fletcher. It does not happen in a place of power such as New York City or Jerusalem or Washington, D. C.  And it happens to this young woman who was just going to have a good, ordinary life with a good and honest and hardworking man, Joseph. Their lives were changed utterly, and so are ours.

The angel Gabriel is coming to us with good news. New things are going to come to birth in us.

Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth-century mystic and theologian, wrote these words: “We are all meant to be mothers of God….What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time, when the Son of God is begotten in us.”

Greetings, favored ones! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid. For with God nothing is impossible.

                        Amen.

Advent 3, December 11, 2011

Advent III A RCL December 11, 2011

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11
Canticle 15, p. 91
1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
John 1: 6-8, 19-28

In our first lesson this morning, the people have returned from exile to find their beloved Jerusalem in ruins. They are trying to rebuild, but they are traumatized by years of oppression in a foreign land. They feel  paralyzed.

Isaiah is given a word from God: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners… to comfort all who mourn, to give the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

The physical rebuilding will happen, but, more importantly a spiritual regeneration and healing will occur.

These are the words of the suffering servant, the messiah. These are the words Jesus read from the scroll in the synagogue in Nazareth. This is the description of his ministry and our ministry together with him and with all the saints.

Our gospel today begins, “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.”

At this, the darkest time of the year, the light is coming into the world, and, as John the Evangelist has said, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Our Savior is coming into the world he created. He brings good news. His love and healing knit together our broken hearts. He frees us from all that binds and imprisons us. He comforts all who mourn. He strengthens our weak knees.

The light is coming into the world. Prepare the way of the Lord.

The Thessalonians were suffering persecution. Paul was well aware of their situation. Yet he counsels them so wisely, because he knows that Christ, the Light, is coming into the world.

“Rejoice always,”  he says. Be deeply joyful. “Pray without ceasing.” Be in constant contact with God. Lord, what would you have me do and say?  “Give thanks in all circumstances.” Not an easy thing to do. But we can always give thanks for the presence of Christ in every situation. Even a diagnosis of cancer, even a death, even a thorny and hurtful family situation or a painful dilemma among people who care about each other. Christ is always there, right in the middle of it, helping us to get through it, helping us to reach out and feel his love and light in what seems an endless darkness.

“Do not quench the Spirit,” Paul writes. The Spirit can lead us in unforeseen directions. The Spirit can challenge us to go on new paths. We are called to let the Spirit flow and bring new life wherever the Spirit wills.   “Test everything; hold fast to what is good,” Paul writes.  Always look for what is bearing the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity,  faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Our Savior is coming into the world. The Light of the world comes as a baby in a manger far from the centers of power and as our King who will set all things right.

What are we called to do at this most holy, expectant time? We are called to let him in, let him into our lives and our hearts, let him bind up our wounds, mend our broken hearts, renew our hope, strengthen us to help him bring in his shalom.  

At this, the darkest time of the year how we yearn for his light. The light of Christ is coming into the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

May we let his light shine.       

                        Amen.

Advent 2, December 4, 2011

Advent 2 Year B RCL December 4, 2011

Isaiah 40: 1-11
Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3: 8-15a
Mark 1: 1-8

On this second Sunday of Advent, the tone changes from lamentation to hope and expectation. Our first reading, from the prophet known as the Second Isaiah, comes from an earlier time than last Sunday’s passage. The people are still in exile in Babylon,  but King Cyrus of Persia has made headway against the Babylonian Empire. There is hope that he may defeat the Babylonians. One of his policies is to allow exiles to return to their homelands.

God sends a message of comfort to the people.  The exile will end. There will be a highway from Babylon to Jerusalem, and God will lead the people home. Human ways are not like God’s ways. Humans are like the grass of the field. The grass withers. The flower fades. But God’s word endures.  God will come with might. And God will also feed God’s flock like a shepherd and gather the lambs in God’s arms. Here we have the image of the mighty and tender God leading the people out of their bondage and caring for each and every one of them. The beauty and power of this vision is framed in the music of Handel’s Messiah.

By the time today’s epistle was written, Christians were finding that it wasn’t easy to follow Christ. Depending on where they lived, they could suffer anything from what we would call discrimination to outright persecution and even death. The followers of Jesus had expected that the Lord would come soon, but the years and then the decades were passing and he still had not arrived. Scholars have dated this letter as late as the early part of the second century after Christ.

The writer, a follower of Peter, begins by giving us a new perspective on God’s view of time.  To God, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are as one day. This writer says that the day will come like a thief—when we least expect it.  There will be a transformation.  The writer says that, “the earth and everything done on it will be disclosed.” In other words, as Jesus says in John’s gospel, what was done in the dark will be revealed in the light. The writer says,  “But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”  Imagine that—a world where right relationship between God and all people and among all people is at home, is just the way things are. The writer calls us to “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” In other words, the writer is saying that our Lord has not made his second advent because he is giving us time to prepare, time to make the world a place where righteousness is at home.

As Christians we believe that the kingdom, the shalom of God has already begun. Every step toward harmony every move toward peace, every act of healing or of compassion, every action that helps to restore the creation, all of these things are part of building God’s shalom. And we are called to do everything that we can to participate in that building. That is what we are here for.

But God’s shalom is not yet complete. That is very clear.  God’s shalom means that everyone has decent food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and meaningful work. Christ’s shalom means peace and harmony on the whole earth.  It means taking care of this fragile earth, our island home, and healing our environment and our atmosphere.

We aren’t there yet. When Christ comes again to complete his work of creation, that is the direction in which things will be going.  So, our job is to examine our lives and, if we need to, to do a course correction.

John the Baptizer is one of the great figures of Advent. He calls us to become a part of God’s vision of shalom. John is the last of the great prophets. He is a messenger, calling us to metanoia, transformation, repentance. Like most of the prophets, John is a person of the desert. He dresses as Elijah did and he eats a spare diet. The desert, the wilderness, is a place of clarity and simplicity with few distractions. It is a place where God can speak to us and lead us.

At this point, John the Baptizer is famous. People come from all over to be baptized. On the other hand, Jesus is virtually unknown. Yet John tells us that the one who is more powerful that he is coming. One of the wonderful things about John is that he knows exactly who he is, and he knows exactly who Jesus is.

In this portion of Mark’s gospel, we see the first use of the term “good news.” This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And that is the first point that ties all these lessons together. There is good news. In the midst of exile and growing despair, there is good news. There is hope. For Peter’s congregation and other Christians facing discrimination and persecution, wondering whether Jesus had forgotten them, there is good news. There is hope.  And for the people who were coming to John to be baptized, there was hope, there was good news.

There are many kinds of exile.  Separation from family and friends. Separation from our true self, from our God-given potential. Right now there are so many people on this planet who are refugees, far from home. God speaks words of comfort (con-with fortis-strength). God speaks words of comfort and strength to us in our exile.

As we wait for our Lord to make his Second Coming, we may be tempted to become Deists, people who believe that God created the world, but God kind of wound up the world like a watch and walked off and left it. The world runs according to natural laws, but God is distant and unconcerned.  Well, that’s not the God we believe in.  God has given us free will and when we misuse that gift, we can make a mess of things. But that’s not the end of the story. God is forever, lovingly, patiently, faithfully, calling us to come to our senses. There is always hope. There is always comfort. There is always strength coming from God to help us to take the next steps in our own transformation, to help us to make even more room for God in our hearts and lives. To give us grace to pray for a situation we think may be hopeless, and to open up a sliver of light that says it isn’t hopeless after all.

Expectation and hope—these are the themes of this Sunday. Dear Lord Jesus, help us to prepare for your coming. Help us to advance your shalom.  Help us to be open to your transformation. Amen

Advent 1, November 27, 2011

Advent 1 Year B RCL  November 27, 2011

Isaiah 64: 1-9
Psalm 80: 1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1: 3-9
Mark 13: 24-37

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah prays to God. The people have come home to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. They had hoped and prayed for this time to come, but, now that they are in the holy city, they see the temple completely destroyed. People—we could call them squatters– from surrounding areas have come in and occupied even the most holy sites. The city wall has been so damaged that it is almost beyond repair.  The task seems insurmountable.

Isaiah is wishing something that we may have wished at times in our lives—that God would just come down and set things right. Isaiah recalls the things God has done for the people in the past. The image of the mountains quaking at God’s presence recalls the exodus from slavery in Egypt and Moses’ journeys up to the top of the mountain to meet God face to face. Then Isaiah recognizes that God calls us into right relationship with God and with each other. God has certain ethical and moral standards. And Isaiah confesses that the people had fallen away from God’s standards. Isaiah even sees the exile in Babylon as a consequence of the people’s straying from the law. Now that he has reminded himself of the covenant between the people and God, Isaiah reflects the truth that God is the Father; God is the potter and the people are the clay.  On behalf of the people, Isaiah offers to renew the covenant with God and Isaiah asks God not to be angry with the people.

We as Christians believe that God has indeed come to be among us in our Lord Jesus Christ.

In our epistle, Paul is writing to the Church at Corinth. This was a highly gifted congregation, but they had some problems, too. Scholars tell us that some of the more experienced, stronger members of the congregation were intimidating the newer members. The more experienced members were apparently claiming to be spiritually superior. This led the newer members to wonder if their faith was adequate. There were also questions about Jesus’ coming again.
These early followers of Jesus thought that he would come very soon after the ascension. They were wondering how they should conduct their lives. Paul does not directly address the problems in the congregation. He assures all the members of the community that they have received the grace  and peace of Christ, that they have received many good gifts, and that Jesus will give them the strength they need to be faithful to him until he comes again. For us, who live in the time between his first and second advents, these are encouraging words.

Our reading from Mark’s gospel has one major theme. We should not spend a great amount of time trying to figure out when our Lord will come. We should be awake and alert, prepared for his coming to complete the creation.

Advent is the Church’s New Year season. We change to a new lectionary year—Year B. We change from the green of ordinary time to the purple of Advent, denoting that our King is coming. Advent is a time to get ready, a time to put things in order. It is a great time to make or revise wills, do powers of attorney for health care, advanced directives. It’s a good time to reconcile any differences, if it is possible to do so, a time to make amends. It is a time to prepare for his coming to set all things right.

We look back to his first coming as a vulnerable little baby in a small middle East town. We look ahead to his coming as the King of creation. We are called to make room for him in our hearts and lives. We are called to allow him to come to birth in us in new and deeper ways.  And at the same time, we are called to take a deeper look at how we can help to bring in his kingdom, his shalom.

It isn’t easy to do all of this at this time of year. Or, to put it bluntly, it isn’t easy to be a Christian at this time of year.  To prepare for his coming, we need to take some added time for reflection and quiet, and, as we all know, the commercial season is already in high gear.

As we look around, we can identify with Isaiah and his people, who faced such a daunting task. Natural disasters such as Irene, plus the Great Recession, have really hurt people.  Many people are unemployed or underemployed. Many people are losing their homes. Many people are hungry. The gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us is growing at warp speed. Jesus and the prophets have made it very clear that that is not God’s vision for the world. There is much work to do.

So, what shall we do this Advent?  Let us take whatever time we can to be quiet and spend some time with God.   Let us continue to reach out and help our brothers and sisters who are hurting. We know God wants us to do that. Let us live each day as if it were the day he is coming.  Let us seek his will and try to do it. Let us make room for him in our hearts.  Let us prepare the way for him in our lives.

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 forever.  Amen.