Tag: Advent

Where is the joy?

Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Joy to the world!
Joyful joyful we adore thee!
How great our joy!
O tidings of comfort and joy!
Joyful all ye nations rise!
Bringing joy to every boy and girl!

… Do you ever get tired of being told this is the season of joy?

What if I don’t feel jolly at all?

I spent some time this week sitting and waiting in Walmart waiting on my car battery to be replaced. Across from me was a thirty-foot-long display of “Christmas Joy.” Trinkets imported from China, sharp cinnamon candles, glittery baubles for decorating a tree, and everywhere smiling snowmen and reindeer. The people who walked past this, perused it, and picked things up looked like zombies. Their eyes were glazed over, they looked like this was a chore they felt obligated to do, but it sure wasn’t enjoyable.

I like to make up dialogue for people whenever I’m people watching. So I heard one woman think, “Another season. Another day I’m supposed to smile and be happy and rejoice to see my mother.”

Her mother, walking with her, was thinking, “It’s Christmas already? I seems like it was just Easter. I’m not ready. Well, I mean, I still have the lights up from last year – I never got to taking them down – will last year’s candy do for the grandkids too?”

I saw a man standing in traditional zombie stance with his mouth hanging open and his eyes unfocused as he stood before the “Ready for Wrapping!” makeup case. I pictured him having no thoughts — so overwhelmed — maybe a bit of miserable sorrow since whatever he picked wouldn’t be the right kind of make up… yet the real makeup aisle is ever more overwhelming… Why did his teen daughter have to ask for makeup?

Maybe cash. I think he thinks as he walks away empty handed. Cash is easier. Is it too… crass? He stops at the end of the aisle, grabs the first pre-wrapped makeup case his hand falls on, and hurries away. This makeup is cheaper than cash.

When I went to pay for my battery, there was a line of unhappy people frowning at one another and upset that it was taking ten or more minutes for the line to move. The unhappy workers were upset with the crowds, and yet everyone is here… stuck.

The crowds don’t want to be here, and yet they are forced to by social pressure. But this is the season of joy, so shut up and be happy, smile and spend!

The workers don’t want to be here, and yet they are forced to to pay the bills. But this is the season of joy! So wear red to work and smile to the angry customers!

Maybe some of those workers would be in the crowd later, unhappily spending their money to purchase things their relatives don’t really want or need… but they don’t want to give their relatives nothing for the holiday. Who wants to be a scrooge? Who wants to say bah-humbug?

Can you be Christian and not feel the feeling of Christmas?

Can you be Christian and think this isn’t the season of joy?

Can you be Christian and just want Christmas to come and be over with already?

“Christmas joy.”

Maybe that’s the feeling you get when you finally have the Christmas decorations put away.

It’s kinda weird, but the first Christmas wasn’t all joyful either.

Some people say Mary gave birth as miraculously as she conceived – a sparkle of light and surprise! There’s a baby. Most people say no, she had a labor. I mean, she was riding a donkey for a reason – it hurts to walk when you’re in labor. There’s a lot of pain in giving birth. Joy, too, but also pain. Fear. Worry. Anxiety.

The shepherds didn’t have joy until after they saw the babe. Until then, they were scared, curious.

Herold sure didn’t greet the news of a new king with joy.

Just like life, the first Christmas was a mixed bag of emotions. Sometimes joyful, sometimes sorrowful.

The Bible, and its stories, lead more insight into our true meaning of the season than the aisle of “JOY!” at Wal-mart too.

You see, the crowds who came to John in the wilderness were far more unhappy and joyless than the folks waiting in line. But these ancient crowds, too, were stuck. You see, as Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the Amistad UCC Chaple writes, “in [John’s] day, the powers-that-be had arranged a world based on empire, with those at the top grabbing – through force and greed – the lion’s share of power and material wealth for themselves. It wasn’t just the Roman Empire and their puppets that experienced John’s anger and sharp words, but also the religious institutions as well felt the sting of John’s rebuke…

John’s message about the forgiveness of sins and being baptized in a river made the Temple and its elaborate systems run by powerful priests sound rather unnecessary. The priests, including the ones listed when John first appears, couldn’t have greeted his preaching with enthusiasm, because the people on top, whether religious or political leaders, ‘abused their position to increase the debt load on the people of the land. Rather than forgiving debt, they were increasing debt’ (William Herzog, New Proclamation Year C 2006). The abuse of position and power for profit is nothing that we have invented ourselves.”

And the crowds are desperate. Things are near a breaking point. People have had enough and can’t stand anymore. None of their leaders seem trustworthy. None of their religious institutions — their very priests!– seem trustworthy. Even the old, old story of the Exodus, and God’s promised covenant to be with the people no longer seems trustworthy since everything is going so, so wrong. The people want a Messiah. They want revolt. They need things to change.

So why did people come to John? He wasn’t winning any Public Relations contests. He was dressed in nasty camel’s hair, looked and spoke like a wild man, and he welcomed people by yelling at them, “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! WHO WARNED YOU OF THE COMING WRATH?!”

Maybe some came in desperation. Maybe others in curiosity. Maybe some liked that he was fiery. Others liked he wasn’t going along with Rome and the temple. Maybe, for some, he was stirring that dim, jaded, barely remembered childhood wonder and hope hidden in the people’s hearts.

That hope and wonder we remember as kids looking up at the ceiling at the glittering Christmas lights reflected off the white paint.

That excitement, and joy, we remember ourselves having as we crawled into our cold sheets Christmas Eve dreaming of tomorrow’s Christmas Day gifts.

Maybe, John awoke the message of the Exodus, of God’s promise to abide with us, in a way that spoke to hearts heavily weighed by taxes, bills, occupation, corruption, and being stuck in a system where you’re unhappy but nothing changes.

You see, John came preaching the advent, the coming, of the kindom of God. He told us to prepare the way for the Lord. This sounds like a humongous, gigantic task. As gigantic and as seemingly impossible as achieving world joy or world peace.

But John breaks down the work into things we can actually tackle: little deeds, little actions, we can actually accomplish…. but which make a huge impact.

“He doesn’t tell the people to get back to church, to overthrow the [government], to transform the world in some sudden, drastic revolution. No, he tells them the same things that [their and our parents have always told us:] ‘Share with one another. Be kind to one another. Don’t fight. Be fair. Don’t hoard, or lord it over one another.’

I don’t mean to reduce John’s message in any way, but at the heart of it, it seems to me John” is teaching that basic justice and goodness “will knock the supports out from under every out-of-whack, awry, misaligned, upside-down, oppressive structure and system that we’ve built.” (Rev. Kathryn Matthews) He’s saying God’s way is a way built of daily deeds of justice and goodness, and these daily deeds “take the air, the power, out of every process and habit that we humans have practiced and perfected and with which we have hurt one another, and one another’s children.” (Rev. Kathryn Matthews)

The people coming to John were desperate. The people I saw in Wal-Mart were getting desperate. The crowds ask, “What should we do?” What should we do if Christmas comes and we feel no joy? What should we do if the world is large and scary and we are tiny and scared? What should we do if everything seems out of control and we are powerless even to change a tiny bit? What should we do when it seems we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t?

John’s message is this: be generous. Be just. Be repentant. These prepare the way for the Lord.

The beginning of joy to the world is the beginning of simply offering hospitality to someone who needs a place to stay.

It is welcoming a baby into the world.

It is repenting — saying you are sorry to others and to God when you mess up.

The beginning of the Christmas spirit, Christmas joy, is a Christian life.

A Christian life is one that produces good fruits.

Good fruits… like joy, love, peace, and hope.

Good fruits, like forgiveness, patience, kindness, and generosity.

John’s examples of good fruits is so simple: don’t use your power to hurt others. If you own more than you need, give it to someone who is needy. Don’t sell it to them. Give it.

If you collect money on a bill, take what is fair. Don’t jack the price up. Don’t overcharge. Don’t cheat people.

If you are a soldier, protect people. Don’t intimidate and threaten. Don’t be a bully.

In today’s children’s chat, we read about many ways to prepare the way for the lord. Little deeds, random acts of kindness, are like rain drops. This rain like grace becomes rivers of life-giving water. Rivers for redemption, for repentance, for making people whole.

Not feeling the Christmas joy? It’s okay. Christmas is full of many emotions. You don’t HAVE TO do Christmas. You don’t HAVE TO purchase presents, visit people, and fake a smile. These are heavy burdens, and we can repent and lay them down. Instead of carrying these HAVE TOs, we can carry divine love. Divine love might feel joyful, or it might be peaceful and still. Divine love might be sorrowful, or lonely. Divine love is our gift at Christmas and just like the stories of old, divine love comes in many forms and many expressions.

Sometimes we “rejoice in the Lord” with celebrations and loud music. And sometimes we rejoice in the Lord by being grateful God is with us when we’re feeling alone, and sad.

Our God is with us. Emmanuel. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC, Baltimore Ohio, 12-13-15

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Peaceful Feet

Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 1:68-79

Elderly Elizabeth and elderly Zechariah had no children. Elizabeth prayed for a child; and Zechariah received a vision of the future child that struck him deaf and mute.

This elderly couple have been waiting, and waiting, nine long months. For the last few months, Elizabeth’s young, young relative Mary has been pregnant. Mary has said the child is the Son of God, and the baby inside Elizabeth jumped with joy.

Now at last the time has come for that happy jumping baby to be born – and for more miracles happen!

It was a miracle that this elderly couple who’d never been able to have children suddenly became pregnant.

It was a miracle that took Zechariah’s speech and hearing: but he hasn’t been able to communicate what occurred yet.

It is a miracle that in a time when great numbers of healthy, young teen women die in childbirth, this elderly frail woman gives birth without complications to a healthy little boy.

But the miracles aren’t done yet.

Usually, people ask the father in ancient Jewish societies: What will be the name of the child? By naming the child, the father affirms the child is his own and part of his household.

But Elizabeth breaks custom. She declares, “This child is named John.” Which means, God is Gracious— God is generous and good.

The people around Elizabeth cry out, “John?! There are no ‘Johns’ in your family! Shouldn’t he be Zechariah Junior? Or named after your father, or your brother? Someone, go try to ask Zechariah!”

So they go to elderly Zachariah, and “make signs at him.” Zechariah motions for a writing tablet, and writes, “His name is John.”

Now the whole town is in an uproar! Zachariah chose the same name – had he been able to talk with Elizabeth before hand – or did he miraculously choose the same name?!

Everyone begins to ask: Who is this boy? What will he become?

We normally ask the same questions of all children – who is this child? What will this child become as an adult? But the town’s people are asking this in fear. They are scared. What do these signs mean and just who is this kid?

And to their even greater astonishment and fear: Zechariah’s lips and ears open and he can talk and hear again. And he says today’s prophecy in Luke:

“you, child, will be called
the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord
to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation
to his people by the forgiveness
of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high
will break upon us,
to give light to those
who sit in darkness and
in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And Zechariah recounts how God has always been faithful, always done as God has promised, and always remembered the holy covenant between people and God — this mutual promise of love and support between people and God.

Zechariah speaks of God’s salvation, forgiveness, tender mercy… and calls his son God is Gracious. Zachariah speaks of peace to the people’s fear. He foretells the salvation of God’s people through a revelation that will teach them to walk in the way of peace.

For the first of many times in Luke’s gospel, salvation and peace, God’s kindom and peace, are tied together. As we spoke in our call to worship: If there is to be peace in the world… there must be peace in the heart.

And peace of heart, for peace for the home, neighbors, city, nation and world is what John is to announce is coming. A peace that transcends all understanding. A peace from God God’s self.

John, little baby John, being raised by people old enough to be his grandparents, shall be the one who announces the coming of the Lord.

And we know John grows up and does just this – through John, God prepares the way for God’s own self becoming incarnate in John’s relative Jesus. The two don’t seem to grow up together — John is raised in the wilderness, and doesn’t know who Jesus is when Jesus comes to be baptized — but these two surely are walking with God and the great work God begins in them before they are even born continues even to this very moment.

This great work is preparing the world for the Day of Christ; the kin-dom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven; preparing the world for peace.

Before we begin singing ‘Give Peace A Chance’ or ‘Kumbaya’ … You may remind me that Jesus said in Matthew “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

… And an pretty angry Jesus literally chased people with a whip.

… And Jesus told his disciples in Luke to sell their cloaks for swords.

Perhaps the way of peace is divisive. Perhaps the way of peace is like a sword, and it cuts — divides – sharpens.

We often think peace is the same as stillness. A peaceful Christmas night is a night of quiet snow, twinkling bright stars, and a holy hush broken only by the sound of our breath.

But the way of peace, the road of God, is rarely still and motionless. The way of peace challenges the way things are. Think of these “peaceful” moments of the Bible:

The angels who announce the birth of Christ SING “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all.” The sky is full of their song and delight. This peace is active, lively, bright – and scares the shepherds. But their song of peace prepares the way for the shepherds to greet the born Messiah and share the good news.

The peace Jesus gives others causes great unrest. Remember when the sinful woman with the expensive perfume busts into the dinner banquet to weep on Jesus’ feet and anoint them with the perfume and her kisses. What a stir she caused! What a lack of peace! How could someone so dirty, so foul, touch a prophet?! And Jesus, instead of being angry with her, praises her deeds, tells her that her sins are forgiven, and says, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

And the woman dragged into court before all the men, dragged before Jesus and accused of adultery – the crowd stated: we must stone her to death, right Jesus? But Jesus was peaceful, and quietly replied, “Let the one without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And bit by bit, beginning with the eldest of the men, the crowd left until just she was left in the center of the court. And Jesus said he did not condemn her, and let her go in peace.

Peace, Jesus tells the men on the way to Damascus.

Peace, Jesus insists when Judas betrays him and Jesus’ disciples try to raise swords to defend Jesus.

Peace, Jesus shows in the courts.

Peace, for Jesus, is actively doing justice, actively forgiving, actively bringing not stillness – but peace to our souls.

A peaceful soul is a soul that has listened to the little small voice of the Holy Spirit which ever whispers inside us.

The peaceful soul is a soul with a clear conscious.

And that peaceful soul is likely NOT living a passive life. A peaceful soul is a soul that is living an active and engaging life actively bringing about peace, justice, truth and clearing the way for God’s salvation, God’s grace, to shine ever brighter on the world.

A peaceful soul is a soul that is walking on peaceful feet, doing peaceful deeds, and always on the move spreading God’s shalom.

What is shalom?

It is more than what peace means in English. And shalom is what we’re translating as peace in our Bible.

Shalom is completion. Wholeness. Full health. It is having every dish clean and matching. It is a perfect sunset on a perfect day. It is a engine that always starts on the first try. It is a completed card or DVD collection. It is to be restored. To be washed clean of sins. It is to fall into the loving embrace of someone who you’ve made amends with and KNOW all is well.

This peace, this shalom, is, as Dr. Plantgina writes, “universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes [all]… it is the way things ought to be.”

This active, moving, lavish peace John came announcing, Jesus made possible, and we are invited to share.

So get up and use your peaceful feet this week! Share shalom. Amen.

Take Heart – Help is on the way!

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

Jesus has been talking with his disciples on the Mount of Olives. They asked him, when and what will the end times be like? Jesus has told him that nations will fight each other – but that is not the end. There will be famines, and earthquakes – but again, this is not the end. Today we hear Jesus describe an end… but it’s not the end at all that the disciples asked about.

Eugene Peterson’s “The Message Bible” sometimes says our familiar story in such a wonderful new paraphrase. I think Peterson captures it well when he puts Jesus’ words as:

“It will seem like all hell has broken loose —sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.”

When these unmistakable, not reoccurring signs happen, when it seems like all hell as broken loose — then we will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud.

Jesus tells his disciples to then, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

When all hell is breaking loose, take heart – help is on the way.

When it seems like heaven and earth are passing away, take heart – God’s words never fail, never wear out, never pass away. When God says help is on the way: help is on the way.

Our translation says Jesus warns us against having hearts weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness, and the worries of life. If you’re not a walking dictionary, dissipation means disintegrated or over-indulgent. The word in the original language usually is used referring to the feeling after a major drunken party – a hangover, feeling out of sorts, dizzy and out of it.

But Jesus warns about not just getting drunk, and being over-indulgent or hung over, but also about being worried. Jesus says – don’t be one of those people fainting with fear, stressing out about what tomorrow will bring, and freaked out. Nor be one of those people who is out of it, focused on themselves, focused only on finding inner peace – naval gazing.

Peterson updates Jesus’ words as, “be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise,”

So what are we to do if we are to neither freak out, panic, and worry — nor turn to drugs, alcohol, shopping, TV, or music to ignore what scares us?

“be alert” and “pray.”

We’re told to be alert, to pray. To not stress or plug our ears. But be peaceful and present. Awake and attentive.

And how can we be this way? Because we know: help is on the way. And this help isn’t bringing an end – no, he is bringing a new beginning! A new era of peace and the presence of God!

You all know I am a fan of science fiction and fantasy. I cannot help but see the “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” when I read these passages. I picture the battle at Helms Deep. It seems all hell has broken loose. The humans are losing the battle – but then the elves come! Then the humans AND the elves are losing the battle. The evil orc and uruk hai are set to kill every last man, woman, and child. But the hero Aragon refuses to hide in fear, and he refuses to ignore the plight and focus only on saving himself. He stays calm and stays involved. He encourages the king to ride out into battle and give the humans and elves hope – ride out with their heads held high – for Aragon knows: help is on the way if they can just hold fast until the new dawn.

And sure enough – because they ride out strong and bold in spite of their fear, the warriors are encouraged, and fight until dawn – when with the rising of the sun Gandalf and the king’s horsemen arrive to save the day.

J. R. R. Tolkien was heavily inspired by the Bible. He once said his books were simply a retelling of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

And the Greatest Story Ever Told is the story of God’s love. Of reassurance that help is on the way. Of the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Of the hope that we cherish – the hope and the promise that there is a new beginning in each ending, a new life after one has died, and a God who loves us so much to always be present through it all.

This Advent day of Hope, we reaffirm that we know Help is on the Way. The king who was, is the king now, and shall be the king again in the future.

We sang today asking our king, our God-with-Us, our Emmanuel to come and ransom we who are captive. Captive to worries, captive to stress, captive to shopping or lists or fears or sensationalist news broadcasts, captive in bodies and minds that don’t work as they ought, captive in bad relationships and bad habits, captives… our Emmanuel, our help, is on the way.

So come, Emmanuel! Take heart, God is here and yet still more awesome help from God is coming. Amen.