Tag: Christmas

Treasured Treasures

Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Whatever happened to the magi’s gifts?

Walk and think with me on this.

Some magi — likely priests of Zoroasterism — came to Jesus with treasures: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Two were prophesized by Isaiah — the wealth of kings and the scent of a deity used in temple worship. But the third gift, myrrh, is unique. It is the scent used to anoint the dead. All three gifts are expensive and rare.

I don’t know how and why they picked their gifts. Maybe the gold is for the king, the frankincense for the services praying for the new king, and the myrrh for the king who died — since there can only be one king at a time over a county.

However it is, they take some of their wealth and they begin to follow a star to see over which country it appeared. The county happens to be Judea, whose capital is Jerusalem. But, as we know, King Herod is still alive and none of his sons have taken the throne as a new king. Yet the magi are certain there is a new king in this land, this land of the Jews, somewhere. So they keep seeking and following the star.

We know eventually they find Mary and Jesus in a house – maybe this is Jesus’ childhood home and Joseph is off working for the day. Toddler Jesus is there and these foreign priests bow to the boy and present their treasures to him. Our Epiphany, our realization, is that Jesus is both God and mortal; both king and sacrifice; both judgment and forgiveness.

But then the magi head home, avoiding Herod (or Herod Jr. We’re not really sure what year the magi came to Jesus.)

So have you, like me, ever wondered what happened to that treasure? I mean, does this treasure go towards buying carpenter equipment? Does it get stolen? Is it buried somewhere? Was it passed down in the family or help fund Jesus’ adult ministry?

As an adult, Jesus spoke about treasure. Our Lord tells us (Matt. 6:19) “Do not store up for yourself on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal…” Was Jesus speaking out of personal experience? The precious oils and saps of frankincense and myrrh decayed and the boxes rusted and their cloth was moth ate and thieves took the gold. Maybe that’s what happened to the treasure.

There’s lots of stories outside of the Bible people have made up about what happened to these gifts from the wise men. Some said it helped them flee to Egypt, some say it started Jesus’ adult ministry, and one old story says it was stolen from Jesus by the very same thieves he was later crucified with.

In truth, we don’t know what happened.

But not knowing is kind of the definition of treasure…

Treasures are a pile of riches– usually ancient — and usually considered once lost and forgotten until discovered. I mean, we don’t say a bank is holding treasure… it has money. A set and counted amount of money. But we tell stories that a dragon has a treasure trove, and we mean a dragon has an unknown large amount of gold and gems, precious things we can’t even name, all which the world thought was forgot but now is found under said dragon.

Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island is all about finding that unknown lost sum, the excitement, the mystery, and bringing the wealth back into the world.

Ali Baba and the Arabian Nights is all about learning the magic password – open sesame – and finding all the stolen treasures hidden in the secret cave – and how he takes these out and uses them.

Treasures are what we value, stored up, ferreted away, what was lost and is now found and returned to the world.

So since the magi brought Jesus treasure… and it was lost… doesn’t that mean we can find it again?

Like a treasure map with a big x to mark the spot, they had a big star to mark the spot they left their treasure. So maybe it’s just a matter of picking the right star and following it… but what if it was a star that wasn’t always there – it was just there a little while? Like a comet or an asteroid?

Or what if Matthew was trying to tell us a story with a deeper meaning rather than trying to give us a map to coins and perfumes?

I mean, later in Matthew, Jesus’ whole saying on treasure is: “Do not store up for yourself on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moth no rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal, for where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”

Maybe the wise men are a foreshadow, a hint, at what later Matthew wanted us to remember about Jesus: Jesus didn’t value monetary wealth and the treasures of the earth. Jesus valued the treasures of heaven. Treasures like prayer, helping each other, being honest, loving each other and loving God.

Treasures that we can find, and give to the world, over and over again.

Or maybe, we’re to understand that the wise men went and put their treasure where their heart was. Jesus, their heart, is who they gave their treasures to. Herod, meanwhile, kept his treasures to himself and so kept his heart to himself. He only loved himself. The wise men were wise, and knew to love God.

See, I have heard before that we are the heart of Christ. And we are Jesus’ treasure. And since we are Jesus’ treasure, and his heart, Jesus stores us with himself in heaven. Safe and secure.

The reverse is this: When Jesus is our treasure, our hearts are with Jesus. So that we are encircled by Christ, surrounded by love, like treasure inside a protective chest.

When I think of my own heart, my heart is a treasure trove. A hoard of treasures. It is my wealth. In it is love and memories, loyalty and laughter, people, family, friends, pets, and places; and my God.

Sadly, however, even the treasure that normal moths and rust and thieves can’t take still can slip away like sand through my fingers. Time makes some memories fade, and like a thief in the night, some of my favorite places have been stolen for urban sprawl. Family, friends, pets… they all pass away.

So what do I do?

I think Jesus’ answer is still the best. Entrust him with this heart of treasure. Pray. Tell God our favorite memories, our favorite places. Tell God of our love for family and friends. Tell God our gratitude for loyal pets and good jokes. Trust God to take all of our treasures and store them in heaven where they cannot degrade, cannot fade, cannot be stolen or fall apart.

Treasures get lost… and found… lost and found. We might lose our treasured treasures on this earth, but those we entrust to God shall always be findable.

One day, what will you find waiting for you stored away in heaven? What stories, what memories, what loves, what joys, what prayers have you tucked away?

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC Baltimore, Ohio, 12-3-2016

What Child is This?

Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Our Lectionary gives us today the story of two women, both seeking their sons. Hannah goes to see Samuel and finds him in the temple. Of course, she expected to find him there. She presented him to the temple to be raised as a priest in gratitude for God hearing her prayers to grant her a child. We’re told that each year Hannah goes to the temple and brings with her a ephod, an outer garment that priests wear sort of like a sleeveless shirt. She’s sewn and made this for her growing little boy and she gives it to him to wear until the following year when he’s outgrown and worn it out.

What child is Samuel? He’s a child of God. Gifted by God, regifted back to God, and being raised by priests of God. He’ll grow up to be a great prophet.

But he didn’t start off being raised by priests. He started off being at home, until he was between the ages of 3 to 12. So all those formative early years he was raised by Hannah… and Hannah must have raised him right, for he comes to the temple already knowing of God and prepared to be a servant of the divine.

We’re told that the work God begins, Hannah continues, and the work Hannah begins, God continues – everyone wants this little boy to grow up in wisdom and with the love of God.

Mary is the other woman. She, too, has visited the temple as she does so yearly for the Passover Festival. Like Hannah, she came to the temple with gifts to leave there – and like Hannah she goes back home after visiting. However, Hannah purposefully left her son with the priests. Mary did not. Hannah knows her son is being well cared for and loved by Eli. Mary does not know where her son is, or who he is with, or if he is in danger. Hannah has peace and praises God. Mary has fear and pleads with God.

We heard in Luke’s Gospel how Mary and Joseph leave their traveling extended family and book it back to Jerusalem to search the streets and markets, homes and place of worship for Jesus. When, where, and how will they find Jesus?

Will they find him safe? Will he be with friends? With family? Is he crying at the gates? Is he stolen – kidnapped? Is he sold into slavery, left for dead in a gutter, after all of these years, have King Herod’s men identified the new born king and finished their job at making sure there is no king but Herod Jr.?

At last, after days of searching, Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the temple sitting and talking, listening and asking questions of the rabbis. Mary exclaims, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety!” She’s so angry, so elated — her deep, deep love of Jesus makes her this furious because she was so, so worried about what had happened to him.

And Jesus is a typical kid, “Why were you searching for me? I’m not lost.” Then Jesus becomes an atypical kid by concluding, “Don’t you know I must be with my father?”

We’re told Mary and Joseph don’t understand what Jesus is saying. I picture them grabbing up their son roughly, covering him in kisses and wanting to beat his pre-teen bottom blue for giving them this fright and wandering off without permission. I think they must apologize to the rabbis and thank them for caring for their wayward son. And they must march Jesus out of Jerusalem with threats of being grounded until he can grow a proper beard.

After this passage, we’re told Jesus, like Samuel, grow in wisdom as he ages and grows with God’s love and human love. After this, when nearly thirty, Jesus begins his public ministry.

Jesus doesn’t start open rebellion with mom and dad. This scene isn’t the beginning of teenage years where he fights them tooth and nail for independence. He frequently tells people to follow the laws of the prophets, which include honoring your father and mother and not giving them trouble and woes.

And Mary treasures what has happened in her heart. She thinks on these things, ponders them, takes them out of her mental memory box and looks them over. I think, later, she begins to wonder, and put the pieces together, of just who this child she’s raising is.

She’s raising the boy devout. She takes him to the temple and observes the holidays. She teaches him his faith well. But here he is, taking the faith she’s given him and expanding it in new ways she never foresaw.

This happens still nowadays. We raise kids with faith – teach them about their loving heavenly parent, teach them to pray, teach them to follow the Bible… but they make the faith their own. Some are like Samuel, and never give their parents woes. They become more devout and are a source of pride for their parents. Some kids grow up to be like Jesus, and give their parents woes. They become more devout, too, but their devotion isn’t “main stream” and “traditional.” They try out new ways of worshiping God and they rock the religious boat.

Every generation has it’s boat rockers who explore where, when, and how to find Jesus. The Christian music we listen to on the radio – the Christian Rock – was once that far-out and distrusted way of worshiping God. Now these songs find their way into even more traditional services and churches. A couple of them are in our hymnal. Taze, another music style, is in our hymnal and once was suspect. I know several of us are suspect of large churches — “mega churches” — or churches that have gymnasiums, coffee centers, projectors, or lack pews.

At one time, organ music was very suspect and banned from churches. But… many of us hear God in the songs and hymns.

Generation after generation, people take the faith given to them by their parents, and make it their own. Generation after generation, people hear the angels sing and go looking for the good news, the messiah: go looking for Jesus.

You see, Jesus has a way of slipping out of sight. We all get traveling along the road we’re used to, like we do every year, and we assume Jesus is with us… but you know, he might not be. It may be that the Way of God has moved, the spirit has moved, and our old ways no longer travel with Christ.

Jesus says he doesn’t get lost. He is always about his father’s business, always doing God’s work and in God’s house.

We get lost. We lose sight of Jesus, and his beacon telling us the will of God.

Then we have to go seeking the Christ again. We know he’ll be with God, we know he’s always residing with us, but… at the same time… these wonderful assurances and these wonderful truths don’t tell us anything solid. They don’t tell us whether or not Christian Heavy Metal is acceptable, let alone do they tell us if we should suddenly have Christian Rock songs in our services. No, knowing Jesus is with God and not lost, and that we’re to discern when, where, and how to find Christ, is not the same as having solid answers at all.

Instead, we’re told our faith is a journey where hopefully we increase with years and wisdom. We’re told each generation finds Jesus is new ways, hears God in new forms, and understands our shared sacred text in different interpretations.

It’s really, really hard to not think those who are different than us surely have lost Christ. It’s tempting to think we need to find them and yank them back to where we found Jesus… but… our scripture challenges us to examine ourselves… and realize that God is ever new, ever speaking, ever moving, ever creating life, and generation after generation must make their own pilgrimage to find Christ in the temple of God.

We can give someone new to the faith our map, told them what works for us, and guide them for awhile… but that child of God is their own person. And when, where, and how they feel the presence of God may be totally different than when, where, and how we feel God’s presence.

So treasure the experiences of others in your heart. Ponder them. Wonder. When you meet someone who experiences God in a way totally alien than you, wonder: what child is this? And give God loving thanks for coming to us in so many different ways. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC, Baltimore, Ohio, 12-27-2015

Light of the World

Isaiah 9:2-7
John 1:1-14

Darkness… nothingness… emptiness… silence…

There is a void, no form, and the spirit, the wind, the voice of God hovers over the face of the deep darkness.

And then suddenly, God SPEAKS. “Let there be light!”

And there is light – stars, burning blazing suns, glistening comets, churning atoms and vibrant energy — and God sees this light, and it is called good.

God speaks more, and more — land and water, birds and bees, trees and fish, bugs and animals, you and me — God speaks us into existence. God’s word is life.

In the beginning, the word of God, the voice of God, the intention of God always exists with God — and is God — and God creates all things into being by speaking. God’s speech and action are one and the same. When God speaks, life happens.

And this word, which is the truth of God, and which all things gain their breath of life, and which deeds and intentions, actions and word are one and the same — this incredible word became flesh and lived among us.

The word of God, God’s voice, became the man we call Jesus.

This light, the very light of God, was gifted to all who are the children of God.

The Gospel of John takes us to the Nativity Scene in such a cosmic route. He reminds us of Genesis, and how the speech and deed of God started everything, and the speech and deed of God continues everything. The speech and deed of God, writes John, is present in Jesus.

When Jesus speaks, his words change reality. When Jesus does something, his deeds speak loudly of who God is.

This concept of speech and deed being one and the same isn’t as heady as you might imagine. Think about this: when is a person ‘married?’ Maybe from the moment they said “I Do?” Those words change reality. These performance utterances CHANGE the world just with the speech.

“I name you John.”
“You are under arrest.”
“I apologize.”
“I dedicate this example to St. Michael’s.”
“Court is now in session.”

Reality before and after these words is different. The words change things.

Some of the most powerful words God ever spoke were through the mouth of Jesus.

Jesus said, “Go. You are forgiven.” and in doing so, forgave sins against God.

“This is the blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” In speaking such, he made it so.

In speaking forgiveness, forgiveness happened. In speaking a new covenant, a new promise was made.

John writes to us that this power to change reality we, too, possess. We can use our words, our deeds and intentions, to say “I forgive you of your debts against me,” and make it true. We can forgive as we are forgiven. We can love as we are loved. We can be a light to the world because the light of the world has come.

John goes to such lengths to explain how Jesus truly is the incarnate word of God – truly is God’s breath, Word, wisdom, truth put into a human body.

This is a very, very important concept in our religion. It is a huge point of difference between ourselves and our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters.

We preach, and believe, that God God’s self was in Jesus.

That is why we say Jesus is Emmanuel – God With Us. That is why we say God chose to share our common lot. God became human. It is why we say God truly understands what it is to be human… because, in Jesus, God was human.

God experienced being born.

Teething.

God experienced the frustration and joy of siblings, cousins, relatives.

Those awkward teenage years.

God knows what it is to hunger and thirst, to be in pain, to be lonely. God knows what it is to be joyful, to be surprised, to be loved.

God knows what it is like to be you and me.

The incarnation of the Word of God is also why we say God came to us… rather than we went to God.

None of us can choose to be divine.

But God chose to come to us.

We are now already chosen. Already loved. Already forgiven. Already a child of God. It’s nothing we can choose, but a gift given to us. A precious, precious gift.

And all we can do is decide how to respond to this gift.

Joy? Hope? Love? Peace?

Awe? Stunned silence? Tears?

Perhaps something beyond words.

When we share communion today, listen to the words that are used. Listen to how words shape our reality, shape our response to God’s gift. Listen and say the words yourself.

Our Lord is God’s Word. And God’s word is a lamp unto our feet. A guide. A way to respond to the gift of God’s abiding, God-with-us, love. Amen.

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

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.

We Don’t Want to Say Goodbye

Isaiah 25:6-9
Revelations 21:1-6

Rodney Crowell wrote and sings a song called “Adam’s Song.” In it, he speaks of how the days are getting shorter, and the wind is colder, and the nights are clearer. The last leaves of November are falling and the stars are bright.

He sings that on these short days and long nights, our minds wander to our loved ones who have passed.

I think his song is so apt for All Saints Day and this late fall season.

You see, there are holidays coming up. Thanksgiving, and then Christmas… and when I think of these, I think also of Crowell’s lyrics, “We don’t want to say goodbye. We don’t want to feel that empty.” I wonder, am I going to set one less spot at the table for Thanksgiving? What do we do when writing out Christmas cards and that address is now… no longer needed? When I unpack the Christmas tree ornaments, which one is going to make my heart leap into my throat? What favorite food on the thanksgiving table will make my hands shake?

There are so many little extra loses, extra times of emptiness, after someone dies. And each little goodbye makes the emptiness feel bigger.

Each chair I don’t set out.

Each address I no longer write out.

Each present I don’t buy.

Each face I remember who used to be here, and now is not.

When I look at my grandmother and her eyes are so dazed at our Christmas dinner, I cannot help but wonder… who is she thinking of? Parents, siblings, and children who all used to be at this table? She’s outlived them all. Classmates she used to rush back from holiday breaks to share stories with; friends who died ten years prior? I almost can see the spirits reflecting in her eyes.

And yet, at that meal, we will pray and we eat like we always do. Because life is still going on, even though those holes are there. Crowell’s chorus is, “We’re just learning how to live with a life long broken heart.”

I think that’s so true. The emptiness continues, but so do we.

So we learn a new way of living. A new way of carrying on this broken heart, of saying new little goodbyes on our dead loved one’s birthdays, deathdays, the holidays, and those moments that hit us without warning — when we hear their song on the overhead speakers at the grocery store, or smell their soap on some stranger, or find an old list they wrote… a broken heart, but a life that’s still going on. A process of learning to live.

What do we do when it seems we can’t go on? Crowell sings about this too. Crowell sings, “When we cannot understand, when we cannot find new meaning, we’ll seek out the ones you loved, and love.” “It’s a privilege to remember. The sound of days done past will last.”

I see that as what we are doing today. We are seeking meaning to our loves’ deaths. We’re seeking to understand. We’re seeking a way to continue going on in this life without them. And in our seeking, we turn to the people who loved our loved one too, and together, we remember the days long past.

And together, we seek meaning in scripture. And in scripture, we hear our beloved God promising through the prophet Isaiah that God will wipe away the tear from every face. That someday, here on Earth, and this day, now in Heaven, God will lay a great banquet feast for all people. Death will be no more. The shroud, the funeral cloth, over us all — the weight of knowing we are going to die and all we love will die too — will be lifted permanently. And all things will be made new.

Our communion is a foretaste, an appetizer, before this great meal. In the Eucharist we get a little sampling of what it will be like to share in the great victory feast with God. Through this ritual, we share in Jesus’ death… the death we all will someday face too… and we share in Jesus’ victory over the death…. a victory we will one day know too.

We take communion with all the saints. All of the children of God. We come to the table and join the cloud of witnesses: all of those who we remember today. All of those who leave us learning to live with broken hearts. All of those who guided us to Christianity. All of those who formed and reformed our church. All of those who died countless generations ago.

We also take it with all of those yet to be born.

Here, in a sacred moment with God, we transcend time and place and partake in a little appetizer of heaven.

Understanding, finding new meaning, comes from those we love and who love us.

We are loved by God. We are loved by Jesus. We are loved by the Spirit. We are loved by the Christians who came before us and who will come after us. We are supported by all of this love just as we support them. Together, walking together, we can face a life that is full of goodbyes…

… because a great reunion is in our future.

We don’t want to say goodbye, because we don’t want to feel that empty… but the goodbyes we say now are not forever goodbyes. These are goodbye, for now, and I look forward to when we meet again.

These are goodbye, I won’t see you when I we take communion, but I know you are there.

And some day, I’ll see you again.

And the tears we have won’t be tears of sorrow, but tears of joy.

And we will sit down to the full meal, the full feast, given to us by our most loving God. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, 11-1-15, Baltimore Ohio.