Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11
We have two scriptures this morning that are practically at opposite ends of our Bible. Genesis 1, of course, is the beginning, the very beginning, and Mark’s gospel is found near the opening of a small section of scripture we call the New Testament at the end. Yet these texts share two very important elements: water and word.
In both stories, water is present. The Spirit of God hovers over the waters before the earth takes inhabitable shape. These waters cover the entire earth, and like a tempestuous sea, represent chaos. Fast forward to the time of Jesus and we see more water. This water is the river Jordan, not a particularly impressive body of water, but the place where John called people out of the cities and out of the countryside. People of all types came to John just for the purpose of going down bodily into that water as a simple sign that their sins were forgiven. It was a ritual cleansing, a ritual bath of both body and soul.
Jesus came to that water, too. Some people have figured that Jesus did not need to be there at the Jordan with John. They have decided that since Jesus was sinless, he did not need this baptism. He did not need this cleansing. And if baptism were only about forgiveness of sin, then perhaps they are right. Baptism, though, is more than an act of cleansing. It is an act of claiming.
Ever since Jesus was dunked in that water, baptism for Christians has had new meaning. It is an act that put God’s own stamp on our lives. Baptism is a means of grace. That means that God does something for us. God’s grace, that free gift of love, becomes real in our lives. We believe that God is present for us in our baptism in a uniquely powerful way. In the book of Acts, we read that baptism is that moment that God’s Holy Spirit comes to us to become effective in our lives, to take over our lives, as followers of Jesus. We use for our model, the baptism of Jesus. In all of our stories of Jesus baptism—from Matthew, Mark and Luke—the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus in his baptism. Since in our baptism we participate in the life of Jesus, we believe God’s Spirit comes to us in a special way that changes us forever.
And so, just as the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of chaos in the beginning, creating a world of life out of chaos, the same Spirit hovers over the waters of baptism, creating in us a whole new life. Our two texts share the important theme of water.
These scriptures also share a word. In the beginning, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. God spoke, and it came into being. At a word. When we use the phrase “the word of God” we are never just speaking about words on the pages of a book. The word of God is something that is active and powerful. When God speaks, it is performative speech. When God speaks, God makes it so. God said, “Let there be light.” And so, because God spoke that word, it was accomplished. The word of God is something living and active.
As Jesus was coming up out of the water, there was another word. Jesus saw the Spirit descending, and then he heard a voice. The word from God was “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” As we noted from the Genesis passage, when God speaks, things happen. God’s word is performative speech. God spoke: you are my son. In that moment, God both called and claimed Jesus. The remainder of the entire gospel according to Mark will show us exactly what that means, and the unique role to which Jesus was called, but in this moment, whatever had come before in his life, Jesus was now called and claimed by God.
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark gives us no birth story. This story about John the baptizer and Jesus’ baptism is the first event in this gospel. We cannot say what Jesus knew or thought before this moment. We cannot know whether Jesus had some inkling as to his true nature and calling before he went out to see John. But we can say that in the moment Jesus came up out of the water of baptism, he was transformed forever by the word of God. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Once you have heard that word of God, you can never be the same again.
Our two scriptures this morning share the elements of water and word. Both scriptures affirm that when water and the word of God come together, nothing is ever the same again.
We believe that our own baptisms are like Jesus’ baptism and unlike Jesus’ baptism. It is easy to say how our baptisms are different. Jesus Christ is a unique figure in Creation, and Jesus was called and claimed by God in a unique way. That baptism at the Jordan so long ago was an important moment along the way as Jesus became the agent of salvation for all of us. The voice he heard, unique. The mission to which he was called, unique.
But our baptism is also like that of Jesus. Just like Jesus, we are called and claimed by God. When we accept baptism, the stamp of God’s identity is put upon us, and we can never be the same. Whatever we were before is gone, and in that moment we are something else. We are a new creation. In baptism we participate in the death of Jesus to our old selves, and we participate in his resurrection to a new self, oriented to the God who calls us.
In your baptism, the word of God comes to you much as it did to Jesus: you are my beloved child. That is performative speech. If you have been baptized, you have been chosen and claimed by God. God has called you a beloved child, with whom God is pleased. When Alma was baptized this morning, that word came to her: you are my beloved child. Just as God spoke a word over the waters of chaos at creation and it was so, just as God spoke a word to Jesus at his baptism and it was so, so did God speak a word to Alma today, and it is so. She is a beloved child of God. She certainly can’t yet understand all that will mean for her life, but she has now entered on a lifelong journey to figure it out. After all, we’re still figuring that out, aren’t we?
But now, we are on this journey together. Alma is now journeying with us. She heard that word of God speaking to her, and she responded. It is our job to teach her how to respond—and to learn from her—so we know what it means to live as a beloved child of God.
I ask you to share encouragement with Alma. I want you to think of her as a fellow traveler in faith. I hope you will both teach her and learn from her. She is now your sister. We have all been bound together by water and the word—for good.
Let us pray…
I originally preached this sermon in 2004 and repeated it today with only minor modifications. I don’t recall how well it played last time, but it went exceedingly well this week. Below is the original version.
Traveling with the flu wasn’t so bad this time. The drive up to Bishop is pretty simple and straightforward and relaxing. You just take 14 up over the mountains and up the valley. Highway 14 turns right into 395, so you don’t even need to worry about missing it. All you need to do for 5 or 6 hours–depending upon how fast you drive–is to point your nose down the highway and go.
Even though I was hung over with the flu, I could enjoy the ride. That’s the thing about the road often traveled. You have an opportunity to put your mind and body on autopilot and enjoy the scenery. You feel safe and secure because you know where you’re going. There are no surprises and no anxiety.
In fact, most of us choose those kinds of roads for that very reason. Only a few choose to head off into unknown territory without a guide. We don’t leave home without first consulting MapQuest or the Thomas Guide or at the very least, our trusty old AAA map. We feel better knowing how long we’ll be on the road, what time we’ll arrive, and most importantly, what time we’ll get home.
That’s why the wilderness experience was so frustrating for the people of Israel. After the people left slavery in Egypt they were wandering for years, and only God knew where they were headed or when they would arrive. Imagine tens of thousands of Hebrews in the back seat asking “Are we there yet?” for forty years. The people felt so anxious about their uncertain journey that they were ready to go right back into the arms of slavery in Egypt. That’s how much we dislike a journey if we might get lost or run into difficulty. Let’s just stay home.
Some wise men–some magi–men who knew a little bit about everything, including art, science, mathematics and astronomy and astrology–lived somewhere east of the Promised Land, east of Jerusalem and east of Bethlehem. They saw a star rising and knew that it was a special kind of star. They may have consulted their scrolls and decided this star meant that a new king was born. Their scrolls, however, couldn’t tell them where exactly the new king was, so they packed up some gifts fit for a king and took off. Now we know the magi didn’t have MapQuest or a Thomas Guide or even AAA, so they just went. It is important to note that the star they saw in the heavens wasn’t leading them at this point. It isn’t until later in the story that the star begins to lead them. For now, the star is only a sign that something wonderful has happened, and these men want to get in on it.
The adventurous magi kept traveling until they came to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the logical place to search for a newborn king. It is the major city of the region, the home of the kings of Judah. The wise men came to Herod, the ruler of the area, and asked the logical question, “Where has the new king been born?”
The magi probably just assumed that everyone already knew about this new king, but Herod didn’t. Herod, in fact, was frightened at this prospect. Herod was the authority of the area, and he kept his job by keeping peace on behalf of the Emperor in Rome. If the people were talking about another king, that could only mean revolution, and if revolution, Herod might end up not only out of a job, but up on one of those crosses he used to execute criminals.
I am sure Herod didn’t want to let on that he knew nothing about the birth of a king, so he probably herded the magi into the waiting room while he consulted with his own advisors, the chief priests and the scribes.
“I’ve heard something about a new king being born,” he told them. “That can only mean the people will be getting fired up about another Messiah. I need to nip this thing in the bud before it gets going. Tell me, where is the Messiah to be born?”
The chief priests and the scribes consulted their own scrolls, specifically the scroll of the prophet Micah, which read, “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.”
Herod called the magi back and tried to get more information from them about this strange star. Then, he told them to go to Bethlehem. “Go; find the child,” he said to them. “Then, come back and tell me where he is, because I want to pay homage to him, too.”
The wise men went out, and at this point, the star began to lead them. They followed it until it stopped over a rather unremarkable building. It certainly wasn’t a palace. But that’s where the star stopped. The magi may have waited for a while, assuming the star had just stopped to catch its breath since, certainly, this wasn’t the place where the new king had been born.
Yet maybe I’m being too cynical about these men. After all, they were wise men. Our text says, “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” They were apparently wise enough not to be fooled by appearances. They knew that all great men and women are not born with silver spoons in their mouths.
The wise men went inside this place that was not a palace, and they saw Mary with her child, and they knelt down in front of the child and gave him honor. They presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The wise men who had got up and gone, without any map, only a star in the distance and the firm belief that something wonderful had happened, had found the newborn king.
Then, it was time to go home. Somewhere along the way, they had been warned in a dream that Herod was bad news. Herod–as the story will show later–didn’t want to worship the new king, but to kill him. The magi probably didn’t need a dream to tell them that, but they got one, and decided they would go home by another way. And so they did.
Who among us is a wise enough man or woman to take a difficult, uncertain journey? Who among us is enough of a magi to go somewhere if only God knows the way, and we can only follow? We like the safe journeys, the ones we’ve been on before, or at least the ones where the road is wide and clearly marked. We like to sit back and enjoy the scenery, secure in the knowledge that we won’t get lost and we won’t go anywhere unexpected. That’s what we like, but the old saying is that the turtle only goes somewhere if it sticks its neck out. (Induk Pahk, The Wisdom of the Dragon [New York: Harper & Row, 1970], 70; from Homiletics Online.)
Today is January 4th, so that means that most New Year’s Resolutions have already been made and broken. But if we’re to make any more, perhaps a good resolution would be to embark on a dangerous, uncertain journey, with only God to guide us. That’s a hard resolution to keep, however, because it means we have to ignore the voice of Herod, who speaks to us of stability and peace and comfort. God’s stars, however, often lead us to places where we feel lost or afraid. And then, we might not be able to come home by the same road we left. Following God on a dangerous journey can change us and our perspective on the rest of the world–and that’s the danger.
I suspect that many of you already know the kind of uncertain journey God would have you take. I think many of you have been wrestling with the idea of God leading you somewhere you’re not sure you want to go. It may be that God wants to lead you out of slavery to drugs, alcohol, an abusive relationship or a bad job to a Promised Land, but you know that to get to the Promised Land, there is a long, hard journey through the wilderness. It may be that God wants to lead you on to a new, more full relationship with that newborn king, Jesus Christ, but you’re not sure how to find him. It may be that you’ve been on such a long, comfortable journey so far, just enjoying the scenery, that you’re in a rut, and you just need something different so your soul will stay fresh and alive. It may be that you need to see a change in your church or your community or your nation or your world, and you are the one that God will use to lead the people on a difficult journey to the unknown.
If you know the way, if you’re traveling on a path you’ve trod many times before, it may be that you haven’t been listening to the voice of God, calling you to go another way, to embark on a new journey–one that scares the pants off you–but one that leads to true life and true living. If you still have room for one more New Year’s Resolution, I urge you to add a promise to yourself that you will take at least one journey led only by God–not by your own intuition or reason or comfort level, but only by God. That is the surest way to find yourself kneeling before the newborn king.
Let us pray…
There is only time for a short meditation on Luke 2:1-20. This is it. I have rarely, if ever, preached an acceptable Christmas Eve sermon.
Have you ever considered how our celebration of Christmas would be different if the shepherds had been hiding from the midday sun in the shade of a tree when the angels announced the birth of Jesus Christ? There would be no Christmas Eve candlelight services. There would be deep and dreamless sleep in Bethlehem, no “Silent Night.”
But as Luke tells it, the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night. That is when the angel of the Lord stood before them. It was in the middle of the night when the glory of the Lord blazed out on the fields and the terrified shepherds and the wandering sheep. At night. That is when the first birth announcement of that strange child, unusual from the beginning, was delivered to the world, though, frankly, the shepherds could hardly have qualified as the world. The shepherds received the news of Jesus’ birth at night, and that fact has shaped our theology and celebration of Christmas.
I like the dark. When I wake up in the middle of the night, say to get a drink of water from the kitchen, I like to leave the lights off. I get up out of bed and walk out of my bedroom in the dark, walk down the hall in the dark, get a glass from the cupboard in the dark, fill it from the sink and drink in the dark. Then I go back to bed without ever turning a light on. The darkness feels like a big, cozy blanket surrounding me. I also like to think of myself as a sort of super ninja creeping around at night.
But that’s not always a good idea. It wasn’t that long ago that we had a young granddaughter living with us, and she has toys, toys that would sometimes get left in the middle of the hallway. More than once, in the dark, I have stepped on Cayden’s toys—never the soft ones, of course; only the hard, plastic ones with jagged edges. And not everyone in my house is as dedicated to keeping the dishwasher door closed as I am. Sometimes it is left completely open, about shin high. More than once, in the dark, I have gone to get a glass from the cupboard and cracked my shin against the open dishwasher door. And, of course, there are door jambs in my house. More than once, in the dark, I have misjudged the position of those door jambs and made a vertical face plant into a door jamb. I am not a super ninja. I could use one of those flashlights John gave to the kids.
I like the dark. I enjoy sitting quietly in the dark. God made the dark. But there are times that the light is very useful. As John shared, light points the way, it reveals the path, it highlights dangerous obstacles and pointy toys.
It was in the dark of night that some shepherds were watching the flocks. The glory of the Lord blazed forth around them to point the way. “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
The light blazed in the darkness, and the darkness could never overcome it, not even when the light was contained in the filth of an animal’s feeding trough. The light doesn’t come to us because the darkness is bad, but because we don’t have eyes to see without the light. The light of God shows us there is a path that isn’t fraught with the perils of toys, dishwasher doors and door jambs. It is light that reveals there is true love in this world, a way to live unselfishly, a way to live in peace with our neighbors. The light of Christ has come into this world to give light to another path, one less traveled.
John has reminded us that we, too, can bear that light to the world. Those flashlights are signs to us that we have within us the capacity to share the news of Christ’s love and light. But the only way that can happen is if the light has first found a home within us, within our hearts.
My prayer for you is that the magic and mystery of this night will kindle that light in your heart, that the glory of the Lord will shine in the depths of your very being so that when anyone sees you they will understand that the light in you points out the path to the manger. In that manger can be found the love of God made real for us, God’s great sign that we are loved and favored by the One who created us.
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace toward all people! May you have a very holy Christmas, infused with all the light of God’s love.
This is it—the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Seven days until C-Day. So now we turn our attention to the Nativity texts, the gospel stories about Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ birth.
Today we have one of our most well loved stories, the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel visited a young woman Mary and gave her news that is normally glorious news. “You are going to have a baby.”
It has been one of my favorite Christmas scriptures, too. That is, it was one of my favorites until I took a closer look at it this week. Now, I’m not so sure. I am beginning to have conflicting feelings about the story. It has become a troubling text.
It is a story that comes on the heels of the news that the formerly childless couple, the older Zechariah and Elizabeth, will be parents. It was surprising news. Neither expected this so late in their lives. But it happened. Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy when another unusual thing occurred. The young virgin Mary was minding her own business in the town of Nazareth when Gabriel appeared to her.
“Greetings, favored one!” Favored one. Just about everything that comes after this greeting makes me wonder whether or not Mary really is favored. You know the basic content of the angel’s message, but I want you to listen carefully to me as I share it with you.
You will conceive…and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 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…David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end…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 the Son of God…Nothing will be impossible with God.
Everything will be possible with God.
You will do this. God will do this. Jesus will do this. The Holy Spirit will do this. This is not a road map. It’s not a plan. This isn’t a series of helpful suggestions. This is the pronouncement of an extremely confident deity.
Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Well, of course that’s what she said. What other option did she have? Gabriel wasn’t asking any questions. Gabriel didn’t ask for Mary’s input. The angel told her the way it was going to be. Period. End of story.
That’s what is troubling about this text. I believe firmly in a God who gives us freedom, freedom to choose our own paths in life, freedom to act righteously or to sin, freedom to say “yes” or “no” to God. A God who forces faith no longer has human beings, but has a Creation full of robots, machines. I believe God is not God unless God gives us freedom to act and to live our lives as we will, wisely or foolishly.
And then, here is this text. It is the pronouncement of a very powerful God about the way things will be in the life of this young woman and her son. What else was Mary going to say? As a young woman in the ancient world, she had become used to being told what to do. Now, here was this angel telling her what to do again. “Yes, Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” What choice did she have?
The most striking word in these verses, even more so than the multiple uses of the word “will” is the way Gabriel describes how God will accomplish Mary’s pregnancy. She is a virgin, but “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Your pew Bibles say that the power of God will “rest upon” Mary, but the actual Greek word used is “overshadow.” God’s power will overshadow Mary.
That is an ominous word. It is a dominating word. In the ancient world, it was sometimes used to describe a conqueror overshadowing a subject nation. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 7, p399-400. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds.) It is a word that leads me to wonder if God was inviting Mary to be a partner in the gift of salvation, or if God was simply using Mary as a tool. The power of God overshadowed Mary, and what choice did she have?
Well, as it turns out, she may have had a few options. Do you remember Moses? God said, “Moses, you are the one. You will lead my people out of slavery in Egypt.” Did Moses say, “Let it be with me according to your word?” No.
Moses said, “I’m not really a public speaker. Find somebody else.” Granted, God kept after Moses and badgered him into accepting the mission, but Moses was no Mary.
You may remember Jonah. God gave a mission to Jonah, to travel to the capital city of the enemy and call them to repent. Did Jonah say, “I am at your service, Lord?” No. Jonah ran away on the first boat out of town. Granted, God caused Jonah to be swallowed by a big fish and then vomited up on the beach after three days, but Jonah was no Mary.
Mary could have resisted. She could have tried to argue God out of this foolish plan. She could have insisted that she was not the right woman for the job. She did not. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Yet I am left with this troubling notion that Mary may not have had much say in her future. God had decided. Perhaps to her credit, Mary did not resist, but from the beginning decided she would be a good and faithful servant in the midst of these events that she could not control. I believe in a God who gives us the freedom to choose how we will act in this life, and today’s scripture is perplexing.
It is troubling. It is perplexing. Unless there is another option.
The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, but for many hundreds of years, faithful Jews knew only the Greek version of those scriptures. We call it the Septuagint, and it was the standard of the Old Testament much like the King James Version of the Bible was the standard for Christians for so many years. For the writers of the New Testament—including Luke—the Greek version was the only Bible they knew.
In that Greek version of the Old Testament, the ominous word “overshadow” was used only a few times (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). Perhaps the most important place that word was used came toward the end of the book of Exodus (40:34ff). Moses and the people of Egypt were out in the wilderness seeking their freedom from the Egyptians. You may recall that God went before them as a pillar of cloud in the daytime and as a pillar of fire at night. The people would watch this divine pillar, and whenever it would move, they would follow. God led them through the barren wilderness, ultimately to safety, security and to their own land. The pillar of cloud and fire represented for the people of Israel the comforting, protecting and leading presence of God. This pillar overshadowed the tabernacle of God. It overshadowed the people of Israel. God’s presence overshadowed them in the sense of guiding them and being present with them in the time when they were most vulnerable.
Luke knew his Old Testament—in Greek. This was the sense of overshadowing that Luke understood. The power of the Most High overshadowed Mary during her most vulnerable time—a virgin engaged to be married who found herself pregnant. This may not have been welcome news to Mary, but God overshadowed her. Through Gabriel, God promised to protect her and guide her, even though every circumstance of her life was out of control. More than that, God would work to see to it that these circumstances actually came to benefit all Creation. Mary’s child would bring God’s peace to every one of us.
The reality is that we are all dominated by circumstances from time to time. We are dominated by economic forces beyond our control, illness, bureaucracies, our own weaknesses. Various messengers come to us again and again with messages about what will happen to us. Sometimes it feels as if there is very little of this life that we can control.
Perhaps we don’t have as much choice as we would like, but the story of Mary can remind us that the power of the Most High overshadows us. God guides us by day and by night. God is with us when we are at our most vulnerable. God works in the unmanageable circumstances of our lives to give us hope and a future. You are overshadowed. Thanks be to God!
This week, I will turn to the compelling story of young Mary, a woman who is not mistress of her own fate, yet who is still able to say yes to the gracious, powerful action of God. Luke’s Mary is a figure tailor made for the wonder and mystery we associate with Christmas. She is as wide-eyed as any child who awaits the promise of the season. There is also a side of her that is mature beyond her years and station.
Luke 1:26-27 Six months after Elizabeth conceived, God turned from the old barren couple to the young unmarried woman. God’s grace spans the spectrum of human life—young and old, rich and poor, proud and humble. In this week’s text, God sent the angel to a backwater village to an anonymous woman. Nazareth, as Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock point out, is never named in the Old Testament, nor is it mentioned in any other ancient sources (The People’s New Testament Commentary). Nazareth was the Trona of ancient Palestine.
This is a preachable element, God’s dramatic action through the most undramatic of worldly players—Nazareth and Mary. Sometimes I feel as if I overdo that image at Christmas, but given Luke’s remarkable attention to that very subject, perhaps it is fitting. God acts with and through the nobodies of this world. Or to put a spin on it—in God’s eyes, there are no nobodies.
1:28-30 The angel uses the term “favored one” to greet Mary and then repeats it at verse 30. Mary pondered this greeting. Is she wondering how she could be considered favored? What has she done? Could the angel have come to the wrong person?
Of course, if Mary paid attention to scripture, she would know that to be a favored one of God is a mixed blessing. Those favored in scripture have a hard road. Those whom God calls face every difficulty, from within and from without. Mary should be afraid at this news. It is a fearful thing to enter into service of this God.
1:31-33 The word “will” appears six times in these three verses (with more to come!). To me, that word carries the weight of divine certainty. Some of the action belongs to God, some to Mary and some to the son. Yet, as much as I believe in the divine permissiveness, that God grants us great freedom—including the freedom to accept or reject God and God’s purposes—there seems to be no room here for argument or discussion. Mary does not seem to have the option of saying “no.” That is disturbing to me, but remains the prerogative of God. Clearly, it is God who is acting here.
1:34-37 Mary here does not argue, but does raise a point of order. “How in Creation is this thing possible, since I am a virgin?” The answer is, of course, by the power of God which is not limited to the regular order of things. God will do what God will do, with or without Mary’s assent. This is a troubling idea for those of us who believe God gives us the freedom to say “no.” It is a potential way in to the text, but as of yet, I’m not sure how to find the way out.
I am hoping my colleagues who have more of a background in Greek will help me with the word “overshadow” in verse 35. It seems like a significant word.
1:38 Mary’s response is a rather calm acceptance. Her world has been turned upside down in an instance, and all she can say is “Okay, that’s cool. Let it be as you have said.” I wonder if Luke hasn’t compressed the story. Mary’s response seems more reasonable if she had some time to reflect on things.
I am considering preaching about what might have happened between verse 37 and verse 38. How did Mary wrestle with the message before she came to the point of acceptance. The reason this is critical, is it connects more with our experience of life. When we suspect we hear the call of God, most of us to not immediately respond with, “Here I am. Let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s faithful response is only a possible model for us if we are allowed to doubt, question and be afraid before we say “yes.”
Isaiah 61:1-4, 11
When it comes to decorating our home for Christmas, my wife Desiree and I have two distinctly different styles. My style could be described as minimalist—or as Desiree puts it, “Grinchy”—and her style is best described as Times Square.
If I lived by myself, my house might have a tree during the Christmas season, and most times, that tree would get decorated. In Desiree’s ideal world, the house would be lit up like the house from the Chevy Chase movie Christmas Vacation, only not so subtle. We’re different.
You have to admit that Christmas decorations are a part of the charm of the holiday season, whether you like a little or a lot. Lights and wreaths and song reflect the festive holiday mood, and help us to enter into that spirit of joy and peace that we connect with the birth of Jesus.
The promises that Christians have come to associate with Jesus’ coming, the words of the prophets of Israel—particularly the prophet Isaiah—are themselves associated with festive rejoicing. Today’s text takes us right to the reasons Jesus’ birth is such a joyful occasion. Jesus’ coming brings good news. It brings freedom and reconciliation and restoration.
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 proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…to comfort all who mourn.
That is a reason to rejoice!
Isaiah wasn’t speaking about Jesus specifically in these verses. He was prophesying about the one who would bring the people of Israel back from exile so they could rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. It is hard to know which historical figure Isaiah intends. It could even be the pagan king Cyrus, who gave the order to allow the exiles to go home. But Jesus himself used these verses in his first public preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30). He took this mantle of liberation upon himself. He is the one full of God’s spirit, anointed to bring good news, and we rejoice at his birth.
What I love about this text from Isaiah is that this inner joy at freedom and liberation is reflected in the outer person. The people who were formerly mourning at the state of affairs of their lives, who were wearing the ashes of repentance will now be wearing a garland. Isn’t that great Christmas imagery? They will wear the oil of gladness, and a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will decorate themselves on the outside because they have been renewed on the inside. They were formerly depressed of spirit, and mourning the loss of their homeland, but that has changed. Something new and wonderful has happened. Do not weep, but rejoice, and let the whole world see you are rejoicing.
Some people believe that in this nation our freedom to celebrate Christmas is imperiled, that our ability to show the world that we are rejoicing at our remembrance of the birth of Jesus is under threat what with the insidious “Happy Holidays” and the so-called War on Christmas. And you know what, there are some Americans who believe we should not display our garland of salvation and oil of gladness to the world. Quite in opposition to the prophet Isaiah, they believe that public rejoicing over the birth of Jesus is completely inappropriate. They are called Pilgrims, and they arrived in this land hundreds of years ago. They established the first colonies that became the United States of America. And they didn’t like Christmas.
The following notice comes from the 1700s:
PUBLICK NOTICE: The observation of Christmas having been deemed a sacrilege, the exchanging of gifts and greetings, dressing in fine clothing, feasting and similar satanical practices are hereby FORBIDDEN with the offender liable to a fine of five shillings.
The notice from the prophet Isaiah comes from the Sixth Century b.c.: give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. There may be a time for mourning and repentance, but the salvation of Jesus Christ gives us true reason to rejoice.
In my curmudgeony life, Christmas decorations work on me. I don’t put up a tree and put out lights or otherwise decorate my house because I am feeling joyful, I do it because my wife orders me to do it. I do it because a date on the calendar has arrived, and it is time to start hauling up the boxes from beneath the house. Yet, as the decorations go up, as the houses light up one by one, my spirit lifts a little bit. I become less of an adult weighed down by the problems of the world, and more of a child, imbued with a spirit of hope and anticipation. The outer decorations do not come up because I am happy on the inside, but I become happy on the inside because I see the festivity of the outer decorations.
And so, if that happens because of some lights and an inflatable Santa Claus driving a stock car on the lawn down the street, why couldn’t I intentionally decorate my life to have the same effect—on myself and on others. If my life were that radiant, don’t you think it would have an effect on me and my mood? Don’t you think it would have an effect on others? We always made fun of the science teacher in high school that wore a tie that had Christmas lights that actually lit up, but think about it. It is hard to take yourself too seriously if you’re wearing a tie like that. How grumpy can you get if you’re wearing a tie that has twinkling lights on it?
So I thought, what would it take to decorate my life? How do you decorate a life anyway? That got me thinking about our Advent wreath. There are four candles here. They are named Hope, Peace, Love and Joy.
Decorate your life with Hope. Tutor a young child or plant a tree. Those are hopeful acts. They display confidence in a future God will provide. Decorate your life with Hope.
Decorate your life with Peace. Give a telephone call to someone with whom you have been estranged. Share a plate of cookies with the meanest neighbor on the block. Those actions fulfill our calling to be peacemakers. Decorate your life with Peace.
Decorate your life with Love. Give up a precious Saturday and donate your time to building a Habitat for Humanity house. Visit a lonely neighbor. Those kinds of sacrificial actions echo the sacrificial love of God through Jesus Christ. Decorate your life with Love.
Decorate your life with Joy. Join a group of Christmas carolers. Take a poinsettia to someone in the hospital or a nursing home. Do something—anything—that adds a little more beauty to this already beautiful world God has put into our hands. Decorate your life with Joy.
As much as I hate to admit it, I think Desiree is right…again. The outer decoration can help create an inner reality. It isn’t simply that I put up a tree or take on the oil of gladness because I am joyful and happy. They help me to become joyful and happy. And why am I joyful and happy? It certainly isn’t because everything in the world and in my life is perfect. It is because God has brought good news. The oppressed are being released. The brokenhearted are being comforted. The captives are being set free. God has already begun this work, and it continues, and that is why we continue to celebrate birth of the agent of God’s saving work, Jesus Christ.
So go, decorate your life with Hope, Peace, Love and Joy.
What is a good neighbor and how do you become one?
It has been said that good fences make good neighbors. There is actually some scientific evidence that indicates that good boundaries actually do make good neighbors—or at the very least, they reduce conflict. Some people would tell you that a good neighbor minds his or her business, isn’t nosy, does not get involved.
What is a good neighbor?
It is an important question for people of faith. Attentive students of scripture will note that our greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. And the second part of that can never be removed from the first: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. What is a good neighbor?
The gospel according to Luke tells a story of Jesus as he was preparing to go to Jerusalem—“preparing to go to Jerusalem” is code for “Jesus is going up to die.” As his ministry came to a head, conflict between Jesus and the authorities was ratcheted up. In this story, a lawyer, of all people, tested Jesus with the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus knew the answer. The lawyer knew the answer. Everybody standing around listening to the conversation knew the answer. What is written in the law? Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Simple.
The lawyer pushed Jesus a little further. “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus might have given the lawyer a legal definition of the term “neighbor.” Jesus might have delineated all the characteristics that make a person a true neighbor and described the things that disqualified one from neighborly status. Instead, he told a story, a story that is one of our most well known stories in the New Testament.
There was a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way, he was beaten senseless by robbers who took everything, including his clothes, and left him to die. The first person who came along was the good pastor of the local United Methodist church. He saw the beaten man, and might have called 911, but the battery on his cell phone was low, and he wanted to save the charge in case of emergency. He passed by on the other side of the road. The next person by was the lay leader of the church, and he quickly decided that discretion is the better part of valor, and so he passed by on the other side of the road. Finally, along came a third man. Jesus, a good Jew, said the man was a Samaritan. If Jesus and his audience had been from San Pedro High School, he would have said the man was a Narbonne alum. If Jesus had been a good Sunni Muslim, he would have said the man was Shi’a. The point is that the man who came along next and the man who had been beaten and robbed, were enemies. They were from two groups of people who did not like each other. This man—Samaritan, Gaucho, Shi’a—stopped. Tended to the wounded man, put him on the donkey and went down the road to the nearest inn. Then, he handed over his credit card to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of this man. Do whatever you need to do. Put it all on my card.”
Which of these three—the good pastor, the fine lay leader or the Samaritan—proved to be a neighbor to the man who had been robbed, beaten and left for dead?
* * * * *
A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Bible scholar Robert Capon (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, 209ff.) says we should pay particular attention to “the physical remarkability” of this trip. Jerusalem, capital city and home to the Temple, is about 2,500 feet above the Mediterranean, and Jericho is located all the way down 825 feet below the sea. It is a steep descent. In fact, such a journey straight down reminds Capon of another trip straight down, the journey Jesus took into the territory of death.
And so Capon concludes that the main thrust of the story is not about neighbors, but about the saving death of Jesus. What happens is that the people who should get it, who should understand—the well educated pastor and the dedicated lay leader—don’t get it. The Samaritan, the despised stranger, does get it. He becomes a neighbor to Jesus, he participates in the death—and therefore resurrection—of Jesus by stopping his donkey, putting the wounded Christ-figure on the donkey, and spending whatever it takes for the man at the nearest inn. That is the story Capon tells us, and it makes some sense, especially in the gospel according to Luke.
What is a good neighbor?
A good neighbor is one who ministers to Jesus as he lays bruised and battered and near death on the Jerusalem-to-Jericho road. And guess what? That nearly dead Jesus is sprawled out in a bloody heap all over this town. The gospels remind us that when we love the least, the lost, lonely, the weakest among us, we are loving Jesus.
They are everywhere. There is the elderly woman who lives three doors up the street and can barely take care of herself. There are the children whose parents work two jobs, and so those kids have nothing to do but run around after school without anyone to guide them. There are the chronically destitute who shuffle around town desperately searching for a moment of peace now and again. There is the new mother across the street who brought home her first child a few weeks ago, but is now so depressed she doesn’t know what to do with herself or her baby. Jesus is lying in a ditch all over town.
What is a good neighbor? I don’t suppose Jesus would ever say that good fences make good neighbors. I can’t imagine he would say that good neighbors mind their own business and keep to themselves. I think Jesus did say, a good neighbor stops the car, gets out and tends to the wounds of Jesus, which means tending to the wounds of the lost, the least, the lonely and the hopeless. They are the Christ figures to us as we journey from the heights of Jerusalem to the bottom of the road in Jericho. A good neighbor pays attention, and a good neighbor acts.
“What is a good neighbor?” naturally leads to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus is my neighbor, who traveled the road from the heights to the depths for me, for you. Jesus is my neighbor, who was battered and bruised and left to die by the side of that road. Jesus is my neighbor, and I see him in the scarred and unwashed face of the woman sleeping at the bus stop. I see him in the rude behaviors of the children who run the streets because they have no one to guide them. I see him in the sad face of the old man who lives alone at the end of the block. I see him in the careworn face of the man who has just brought his wife home from yet another radiation treatment.
Which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? The one who showed him mercy.
Go and do likewise.