2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
We have made it to Epiphany! And, unlike the Christmas story in the Bible which doesn’t actually mention gifts, Epiphany is in a sense all about gifts. To be honest, I have always wondered about the gifts the wise people offered to Mary and Joseph the new parents, and the baby Jesus. What would they be able to do with gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, anyway? I got a good laugh when I saw a meme on Facebook the other day that suggested that, after the Wise Men had brought their gifts to Mary and Joseph and Jesus, the Wiser Women also came bearing gifts, but of a different kind: they brought diapers, and formula, and meals for a week! So much more practical, right?
And then there’s the Little Drummer Boy, who according to the song, came to the baby Jesus’ side and also gave him a gift—a drum solo. Now, I am not a parent, but I know a few, and I think you would be hard pressed to find any parent who would welcome a visitor playing a drum solo for their baby, especially when sleep is already so hard to come by for parents of a new born!
Before we get too hard on the original gifts-givers for their gifts, though, it is worth noting that the gifts of the wise people, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, had great value. Scripture doesn’t tell us how they used those gifts, but they do say that the family left Bethlehem for Egypt as refugees without going home to Nazareth first, bringing nothing with them but what they could carry on foot and donkey, and the gifts of the wise people could very well have given them the means to survive the journey and get themselves settled for their several year stay in a foreign land. So given the circumstances, the gifts the wise men had to offer the family—items of wealth, impractical as they may appear—may actually have been just what they needed after all.
And about that drum solo. The second verse of the Little Drummer Boy says, “Little baby, I am a poor boy too, I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give a king, shall I play for you, on my drum.” The third verse goes on to say that the boy played his best for the baby, giving all he had to honor the newborn. And so, as crazy as it might sound to anyone who has parented a newborn baby, maybe the drummer boy had the right idea, too.
We have reflected for the last few weeks on the gift that we have received at Christmas, knowing God’s presence in our lives every day, being in relationship with a God who knows exactly what it means to be human, witnessing the breaking in of a God who promises to transform our world, and us. So, it is really only fitting that we spend some time thinking about what we can give to Jesus, and how. In the days of the maji, the star led the wise people straight to the stable where Jesus lay, and they offered their gifts directly to the newborn, giving what they had. The Little Drummer of the song does the same, giving the best that he was to the child in the manger in front of him.
Here we are, some 2000 years later. Assuming that most of us don’t have a store of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to offer, and that Mary and Joseph wouldn’t have much use for diapers now even if we could get them to Bethlehem, how are we to go about bringing gifts to celebrate the birth of the Son of God in our midst today? And, what should we bring?
We don’t have to travel to Bethlehem, as the wise people did, to find Jesus. Today, the star leads us not only to foreign lands, but to Christ in our midst, all around us, in every moment. In our church family here at Bethel and the worship and fellowship we share together, absolutely. And also, in our families, our neighborhoods, our workplaces and schools, in all the world around us.
If we pay attention, the star is always leading us to where our unique gifts are needed most. And just as the wise people and the drummer boy did, we are invited to give of what we have to honor Immanuel, God with Us. The wise people had wealth and shared it, the drummer boy had no wealth but had a gift of music, and he shared that.
What do we have to offer, as a gift to the God who showed up as a babe to transform us and our world? What do you have to share with your family, neighbors, co-workers, classmates, or the person checking you out at the grocery store?
On this day of Epiphany, as we remember the gifts given to the Holy Family by the wise people, let us take a few minutes to think of what we have to give, and commit to intentionally sharing the gifts that we have—the gifts that we are—with Christ in our midst.
Jesus’ Baby Book
41Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50But they did not understand what he said to them. 51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood, really. Luke provides us with a detailed story of Jesus’ birth—where he was born, who was there, the shepherds visiting after the angel came to them. And, we are told in Matthew of the visit of the wise people, and the Holy Family leaving soon after for Egypt, when Jesus was probably no more than a couple of years old. Then, back in Luke, in today’s gospel, we have a story of Jesus around the age of 12, leaving his parents and going to the temple, where they finally find him. And then, nothing, until Jesus is somewhere around 30 years old, and he begins his public ministry.
One can imagine Jesus’ baby book, the first several pages full of pictures from his early days, a note stuck in the back about how Mary and Joseph found him in the temple when he was 12, and then, blank pages until he was a grown man and the world around him started to really take notice of what he was saying and doing. So, parents, if you ever feel guilty about not having a complete baby book for each of your children, don’t worry, you aren’t the only one!
But let’s go back to the scene at the temple, and Jesus’ wandering away from his parents. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus for three days. Now, when I was young, my grandmother was visiting us and babysitting while my parents were out of town. All of a sudden, my younger brother Phil was nowhere to be found. Panic ensued, as my grandmother started looking for him anywhere she could think, enlisted the neighbors to help, and we all went around yelling his name. They were just on the verge of calling the police when someone finally thought to look in the boat, which sat in the driveway with a cover on it to keep rain from getting in. Sure enough, my younger brother, who loved (and still loves) boats, had managed to undo enough snaps on the cover to slip inside, and he had climbed in and taken a nap. Found at last. It probably felt like forever to my poor grandmother, who was dreading the thought of having to call my parents to let them know she had lost their child, but really, it was likely only about 20 minutes or so.
Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus for three days! Three days of walking, asking everyone they encountered if they had seen Jesus, trying to come up with more ideas of where to look, imagining the worst. If my grandmother dreaded calling my parents, Mary must have been horrified at the thought of having to account to God for losing track of His son!
And then, after all of that, they found him, confidently and clearly explaining the scriptures to the temple teachers, while they asked him questions and were astounded at his wisdom, and the young Jesus seemingly unconcerned about how desperately his parents must have been searching for him. It is no wonder then, that Mary is at once flooded with relief, shocked at finding him in the temple, where she and Joseph hadn’t thought to look, and angry at seeing him so calm when they had been so worried about him. This is not a peaceful, serene Mary, but one as frantic as my grandmother was at losing my brother, as panicked as any of us would be if we could not find a child in our care. And so, Mary calls Jesus, the 12 year old Son of the living God, to account. “How could you do this to us? Wander away for so long? Did you not ever once think about how terrified we would be, searching for you all this time?”
Jesus’ answer doesn’t really satisfy his parents, as they don’t understand it, but as we listen today to Jesus’ words we notice that at the age of 12 Jesus already related to God as his father, and knew he belonged in his father’s house—an unusual thought at the time. Luke also tells us that, having wandered away from his parents so disrespectfully, and having been called out by Mary for having done so, Jesus went home with them and obeyed them, and grew up and learned and gained wisdom, as we hopefully all do. And the next we hear of Jesus, he is an adult, and preparing to enter public life, after so many quiet years of living the seemingly ordinary life of a young Jewish boy/man in first century Palestine.
And so, we know that Jesus did not just go straight from innocent baby to preacher who was known to everyone around, including the Roman leaders, with nothing in between. Jesus lived, as we do, with parents, family, friends, work, Synagogue life, school, and everything else that went along with being human, just like we do. He upset his parents, as all children do. He grew up, as we all do.
From this small snippet we have about the adolescent Jesus, we are assured again that in Jesus, we have a God who knows exactly what it means to be human. And Mary and Joseph raised Jesus just as all Jewish children around them were being raised, loving him, teaching him, bringing him to the Synagogue, and yes, freaking out when they thought he was in danger.
In the midst of this ordinary life we lead, knowing Jesus means that God is right here with us, not just in the big things, but in all of the ordinary everyday things that go along with being human. Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, shows us that there is no place and no thing where God is not. And this is the good news of Christmas for us as Christians—in Jesus, we are never alone on our human journey, because God is there, in the tiniest details of our daily life. With Mary and Joseph, we can ponder all of these things in our hearts, and grow in our awareness of God in our midst. Thanks be to God!
Luke 1:39-5539In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Every year, as we observe Advent, I always have to watch the Muppet Christmas Carol. When the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present visits Scrooge on Christmas Eve, he says, “It’s the night before the dawn before the day of Christmas!” Today being December 23rd, I guess I can say to you, “It’s the day before the night before the dawn before the day of Christmas!” So close, but we are not quite there, yet. We have lit the 4th candle, but the 5th candle waits, unlit, for tomorrow evening.
Today is about finishing our Advent time of waiting and preparing. Mary, we hear, is with Elizabeth, talking over what has happened and what they have heard, the promises that their whole world is about to change. But, it hasn’t changed yet. They are in what Lutheran Theologian Rudolph Bultmann describes as the space between the “no longer” and the “not yet.” That uncomfortable place between where you have been, and where you are going. Between what the world has been like, and what you hope it will be. That very awkward in-between space.
It’s kind of like that time when you suddenly feel too old for the kids’ table at holiday dinners, but not yet old enough to be comfortable at the adult’s table. When the surgery is over, but recovery has hardly begun. When the funeral of a loved one is past, but you still don’t have any idea what life will look like without them. When you have stopped using alcohol, but don’t know how to live sober.
We live in a world that is changing so quickly it’s almost impossible to keep up, a world of “no longer” in many ways, but also “not yet.” People still live in hunger, violence is a present reality in too many places, we are in so many ways in need of the restoration promised by God in Micah today, we need God to redeem our world. And, we at Bethel continue to walk together through our own time of “no longer” and “not yet,” as our pastoral transition unfolds and the path forward is revealed.
And this is, I think, a natural part of life. Change is always ongoing, transformation is necessary for growth, and the world is never stagnant, but always in motion. We may rest in place for a season, but then inevitably we journey onward from where we are to where God is leading us, and rarely do we know where that is or what it might look like. Sometimes, it feels more clear than others, but the reality is that we are always somewhere in that space between “no longer” what we used to be, and “not yet” what we will be. In one way or another, we are in motion, from the time we are born to the time we die, and the world around us is changing, too.
Mary, like us, lives in a world that is “not yet” the way God promises it can be, a world where the people are not free and hunger and oppression and violence are all around them. And her own life is shifting dramatically, and has since the moment the angel appeared and invited her to carry Jesus, the son of the God of the universe, in her womb. I can only imagine how she must have felt as she lived into this new reality, and began to realize what exactly she had said “yes” to! She was no longer just an average young engaged Jewish woman in her community—she is now pregnant with no easy way to explain it, not yet married, uncertain about how all of this will impact her future with Joseph and her place in the world. What she did know and trust is that what was happening would impact not only her, but the whole world, as God’s coming to earth made everything new.
So what did Mary do? She went to see Elizabeth, who was perhaps one of the few people who could possibly understand how she felt, someone with whom she could share the journey. And, Mary claims the promise, believing that God was sending Jesus out of faithfulness to a covenant that went back generations. Mary sings of the hungry being filled, the lowly being lifted, and the world as she knows it being literally turned upside down as God transforms brokenness and injustice into restoration and joy. She sings as if it has already happened, but it hasn’t—yet. But she knows it is coming. She leans into the promise, trusting in a God she knows is faithful.
Even as we continue to live in that space between the “no longer” and “not yet,” in a world full of beauty and love and also brokenness and pain and division, we remember God’s coming to us in Jesus. We come together today so we share the anticipation, and the anxiety and fears, of living in that in between place. We come together today so that we too can claim God’s faithfulness, justice, and love.
On this day before the night before the dawn before the day of Christmas, we come together to lean into hope and joy as Mary did, as we also trust in a God who keeps their promises. The world is not as it should be, yet, but even as we continue to wait for Jesus’ coming, we can be confident that God is bringing justice and love and healing to this world, and we can do what Jesus did—live into the promise by feeding the hungry, standing with those cast aside, breaking down the walls that separate people from each other—claiming the promise of God to restore our world. We live into what we know is coming, trusting that God will remember us in his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Thanks be to God!
Reading: Luke 3:1-6
3In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Last week, we talked about Advent being a time of waiting, anticipating the coming of our God in the flesh of a tiny baby, in Jesus. Recognizing the importance of taking our eyes off of our to-do lists long enough to remember why it is that we celebrate the birth of this one small, vulnerable, poor, migrant, baby in the first place. Taking a pause in the rush and bustle of our busy-ness to reflect on what we are waiting for, and who Jesus is.
This week is different. Instead of waiting and watching, calling out where we see God alive in our midst, we are invited to prepare, in a very active way. Level the mountains, fill the valleys, straighten the crooked roads, smooth the rough paths. Pay attention to those things in us that need leveling, filling, straightening, smoothing—to wait, but also to prepare for the one for whom we wait.
It feels like we are back in the story of Mary and Martha—Mary, spending time sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening and being present with him, and Martha, preparing food and drink and all the other things necessary to make Jesus welcome in their home. The ages old question persists, in this world in which we want to know that one right answer. So which is it? Are we to wait and watch, or prepare? Prepare or wait? How do we use this Advent time of anticipation of Jesus’ birthday?
A few years ago, I had the privilege of traveling to Tanzania to spend time with the people of the Lutheran Church of Tanzania and the ministries they share with their communities. As I thought about offering hospitality to family and friends, and once again welcoming Jesus, and putting down the to-do list, I was brought back to the days in Tanzania.
I remembered a couple of hours spent in an airport waiting for a flight, glancing in shop windows looking for chocolate, which was in short supply in Tanzania. As I purposefully strode down the hall, I heard a voice call out to me, “Polepole!” Slowly, slowly! Everything, and I mean everything, is “polepole” in Tanzania. The last night we spent in Arusha, our group acknowledged this by going to a restaurant, placing our orders, leaving, and returning a couple of hours later to eat. No rushing, no urgency, just staying in the present, taking things as they came. Kind of like we are asked to do in Advent, this season of waiting and watching and anticipating.
Leveling the mountains, raising the valleys, making crooked roads straight takes on a different meaning in a country with almost no paved roads! After a rain, tractors would be sent out on the dirt roads to physically smooth the rough places carved out by running water. The way had to be prepared again, quite literally, so the rare vehicles could get through. Kind of like we need to do in Advent—notice what is taking up space and getting in our way, so we can make room for Jesus to take his place in our lives and our hearts. Prepare ourselves, allow God to prepare us, to be truly hospitable, to one another, and to the presence of God in our midst.
I learned more about hospitality in Tanzania than probably anywhere else I have ever been. We were invited into several homes, and our experience in each was quite different. One home was beautifully decorated, with several rooms, electricity, and running water, including a sink built into their dining room so it is available for guests to wash their hands before eating. We were served a veritable feast, a table overflowing with food that had been prepared to welcome us.
Another home had two rooms, separated by a curtain, with a dirt floor covered by hay, no running water or electricity. By our standards, this family of six had nothing. When we had visited a while, the mother said, “you can’t leave until you take something.” Upon hearing this, I looked around, wondering what on earth we could possibly take from them. She stepped behind the curtain and brought us a pail of water and cup with which to wash our hands. Then, she served us tea with sugar—a rare treat in Tanzania—and homemade cakes made with ground corn.
In a third home, we were given a banana leaf, cut open to reveal its moist insides, so we could use it to clean our hands before eating a handful of roasted nuts, another rare treat.
I realized as I reflected on these experiences that, as different as the homes were that we visited, the hospitality, the thought for the comfort of the guest, the pure joy on the faces of our hosts at having something to share and people to share it with, was the same. I learned that no matter how little I seem to have, I will always have enough to share.
Wait, or prepare? Prepare, or wait? I think the answer, in true Lutheran fashion, is both-and. Our hosts certainly prepared for our coming, so they could provide a way for us to wash, food to eat. They also waited, anticipating our arrival in a spirit of “polepole,” as if nothing were more important than welcoming us to their homes.
As we continue our Advent journey, we are invited to wait and watch, to look for God in our midst as we anticipate the celebration of Christmas. We prepare food and gifts and our homes for those with whom we will celebrate. And, we ask God to open our hearts and minds and clear away the hills and valleys and rough places, those things that prevent us from welcoming one another, that keep us from being able to see God at work in our lives and the lives of those around us. As we celebrate Kashton’s baptism today, we remember our own baptisms, and the promise that God will continue to transform us, every day.
Most importantly, we have a God who, we are told, comes to us in overflowing love, and promises to be faithful to us, and that is what we are anticipating. So, polepole! Slowly, slowly, we wait and watch and prepare for the one who was, who is, and who is to come. What better way to spend this time before Christmas, than to reflect on God’s love and promise, and prepare to receive it, and share it, anew.
Reading: Luke 21:25-3625“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
I can still feel the anticipation that filled me as a child when Thanksgiving came, and I knew Christmas was “just around the corner.” When we were expecting company, I would watch from the couch in our living room, because it had a great view of the street and I would be able to see the guests arriving. I spent the entire month of December, figuratively speaking, leaning over the back of the couch, trying to make the time go faster! I was desperately curious about all the details of the parties being planned—what food would be served, when my cousins would come in from out of town, what service we would attend at church, what Santa would bring me, and could I please, please, please go along when my dad went to pick up my grandmother and great aunts? Every minute seemed like an hour, hours like days, days like weeks. Christmas was all I could think about, and at the same time it felt like it would never get there. Advent is a time to follow what Jesus calls us to do in Luke—watch the signs, be alert and prepared, and I certainly had that down, even if I was more focused on parties and presents than the birth of Jesus!
Time has changed since then, or perhaps, it is my perception that has changed. Now rather than being painfully slow, the month of December flies by so quickly that I hardly have time to realize that it’s Advent before suddenly here it is—Christmas Eve. Being who I am, I am always prepared, at least in one sense. The presents are bought and wrapped, the tree trimmed, food for the family meal prepared. But spiritually and emotionally, I am always taken by surprise when Christmas comes. I spend more time on my to do list and less time leaning over the back of the couch, and as the years go by I find myself yearning for the time I spent as a child simply anticipating.
Our effort to be present and wait during Advent is certainly not helped when we have to walk past several aisles of Christmas decorations in the store in order to get to the Halloween costumes in mid-October, all the while listening to Deck the Halls and Frosty the Snowman piped through the sound system. Everything around us seems to call us to a flurry of activity . . . . buy, bake, order, send, and hurry up because time is running out! And of course, it is important to do the things necessary to get ready to welcome and celebrate with family and friends. But in the midst of all of this activity, on top of the regular daily life that continues, it is easy to forget that Advent is about waiting, and it is particularly easy to forget what we are waiting for.
So, what are we waiting for? The obvious answer is that Advent is a season of waiting for Christmas, Jesus’ birth. But it is so much more than the birth of a baby that we await. God, in all God’s fullness—the God who, as Jeremiah described, will bring justice and righteousness, the God who Luke tells us can place signs in the sun and moon and stars and make the waves and seas roar, the God of all creation—came to live with us in the messiness of life in the person of Jesus. We remember not just the historical event of Jesus’ birth, but the reality of God’s presence and work in us and in the world, here and now. Advent is a time to remember that God is with us today, a time to live in hope.
When we look at the world, it can sometimes be really challenging to have hope. All we need to do is read the headlines to see evidence of pain, suffering, and evil in the world. We hear of the suffering of immigrants desperate for a place of safety and the feelings and actions of fear at our borders. We hear of wars and violence around the world. We hear about raging fires in California and the reports of the distress that our planet is in, and the urgent need for us to respond in caring for the earth, our home.
The pain of this world is not new. A couple of weeks ago, we heard Jesus telling his disciples that no stone would be left on another. In the verses before today’s passage in Luke, Jesus describes war, earthquakes, betrayal, murder, destruction. And he encourages his followers, promising that nothing is too much for God to overcome, that life will come out of destruction and death. With the psalmist, we can bring the brokenness of our communities, and our own pain and brokenness, to God, and put our trust in the God who has promised to lead us and protect us, and ask God to be faithful to we who wait.
The miracle of the hope we have in Advent is that we are waiting on a God who has never turned away from our pain. As Christians today, whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, whatever challenges we face, we await the birth of Jesus knowing the rest of the story—Jesus lived, taught, challenged, loved, forgave, healed, called. And Jesus died—and rose again. Death was not the last word then, and it is not the last word today. Jesus transformed people’s lives, and we are invited to put ourselves completely in God’s hands, like clay ready to be formed by the potter, willing to be changed, to be made new.
In Advent, we are called to live in hope that God is with us today, to trust that the kingdom of God is at hand. Waiting, anticipating, living in hope don’t easily find their way onto our “to do lists,” but in this moment, for this season, it is the most important thing for us to do. We don’t know the day or the hour when the kingdom of God will be fully accomplished, but we can keep watch, and if we do, we will see glimpses of it. We can see God at work in the world in the way people love and care for each other, in voices courageously speaking truths that are hard to hear, in the beauty of creation. And we can call out like a watchperson—Hey, look, there it is, God is here, did you see it?—so those around us will also know that we have great reason for hope. We are called to witness to God’s presence by being the hands and feet of God in the world ourselves, by showing God’s love and care for others and calling for justice where it is due, so others can see God at work through us. And most of all, we can put our trust in God, who sends Jesus to show us that we are never alone.
I plan to spend a lot of time leaning over the back of the couch this Advent, anticipating God’s coming into the world anew. I invite you to join me, so we can support each other in our commitment to take seriously the call to keep watch for the presence of God in our midst. We don’t know the day or the hour, but there is plenty of room on the couch, and it has a great view.
Reading: John 18:33-37
33Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
There is so much to think about when we get to this Sunday, Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday. We are at the end of one church year, the start of a new church year, and we are about to begin Advent, the season of waiting together for Jesus’ birth. It is a good time to think about what Jesus means to us, and why we will spend the next month waiting for his coming.
I think it particularly telling that we do not reflect on Jesus as a king by hearing about Palm Sunday, and Jesus’ procession in honor and glory, surrounded by people crying out “Hosanna!” Instead, our lectionary presents us with this text, Jesus standing before Pilate, on trial, accused by his own people, threatened with death by the powerful empire of government that controlled the human world in which he lived, about to be tortured and hung on a cross to die in the most publicly humiliating way imaginable at that time.
Far from being a king triumphant, wielding earthly power and influence and able to rule everyone around him, here he is, vulnerable, weak, unable even to save his own life. Assuming Jesus is a king, he is certainly not the one most of us would picture, but almost the exact opposite of that. Jesus tips our idea of what it means to be a king completely upside down.
As we listen in on his conversation with Pilate, the notoriously brutal Roman leader who literally held Jesus’ fate in his hands, we learn a lot about how Jesus had come to view himself, his place in the world, and his own kingdom. First of all, Jesus makes absolutely no claim to political or royal power in this world. He says, in fact, that his kingdom is not of this world, and his followers are not seeking political or military power on his behalf. Jesus, it seems, is not interested in establishing his own military stronghold here on earth, but is invested in and committed to a completely different sort of kingship.
Pilate, understandably confused about what Jesus is saying, tries to get Jesus to clarify, and Jesus responds by saying that the one reason he came here was to witness to the truth. Jesus’ followers, those who listen to him, belong to the truth. Finally, we have it, a definition of Jesus’ kingdom—a kingdom of truth! Except, as Pilate will ask Jesus in his next breath, what is truth? And how do we know if we belong to the truth? In other words, how do know if we belong to God’s kingdom?
I imagine I am not alone in having struggled at times to find a place to belong. Whether it be in school, a new neighborhood or church or workplace, or even in our own families (anyone ever wondered if they were switched at birth??!), the desire for belonging, and the simultaneous fear that we do not belong, seems to be a part of our human dilemma, our human brokenness.
And the flip side of our fear of not belonging is our tendency to call people “other,” to identify whole groups of human beings as simply not belonging, out of fear, out of a desire perhaps to protect ourselves. We hear this so much in our world today, language that divides us from others along so many different lines, language that sometimes even calls us to question the humanity of other people in our world, in our country. We are, I think, in the middle of a crisis of belonging.
And with so many voices clamoring for our attention, all of them claiming to be the exclusive holder of the truth, we too have to ask along with Pilate what the truth means.
And so, in a seemingly most unlikely image of Jesus as king, we are presented with two very important questions—one of belonging, one of truth—and, I believe, we get some answers, as well. One thing that becomes clear as we read this passage again, and read Daniel and Revelation, is that Jesus is not suggesting that we must know the truth in order to belong. It is not a question of finding the right answer so we earn our place. And to that, I say, Thanks be to God!
The way Jesus talks about belonging as he speaks to Pilate, he is describing more of a birthright than an honor to be achieved. We are BORN children of God, we are BORN into God’s kingdom—or, as Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, a Mujerista theologian, would say, we are BORN into God’s KIN-dom, God’s family. We don’t belong because we know the truth, we belong because we were born God’s family, which is grounded in the truth. We may sometimes not see it or understand it, but deep down, it is at the core of who we are.
And the truth that lives at our core is simply this: as it says in Revelation today, God loves us, frees us from our brokenness, and made us to be God’s kin-dom. There are no conditions, no requirements, no pre-requisites, no tests to pass or dues to pay. We just are. And God’s kin-dom, we are told over and over today, knows no limits—everyone belongs. Even—especially—those who are most likely to be cast out, and rejected, and we know this because Jesus spent most of his time bringing this truth and promise to the very people most likely to be seen as outside the promise of God’s love.
So if you are wondering today where you belong, or even if you belong, this Good News is for you. You do belong, to God’s kin-dom—God’s love and forgiveness and grace are for you. That is God’s truth. Our doors here at Bethel are open, and whether you have been a registered member here for years or are with us for the very first time today, I hope you feel welcome here among this small part of God’s family. And as we wrestle together with questions and challenges and fears and hopes, we can disagree in love knowing that this promise of God’s eternal kin-dom is one thing that will never fail. Thanks be to God!
Reading: Mark 13:1-8
13As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
A few years ago, we went hiking in Tettegouche State Park, and one of the things we made a point of seeing was the scenic Shovel Point arch, a beautiful natural stone structure that was a popular North Shore destination for centuries. We, along with many other people, stood and gazed at the beautiful arch over an inlet of Lake Superior. We had no idea, at that time, that within a few weeks, the top of the 70-foot tall arch, which had been there for thousands of years, would have collapsed into the water, leaving behind a solitary pillar standing 100 feet from the cliff.
Nor did my cousins know when they woke up and began their day in New York City on September 11, 2001, that the Twin Towers, which they saw every day, would be destroyed in an act of terror, leaving, as our gospel today says, no stone upon stone, and devastating loss of life. On the 10th anniversary of that tragedy, in 2011, I asked my 14-year-old high school intern what he knew about September 11th, and he said he knew very little. It occurred to me as I reflected on it how ironic it was that he knew almost nothing about an event that shook our country to its core, and had shaped his entire world. I remember feeling, when that happened, as if things would never be the same again, and in many ways, they never have been. There is an innocence lost, a sense of security violated, and a fear that is triggered when these kinds of events happen, and we are all left wondering what we can trust. Or if we can trust.
Today we watch as the disciples point out the buildings, and especially the temple, to Jesus, and comment about how large the stones are that form the center of their spiritual life. And we hear Jesus tell them that the temple, which they see as indestructible, will come down. For the disciples, I imagine their conversation with Jesus in today’s Gospel must have been something like what we would have experienced if someone had come to us before the Twin Towers came down and told us that no stone would be left on another. Would we have believed them, if they had?
The Gospel of Mark was written in a time when there was a lot of uncertainty, when Jews, including those who believed in Jesus, were under attack by the occupying army of Rome, and violence was a constant threat. In the face of that unrest, the disciples seem to look to the buildings as something that can be depended on, that will not change. “What large buildings, and what large stones!” On the surface, Jesus’ answer is far from comforting. Who wants to hear that the most indestructible thing you can imagine is about to fall apart?
And when they ask when this is going to happen, and how they will know, Jesus’ answer doesn’t seem to be any more helpful. Wars, rumors, earthquakes, famines, deceivers trying to lead us astray, tempting us to trust what cannot survive. And the beginning of our reading from Daniel is not encouraging, promising a time of anguish that has never been seen before. As I sat in text study earlier this week, and we wrestled with our Gospel text together, someone pointed out the only kernel of hope they saw in our “Good News” for today comes in the very last line: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Jesus seems to be suggesting that times like that faced by the disciples in our Gospel today, is like the pain of labor that makes new birth possible. After the darkness, comes the dawn.
Valerie Kaur, a Sikh woman and an activist, spoke at an interfaith prayer service held in 2016 to bring people of faith together after a series of hate crimes, and she said: “So the mother in me asks what if? What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ears “You are brave”? What if this is our nation’s greatest transition? What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then? Push. Because if we don’t push we will die. If we don’t push our nation will die. Tonight we will breathe. Tomorrow we will labor in love through love and your revolutionary love is the magic we will show our children.”
What do you depend on? What in your life, and in our world, do you see as unshakable, indestructible? We live today in a world that holds great uncertainty. Political conflict and uncertainty, violence in many forms around the country and the world, the fires in California and other disasters leaving people dead, injured, and homeless. In our own lives, we may be facing illness, challenges in relationships, economic hardships, or other circumstances that can cause anxiety and fear to take hold as we face what we cannot control. Here at Bethel, living into this time of transition can lead to anxiety and fear as we walk into the unknown.
Jesus has a promise for us in the midst of those situations that cause us to feel like nothing is the same, no stone left on top of another. This is but the beginning of birth pangs, Jesus tells his disciples. And the really good news about this is that, even when all of our human capacity seems to have run out, and maybe the world even seems to be falling apart, birth is coming. Daniel says that the even the dead shall rise. God has not abandoned us, after all, but has walked through this darkness with us, and new life is on its way.
When we celebrate baptism, as we will today for Drew, we are reminded that even when nothing else is still standing, we can depend on God, who never fails us. And we as a community can stand with each other, talk honestly with each other, through all of the changes and challenges that come our way, and labor in love knowing that new life is coming. Thanks be to God!
Reading: John 11:32-4432When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Grief is a tricky thing. We are used to things happening in a linear fashion, and can expect grief to unfold in the same way, that we should progress through the stages of grief one stage at a time, until we reach a magical point where we are finished. Completely ready to move on, with the sadness, anger, loneliness, exhaustion that comes with grief relegated to the past. Those of us who have experienced the death of someone close to us know that this is not how grief works. The memories and spirits of those who have died are a part of us, and grief ebbs and flows over time, but never completely goes away. It is important that we take time each year on All Saints Day to remember those we love who have died, to honor their memories, share stories again of who they were and what they meant to us.
We as Christians live in the promise of Jesus’ resurrection that death is never the final word. Jesus promised us eternal life. Although we don’t know what that will look like, we trust that God’s love knows no limits, not even the limit of physical death. Isaiah tells the people living in exile, separated from loved ones and their sacred land, that God would wipe away all tears. The passage from Revelation promises the same, telling us that death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more. We know because of Jesus’ resurrection, and because of all of the many signs of life and recreation in the world around us, that God really is making all things new. Even death cannot prevent the creative, loving, redemptive Spirit of our God from continually bringing new life into this world, and into our lives.
God promises to make all things new, and we know God keeps his promises. God wipes away all tears. And, the tears of grief are real. I sat with parents whose beloved son had lost his 15-year struggle with depression, and as they considered the message they wanted to share with those who would come to the funeral, they wanted to be sure to include lament, sorrow and grief, because many of those attending were not church participants, did not share faith in the resurrection. The lament, they felt, was for those who did not know that hope. What we realized together is that lament—grief—is for us, too. It is for people of faith that the psalms of crying out to God in sorrow were written. It is for people of faith that the poetry of Revelation speaks.
Jesus himself knows grief. When Mary comes to him and kneels to the ground in her grief and tells Jesus that Lazarus would still be alive if he had not been too late, Jesus does not dismiss or minimize her pain. He does not tell her she is wrong to think this way, or criticize her lament for the brother she has lost. Instead, he feels his own grief. Then he walks, not away from the reality of death, but right into the middle of it, where he can smell its stench. He does not erase death, and grief, but faces it head on without looking away. And in the midst of it, Jesus, the Son of God, weeps.
God cannot wipe away tears from our eyes if we are not crying. God cannot end a mourning that does not exist. The promise of God to bring an end to pain does not mean that death is not real, that our grief is invalid, or that we as people of faith should not feel loss and should not mourn. The promise of God in Jesus is that, in Jesus, when we weep, God weeps with us. And then Jesus calls on God to raise Lazarus from the dead, showing those with him and all of us that death and grief, as real as it is, will never be the final answer.
And there is more to the story. Lazarus comes out of his tomb, alive, but is still wrapped in the burial linens, from the top of his head to his toes. To those witnessing the event, it must have been something like seeing a mummy emerge from a tomb. And Jesus invites them to participate in this miracle of resurrection. “Unbind him,” he says. Lazarus could not unbind himself. Family, friends, neighbors were called to take off that which held Lazarus back, that which separated him from the community.
This invitation is for us too. When we think of those who are today awakening after spiritual, emotional, physical exile, who comes to your mind? Those who have been in prison? Those who have been seriously ill, physically or mentally? Those who have been walking through a deep grief after losing someone significant in their lives? God brings people to life all around us, and we are invited to participate in their resurrection embracing them and bringing them back into the fullness of the community. We are called to unbind our siblings and remove that which separates us.
Today is a day to remember those we love who have died. It is a day to honor their stories, and our own loss and grief. It is also a day to celebrate God’s promise of resurrection and new life, and enter into that promise as we seek to unbind one another. It is a day to remember that God’s love and mercy knows no bounds, and that death is never the final word.
Meagan McLaughlin, SAM at Bethel Lutheran Church
Meagan is our interim SAM. Please enjoy her blog on her sermons.