Yay Trees!

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

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

This week, we celebrated Ayuba turning six months old. We’re often asked how parenthood is treating us. My response has always been, “Delightful and exhausting.” It’s getting a little less exhausting and always more delightful, especially as we see his curiosity grow and interests develop. We’ve been trying diligently to develop Ayuba’s sense of delight and wonder at the world around him, especially for the natural world. Child development research teaches that parents should regularly narrate their daily lives to their babies, facilitating language development as well as curiosity and knowledge. As we take our family walks each day, we talk about flowers, shrubs, weather, and trees.

Ayuba was born in late spring, when the leaves on the trees were lush and full, giving us shade from the sweltering DC heat. We’ve noticed him look up and stare on our family walks, especially at some of the tallest trees in our neighborhood. When Autumn arrived, we pointed out the shimmering red maple leaves lining the walk to his daycare and the yellow gingko leaves carpeting the ground on our block. On Friday, we stopped so he could touch the sweet gum tree leaves that persistently remain on their branches—some of them yellow and some of them steadfastly green.

When Autumn began, I spoke to Ayuba about how the leaves were falling off the trees. I said, “The trees look like they are dying. They are losing all their leaves. It feels sad, but the trees and plants are only sleeping. Winter comes and there is beauty even when everything seems dead, like when it snows. Thankfully, Winter is followed by Spring, when the trees and all the plants all wake up, everything begins to grow, and there is so much beauty and new life.” I will admit that I had a few tears in my eyes. While I’m one of those people who very much loves winter, my favorite time of year is spring.

Trees symbolize what God is doing

My sermon title and our theme for the first Sunday in Advent is “Yay trees!” This came out of an email thread where I listed a few images from different Advent scriptures. Jacob—not looking at the contexts per se—went with them to create themes for each Sunday that could work with our overall Advent 2018 theme, “Let Your Face Shine.” “Yay trees!” represents some of the Advent joy that the Worship Planning Team thought should characterize our preparation for Christmas.

Trees tell us the seasons. In our northern hemisphere, the differences between seasons is starkly seen on trees. Yet even tropical trees vary by the season, in terms of fruit or flowers, depending on the rains or temperature. Two of today’s scripture passages utilize tree imagery to symbolize what God is doing in the world. In each of them, if you want to see what’s going on in the grand scheme of redemption and reconciliation, look at the trees.

A Sobering Fig Tree

In our Luke passage, Jesus gets pretty dark. He foretells a time of trial and tribulation for his disciples, for the Jewish people, and for Jerusalem. It’s a tricky text to interpret. Commentators historically apply it to both an application in Jesus’ day (Roman destruction of Jerusalem, persecution of the early church) and to a future eschatological event, something of the last days (or eschaton, which is the Greek word for the final event). We see cosmic signs, distress among nations, confusion, roaring of the seas and waves, people in a panic: it’s a time characterized by national or global anxiety. Jesus explains that such a time will characterize the Son of Man’s return.

He says to his disciples, “when you see these signs, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is near!” In other words, don’t be afraid—stand tall and trust that God is both with you and will lead to through the tribulation to the final redemption. Jesus instructs the disciples to use the fig tree as an example. Just as we can see that leaves on a tree indicate that summer is here, so we too can look around at signs to see the Kingdom of God at hand. Though there may be anxiety and global turmoil, Jesus’ followers are to stop and recognize that God oversees the final outcome.

Jesus ends our passage by warning his disciples to “stay alert!” “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that the day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be 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” (Luke 21:34-36).

Jesus calls us to “Stay alert!” What aspects of this holiday season, as celebrated within US culture, can cause our hearts to be weighed down by dissipation and drunkenness and worries? Are there practices in our holiday festivities that make us forget that the Kingdom of God is at hand? How can we celebrate the holidays while also using Advent as a time to “stay alert” to God’s Kingdom at work in the world?

God’s Branch

Our passage in Jeremiah also mentions a tree. If you haven’t read Jeremiah (and, I admit, I haven’t read the whole book for a while—which makes me want to re-read its entirety), the Prophet has a rough time. Things are not going well for the people of Judah, so Jeremiah needs to use all sorts of strange object lessons to send a message: Yahweh will judge Judah, destroy the Temple and Jerusalem, and take the people into exile. This is a rather weighty burden for a messenger to bear.

Yet Jeremiah is not all doom and gloom. There are oracles of judgment offset by glimpses of hope. Chapter 30-33 are hope-filled chapters. In chapter 31, Yahweh promises a New Covenant. In 33, we see a vision of restoration and return from exile. The LORD will not abandon his people but will raise up a righteous Branch out of the tree of King David. The Branch image is the agent of God’s deliverance, God’s renewal, and God’s hope.

While there were some good kings and some kind of okay ones, David’s heirs had basically trashed the kingship and helped lead the people astray with idolatry and injustice. Since the people of Judah broke their part of God’s covenant with that idolatry and injustice, Yahweh took away the covenant’s protection. The Babylonians then came and destroyed everything. The people of Judah and even the last King were taken into bondage. Our passage’s context is one of profound loss.

Yet Jeremiah speaks of a promised leader who will not lead God’s people astray but will usher in a reign of justice and righteousness. These words together (justice and righteousness) are codewords for harmony, social justice, and devotion to God. In that day, Jeremiah says, the city and the country will be renewed. It won’t be about the people’s righteousness (or their failure to do what is right), but the city will be defined by God’s righteous reign among them. The place in the last days will be called, “Adonai Tsidkeinu,” or The LORD is our righteousness.

Through the New Testament’s revelation, we interpret the Branch to be Jesus of Nazareth. Jeremiah speaks of the Branch as a message of hope in the face of hopelessness. Against all odds, all grief, all devastation, there is God’s promise of renewal, transformation, and resurrection.

All the music and movies tell us that Christmas time is “supposed to be cheery.” Culturally, that happiness expectation runs from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Yet for many, this season is marked by heavy hearts, mourning loss, dealing with grief, or burdened down by conflict or broken relationships. For many people, Christmas is not an easy time.

The Advent message here is that—amid great pain, sorrow, and unbelievable brokenness—God promises to bring future restoration. Where the NRSV says, “The LORD is our righteousness,” the Message translation paraphrases it, their motto will be, “GOD has set things right for us.” The hope of Advent is not plastering on a smile or pretending to be cheery. Rather, the hope of Advent involves trusting in the God who promises to set things right for us, the God who comes and enters into our broken world to shine the Light of God on our brokenness. Jesus, Immanuel: God with us.

Remember the Fig Tree and the Branch

Today we have two tree images. One is a fig tree sprouting leaves, a sign that our world of injustice and horror will one day have God’s dramatic intervention. This image tells us to be prepared and to use Advent as a time for centering, being on our guard for the distractions that make us forget God’s Kingdom of love, mercy, justice, and peace. The second tree is the image of a branch sprouting out of a tree thought to be dead. It’s an image with hope that God renews the broken, exiled, and devasted, giving a future of new life and restoration.

One tree is sobering and a call to action, the other reminds us that God brings life and hope out of that which appears dead. Each tree has a message for Advent that needs to be told; we might need to hear one message this year and the other message in the next. Perhaps we must hold them both in tension throughout all the weeks leading up to Christmas. Which Advent message do you need to hear today?

Sisters and brothers, remember both the fig tree and the branch. Find that balance between keeping alert and finding solace in God’s hope. Be on your guard for too much feasting or drinking or gifting, that you don’t

lose sight of God’s Kingdom and your role in it. Find solace in God’s hope, in the face of brokenness and loss, trusting that sorrow is not the end, and that God is at work—renewing both this world and you. AMEN.

UP AND DOWN

Mark 9:2-9

Jeff Davidson

What was the best day of your life? Was it the day you got that puppy or kitten for Christmas? Was it the day you graduated from high school, or from college? Was it the day you got married? The day your first child was born? The day you got the promotion at work? The day you retired? The day you won the lottery? If it was that one you’ve been holding out on me.

As maybe you could tell from the timeline of my suggestions, you might have lots of best days in your life. What the best day ever is right now could be eclipsed by some other day yet to come. I still remember when I was a kid and we got our first dog, a dachshund that we named Fritzie. I remember waiting in the car with my mom and my sister while Dad went into the house of the people we got her from. I remember how excited I was watching him walk back to the car holding her, and how wonderful it was to hold on to her wiggly little body while she licked my face. That may have been the best day in my life, at least to that point.

Would I trade graduating from college, though, or from seminary, or marrying Julia for that day again? No. But even though it’s no longer the best day of my life, it was a great day.

Sometimes we refer to wonderful days, fantastic events like that as “mountain top experiences.” A mountain top experience is a moment of transcendent joy and happiness, a moment of supreme importance in life. I wondered where that expression came from, so I played around on google for a while and I couldn’t find a firm background for it, but most of what I read said that the phrase came from the number of important things in the Bible that happened on mountain tops.

Noah’s ark settled on Mt. Ararat after the flood, and God made a covenant with Noah there. It was on Mt. Moriah that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son, and then provided a ram as a substitute. Mt. Moriah is also where Solomon built the temple, where sacrifices would be offered for the forgiveness of sins until Jesus came.

On Mt, Sinai (also known as Mt. Horeb) God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. On Mt. Carmel Elijah and the prophets of Baal had their great contest to see whose prayers would be answered by fire. And after the contest when Elijah ran for his life he travelled to Mt. Horeb and God spoke to him in the still small voice. David built up Jerusalem on Mt. Zion.

Jesus taught His disciples on the Mount of Olives. Today’s reading is about Jesus being transfigured on a mountain while Moses and Elijah (who both had their own mountain top experiences) were seen talking with Jesus. And it certainly was a mountain top experience for James and John and Peter too. I cannot imagine what it must have been like.

On April 3, 1968 – the day before he was assassinated – Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last public speech. It’s known as “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” because of its most famous section. It’s a great speech, and toward the end of it King says:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

That’s a powerful speech. Some of the power, of course, is because King was murdered the next day. Even if that hadn’t happened, though, it would be a great speech. King said that he climbed up to the top of the mountain; what did he do from there? 

I said that I remembered picking up our first dog, Fritzie. What happened next? Well, we took her home. Dad had built a little bed for her, and it went under the sink in the half-bath. It had a cushion in it, and some blankets, and a clock wrapped up because we’d read that the ticking of the clock would remind her of the heartbeats of her brothers and sisters.

I don’t remember the next day exactly – this was maybe when I was in kindergarten. But I’m sure that someone fed her, and someone let her out, and someone walked her. It was probably Mom, since she wasn’t working outside the home then.  After we brought Fritzie home and played with her that first night is when the work of actually owning and caring for a dog really began.

I remember what it was like after my wedding day. We went to Atwood Lake for a few days for a honeymoon. After that we came back home and opened gifts, and then Julia went back to work and I went back to class.

What did Moses do after he went up the mountain? He came back down with the Ten Commandments in hand, only to break them in frustration at the sin and depravity he found. He then went back to the hard work of leading the Hebrew people as they wandered in the wilderness. What did Noah do after leaving the Ark? He came down the mountain and lived another 350 years. He was a farmer and he had a vineyard. He drank too much. He lived his life.

 To answer my earlier question, what did Martin Luther King Jr. do after he had gone up to the mountaintop? He came back down, and continued the struggle even though it cost him his life.

In that, King and Jesus were alike. What happens after Jesus and James and Peter and John go up to the mountain top? They come back down, and Jesus heals a boy possessed by an unclean spirit, and then Jesus discusses his impending death and resurrection.

You can’t live on the mountain top. Sooner or later you have to come back down and get on with the rest of your life. Eventually you have to do your work, earn a living, share your gifts, and do whatever it is God has called you to do.

Even if you could live on the mountain top the rest of your life, would you want to? My wedding was a mountain top experience for me. Do I really want to live the rest of my life in a perpetual wedding? I don’t even have that same charcoal gray suit anymore. Imagine how much sooner it would have worn out if I’d worn it every day after the wedding. I don’t remember exactly what kind of food we had for our wedding reception, but whatever it was I guarantee I would be sick of it if I had eaten it for every meal from then until now.

If I had spent the rest of my life trying to recapture the happiness of that one particular day, I would have missed a lot of growth and a lot of joy and a lot of love in my own life as I have lived it. I would have missed the chance to deepen my love and my relationship with Julia. I would not have become the person that I am, for better or for worse, and would not have touched whatever lives I have touched since then.

In verse 5 of our reading Peter says to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Suppose Jesus had taken him up on it. What next? Well, that might have been okay for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, but there would have been no shelter there for Peter or James or John, so they would have been out in the cold until they could have gotten some. And would they have had food and drink? Jesus and Moses and Elijah would probably have been fine without wine or fish, but mortal men like Peter? Not so much.

No, Peter didn’t really want to stay up there. He’d have realized that if he’d thought it through for a bit. And if Jesus had stayed up on the mountain top, then that boy would never have had the demon cast out. And there would have been no cross. And no resurrection. And no salvation. No kingdom of God to share, no justice to proclaim. No release for the captives, no food for the hungry, no comfort for the mourning.

It was essential for Jesus’s ministry that if he went up the mountain, then eventually he should come down. It was essential for everyone else that we talked about earlier. Moses went up on the mountain and saw the promised land, but he had to come down before the people could enter it. King went up to the mountain top and echoed Moses in saying that he might not get there, but he came down to continue the journey no matter what it would bring. It is essential for us that when we are on the mountain top that we come down to continue to work that needs to be done, to continue moving towards the goal that we see in the distance.

There’s something else that’s essential that we don’t always think about. We need to be ready not just to come down from the mountaintop ourselves, but we need to be ready when we are waiting on the ground for others to come down from the mountaintop.

I remember a young man who went to the Church of the Brethren’s National Youth Conference or NYC. That’s a nationwide gathering of high school youth in the church. It’s once every four years, and about 3,000 youth gather for fun, prayer, worship, learning, service, and a lot more. It’s usually held in Colorado and it is a mountain top experience for most people who go there both literally and figuratively.

The young man I knew was the only high school aged person in his congregation. He came back from NYC excited, enthusiastic, on fire to share and to serve. His congregation, though, didn’t have any outlets for him to do that. There was no youth group for him to be a part of. There were no college age youth. There were no particular opportunities for service. There wasn’t much institutional support.

I don’t know what ever happened to that young man. I do know that he came down from the mountain ready to serve God, but the people waiting for him weren’t prepared to help him turn that energy and that drive and that fire into positive action.

Maybe you have mountain top experiences yet to come. I hope you do. I hope you’re ready to come back down from the mountain and move towards what you saw while you were up there. Maybe you’re not going up the mountain right now. I hope you’re ready to help those who are coming down from the mountain, ready to equip them and support them and strengthen them as they put their dreams and visions into action.

Sometimes we’re going up, but sooner or later we will come down. Whether we are up or down, we can serve God. We can share the kingdom. We can work towards seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. Amen.       

IT’S COSMIC! – EPIPHANY

Isaiah 60:1-6,  Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Nate Hosler

I am not a cosmonaut nor even an average person with a solid grasp of space lore. I did, however, watch the new Star Wars two times already. Given my lack of expertise in this area, and the clear need for space knowledge in this sermon I decided to ask around. Saturday morning, like all good neighbors who don’t want to go outside when it is shockingly cold, I texted my neighbor. Since our houses have a connected crawl space and I could hear them cutting through their pipes in an attempt to remedy a frozen drain line, I could have visited them without quite going outside. Despite this option, I texted—“As my nearest space expert, other than old timey ship navigation, how common is it to be given directions by a star?” I figured that since she works for NASA (specifically she makes videos for NASA) that she would have heard of such events. Her answer, received several hours later, was very practical but didn’t quite address today’s strangely acting star. It was also much different from one theologian’s answer to this question. “The cosmic signs heralding this birth should not be surprising, given that the love born in this humble place is the love that moves the sun and the stars. It is the same love that Jesus will use later to calm the winds and the sea” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 39). Likely neither of these answers is quite what we might expect or produce.

In our text we meet star following travelers. Though Matthew calls the travelers “Magi,” we often hear of them as the three kings or wise men. Because of Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, there grew a tradition of understanding these visitors as “kings.” Magi are a much different thing than kings. “Magi… astrologers…. were a priestly class of Persian or Babylonian experts in occult arts such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams.”(Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 16) Though many nativity scenes show the shepherds and the kings in the same scene there was likely not only minutes but perhaps years between the quick arriving shepherds from the nearby hills and these long distance seekers of Jesus.

From later in the text we can imagine it was about two years. Now, I know that the kings were going far and also traveling by some form non-motorized transportation, but two years seems like a long time. I thought about Google mapping directions from Tehran to Bethlehem but thought that it might get me on some FBI list that might make my travels unnecessarily complicated. I then realized that even if these folks were indeed wise, that getting directions from a star may be a feat that lends itself to wrong turns. So regardless of the point-to-point distance perhaps their path was more wiggly.

The travelers arrive and go to Jerusalem—which would makes sense as a place to find a king. In fact, they go to the present king inquiring about the birth of a new king. King Herod consults his panel of experts and they quickly tell him where the king, the messiah, is to be born. Which raises the question: Why could the scribes so quickly figure out details of the messiah’s birth but miss the coming? One commentator notes that this could be the later writer reading a rejection by Jewish leaders of Jesus back into the text. Is this irony that the leaders in Jerusalem know so much but yet miss the big event? (In False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East—published by Council of Foreign Relations which is considered by many as the leading international affairs shop—recounts how up until the beginning of “Arab Spring”, which rocked the Middle East, almost all the experts assumed that stability was going to continue.) Producing an explanation of an event after the fact is much easier than predicting it. So perhaps we should not be too hard on them.

The traveling kings who were magicians arrive with this dramatic claim. And not only was the location confirmed but the king and “all of Jerusalem” were afraid. Why was “all of Jerusalem” afraid? Wasn’t this what they were waiting for? It could be that it was the king and his court folk who were afraid. They, of course, were doing pretty well in the present arrangement and would be nervous of a change. If this is the case it would be that “all” means those who have their opinions recorded (which continues to be the standard practice—the loudest or most prominent get recorded as the “all).

One commentator notes, that “this Herod was a puppet ‘king’ of Judea at the pleasure of Rome.” (15-16). As such a king he must instill fear to ensure stability through the maintenance of fear. If this were the case, then the “all” being afraid would be because they recognize that with a threatened king it all might hit the fan. The relatively stable, if oppressive, status quo might unravel. Which is in fact what happens a few verses later with the massacre of the innocents.

The king and his panel of experts give directions and send them on their way for the last leg of their epic journey. And they find the holy family. The Magi are overwhelmed with joy. This wasn’t their king nor their deliverer but yet they experience joy. They give their slightly delayed and rather atypical baby gifts and head on home. It is not even clear if they can or do even speak with Mary and Joseph.

Epiphany part 2:

Epiphany of the Magi always occurs on the 6th of January. Today’s passages include the baptism of Jesus which is in some traditions also included in Epiphany. In the passage on the baptism of Jesus a voice speaks from heaven. This cosmic sign allows for greater linguistic articulation. It is like moving from having no words and a few gestures—Say baby Francis who not all that long ago began to smile as a gesture of happiness and recognition—to Micah preaching a sermon last week or Faith being a librarian in a library system that has more than 7 books (according to her via text yesterday) In 2012 at least there were 1,466,010 physical books (https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/housing-complex/blog/13123179/how-did-d-c-s-public-libraries-lose-1-5-million-books

Epiphany, whether the Magi + baptism of Jesus or just the wise folks, point to Jesus. In Ephesians 3:1-12 the process of revelation to Saul—which made him Apostle Paul—is laid out. These 12 verses are a bit of a digression into Paul’s credentials to his work of proclaiming the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ but also includes a notable shift. In both The Star to the sky watchers and The Voice at Jesus’ baptism the communication is cosmic. In Ephesians Paul is made an Apostle by cosmic revelation but then becomes an agent of proclamation. More notably for us, the church then becomes this agent of making known the “wisdom of God in its rich variety.”

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see[c] what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.[e] 13 I pray therefore that you[f] may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.

10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known

Cosmic communication would seem to engender confidence. Certainly, signs from the heavens, whether a ball of gas acting strangely or the voice of God, would seem to do much to bolster our oft shaky faith. In the absence of such cosmic signs, however, what are we to do? Kierkegaard addresses this need for certainty—what he calls objectivity,

“The years pass, but the situation remains unchanged. One generation after another departs from the scene, new difficulties arise and are overcome, and new difficulties again arise. Each generation inherits from its predecessor the illusion that the method is quite impeccable, but the learned scholars have not yet succeeded…and so forth. All of them seem to find themselves becoming more and more objective. The infinite personal interest in the subject (which is, in the first instance, the potentiality of faith, and in the next, faith itself, as the form for an eternal happiness, and thereupon an eternal happiness itself) vanishes more and more, because the decision is postponed, and postponed as following directly upon the result of the learned inquiry. That is to say, the problem does not arise; we have become so objective so no longer have eternal happiness” (Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 28).

I texted Faith, I texted our neighbor—communication which was generally just being a bit silly. It then occurred to me, that this is a (non-serious and abbreviated) version of how we manage the problem of objectivity in Kierkegaard and the absence of the experience of cosmic revelation. The gathered body of Christ joins in the process of discerning the will of God and proclaiming the coming of Jesus—continues the work of listening to the Spirit together through prayer and reflection.

This is not simply an odd form of democracy where we take a vote and seek to sway the other opinion. We join in the “cloud of witnesses” of those who have gone before and those who gather like us on this Sunday after Epiphany. This is serious work, remember the words of Paul, … this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places

10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places

A cosmic task for which we have been equipped and empowered to join with the proclamation in word and action the “news of the boundless riches in Christ.”

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD

The Spirit of God hovered over the waters. The voice of God spoke light into the darkness. By his Word, God divided the day from the night. He created the dry land. He made the seas teem with life, and filled the earth with beauty. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.

All things came into being through him. Without him, not one thing came into being. Not the trees and grass. Not the stars in the sky or the rumbling furnace beneath the earth. Not one thing came into being without the Word. This word that was with God in the beginning.

Everything we see, all that we know, the entirety of who we are – none of it exists except through him. The love, the creative power, the living presence of God’s Word is the author of all creation. “Let there be light!” said God. And there was light. And God saw that the light was good. A reflection of the light of his Word.

What came into being in him was life. And this life was the light of all people. The Word of God speaks in and through the whole creation. In every solemn stone, in every living thing. In every human heart, the Word of God is here – alive and active. He’s still creating us. Growing us. Teaching us.

This is the true light, who enlightens everyone that comes into the world. The Word of God speaks within each one of us. He is our ground and our foundation. It is through him that we came to have existence at all. He knows us intimately. We are what we are, because of the Word who formed us.

The light shines in the darkness. The Word of God, this light, is no stranger to the darkness. He knew Stalin, and Hitler, and the Columbine shooters. God has seen the way hatred and fear have twisted his good creation. And again he has sent his Word to us, this time with the ministry of reconciliation. To untwist the twisted, heal the broken, and restore the earth.

God loves us because he truly knows us. He knows everyone you’ve ever hated, more intimately than they could ever know themselves. God loves the people that you hate. Of course he does. He created them. He knows them with the care and affection that a parent has for a child.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. The love of God is so full. His creativity is so expansive. God understands each one of us to the very core of our being. God knows and understands the darkness we carry inside.

Though it seems terrifying, the darkness isn’t that powerful. It shudders, trembles in the presence of the light. Darkness resists – with lies, and rage, and arrogance, and violence – but it will never understand who the light truly is. The burning, searing love of the Word of God is a mystery.

The Word of God is powerful, like a two edged sword. Like a surgeon with a scalpel, God’s Word cuts for the sake of love. He is the sword that heals. He is the light that exposes and cleanses.

Yet this world, in it sickness, doesn’t want to be healed. Our thoughts and deeds of darkness don’t want to be exposed. So we have resisted the light, just like our ancestors did. We’re part of a very old story.

The light and Word of God has always been in the world, speaking to us in the creation, and in our hearts. Yet the world did not know him. We despised and rejected him. We preferred our world of darkness and confusion to the health, humility, and challenge that the Word of God demands of us. We turned away from the light.

But there is power in the name of Jesus. There is a change that comes for those of us who have made the decision to turn our lives over to the light of God. To all who receive him, he gives us power to become children of God. Living in his light, allowing his Word to speak in us and fill us, we discover a a whole new life that we never imagined possible. We are born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

But this is all so abstract. We can talk all day about the light. About the Word of God and what he did and is doing in the creation of the cosmos. We can talk about darkness and sin, and the power of the light to overcome death and heal the world. But it all easily starts sounding like just more mythology. Good stories we tell ourselves to order our society and treat one another decently, maybe. But nothing that could possibly topple empires and economies. Nothing that can raise the dead, heal the sick, and preach good news to the poor.

God knew we needed more than a good story about light and darkness. We’ve gotten ourselves into so much trouble, he knew that we needed even more than the quiet whisperings of the Spirit. We needed to get beyond mountains, and temples, and goats’ blood, and the law. We needed a new mediator and a new covenant. We needed to see the face of God for ourselves. We needed to meet the Word face to face.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He moved into the neighborhood. We have seen his glory. We say together with the Apostles that we have seen his glory. We witness the glorious presence of God in the face of Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus we see God’s grace and truth, the loving relationship that is only possible between father and son, parent and child. Before, we could have said we did not know God, we had never seen him. But now we have no such excuse. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

We learn from the Hebrew scriptures that no one can ever see God and live. Knowing this, God came to us. He took on human form – he became a human being, just like you and me. The invincible and sovereign Word of God – the one who created black holes, supernovae, and photosynthesis – became a little baby boy. Utterly helpless. Dependent. Weak.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” The law was given through Moses, on top of a mountain with fire and smoke, with dreadful awe and power. But the ultimate revelation, the final word on who God really is, came through Jesus – God with us in the most real and tangible sense imaginable.

Jesus wasn’t some mythological demigod. He wasn’t a sort of blended god/man. In Jesus, God took on all our limitations. He was no different from you or me, except that he was without sin. It’s quite possible that some of us have a better grasp on mathematics than Jesus did. That’s the kind of character that God revealed in Jesus – a God so powerful, so full of love for us, that he was willing to limit himself. He became weak and poor. He suffered shame and death on a cross. Because we hated the light and chose to crucify the light rather than surrender our darkness.

It is time to stop resisting. The light has come. It is time for celebration. Jesus is here! The Messiah child is born! The Word of God, all-powerful, all-creative, all-loving, has come to live among us! Nothing can ever be the same again.

There is a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. God has sent the spirit of his son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!” We are children of the light. We are sons and daughters of God, walking in the footsteps of Jesus. He is our brother, our friend, our sovereign lord and teacher.

We are children of the light. In the midst of all this darkness, this light in us can never be defeated. We are children of the light. Sing and rejoice, you children of the day and of the light. For the Lord God is at work in this dark night that can be felt.

Trust him. He’s been here a long time. Before the sun ignited and the planets formed, he is here. Before the earth’s crust cooled and the seas filled with life, he is here. In the beginning was the Word. He is our past, present, and future.

The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus. In this little fellowship gathered together in his name. In all creatures great and small that hear his voice. When we remember that he is powerful, present, and leading us. Even in this deep winter season, the Word is alive.

STARTLING, UNEXPECTED, STRANGE

Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:46b-55

Jennifer Hosler

The fourth Sunday in Advent

Last year at this time, our nephew was acting in a stage production of It’s a Wonderful Life. The theatre version was not a typical re-enactment – but was re-framed as a live, 1940s radio production, complete with sound effects created by Foley artists. The setup enabled my nephew to play both a young George Bailey (Hot dog!) and, later, George Bailey’s son Tommy. It’s a Wonderful Life, while one could say it’s a little sappy, is a pretty great secular Christmas story. One man realizes how his life and actions affect the community around him. It’s about re-framing from hopelessness to hope.

The movie was successful upon its release in 1946 and it continues to be a classic. It’s even playing today in several movie theatres around the city. What I learned yesterday surprised me: upon it’s release, the FBI suspected that the movie was part of a broader Communist plot. Apparently, according to a recent Washington Post article, “J. Edgar Hoover’s Communist-hunting agents thought it was a Trojan horse sneaking anti-American propaganda to the masses” (Andrews, 2017). Many in Hollywood were under surveillance and more than 200 movies were examined for “Communist Propaganda.”  Some of the screenwriters for It’s a Wonderful Life were “known” to eat lunch with people who were “known Communists” (this, of course, is in the paranoid FBI assessment of the time).

The agent was tasked with scrutinizing the movie “wrote a report claiming it ‘represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers’” (Andrews, 2017). Of course, this is true – Mr. Potter is greedy and cruel. The agent also wrote that the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show that people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” This was considered “subversive” and reported to the House Un-American Activities Committee which, thankfully, allowed the movie to keep playing.

While J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy were paranoid about the Communist threat, they clearly hadn’t understood that the true, biblical meaning of Christmas is rather subversive. It’s right there – right in our readings. Today, I imagine that most Christmas or holiday movies are what people would deem to be “wholesome” (aka. not radical). They might talk about family or love or generosity, which are all good things, of course. But as a church, we can’t focus only on a feel-good, sentimental Christmas because that would be a false picture from what we see in Scripture.

The biblical message we see in Luke isn’t wholesome. It’s startling, unexpected, and strange. It’s scandalous. It’s feminist. It’s radical and subversive. It’s mystical. It’s full of outcasts and folks who are on the margins of society. The Christmas story we see in Luke 1 is about God doing something that was considered obscene (knocking up an unmarried mother) – and working to turn the world as we know it upside down.

If the FBI wanted to find a subversive Christmas story, Mary’s song to Elizabeth is exactly so. It highlights what God regularly does and will do again: scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. The Commie Committee really should have looked inside those bibles that everyone was swearing on back then, to truly weed out the message that, today, most subversive to the American way of life.

There are many ways to preach our passages today and I had hoped to focus on both Mary’s encounter with Gabriel and Mary and Elizabeth – but then we’d be here all afternoon. As this sermon came together, what came out most distinctly was a focus on Mary, seeing her encounter God in a way that is startling, unexpected, and strange—and still say yes to all that would follow. Mary has been both neglected and hyper-idealized; I’m trying to aim for something in the middle.

 Setting the Stage of Luke 1

Our passage in Luke 1, though it is not far from the beginning of the chapter, has a fair bit of storyline before it. First, I should say that the broadest context of the gospels is a drought: the people of Israel and Judah have had 400 years without a prophet, without hearing a word from Yahweh as they did during the days in exile or when they returned from exile. There is a drought in hearing from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people are now under Roman rule, suffering under an occupation. This oppression and marginalization, this hunger for spiritual and social deliverance, is the big context of Luke and the Christmas story.

Earlier in Luke 1 (what we didn’t read) is a story about a priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth, both from priestly heritage, did not have children, which was a significant and sad circumstance in the ancient near east and in Greco-Roman times. As all priests did, Zechariah rotates to serve in the temple. A once in a life-time opportunity comes to him: he is selected by lot to offer incense in the holiest of holies, in an inner sanctuary part of the temple. Zechariah goes in while the whole temple is full of people waiting for him and praying outside. While offering incense, an angel of the Lord appears next to the altar. Zechariah is terrified and overcome with fear.

The Hebrew word for angel simply means messenger, while the Greek word specifically connotes a messenger from a deity. Contrary to popular fascination with angels, angels don’t take up a lot of space in the Bible. Prophets and priests and ordinary humans do most of the LORD’s work, with angels popping up occasionally. Yet after 400 years of silence, it makes sense to have a clear-cut, unearthly messenger to deliver the good news that God is speaking again.

Zechariah is cowering, but the angel reassures him, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” The angel then delivers a message that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, will finally conceive in her old age, and the son would be a special part of God’s plan – a prophet like Elijah, full of the Holy Spirit (who later becomes John the Baptizer).

Zechariah isn’t certain that this is the real deal. You’d think, though, that an angel in the temple, in the holy of holies, would be kind of legit. Dude, look at the setting around you. Zechariah asks for a sign (as if an angel isn’t enough) and the angel reveals himself as Gabriel, one who serves in the presence of God. The sign that Zechariah gets, after not believing the word, is that his own words won’t come out. Zechariah goes on mute for the next 9 months.

People realize, when Zechariah comes out of the inner sanctuary, that something unexpected has happened. Zechariah’s gesturing and can’t speak. But then things go back to “normal,” he goes home, and reunites with his wife. Miraculously, the promised baby John takes hold in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth begins preparing at home for the baby, in “seclusion.” This was probably a mix of cultural expectations with pregnancy and taking it easy because of the risks of miscarriage in any pregnancy (let alone in an elderly woman).

Here am I

Luke’s readers would have had all this in their minds when they get to verse 26. Our passage begins at Elizabeth’s 6th month (as an author, Luke likes to date things specifically). We learn that this scene is north of Jerusalem, in a town called Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. While the names don’t mean much to us, it would be clear to the reader that the setting is not anywhere important in either the Roman world or in Israel.

The readers have already been introduced to Gabriel, so Luke uses his name and continues with Gabriel’s second mission: he’s been sent by God to Nazareth to go talk to a young, unmarried woman named Mary, who’s engaged to a man named Joseph, from the lineage of King David. Again, it would be clear to the reader that this Mary lady is not someone who is important, well-known, or with any real status of her own. Young, unmarried women were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, pretty much equated to children.

Gabriel greets Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” The person and the greeting are startling, unexpected, and strange. My paraphrase of Mary’s internal response is, “Um… what is this?” Luke says that she was reflective in the awkward silence post-angel greeting: “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Poignantly, Mary is not worded as being terrified or scared and is certainly not overcome with fear. She doesn’t know what this startling, unexpected greeting, by a strange messenger, means exactly—but she’s definitely hanging around to find out. Contrast adolescent Mary’s response with that of Zechariah and, later in Luke 2, the male shepherds in the fields. Mary doesn’t lose her cool while everyone else freaks out when they encounter angels.

Gabriel, having just dealt with a terrified Zechariah, says, “don’t be afraid!” and gives her a rather startling, unexpected, and strange revelation. “It’s good news! You’ve found favor with God.” I should mention that finding favor with God in the Bible typically brings with it some type of call or burden—a task to complete or a mission to fulfill—and it’s not all roses. It’s usually something heavy, with great personal risk, like the calls of Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Mary, this nobody from a backwater part of Israel, is being drawn in to something much bigger than herself, into the overarching story of God’s plan of salvation, deliverance, and reconciliation.

Gabriel continues, “You’ve found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew, which means deliverer or saving one). 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 his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” There’s one detail that catches Mary’s eye, and rightfully so, since she’s a young, unwed woman who is engaged to a man: “How does this work, since I have never slept with a man?” Culturally and religiously, she presumably would not until she married Joseph, the wedding date for which was likely not yet set.

Gabriel explains: “The power of the Holy Spirit will cause the baby to be miraculously conceived within you, making the child holy and set apart for God. And though you didn’t ask for a sign, I’ll give you one: your relative Elizabeth is also expecting a child and is six months along. For nothing will be impossible with God” (paraphrase). With this information, Mary decides. It’s not assumed, after all, that she’ll say yes – she’s not a helpless tool, but a human with agency and even the ability to say no to God.  But Mary doesn’t say no. She answers using the language of many faithful people before her in Scripture (like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah), “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The words, “Here am I,” are used throughout the Hebrew scriptures as the faithful response to God’s call—one that involves complete availability for God to work, even in startling, unexpected, and strange ways. At this commitment by Mary, Gabriel departs.

There are many things to pull out from this text. One of the most important, particularly considering how women have been treated by society and the church over the centuries, is that here (here!) is an example of a faithful follower of God who undertakes an enormous task for the good of God’s plan. She believes this wild and absurd message from the angel and trusts that Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who worked through Moses to lead to Israelites from Egypt—is that same God who will lead her through the ridicule and shame of her pregnancy to deliver and raise the Messiah. Several commentators emphasize that Mary’s call here matches the pattern for other “heroes of the faith,” the calls of Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah.  

And yet we Protestants don’t typically put Mary up there as our example of discipleship along with Moses or Isaiah or others. It’s clear from the literary context and pattern of her call that we should value Mary more. Mary is blessed – not because she’s a woman. Not because she was pregnant and had a baby, but because she believed the word of God and said, “Here I am – ready to be an agent of God’s work in this world.” This text is radical and liberating for women, but it stands for all people (men and women) as an example of saying yes, agreeing that God can make you an agent of God’s reconciling and redeeming work in this broken, sinful, and hurting world.

From Bilbo and Harry to Mary and to Us

Across literature, storytellers have often depicted people from humble or despised circumstances getting drawn into something bigger than themselves. Their humble origins—their nobody-ness—stirs up our imagination and helps us picture that we, too, could be in their place. That we could be brave and fulfill difficult and unimaginable quests.

Bilbo is an ordinary hobbit, who likes things that are comfortable and warm, with a close supply of provisions always at hand. Harry Potter is a twerpy, orphaned kid who is belittled by his caretakers and lives in a closet under some stairs. Dorothy is also an orphan and lives with her aunt and uncle in Kansas, of all places. Each of these figures steps out into something more than they could have ever dreamed, into a big arc of good versus evil. There’s something biblical about all of that.

We see in the Bible that Yahweh regularly works through small-town nobodies (or, more accurately, that the Creator of the universe disregards the world’s “wisdom” on who is important). God repeatedly does things that are startling, unexpected, and strange, calls people we wouldn’t expect and brings them in as agents in God’s story. That story is the Christmas story, of Immanuel, God coming to be with us in Jesus, to bring justice, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation to the universe.

Sisters and brothers, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves – if we are willing, like Mary, to say yes to God. For some people, saying yes might involve something flashy (like preaching or speaking prophet truths directly in front of powerful people), but most often it involves quiet faithfulness.

The angels and virgin birth are kind of flashy, but parents know that 30 years of parenting Jesus until his ministry started was definitely not at all glamorous. Love and kindness, mercy, building relationships, doing administrative tasks, mowing a lawn: these quiet tasks are what fills out the story, defining us as workers and agents in God’s Kingdom, in bringing all people and all creation into the healing, reconciliation, and justice of Jesus.

Saying yes to God can lead to startling, unexpected, and strange things. If you look through scripture, it’s never easy – but the rewards involve being part of this grand, universal story of God making all things new. Whatever the world says about your status, rest assured that God regularly and consistently reels in the world’s “nobodies” to make them important agents in God’s work of healing and reconciliation. God calls each of us to take up our role in the work. Have you said yes to God? Are you continuing to say yes to God, on this journey?

If you don’t have a congregation or a community around you to explore God’s call on your life, we at Washington City Church of the Brethren would love to walk with you on this journey together with Jesus. Questions and questioning highly welcome.

Sisters and brothers, may we take heart and take courage in the faithful example of Mary, who trusted that God would do what was promised and stepped out in faith, courage, and hope.

 

References

Andrews, T.M. (2017, December 21). ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a holiday classic. The FBI thought it was communist propaganda. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/12/21/its-a-wonderful-life-is-a-holiday-classic-the-fbi-thought-it-was-communist-propaganda/?utm_term=.f34784cefbae

 

LENGTH AND HEIGHT AND DEPTH

John 6:1-21, Ephesians 3:14-21

Nate Hosler

We have heard two passages in which God is proclaimed/worshiped/shows up. Between the passages in Ephesians and John the John 6 feels more manageable. It feels less abstract and more understandable. Sure there are unusual events–the multiplication of bread and walking on water but I can picture these. Start with 1 bread get 10 breads—not typical but still countable and able to be touched. Jesus walked on water—which is admittedly strange—but water is still understandable. His getting across the water is a reasonably comprehensible need.

Though we cannot walk on water we can feel it and struggle against it as we cross on boat or while walking through muddy shallows. Such was our experience during our family vacation this past week. My family “vacations” in a very particular way. For many people vacation means rest, perhaps relaxation. For most people my family’s vacations would be more like a pre-season training camp for a High School sports team. As the week wears on the team get more and more sore and more and more tired. Though less focused, this is how our vacations might appear. It was commented to my dad when he was noting his aches a few days in that “It’s not a good vacation unless you are sore.” He had even made an unsuccessful attempt at starting to do a little running in order to train for the vacation–which is again is not unlike the smarter players before  pre-season training.

This year we were camping in a forest by Moomaw Lake about an hour west of Staunton Virginia. We always camp for vacation and since the mid-90s have used my Dad’s van he uses for his carpentry work. The seats are put back in. Food packed in all sorts coolers and totes. Tents and other critical things such as sleeping bags, an ax and unicycles in the back. Bikes on the back and usually on the front as well. Canoes on the roof. This year with all three of the Hosler sons married we needed plenty of boats. A sleek Icelandic kayak and wood strip canoe built by Philip the middle child, followed by “regular” store bought canoe, followed by a rather old and ponderous aluminum canoe borrowed from a neighbor. This order of listing was not only by impressiveness but also indicates speed–with the kayak easily outstripping the others and the borrowed aluminum canoe trailing like some sort of stout and stable but slow barge.  In these, particularly the slow one, we crossed the water—becoming sore and tired. We also hiked and unsurprisingly become hungry.

In the Gospel passage we see unexpected but still somehow understandable things. We see the experience of water (disciples rowing), of walking, of hunger.  We see God made manifest in these normal things of life. In John we see Jesus in action. After teaching and healing it says Jesus went around to the other side of the lake, or over the lake, it doesn’t say—around the lake and up a mountain. To this location the crowds followed him. Though it was soon a religious holiday—Passover—the crowds followed Jesus out of town and up a hill. This was apparently fairly isolated. There was no food.  So Jesus, being Jesus and caring for people, challenged his disciples by asking them to provide food. One disciple—Andrew—said here’s a boy with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. Jesus then multiplies it, feeds them, and then realizes they may try to make him king—which prompts him to flee. It says “He withdrew again and went up the mountain by himself.” Interestingly his disciples leave him. It doesn’t say if they let him know they were leaving by boat but they left. A storm came. And he met them as they rowed—walking on the water and entering the boat saying, “don’t be afraid.” Immediately they arrive at the other side.

We can relate to being hungry, being afraid, and being near water but not walking on top of it. The next passage in Ephesians, however, is much more complicated. For me at least, the first read made sense. This passage was meant to be read aloud to a congregation (much like we did this morning)—and in this context the passage feels good. If you go back and re-read and read slowly, however, all sorts of questions arise. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense but that it starts sounding surprising and begging for explanation. How does this relate to that?

This impression is understandable. The passage is doxology—a sort of song of praise. It is not a piece of technical theology or philosophy. Because of this we need to recognize the limits and purpose of the language and style. While we affirm this as true it is an exclamation of praise and not a series of narrow definitions to be expanded endlessly. While theologians and biblical scholars gain material from this it is not written for those who professionally read scriptures but to a specific set of communities. It is meant to be read in a congregation and build up the community’s faith.

While meant to bring praise there is benefit from slowing down and attending more closely to pieces of the passage and phrases within. I would invite you to find this passage in a Bible to follow more closely. I’m going to invite you to make observations or raise questions. You don’t need to answer and I won’t necessarily answer your question. This will be a shortened lectio divina.

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.  16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit,  17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

[During the sermon we spent several minutes of sharing as a congregation and then read the passage a second time.]

Both of these come from and to a variation of the same–expression of praise and wonder at what God has done and continues to do.

Now of course our vacation was in fact a vacation. It is a change of pace from our typical lives. My phone and email weren’t even functioning. It was a time to spend with family. While we worked hard to paddle across lakes we were frequently distracted by attempts to climb to the very point of the canoe or by interesting rocks along the shoreline. We considered crawling into holes in the bank and bent down to wonder at tiny brightly colored mushrooms along the path. We discussed theology and the discernment of call with our seminarian sister-in-law amidst considerations of boat construction. While exerting energy we experienced—at least in small part—God’s presence.

The wonderment and amazement of God is found in these texts. In the concrete but no less fabulous multiplication of food and treading the surface of the sea and in the singing of prayer and praise punctuated by thought nearly impossible to untangle. It is in this and in the tangible experience of water walked on and hunger sated that we exclaim and see “what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

This is a faint hint of the length and height and breadth of the love of God in our lives.

May our eyes be open to see it. Amen