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

 

JOY

Psalm 126   Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11   1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Jeff Davidson

The third Sunday in Advent

Happy Gaudete Sunday! What, you didn’t know this was Gaudete Sunday? Nobody told you? You may even ask, “What is Gaudete Sunday anyway?”

Gaudete Sunday is the third Sunday in Advent. The word “Gaudete” is from the Latin word for “rejoice.” Traditionally we spend most of the Advent season thinking about preparing for Christ’s coming. It’s about repentance and fasting. Advent is in some ways a Christmas version of Lent, where we examine ourselves and our lives and clear away the peaks and valleys of sin and make straight the path of the Lord. At one time Advent was a period of fasting and penitence. 

Gaudete Sunday gives us kind of a break in the midst of those things. It’s a time to rejoice, to embrace the good news that is coming, to celebrate the blessings of God in our lives and the opportunity that we have to share them with others. Gaudete Sunday is why the third candle in the Advent wreath is pink. The other three are purple, but the joy of Gaudete Sunday is so great and so important that the Sunday gets it’s own special Advent candle.

So, real quick, what are some of the things that bring you joy this time of year? For me, some of it is the music. Sunday afternoons growing up we would listen to Christmas songs at home by Johnny Mathis or Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians or Bing Crosby. We’d sing songs at church that we really only got to sing once or maybe twice a year. There was Christmas caroling, where the kids and their parents would visit the homes of shut-ins and the elderly and sick in the congregation to sing. There was a special Christmas Eve service, usually mostly music. Every couple of years Dad would sing “O Holy Night” and I would accompany him on the piano. There are a lot of good memories attached to the music, a lot of fun and a lot of happiness.

Sometimes, though, I pause a bit about all the Christmas music this time of year. One of our radio stations in the car is set to 97.1 WASH-FM. Most of the year they play upbeat music from the 1980s, the 1990s, and the last couple of years. Not rock, or at least not hard rock, but Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Bruno Mars, Pharrell Williams. It’s a station that aims at people my age or maybe 10-15 years younger, probably skewing a little towards women.

But after Thanksgiving, WASH-FM declares itself Washington DC’s official Christmas music station, and it’s all Christmas music all the time. I’m not sure how “official” that really is; I don’t think it requires a Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. The Christmas music has no rhyme or reason to the selection – you may hear something secular like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” followed by a traditional arrangement of “O Holy Night” followed by David Bowie and Bing Crosby doing “Little Drummer Boy” with Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” to wrap it all up. Some instrumentals, some vocals. Some old recordings from the 1950s by folks who died twenty or thirty years ago, some re-makes of classics by contemporary artists. It is a very, very mixed bag of music.

The other day I was in the car going to work, and a 1960s version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” by Johnny Mathis came on, and I got a warm feeling inside and sang along. Then “O Holy Night” by Josh Groban – the arrangement I used to play to accompany my dad. That music really made me feel good.

And then I thought about Kelly. Kelly isn’t the real name. Kelly is a Jewish friend of mine at work. Kelly really doesn’t like all the holiday stuff we put up at work. We have trees, and silver garland, and ornaments of various kinds. We have some big cardboard candy canes and stocking and things like that. There’s nothing overtly religious, and we are as clear as we can be with our language at least that it is a holiday time and not a Christmas time, since we are a government agency, but Kelly doesn’t buy it. We can talk about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and New Years all we want, but Kelly’s not fooled. The holiday we are celebrating is Christmas.

Kelly and I have talked about this a couple of times. I’ve tried to say that from my perspective there’s the cultural Christmas, the secular Christmas if you will, and the sacred or the religious Christmas. There’s the “Snoopy and the Red Baron” kind of Christmas song, which has nothing to do with Jesus or faith, as opposed to the “Silent Night” kind of song, which is explicitly about Jesus as the savior of the world.

Kelly’s not buying it. For Kelly, the whole thing is Christmas. The whole thing is about Jesus’s birth. Rudolph and Santa are just as Christian as the angels that appeared to the shepherds and directed them to the manger. I look at it from within the Christian faith and see distinctions between sacred and secular. Kelly looks at it from the outside, and sees is a Christian celebration of a Christian savior in whose name some of her ancestors were persecuted. A savior in whose name some Arab Christians are happy to participate in bombings and missile attacks on her spiritual family in Israel.

I don’t know what radio stations Kelly listens to, but she’s at least ten years younger than I am and she is the target demographic for WASH-FM. That station is designed for people like Kelly. I found myself wondering what it would feel like to be Kelly or someone like her, and for 11 months of the year you enjoy a particular radio station and you relax with particular on-air personalities and you become accustomed to the timing of the weather and the traffic reports, and then come Thanksgiving they take it all away from you. I wonder what it’s like feel that something you rely on and trust and enjoy for 11 months of the year all of a sudden turns into something that celebrates what you perceive as oppression and anti-Semitism. 

I thought of that when I heard those two explicitly Christian hymns played in a row, and how I would feel is I was a minority in a place where my favorite radio station played music praising Mohammad, or the Buddha, or the leader of the dictatorship in which I lived. And I had to pause.

Our Old Testament readings both talk about joy. Our Call to Worship, Psalm 126, talks about our tongues being filled with shouts of joy and of returning from the harvest carrying sheaves and shouting for joy. And what is the cause of this joy? What starts the joy? Verse 1 – “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.”

The joy that the Psalmist sings of, the joy that the worshippers feel, is as a result of God’s action. In this case it’s the restoration of the fortunes of Zion (Jerusalem) but the important part isn’t what specific act of God causes joy. It’s that joy is caused by the Lord.

The same thing is true in our reading from Isaiah. In verse 10 Isaiah says, “I will rejoice in the Lord” but everything that comes before and after is filled with joy and thanksgiving. Those who mourn receive a garland instead of ashes. They receive gladness instead of mourning. All sorts of good things happen: good news is proclaimed, the captives and the prisoners are freed, the broken-hearted are healed. No wonder Isaiah rejoices in the Lord!

And what causes all of this? The Spirit of the Lord being upon Isaiah. God’s word welling up within him and pouring forth from his lips. The love of justice is a gift of God. The hatred of robbery and wrongdoing is a gift of God. Joy comes because of God’s action and God’s anointing, and in the end, just as the earth brings forth it’s shoots and a garden causes what is in it to spring up, God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Even the examples that Isaiah chooses show that it is the Lord that causes the joy, for who is it that made the earth to bring forth it’s shoots? Who is it that made gardens which have plants that spring up? It was God. The joy that Isaiah speaks of is joy that comes from the Spirit of the Lord within us. That joy is a gift of God.

And of course our reading from 1 Thessalonians begins with the admonition to “Rejoice always.” How is it that we are able to rejoice always? The last verse of our reading tells us: “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. God is faithful. God will do this.

As I was putting this sermon together I read something that I liked. I couldn’t find it again so I can’t tell you who said it, but it was essentially that happiness is something that comes from the outside and that joy is something that comes from the inside. Peanuts says that happiness is a warm puppy, and The Beatles say that “happiness is a warm gun.” I tend to lean towards one of those more than the other, but they are both externals. They are both things that come to us from the outside.

It is possible that a kitten or a puppy or a piece of music can create joy, but not on their own. There has to be something inside that responds to that external stimulus. A love of puppies has to already be in you for a warm puppy to lead to feelings of joy. I can lose myself in a piece of music and feel joyful, but only if God has given me the gift of appreciation for music. I can lose myself in a movie and identify so strongly with one character or another that I feel joy when they succeed or survive, but I can only do that if I have the gift of empathy that has been given to me by God.

So I had to think about whether when I heard “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Holy Night” back to back on the radio if I really felt joy, especially in light of how my friend Kelly and probably millions of others like her feel.

And after I thought about it I realized that I wasn’t feeling joyful because of those songs. I was feeling joyful because of the gifts inside me that various things trigger. Maybe it was those songs on that day, but on another day something else could have triggered the same things. I’m joyful because God gave me the gift of adoption at my birth by a family who loved me. I’m joyful because God provided me a family that loved music and shared that love with me. I’m joyful because God allowed me to have opportunities to develop my talents of music, limited though they may be, and to share them with others. 

And those songs triggered one more thing for which I am joyful. I’m joyful for God’s gift of empathy, which reminds me of people like Kelly, and hopefully makes me humble and makes me sensitive to the things that I do or say or take for granted that cause them pain or hurt or worry.

So happy Gaudete Sunday. Take note of the things around you. Let them stimulate the gifts of God that are within you, and let those gifts bring forth joy. Let them cause you to consider others who may not have the same reaction, and let them lead you to consider what it is you can do to help bring joy to them, to help proclaim, release to the captives and to bind up the broken-hearted, to help those who sow in tears to reap in joy. Rejoice in the Lord always. Amen.

JUSTICE IS COMING (IT IS JESUS)

Human Rights Sunday

2 Peter 3:8-15a, Isaiah 40:1-11

 Nate Hosler

The second Sunday in Advent

Anticipation. Waiting. Agonizing? Uncertain. Advent—waiting for the promised One. On Thursday we rose early for our 3-4 hour drive and hit the road. Rutted. Through dry, mostly flat land with low trees except for the palms. Security checkpoints with men with big guns and barricades. Road blocks of barrels or tires or logs at checkpoints which jut, maybe half way, into the road. These alternate—one from the left, right, left, right—which slows traffic. This traffic slowing strategy is also used through villages which are lined with market stands. This works-sort of- but at times it generates a certain careening as cars coming opposing directions navigate as quickly as possible. While we barreled through one such obstacle course a gas tanker kept pace with us leading our way, weaving wildly, looking a little like the Joker in Batman driving the tractor trailer. Then, passing Gombi, we tighten a bad sounding wheel before engaging the long smoother straightaways (regularly hanging at 85 miles an hour) to Yola and the airport. As a mere passenger rather than driver, I wait. Bracing myself, observing, talking—but waiting.

 My last 5 in-country flights have been delayed but just in case this one isn’t we get there early enough. They aren’t boarding yet and aren’t even checking us in. So, I wait. It’d be nice to be productive, but the uncertain waiting is distracting. Once the check-in begins, it will be a scramble. Anticipation. Sort of poised, ready. No word on the delay, but that the harmattan dust in the air from the Sahara is too thick. Another flight arrives…hope is sparked. The airport assistant guy, Abdul, suggests I might want to get a seat on this flight. Wasn’t sure, but they were filled anyway when he checks. Maybe an hour or so later it is starting to get uncertain if we will get out before they shut down flights. I text him and ask for my paper ticket print-out so that I have it if he leaves. Not minutes later, they begin checking in. He makes a mad dash towards me across the empty room to retrieve the paper and dives into line. Our hope is restored. Anticipation. Checked in. Through security. Waiting. One hour. Maybe another. Text the Ambassador to say I’ll probably miss our meeting.

Then high above, through a strangely garbled PA system, something is announced. Through deciphering or sleuthing we learn that the flight will arrive from Abuja by 5:50 pm (flight was to depart by 12:15). Relief. Hope at the first bit of information passed on to us in 6 hours—the masses who wait. 5:45. 5:50. This is the story of Advent. Of the waiting and expectation of the coming Messiah who will free the captive, heal the blind, cast off the oppressor, and proclaim reconciliation with God.

Another slightly less garbled but still incomprehensible announcement. A young messenger of doom walks around and confirms. The flight has been canceled. Which means I also miss my flight home.

At the time of writing parts of this I remain in the anticipation of both Advent and getting a flight home. Though we are still weeks from the coming of Jesus, we may remember from last year that we will not be disappointed. The messengers will not be my young airport messenger of doom but the angels to the shepherds. But that is getting ahead of where we are today. Today we wait.

Our passage is 2 Peter 3:8-15a.

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 

The passage begins by challenging our notions of God’s time and patience. If 1000 years = a day for God, then what does that break down to per minute? Per second? However, if a day is like a thousand years then what does that mean as the reverse? This sounds less like a common math problem (unless of course this is what one learns if one majors in math) and more like the Matrix or Inception, movies in which time and space bend in unusual ways. This is not simply asserting that God experiences time in a very accelerated or very slow manner.

 This number 1000 came back to me this week while I was at the daily—that is every day at 5:00 at the Unity Fountain next to the Transcorp Hotel in Abuja—vigil marking the abduction of the school girls from Chibok. This past Monday was 1330th day. Today, Sunday December 10th, is 1336 days. How has God experienced these days? There is some old-timey philosophy that Christians have occasionally been influenced by that states that the divine must be above change and above being influenced by the merely human. Our God, however, (which is most scandalous), becomes incarnate and joins us in our existence and joy and pain.  

That Jesus is coming (since we are in advent we refer to it in the future) and will show up in this world as God incarnate—God having taken on flesh and blood and pain and joy—that this is our God then means that God has not been distant from us nor the school girls of Chibok these 1336 days. Jesus came healing and serving and feeling and calls us to the same—or should I say, will call us to do the same once he is born.

Jesus, and thus God, is not above pain and the agony of the kidnapped and their families but with them. God is with us. God is with you. This is a type of hope. The passage continues on, expounding on the timeliness of God.

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you,[a] not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 

The Lord is not patient out of lack of concern but as an act of mercy. The act of mercy which allows for repentance. This call to repentance is both urgent and marked by delay. Delay for repentance and turning. There are many horrible things in this world. I noted the Chibok Girls. There have been many others. Dr. Rebecca Dali has, during her work of humanitarian relief, collected some 4,000 names, dates, and locations of people abducted.

On my flight back from Maiduguri I was wearing my Office of Public Witness t-shirt. On the back is our tag line—“Seeking to live the peace of Jesus publicly.” The man sitting beside me said he liked it…it turned out that he was EYN. We talked for the whole flight to Abuja about his research in public health and how people cannot access it. Towards the end I learned he has 4 children. The youngest is a boy and named after his father. Even later in the flight he revealed that his father had been kidnapped and killed. Not by Boko Haram but by the Nigerian military.

So, when the Office of Public Witness works with the Nigerian Working Group which we convene on military accountability and human rights, raising concerns about the sale of weapons by the US, it is not an abstract thought. It is not a sterile appeal to theoretical legal frameworks, which are useful and regularly used, but it is because we follow a God who feels the pain of people and calls us to a ministry feeling this pain—and then acting in response. God’s patience is for repentance. God’s patience is for repentance. Jesus the one whose birth we anticipate in advent is the embodiment of this justice.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Note that this dissolving is not simply destruction but a process of revealing. It is a disclosing of acts done. Because of this we should live accordingly. Because of this we can also trust that acts of injustice will be brought to light.

11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening[c] the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Where righteousness is at home. Righteousness can also be translated justice. “We wait for a new heavens and a new earth, where justice dwells”

14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Because of this being made known—this revealing work—we recognize that that this is good news for those on the side of justice. However, it is concerning for those who are not. Advent is the marking of the coming of Jesus—the justice of God. This is the good news that the angels will proclaim. While this is concerning for some—which may be us—we should consider the patience of the Lord as our salvation. So, this coming and revealing is good news for both the just and unjust for both the righteous and unrighteous.

The patience of God leaves room for repentance. This is not the same as those clergy whom Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rebukes. It is not patience in the face of wrong. There is both a patience leading towards repentance and an impatience with abuse. “everything with be disclosed” in the last day–God reveals what is hidden and brings to justice.

 Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God….

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed..

O THAT YOU WOULD TEAR OPEN THE HEAVENS AND COME DOWN

I’ve been accused of many things. But I’ve never been accused of being without imagination. When I was a child, I had what you could probably describe as an overactive imagination. Every book I read, every cartoon I watched, I wanted to act it out. I wanted to live it. I wanted to make it my own.

There is something delightfully self-centered in small children. I say “delightful,” because there is nothing malicious in it. A child doesn’t have the layers upon layers of self-deception that we adults tend to have. All of it is right up on the surface. Children are better than anyone at placing themselves in the center of the story.

For me as a kid, I was really good at this. I could always imagine myself in the role of the protagonist. When my parents showed me pictures of Russian dancers, I got some of my mom’s pantyhose and used them for tights, so that I could be a Russian dancer, too.

When I was maybe four or five years old, I was mildly obsessed with the Disney movie The Rescuers. I loved the characters and the story. Most of all, I was enchanted with the lead character, a little girl named Penny. Maybe you can guess what happened next. Before long, I had put my hair into ponytails, just like Penny. I ran around in the backyard wearing a makeshift brown skirt, role-playing all sorts of death-defying scenarios of intrigue and adventure.

I may have been a particularly theatrical child, but even as adults, most of us have a certain inner flare. We’ve got a taste for story. We find it totally natural to place our lives, our experience, within the context of that story. Nowhere is this more true than in the most important story, the narrative arc that we are exposed to through the writings of the Bible.

For thousands of years, women and men have read the Scriptures in a participatory, childlike way. We imagine ourselves as Moses, parting the Red Sea. We participate spiritually in the adventures of the apostle Paul, imagining what we would have done in his place.

Those of us who are particularly daring also cast ourselves in the role of the villain. What was it like to be Pharaoh, with his hardened heart? What was Cain thinking when he murdered Abel? How did Judas feel when he came to his senses and realized that he had betrayed his master and friend to death? When we imagine ourselves as the heroes of the story, we’re invited to take on the virtuous traits that they exhibited. But when we put ourselves in the shoes of the evildoer, we are able to wrestle with the same darkness that exists within us and could lead us to the same terrible actions.

So all this is to say, I like my inner child. I like yours, too. I think our inner five year old is essential to our spiritual development. Only that daring and imaginative inner child has the guts to fully take on the story of the Bible and try it on for size. Through child-like play, we discover ourselves in the stories. And then, hopefully, we are able to apply what we learned their to our everyday lives.

But while this is a vitally important way of engaging with scripture, reading ourselves into the text can also present some problems. Think about all the doomsday cults throughout history that have read themselves into the more apocalyptic texts of the Bible. Filling in all the blanks, we human beings are capable of weaving an intricate, internally-coherent web of deception that distorts our vision. These false visions can even lead to death.

Apocalyptic cults are not the only ones who misuse scripture in this way. The crusades, anti-semitism, and slavery—all of these were justified and perpetuated by a distorted reading of scripture that places people like us at the center, and relegates those who are different to a marginal role, at best – and to outer darkness at worst.

So while it’s generally a natural and healthy thing for us to read ourselves into the scriptures, we have to be careful. Who are we reading ourselves as, and how does our story-telling position us in relationship to Jesus, who emptied himself and became obedient even in the face of shame and death?

Sometimes the danger in reading ourselves into the text is that we don’t really understand the context of what is written. I think of the Renaissance painters who depicted first century Romans and Jews as being white Europeans, dressed in medieval garb. They read themselves into the story so much that they imagined the times and cultures of the Bible were no different from 1500s Italy.

In our gospel reading this morning, it’s dangerous for us to be ignorant of context. It is problematic to imagine that we are the intended audience of the text. It is a mistake to assume that we have a grip on what Jesus is talking about, the situation he’s speaking into.

In 1988, Ched Myers wrote a ground-breaking commentary on the gospel of Mark, called “Binding the Strong Man.” This book has helped raise my awareness of the situation in which Mark was authored. Myers makes a strong case that the gospel was written by Galilean Christians during a period of upheaval in Roman Palestine, just before the destruction of the Temple.

He argues that the gospel of Mark came into being during the years in which the Jews were in open rebellion against Rome. The Roman legions would soon crush this rebellion, lay waste to Jerusalem, and destroy the Temple once and for all. But in the meantime, the Christian community in Galilee found themselves in the desperate position of rejecting both the Roman invaders and the zealot insurrectionists who reigned from Jerusalem.

The audience of Mark’s gospel was a people under mortal threat – both from the established empire of Rome, and the rebel empire of Jewish revolutionaries. In the midst of this death, destruction, and upheaval, Mark’s community found themselves being called by Jesus to stay true to the kingdom of God, even as the nations raged all around them.

It’s in this context that Jesus says to the church in Galilee, “Stay awake.” It would be easy to fall asleep, to breathe in the lies of Roman supremacy on the one hand, or theocratic Jewish ethno-nationalism on the other. To stay awake in the midst of war and domestic conflict means risking a lot. Acts of violence against authority, or submission to it, can both provide an illusion of safety. But the followers of Jesus in Mark’s community could not afford any such illusions.

It’s in this actively dangerous context that Jesus is explaining to the church in Galilee about all the tribulations that are coming their way. The destruction of the Temple. The desolation of Jerusalem. False messiahs, famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of war. To stay awake meant to acknowledge these present realities and resolve to follow Jesus, despite the cost.

Today, it’s easy for us to look at Jesus’ words in Mark 13 as being foreboding and mysterious. Millions read these words as a prophecy about some mythological “end times.” But for the Christians in Galilee, Jesus’ words weren’t mysterious and other-worldly. They were concrete and actionable.

The community that authored Mark was watching Jesus’ words unfold all around them. Everything he said was true to their experience. Despite the apocalyptic ravings and resistance of the zealots, Rome was on the move to destroy the holy city. False messiahs sprang up every day, attempting to deceive the Galilean church, baiting them into a clash of civilizations. In days before rapid transit or communications, rumors of war must have been rampant.

And just as Jesus had predicted, the greatest threat to the church was often the civil and religious authorities that sought to regulate the faith of Jewish people on the one hand, and bolster an insurrectionist agenda on the other. Mark’s community was being delivered over to councils and beaten in synagogues. Their livelihoods and families were threatened as they refused to take up arms with the rebels, or collaborate with the invading Romans. The church in America likes to talk a lot about the “end times,” but the Galilean church was living it.

So the church in Galilee was experiencing the pain and confusion that Jesus refers to at the beginning of our reading today, when he says, “after that suffering.”

It is “after that suffering” that “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” It is “after that suffering” that Jesus will gather his people from the four winds and the ends of the earth. It is “after that suffering” that the kingdom of God will be revealed.

It would be dangerous for us to imagine that we are the intended audience of these words of Jesus. It would be easy for us to use these words to put ourselves to sleep, rather than staying awake as Jesus commands us. It is tempting for us to skip straight to the “great power and glory” without having experienced the lesson of the fig tree. In the Middle East, you know it’s about to be summer when the fig tree puts forth leaves. In the family of God, you know Jesus is about to come to reign when we as a community suffer for his name.

And as much as some Christians today like to talk about “persecution,” let’s be real. That’s not us. I don’t want to downplay the serious trials and sorrows that many of us experience at different times. But we as the church in America are not, generally speaking, being persecuted for our faith.

I mean think about it. Seriously. When was the last time you had to make a major sacrifice to be true to your Christian convictions? When was the last time that we, as a congregation, faced the active disapproval of the civil authority and paid a price for it?

And that’s great! I’m very happy to live in a country where my faith in Jesus is not grounds for persecution. Following Jesus is hard enough without adding on the burden of a hostile regime.

But we need to be real about the fact that we are not the early church. We are not the audience of this text, the gospel of Mark. The original audience of this piece was facing death, torture, and all kinds of brutalization in the midst of a nasty, Vietnam-style war in their homeland. They were facing exclusion and persecution by their non-Christian Jewish countrymen.

For the community of Mark’s gospel, the Jesus was coming to inaugurate the kingdom of God very soon. He had to, or there would simply be no survivors! As Jesus says in Mark 13:20, “And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short these days.” That’s what the kingdom of God meant to the Galilean Christians: A chance to survive and overcome the horror.

What is the kingdom of God for us? What does it mean for Jesus to tell us, “stay awake”? How are we to learn the lesson of the fig tree? The community that wrote Mark was living in late spring; summer felt very near. What season are we living in?

Until we can answer those questions, we’re really not much different from a five-year-old Micah Bales, dressing up in pig tails and a skirt, running around playing Penny from the Rescuers. We’ll be living in a story that isn’t our own, one that blinds us to the real work that God is calling us to in our own time and season.

All that being said, there is at least one part of Mark 13 that was definitely written to us specifically. We know this because Jesus explicitly says so. He warns his followers that no one knows the hour at which the master will return. None of us knows when our own time of crisis may be coming. No one knows when the kingdom of God will shine out of the darkness for everyone to see. So Jesus warns us that regardless of our context, regardless of the season, we must stay awake.

“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

JACOBY AND THE THREE DOTS

Luke 1:39-55

Jeff Davidson

I love old game shows on TV. How many of you remember the TV show Password? If you never saw it, the original version of Password ran from 1961 to 1975. The original host was Allen Ludden, Betty White’s late husband. We had a board game of Password when I was growing up, and it’s similar to a lot of board games now. There were two people on a team, and a secret word. The first person had to get the second person to say the secret word by giving one word clues, and you couldn’t use proper names. If you and I were on a team and the secret word was “horse,” I might say, “thoroughbred.” If that didn’t do it, I might say “pacer.” If that wasn’t enough, then I might say “charley….”

Did you notice the way I said that, with my voice going up at the end? That’s not because it was a question. It’s because “charley” is the first word of the phrase “charley-horse” and so that rise indicates that there’s something more that comes, something that goes with that word and that it’s something pretty common, something pretty well known, hopefully something obvious. It’s easy. Salt… pepper. Barack… Obama. Here’s one for DC football fans. Kirk… Cousins.

Two weeks ago when I preached you may remember that my sermon title was, “The Word of God Comes to…” Those three dots also indicate that something else is coming, right? They indicate that the sentence isn’t over, that there is something more to wait for. Those three dots are called an ellipsis. If you were to write out those clues I was giving you earlier, you would use an ellipsis. Charley (dot dot dot) horse. Fried (dot dot dot) chicken. You hear people use an ellipsis verbally in awards shows. “The Academy Award goes to (dot dot dot) Jack Nicholson.”

Those dots can mean other things when they are used in other places, but what they mean here is that there is more to come. An ellipsis means there is more to come. Now keep that in the back of your mind while I tell you the story of Jacoby. This story appears many places; this is kind of a combination of a number of different versions.

There once was a Jewish fellow named Jacoby. Jacoby grew up in Spain and moved to Israel. He attended synagogue regularly, but since Spanish was his first language he didn’t understand very much of the Hebrew that they did the services in. Still, Jacoby was a faithful man, and so he attended synagogue even though he understood very little of what was being said.

One Sabbath Jacoby was at the synagogue, and he heard and understood the word for “bread.” Jacoby hadn’t been sure what he could give to God, for he was a poor man, but this gave him an idea. He had his wife bake a dozen loaves of bread. A few days later, when the synagogue was empty and silent, Jacoby went to the synagogue and approached the altar. “Dios,” he said, “God, I understand that you like bread. My wife Costanzia makes the best bread in the world. You will love it, I promise. Here, I will leave the bread behind the altar for you. Take it and eat it and may the glory be yours.” And Jacoby left the fresh, warm bread behind the altar, and quickly slipped out of the synagogue.

A little later, a beggar came into the synagogue to pray. He said, “Dear God, my wife is hungry, my children are hungry, and you know there is no work. Maybe, God, you would have some food you could spare? Maybe some bread? Anything?” And the beggar sniffed the air, and he smelled something, and he looked behind the altar and there was an answer to his prayer – a dozen loaves of freshly baked bread! “God be praised!” said the beggar, “God be praised!” And the beggar gathered up the bread and ran home to his joyful family.

Well, you cannot imagine how happy Jacoby was when he came to the synagogue the next week and found the bread gone. God had eaten the bread! He ran home to tell Costanzia, and she baked another dozen loaves, which Jacoby took to the synagogue and placed behind the altar once again. And you cannot imagine how happy the beggar was when he came to the synagogue the next week and found another dozen loaves of fresh bread behind the altar. Glory to God!

This went on for twenty years. Week after week Jacoby brought fresh bread for God at exactly the same time, and week after week the beggar took home fresh bread from God at exactly the same time, and their paths never crossed. Until one night, when Jacoby brought the bread and he took a little longer than usual talking to God. “Dios, I am sorry the bread is so lumpy. My Costanzia, her arthritis in her hands makes it harder and harder to knead the dough. Maybe you could do something?”

The Jacoby heard someone coming, so he quickly put his bread behind the altar and hid in the shadows. It was the beggar, and he too had something extra to say. “Dear God, I don’t wish to sound ungrateful, but lately your bread has been a little lumpy. Maybe you could do something?” And the beggar stepped behind the altar to pick up his fresh bread.

“What are you doing?” cried Jacoby. “What are you doing?” cried the beggar. As they shouted at one another the rabbi heard them and came out. “What are you two doing?” he shouted.

Well, Jacoby and the beggar told the rabbi the whole story, and then everyone began to cry.  he rabbi cried because it was his sermon that had led to the misunderstanding. Jacoby cried because his bread hadn’t been getting to God after all. The beggar cried because now there would be no more bread.

In the midst of all the tears and all the wailing loud laughter was heard in the back of the synagogue. The men looked and saw the great Rabbi ben Isaac. “Brothers, brothers, dry your eyes” said Rabbi ben Isaac. “There is nothing for which to cry. God and all the angels have laughed with delight each week as one man brought the bread and another man took the bread and God got all the credit. This is wonderful!”

“But now,” said Rabbi ben Isaac, “now comes a thing which will be very hard, a thing which will take great faith. You, Jacoby, must continue to bring the bread each week and give it directly to the beggar, but you must believe that you are giving it to God. And you, beggar, must believe each week that the bread is coming to you directly from God.”

This the men did, the rest of their lives. And in this simple thing they showed more faith than when they thought that the bread was a miracle.

So now you know the story of Jacoby. And we already talked about the ellipsis, the three dots that mean there’s something coming next. Now let’s talk a minute about Mary.

It’s interesting that for as important as Mary is to the gospel story, she doesn’t get mentioned all that much. Luke mentions her the most, twelve times by name, and all twelve in the section of the book that is about Jesus’s birth, the section called the infancy narrative. Matthew mentions her by name six times, five times in the infancy narrative. Mark refers to her once by name and once without naming her. John refers to her twice, but not by name either time.

I guess if we’re honest we don’t think about Mary a whole lot outside of the Advent and Christmas seasons. It’s different for Catholics and for Orthodox Christians and even for Muslims. There’s a whole chapter of the Qur’an just about Mary. We Protestants, and particularly within the Anabaptist wing of the Protestants, don’t pay much attention to her the rest of the year.

Although we don’t look back on Mary as much as we probably should, here in her song Mary is looking forward to us. Mary is singing not just to the reality of her setting, Mary is singing about our reality as well.

Listen again to verses 46 through 53: “My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

If you’re a writer one of the things you need to pay attention to is the agreement between verb tenses. There’s past tense, present tense, future tense. I did this. I am doing this. I will do that. We all learned that years ago, right? If you look at Mary’s song, you’ll notice that it encompasses that past, the present, and the future.

Take a look. My soul magnifies – my spirit rejoices – that’s present tense. He has looked – past tense. All generations will call – future tense. Past, present, and future , all three just in the first two sentences.

What I find the most interesting about this is that the last two sentences are all in the past tense. Let me read them again:  “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Is that true do you think? Have the proud been scattered? I don’t think so. Have the powerful been brought down and the lowly lifted up? Not so far as I can tell. Are the hungry filled with good things? Do the rich leave empty? No. They do not.

This brings us back to the end of the story of Jacoby and the beggar. Now comes a thing which will be very hard, a thing which will take great faith. You, all of you, must live as if God has done these things. You, all of you, must live out of the reality that Mary sings – that God has fed the hungry and turned away the rich, that God has lifted up the lowly and brought down the powerful and scattered the proud. You must live your lives believing that the Kingdom of God is here, even when you don’t see it. You must live your lives believing that the battle has been won, and that it is your job to claim the world in God’s name and for God’s kingdom. It is your job to believe Mary’s words and make them a reality in the world around you, and all around the world.

And that brings us back to the three dots, to the ellipsis. Mary’s song is not the end – Jesus is yet to be born. And when Jesus is born, when you celebrate Christmas next Friday, wherever you are, that’s not the end. That’s the beginning. That’s the beginning of the Kingdom of God on earth. That’s the beginning of the call, the beginning of the work, the beginning of the season, not the end. There’s more to come.

In that spirit of Jacoby and the three dots, since I won’t see you again before Christmas day, let me take the opportunity now to close by wishing you a Merry Christmas…(voices rises at the end.) Amen.

THE WORD OF GOD COMES TO…

Luke 3:1-6

Jeff Davidson

There’s something that we all have to watch out for every time we drive. Lately for me I’ve had to watch out for it whenever I head to the interstate on Sudley Road. Other times I am careful to watch out for it when I am actually on the interstate. It comes up at unexpected times, in places where I am not ready for it, and it seems like no matter what route I take I’m going to run into it someplace. What is it?

That’s right – construction. The dreaded orange barrels. At least on the interstate they usually give you some warning, either from the overhead signs or a mobile sign set up along the side of the road. On the smaller roads though, the four lane roads, sometimes the barrels appear out of nowhere and you have to slow down quickly and then wait forever to get over into the open lane.

There is one piece of the construction process, though, that is only there once in a while. There are always orange barrels, there are almost always signs of some sort, there may or may not be traffic depending on the time of day and such, but there is one part of the construction process that is usually only there if the construction is on a two lane road. In fact, if it’s a two lane road like the country road I grew up on, it’s the first thing that you pay attention to as you approach the construction zone. In fact, where there is one it’s the most important part of the construction zone from a driver’s standpoint. Any ideas? Here’s a hint – it’s almost always a person.

It’s the flagger. It’s the guy or the gal either holding you up or waving you through. If you don’t watch for the flagger, you don’t know what to do. If you don’t watch the person with the flags you don’t know when to stop, when to go, or if it’s safe. If you ignore the flagger, you can get in a lot of trouble.

Luke starts out our scripture reading with a long list of dignitaries; there’s the Emperor Tiberius, and Pontius Pilate and King Herod, King Philip, Lysanius, Annas, Caiaphas – these were all important men in their time, all powerful men. These were men of wealth, men of learning, men of influence. Some of these men were the religious leaders of their day.

If Luke were writing now, he’d say “It was the seventh year of the term of President Obama. Terry McAuliffe was the governor of Virginia, Lawrence Hogan was the governor of Maryland, and Muriel Bowser was the Mayor of the District of Columbia. Ban Ki-moon was the Secretary General of the United Nations, Francis was the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Stanley Noffsinger was the General Secretary of the Church of the Brethren, and Gene Hagenberger was the District Executive of the Mid-Atlantic district.

Then, though, Luke does something unexpected. He’s listed all the heavyweights of his day, all the men that his world would call important, and then he gives us a surprise. Luke says, “At that time the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the desert.”

Tiberius was probably the most powerful man in the entire world at that time. The word of God did not come to Tiberius. Pontius Pilate was Tiberius’s hand-picked governor, with almost total authority in Judea. The word of God did not come to Pilate. King Herod’s family had ruled Galilee for many years. The word of God did not come to Herod. Annas and Caiaphas were Levites, members of the priestly tribe of Israel. Annas and Caiaphas had been trained and schooled and prepared since birth to serve God in the temple, to read and interpret the Holy Torah, to lead the people of Israel in all matters of faith. The word of God did not come to Annas or Caiaphas.

The word of God came to John. The word of God came to some wacko, some wingnut or moonbat who lived out in the desert. The word of God came to some guy who didn’t eat anything but locusts and honey and wore clothes made out of camel’s hair. The word of God came to a man with no money, no home, no power, and no friends.

The word of God came to John. What did John say? Well, in a way he talked about construction. “Get the road ready for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel: Every valley must be filled up, every hill and mountain leveled off. The winding roads must be made straight, and the rough paths made smooth.” John is the flagger at the beginning of the construction zone. John is telling you what’s coming up, what you’ve got to do, how you’ve got to act.

At this point in the journey, John is holding up a red flag telling people to stop. “Turn away from your sins and be baptized, (stop) and God will forgive your sins.”

John is telling us to get ready for what’s coming. What’s coming is the Messiah. What’s coming is God’s love and grace and salvation, coming to earth in human form. What’s coming is Jesus, and John warns us to get ready.

My family on my Mom’s side is from near Lebanon, Pennsylvania in Pennsylvania Dutch country. I grew up in Ohio and we went to Pennsylvania to visit my grandparents every year. My parents used to talk about how hard that trip was once you got to Wheeling, West Virginia.

That’s because it’s when you hit Wheeling that the mountains start to get serious, and Mom and Dad would tell about winding their way up and around and up and around and up and around the mountain on a little two lane road that hugged the mountain on one side and was a sheer drop on the other.

Then of course they had to go down the mountain, and gear down so they didn’t have to ride their brakes, and since it was before power steering how they had to fight the car all the time to keep turning and turning and turning to go down the mountain. It sounded like the mountain at Wheeling was the worst part of the trip out to Pennsylvania.

I wouldn’t know. By the time I am old enough to remember the trip there was a tunnel. A nice four lane tunnel right through the mountain. I-70 goes through Wheeling straight and slick as a whistle; no big hills, no sudden curves, no sharp drops. The valley has been filled up, the hills and mountains made level, and the old winding road has been made straight.

So we have two things really to think about. 1) Who does the word of God come to today? 2) What is that word?

The last two or three weeks we’ve had a special message on our sign out front in support of Syrian refugees and their potential immigration to the United States. Usually we have the title of the sermon for Sunday and the preacher’s name underneath, but it’s worth changing our practice from time to time when something important is going on. I told Care that especially this week it would be good to leave the immigration sign up because otherwise the sign would say, “The Word of God Comes to… Jeff Davidson.” I thought that might sound a little self-important.

It’s true, though. The word of God comes to me. The word of God comes to you. The word of God comes to each of us, one by one. The word of God comes to each of us together as this congregation.

That’s why you’re here. There are other congregations you could go to for worship, congregations that are larger or have better parking or more programs. Even if you are only interested in Brethren congregations, many of us pass some others on the way here. The pastor at the Manassas congregation is a friend from college and seminary, the pastor at Nokesville is one of my favorite people in this district, I drive past my former congregation at Oakton and another church where I did pulpit supply for several months at Arlington. Those are all good congregations, with good pastors, and good people in them.

But I come here.  The word of God speaks to me in this place in a way that it doesn’t in other places. The word of God comes to me here through each of you. The word of God comes to me in the intimacy, the closeness, the relationships that develop in a congregation of this size. The word of God comes to me in the fact that almost all of you had to make an intentional decision to come here. People might drive by the McLean Bible Church and say to themselves, “I wonder what that place is like. I’ve heard that guy on the radio, you know? Not a sermon…. Just a thought. I don’t know – do you want to stop in and see what it’s like?” That means it’s a choice for you to be here, not a whim, not just curiosity. The word of God comes to me in part in the commitment that each of you make to be a part of this community of faith.

The word of God comes to me, the word of God comes to you, the word of God comes to us. What is that word? Well, as a body we’ve said that it is “Seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.” As a congregation that will mean different things at different times, but that line will keep us pointed at what is important, the gospel of Jesus, and what we want for ourselves and for others through that gospel: justice, wholeness, and community.

That’s worth keeping in mind in a world where we deal with gun violence, religious discrimination, hunger, scapegoating, poverty, injustice, exploitation. Those are things that God calls us to address. Those are some of the valleys in our world that need to be filled in.

What is the word of God that comes to you? I don’t know for sure, but I suggest that it might be similar to the word that came to John:  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every 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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God”

What are the paths that you need to make straight in your life? What are the mountains, the obstacles that need to be made smooth? What are the things in our lives that keep the word of God from shining through us, that keep others from seeing the word of God within us?

You might be the woman with the hardhat and the flag, warning someone who is about to enter a rough spot in their life. You might be the one who brings the word of God to someone else, who helps them through a dark valley, who introduces them to the justice, wholeness, and community that the gospel offers.

The word of God comes to Jeff Davidson. The word of God comes to us. The word of God comes to you. Amen.

STAND UP, RAISE YOUR HEADS

Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-26

Jennifer Hosler

On Halloween, I walked into a drugstore and noticed little drummer boys marking the edge of each aisle. It had started. Was I surprised? Not exactly—I’ve heard people say that each new commercial holiday scheme is rolled out immediately after the last one ends (if not before). But it was definitely strange to see it beginning as trick-or-treaters were still tramping about at that very moment.

Drugstores, grocery stores, and departments stores have been at preparing for quite some time, but we—as a church—are officially starting our preparation towards Christmas today. As you heard earlier, this is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent, comes from a Latin word which means coming or arrival. Historically, it’s been seen in the church calendar as a season of preparation for the coming of Jesus at Christmas.

If you look around on TV, in stores or online, the idea of preparation is everywhere: getting ready for Christmas through shopping and gift-buying, eating, and celebrating with family. ‘Tis the season of shopping, lots of food, and a really big credit card bill at the end. Our culture tells us we have a month of buying and celebrating from Thanksgiving to Christmas, but that message doesn’t match with what we see in our Lectionary passages today. Advent, we know in theory, isn’t really about presents. But Advent is also not about rejoicing. Christmas is a time to rejoice and feast and celebrate, for sure, but we aren’t there yet. We’re in Advent.

In our gospel passage this week, we see chaos and terror. The Message bible paraphrases Luke this way: “It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all around the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking” (The Message, Luke 21:25-26). This clearly isn’t angels or shepherds or joy to the world. If Advent is not about rejoicing, what is the message of Advent?

Advent is about recognizing our world’s brokenness and longing for God’s intervention. It’s about seeing the violence and terror and hopelessness in this world, and looking to Jesus’ coming for hope. What do today’s Scriptures have to teach us? Though the world might be overcome by fear, Christians are called not fall prey to fear and terror. Jesus instructs his disciples to fight fear with hope, saying, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (NRSV, Luke 21:28).

Why a Messiah?

This year, two countries dear to my heart held elections: Nigeria and Canada. In both of them, many people were unhappy with the ruling party and the trajectory being set for each country. People longed for new leaders to bring the country in another direction.  So the ruling parties were kicked out: each country has a completely new government that, at least in word, is seeking to make a break from the recent past. I’m watching hopefully: in Nigeria, I’m hoping to see less corruption and more peace between Christians and Muslims; in Canada, I’m hoping for better care for the environment and more justice for indigenous peoples (Native North Americans).

When we read the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament, we see a similar longing for a new leader. But the people of Israel weren’t just waiting for a new political leader to give them a fresh start. They were waiting for a Messiah, an anointed person sent from God. This leader would rule in righteousness and lead the people to worship Yahweh in peace. Today’s Old Testament passage illustrates this Messianic hope, with Jeremiah prophesying about a Branch from David’s family line, a ruler who would deliver Judah and allow the people of Jerusalem to live in safety.

After experiencing judgment and exile, the people of Israel had returned to the land, only to be overrun a few years later by the Roman Empire. When we think about the setting for the first Advent, we shouldn’t picture a happy country. There was a foreign army occupying Israel, militants causing havoc, massive social inequality, and general uncertainty about the place of God’s people in the world: this was the first Advent.

Two Advents

I say first Advent because the season of Advent has a dual purpose: to reflect on Israel’s longing for a Messiah and its fulfillment in Jesus, Immanuel; and to look ahead to the second Advent, when Jesus will come again. Advent is a bit strange because we look at texts that talk about the Jesus’ first coming and we also read texts with Jesus describing about what is to come. Forwards and backwards and present: expectation then that speaks to our expectation now, of Jesus coming once, and of Jesus coming once again, finally ridding our world of violence and fear and hatred and pain.

Fear is everywhere: U.S. politicians are telling us that we should be afraid of certain people; Daesh or ISIS also want us to be afraid to live here in Washington, DC. When I read our Luke passage this week, I couldn’t help but think about our present context, where it seems like terror and fear are pervasive, overrunning the world.

Our gospel text in Luke is set at the tail end of Jesus’ ministry. We are just a few verses away from the last supper, the trials, and the crucifixion. Jesus is trying to teach his disciples about what is to come next. He says to the disciples, “It will be like the world is ending and the earth is being ripped apart.  Chaos and fear will reign; people will be terrorized. Then, the Son of Man will appear. So when you see all of this, stand up and raise your heads because God’s redemption has come” (paraphrase, 25-28). The disciples are instructed not to be afraid, even though everyone else will be afraid. They are to stand up without fear because of their hope that Jesus will return and reign as the righteous ruler, making things whole and bringing peace.

Jesus continues on and tells his disciples a parable about fig trees. In the Middle East, the fig trees were the first to get their leaves. You really knew that summer was at hand when the fig trees had leaves—everything else would follow in green and springing to full life. The disciples were to pay attention to the fig trees, to be alert, observing the state of the world around them and looking forward to the future hope of Jesus’ reign. “When you see these things taking place,” Jesus says, “you know that the kingdom of God is near. God will not abandon humanity without bringing it fully to redemption.” Though the signs may say the world is overrun in terror and chaos, followers of Jesus are called to choose hope instead of despair and fear.

Choosing hope over despair

This past week, Nate returned from Israel and Palestine. Since we were both traveling and not together, his trip came up a lot in my conversations with people. When I was speaking with a new acquaintance in Puerto Rico, our conversation moved from Christian Peacemaker Teams to terrorism and to the conflict between Israel and Palestine (all light conversation topics). My new acquaintance said to me, “I don’t think that the Israel/Palestine conflict will ever be solved. What each side has done to the other, killing children or parents. It’s not going to happen.” I told him that I understood, but I couldn’t agree.

I’ve studied a fair bit about trauma, conflict, and cycles of violence, so I agree that there are significant hurdles and wounds to overcome. There so many entangled factors: power and land mixed with religious beliefs and ideology, combined with prejudice, violence, geopolitics, and genocide. And yet—as a Christian, I can’t say it won’t ever be solved. I can’t despair.

We proclaim faith in a Messiah who healed the sick, cared for the poor, embraced the outcast, and who was crucified and raised from the dead in that very land. As followers of Jesus, we proclaim a King who is just and righteous and who is our peace, bringing together Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, into one body in the church. So while things look so bleak in Israel and Palestine, while stabbings and barrier walls and shootings and checkpoints and rockets all bring fear and hopelessness, I look to the One who is God with us and trust that in Him, there will be peace. Peace in the Holy Land might only come during that 2nd Advent, but God has called us to reject hopelessness and fear. “Stand up, raise your heads,” Jesus said.

Armed with Hope and Love to Fight Hate and Fear

As all of you know, our city is on higher alert than normal. My recent trips through Union Station have involved the sight of several heavily armed security guards, with big assault weapons ready. On Wednesday, I went for a run on the Mall and saw new guards walking through the Lincoln Memorial and a plain clothes policeman “casually” walking a German Shepherd near the reflecting pool (his earbud gave him away, along with some small official writing on the dog’s harness). Security is heightened and they’re watching for signs.

Thinking back to our gospel passage, it’s a passage where some people get stuck on the signs and their timing. Jesus is talking about signs of the end: what applied to the first century? What applies now? How can we know when the end is? While Jesus talks about signs, his exhortation really emphasizes two things: 1) hope; and 2) readiness to act for the Kingdom of God.

Jesus says, “everyone is going to be terrified! When that happens, stand up, raise your heads… be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. 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” (vv. 28, 34-36). Stand up, raise your heads, Jesus says. Don’t be so consumed with yourself. Be alert, be on guard.

What does alertness look like for the church? I see this passage speaking to the climate of fear and discrimination around refugees, people of Arab descent, and Muslims. When we are concerned heavily with our own welfare, our own prosperity and safety, we get blinded from the call of Jesus to care for the stranger, the sick, the widow, the orphan, or even, gasp, our enemies. What does Jesus want us to have strength to escape? We are called to be alert and pray, that we might escape falling into hatred and discrimination and fear and injustice.

Many Christians have been aroused in shock at hateful, discriminatory language used by people in politics. Words of internment in camps, forced registration for people of a certain religion: these, my sisters and brothers, are times of fear and terror. We are called not to be lulled into complacency with our holiday celebrations or by concern for our own well-being, but we’re called to live out Jesus’ call to stand up, raise our heads, and be alert. We are called to look in hope to a world where Christ Jesus will reign—and to demonstrate what hope in our Savior looks like. It looks like sacrificial love and nonviolence. It looks like welcome for refugees, for hospitality to those who look different from us, it looks like loving our enemies and praying for those who would persecute us.

This morning, in addition to our Old Testament and gospel passages, we read words from the book of 1st Thessalonians. It is the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessaloniki, a city located on the coast of Greece. How poignant that we receive a word from God, connected to the coast where refugees are journeying through on the way to Europe. Paul’s words to the early church in Thessaloniki included a prayer that they would remain firm, that they would “increase and abound in love for one another and for all,” that God would “strengthen [their] hearts in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13). For Paul, being ready for Jesus’ return, for the 2nd Advent, means increasing and abounding in our love for each other and for all. This, friends, is holiness, being set apart from the world, by choosing love over fear.

How can we prepare our hearts for Jesus’ return, this Advent? How can we increase in love for all people? How can we stave off complacency and the overindulgence in food and shopping—in order to proclaim God’s Kingdom is at hand? What, friends, does this have to do with refugees? What does this have to do with choosing hope over fear? How can we, as a congregation of Jesus followers, show love to our neighbors who are Muslim?

I would like to take a few moments for silent prayer, for discernment. How can we as a church stand up and raise our heads, while others around us are overcome by fear?

[time for silent prayer and discernment; time for sharing]

Dear sisters and brothers, Advent is a time for preparation. While gifts and feasting and family are good things—and we know that good things, rightly placed, are from God—how can we also prepare our hearts and our church for the Coming of the Lord? Sisters and brothers, let us stand up and raise our heads, choosing hope over fear, choosing love over terror. We pray this in the name of Christ Jesus, our Lord. AMEN.

Benediction

And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all… And may he strength your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.