“Arise, shine”

Wednesday

Isaiah 60

winter sunrise copy

Winter Sunrise, Anna Bonde, ca. 1996

1 Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

I hear the words to arise and shine, but I do not really hear them. They reach out to embrace me. They draw me into their sweetness. I slump into them as into the arms of a friend when troubles abound. What I hear is “the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,” and this seems a perfect embrace.

There is no want of darkness in the world, no want of cruelty, no want of evil men and women and even children, on occasion. The divide between whites and blacks in America is so profound that few can hear the other when they speak. I assume it is the same between Shia and Sunni in some parts of the world or they would not blow up each other’s sacred spaces or their children. And certainly there are other such divides. Men and Women. China and Japan, at least so I’ve read, the font if not the legacy of a brutal war.

The assaults on human dignity and freedom and life seem to lie all around me. So when I hear, “Arise, shine; for your light has come,” it sweeps my heart up in its grand arms.

But beyond the wonderful word that light has come are these two little commands to arise and to shine. Is the poet saying no more than “Get up, get up” in joy and excitement of God’s advent? Or is there a call to stand, though the forces around us would beat us down? Is there a call to stand tall and firm at the lunch counter, though milkshakes and mockery and hate and dumped upon your head? Is there a call to stand tall though a spouse or teacher or coach degrade you? Is there a call to stand, though adversity besets you?

And when the prophet says, “shine,” is this just the shining face, alive with excitement, bright eyes joyous at the present laden tree? Or is there a call to shine forth love and compassion into a world often lacking in both?

The voice of God that presents itself to us through the prophet, speaks a wonderful grace. But it also calls us to come stand in that grace. To come live that grace. To shine forth as a bright moon reflecting the sun’s light. To shine forth as Jonathon’s weary eyes are made bright by the taste of honey. To shine forth as one who knows the true heart of the universe is an imperishable and unconquerable love.

This is not something we can simply be commanded to do. A candle doesn’t light because you tell it to burn brightly; it shines when touched by the flame. We are meant to burn brightly. We are meant to be touched by the flame. We are meant for heaven’s exquisite embrace. We are meant to bring to our mouths the sweetness that is God’s dawning light, God’s wondrous glory, God’s unfathomable love.

And so to shine.

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Our Light has come

Watching for the morning of January 4

The Sunday of the Epiphany

Mary and the baby Jesus.large

The Nativity Scene at Los Altos Lutheran church

Rich, wonderful words and imagery fill worship this Sunday as we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord, the manifestation of God incarnate to the world.

In Isaiah 60 we hear the wonderful summons to “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” In Psalm 72 we hear the soaring proclamation of the faithful king whose reign brings prosperity and justice, the gathering of the scattered people of God, and the honor and praise of all nations. The author of Ephesians speaks of the mystery now revealed of God’s eternal purpose to unite all things in Christ. And then the voice of Mathew sounds forth with the wondrous and terrible narrative of a sign in the heavens and magi bearing royal gifts, kneeling in obeisance. Jerusalem trembles in fear, the king decides to slay the child, and soldiers go forth to defend the realm with the blood of every village toddler.

Our light has come. The light the darkness cannot overcome. The light of compassion, the light of truth, the light of justice, the light of God’s perfect reign.

Our light has come. Like a long awaited dawn on a cold winter night, the day of warmth is come.

Our light has come. The light to our path. Light for our homes. Light in our hearts.

And like the magi we come. We come to kneel. We come to offer our gifts. We come to bask in the light. We come that the light may shine in us and through us.

The Prayer for Epiphany Sunday, January 4, 2015

Gracious God,
by a sign in the heavens
you proclaimed to all the earth
the advent of your son Jesus,
who would receive the throne of David
and reign in justice and righteousness over a world made new.
May he reign in us and in our world bringing his perfect peace;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for January 4, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” – In the years after the return from exile, the prophet heralds a restoration of the nation: though Jerusalem and the temple are now only a pale reflection of their former glory, the Glory of God shall be upon them, the sons and daughters of Israel scattered throughout the ancient world shall return, and the people of all nations will make pilgrimage to “proclaim the praise of the LORD”.

Psalmody: Psalm 72 (appointed 1-7, 10-14)

“Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness.” – A royal psalm, likely composed to celebrate the ascension of a new king, has become a promise of the anointed of God (Messiah/Christ) in whom all creation is made new.

Second Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12
“This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ.” – Paul is privileged to proclaim God’s plan, once hidden from our eyes but now revealed, to gather all people into one body in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 2:1-23 (appointed 1-12)
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Judeans?”
– the visit of the magi, representing the nations coming to bow before the dawning reign of God in Christ, and his rejection by Herod and the Jerusalem elite who plot to murder the infant king.

Christ is entered into the world

Sunday Evening

Luke 2

File:Simeon. Mironov.jpg

Saint Simeon with the Christ child. 2014. Oil on canvas. 90×70. Artist A.N. Mironov

28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God

Christmas lingers. At least it should linger. Not because of the twelve day ecclesiastical season, but because the Christ is born. The Christ is entered into the world. The Christ of God, the anointed one, the embodiment of God’s Word – the embodiment of God’s self-expression, God’s communication, God’s voice that creates all things, that reveals God’s own heart and will and passion, that calls all creation into a living relationship, that gathers the creation to himself – is incarnate in this infant/child/man of Bethlehem and Nazareth, this infant/child/man of temple and town and wilderness, this infant/child/man of cross and empty tomb.

The Christ is entered into the world. The true and perfect son, who honors the Father with his every breath, is come. The son we should be but were not. The son we are in him.

The Christ is entered into the world. He cries as a hungry child. He laughs as a delighted child, playing the ancient equivalent of “peek-a-boo.” He shouts as a rambunctious boy, sporting with friends. He labors as a man with sweat and satisfaction. He prays and ponders the holy writings as a child and as a man. He weeps at the sorrow of death in the village, and witnesses the reality of Roman might. He enjoys the village wedding feast and ponders the feast that has no end. He reflects on the bonds of friendship and the pains of betrayal. He recognizes the beauty of the world around him and the beauty of human kindness. He sees the brutality of the world around him and the human capacity for violence. He knows the joy of song and dance. He never has the privilege of chocolate, but he knows the sweetness of honey. He knows the wonder of the temple and the mystery hidden within. He watches prodigal sons perish at the gates of far away cities, and witnesses the shame of their parents. He knows the blind and lame who depend upon village charity, and sees those who give nothing. He watches foreign soldiers slap down old men on the road – and shame their women. He sees those who collude and those who resist and the many who keep their heads down and hope against the knock in the night.

The Christ is entered into the world. And he abides in the world. Risen, yet embodied still in his people. Risen, yet present in the poor. “As you did to the least of these you did to me…”

Christ is entered into the world. He abides in this world where human creativity and craft have made weapons of unimaginable destruction. He abides in this world where some cannot breathe and others fail to understand. He abides in a world of mothers shielding children from bombs in the night. He abides in a world of vineyard weddings and children making sandcastles at the shore. He abides in a world where those who celebrate Christmas are threatened and abused and others count the cost. He abides in a world where fear creeps and violence claims authority. He abides in a world where some children rise carefree and others scrounge the trash heaps. He abides in us who weep and sing. He abides in us who are mindless and mindful of all that transcends.

The Christ is come. The voice at the beginning and end of time that, in love, calls a world into being and, in love, calls a world to new beginnings, speaks in human form and human actions and human words.

He calls the world into peace. He calls the world into joy. He calls the world into giving. He calls the world into love.

He calls us into peace, into joy, into giving, into love.

Christmas lingers. Christ lingers. And our service of him lingers. For Christ is entered into the world.

Image: By Andrey Mironov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Faithful God; faithful people

Watching for the morning of December 28

The Sunday in Christmas

Singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve at Los Altos Lutheran Church (2012)

Singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve at Los Altos Lutheran Church (2012)

Our parish departs from the assigned lectionary readings during Christmas. There are wonderful feast days during the 12 days of Christmas: St. Stephen, the first martyr, on the 26th; St. John the Evangelist on the 27th; The Holy Innocents on the 28th; The Holy Name of Jesus on January 1. But these days and the various assigned lessons for the First and, sometimes, Second Sunday of Christmas seem to obscure the thread of this season. So in our parish we read the Luke Nativity on Christmas Eve and the John text “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” on Christmas Day. Then on the Sunday in Christmas we read the remainder of the Luke text, with Simeon and Anna greeting the Christ child, and on the following Sunday, nearest January 6th, we celebrate the Epiphany and read of the birth, the magi, Herod’s frightful response and the flight to Egypt from Matthew.

This Sunday, then, has us still inside Luke’s narrative of a faithful God and a faithful people. Mary and Jesus come to fulfill the commands of the Torah in the temple. There, Simeon and Anna wait, longing for God’s anointed – and they have eyes to recognize the promise embodied in this peasant child, Jesus. The faithful God has fulfilled his promise.

But, for all the joy of God’s coming deliverance, for all the sweetness of these Lucan narratives, there is a shadow over this child. Simeon sees what Mary has sung: “This child is set for the falling and rising of many in Israel.” The wheel turns; the poor are lifted up, but the greedy rich sent empty away. Simeon sees and rejoices, but also perceives the opposition this child shall engender – and the sword that shall pierce Mary.

Jesus is perfect grace and real trouble. He is the fulfillment of all God’s promises and the provocative voice announcing a new world. At his first sermon, among his own people in Nazareth, his “coming out” party following his baptism by John and the descent of God’s Spirit, the congregation will rise up and try to kill him.

The faithful rejoice to see this Jesus, but others will not – and everything hinges on how that tale spins out.

The Prayer for the Sunday in Christmas, December 28, 2014

Gracious God,
by whose word we live
and whose promises all come to fulfillment,
we give you thanks for those faithful among your people
who, like Simeon and Anna, have eyes to see your dawning work among us.
Grant that, with them, we might see where your hand is working
and share in its joy;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 28, 2014

First Reading: Isaiah 52:7-10,
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace.” – In a text full of words that ring with added meaning for the Christian community – words like ‘proclaim good news’ (a noun form of this verb is rendered Gospel in English) and ‘Salvation’ the prophet calls the nation to rejoice in God’s work of bringing the exiles home.

Second Reading: Galatians 4:4-7
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son.” – Paul recites the core message of what God has done in Christ for these Galatians. They are members of God’s household and heirs of God’s promise through the gift of the Spirit in Christ, not because of their outward obedience to the tradition.

Gospel: Luke 2:21-40
“When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” – The narrative of Jesus’ birth continues with Mary and Joseph’s faithful obedience and the recognition and reception of Jesus by Simeon and Anna, representatives of faithful Israel.

A single joy

Watching for the light of the new morn

Christmas Eve / Christmas Day

File:Ifinger Mountain - Herz Jesu Fires - South Tyrol.jpgMy youngest daughter was born in the wee hours of the morning of December 24th.  We had some good traditions to observe her birthday, but I still have regrets. I wish I could have given her and her day more time and attention. It’s hard to do at that time of year when you’re a preacher. At least it was hard for me.

I have similar regrets about our family Christmases. I never felt I could get it all done. One Christmas Eve I was outside in the snow after midnight sawing off the base of a tree in order to put it in water and bring it inside.

And yet there are things I don’t regret. It was not possible for my girls to lose sight of the fact that Christmas was the mass of Christ not the visit of Santa. Santa took a back seat to church, with multiple services on Christmas Eve. Opening presents on Christmas morning was kept in its rightful place by the fact that we had to pause our gift giving to get ready for and participate in worship.

Whether or not we have a tree, Christ is born for us. Whether or not we have all the presents wrapped, heaven has come down to us. Where or not we have a dinner to cook, God has set before us a banquet.

So when my eldest was killed, and emotions of loss threatened to swamp our next Christmas, Christ was yet the center. And the center held.

Whatever else Christmas may mean to us in our time and place, Christmas is still about light shining in the darkness. It is about the Word of God made flesh: God’s invitation and call and declaration of love for the world embodied in this child of Mary, the man from Nazareth. It is about the wonder of those first steps in the dance that unites heaven and earth in a single joy.

The Prayer for December 24, 2014

Holy God, eternal light,
source and goal of all creation:
in the wonder of this night,
you came to us in the child of Bethlehem,
seeking your lost and wounded world,
granting light for our darkness,
hope amidst doubt,
joy amidst sorrow.
Let your grace shine upon us
that we may receive you with open hearts
and know the fullness of your presence;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 24, 2014

Opening text: Isaiah 9:2-7,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – the prophet promises the end of war and the birth of a royal son in whom will come peace.

First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-9
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” – From the stump of the fallen Davidic line comes a new king who shall establish justice and restore the peace of Eden.

Second Reading: Titus 3:4-7
“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.”
–We were slaves to our passions but have been freed in Christ by his mercy.

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” – Into the world of Roman dominion and power, a new Lord is born.

The Prayer for December 25, 2014

Almighty and ever-living God,
in the mystery of the incarnation
you have entered into the fabric of our world
to find what is lost,
to gather what is scattered,
to unite what is broken,
to illumine what is darkened,
to heal what is wounded,
to bring to life what is bound in death.
Grant us wisdom, courage and faith
to receive your son as he comes to us as your Word made flesh:
child of Bethlehem;
prophet and teacher of Nazareth;
crucified and risen Lord;
Immanuel, God with us;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 25, 2014

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-12
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” – Like grain sown into the soil, God’s promise will bear fruit: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”
– The opening of the book of Hebrews proclaiming the work of God in Christ.

Gospel: John 1:1-14
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John’s Gospel begins with a rich and wondrous hymn that identifies Christ Jesus with God’s word in whom all things are created.

Image: By Noclador (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

God of all

Saturday

Romans 16

File:Ikona na Arhangel Gavril vo Sv. Blagoveštenie Prilepsko.jpg

The Angel Gabriel in an icon of the Annunciation, from the Icons of the Church of the Annunciation (Prilep)

25.…the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed.

Did Abraham understand God’s purpose when God called him to go forth from Haran? Did he hear the great plan of God to gather all creation to himself in those simple words by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves”? Probably not. He probably heard something more like “Everybody will say, ‘May you be blessed like Abraham is blessed.’” It wasn’t yet a hope that all people will be blessed, as much as it was a hope that Abraham will be blessed more than anyone else.

And when that clever, yes, but lying cheat, Jacob, whose name will be changed to Israel, hears God promise him a future is he thinking of God’s plan to rescue all people?

Joseph in Egypt seems more like a curse than a blessing – though everyone is fed by his foresight, it comes at the cost of their freedom. Pharaoh ends up owning all the land. Perhaps it’s only right that Jacob’s family, too, should end up enslaved. But when Moses leads them out to freedom, do they think this is the next great act of a God determined to liberate the world, or do they think they have become the favorite children of one particular God?

David’s temple and holy city is thought to be the navel of the world – not for the world, mind you. They are trapped in their solipsism. Our God is the king of all gods. Our God is better than all gods. Our God is stronger than all gods. “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah.”

And let’s not feel superior. We often think the same way. Religion is about me, not my neighbor. About God protecting me and mine rather than rescuing his whole earth.

The prophets begin to speak the language of God’s universal scope. Of course it starts off with God’s judgment on the foreign nations who have toppled Israel and Judah. But if the God of Israel is determined to punish those nations – then is God not the acting agent for those nations? And so, is he not the Lord of all? If God will punish other nations, will he not also save them? When the prophets talk about the lion lying down with the lamb they may have had in mind peace in Israel. But the words sprout and grow and reveal a deeper meaning.

Pretty soon Jesus is not just treating women as disciples and eating with sinners and tax-collectors, but he is welcoming the Samaritan woman, and healing the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman. Pretty soon Philip is baptizing Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch and then Peter himself is commanded not to regard any as unclean. Standing in front of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, he watches God pour out God’s Spirit upon him and his family and he has no choice but to baptize. And then the believers in Antioch are welcoming Greeks and sending Paul out to the Hellenistic cities of the Roman Empire.

Jesus is the embodiment of God’s revelation, God’s speech to us, and he is not reforming Judaism but declaring that the reign of God over all the earth is dawning. Pretty soon John sees his vision of a heaven and earth restored. Yes, he calls the heavenly city brought to earth “Jerusalem”, but it is the whole world healed, the garden restored, life made whole, the lion lying down with the lamb.

25.…the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed.

This is a dramatic revelation, a great mystery, incomprehensible to us for a long time, but now revealed in Christ Jesus. Is God the God of Jews only?”

But it’s not new information being revealed; it’s more about us finally coming to understand what was there from the beginning when God formed Adam from the dust and Eve from the rib, and then protected his rebellious children as they lost the garden, determined to bring them home.

It’s not God finally revealing secrets he never told us, but us finally starting to hear what he has always said. Everyone is our brother. Everyone our sister. God is redeeming the world.

And we are still trying to learn what it means.

Shouldering her burden in joy

Friday

Luke 1

File:Ikona na Blagoveštenieto vo Sv. Blagoveštenie Prilepsko.jpg

Icons from the treasury of the Church of the Holy Annunciation in Prilep

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

It is such a sweet verse to those who know the story, shaped by the celebration of Christmas filtered so many Christmas services and pageants, through songs like “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger”, and through storybooks about the cattle in the barn or the little drummer boy.

There are times for Christmas Candy. But we need more than candy to live.

When we strip away the glossy and sentimental layers of the story, we find a different kind of narrative. It is still a narrative that intentionally echoes the literary style of old Biblical stories like the wondrous birth of Samuel, with Hannah’s desperate prayer and the song of joy at her conception (wondrous births are a standard part of God’s repertoire). It is as if Luke wrote his narrative in the language of the King James Bible. But the old language doesn’t eliminate the dramatic content of the story.

Mary is betrothed. A marriage contract has been negotiated – this is normally done by the mothers and confirmed by the fathers – but this is not a plan for a coming event; it is signed and sealed. Money has changed hands. Mary has not yet been taken into Joseph’s house, but to break the marriage contract requires divorce. Such an action would bring shame on the families and likely lead to generations of enmity between the families that were to be united but are now divided.

The reference to the betrothal tells us that Mary is a married woman, yet young – still at the home of her parents and under their careful guard. Encounters between men and women are tightly controlled and supervised, lest the woman’s virginity or reputation be compromised. That Mary finds herself alone with an angel in a private interior of the house is a potentially scandalous encounter. (In Hellenistic culture, the gods frequently sleep with women, and the relations between angels and human women is one of the scandals that leads to the flood at the time of Noah.)

For us to appreciate the emotional impact of the story we may need to imagine Mary confronted on a dark street by a stranger far larger and stronger than she. Only it’s not Mary’s personal safety that is at risk, but the honor of her whole family.

Into this tense moment comes the word of the angel: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

On a dark street, we would be “much perplexed”, too – though ‘perplexed’ is hardly a strong enough translation. The verb is a form of the word used for Pharaoh’s anguish over his nightmares; of Joseph overcome with emotion when he meets up with his brothers; of David weeping for his murdered son Absalom; for the woman pleading with Solomon for the life of her infant when he commands that it be cut in two, giving half to each of the two women claiming it as their own. The author of Lamentations uses the same root word for grief over the brutal destruction of Jerusalem. Mary is not ‘perplexed’ as though faced with the New York Times crossword puzzle; she is shaken, overwhelmed, overturned.

And the message does not ease her fear. For a married woman to become pregnant apart from her husband is social death. And the declaration that her son 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,” wouldn’t necessarily bring comfort given the likelihood of violence by the ruling powers against any potential claimants to the throne.

But against this shattering encounter with the divine is the costly vision of a world transformed, of high powers thrown down and the poor lifted up, of grasping greed sent away empty and the hungry fed, of justice and mercy replacing power and privilege.

It is always humbling to ponder the cost to Mary of bearing the earth’s redeemer. She submits to the divine purpose despite the personal cost in shame and grief. The promise of God trumps her natural impulse to self-protection. Not that she could have done anything about it. God isn’t asking her permission; he is thrusting her onto the world stage.

But Mary shoulder’s her burden – not in obligation but in joy, trusting the promise that the price of her humiliation will be a far greater good: the redemption of God’s earth.

“Nothing will be impossible with God”

Thursday

Luke 1

File:Paolo Veneziano (Italian (Venetian), active 1333 - 1358) - The Annunciation - Google Art Project.jpg

Paolo Veneziano, The Annunciation

37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

It’s interesting that Luke uses the future tense: “nothing will be impossible.” We are more accustomed to expressing such notions in the present, “with God all things are possible.” But here it’s in the future tense.

“For nothing will be impossible with God.”

When the angel speaks to Mary he is not making a statement about the omnipotence of God; he is making a statement about the surety of the promise. “None of the things God has promised will be impossible.”

The impossible thing isn’t that Mary would become pregnant. Wondrous births are routine for God. Sarah conceives when she is past the age of childbearing. According to Genesis, Abraham is 100 and Sarah 90 when Isaac is born. The birth of Samuel is wondrously given to Hannah when she is barren. Zechariah and Elizabeth are granted a child though she, too, is barren. This little thing of an unconsummated marriage is no great feat. The great feat is that this poor woman’s child would be “great”. The true wonder is that a peasant child would “be called the Son of the Most High,” a designation suggesting he will be second in rank and honor only to God. It is a title given to kings and emperors. The amazing work is that “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” That throne has been vacant for 600 years. Judea is, at the time of Jesus’ birth, a client state of the Roman Empire; Herod’s kingship is given to him by Caesar. The virgin birth is small potatoes compared to the promise that this child “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

We get sidetracked by the small things. We either mock Christianity or treasure it because of the virgin birth rather than its claim that this child, crucified and risen, has ascended to the right hand of God and reigns there even now and shall reign forever over a world brought under the glorious and gentle governance of God.

This is why the message to Mary is in the future tense. Christ’s reign will not be impossible to God. It will become manifest in ways that may seem strange to us: starting with a peasant child whose birth is announced by angels to the unlikeliest of people. Shepherds as a class are unclean, without honor and regarded as thieves. This child will summon an odd collection of Galilean laborers as his posse, including a tax collector. He will wander homeless like a man either crazy or a prophet. He will eat with sinners. He will challenge the temple system and be crushed by the Jerusalem leaders. But God will vindicate him and set him at God’s right hand.

The promise will look empty; but “nothing will be impossible with God.”

That crazy little band will be filled with God’s Spirit and the reign of God in Christ will extend throughout the world: Lives will be healed. Hearts will be changed. Sinners will be gathered. Communities will be reconciled. The world will be reborn.

“Nothing will be impossible with God.”

This is not a statement of principle. It is a promise. Christ will reign and the gates of hell cannot stop it, the darkness cannot overcome it. Even our stony hearts will become living hearts, beating with compassion and justice.

“Nothing will be impossible with God.”

The throne of David

Watching for the morning of December 21

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

File:Florenz - David von Michelangelo 02.JPG

Michelangelo’s David

It is as if King Arthur was returning to bring a just and righteous reign to the land. The birth of a new king is proclaimed to Mary:

“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.”

The promise made to David of an eternal line – a promise that seemed broken after Jerusalem was destroyed and brought under the dominion of Babylon then Persia then Greece and its warring successor states until finally Roman troops ruled the city – that promise has been resurrected. And Mary is chosen for the terrible and wondrous task of giving birth to this new king.

The promise made to David and fulfilled in Jesus governs our readings this final Sunday in Advent. In the first reading we hear Nathan declare God’s promise to David of an eternal reign:

“Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me;
your throne shall be established forever.”

Like a river that can find no path to the sea, this promise seemed to sink into the arid desert. The line of David appeared broken by Babylon and the imperial conquerors that followed. But the hope remained that Israel would again be free, that the glory of David’s realm would be restored, that they would be freed from the woes of foreign dominion. And now suddenly there is a heavenly messenger standing before a peasant girl declaring that she would bear that child, that all God’s ancient promises would be fulfilled, that all the shame of Israel’s life would be lifted away.

The joy of that promise echoes through the song of salvation from Isaiah. And the scope of that deliverance is extended to the whole world in the passage from Romans. For the king to come is far more than the warrior king to reclaim Jerusalem, but the redeemer king who brings the New Jerusalem.

As we gather on the cusp of our celebration of that birth, the joy of God’s deliverance breaks through. God’s anointed, God’s Christ, shall reign in us forever.

The Prayer for December 21, 2014

Mighty God,
who stands at the beginning and end of time,
through your son Jesus, child of Mary,
you entered into the fabric of time
to make visible among us your reign of grace and life.
Fill us with gratefulness, wonder and awe
that we may receive you with joy at your coming;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 21, 2014

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16
“Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’” – When David seeks to build a temple for God, God declares he has it backwards: it isn’t David who builds a house for God, but God who builds a house (a dynastic line) for David.

Psalmody: Isaiah 12:2-6,
“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” – the prophet sings a song of thanksgiving, anticipating the day of God’s redemption.

Second Reading: Romans 16.25-27
“Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”
– A hymnic conclusion to Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome celebrates the mystery now revealed of God’s purpose to gather all people into Christ.

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph.” – The angel Gabriel invades Mary’s home and presents her with the news that she will give birth to the heir of David’s throne.

The appointed psalm: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary (the Magnificat)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – Mary sings with joy of God’s coming deliverance when she is greeted by Elizabeth whose unborn child already recognizes their coming Lord.
or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
“I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.”
– The psalmist sings of God’s promise to David.

Image credit: By Rabe! (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The light of God’s presence

Looking back on Sunday

Sanctuary light.blog.medium

The sanctuary lamp in the darkness

Sunday was sweet. The children who came forward for the children’s message were young and inexperienced in this little ritual of church life. They were shy and, perhaps frozen by the crowd behind them and this relative stranger asking them questions.

They were simple questions. Questions about candles. What are they for? Where do we use them? Apparently they couldn’t remember ever seeing candles, though grandparents assured me after that they had candles everywhere from the fireplace to the dinner table.

Since I wasn’t getting anywhere, I took them up behind the altar to look at the perpetual light that hangs in a red globe from the ceiling. And there, sitting on the floor, behind the altar, the Christmas tree, the advent wreath and flowers, we were out of sight of the congregation – and they finally began to talk.

Darling children.

We use candles for light. We use them for celebration (birthday cakes and Christmas dinners). There were lamps in the ancient temple in Israel – the only light in a windowless room where God was understood to be present. The red lamp is a sign that God is always present – not just here where people come to pray, but with us always.

On the way back we stopped and I brought down the pillar candles on the altar so each could light one. Apparently that was the moment of success. When I walked into the fellowship hall for coffee hour, one of the little ones jumped up and said, “There he is!” (the man who let them light candles).

It’s too complicated to explain to him that he is the true light of God, the true sign of God’s presence in the world: not only now because of that fresh simplicity and innocent love characteristic of early childhood, but because we were all made in the image of God, fashioned of the earth and the breath/spirit of God, and freed in Christ to be light to the world, to be the gracious, redeeming presence of God’s love in an often dark and terribly wounded world.

Hopefully he will come to understand all this.