The turning of the tide

File:Sand castle, Cannon Beach.jpg

Saturday

Luke 2:21-40

25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon…

Three times in this paragraph the Spirit is mentioned. The Holy Spirit “rested” on Simeon. It “revealed to him… that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” And the Spirit “guided” him to enter the temple.

Deep in Luke’s Gospel is this notion that Christ Jesus is accompanied by an outpouring of the Spirit. It is Luke who tells us of the Pentecost wonder when the Spirit empowers the followers of Jesus to bear witness in every language. It is Luke who connects the gift of the Holy Spirit with baptism into Christ – the gift of the Spirit to Cornelius and his family forcing Peter to baptize those who had received the baptismal gift. In Luke the Spirit descends on Jesus not when he is baptized by John (a baptism of repentance) but after, when Jesus is praying. In Luke again and again we see and hear the Spirit at work.

There are wonders galore in the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel – the appearance of an angel to Zechariah, the wondrous birth of John, the appearance of an angel to Mary announcing the birth of Jesus, the angelic witness to the shepherds, the witness of ancient scripture, the prophetic promise that the coming one will baptize the world in the Spirit, the voice from heaven declaring that this Jesus is God’s son.

We speak of the Spirit rather casually in the church, but presence of the Spirit is part of the wonder of the events in and around Jesus. It is a sign of the age to come, a witness that the ages are turning from this age of sin and sorrow to the age of grace and life. The world is being reborn. The reign of God is dawning. The Spirit of God cannot be held back, but splashes forth like the waves of a rising tide.

Jesus is not born into a static world to speak of the hope of a heaven; he is born into the dying days of this world to bring the first days of that age to come when all things are made new. The marching armies of the Caesars and all their ideological descendants will yield to the heavenly host. The law of revenge, lex talionis, is yielding to the law of love. The principle of “me” and “mine” is yielding to the deeper truth of “us” and “ours”. Forgiveness will overflow. Compassion. Mercy. Shared bread. Healing. The gifts and fruits of the Spirit are loose in the world. The breath of God in Christ is breathed upon us.

And it is visible from the very beginning in the faithful poor like Simeon and Anna and the parents of this child who come to fulfill all righteousness. The tide has turned. Our castles of sand built by sweat and tears are being swept away for a home that stands forever on rock.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASand_castle%2C_Cannon_Beach.jpg By Curt Smith from Bellevue, WA, USA (Sand Castle at Cannon Beach) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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The stones will sing

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Friday

Isaiah 52:7-10

9Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem.

Imagine walking through the streets of Aleppo, surrounded by desolation and the scattered possessions of war-ravaged homes, and calling for the rubble to break forth into song.

“Listen!” cries the prophet, “Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy.” The watchmen on the walls that no longer exist, the sentinels on the abandoned outposts, are united in song. The prophet sees what we yet cannot. He sees the raised towers of the city gates. He hears the sound of the market and children running through the streets. He sees the temple shining in the morning sun, the ram’s horn summoning people to worship. The gates of the city swing wide to greet their king.

The prophet sees what we do not yet see. The prophet understands the heart of God. The prophet knows that the destiny of the broken city is to thrive.

And so he calls for the stones to sing.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABosra06(js).jpg By Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Christ is entered into the world

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This is a lightly edited reprint of a posting in 2014

Thursday

Luke 2

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 infant. 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 worry over 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 adoration of the wondrous child lingers. For Christ is entered into the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASimeon_with_the_Infant_Jesus_Brandl_after_1725_National_Gallery_Prague.jpg By Janmad (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Break forth together into singing”

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Watching for the Morning of January 1, 2017

The Sunday in Christmas

Oprah Winfrey seems to be everywhere on television promoting Weight Watchers. For the society around us, Christmas is over. The feasting and sweetness is finished; now it’s time to lose weight. And if Christmas is only about gifts, then once the gifts are opened the holiday is finished. Drag the tree out to the curb. Take down the lights. All that remains is football.

But if Christmas is about the gifts of God come to the world in the child of Bethlehem, then there is much more to celebrate.

Sunday continues the Christmas Season. It is that wonderful oasis between the feast of the Nativity and the Epiphany of our Lord. The community gathers again in the aura of that silent night to hear the continuation of the story begun on Christmas Eve. The child greeted by the song of angels and the wonderment of shepherds is greeted by the faithful poor in Israel: Simeon yearning for God’s day of grace to come, and Anna absorbed in prayer. These recognize the Christ child as God’s anointed and sing of him to all who will listen.

Sunday the prophet will call us to join the song. And Paul will speak of what God has done in “the fullness of time”. Joy reverberates throughout the texts and liturgy, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. But we also see the first shadow that reminds us of the great drama underway: Simeon speaks of “the falling and the rising of many in Israel” and the “sword” that will pierce Mary’s soul. Heaven sings. The faithful sing. But the powers of this world will not sing. So Good Friday awaits, but the grave will not reign: the new creation is at hand.

The Prayer for January 1, 2017

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 January 1, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 52:7-10,
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace.” – The prophet stands before the rubble of Jerusalem and hears the stones singing. He summons the people to rejoice in God’s saving work and declares that “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”

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, making them members of God’s household and heirs of God’s promise through the gift of the Spirit in Christ.

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.

Our parish departs from the appointed texts for the Christmas season in order to present the birth narratives with some integrity: reading Luke 2:1-20 on Christmas Eve (and John 1 on Christmas morning), then the remainder of Luke 2 on the Sunday in Christmas and the Account of the Magi and Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus on the second Sunday after Christmas, celebrated as the Sunday of the Epiphany.

This does mean that we sometimes have to drop a Sunday when our celebration of the Epiphany falls after January 6th (as this year), in order to reconnect with the appointed texts. So we will celebrate the Baptism of our Lord on January 15, then skip to the texts for the third Sunday after the Epiphany.

The Appointed Texts for the first Sunday in Christmas, year A

First Reading: Isaiah 63:7-9 (“It was…his presence that saved them”)

Psalmody: Psalm 148 (Praise the Lord from the heavens.)

Second Reading: Hebrews 2:10-18 (“He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.”)

Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23 (The flight to Egypt and slaughter of the innocents)

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMenologion_of_Basil_037.jpg By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

O Come

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Of the Father’s love begotten
ere the worlds began to be,
he is Alpha and Omega,
he the source, the ending he,
of the things that are, that have been,
and that future years shall see,
evermore and evermore.

A solo voice sang that verse in the darkened sanctuary as she followed behind the processional cross as it entered last night. With the second verse another voice joined as the manger with the infant Jesus was carried in. Two more voices joined as the Bible came up the aisle. Then the whole choir was singing as they came and stood with the musicians on the platform behind the altar. With the final verse the lights came on and the whole congregation stood to sing:

Christ, to thee, with God the Father,
and, O Holy Ghost, to thee,
hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
and unwearied praises be:
honor, glory, and dominion,
and eternal victory
evermore and evermore! Amen

As the music faded, came these words from the altar:

You made the world a garden, O God,
And formed our first parents from the dust of the earth and the breath of your mouth.
You made the world a garden, O God,
And walked with us in the cool of the evening.
You made the world a garden, O God,
And provided every good thing to your children.

But they turned from you,
And weeds grew,
And lions roared,
And tears fell.
Brother rose against brother,
And the riches of the earth were pounded into weapons.
Empires marched,
And sorrow followed in their train.

You made the world a garden, O God,
But it lies wounded.
We lie wounded.
Your children are scattered
and your people divided.

But on this night the radiance of heaven shines forth.
Stars blaze. Angels sing.
And you bid us and all creation to come and dwell in your light and life.

With that the organ swelled and we all began to sing: “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

The liturgy of Christmas Eve is unlike any other in the year. Easter has its sugar-fueled, spring-fed energy. Pentecost has the fun of many languages. The Blessing of the Animals is out on the lawn with pets at our side. But Christmas Eve is a special mix of family reunions, candlelight, beautiful music and joy, peace and hope.

Some years the wounds of the world are more profoundly in our minds. But in every year the invitation still comes to gather for a moment of peace, captured so perfectly when every hand holds a candle and, in a church darkened but for the Christmas trees, we sing “Silent Night. Holy Night. All is calm. All is bright…”

Such a world is our yearning. And it is God’s promise.

The message from Christmas Eve is posted at Light for our darkness

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADon_Silvestro_dei_Gherarducci_-_Nativity%2C_in_an_initial_P_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For all the boots

File:Boots, Boots, To Go Up and Down in Africa- the Salvage and Repair of Army Boots, Somerset, England, 1943 D13198.jpg

Isaiah 9:2-7

5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

I saw a news item last year about people making jewelry out of the shell casings left behind from the Vietnam war. That’s not exactly beating swords into plowshares, but it is on the same track.

My nephew wants to be a marine. I respect him. I respect him a great deal. I think I understand why such a life appeals to him. He wants to be a guardian of the peace. But I can’t shake the shadows of war. It’s been haunting me since the nightly news showed images and gave body counts each evening from Vietnam. It haunts me since reading All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. It haunts me since reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima. It haunts me since seeing footage of the Nazi concentration camps. It haunts me since my father’s war stories stopped being adventure stories. It was an adventure for him as a young man. It was a long ways from shoveling sugar beets on a Colorado farm. It involved the thrill of flying when you navigated by following roads rather than computer readouts. But I recognize that my father ttold it as an adventure story because that helps hide the reality of the friends he lost and the bombs he dropped.

We spend more than 1.6 billion dollars a day in this country for war and the preparations for war. We call it defense, because that, too, hides some of the horror. We unfurl giant flags in patriotic displays at football games and cheer our soldiers when they come home to greet unsuspecting family because that, too, hides some of the horror. We honor their service, rightly, but old soldiers and authors and moviemakers keep reminding us that the underbelly of such adventure is blood and grief. And so we watch Aleppo and the Russians drooping bombs on hospitals and children covered in dust and blood pulled from the wreckage. A city that was great a thousand years before Abraham left Haran appears now as rubble.

When we read Isaiah on Christmas Eve it is pure promise, sweet and familiar, shadowed not by weeping mothers but Christmas trees and candlelight. But the words were first spoken to weeping mothers.

The music of Haydn rings in our ears as we hear these words. But this is not a noble aspiration for a sane and safe world; it is a promise. A promise that one shall come in whom is perfect peace. Peace will not come by bombing the heck out of our enemies, but by kneeling before the holy infant, by kneeling in allegiance to the one who is not only the child of Bethlehem but the teacher from Nazareth who chose not to call on the heavenly armies, but stretched wide his arms upon the cross.

I don’t know how we get there, given the warring heart of humanity. But that is why the promise stands forth with such power.

5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABoots%2C_Boots%2C_To_Go_Up_and_Down_in_Africa-_the_Salvage_and_Repair_of_Army_Boots%2C_Somerset%2C_England%2C_1943_D13198.jpg By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It will all be good

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Watching for the Morning of December 25, 2016

Christmas Eve / Christmas Day

Christmas falls on a Sunday this year. It was because of such an accident of the calendar that many years ago my parish first created its Christmas Day service. The service was so nice we decided to continue the practice. I know it goes against the cultural tide, but we found it to be wonderful.

It’s not a big service. We gather early in the entryway with hot cider and cookies. We begin at the sanctuary doors with the Christmas proclamation and enter together following the cross and Bible. I don’t preach a sermon, but look for a children’s book to use as the message of the day. The service feels more like a family devotion than the big production of Christmas Eve. It meets a need for those whose big family celebrations are on Christmas Eve (and wouldn’t include worship). And since we are the only church around with a Christmas Day service, we get an interesting assortment of visitors.

And for my own family, for the girls and me this service never seemed like an intrusion into our Christmas. Because of the reading of a children’s story I wasn’t stressed about a sermon, and so our Christmas morning was juice and coffee bread as we opened stockings and started on presents. When it was time, we went to church for the cider and cookies and the worship service. Then it was home again for the remaining presents and the preparations for Christmas dinner. It seemed right and natural to put worship in the middle of Christmas morning. We sang the carols and listened to the scriptures and shared the bread and lingered again over the cider. It anchored all that we did in “the true meaning of Christmas.”

So we will have the big, high-energy service on Christmas Eve with choirs and special musicians and the excitement that a full house and lots of children brings – ending with the traditional passing of the light and singing Silent Night by candlelight. But then there will be that simple, pleasant, morning service filled with kindness, quiet and wonder.

And it will all be good.

The Prayer for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016

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 Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016

First Reading: 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.

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 Christmas Day, December 25, 2016

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 Christmas Day, December 25, 2016

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: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMartin_Schongauer_002.jpg Martin Schongauer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Virgin Shall Conceive

The Promise of “God with Us”

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Watching for the Morning of December 18, 2016

Year A

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

The name ‘Immanuel’ (“God [is] with us”) echoes through the readings this morning. It is the name the prophet uses to declare that deliverance is coming to Judah. And it is the name Matthew uses for the infant Jesus, as though it were a throne name. But it is much more than a throne name, it is a declaration that God has come to dwell with us, that heaven has bent to kiss the earth. The new age is dawning, the way to the tree of life is opened, healing and joy have come. In the mystery of God, our frail flesh is shown a fit vessel of the holy, and the ancient promise is fulfilled: “I will dwell with them and they shall be my people”.

The season of Advent waits for the advent of God: God’s advent/coming at the consummation of history, God’s advent in acts of deliverance and redemption throughout history, God’s advent in the swaddled child of Bethlehem, God’s advent in the healing works and words of Jesus, God’s advent in our hearts and minds. The season waits and prepares and rejoices in the advent of God. And the news of Bethlehem is too great. It spills out from Christmas into Advent even as the love of God spills forth into our lives. The Immanuel child is born. God is with us.

So Sunday we hear the prophet’s words from Isaiah, and also Matthew’s use of those words to reveal the meaning of this child’s birth. Joseph is pondering divorce, but a heavenly messenger declares this is God’s doing. Through this child God “will save his people from their sins” (free them from the debt to God they cannot pay, heal the torn relationship we can never make right). Paul’s opening words of his letter to Rome speak of Jesus “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures” and “descended from David.” And the psalmody we sing from Isaiah declares: “Shout aloud and sing for joy, royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

The Prayer for December 18, 2016

Gracious God,
who called forth the first morning of the world
and brings all things to their final end when all night is vanquished,
make us ever mindful of your journey to us,
and help us to welcome the child of Mary into our lives;
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 18, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16
“The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
– To a king unwilling to trust God when threatened by northern neighbors marching against him, the prophet Isaiah gives a sign: by the time this woman gives birth people will be naming their children “God is with us!”

Psalmody: Isaiah 12:2-6
“Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” A song of salvation in praise of the God who dwells in our midst (sung in place of the appointed Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19).

Second Reading: Romans 1:1-7
“To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” –
Paul begins his letter to the believers in Rome with a summary of the gospel.

Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25
“Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
– In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus and his adoption by Joseph we hear God speak both through the angelic visitors and the prophets of the one who is savior and Immanuel.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKazimierz_Sichulski_Madonna_hutsulska.jpg Kazimierz Sichulski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The sweetness that will not perish

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Sunday Evening

Isaiah 35:1-10

10 Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

I wish I could capture the joy of watching our children present the Christmas story. Or, for that matter, the exquisite beauty of the High School choral group that sang for our Christmas party/luncheon after worship. The little girl who played Mary also wanted to be an angel, so we had a little costume change in the middle of the service. And her swaddling of the baby Jesus became somewhat legendary last year – carefully spreading out the blanket and then plunking the doll used for Jesus down with a thunk to wrap him up tight.

I sat with a young man from the choral group – they joined us for the luncheon – and when I said that the children had presented the Christmas story in worship that morning, he asked, “What story is that?” Though he sang these exquisite carols and choral pieces, he didn’t know the story.

There is such power in this story for those raised in the church. Watching the children in their costumes, reciting the words, and singing the carols takes us all back through the generations to our own childhoods. The stable, the shepherds, the angels saying “Hark!”, Gabriel before Mary and Mary’s song (the Magnificat, the heart of this third Sunday of Advent) – it’s hard to explain how profoundly it all reverberates through our lives. For a moment, all is right with the world.

But this bright, talented young man didn’t know the story.

And then, when I got home today there was news of the bombing of the Coptic cathedral in Cairo.

All is not right with the world. And yet it is. Bombs are falling, but children are singing. The bodies of innocents lie in the rubble, but a child rests in a manger. The Roman authorities will degrade and destroy this Jesus, but he lives. The cathedral is in ruins, but the song goes on.

The sweetness of children dressed as angels and shepherds is far more than sweetness. It is a profound confession that sweetness has touched the earth, that sweetness abides, that sweetness will endure – that sweetness will triumph. Truth, mercy, justice, compassion, generosity, fidelity, courage, hope, laughter, joy – these are the things that are enduring. These are the elements of our true humanity. These are the things for which there are no regrets. Bombs may scar the world, but God works to heal it.

I told the young man the Christmas story in its brief outline. I thought, at the very least, he should understand the origin of these songs he was singing. But what I really wished was that I could have invited him into the wonder and awe of that story, and into the sweetness that will not perish.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACreche_de_noel.jpeg By KoS (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Strengthen the weak hands”

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This reflection is a reprint from three years ago (though with a different title and picture).

Isaiah 35:1-10

3Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.

It is hard not to hear in this line the many I have known over the years whose walk into church was compromised. The decision to let me bring them communion in their pew does not come easily. It is like giving up the car keys. I have watched people labor to kneel at the altar rail, and tried to persuade them that the more ancient practice was to stand. I have sat at hospital bedsides while contraptions kept a new knee moving – and when a hip replacement had gone horribly wrong. It is not easy to watch age advance on people you have come to love. I give thanks for the wonders of modern medicine, but I have also had to wrestle with its limits.

There is a promise in the words of the prophets that “sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” God’s day shall come when the blind shall see and the lame walk, when our mortal bodies put on immortality. As hard to comprehend as that promise is, we all share the yearning for our vitality to be restored.

But the promise in this text is not about worn cartilage. This promise speaks to lost courage, lost hope, lost faith. The next line of the poetic proclamation is:

4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!

The prophet speaks of a highway through the desert, of lush vegetation where thirst once reigned, of safe passage where highwaymen and wild beasts once ruled. The prophet speaks of a pathway home to people who know that home is lost to them, people so used to their bondage they cannot imagine freedom.

A highway through the desert. A pathway so well marked that no one will lose their way. A road filled with joy and song. And those who hear the words of the prophet shake their heads and walk away. “Dreamer,” they say.

How do you convince people that God has a future for them? How do you proclaim it in a way that doesn’t sound like wishful thinking and fantasy? We know life’s limits so well. It is hard to imagine a God who parts the seas or prepares a safe road through the wilderness. Even on Easter morning, with the empty tomb in front of us, people are afraid to step away from old patterns and follow God’s pathway. “I am the way” (the path, the road, the highway) – “I am the way, the truth and the life,” says Jesus. But we don’t risk it.

Strengthen the weak hands. Make firm the feeble knees. Dare to hold the living bread in your hands. Dare to step out on the pathway of faith and hope and love. Dare to practice forgiveness, generosity, compassion. Dare to speak the prayers of your heart. Dare to listen. Dare to trust the one who turns water into wine. Dare to bear witness to the living water and bread of life. Dare to walk the royal highway.

3Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!

10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.