Love Was Born on Christmas Day

Luke 1:5-18, 57-80

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”


Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
    that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
    to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
    before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

A colleague of mine recently had her very first baby. She was so excited. She and her husband had waiting for years for the right time in their lives, in their careers, to welcome a child. All through the pregnancy, she was beaming. Excited for her life as a mother. Scared for how it might change her life. But mostly, excited.

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She and her husband were healthy, the baby was healthy, the pregnancy went about as you would expect. No worries, right? And this September, she gave birth to her beautiful, perfect baby boy, Jack.

Forty-five minutes later, she learned from the doctor on staff that Jack has Downs Syndrome.

Moments like these mark us. When what we have grown to expect based on our experience of the world is replaced by the surprise that life so often throws our way. My friend—she was overwhelmed. With love for this baby, this perfect, baby boy. With grief for the future she expected, but also concern for this child whose life would be harder than it had to be. With fear for herself, and her husband—how would they do this? Could they do this?

But they didn’t have time to wonder. Jack was healthy, mom was healthy.  There wasn’t much more to be done than to take Jack home, love him, and figure it out together.

There are so many things in this world that we cannot possibly prepare ourselves for. We can imagine what they will look like, but we cannot guarantee a thing. All we can do is get on the ride and buckle our seatbelts. All we can do is make a choice: to enjoy the life we have been given, or see it as something to suffer through.elizabeth_baby.jpg

In our scripture this morning, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s lives are dealt a surprise twist worthy of the movies. A cloud of angels and incense accompany the dumbstruck moment in which these righteous and good people learn that they will be parents. That the child they have hoped for is coming. He’s just coming a little late.

Funny side story about age—when my mother became pregnant with me, she was 34 years old, which at the time was still considered, well, old. Her doctor made the mistake one day of referring to her as an elderly primigravida, and let’s just say that was the last time he said that in front of her. 

Anyhow, back to the story. It is easy to imagine how happy, how joyful, Elizabeth and Zechariah must have been, but the truth was probably more complicated. In Jesus’ day, childbirth was downright dangerous. It wasn’t for the faint of heart, or the old, or the frail. Consider that today, in this modern age, 830 women die every day from childbirth related complications like bleeding, infection, high blood pressure, and delivery complications. And the WHO has found that the risks only increase as women get older.

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Maternal Mortality rates worldwide–the rates have decreased over the last few decades but are still unacceptably high.

Elizabeth almost certainly knew this. She may not have had a child herself, but surely she had helped her aunts, her cousins, her nieces through pregnancy. And she almost certainly buried a love one who didn’t make it through. She may desperately want a child, but she may very well also be terrified.

We don’t often acknowledge this reality in our reading of Scripture. We prefer to skip over the practical considerations of pregnancy and childbirth, and go straight for the pink-cheeked babies. We prefer to ponder Zechariah’s muteness and pass Elizabeth by. I guess a dumbstruck husband is more interesting than a elderly pregnant woman. But it isn’t entirely honest. When we do this, we forget that Elizabeth was a real person who endured real risks in bearing John. That she may well have risked her own life to be faithful to God.

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Strong women need one another.

I also suspect it is no accident that Elizabeth happens to be related to Mary. It is no accident that these two faithful women find within themselves the chutzpah to bear the enormous risk of bearing John and Jesus. Their gift is that they do not have to do so alone. Scripture tells us that they spend much of their pregnancy together, and I wonder whether they do not draw strength from one another, and encouragement to receive God’s will for them with joy in that time.

And indeed, when the child does come safely, there is plenty of joy, and love to go around. Zechariah, finally able to speak, utters his first words, and they are a love song to the God who has safely delivered John and Elizabeth from the perils of pregnancy:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,

As he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,

The oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies,

Might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

The amazing and life-changing Good News of the Gospel is this: the same God who watches out for elderly pregnant women and vulnerable babies watches out for all of God’s people. God’s redemptive story continues, in you, in me, as we wait and watch for Christ to reveal himself in this time, and in this place.

What will Christmas look like this year? Probably not so much like a baby in a manger. Or maybe he will. Perhaps he will look like my friend, who this week, after months of complicated feelings of love mixed with fear, took her precious child Jack to church for the pageant practice. She laid Jack in the manger and was called away for a moment. When she returned, her heart caught in her chest at what she saw: the children, crowded around the manger, in awe of a beautiful, perfect, precious child, a gift from God himself.

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Love was born on Christmas day. May it be so for us.

 

A Life of Joy

Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13

In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”


When the seventh month came, and the Israelites were in the towns, the people gathered together in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God. They set up the altar on its foundation, because they were in dread of the neighboring peoples, and they offered burnt offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening. And they kept the festival of booths, as prescribed, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the ordinance, as required for each day. 


When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.


Luke 2:25-32

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

We are going to do a quick thought experiment.

If you are comfortable doing so, take a moment, perhaps close your eyes if you need to, and I want you to think back to an experience of deep joy that you have experienced. See if you can remember a time in your life, a moment or a period of time, for which the feeling of joy was inescapable.


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What is joy?

If you were to define it, what words would you use to explain what it was?

See I have a hunch that joy is one of those feelings that can be difficult to put words to, and yet we know it when we see it. We might be journeying through life when suddenly the light bulb hits us and we say to ourselves: THIS is joy.

This probably makes me a cliché, but I don’t care: when I think back on my brief life so far, the most palpable experiences of joy that I have had have been moments of connection between myself and other people. The moment I held my daughter and my son for the first time. Saying “I do” to my husband. The recognition that a friend whom I love dearly “sees” me and loves me despite my me-ness.

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But then there are also other experiences of joy, aren’t there? The feeling of victory when we finally understand an idea or concept we have long wrestled with. The experience of intellectual breakthrough of the student or the academic, in which that which was once murky becomes blazingly clear. The moment when a community no longer feels like another place you go, but a home, a family, a sanctuary. I could go on, but what is the common thread of these experiences? What binds them together?

I wonder if joy is not something that we experience when we find ourselves connected: when the deep yearning at the heart of our soul is met by the reality of the world. When we find that we are not alone, but are bound together: to God, to one another, to ideas, to a place, to the world beyond us.connected-communications.jpg

Certainly, the Israelites in Ezra found their joy in their connection to the land of their ancestors. In our scripture today, they have finally returned after a long exile. Finally, they can be a people of the land. Finally, they can worship their God without fear. Their joy ought to be complete. And yet, as they look upon the ruins of their Temple, as they see that the land of their memories does not hold up to the reality, their joy is tempered. Scripture tells us that even as many shouted for joy, others wept aloud, so that the people could not distinguish the weeping from the joyful shouting.

They could not distinguish the weeping from the joyful shouting.

There is something so utterly true about that statement—the line that separates joy and pain is narrow indeed. And many of our moments of profound joy are also tempered by experiences of deep struggle, pain, and frustration. The experience of childbirth. The struggle of the academic and the student to understand. The mystery that so often attends the dance of friendship.

And what of us? Our church recently had cause for rejoicing as we welcomed new members in our midst. For us, this is cause to celebrate, for our family is growing.  Our connection is cause for deep and lasting joy.

But we also find ourselves with Simeon, the man of the Temple, whom we know from scripture has been waiting for God’s consolation and peace. Like we who wait and watch in Advent, he has been waiting on God. We do not know how long he has been waiting, but he must have been patient. He knew what it means to keep watch. To be attentive.

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And it is worth it, because in the moment of truth, Simeon does not delay. According to Luke, Simeon is waiting for Jesus in the Temple, and his joy is found in the moment when his soul’s desire—to experience God’s redemption in the Messiah—is met by its fulfillment in Christ.

Now, lets be honest and admit that for some, this might have been a moment of despair: to be told that the one you were waiting for was not what you thought it would be. To follow God and find that your Messiah isn’t rich or powerful, he has no skills or abilities that would make him great. He’s just a baby. And yet, Simeon is overcome. He cannot contain his joy. He doesn’t just wait for Mary to come to him—Scripture tells us he goes to the boy and takes him in his arms. He is so overcome by joy, he doesn’t stop to wonder what it all means. He simply rejoices.091simeon.jpg

Perhaps Simeon knows something that we need to learn: that joy is experienced in connection, but it is also found in assurance: that God is in control, that things will be as they should be. It is a disposition towards the world, not naïve or simplistic, but deeply cognizant of the reality of the landscape around us. Also deeply attuned to God’s plan for us, but open to the fact that God moves in mysterious ways.

Joy is found it the recognition that all of the pain and darkness of this world—all of our fear of the unknown, of the stranger, all of our tendency towards violence, towards war, towards aggression—these are not God’s plan for us. No, God’s plan for us looks less like a drone strike and more like a stranger rejoicing over a poor baby from Nazareth. God’s plan looks like hope for the hopeless, light in the darkness, and peace—true peace—on earth for all of God’s creation.

So let us learn from Simeon. Let us make room in our lives to pay attention to what God is up to. May we rush to greet the Messiah when we see him. May we long to hold the joy of the world in our arms, and share it with one another, so that our joy may become theirs.

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Soil Tending in the Desert

Comfort, O comfort my people,says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

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, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”

All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.

The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”

See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Isaiah 40:1-11

atacama_desert2..jpgOnce upon a time, there was a vast and arid desert. The oldest, driest desert on earth. Hundreds of years would go by without a drop of rain. Only the sun scorched the earth that lay exposed beneath its rays. No plants could grow there; animals and people would walk miles out of their way to avoid finding themselves lost in the endless, barren place. Only the hardiest reptiles and tiny grasshopperes found a home there, where they preyed upon those unfortunate to lose themselves there.

Over time, deep fissures coursed through the red clay soil, and it seemed as though the land were forsaken, forgotten by the world. It was hard to imagine that anything could ever be otherwise.

But then, one day, something different happened. Rain fell from the sky. First one drop, then another. And another. And another. Before you knew it, water was coursing through the cracks in the earth, mini rivers soaking into the bone dry soil.

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For twelve hours the rain kept coming. 7 years of rain in half a day. The earth swelled, and the cracks disappeared. Tiny green shoots—where did they come from—appeared in the loam. The arid landscape suddenly blanketed in blues and yellows, purples and reds, veiling what once seemed dead and barren with unmistakable signs of life. The desert was alive.chile_desierto_florido14.jpg

If this seems remarkable, then it is. The Atacama desert of Chile, which is often compared to the terrain of mars and is regarded by many to be the absolute driest place in the world, experienced an explosion of color this fall as El Nino drenched the hillsides with water earlier this year.

It turns out that deserts contain more life than we would expect…many deserts, in fact, harbor hidden life in the form of seeds and deep root systems that are just waiting for the right moment, the amount of water so that the life may burst forth, for however brief.

Even the land of the Bible has seen this phenomenon. Long, long ago—10,000 years ago, in f act—monsoon rains transformed the Sahara desert into a lush and habitable land. Generations of people and animals found refuge in the desert.

What a difference a little rain makes.

I wonder if this is the sort of notion that Isaiah was getting at when he told the people to prepare a highway in the desert for God. You see, the people have been waiting a long time for this. For generations they have waiting—in exile, forgotten, barren, disconsolate—held prisoner in a foreign land. They have wondered—has our God abandoned us? Will we fade away in the darkness of exile?

It is to the desert of the soul that Isaiah speaks a word of comfort: Comfort, Comfort, my people. God is coming. Get ready. Prepare a way for the Lord. What faith it must take to prepare for something that you cannot see. For something that you cannot know for sure will happen. To live as though God is coming, even when you cannot see through the darkness that is in front of you.

And yet, that is what we are called to do in the season of Advent. To acknowledge that often we find ourselves living in the desert, living in lack. But we aren’t called to live with despair. Rather, we are called to live like the seeds do—to pay attention, to wait and watch and make room for the possibility that rain may fail on us. To trust when it comes that it will be enough. To live as though we were made to bloom.

If this is difficult to imagine, then perhaps another horticultural image will help: If you are someone who likes to garden, perhaps you have noticed that your easiest years of gardening in a plot are often the first. You plant your tomatoes and your eggplants, your peas and your cabbage, and they spring up with no trouble at all.

It only takes a year or so for the pesties to figure out that where you planted the buffet. Suddenly, you have an extra chore: managing the bugs and the interlopers so that some of your harvest makes it to your table. And perhaps you have noticed, that if you don’t rotate your crops, or amend your soil, your cabbage heads are smaller and smaller, your tomatoes are less fruitful. So then you find you are spending your time tending soil as well.

Winter turns out to be a great time for doing this work—after the plants have grown, that is the time for preparing for the next year. For planting cover crops, and turning in hay or leaf mulch. For cleaning your tools, and making notes about what worked and what didn’t, which pests to treat for, and which to keep an eye on.

Again, the earth reminds us that we are in the season of our faith in which we are asked to wait, and watch and prepare. To tend the garden of our souls. This is a season for reflection, for deepening our knowledge of God and of love. This is a season for remembering God’s promise—that The LORD is coming, even when we find ourselves lost in the desert. This is the time for preparing for rain whose arrival we cannot predict, but whose promise is like a desert full in flower. It is a time of opening: of our hearts to God, and to one another as well.

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Perhaps it is also a time for us to reflect on the deserts of our own lives. To remember that there are two kinds of deserts in this life: the ones that find us, and the ones that we create. To remember that grief and loss, violence and despair, hatred and division—these are deserts. But so too are the personal choices we are faced with: to overwork ourselves, to overcommit ourselves, to deny ourselves rest or pleasure, to isolate ourselves, to “go it alone” because we would rather be in control than be in community.

And perhaps it is also a good time to remember that no desert is so vast that God cannot find us. That there is no war that cannot be meet with God’s peace, no hatred that cannot be met with God’s compassion, no hunger that cannot be met with God’s body and God’s blood in Christ. We can—we must—acknowledge the deserts. But we can also affirm that they are not God’s intention for us. There is, as Paul says, a more excellent way.

When we remember that, when we are filled with the bread and the cup that remind us of God’s constant abiding in us through the Power of God’s spirit, then we have something. We have God’s story, which reminds us that the violence and hatred of this world, the partisanship and division and vitriol—they are not ultimate. They will not win. Darkness cannot overcome the darkness. Only light can. Only Christ can. And Christ, the light, hope, the Kingdom—take your pick—they prevail when WE live as though the Kingdom were real—when we choose hope over fear, love over hate, open arms over closed doors, following Jesus at the risk of our own lives over our own safety, because we cannot do otherwise.

So come, out of your deserts, whatever they may be. Come and be fed at the table that will never fail, be refreshed by the baptism of living water that never dries up, be encouraged by the knowledge that Christ is coming soon. Christ is coming very, very soon.

Two Hundred Pounds, or What is Precious?

2 Kings 22:1-8; 23:1-3

Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign; he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jedidah daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath. He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.

In the eighteenth year of King Josiah, the king sent Shaphan son of Azaliah, son of Meshullam, the secretary, to the house of the Lord, saying, “Go up to the high priest Hilkiah, and have him count the entire sum of the money that has been brought into the house of the Lord, which the keepers of the threshold have collected from the people; let it be given into the hand of the workers who have the oversight of the house of the Lord; let them give it to the workers who are at the house of the Lord, repairing the house, that is, to the carpenters, to the builders, to the masons; and let them use it to buy timber and quarried stone to repair the house. But no accounting shall be asked from them for the money that is delivered into their hand, for they deal honestly.”

The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. 


Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LordThe king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.

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A man was serving the church as a missionary in China. He was under house arrest, when soldiers finally came one day and said to him, “You Can Return to America.”

The family was celebrating, and the soldiers said, “You can take 200 pounds with you.”

Well, they had been there for years. Two hundred pounds. So they got out the scales, and started the family arguments: 2 children, wife, and husband. Must have this vase. Well, this new typewriter. What about my books? What about this? And they weighed everything and took it off and weighed this and took it off and weighed that and, finally, right on the dot, two hundred pounds.

The soldier asked, “Are you ready to go?””

“Yes.”
“Did you weigh everything?”
“Yes.”

“You weighed the kids?”
“no, we didn’t.”

“Weigh the kids.”

And in that moment, typewriter and vase and all became trash. Trash. It happens.

-From Craddock Stories, a collection of stories by Fred Craddock

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G B Farthing and his family, Baptist missionaries in China, c. 1900.

‘Tis the season, it would seem. Some of us are still digesting our turkey dinners, and already the emails and phone calls are flying about: Christmas lists, dinner plans, party invites. And all of it is JUST. SO. IMPORTANT.

Anyone ever just wish in moments like these that you could go back to being a kid? Remember what Christmas felt like when you were little? The countdowns until school is out? The excitement? The sense of complete and utter wonder? The awe and mystery of Christmas Eve? The unfettered joy of ripping Christmas wrapping? The complete and utter lack of dread, or responsibility? I don’t know about you, but I know an awful lot of adults who wish there were a few more weeks before Christmas.

So what is it about childhood? Somehow, Children have it all figured out: that this is a season of anticipation, of hope for the future, of excitement for what is coming. They are counting down, and every day is one step closer.

Like Josiah, the child king, who recognized the importance of the law, kids just get Christmas. They may not know the story so well, but they get the feeling of Christmas: the hope, the joy, the excitement of what is coming.

Because that is what it is folks. We may have smothered this season in Black Friday ads, tinsel, and obligation, but when you get down to it, Christmas is all about anticipation.

Over the last few weeks, we have been talking in acolyte class about this, and we came up with this idea, that there are certain foods that taste like Christmas. And we thought to ourselves, what would it mean to “taste” Christmas on the first Sunday of Advent? To remind ourselves of what we are looking forward to?

And so for first Advent at IPC, we brought our favorite Xmas Food to share in worship.  Cookies, candy canes, Stollen. And we brought it because we hoped that all of those who gathered with us would take a moment, an opportunity during worship, to remind themselves that this season, of Advent, is always looking forward to Christmas: that this is a time to prepare, to remember, and to anticipate.Aqua-and-red-platter-42.jpeg


I have a theory about why we grown-ups have a harder time remembering to hope during Advent. I have a feeling it has something to do with being so busy, or thinking we are. We are always doing something, planning something, preparing something, driving someone, checking emails, filling every moment until there simply is no time left to stop and remember. NO time left to think, really. We don’t give ourselves permission to slow down. We worry that if we do, Christmas won’t happen. Or that it won’t be perfect.

And so there is no time left to ask the questions, like:

Is this true?

Is this real?

Is this what Christmas is really about?

I wonder whether perhaps the greatest gift that we could give ourselves this Advent is the gift of Time and the permission to not be perfect. To choose rest, to choose face time with family and loved ones, to choose quiet and reflection over the seemingly inescapable soundtrack of Christmas out there? To choose to be with those who will support us in that effort so that we can remember together, why this season is so important?

A colleague of mine has suggested that perhaps Advent is the perfect season for fasting. She writes: “The point of fasting during advent is not on what you are giving up, it’s on what you are gaining.” So, for example, fasting from our phones is time to focus on something else. Money we choose not to spend on so many obligatory gifts can be given to a worthy cause. Fasting from television, from shopping, from facebook: they aren’t easy, they are hard. They are disciplines.

But what might we gain? One more afternoon with loved ones. One more opportunity to remember that love isn’t something that money can buy—love looks more like that very first imperfect Christmas in a dirty stable, and it is remembered every time we take time for one another rather than for ourselves.

Love looks like the recognition that all the lamps and typewriters are worthless compared to 200 pounds of children home safe with their mother and father.

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In a head to head contest, the kids always win.

Because that is the lesson of Advent, and the reason for Christmas hope: God spent time with us. In the person of Christ, God came and dwelled, and in his light we found that we were not alone. We were not afraid. We were loved. And it was enough. In fact, it was perfect.

HOME (by Warsan Shire)

turkish-soldiers-stand-guard-syrian-refugees-wait-behind-border-fences

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Hungarian policemen stand by a migrant holding a baby at the railway station in the town of Bicske Hungary
Hungarian policemen stand by a migrant holding a baby at the railway station in the town of Bicske Hungary

Warsan Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali poet, writer and educator based in London. Born in 1988, Warsan has read her work extensively all over Britain and internationally – including recent readings in South Africa, Italy, Germany, Canada, North America and Kenya- and her début book, ‘TEACHING MY MOTHER HOW TO GIVE BIRTH’ (flipped eye), was published in 2011. Her poems have been published in Wasafiri, Magma and Poetry Review and in the anthology ‘The Salt Book of Younger Poets’ (Salt, 2011). She is the current poetry editor at SPOOK magazine. In 2012 she represented Somalia at the Poetry Parnassus, the festival of the world poets at the Southbank, London. She is a Complete Works II poet. Her poetry has been translated into Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. Warsan is also the unanimous winner of the 2013 Inaugural Brunel University African Poetry Prize. 

Que Será Christians

In my family, my parents liked to give each of their beloved children a “theme song.”  And so it was that, growing up, my sister was haunted by family members singing “Rocky Raccoon,” and I found myself treated to regular group-singings of Doris Day’s mid-century hit, “Que Será.”

I found myself thinking about that song this week as I contemplated this week’s installment of our “Ask Anything” sermon series on Predestination. For a lot of people, Predestination sounds an awful lot like the unsung 5th verse of that song—

When I was just a little child, I asked my pastor: where will I go?

Will it be heaven, will it be hell? God is the one who knows…

Que será, será whatever will be; the future’s not ours, you see.

Que será, será, what will be, will be.

A very informal poll of some of my colleagues in ministry across the denominations revealed that for most of them, predestination is an unsavory doctrine that the Episcopalians and Lutherans were quick to blame on us Presbyterians. Which is funny, because technically nearly all of the Protestant denominations affirm this doctrine. In the early years of the Reformation, Martin Luther spilled far more ink on the subject than John Calvin, and both of them were simply quoting another ancient thinker, Augustine, who was writing on the subject in the 5th Century. Nonetheless, it is a doctrine that has come to represent, and for some, even define, the DNA of the faith that we as Presbyterians share with the worldwide Reformed church.

So what is it? And why does it matter?

The basic idea behind predestination is this: it is a doctrine that speaks to the will and intention of God as the driving force behind human destiny.

To understand it, we need to consider some other, far more important, ideas about God.

  • The Sovereignty of God

The Westminster catechism states that “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” The sovereignty of God affirms what we see in the Bible—that the God who created us is, in the words of St. Patrick, not just with us, but “before and behind us, in us, beneath and above us, at every side, with us when we lie down and when we rise up. In other words, there is nothing that can happen in this world that God doesn’t know about. Because God is sovereign.

  • Election

When we hear the word election, most of us tend to think of ballot boxes and political parties. We associate elections with choosing someone to be our leader.  The biblical doctrine of election is a similar idea, and it is directly related to the notion that God is sovereign.  The Doctrine of Election teaches that the initiative in matters of faith and human destiny is always God’s initiative. Our relationship with God isn’t like buying a car– we don’t go into the sacred supermarket and pick a God for ourselves.  Rather, our faith (and our beloved-ness in God’s eyes) is a gracious gift from start to vanish. It is undeserved, unearned, and unmerited. In originates in God, and finds a home within us.

Of course, this flies in the face of everything we have been taught in American culture. I grew up surrounded by people constantly telling me to “make something of myself” and affirming that “I could be anything” as long as I tried hard enough.  Well, according to the Bible, there is at least one thing that I can never do for myself, and that is deserve the grace I receive. Election reminds us that, at least where our faith is concerned, there are no bootstraps by which to pull ourselves up by. We are not masters of our own fate or captains of our own destiny. We cannot buy, or educate, or negotiate our way into salvation. Instead, “Twas grace that taught our hearts to fear, and grace our fears relieved.”bootstrap01-1

That doesn’t mean that everyone agrees on how election works.  Basically, there are three major camps that seek to make sense of how God claims humanity:

  1. Universalism: all are included–none of us deserves it, but God chooses everyone, because God is love and God would never say no to one of God’s creations.
  2. Pelagianism: This approach to election attempts to affirm God’s action but makes it contingent upon our accepting the grace God offers us.  Which, when you think about it, sort of threatens the idea that God is sovereign, doesn’t it?
  3. Double predestination: some are included and some are excluded.

This is the view that Calvin took—and there are a few things we need to know about this.  First of all, this doctrine was the source of great discussion and argument in Calvin’s day.  Calvin observes in the beginning of his own discussion of it that “human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination very confusing and even dangerous” (3.21.1).  Why so dangerous? Because this doctrine has to do with the mind of God, and none of us, by virtue of our humanness, has full access to God’s mind.  We cannot probe its depths, nor can we make any definitive claims about it.  We can only look to Scripture.

Second of all, we have to understand that this was a doctrine intended to comfort the afflicted and persecuted church. This is a hard thing for those of us who enjoy the privilege of worshipping without fear of losing our home, or our church being burned, or our lives being forfeit. But for early Reformed Christians, who saw their brothers and sister martyred and murdered all over Europe, it was a way of making sense of the carnage and suffering that followed their decision to follow Jesus in this way. It was something to cling to: God choose me.  God loves me.  I am not suffering for nothing.  But there was just one tiny problem: time went on and reformed Christians stopped being martyred, their perspective on this doctrine changed. You know how, when you are a kid, you might have a favorite blanket, or a soft, stuffed rabbit, something that brings you comfort, that you hold to help you go to sleep at night? Well how many of you have noticed that those same objects of comfort can, in an instant, become a weapon against a sibling? I know for myself, and I know in my home, that there is a fine line between a blanket as a blanket and a blanket as a hammer. Well that pretty much sums up this doctrine: Some Christians stopped seeing this doctrine as a blanket, and started using it as a hammer against other people.bbe1738a6187d68058f02ffeb6160113

Finally, I think it is important to point out that even John Calvin found this doctrine difficult to accept at times.  He wasn’t particularly fond of the notion that God might “give to some what he denies to others” (Institutes 3.21.1)  However, as a reformed thinker, Calvin privileged the Bible as the source of information and wisdom about God, and when he looked to the Bible, he saw both evidence of God’s mercy and of God’s judgement.  For him, this was evidence that God must have the freedom to choose.  However, he framed this theology in the context of the salvation of God.  At the end of the day, predestination had everything to do with the gift of God’s grace received in Christ.

In all of this talk about God’s sovereignty, and God’s election, perhaps it has occurred to you that there may be a problem, and that is this:  I don’t know about you, but I look around me, and it is hard to ignore the evidence that people seem pretty free in many of the decisions that they make.how do we reconcile human freedom with the sovereignty of God? How do we affirm that God is all powerful and the ultimate author and arbiter, while also affirming the importance of Human decisions?

And here is the truth that we would probably rather not hear: we are less free than we like to think. There is a lot of research being done these days exploring the line between nature and nurture, and it turns out that much more of our lives than we might like to admit depend upon things we have no control over: where we were born, the wealth and education level of our parents, our race. And so much of our experiences and our perspectives, it turns out, are shaped by forces beyond our control: DNA researchers point to epigenetics or the way our genes are expressed, sociologists point to community cultures, psychologists explore the realities of persistent bias. All these and more play an incalculable role in the way we see the world and the way that other people see us. We may be the land of the free, but what is freedom, really?

Now, the Bible affirms the importance of human freedom—on the edge of the promised land, Joshua calls the people to choose whom they will serve. In our scripture this morning, God does not direct, nor can he prevent, David’s choice to commit adultery with another man’s wife. The truth is that we are “called to make significant faith choices that grow out of the character and moral fiber of our lives. We make a choice to follow Jesus. But our choice is secondary to the decision that God has already made in Christ to love us and call us to service.” We love, says 1 John, because God first loved us.

At the end of the day, I wonder if perhaps the doctrine of predestination can help us understand the paradox of both our freedom and our lack of it.  Because, at the end of the day, predestination affirms the notion that, while we may not be free, in God we find freedom from the constraints of the world. In God we discover that all of the things that limit or define us in contemporary culture are wiped away. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither woman or man, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”s-1

In Presbyterian theology, this comes down to the notion of “freedom within constraints.” Have any of you ever gone to a restaurant and they handed you the menu and there were about 2 thousand options? And the freedom to choose anything—it turns out that it is difficult to make any choice at all. A menu with only 5 options turns out to provide the most freedom of all—we are able to make the choice that works for us, and enjoy our meal. The doctrine of predestination just takes a few options off our menu, constrains us with the “sovereignty of God” and the knowledge that God’s choosing us came first. Within that framework, we are more free than ever to follow Christ.

But what about other faiths? So often predestination quickly moves from being about us to being about “them,” the other who doesn’t worship God like we do.  Helpfully, our reformed heritage has some pointers for the usefulness of this doctrine in addressing the Other.  In his classic Christian Doctrine, Shirley Guthrie offers these three guiding principles:

  • God’s Love: just because some people don’t live as thought God loves them doesn’t mean we can decide that God has written them off. We ought to remember that we know something about them that they do not: that God loves them too.
  • God’s Judgment: we must acknowledge that as long as there are forces out there which oppose God, there must be love expressed as judgment against them. But that does not give us license to judge others. God alone is judge.
  • Our Responsibility: we need to share what we know without judgment. Not so that they will love God if they believe and obey, but because God already loves them.

Which leaves us with one question:  what about us? Predestination frees us from the notion that we can earn salvation, or find confirmation of our saved-ness in ourselves. We can instead spend our lives wrapped in the blanket of grace that we have received in Christ Jesus as a gift. You know Linus from Peanuts? We can, like Linus choose to bring our grace blankets into community with others, because we know that sometimes, blankets are best shared—and when you are willing to share your blanket, you are building community. Finally, this blanket marks us—we have become those called to take our grace blankets out into the world. We aren’t in some special club—our blankets are markers of exclusivity. They are instead an invitation for all. They are a reminder that we have been chosen to serve. And we are chosen not instead of but for the sake of the world.

“Salzburg, Republic of Austria, July 2006” by Melaney Poli

In order not to repeat history, it is not enough to know it, we must know ourselves, and our complicity.   -Schillling

Some days you have to take what you can
get, and that day my mother was too sick
to find yet one more crowded pavement cafe

and the worst of it was, sitting there in
my habit, I had to see it all unfold: the tired
couple with their small child, the empty table

and the promise of refreshment, and then
the waiter descending in a blaze of jeers,
scathing looks and torrid gestures, and watch

the husband and wife gather their dignity
and leave, unwelcome only for the offense
of resembling too much the enemy du jour

and I had nowhere to go, nowhere to
hide my shame, no means of protest when
the waiter returned and served us sweetly,

set the coffee before me, and the only way
I could ask is a veil any better than a chador?
was to say, simply, Dankeschon

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this poem was originally printed in the July 8, 2015 edition of Christian Century Magazine