The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple – from the Menologion of Basil II,
an eleventh century illuminated manuscript. Byzantium. Public Domain.
Luke 2:22-40 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
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.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him
Luke 2:22-40 It’s been some time since your child was born, perhaps a month or so. After the whirlwind evening in the stable, some extended family in Bethlehem set you up with better accommodations for awhile while everyone got used to the new addition. The boy was circumcised on the eighth day in the local house of worship. This was your custom. And while there, a local priest talked about the unique role of first-born sons.
He reads from the Torah – from the book of Exodus:
“Every first-born male among your children you shall redeem (buyback). When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘This reminds us that by the strength of hand the LORD we were brought out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”
This ritual should be performed in Jerusalem, at the temple, where an offering can be made. Maybe we can stop in Jerusalem on our way back to Nazareth, you think. So, when everyone is okay to travel, you and your little family head up to Jerusalem to present your son to God.
The city is a busy place, of course. You are a bit of a country bumpkin, growing up in more pastoral settings, but you’ve been to Jerusalem enough times to know what to expect. The roads are heavy with people as you get closer. A few crucified bodies along the road – reminders of Rome’s presence, signs that insurrection will be met with brutal violence. You shield the eyes of your infant instinctively as you walk by.
You make your way through the winding streets to the temple area. It’s a prominent place and was renovated about 20 years ago by Herod. In the outer courtyard stand countless people – some talking business, others begging, some selling offerings, others exchanging money. You overhear two older men talking about a recent attack by a group of zealots and the swift action of Rome. One of the older men leans close to the other and whispers something about Herod. He’s power-hungry and self-indulgent, and he maintains his power by doing whatever Rome wants. The other man tells him to keep his voice down.
As you head toward the tables, an old man stops you. He greets you warmly and is excited to see your newborn son. He talks to you about God’s faithfulness to God’s people – how God has always been faithful and will soon bring about salvation and comfort to all people.
He asks to hold the child. He seems like a devout man, and given the last month, you’ve become accustomed to folks doting on this child.
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,” he says, looking to the sky. “For today, I’ve seen your salvation in the face of this child. You’ve prepared this salvation in the presence of your people – like a light revealed to all people for the glory of Israel.”
He then turns to you and offers a sincere blessing. Maybe it was something like:
“May the Lord bless you and keep you; May the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.”’
But he also offers a prophecy:
“Listen closely – this child will bring about the falling and rising of many in this land. He will be like a walking irony, a contradiction of power and might, and you will not go unscathed from his work. For a sword will pierce your soul as well – and the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”
He hands your child back, and you feel a little rattled by this moment. You look at your spouse and wonder what to do with this encounter. The two of you talk about it and all the strange happenings since your son’s birth as you head toward the table where vendors are selling animals for sacrifice. You cannot afford the lamb, so you purchase two turtledoves and take them to the priests. In the distance, you hear a woman praising God for bringing about the consolation of Jerusalem.
The ceremony is done rather quickly. The animals are dispatched, a Scripture read, and a prayer said. You pack everything up and begin the journey back to Nazareth, where the boy will be raised.
There’s a lot to the story of Jesus’ presentation at the temple. I’d like to offer three insights that might help us gather some meaning from it. First, Jesus was raised in occupied territory under Roman rule. Jesus’ people resisted occupation and hoped for freedom. The importance of this context cannot be understated. One of the founding stories of the Jewish people was the exodus from Egypt. In this story, an entire people, held by slavery, were liberated by their God. The story was told over and over in many different ways. One of the ways this story was told was through the ransoming of the first-born son.
If you remember your Hebrew Bible, the last plague on Egypt was the slaying of the first-born. In this plague, the angel of the Lord visited the land of Egypt and killed the first-born males – both human and animal. The ancient Hebrew people were protected if they killed a lamb, painted their doorposts with its blood, and ate the Passover meal together.
The ceremony that Jesus’ parents undertake early in his life is a retelling of that story. Usually, a lamb would be sacrificed, the stories would be read, and prayers would be said. If you were poor and could not afford a lamb, you could give a pair of turtle doves or young pigeons. Regardless, Jesus grew up in a society that believed in a God that liberated the oppressed. Jesus also grew up as one of the countless oppressed, longing for God’s liberating work in the world.
Second, two unique characters in this story, Simeon and Anna, serve essential roles in our story as prophets of God’s coming liberation told in Luke’s gospel. There’s a cross-generational encounter here. Both prophets are advanced in years and serve as meaningful connections to Israel’s past – noting that the coming Messiah figure has deep roots in the history of God’s people. Both are also lay-folks devout but not authorities of people in power. Likely this highlights Jesus’ outsider status even more and places him on the side of the devout oppressed and not the powerful but complicit. Finally, both are considered prophets. Luke likes to make a distinction between prophets and witnesses. Prophets wait for the coming of God’s salvation. Witnesses experience God’s salvation. Prophets hope for the day of the Lord. Witnesses partake in the Day of the Lord. Moving from the season of Advent to the season of Christmas, the church experiences both roles in some form or fashion. For most of December, we’ve waited. We’ve hoped. Images of light and darkness are prevalent with the idea that the light of salvation is coming in the many different ways we define it. But after Christmas, the church moves from waiting for Jesus to proclaiming Jesus – from prophetic hope to earnest witness.
Third, three words are really full of meaning in this passage: “Salvation,” “Revelation,” and “Redemption.” Simeon has seen God’s salvation in this child brought to the temple. This child, he declares, will be a revelation of light to all people (Jews and Gentiles). Anna sees the child as part of the story in the redemption or consolation of Jerusalem.
Salvation longs for a day where evil is no more. Where individuals, communities, and the entire world are set free from bondage and oppression. Salvation happens when justice is levied yet is mixed with contradictory elements of grace and forgiveness. It longs for a world set just right, and in this gospel context, it longs for a world where God rules in place of a foreign power or the devil or Herod or whatever personification of evil we might conjure.
Often, and especially in religious expressions in the US, salvation is associated with the saving of personal souls, conversion experiences, and eternal life. “Are you saved?” is a question echoed across the centuries by many firebrand preachers and evangelists before altar calls, confession, and baptisms. In some ways, it provided the hearer with direct agency to affect their eternal destiny. To the historically marginalized, this is empowerment. But the salvation found in our Scriptures is probably something more than this. For Simeon, salvation has nothing to do with accepting Jesus into your heart or being with God when you die. It’s also not just for a chosen people, God’s holy elect. Instead, this salvation is inclusive, something available to gentiles – our Scripture’s way of saying that it was for everyone. In these words, Simeon envisions an entire world set free from the things that hurt people and harm creation.
Unfortunately, Anna is not given any lines, but we read that she speaks a lot, spreading the news of this child to all who looked for the consolation of Jerusalem. While Simeon sees God’s salvation on the world stage, Anna sees God’s work in the world in the streets of her city. Salvation is not an abstract notion – it’s not just a lovely thought we have about life after death, or justice, or lasting peace. God’s saving work happens in the streets of a city that has seen its share of loss and disaster.
I love this story. And, although the text doesn’t allow for this reading, I’d love to think that Simeon and Anna do this for all the babies and their tired parents as they enter the temple to present their child to God. What a way to mark life as sacred. To say something like:
I can die in peace, knowing that your child is in this world. Because your child is so important and the world will never be the same. In fact, it will be a lot better because of this child.
And while it might have been Simeon and Anna’s role to praise and bless Jesus, to mark him as special and unique, perhaps it’s the role of the church to do the same for all of our young people, to greet them and their parents with a blessing and sense of relief, knowing that the world will be better because they are in it.
The pandemic has affected all of us in different ways. Some have carried the brunt of insecurity, being laid off, or furloughed, wondering where the money for rent, bills, and food will come from. Some have had to carry the brunt of loneliness, vulnerable populations that can’t get out as usual because catching COVID could do serious damage. Others bear the brunt of being overwhelmed. Many parents have continued to work full-time while educating their children at home with limited time and resources for essential self-care.
As we enter this new year, we’ve got a few more months of this pandemic, maybe a little more. It would be a good practice to remember our parents with small children these days in our prayers and actions. They are working hard to make life safe and semi-normal for their children with limited tools in this unprecedented time. We can play that role of Simeon or Anna for these parents in our lives, offering reassurance, pointing to a better future, doing a little bit of the leg work to make the days go just a little smoother.
May God bless you and keep you this New Year. May God give you hope and comfort in 2021. And may God bring salvation to this world for us, through us, and for the sake of all creation. Amen.
Luke 2:1-20 1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke 2:1-20 Likely, under normal circumstances, we set some pretty lofty expectations for Christmas. We plan to get our Christmas Cards out early in December. We make lists of gifts to purchase and take some time off work. We plan to attend Christmas tree lightings, and gatherings with extended family, and work parties. Some plan vacations during this time as kiddos are out of school. We do a lot of extra baking and coordinate an extensive holiday menu for the big day.
But while Saint Nicolas is the patron saint of the Festival of Christmas in many Christian traditions, this year, we might contend that Clark W. Griswold is a more appropriate one.
In the classic Christmas movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the Griswold patriarch sets high expectations for the Holiday season. This year, everyone is going to experience “a good old-fashioned Griswold family Christmas.” But these expectations are met with mishap after mishap. Technical issues with his exterior illumination project, animal hijinks, an unexpected visit from Cousin Eddy, house fires, sewer explosions, and financial problems hijack the carefully planned Christmas season, and we get to watch as Clark unravels.
This is not the Christmas season we planned. The 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic has changed all of us this year. Perhaps at first, when things began to change in mid-March, we thought we would have to forgo Easter gatherings or put off a conference or spring vacation. By summer, we talked about how our children may or may not be returning to in-person schooling in the fall. When the surge hit in November, many of us returned to strict, pre-summer precautions. And this evening, we gather on our own and can’t but help but feel that this Christmas is somehow diminished, somehow broken by the cousin Eddy’s and tree fires of this pandemic year.
At first glance, we might have heightened expectations about the scene that takes place in our gospel reading. We picture Jesus’ birth as it's been represented on thousands of Christmas Cards, Nativity arrangements, and classic works of art. A child lies in a comfortable looking manager after the work of labor is over. Gathered around him in the cleanest barn ever depicted are doting parents, friendly animals, and well-dressed shepherds, or Magi. The sky is clear, except for a single bright star hovering over the scene. It’s beautiful, perfect, and just as we wish it.
But Luke’s telling defies those expectations of perfection. During winter, Joseph and his pregnant fiancé have to travel for a census so the Roman Empire can impose higher taxes in the region. The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem is only 90 miles, an hour in a half for us by car, but several days of walking for this couple back then. When they finally get there, Mary has gone into labor. Lodging is hard to come by. Our story says that there was no room “for them” at the inn, not no room "at the inn." Were they not permitted entry because of the couple’s marital status or the baby’s questionable paternity? So they find a barn, where animals eat and sleep and poop and stink, and there, Mary, after hours of labor, gives birth to a baby. They have nothing to wrap him in, so they tear strips of cloth from their own garments and tightly wrap Jesus to keep him warm enough to survive the elements.
We can imagine the holy family that first night: concerned parents worried about a baby’s survival; plans made about completing their census requirements and how to travel back with a post-labor mom and infant child; a shared fear that their presence and non-traditional family structure might cause a problem in the little town.
At some point, a band of wild-eyed shepherds arrives, young men dressed for sleeping outside, among their flocks. They looked rough and probably smelled as good as that stable. And they want to see the child. Is this safe? They are invited in or force themselves in. Unexpectedly, they are overjoyed. They shared the strange vision they had about a child born in Bethlehem and a choir of heavenly angels singing about a coming peace. And Mary, who was still in pain from labor, and worried about her future, heard the words of the shepherds and, as the original Greek “compared” these words to her present reality, and treasured them in her heart. Somehow, in that smelly barn, God was there.
Our Christmas story is not about creating high expectations and pulling off the plan to perfection. Instead, our Christmas story is about how God showed up in the unlikeliest of places and was present with a couple of outcasts and their newborn child.
And I wonder if our greatest moments and memories of Christmas are not about how a family gathering was pulled off to perfection; rather, everything did not go as it should, and still, the presence of God was felt, and the spirit of Christmas was shared.
My favorite memory of celebrating the Christmas season here at the United Church of Hinesburg happened a few years ago at the Holiday breakfast. As is our custom, we have a gift exchange. We match gifts to their recipients by matching the first line of a Christmas Carol to the second. A host sings the first line, and everyone joins in the second. But our regular host, Judy Parker, has a previous engagement and asked Mary Eddy Stewart and me if we could take over. Mary can sing. I cannot. But I’m the pastor of the church and can’t really say no to such requests. So, Mary and I sang the first lines to many of our favorite Christmas carols together. A train wreck ensued. Somewhere between not knowing the tune, starting in different keys, and a lot of mumbling by me, we painfully performed our hosting duty, singing the worst renditions of Jingle Bells, Away in a Manger, and Frosty the Snowman you can imagine. Peg Pratt, a long-time member of the church, heckled us the entire time for good measure. And it was a blast. Those who were there remember it well, I guarantee. And the joy of Christmas was there too, not because it was perfect, but because it wasn’t.
If God showed up in a backward, backwater, poverty-stricken town 2000 years ago to give Mary and Joseph a little hope and peace and love during a difficult and challenging time, why wouldn't God show up, in the same way, today to all of us?
2020 has not gone as we’d hoped. And this Christmas season has defied expectations in many challenging ways. None of this was in the plans. But maybe God likes to show up when our worlds seem lost, when we face challenges from every side, when hope is had to come by. Maybe God’s presence, which provides comfort and love, justice, and hope, can feel even closer this year because we need it more.
We know that a vaccination to combat the virus is here and close to us. We know that at some point in 2021, we will be able to gather again, sing together again (for better or worse), and laugh together again. We know that soon, and very soon, we will be able to visit our parents and grandparents, our children and grandchildren, and all those COVID babies in our lives, born during the pandemic. We have some hope this Christmas that the world will get better.
May God be present with us this Christmas. May the God of hope, peace, joy, and love comfort us during this challenging year. And may we take time to treasure these moments in our hearts, with all their joys and troubles, and imagine what good God has for us, for the entire world, in the coming year. Amen.
“The Annunciation Window in the UCH Sanctuary” by Guido Nincheri.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 7:1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him,
7:2 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."
7:3 Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you."
7:4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan:
7:5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?
7:6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.
7:7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?"
7:8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel;
7:9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.
7:10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly,
7:11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.
7:16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 1. The Hook: Family at our Fingertips
Many of you already know that I grew up on a dairy farm in central Ohio. The 100-acre farm has been in the Hamilton family for three generations.
I have very fond memories of my time there, and before the pandemic set in, I would return to the farm with my family once or twice a year to visit my parents, brothers and sister, and extended family.
My mother is a frequent traveler and has come to visit us when we lived in Massachusetts or here in Vermont several times. Like many farmers and perhaps especially dairy farmers, however, my father does not get out much.
As kids, we joked that Dad was a hermit, a designation that he fully embraced over the years. I wonder if he was simply preparing the 2020 pandemic, practicing social distancing all those years.
But even though my Dad is a homebody, and I’ve lived several hundred miles away from the farm for nearly 20 years, we are close.
We usually speak by phone about once a week. Sometimes the conversations are mundane: we talk about the weather, our football teams, or some piece of broken farm equipment he is currently working on. Sometimes we talk about our jobs, family news, or some new homesteading idea we’ve recently read about. Sometimes the conversations are hard: a health scare, politics, difficulties in life.
And recently, my Dad turned in his 14-year-old flip phone for a brand-new smartphone that has video calling. The first time I called him on his new phone, he was out at the barn and didn’t even know his phone could make a video call, remarking, “If I knew me and the mess here, I would have cleaned up first.” Now I see him about every week, get a tour of what he’s working on, joke about how gray his hair has gotten since the pandemic began.
It’s rather incredible that the first transcontinental video call took place over fifty years ago. In 1964, the Bell Picturephone was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair. There, Fair visitors could talk to and see Disneyland visitors in Anaheim, California. While the concept was met with great fanfare, the role out of this new technology fizzled out.
Commercial service started in June of that year with calling booths in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Customers needed to schedule their allotted 15 minutes of screen time in advance and had to pay $16 per call, equivalent to $120 in today’s money. The high price, limited coverage, and scheduling issues sunk the Picturephone, and by early 1968, the company abandoned the endeavor altogether.
Today, many of us rely on video conferencing. We chat with family in other parts of the world. Our children go to school using video conferences, and company meetings are held on platforms like Facebook Messenger, GotoMeeting, and Google Hangouts. Today’s worship service is presented over Zoom, which has seen its shares jump by over 500% since the beginning of the year.
While it cannot replace being physically present with those we love, work with, and worship with, seeing other faces can make us feel more present and connected than an old-fashioned phone call. And, no matter where we are, video calls have allowed many of us to be present this year as grandkids celebrate birthdays, as loved ones pass on, and as couples get married.
2. The Text:
Our story from 2 Samuel is not talking about the value of video calling, but maybe something adjacent. The story describes an interaction between David and God about the importance of place, presence, and divine care.
We might remember David as the young man, a shepherd, who was brave enough to take on Goliath. We might remember his close friendship with King Saul’s son, Jonathan. We might remember that he was musically gifted and that he was the most important King in Israel’s history.
In today’s lesson, David has come to power, and finally, after years of fighting, there’s peace in the land. David sits in his palace and reflects on how he has a permanent residence, but God does not.
The Ark of the Covenant, the physical representation of God at the time, dwells in a moveable tent. It has done so for generations, ever since the Hebrew people were liberated from Egypt in the stories of our Scriptures.
This tent, called the Tabernacle, traveled with God’s people as they wandered in the wilderness, faced war and famine, and gained land of their own. It went where the people went, so in a very physical way, God was always present.
But David, now no longer a wandering shepherd, has gained experience in the world. He’s traveled to other parts of the ancient Near East and has seen how other local deities have extravagant temples built in their honor.
Why shouldn’t God finally get a permanent abode as well?
The other character in our story is Nathan, a prophet of God, and likely the only one in David’s powerful circle that can challenge David’s intentions and actions.
Here, he speaks for God, reminding David that God provides for him, and not the other way around.
He reminds David of his pastoral upbringing and the nomadic nature of God’s people with this beautiful line:
I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people, and I have been with you wherever you went.
God’s place, Nathan reminds David, is with God’s people, wherever they roam.
3. The Point: God is present wherever God people are
This story from 2 Samuel is handed down to us by David’s descendants who were exiled from their homes and living in a foreign land sometime after these events. The Temple, later built by David’s son, Solomon, has been destroyed, and all that’s left are the stories and practices of a people with a common heritage.
I can imagine then how this story might come to mind when those religious scholars sat down to record the story of their most famous king.
The idea of place is really confusing these days. I’ve been in one place, my home, more this year than I’ve been home at any other time in my life. Because of the pandemic, I either see less of or none of my usual places: a movie theater, family farm, store, a friend’s home, a restaurant. Like most, the novelty of being home alone, tied to one place, has already worn off, and I miss those other places. I miss the people of those places. I miss the experiences those places seemed to generate.
4. The Word in the words:
It will be pretty weird this week on Christmas Eve when, instead of preparing for two or three Christmas Eve services with full crowds, I will come into the Sanctuary, sit by myself, and share a worship service over Zoom. Likely, you will realize the weirdness of this all too because you will not be able to drive down to the church for worship and caroling either.
And Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as we’ve always experienced them, will be different too. Even if we host Christmas gatherings in our homes and are in our usual places, the place is missing the right people, our people, the ones we choose to share this special time of year.
5. The Comfort/Challenge: God with Us
But I remain hopeful this Christmas season. Stories like the ones from 2 Samuel and today’s gospel lesson, the Annunciation, remind me that we can still be present with one another, even when we are not in the same place.
More than that, though. God is present with us wherever we are these days.
In fact, it seems that God prefers not to be pinned down at all, stuck in a specific place like a temple, worship hall, or church sanctuary.
And God doesn’t really need you to clean up your house or shovel the sidewalk before God showing up. God’s not picky. God lived in a dirty tent for years and seemed completely content in doing so.
God goes with us where we go.
We get a similar message about God in the story of the Annunciation. Certainly, God, the creator and sustainer of all things can only be accessed by esoteric mystical experiences, or in heaven, beyond the boundary of death.
Not really. In the Annunciation, God is present in a powerful but completely normal young woman and a baby born to modest means during a time of great conflict.
If God shows up to a little stable in the backwoods of the world, two-thousand years ago, why wouldn’t God also show up now in all of our lives, and homes, and Zoom calls, and home offices, and messy living rooms?
God is at home where you are right now.
And maybe in some small way, those that we love and miss this time of year are too.
While we are apart for this brief time, may we find ways to be present with one another this Christmas season. May we use all the resources at our disposal and remember to call, write, text, videoconference, wave, yell, or send smoke signals to those we love. And may we feel the presence of an ever-loving and close God, a God that prefers to travel with us, wherever we are. Amen.
Gentile, da Fabriano, ca. 1370-1427. John the Baptist, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46774 [retrieved December 5, 2020]. Original source: www.yorckproject.de.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." 21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." 22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" 23 He said,
"I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'"
as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" 26 John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Today is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice” in Latin. And that’s why today’s Advent candle is pink. Pink symbolizes joy.
It marks the point in Advent when we turn towards the joy of Christmas. And joy is a wonderful thing, to be sure.
And also, it feels a little strange to be talking about joy as this wrecking ball of a year keeps on swinging.
It feels strange to be talking about joy in the midst of grief-struck times.
It’s easy to worry that feeling joy means we’re not taking all the heartbreak of this world seriously enough.
And it also feels strange to be talking about joy with John the Baptist as our trusty companion.
Joy is not the first word that comes to mind when I think about him: the guy who roamed the desert, clothed in camel’s hair, eating locusts, calling those in power a “brood of vipers.”
But maybe this time we’re in, when joy itself feels unlikely is just the time to have an unlikely companion on a journey into joy. —-- And the thing is, joy is strange. It’s not quite what we superficially think it is.
If you look up joy in the dictionary you’re likely to get a ho-hum, superficial definition.
Like this, from Merriam-Webster: joy is “an emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or the prospect of possessing what one desires.”
It’s not that that definition is wrong, but it doesn’t capture the inexplicability of joy.
If we were all together, in the sanctuary, I’d be really tempted right here to ask you to share the last time you felt a jolt of pure joy.
I think we’d see pretty quickly that joy doesn’t always make sense.
That it comes unbidden.
It surprises us, and it leaves us seeing things differently.
I think we need poets to help us understand joy. Poets like Christian Wiman, who says this about joy.
If you’re musing on the general meaning of joy or sitting down to write an article on the subject, [the dictionary definition] might be of some use as a place to start. But if you are trying to understand why a moment of joy can blast you right out of the life to which it makes you all the more lovingly and tenaciously attached, or why this lift into pure bliss might also entail a steep drop of concomitant loss, or how in the midst of great grief some fugitive and inexplicable joy might, like one tiny flower in a land of ash, bloom - well, in these cases the dictionary is useless.
Or poets like David Whyte, who defines joy like this.
Joy is a meeting place of deep intentionality and of self-forgetting, the bodily alchemy of what lies inside us in communion with what formerly seemed outside.
C.S. Lewis, whose spiritual autobiography is titled “Surprised by Joy,” takes us to a similar place.
Joy, as Lewis understands it, is an emotion shot-through with yearning. Unlike pleasure, he writes: joy “must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”
Joy, he says, “is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be’.”
Joy is “a pointer to something other and outer.”
All of them, and many more, talk about joy as an experience that brings us out of ourselves.
An experience that yearns us towards something our hearts truly desire and in so doing moves us, not just emotionally, but in how we live.
That kind of joy, inexplicable, unbidden, lifts us out of ourselves, yes. But it doesn’t put us back down in the same place where it found us.
Joy transforms us.
And this makes sense if joy is our hearts sensing that that - that thing I feel or sense that is what I desire more than anything.
That kind of joy will have the power to turn us, towards that place where our hearts sense they will find home.
And so I find myself wondering, what if we read John the Baptist’s story as a story of that kind of joy?
Where might such a reading take us? It’s not as strange an idea as it might sound. Luke’s Gospel tells us that John’s life began with joy.
Just before the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, which you heard last week, there is a moment when Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, first greets Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus.
Elizabeth reports that as Mary drew near, as Jesus drew near, John leapt for joy in her womb.
“A lift into pure bliss,” as Christian Wiman put it. Communion. An encounter with his heart’s truest desire.
And I think that what happened next in John’s life is a good example of how joy transforms us.
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light.”
John is the one who says I have seen this. I have felt this. That’s what it means to testify. It is to say aloud what you’ve experienced.
John’s life was testimony from the beginning. Starting with that leap of joy that Luke’s Gospel records.
And in a way, testimony is what joy is all about.
Joy doesn’t stay safely put inside of our hearts.
I think, if we listen, we can hear that overflowing in John’s story.
His life testifies: I have seen this. I have felt this. My heart will yearn ever towards this.
Join me in this place of joyful encounter with the One who comes to bring light into these dark and challenging times.
Seen that way? His is a ministry of joy.
A ministry of joy that we are invited to join.
John invites us, even as he invited his contemporaries, to surrender to that very same joy that made him leap and that moved him to help others see what he saw.
Which was Christ. God-with-us. Here, now.
Good reason for joy.
The invitation that this story extends to us is maybe most clearly visible in John’s answer to the question: “Who are you?”
He answers the authorities with a series of statements about who he is not.
I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am not the prophet.
You can almost hear him adding I’m just John. Just me.
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness.
It’s a stunningly humble answer to the authorities’ question.
And it’s one that makes space for us to join this story, to join John in what one commentator calls his not-ness.
We are also not those things. We are also just ourselves. Each of us, one voice. —-- So the question for us is: will we? Will we say yes to that invitation? Will we say yes to that joy?
Will we risk letting that joy that is our hearts’ encounter with Christ transform us?
Lift us out of our lives and put us down somewhere new?
Will we let our hearts’ yearnings towards that place they recognize as home, bend the paths we walk in these lives of ours?
And here’s the thing to remember as we ponder that invitation.
John’s lived response to his joyful recognition of Christ in our midst doesn’t need to be our response.
We don’t need to wander the desert, wearing camel-hair clothing, eating locusts.
What this text asks of us is simply that we participate in this unfolding story.
If we let it, the particular joy that each of our hearts feels on recognizing the One in whom we find our home will overflow from our lives.
We will bear our own witness, each in our own way, to the light that came into the world, to Emmanuel, who is God-with-us. Like the mirrors in a lighthouse, reflecting and sharing the light that is not their own.
John bore witness by baptizing and preaching.
Others in history have born witness to that light by working for social justice, through acts of kindness, by planting hope in times of despair.
If we say yes to entering it, we each write our own version of this story.
And that feels like a good project for Advent.
It feels like a good project for this particular Advent.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed for resisting the Nazi regime, wrote that joy is from God.
It’s something given, not something made or forced.
Joy seizes us, he says. If we let it, I’d add.
And when it does, he writes, joy reaches around itself, it pulls others along, it bursts through closed doors.
Joy, in Bonhoeffer’s hands, and in John the Baptist’s, and if we let it, in ours, is no frivolous emotion.
It’s not self-satisfied pleasure. It’s not ignorant of the world’s suffering. As yearns us forward towards the One in whom we live and move and have our being, so joy bears us in the work of enacting the good news He proclaimed.
We need that kind of joy write about now.
As we leave here and contemplate our own living of the story John’s telling, I offer this prayer written for this day by Rev. Anna Blaedel at the organization enfleshed.
The Joy of God-With-Us does not come as naïve optimism, or surface level feel-good-ness.
Joy cannot be imposed from on high. Joy cannot be commanded. The Joy of God-With-Us is mingled with grief, exists side by side with mourning, knows that pain and death are all too real, but do not have the final word.
This joy tends tenderly to beauty, and softness, and the gladness that comes from paying attention to what matters.
The Joy of God-With-Us is collective, liberating us from deadly despair.
Joy is gestating in darkness; it comes unexpectedly.
Joy invites our expectation, and demands our participation.
Prepare the way, for joy with sorrow.
May Joy be birthed among, within, and through us, this Advent.
“The Visitation” attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance, ca. 1310-20.
Paint and gilding on Walnut. This scene depicts Mary’s visit to Elizabeth from Luke’s gospel.
Luke 1:39-55 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his humble servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed, the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.
Luke 1:39-55 The human dynamics in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke are quite incredible. Perhaps, they are easy to overlook because we hear the stories from this chapter so often, always around this time of the year. In it, an elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, are told that they will have a baby who will become John the Baptist. A young woman named Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and tells her that she will bear a son, whose name will be Jesus. Later, Mary goes and visits Elizabeth, who is a relative, perhaps an aunt.
There are many people, not in today’s story. There are no men present; neither Zachariah nor Joseph make an appearance. Perhaps we should be wondering where Mary’s parents are. It is challenging to read specifics, but the reality that her parents do not make an appearance here or anywhere else in the gospel stories, tells us that something has happened. Perhaps they have both passed away. Or maybe Mary is indentured, a servant in another person’s home and no longer their responsibility. Or perhaps, having become pregnant out of wedlock, her parents threw her out, which would have been the least violent way a situation like this would have been handled back then.
Regardless, here’s the setup for our scene:
One way or another, Mary, a young, unmarried woman, is told that she is pregnant. “Do not be afraid,” the angel tells Mary in this encounter. But of course, she is deeply afraid, perplexed, and worried. “How can this be?” Mary asks the angel, but the real questions in her heart are, “What am I going to tell everyone, my relatives, my neighbors? Most frightening of all, what am I going to tell my fiancé?”
She rushes to Elizabeth’s house right away, afraid. There Elizabeth opens her home and her arms and her heart. She thinks Mary’s embarrassing, awkward, even scandalous condition is just wonderful. “Blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth says to the frightened, marginalized young woman. Everyone needs an aunt or an uncle or a person in their lives like Elizabeth, someone that can turn fear into hope, worry into power.
And with this hope and power, Mary proclaims a radical message: And Mary said, I praise the Lord God, Because God has blessed this humble servant. And because of this, I will be called blessed now and forever.
For the God of Mercy has done great things for me And is forever merciful to those that believe.
Almighty God is strong, scattering the proud and overthrowing the powerful.
The God of Justice raises up the poor and oppressed And fills the bellies of the hungry with healthy food, While the rich are sent away empty.
God has remembered and fulfilled the promise of mercy made long ago to our ancestors and we will be blessed forever because of it.
Folks could get into trouble talking like that, and even today, there are places in the world where the Magnificat, Mary’s song, is not translated from Latin or Greek because of its troublesome political and economic ideas. The young, poor, vulnerable Mary tells us that God comes into the world in unexpected ways, through the lives of humble and often marginalized people. Further, God cares about how people live and cares deeply about the poor, the lowly, the forgotten, the exploited. Meanwhile, the powerful and the wealthy are brought low in the new world that Mary imagines.
This type of role reversal is prevalent in the words of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and the words of Jesus, Mary’s son. Judgment on the wealthy and powerful often accompanies these role reversal sayings. Usually, the wealthy are condemned because their wealth was gained by exploiting the poor or other dishonest ways. The powerful are condemned because they used their influence to oppress, commit violence, harm, and turn away those in need. Wealth gained in unjust ways and power without justice.
We see Jesus here too. In stories about religious leaders and parables about wealthy landowners. In actions of healing and chasing the money changers out of the temple.
I think too often we characterize Jesus as something entirely other; that his ideas about God and humanity were new and were divinely preloaded into his operating system before arrival. And perhaps we get this notion when we see a nativity scene and that the newborn Jesus already has his halo. Maybe we get this because of the story of Jesus in the temple where he instructs the instructors at the tender age of 12. What’s more likely in our gospel stories is that Jesus listened to the wisdom and radical message of his mother and learned from it.
She taught him to love others and resist tyranny.
She taught him to share a meal with anyone, regardless of social standing.
She was the one who first brought him into the presence of outcasts like people with leprosy and those haunted by their demons and taught him that above all, they were people in need of caring and healing.
And she instilled in him a devotion to God’s vision of the world, one that honors the dignity of all thing things, bringing together all creatures under the loving care of the merciful Lord.
With all of this, I wonder, what if fear had gotten the better of Mary when she found out she was going to have a child? Indeed, we would give her a pass: a pregnant, unwed teenager in a world that crushed pregnant, unwed teenagers regardless of the circumstances. What if fear had caused her to go into hiding? To avoid those places and people that could be harsh?
Instead, she traveled to someone that loved her, someone who was able to lift her out of that fear. But more than that. Mary isn’t only lifted out of her fear. With hope for the future and with great power, she proclaims God's mighty works and her position as beloved by God. This world is important, and so is she.
So, what about our fears? We have them, many of them. We’ve probably gained a few more this year. There are the classics. We fear death. We fear most losses: the loss of a job or a relationship, loss of control over our time, loss of function or health as we get older, loss of our children as they begin their own lives, loss of status in our community, loss of community. We fear violence; we fear change; we fear being embarrassed in front of others. We fear others. We fear that we are not smart enough or good looking enough or healthy enough or balanced enough or resourceful enough or strong enough. We fear black ice and bad news, unexpected bills, and food poisoning. We fear the future, the past, many parts of the present, and all of the unknown. And in 2020, we fear a virus, an election, a lack of toilet paper, and a bumpy transition in political power. Just to name a few of our fears…
Fear is actually a good thing, a necessary reaction that tells our body to be alert and act accordingly. But we know that fear can also snowball, and a once reasonable fear can turn into a lifetime of fearful living.
One of my favorite thinkers, the Romanian essayist Emil Cioran writes:
In normal doses, fear, indispensable to action and thought, stimulates our senses and our mind; without it, no action at all. But when it is excessive, when it invades and overwhelms us, fear is transformed into a harmful principle, into cruelty. A man who trembles, dreams of making others tremble, a man who lives in terror ends his days in ferocity. Hence, the case of the Roman emperors. Anticipating their own murders, they consoled themselves by massacres… The discovery of a first conspiracy awakened and released in them the monster. And it was into cruelty that they withdrew in order to forget fear.
But we, ordinary mortals who cannot permit ourselves the luxury of being cruel to others—it is upon ourselves, upon our flesh and our mind that we must exercise and indeed exorcise our terrors. The tyrant in us trembles; he must act, discharge his rage, take revenge; and it is upon ourselves that he does so. So decides the modesty of our condition. Amid our terrors, more than one of us evokes a Nero who, lacking an empire, would have had only his own conscience to persecute.
O, what cruelties we visit upon ourselves and others when we act out of fear.
And it makes me wonder, how many other times and in how many different ways has God tried to enter into this world, only to be rebuffed by our fears? Think of all those times we decide not to act because of fear. When we avoid taking risks because we are protecting this or that part of our lives. When we avoid getting to know others because we imagine they are different than us. When we decide not to act when bad things happen because we don’t want to ruffle feathers, be in uncomfortable situations, or risk conflict.
But God, who in our Scriptures tells us, "Do not fear" more than any other commandment, challenges us to step out. So, every year during Advent, we read the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, and hear a story about a young, unprotected, pregnant woman who did not give in to her fears. She had help. When a great difficulty arose, she sought the counsel of a loving and supporting ally, someone who could find hope in a world of unknowns.
And we gather as a church, as millions of other people of faith gather around the world because, as a mother, Mary inspired in Jesus a loving care for all in his midst and a deep desire to lift up those on the bottom.
My prayer for us, then, as we consider this Scripture, is that we find ourselves somewhere in this story. May we identify our fears and not give in to them. Like Elizabeth, may we bring hope and power to those around us who seek our counsel in times of distress. And may we be courageous, like Mary, so we can inspire the next generation of healers and teachers to be faithful to God’s vision for a better, more just, more peaceful world. Amen. Blessings, Pastor Jared