“Child of Destiny” Luke 2:22-40, Sermon for Jan. 1, 2012, 1st Sunday after Christmas, Year B

Child of Destiny

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 turtle-doves or two young pigeons.”

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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 for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped 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.

People love to tell stories about their kids – and grandkids. We all do it. We tell the stories to anyone who will listen, and we tell them to the kids themselves. Why?

Perhaps one reason is that we believe that some of those stories we remember from their early years contain glimmers of what would come to full-light later on. We think we can see threads of continuity through life.

Child-Jesus Stories

It is surprising how few stories we have of Jesus as a child. The gospels of Mark and John start with Jesus as a full grown adult. Only Matthew and Luke have stories of Jesus’ birth – which are quite different from each other.

Matthew goes from the story of the wise men visiting Jesus, to his family’s escape to Egypt to avoid the crazy king Herod. They return and the next thing you know, Jesus is grown up and is ready to be baptized by John.

Luke alone has one single story of Jesus as a boy, age 12, confounding the Bible teachers in the temple. That’s it.

Clearly the gospels were not even trying to be full biographies as we think of them. If they knew more of Mary’s stories, they didn’t consider them important to tell.

Why this story?

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Which makes us wonder why Luke felt it important to tell this story we read today, of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the temple as an infant.

If you didn’t know any better, you might think that Jesus was being used as an object lesson in how to be a good, faithful, Law-of-Moses-abiding person. You might think that this story illustrates, for other Jews, the importance of doing everything required by the Torah, the Old Testament, as an encouragement to do the same.

But we do know better. By the time Luke wrote down this story of the baby Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, there was no temple in Jerusalem. In 70 AD the Romans came, in force, in response to a Jewish revolt, and crushed the temple as an object lesson.

Now we can see that this is like telling a story about the families on the Titanic. The people reading the story are not being instructed in cruise manners and customs: they know what is going to happen.

So why would Luke bother to tell his readers about these Jewish customs and practices, and what does this children’s story have to do with us? Let’s look at the story closely.

Roots – back to Abraham

First, it’s quite clear that for Luke, to understand Jesus is to understand his roots. Jesus is born into completely faithful, observant Judaism. Jesus has just been circumcised, as the Law of Moses commanded; that means he has been given the sign of the covenant. In fact, circumcision goes back further than Moses, hundreds of years, all the way back to Father Abraham.

Why is that important? It was God’s covenant and promise to Abraham that set in motion the whole story of the people of Israel, the story of God’s chosen. Jesus has just been circumcised, that is, branded with that logo. He is part of that story in which God said to Abraham, through your descendants, all the families of the earth will be blessed. How is that going to work out?

Well, it has taken some time. Hundreds of years after Abraham, the Jews found themselves slaves in Egypt. But God heard their cries and had compassion on them. He saved them from slavery by the hand of Moses who led them out. They came to Mount Sinai where Moses gave the the Torah, God’s instructions.

Mary and Joseph were keeping faithful to these laws. One of the laws was that after giving birth to a son, a woman had to go through a purification period of 40 days, after which she would offer sacrifices at the temple. She should bring a lamb, unless she was poor, in which case a pair of doves would have to do. Mary and Joseph were poor: they brought turtle doves.

Meeting Sam (Simeon)

At the temple they meet a man named Simeon. We would call him Sam, short for Samuel; Simeon was also short for Samuel. (Fitzmyer, Luke, AB, 426)

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Perhaps Sam was named after that famous biblical character, Samuel, who knows? But it is interesting to remember that as a little boy, Samuel too was presented at the temple by his mother and father.

Samuel’s mother’s name was Hannah, or as the New Testament would say, Anna – a name which also shows up in this story (if you remember, we have learned that Mary’s song of praise is modeled after Hannah’s song of praise).

Anyway, the little boy Samuel grew up in the temple, and one night heard God calling him. The message God gave to Samuel, for the old priest Eli, was partly good, partly bad news. The message Simeon gives to to Mary and Joseph about Jesus is also mixed. God is now doing something new – but it will get a mixed reaction; some will receive it, others not; it will cause a division.

Who was this man Sam, or Simeon? All we know about him was that Luke tells us he is

righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.”

Why would Israel need consoling? Because all of these people, who knew what God’s promise-covenant with Abraham was all about, knew that it had not come true yet. They felt that the blessings were not even true for themselves, let alone being the source of blessing for the whole world.

But here is where the story gets interesting. Sam, or Simeon has, like little Samuel before him, heard the voice of God giving him a message. He believes, he says, that he has been granted the gift of living long enough to see the way God is going to save his people. Luke tells us,

26 “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.”

Nunc Dimittis (now, dismiss)

Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit guided him into the temple where he meets Mary and Joseph with Jesus; he takes the baby into his arms and says his famous poem:

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.

He pictures himself like a sentinel on the wall, on night duty, and now the sun has risen, and his commanding officer dismisses him. The light has started shining, Messiah has come, the consolation Israel had been dreaming of.

Lights and Shadows

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But as one scholar put it, “anyone who turns on light creates shadows.” (Craddock, Luke, Interpretation, p. 39).

All through this story Luke has woven in echoes of the prophet Isaiah. He told of a light that would shine on all the nations, “all flesh will see God’s salvation” (Is 40:4). Isaiah says that the servant of the Lord will be “a light to the nations” (42:6). This will bring the long awaited “consolation” (or “comfort” – same word in Greek, Isa. 40:1).

But the light of Messiah will cast shadows. Simeon continues:

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.”

Jesus himself is destined to experience this division in Israel. Some will follow him as Messiah, the new and true King, whose Kingdom has come, whose Kingdom has no end. Others will shout “crucify him.” The light casts shadows.

Luke’s community had witnessed this happen. Some had followed Jesus; some came to the light. Others did not. Some actually experienced the resurrected Jesus of Easter morning. Some experienced him in worship “in the breaking of the bread.”

But others had rejected the prince of peace, had raised up the sword against Rome, and now the temple was in ruins. Light casts shadows.

Today’s Lights and Shadows

Today we see the same. We can bear witness to the light that has shined in our hearts. We are those gentiles on whom the light has shinned. We know of God’s salvation through Jesus.

But sadly, we see those who cling to the darkness. They somehow miss that the light of Jesus is what illumines God for us.

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In the light of Jesus, we see God’s overwhelming compassion for the sick whom Jesus heals – even if he has to break Sabbath customs to do it. There are folks today who seem have no concern for sick people as long as they have good insurance for themselves.

In the light of Jesus we see God’s concern for hungry people, as Jesus stopped to feed them. There are those among us who are well-fed who do not want any of their bounty to go to hungry people.

In the light of Jesus, we see God’s embrace of foreigners, even Roman soldiers – the “enemy,” and his embrace of other non-Israelites. There are those among us who think that helping anyone who is not an American citizen is unnecessary.

In the light of Jesus we see a God of extravagant forgiveness who teaches us to forgive those who sin against us. There are those who live in the darkness of believing they are justified in bitterness, resentment and even vengeance.

Over and over we see that light casts shadows. Following Jesus has never been the majority response. Isaiah predicted a small remnant; Jesus spoke of the narrow path. Simeon spoke of the falling as well as the rising of many.

The light has come, but some prefer the selfish darkness of the shadows.

We are called to walk in the light today! We are called to rejoice that Messiah has come. The long awaited promise to Abraham, the blessing that is for the whole world has come at last!

Let us rejoice to live in the light! Let us live in the light of a loving, merciful, compassionate, welcoming embracing, forgiving Heavenly Father! And let us take up that light and bear it out into the selfish darkness of our day!

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Sermon for Christmas Day, 2011, Micah 5:2-5, Luke 2:1-20, “The Birth of Jesus”

The Birth of Jesus

Micah 5:2-5

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2    But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, 

who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days. 
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel. 
4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth; 
5 and he shall be the one of peace.

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and

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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.

8In 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!” 15When 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.

A number of us here could stand and testify in praise of Google Maps, Mapquest, or the GPS system in our cars; the days of getting hopelessly lost are over.  This is especially helpful because well-meaning people can be terrible at giving  directions.  Some tell you how many tenths of a mile to go, but

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don’t know the street name. Sometimes you are given a street name with no idea how far away it is – and how do you know but that you haven’t already gone speeding past it?  “Turn left at the big building on Rt. 59,”  they told me, here in Baldwin County, Alabama.  But I’ve lived ten years of my life in Chicago.  To me, there are no big buildings on rt. 59 in Baldwin County!

Bad Directions

People are not great at giving directions, but then, neither are angels.  They do a great introduction: the sudden appearance in the silent night sky, terrifying the poor shepherds half to death.  They got their attention, but when it came time to tell them how to get to the newborn babe, what are the directions?

 “in the city of David… you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” 

That’s it.  No street address, no building description – they don’t know but what they may have checked into the inn.  Remember, these were the original shepherds.  They have never seen the annual church nativity play to watch the merciless inn-keeper turn away Mary and Joseph.  These shepherds have never seen a crèche, so they don’t know what the stable is supposed to look like, and they have no star guiding them like the wise men did.

“City of David”

To their credit, the shepherds know what to make of the cryptic “city of David.”  No one would be faulted for thinking that meant Jerusalem, the city that king David made his capital.  They don’t fall for that.  They somehow Intuit that the angels meant David’s hometown, Bethlehem.

It was in Bethlehem, long ago, that the prophet Samuel came to the home of Jesse, the Ephrathite, asking to see his eight sons so that he could anoint one of them as Israel’s next king.  Long story short, it took a while to finally locate little David; he was off being a good shepherd, watching his sheep.

So anyway, the shepherds in the Christmas story recognize that the city of David is Bethlehem, and now all they have to do is locate the manger.  Since a

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manger is a feeding trough, and since everybody had a donkey or a camel or an ox or some sheep or goats, or a combination of them, and they all had to be fed, everyone had a manger.  In addition to animal food, one of the mangers in the town of Bethlehem had a baby in it, but how would you ever find it with directions like that?

Luke simply explains:

 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

Manger…manger…manger (?)

Maybe Luke is playing with us a bit.  As useless as a manger is for narrowing down the directions, it is mentioned three times.  First Luke tells us that Mary laid Jesus in the manger, then the angels tell the shepherds to find Jesus in a manger, then Luke tells us they found him in the manger.  You start getting the idea that Luke wants us to look at this whole manger-concept a little more closely.

Okay, let’s look at it.  A manger has only one purpose: it’s where the food for the animals is.  Are we supposed to think of Jesus as a kind of food?

Beth-lehem: “house of bread”

It may be worth noticing something the shepherds knew that we miss: the town’s name, Bethlehem, means “house of bread.”

If you remember the story of Ruth, the woman who became the mother of Jesus’ ancestors, you may recall how the name of the town is important.  Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi is from Bethlehem, the “house of bread” but she has to immigrate to Moab because of a famine: there is no bread in “the house of bread.”   Eventually they return, the family stays there for generation after generation, and finally King David is born in Bethlehem.

David was a shepherd when the prophet Samuel anointed him as king in Bethlehem.  That seems somehow fitting; in the old days, kings were called

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“shepherds” of the people.  A good shepherd cared for his flock; a bad one simply fleeced them of their wool, so to speak.

Glory Days – Future Days

After David, king Solomon made a mess of things.  Soon the kingdom split apart, and kings went from bad to worse.  It is no wonder that looking back on the time of David was looking back on the glory days.  When the prophets, like Micah, pictured a future time when God would do a new thing on behalf of his people, they pictured it happening as it had in the glorious past.  The new king would come from the same place David came from: Bethlehem.  Micah sang:

 2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel,”

Of course Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the “house of bread”; he was from the family of David.  The angels called him the Messiah – meaning the “anointed one;” the coming king.

The new King’s job

What did prophet Micah picture this newly anointed king from Bethlehem accomplishing for his people?

 “4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.”

The new king will feed his flock, like a good shepherd.   So there it is.  Jesus is born in Bethlehem, city of David, house of bread, laid in a manger, destined to be Messiah, the anointed king, to feed his people in the strength of the Lord.

Saving the Hungry

To save a starving person, you have to feed him.  The angels said the shepherds would find, in the manger, a Savior, Messiah, the Lord.  He will feed his people.

On Christmas Day, 2011, I think the Christmas story is exactly what we need.  We are all starving this year.  Starving for effective solutions, starving for stability, starving for security.

Probably most of us are starving personally too.  Starving to be understood, starving for affection, for love, for some way to make sense of our lives.  We own more than we could ever pretend to need, but yet the hunger persists. What’s up with that?

It makes me recall a poem I heard Garrison Keillor read on the Writer’s Almanac

Oniomania by Peter Pereira

Not so much the desire

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for owning things
as the inability to choose
between hunter or emerald
green, to buy
just roses, when there are birds
of paradise, dahlias,
delphinium, and baby’s breath.
At center an emptiness
large as a half-off sale table.
What could be so wrong
with a little indulgence?
To wander the aisles of fresh
new good things knowing
any of them could be hers?
With a closet full of shoes
unworn back home,
she’s looking for love
but it’s not for sale —
so she grabs three of
the next best thing.

It could just as easily been about a man, shopping for new toys.  We share the same condition.

And really, it is a grotesque starvation that puts us in debt to banks and consumer creditors, while a lack of literal bread sends millions of children around the world to bed literally hungry.  Another charity appeal comes in the mail, and finds its way to the round file, while the bills for all our “next best things” add up on the desk.

Hear the call of Christmas.  Come to Jesus.  Let him feed your hungry heart.  And then let him break your heart for a hungry world.

Hear the message of Christmas from the words of the classic hymn, “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts”:

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Jesus, Thou Joy of loving hearts,

Thou Fount of life,
Thou Light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts,
We turn unfilled to Thee again.

Thy truth unchanged hath ever stood;
Thou savest those that on Thee call;
To them that seek Thee Thou art good,
To them that find Thee all in all.

We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead,
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.

Our restless spirits yearn for Thee,
Wherever our changeful lot is cast;
Glad when Thy gracious smile we see,
Blessed when our faith can hold Thee fast.

O Jesus, ever with us stay,
Make all our moments calm and bright;
Chase the dark night of sin away,
Shed over the world Thy holy light.

John 1, Christmas Eve, “Incarnation and Humanity, Glory, and help from Rembrandt”

Incarnation and Humanity, Glory, and help from Rembrandt

John 1

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being

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through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The first chapter of the Gospel of John, the prologue, tells the whole gospel story in miniature.

I used to think of the incarnation as a way of speaking of Jesus as divine; it was a God-thing that God became flesh; a miracle.  Now, I understand that the meaning of incarnation, en-flesh-ment, when God becomes human, is not a celebration of miraculous god-power; an amazingly magical feat of conjuring, the ultimate rabbit out of the hat.  Instead, now I understand incarnation as the ultimate celebration of humanness.  The ultimate affirmation of the sacredness of human life.  NT Wright compares John’s prologue in chapter one to the book of Genesis where human life began:

 “The climax of the first chapter of Genesis is the creation of the human being in the image of the creator” Gen. 1:26-28

26 “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… 27 So God created humankind in his image in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Wright continues:

“The climax of John’s prologue is the coming to full humanness of the logos [word]… The [word] becomes a human being.”

“John is consciously writing a new version of Genesis.” (NT Wright, NTPG, p. 416)

Gender and Flesh

Is it too much to say that the incarnation celebrates humanness?  Perhaps it celebrates only male-humanness; the flesh that the Word became, after all, was the flesh of a man.  Yes, true; but the Word itself that John tells us about, before taking on male flesh, had all of the features of a special biblical woman; Lady Wisdom, who appears in the book of Proverbs.

As Alyce McKenzie explains,

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“The portrait of Jesus the Word of God in the Prologue to the Gospel of John owes much to the portrait of Woman Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs. Like her the Word was active in creation. Like her he brings the light of wisdom into the darkness of folly. Like her, he was not recognized by everyone, for many refused to follow her path. Like Wisdom, the Word requires our response, but is, at the same time, a gracious gift from God to humankind.”

(From Edgy Exegesis, Alyce McKenzie, at Patheos)

In addition to Proverbs, Lady Wisdom also makes an appearance in the Jewish book called Sirach, written about two hundred years before Jesus was born.  Sirach tells us that Ms. Wisdom describes her own “glory,” saying:

I came forth from the mouth of the Most High… I dwelt in the highest heavens…. Then the Creator of all things gave me a command and my Creator chose the place for my tent.  He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob and in Israel receive your inheritance.‘  Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me, and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.”  (Sir. 24:1-28)

Lady Wisdom is glorious; she is present with God the Creator; she came to dwell among humans, to pitch a tent among people.  Clearly John has this woman in mind when he tells us about the logos the Word that was in the beginning with God, full of Glory, who came to dwell – literally to “tabernacle,” to “pitch his tent” among us as one of us, becoming flesh; human.

So John puts together both genders in this one place, this feminine Wisdom-Word, puts on masculine human flesh affirming in a brand new way what Genesis had said

 27 So God created humankind in his image in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Incarnation celebrates the sacredness of humanness, male and female.

Glorious Light

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What is the effect of God taking on human flesh?   Light!  It is as though a huge light has been turned on so that for the first time, we can see clearly what were only shadows and shapes before.

 “4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  5 The light shines in the darkness…”

Light is the best way to think about the meaning of “glory.”  The angels who appeared to the shepherds in the middle of a dark night are “glorious” – shining, terrifying the shepherds.  They sing about glory: “Glory to God in the highest.”

John tells us, that when the Word became flesh, he came with visible “glory” – “the light shines in the darkness.”

In Rembrandt’s drawing of the angels appearing to the shepherds, they are bursting with light in the dark sky.  Is Jesus glorious in the same way as the angels?  Is that what the incarnation is all about?  God terrifying poor defenseless humans with an overpowering light?  Is that the glory John describes?  What happens when that glorious eternal Wisdom-Word becomes flesh?

In Jesus, glory is transformed.  Rembrandt has another painting called the “Adoration of the Shepherds.”  They are at the manger with Mary and Joseph, some near and kneeling, others standing, looking down in wonder.

In Rembrandt’s unique way, he shows us light is streaming up from the baby Jesus, illuminating the faces gathered around.  “The light shines in the darkness, and we beheld his glory.”  

Only now, “glory” is not the overwhelming, intimidating glory of angels, it is the glory of a  new birth, the glory on the face of every new father, looking down at the miracle of life in his arms.

14   And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,

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It is the glory of a baby, a human, made in God’s image; a sacred life.

Illumination

So what has been illuminated by the light of Christ that came into the world?  Now we see, as if the light has just been turned on, the way God sees us, humans, creatures of flesh and blood.

In the light of Jesus, we see the dignity and sanctity of menial shepherds, the first to be entrusted with the glorious news.

In the light of Jesus we see blind people and lame people, sick people and injured people not as economic liabilities, but as flesh and blood embodiments of the image of God.

In the light of Jesus we see lepers, enemy soldiers, Canaanite women, and demoniacs, not as objects of our discrimination and revulsion, but all as flesh and blood subjects of God’s full-bodied embrace.

In the light of Jesus we see ourselves, as Rembrandt painted himself, illuminated by the light streaming from the cross, showing his complicity – our complicity, in the evil of our day for which Jesus died.

In the light of Jesus we see the darkness that we have lived in, and the harm it has done, to each other, to our neighbors, to our planet.  Now we see injustice for what it is.

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Now we see greed and selfishness for what they are.

But now, in the light of Jesus, we see God in a new light.

Now we see a God who loves humanity so much that he came to us, to dwell with us, to be flesh, as we are, so that we could live in his light, and see each other in his light, and find redemption.

Let us live in the light of his glory.

Let us bear his light into the darkness.

14   And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,

Sermon for Dec. 18, 2011, 4th Advent, Year B on Luke 1:26–38, “Mary’s Yes”

Luke 1:26–38

In the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy – with John] the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose

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name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Mary’s Yes

I can imagine that the early Christians all wanted to get to know Mary.  They must have had enormous respect for her.  We still marvel at her utterly innocent “yes” to Gods’ will that led to the birth of Jesus.

Asking Mary Some Questions

If I were around her in that first generation, I would love to ask her questions.  What was it like to be in the presence of an angel?  Luke told us you were terrified – which is how some say we should take that word “perplexed.”  How bad was it?

How long was the angel there?  Long enough for you to get over the panic?  Did you catch what he was telling you or did you only ponder it after he had left?

The Greeting?

I want to ask Mary, “Did that odd greeting that Gabriel gave you – that the Lord is with you – did that make you think of the prophet Isaiah?  Did  you get the connection between the you being a virgin who was about to conceive, and the virgin Isaiah spoke of who would conceive and bear a son who would be calledEmmanuel” which means “God with us”?

Elizabeth’s condition?

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When Gabriel mentioned your older relative Elizabeth, were you surprised to hear of her pregnancy?  Did you think of Sarah and Abraham when Gabriel described her former condition as “barren”?  And did you notice that Gabriel then used the same words to you that the angels who came to Sarah and told her that she would have a son used, about nothing being impossible with God?

Did you think that whatever was happening to you was like the first page of volume two in the same story?

Your Son?

And what did you make of Gabriel’s description of what your son was going to be and do?  When the angel spoke of him sitting on David’s throne, did that make you flinch?  What did you think was going to happen with King Herod who was currently sitting on that throne?  What did you think about the Roman army – did you imagine that there would first be a revolution before the throne was secure?

Could you possibly have noticed, in that scary angel-moment, that the whole kingdom picture that Gabriel’s words painted had an oddly non-human look?  Did you catch that your son’s reign was supposed to be forever, with “no end”?

Those Names?

And most of all, what about those names?  You are Jewish so you know that the name Jesus, or in your Hebrew, Joshua, means he is being named after the famous is Joshua, in the Old Testament.   You know well that Joshua was the one who “fought the battle of Jericho” and all the other ones, and conquered the promised land.  Does it make you nervous to have to name your son after a conqueror?

And what about the names your son is supposed to be called, like “great” which is normally what the kings like to be called, and like, “holy” and “the Son of the Most High?”  What did you think was going to be growing in you for the next nine months?  Wouldn’t the idea of giving birth to God blow your mind?

Your Question?

And Mary, please don’t be insulted, but you asked the angel only one question: was your primary concern really only that you didn’t know how a virgin could bear a child?  Would that be any tougher for God than an old lady like Elizabeth or like Sarah conceiving?

Reading Isaiah?

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One last thing.  When you answered the angel, when you said “yes” to everything God was going to do, you called yourself “the servant of the Lord” – had you just been reading Isaiah?  Were you intentionally making the ideal “yes” response to God that “the servant of the Lord” which is what Isaiah sometimes calls Israel was supposed to make?  Were you tempted to add “here I am, send me?” as Isaiah himself said?

How Could she have known much?

Mary is not around to ask, but this year, as I have been thinking about Mary’s famous “yes” to God’s will, I have been struck by how little she must have understood about what was going to happen.  When she said those classic words:

 “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

– what did she imagine she was she saying “yes” to?  She could not possibly have known.

She knew One Thing Well

But in that frightening moment, I believe her response shows that she knew one thing for certain: that God was indeed with her, as Gabriel affirmed.

He was with her then, just as he was with her when she met Joseph for the first time.  God was with her in Sabbath School when she learned the stories of Abraham and Sarah and the miraculous birth of Isaac.

Barrenness and With-ness

God was with her when she reflected on the many times and the many ways in her people’s past, that the issue of barrenness had to be overcome.

Famine, exile, occupation, were all forms of barrenness.  Faithlessness, idolatry, injustice and exploitation were ways of being spiritually barren that Mary’s people had known for centuries.  But nevertheless, through it all, God had been with them.

Now, for Mary, God was doing something brand new.  Certainly the new thing contained the ringing echoes of the former things God had done, but this new thing that Gabriel announced seemed bigger – infinitely bigger.  Yes, God is with us.  and No, nothing is impossible for the God who came to be with us, as one of us, as Jesus, the Son of the Most High.

With us?

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Is it possible for us, today, in all of our situations of barrenness to live and act as people who recognize God is with us?  It is helpful to read of Mary’s confidence in the with-ness of God.  It is also helpful to hear from each other.

In Advent, we have been hearing personal stories of people among us who can bear witness to the present reality of God in their lives.  We heard from from Dick whose witness was recorded by his daughter Pam, just after he went home to be with the Lord.

We heard, last week, from Jean, about God’s work to raise up a new church for a poor black congregation on Chicago’s South side.

This Sunday we will hear from Lynn of his witness to God’s presence in his life.

[Lynn’s witness]

At this time of year, we celebrate what Mary knew, what Dick knew, what Jean and  Lynn demonstrated that they know – that as contrary to normal expectations as it seems, yes, God is with us.  Barrenness can become fruitfulness.  The virgin can conceive and bear a son who will be called the Son of the Most High; Emmanuel: God with us.

Knowing this – even though we have no idea what it may mean for us, we are able to say, along with Dick, Jean, Lynn and Mary,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

A Response to the Fellowship of Presbyterian’s recent draft paper on Theology – on Scripture

A Response to the Fellowship’s recent paper on Theology – on Scripture

The Fellowship of Presbyterians has published online a document it calls a “Draft of the Theology of the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the New Reformed Body,” posted on Dec. 7, 2011 for review.  They are inviting feedback, acknowledging that this is a draft form.  These are not initial thoughts.  They have been reviewed by “25 first readers who offered thoughtful critique as this draft developed.”  So I would like to weigh in on a part of the draft dealing with scripture.

The document says:

The spirit will never prompt our conscience to conclusions that are at odds with the scriptures that he has inspired.”

I know some of the people whose theological positions line up with the Fellowship’s views.  I know them to be smart, thoughtful, careful, scholarly, and deeply committed Christians.  That is why it frustrates me when statements like the one above are put out that are far more nuanced than they appear.   People without the benefit of theological study (formal or not) usually read such statements in their simple form and think they mean things that the ones writing them know that they do not mean.  I do not believe anyone is trying to hoodwink anybody, nevertheless, our churches are full of faithful believers who have no idea how complex we know that interpreting scripture is.  Those of us who have had the blessing of time and resources to study know, for example, how nuanced the word “inspired” is. A person could spend years reading everything written on that one word alone.  But the complexity goes way beyond that one word.  Having written the sentence above, the authors have thought long and hard about issues that scripture speaks to that they feel no qualms of conscience being “at odds with.”  The list of such issues, to limit it to the New Testament for the moment, could include:

Women being silent in the church, not teaching men, hair length, hair style (braids) and head coverings, jewelry restrictions (gold and pearls), family structure (submission of wives to husbands, calling them “Lord”), slavery (no problem), divorce (the various perspectives of Jesus, Paul, Micah, Genesis, Deuteronomy, and the current issues like spouse abuse), not to mention figures of speech (pluck out eyes, etc.).

But it goes even deeper.   Consider the issue of violence in the bible.

Should we not be “at odds with” and  even horrified by the baby-killing, head-smashing, bloody rocks of Spirit-inspired Psalm 137?  How is this sentiment of utter brutal vengeance compatible with the blessed life our Lord Jesus taught us to live?  How can this be an example of “the merciful” who will “be shown mercy”?  How can it exemplify the actions of “the meek” who will “inherit the earth”?  How can it be the goal of “the peacemakers” who will be called “the children of God”?  Even if all this vengeance is a understood as a pain-cry for justice (at least, justice in the sense of “an even score”), how can it be the satisfaction of a  “hunger and thirst for justice/righteousness”?  Is it not rather a demand for “turnabout” as “fair-play” rather than justice as righteousness (dikaiosune) which, if anything, cannot create the conditions for future vengeance, as this Psalm certainly does?

Psalm 18 was the morning lectionary Psalm which I read the day I first saw the Fellowship’s theological statement. The Psalmist praises God our Rock who comes to our rescue.  That much we can embrace.  But the psalm goes into dark places from which decent people should keep their distance.  The Psalmist praises the God he prays to for helping him in specific ways:

34 He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. 
35 You have given me the shield of your salvation,
and your right hand has supported me;
your help has made me great. 
36 You gave me a wide place for my steps under me,
and my feet did not slip. 

To what effect was all of this divine help?

37 I pursued my enemies and overtook them;
and did not turn back until they were consumed. 
38 I struck them down, so that they were not able to rise;
they fell under my feet. 
39 For you girded me with strength for the battle;
you made my assailants sink under me. 
40 You made my enemies turn their backs to me,
and those who hated me I destroyed. 

Who can read this without remembering the words of our Lord, that those who live by the sword will die by it as well?  This psalm prays for the exact opposite of mercy, meekness and peacemaking.  Even the  enemy’s cry for help from our God, from YHWH, is unanswered – he gets stones for bread; snakes instead of fish for the asking.

41  They cried for help, but there was no one to save them
they cried to the LORD, but he did not answer them. 
42 I beat them fine, like dust before the wind;
I cast them out like the mire of the streets.

It is right and good for us to sing the praise of the next verse:

46  The LORD lives! Blessed be my rock,
and exalted be the God of my salvation,

until the following verse comes; the verse that knows and tells why it is that God is so valuable and praise-worthy:

47 the God who gave me vengeance
and subdued peoples under me; 
48 who delivered me from my enemies;
indeed, you exalted me above my adversaries;

Vengeance is mine,” says the Psalmist, as he thanks God, for the help.  The one who ends up in the exalted position, high and lifted up, turns out to be the one whose vengeance was successfully accomplished.

Were these the sentiments of the barbaric days in which violence was mistaken for goodness and brutal vengeance for justice?  It would be easy to think so.  It would be convenient to believe that these brutes of the ancient Near East simply had not achieved the level of civilization that we have attained.  It would be nice to think that their entire perspective on violence as a means was far removed from ours. It would be convenient to believe that, but not possible, as we come to the very last line in this Psalm.  It is a final line of praise, a final acknowledgement of God’s role in this bloody reprisal:

you delivered me from the violent.”

From whom is God credited with providing deliverance?  From the evil?  From the wicked?  From “the fool who says in his heart that there is no God”?  No.  The deliverance God is finally praised for is from “the violent.”  From the ones who use violence as a means.  Obviously, God would want to save me from such people as “the violent.”  And how should he accomplish this great salvation?   By authorizing my violence?  By making me successful in my violent reprisals on my enemy?

The whole psalm collapses here under the weight of its own moral indignation.  In those ancient, barbaric times, they understood full well that violence as a means was characteristic of the kind of people one needed God’s help against. “you delivered me from the violent.” “The violent” were the bad guys.  That was understood back then, by the people who celebrated God’s assistance with their violence.

What do we do with these Psalms?  Everybody concerned with theological statements is familiar enough with the bible to know that this Psalm is not an outlier, in fact it is characteristic of a perspective about violence we find frequently in the Old Testament.  We have all read Joshua and Judges.  We all hope that the Levite’s concubine was was already dead before he cut her up into twelve pieces, but the narrator of Judges 19 leaves us guessing.  We all hope that there is a morally acceptable way to read of the world’s first mass genocide, the flood narrative; after all, there is a rainbow at the end of the story.  Of course this kind of litany could be extended indefinitely.   My point is only this: that I, as a believing Christian who wants to, and needs to hear God speaking through the written word, and everyone else in my shoes, has a huge amount of work to do to reconcile these texts with my/our understanding of the nature of God that we believe comes most completely from his incarnate Word-made-flesh, Jesus.  And he was the one who taught us what the “blessed” life consists of, which is exactly the reason we have so much trouble these “texts of terror.”

So,  it seems to me that making a short, pithy theological statement about how “The Spirit will never prompt our conscience to conclusions that are at odds with the scriptures that he has inspired” just implodes on itself.

How does the Spirit prompt our consciences?  I pray that the Spirit would always and constantly prompt my conscience.  My fear is that I am no better than anybody else in my sensitivity to the Spirit’s prompts.  I am not at all sanguine about the fact that so many of my ancestors-in-faith were anti-Semitic, owned slaves, thought nothing at all of patriarchy, justified innumerable wars of aggression and expansion, up to an including the dispossession of the natives of the land I live in today. Every river around me still bears a native-American name. What sins, even gross horrors am I blind to that my descendants will see?  I find no reason to think my generation will have any better track record than any of my predecessors’.  I wish that the Spirit would prompt me to every single conclusion that is at odds with God’s perfect will.  But my experience is that the Spirit’s work  looks like (not is like, but appears to be) like the famous “moral arc of the universe” in that it is bent towards justice, but only in a long, slow, agonizingly inscrutable manner.  It simply does not do anybody any good to say “The Spirit will never prompt our conscience to conclusions that are at odds with the scriptures that he has inspired”.  I wish it were so simple.  It isn’t simple at all.

By now, several people like Mark Noll have written extensively about the arguments for and against slavery in America.  The people who wanted to justify slavery from the bible  had a much easier time than those who believed the bible led them to oppose it.  Both sides knew and used scripture in their arguments.  The pro-slavery group had an easy time finding places in the bible in which people owned slaves without reproach, and where slaves were assumed and even regulated in the context of Torah.  In fact nowhere in all of the bible, Old and New Testaments is slavery ever condemned.  Rather, it appears as though a runaway slave, Onesimus is returned to his master (in Philemon – though I am aware of the current dispute about this reading of the situation).  Unquestionably, the “house codes” in Ephesians and Colossians assume and regulate the institution of slavery in the Christian household.  Paul even advises slaves in Corinth not to try to gain their freedom.   The pro-slavery group had no problem finding support for their position in the bible.

Remarkably, the whole situation is reversed today.  I know of no one who would argue in favor of the institution of slavery anymore.  And yet, during the civil war era, those who argued against it had a tougher case to make.  Their arguments were about the general sweep of the bible and the teachings of Jesus that seemed to be incompatible with slave-owning.   Today, we would use the word “trajectory” to describe that same arc-like development of thought that leads to a conclusion far down the line from its point of origin, but in a manner totally consistent with the direction.  Some people (probably most people) believe that the civil rights movement in America was simply following the same trajectory that the abolitionist were on in their day.  We Presbyterians believe that the issue of the role of women in the church is similar.  There are verses that say “no!” but we say “yes.”   Are we at odds with the Spirit who inspired the scriptures?   Or have we adopted a carefully nuanced understanding of the very nature of scripture that is able to affirm its “inspired” character and yet consider the historical horizon over which it could not see and the cultural horizon behind which it sat – as we all do still, though in a different time and place?

I am quite aware of the issues of the day in our church, especially abortion and homosexuality.  My friends who share the perspective of the Fellowship take the conservative position opposing both abortion and homosexuality.  I believe that their positions are totally sincere.  I also believe that framing a doctrine of scripture the way the Fellowship draft does leads people to support their view.  It seems so categorically true.  How could the same Spirit who inspired the scriptures ever prompt a person to believe something at odds with scripture?  And clearly scripture condemns homosexuality and abortion, right (well abortion, as it turns out, needs more than just the bible because, well, it’s quite complicated, as anybody my age is well aware, especially those who have read Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come: an Evangelical’s Lament.  Balmer recounts the meetings of evangelical leaders that he was a part of in which in which the abortion issue was selected for its usefulness in pushing the conservative political agenda, in spite of the paucity of biblical material on the subject and over the objections of some who questioned its relevance.).

It is one thing for a casual church-attender to think that the church’s position on critical issues is simply cut-and-dried, black-or-white, either-or.  But it is quite another thing for church leaders to present their highly nuanced, carefully constructed conclusions that take into consideration vast areas of difficulty as if they were the settled results of simple “prompts” of the Spirit.  None of us has moral problems with braided hair in spite of clear New Testament prohibitions.  What’s up with that?  None of us is ready to condemn as unbiblical a prayer posture that does not include lifting up holy hands; on what basis?  Culture?  Really?  The bible is so clear on these issues, right?

I want desperately to believe and practice what Jesus leads me to believe and practice.  So I do my best to try to read and understand Jesus in the scriptures.  I’m sure I miss more than I catch.  But it seems to me that he frequently tried to get people to think in moral, not just biblical categories.  He had no problem with his disciples plucking grain as they strolled across a field on the Sabbath.  Were they “working on the Sabbath,” thus breaking one of the ten commandments?  Jesus challenged his opponents to think about the Sabbath in moral terms: why was there such a thing as a Sabbath law?  Was it not meant as a benefit to humans – who had been slaves of Pharaoh who never gave them a day of rest?  Could we not say that people were not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath for people?  And the same reasoning is behind healing on the Sabbath which our Lord seemed to do quite a bit.

The Spirit inspired the bible, but that does not mean the bible is flat.  Jesus is able to see the “weightier matters of the law,  justice and mercy and faith” which he takes as more significant than the regulations about spices, mint, dill and cumin.  The question “who is my neighbor” in the vision of Jesus becomes “who was a neighbor to him?”  All of the law and the prophets can be summed up by the golden rule: do to others as you would have others do to you.”  Does not our Lord teach us to think theologically and morally beyond the “words on a page” way that his interlocutors  approached scripture?  Is the divorce issue settled just because there are verses in Deuteronomy that regulate it?  Or is the whole question deeper than mere citations, requiring us to think past verses on a page to the whole point of human sexual bonding?

Here is the issue: the twenty-five people that reviewed the Fellowship’s theological draft, in addition to the ones who carefully wrote it, already know all of this.  I did not feel the need to supply verse references for all of the biblical quotes and allusions in this response because I know that the Fellowship folks know exactly the texts I refer to; it’s their world.  It’s my world too.  It’s a complex world.  It is a world that deserves forthright, nuanced statements about how people like us, living in our world today, need, benefit from and use scripture.  Speaking of simple “prompts” of the Spirit is school-boy talk.   Does the Spirit prompt all of us to divest from Fidelity Investments because they profit from Petro-China’s investments in Sudan’s genocidal government?  The Board of Pensions doesn’t feel so prompted.  What does that tell us?  “Jesus is Jesus; but business is business?”  Where does that leave us?  Sheep or goats?  It’s serious, but it’s not uncomplicated.

Here is my plea to the Fellowship: you may think, as I understand you to think, that the PCUSA has lost her way; that she has abandoned her center in favor of the spirit of the age, abandoned her faith in God’s word in favor of man’s opinions; that she has rejected faithfulness to the text of scripture, in favor of coziness with the agenda of the American liberal left.  That is a conversation that needs to be conducted.  Others will be anxious to know whether the other major spirit of the age, the spirit of the American political right, the spirit of stepping over the moral hazard of indolent Lazarus lying at the gate, is not at least as likely a temptation and at least as nefarious to faith in the God revealed in Jesus.  But the test of whether or not either of those spirits have been followed is not whether we can all agree that “The spirit will never prompt our conscience to conclusions that are at odds with the scriptures that he has inspired.”  Our women cut their hair, wear braids, pearls, gold, speak in church, even teach, even teach men who they do not call Lord, and who do not pray with hands upraised and who may wear their hair long.  And nowhere in scripture is there a footnote or a flag saying “now this bit is just cultural so you can feel free to let it go later on.”  The way it works in practice, for all of us, is that we believe the Spirit regularly prompts us to believe and practice things that are indeed at odds with the scriptures that he inspired.  This is how it works for all of us, not some of us.

Sincerely,

Rev. Steven D. Kurtz

Gulf Shores, AL

P.s.  Joe Small just published an open letter in The Presbyterian Outlook on his role in the theology draft, clarifying that he is not in favor of or a part of any schism that may be coming.

Powers of Magnification, Sermon for 3rd Advent, Dec.11, 2011, on Luke 1:39-56

Luke 1:39-56

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Powers of Magnification

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Is it possible to have Advent and Christmas without music?   I even wonder if it is possible to have Christianity without music?  Music is so much a part of our worship – the way we magnify the Lord and exalt in God, our savior.  We are so blessed here with the ministry of music, aren’t we?

Roots Music

We get this musical impulse from the Jewish roots of our faith.  No sooner had God liberated the Israelites from Pharaoh than they burst into song:

I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously….”

The empire could enslave the Hebrews; it could take away the straw from their bricks, but the powerful, proud Pharaoh could not extinguish the song in the hearts of the lowly.

All of the Psalms in our bibles were once music to be sung in worship.  The psalms call us to:

Worship the LORD with gladness;

come into his presence with singing.” (Psalm 100:2)

Hannah had been unable to conceive. She prayed bitterly for a child, and when the Lord granted her request and she gave birth to Samuel, she celebrated with a song.

1 “My heart exults in the LORD;

my strength is exalted in my God…

7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich;

he brings low, he also exalts. 

8 He raises up the poor from the dust;

he lifts the needy from the ash heap,

to make them sit with princes…

5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,

but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. (1 Sam. 2)

Mary’s Cover Version

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It sounds familiar.  Perhaps Mary learned to sing Hannah’s song as a girl in Synagogue School.  Now she is a young woman, probably still a teenager.  With Hannah’s song ringing in her ears, Mary sings a new song for a new son.

46 “My soul magnifies the Lord, 

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 

48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

We do call Mary “blessed.”  She is the model of the perfect response to the call of God.  When God, through the angel, called her to risk everything dear to her: her marriage, her reputation, her health, and her future, to bear his Son, she replied with the answer of pure, simple, radical faith:

38 “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Blessed is Mary, model of childlike, uncalculating, unconditional faith.

Mary’s song, like Hannah’s, celebrates the new world that God is making by means of the new baby that will be born.  Her song is filled with confidence!  She sings,

the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

What Mary Knows 

How does Mary know what God will do?  Like Hannah, Mary knows what God characteristically does; she knows what it is God’s nature to do.

Ever since the song of Miriam and Moses, from the freedom side of the Red Sea, God has predictably “lifted up the lowly,” “filled the hungry with good things”, and sent “the rich away empty.

Where is Pharaoh now?

the Mighty One has done great things

Where is Herod? .

holy is his name

Where is Hitler and Stalin,

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts

Where is Pol Pot, where is Chairman Mao now?

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones

Mary sings a song of confident expectation in a God who remembers who he his, and who shows it by what he does over and over:

54  He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

Can We Be Mary?

Can we be Mary?  We can sing, in Advent, but can we sing with such open hearted faith?  Can the Mighty One work in our complicated, precarious world today?

He can!  He does!  “Can I get a witness,” as preachers in the American black tradition ask?

Today we have a witness to the fact that God is still characteristically remembering his mercy, “lifting up the lowly,” and “filling the hungry with good things.”   Jean will share with us her experience:

Jean’s Witness:

“Most Presbyterian congregations have memberships that are similar to ours. Pretty much, our denomination is composed of people who are educated, middle to upper class, and white. But there is a congregation on Chicago’s south side called Pullman Presbyterian Church.

“You probably have heard of the Pullman company that manufactured train cars. In their day, the Pullman company operated a community for their workers. This historic working class neighborhood changed as the decades rolled by, both economically and racially. And, although there are some African American Presbyterians in other churches in Chicago Presbytery, Pullman is the only congregation that is predominately, certainly at least 90%, Black.

“My congregation was located in the suburb of Naperville, regularly voted one of the top ten places in America to raise a family. It has won awards for the top public library system in America, and our daughters’ high school, after winning a gold award for being one of the top ten schools for two years straight, won the Platinum award from the Grammy foundation for having the best high school music program in America. Oprah visited our daughters’ high school to highlight the difference between a high school in a lower income neighborhood in Chicago and a newly constructed high school in the suburbs.

“So you may get the drift that our congregation and the Pullman congregation would not be considered homogeneous Presbyterian congregations. Which is probably why someone had the idea for us to form a partnership with regular pulpit exchanges and choir exchanges. It was sort of like our Presbytery’s relationship with the Mayab Presbytery in Mexico. It was just about as foreign.

“I learned that for fifteen years, the Pullman congregation had a vision to build a new church home. Their aged building was in terrible shape and built before anyone had a notion of handicap accessibility. Unfortunately, within the presbytery, membership was declining. A couple of churches had closed; others were in danger of collapse. Presbytery was somewhat supportive of Pullman’s vision, but was quite concerned about the possibility that they would end up on the hook for another mortgage. There were strong doubts that this minority congregation had the ability to pay for a new church. After all, they had been barely self supporting and despite repeated capital campaigns, had not saved up even 10% of the construction costs.

“One day Mat, who knew the ends and outs of our system, came to me, Chairman of the Mission Committee, and asked that I serve on a new presbytery

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team to get this building built. He convinced me that without some strong allies, the project would never receive approval. After two years of meetings we were getting nowhere. I was so frustrated and angry I was losing sleep, and my husband  told me that when I did fall asleep, I was grinding my teeth. We hired a capital campaign consulting firm and, after another round of meetings, learned that all of the other congregations in our Presbytery, although spiritually supportive of Pullman’s efforts, were unwilling or unable to help financially. So much for Plan A. It was down to those of us on the team to come up with enough money to make what was by now an 18 year building campaign result in an actual building.

“I could not understand why so few were willing to invest in the future of our denomination. Why they feared that the abundance we had was not going to be enough. Why they did not see that we belong to the same denomination and must work together to make disciples. With unity we can achieve more than we can in isolation. When I vented with my friend Rev. Cindy, she responded, “Preach it , Sister.” and I    broke down crying. She knew about the monies that had been given to this project that had been lost. The monies that were given so long ago the records were gone. The fact that Pullman was not even informed when funds were  received a gift towards the building fund, and that with numerous changes in business managers through the years, it was difficult to come up with a figure of how much we really had. We would contact a congregation only to hear, “We gave to their building fund ten years ago and nothing has ever been built.”

“Rev. Cindy asked if we could pray together that this church be built, but I asked her to pray instead that God’s will be done and that I could accept the result. And as we held hands and she prayed aloud, all of the anger and anxiety was lifted. I left with a renewed enthusiasm. I was put me in charge of the capital campaign solicitations.  I asked Pastor Cindy to serve on our team by organizing a prayer team because I knew she had a direct pipeline to God. I told my husband that I felt that although we had pledged during our entire married life, we had never given sacrificially the way the Pullman members did. I told him I could not call on my friends and ask them to give to this cause unless we were willing to make a significant gift and he agreed it was the right thing to do. I need to interject here that we had just been through a tough few years following his job loss and extended period of unemployment followed by under-employment. We sold our home and bought a townhouse he referred to as our Residence Inn so our youngest two kids could finish high school in the same school.  He had only recently found a job that paid closer to his previous earnings, yet he shared my belief that we were indeed blessed. Although we did not have a lot in the checking account, he cashed out the stock options he had from his time at his previous employer and wrote a check for $20,000.

“And then I started making appointments to see my friends. People that had made the trip to sing in the choir at Pullman. People from my fellowship group.

Pullman Presbyterian Church, Chicago

People I knew to be long term Presbyterians that would hear Pullman’s vision and make it their own. And I asked for gifts of $5,000, $10,000, $20,000 and more. I’d ask them to pray on it and asked if I could come back the following week for their answer.  Sometimes people gave me even more. I visited with Presbyterian pastors who were conducting building campaigns in their own congregations and asked for and received pledges of $50 a week for three years or $6,000.  Again, on a pastor’s salary, and I am not talking their own congregation. Our team secured a pledge from our congregation’s mission budget for $100,000 as well as one from the another  church for about the same.  And I was not working alone. Mat secured a check for $50,000 from one of our members that owned a car dealership. I don’t know what part of the Pullman saga touched his heart, but he responded. And the Pullman congregation was conducting its own final, full thrust campaign. I helped there, too, by calling on the potential large donors together with our consultant. One doctor pledged $80,000 over three years, over and above his usual tithe.  We had very large pledges from the pastors’ brother (a dentist), sister (a school teacher), and wife, (an HR executive).

“And so, in 2005, I was there when Pullman took down the old cross hanging over the communion table. We walked out of the building and carried it several blocks to the beautiful new sanctuary with the choirs singing all the way. We walked back to the old church grounds and enjoyed a fried chicken Sunday supper on the lawn together, our last time at the old building. I am convinced that God’s will was done and am so grateful he let me be a part.” [end]

Our Song

Can we be Mary, believing that God is still doing what God characteristically does: what Mary sang about, what Jean and the others witnessed?

That is why we can sing the song this Advent, along with Mary, and Jean:

46 “My soul magnifies the Lord, 

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 

48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 

49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name. 

50 His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.