Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Learning to pray, 1.29.12

Psalm 73:21-28
21When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart,
22I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you.
23Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.
24You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor.

25Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. 26My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27Indeed, those who are far from you will perish; you put an end to those who are false to you. 28But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, to tell of all your works.

Luke 11:1-13
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

            This week we continue our series on Christian discipleship by talking about prayer. Prayer is one of the most important ways we nourish our relationship with God. It’s also an area where many of us feel inadequate or lost. We worry we don’t have the right words or that we’re “doing it wrong.” We feel like we send our prayers out into empty space and never hear anything back. Or maybe we want to pray but somehow the day slips away under a sea of tasks; days become weeks and we can’t think of the last time we really prayed.

            We’re going to have another sermon in a couple of weeks focused on the prayer at the heart of this passage from Luke. That sermon is a skit about the Lord’s Prayer, and I think you’ll really enjoy it. It will offer you another perspective on the familiar prayer, which is a good thing. The great thing about having a prayer from Jesus is that Jesus keeps teaching us to pray even now. The down side is that when we pray the same prayer week after week it can become just words sliding through our mind instead of a life-changing connection to our God.

            Today’s sermon is more of an exploration of prayer in general. I have questions about prayer myself; I certainly don’t have all the answers. At different times in my life I’ve had different prayer routines; other times I haven’t prayed much at all. There’s still plenty about prayer that doesn’t make sense to me.

            For one thing, what’s our goal in prayer? Are we trying to change God’s mind by praying for something? Do we pray to call attention to a situation that’s on our hearts so God will notice and come to the rescue?

            The Bible suggests that sometimes that’s exactly what happens. While I believe God is watching all the time, in scripture crying out to God has a powerful way of getting God’s special attention. When Israel was enslaved in Egypt, God must have known, but it was when Israel cried out under the burden of their oppression that God responded by sending Moses into action.

When Moses taught Israel how to live in the Promised Land he warns those with money to be very careful about how they treat the poor. When they loan money to a poor person and take their cloak as collateral, for instance, Moses tells them to return the cloak before nightfall because that might be the person’s only protection from the cold night air. If they return it, the person will be comfortable at night and ask God to bless their kind creditor. If the lender holds on to the cloak to protect their loan, the poor person shivering in the cold might cry out to God in their suffering and God would be angry with the selfish lender.

So even though God is paying attention all the time, there’s a mysterious power in crying out to God in our need. The Bible suggests that the cry of the oppressed is especially quick to travel to God’s ears, which is a sobering thought for us, since we live in the richest country on earth.

But what does prayer change? Is God counting prayers like votes to decide what do do? If more people pray for the Giants than the Patriots, will they win the Super Bowl? Do the best prayers count for more than a quick: “Help me Jesus?”

            Jesus doesn’t talk about how God makes decisions; I think that is above our pay grade. He does talk about how God listens to prayer, though. He specifically says God doesn’t care about eloquence or length. Fancy words don’t catch God’s attention.

God especially isn’t interested in prayer that lifts us up at the expense of others. In my favorite parable about prayer Jesus tells a story about a religious leader and tax collector who went to the Temple to pray. The religious guy thanked God for making him better than other people, especially better than the tax collector. Then he went on to praise his own piety, as if God needed to know.

The tax collector prayed simply and humbly for mercy. Jesus tells his listeners that the tax collector went home justified, but the religious leader didn’t. Elsewhere Jesus tells his listeners not to be “heap up empty phrases” when they pray. He clearly rejects the idea that longer prayers catch God’s ear. It’s not the theological sophistication, or length of our prayers that makes them beautiful to God.

There have been some studies that show that patients in the hospital with people praying for them did better than patients without prayer, even when the patients didn’t know they were being prayed for. At the same time, often we pray for healing for someone and it seems like no healing comes.  Sometimes God brings healing beyond physically curing diseases. Other times we are left without an obvious answer to our prayer.

Prayer can change the world around us, but most often it does that by changing us. When we pray, especially when we pray the way Jesus taught us, we grow more connected with God. Both in the Lord’s Prayer and in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and execution the heart of the prayer is submission to God. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. In the Garden Jesus prayed that he wouldn’t have to suffer, but then he prays that God’s will would be done, not his.

Prayer is about getting in synch with God. It’s about opening our heart to what God wants and praying for God’s will to come about in the world. As we pray for God’s will we are changed. We start trusting God more as we recognize that God is wiser than we are. We start wanting God to be more in charge so we pray less about getting our own way and more about finding God’s way.

Prayer also changes us when we pray for other people. If you’re having a hard time with a particular person, if you can’t seem to get along or you can’t let go of something they have done to you, start praying for that person. Spend a few minutes in prayer for the person every day lifting up the hardships they face and desiring the best for them.

Beacon Presbyterian farewell sermon, 1.22.12

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 7a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

9What gain have the workers from their toil? 10I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

Colossians 3:12-17
12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

            What is a church? A church is a community, a family, a home. A church is a hospital for sinners and a training ground for saints. A church is a place where everyone is welcomed as a child of God, and a place where we practice forgiving others because as God’s children we always come up short. A church is a place we come to recharge our spiritual batteries, to find refreshment and sanctuary from the challenges of our daily lives in the world. It’s also a missionary station where we get ready to go into the world renewed by Christ’s love to invite other people to join the family.

            Inescapably, a church is an institution with structure and organization to give shape to our life together. As an institution led by people any church will always be imperfect because we are imperfect. At the same time, miraculously, the church is the body of Christ. All of us together across the universe and across the divide of time are one community and we make up Christ’s body in the world.

            Like everything else, the church is always changing. As Solomon reminds us in our reading from Ecclesiastes, everything comes and goes in its season. At its beginning, Beacon was a small group of people who felt there should be a Presbyterian community in this neighborhood.

Over the years, in response to God’s calling and in conversation with the world around them, the saints of Beacon ministered to their neighbors and their world in Christ’s name. At some points in their history the Sunday school was the main focus of their ministry. Other times music or youth work or ministry with working families took the foreground depending on the needs of the neighborhood and the gifts of the leaders of the church.

There were times of growth and times of decline; times of sorrow and times of joy. There were brilliant ideas and unfortunate mistakes; there were moments of inspiration, months of careful planning and generations of faithful ministry.

Through it all, God has been faithful and this congregation has been faithful as well. Elders and pastors, teachers, singers, workers and members have come and gone, lived and died in the faith. Children have grown up learning the story of Jesus and his amazing love. People have come to these doors for help paying rent or a compassionate ear and have found the love of God shining through ordinary women and men.

Don't be a mule, 1.15.12

Luke 6:31-38
31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Psalm 32:1-11
1Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

3While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
4For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

5Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah
6Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. 7You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah

8I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. 9Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.

10Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. 11Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

            Have you ever had a secret that ate you up inside? Have you ever had something in your life that you felt wasn’t right but you felt powerless to do anything about it? Maybe you were ashamed to say anything to anybody so you kept it locked up inside you. Maybe you didn’t even want to think about it yourself, but part of you couldn’t let it go.

            Maybe it was something wrong in your relationship with someone else. Maybe something someone did to you just stuck in your soul and kept you from moving forward with your life. Maybe it was something you did that you just haven’t been able to feel right about since. Maybe it’s not so much something you or the other person has done, but a gap in your relationship, something keeping you apart that has slowly built resentment even though you can’t remember what started the problem. You try to ignore it; you tell yourself you’ve forgiven yourself or the other person, but every now and then something will remind you and it’s like you’re back to square one.

            Many days you manage to avoid thinking and talking about it, but there’s part of you that feels stuck, like it’s sick and wasting away. You can’t find your way forward because the issue feels so big you worry if you say anything about it, it will totally overwhelm you and take over your life.
            That feeling is what the psalmist is getting at in Psalm 32. It doesn’t matter if our particular problem is in our relationship with God or another person, or even if it’s just some hard to define feeling that something isn’t right inside us. These things we keep buried inside us keep us from growing and trap us in guilt, anger, regret and sorrow.

The psalmist remembers being there: “While I kept silent my body wasted away because of my groaning all day long. Day and night your hand was heavy on my; my strength was dried up like in the heat of summer.” There’s a heaviness, a powerlessness in feeling that something is just not right. When we keep it inside, when we keep silent we feel like God’s hand is weighing us down.

When we overcome our fear and confess, the sky opens up above us and the sun comes out. When we say to God, and possibly to the person we’re struggling with, that we’ve done wrong, the way is open for healing.

claiming our baptism, 1.8.12

Isaiah 43:1-7
1But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; 
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
3For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6I will say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth —
7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made."

Luke 3:21-22, 4:1-13
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

4:1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

            Today we’re starting a sermon series on personal discipleship. I haven’t really done a sermon series before, so this is a new kind of experiment for me. I felt like following Jesus in our own lives would be a good topic for our first series and to start the year. I’d love to hear if this series raises things you would like to explore more. In general too, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you’d like to hear sermons about. My job is equipping you for ministry in the world. I want our sermon time to be engaging and helpful for you in your spiritual journey, and that is more likely to happen if I preach on topics you want to hear about.

            I felt like the right place to start a series on following Jesus is with our calling and identity in Christ. This story from Luke fit right in, not only because today in the church year is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, but also because Jesus’ calling is our calling.

            I love the image of Jesus standing in the water praying after his baptism. Suddenly, the Holy Spirit flies down from heaven like a dove and rests on Jesus. God’s voice from heaven calls out that Jesus is God’s son and that God loves him very much.

            I imagine most of us haven’t had that experience, but never the less, God knows each of our names and loves us. Our passage from Isaiah drives that point home. God says to Israel: “Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.”

God has a special relationship with Israel, that’s for sure, but God’s love doesn’t end at the border. The end of the same passage extends God’s loving care beyond Israel to the world. God repeats the earlier refrain and broadens the welcome: “Do not fear for I am with you…everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."

God created the whole universe including you and me. God calls us by name because we are each special to God. God’s knows and calls us before we have any idea who God is. That’s why we baptize infants in the Presbyterian Church, because God calls before we know how to answer. Our calling is at the very root of our being whether we can feel it or not. God loves you and wants you to hear your calling and follow.

God’s calling is loving, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Notice in the passage from Isaiah God talks about being with us in floodwaters and fire. Passing through the water reminds us of baptism, but it also reminds us of floods, hurricanes and tsunamis. We read this passage in worship as we began and ended a trip to New Orleans to help with rebuilding work there. Isaiah reminds us that even when we feel overwhelmed, God is with us. God is always with us, but that doesn’t mean we won’t face trouble in our lives.

The passage from Luke reinforces that lesson. Right after Jesus’ baptism, after this spiritual peak experience of hearing the voice of God and seeing the Holy Spirit fly down to him like a dove, the same Holy Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness to face Satan on his own.

The passage doesn’t say why the Spirit drives Jesus out to face temptation. Maybe God knows facing temptation head on early in his ministry will strengthen Jesus for the more subtle temptations that will threaten him along the way. Maybe the solitude was to strengthen Jesus and Satan thought he had an opportunity to strike while Jesus was weak with hunger.

Whatever the case, Jesus’ calling as God’s beloved Son and our savior led immediately to temptation and finally to the cross. Being God’s beloved children isn’t a free pass from suffering; it’s not a get out of jail free card. Often following Jesus will lead to suffering we might have otherwise avoided; being a Christian is not an easy calling.

But it is a calling that’s full of joy. Following Jesus leads us into a community of wild diversity and daring love. Following Jesus frees us from falling into the temptation of power or greed or narcissism. It frees us from thinking that the world is about us or our family or our group. And it frees us from the terrible lies the world tells us about how we aren’t worthwhile if we don’t have the right clothes or hair or body.

It’s a calling that leads us into action, because we know that everyone else is a child of God too, so we are called to care for others. That’s a humbling reality because against the desperate poverty of many places our problems can seem shallow. Fortunately, even though we are called to serve our neighbors, when we remember that this is God’s world we know that we are not alone. We don’t have to save the world: that’s what Jesus did. We are free to play our part and follow our calling, trusting God to do the rest.

So this new year claim your calling; claim your baptism; claim your identity as a beloved child of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ. When the world tells you you’re not living up to some ridiculous standard of productivity or consumption remind yourself that you are not defined by your job or your things, but by your Lord. When you’re tempted to think too much of yourself and to look down on someone else, remind yourself that you are a servant of Christ Jesus and that in the waters of baptism and at the foot of the cross we are all equal.

Claim your identity as God’s child and Christ’s disciple, and nurture that calling like Jesus did. Make time in your busy life to listen for God’s voice in scripture. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus took forty days apart from family and friends, apart from everything, in the wilderness to prepare for his calling. We need to prepare for our calling too.

New year, new calling, 1.1.12

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
61:10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11  For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

62:1 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.
2   The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.
3   You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
This story picks up where we left off on Christmas Eve. Jesus has been born, and the angel announced his birth to shepherds, who came to welcome him into the world. Today’s story skips eight days ahead to his naming and circumcision and then another 25 days to her purification. I’m going to break the text up a little bit, not because it’s complicated, but because it’s long and easy for the wonderful details to get lost if we read it all at once.

Luke 2:21-40
21After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. 22When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Mary and Joseph bring the offering Leviticus prescribes for poor people, which reminds us again that they were not a wealthy couple. This whole sequence of events also reminds us that Mary and Joseph intentionally and carefully observed their faith. Jesus was raised as an observant and faithful Jew. This part of the story is expected; it’s what would have happened with any family having their first son. At that point the story takes a turn, and we’re reminded how special Jesus is.

25Now 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. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided 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, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.

            I’m not surprised Joseph and Mary were amazed by what Simeon said. Imagine if you brought your new baby to church for the first time and an old man you didn’t know took the baby in his arms and spontaneously praised God for salvation through your child.

Of course, people in that time seem to have had a stronger sense of community and a weaker sense of privacy than we do now. And Mary and Joseph already knew that their child had a special calling. Still, hearing it from someone else, especially someone they didn’t know, would still be surprising. Maybe that moment made the whole thing more real for them. Maybe hearing that a stranger recognized God’s plan in your child’s life would solidify the amazing journey you had ahead.

I think about this moment from Simeon’s point of view too. He’s lived a long life, and has longed for God’s chosen Messiah to bring salvation to Israel. He had heard God say that he would see the Messiah with his own eyes, but I bet as the years went on he may have started to wonder.

Then one day he felt a nudge from the Holy Spirit to go to the temple and there he saw a little baby with his parents. I can imagine Jesus coming into Simeon’s sight and a light going off in Simeon’s heart. He knows right away why he needed to come to the temple when he did. He knows his waiting is over; he knows God is bringing salvation through this child. He recognizes too that Jesus brings salvation not just for Israel, but for the whole world. Simeon recognizes that God is reaching out to everyone.

34Then 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 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

            This closing word and blessing from Simeon always sticks in my heart. Simeon recognizes not only the universal reach of salvation in Jesus, he also recognizes that his path won’t be smooth. Until this point in the story we’ve heard about how wonderful Jesus will be and how great God’s salvation is. That’s all true, but we also know that Jesus’ ministry as the savior is not an easy one.

            Simeon recognizes that, while God’s love bursting into the world is for everyone, not everyone will welcome it. Jesus will be praised by some and hated by others. His ministry will be good news to some and bad news to those who benefit from the injustice of the system as it is. Simeon may not know about the specifics, but he knows Jesus’ way will be hard.

            Simeon also recognizes that Jesus hardship will be Mary’s hardship. She will have to watch as the religious leaders scheme against her son. She’ll have to listen as people whisper that he’s crazy or drunk or indecent. She’ll have to hear the rumors when he gets arrested; she’ll have to look on helplessly as he is beaten and nailed to a cross. The suffering of her son will be a sword piercing Mary’s soul.

36There 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, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At 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. 39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
            Anna drives home Simeon’s point yet again. Like Simeon, she has followed God all her life and has a deep connection with God’s Spirit. When she sees Jesus she also recognizes that God’s redemption has come, that something special is happening through this little child.

            As we begin a new year together, a new year as disciples seeking God’s calling in our lives, it makes sense that we come back to the beginning of the story of Jesus. This story of Jesus being presented at the temple lifts up his special calling and it points us to look at his whole life and ministry again. The praise of strangers makes Joseph and Mary pause, wondering: what will God do next? How will God’s calling play out in our son’s life.

Word of Love, Christmas Day

Isaiah 52:7-10
7   How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
     who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
8   Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy;
     for in plain sight they see the return of the LORD to Zion.
9   Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem;
     for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10  The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations;
     and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

John 1:1-18
In 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 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.

15(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

         Last night we heard the story of a special baby born in a manger. We heard a story about young parents following God’s calling on an amazing journey. That story is earthy; while it has some unusual characters like angels, we can picture it pretty clearly in our minds. We can embrace this image of Mary and Joseph bringing their new baby into the world. We can wrap our minds around this child who is born to save us all from our sins.

         John’s Gospel tells the story very differently; he puts it in cosmic perspective. The beginning of John’s Gospel isn’t easy to picture; it’s poetic and philosophical instead of narrative. The way John tells it, we aren’t just talking about a child at Christmas; we’re talking about the eternal word of God.

That notion of God’s word is very Greek and philosophical. In Greek thought the Word, the logos, was the creating power of the whole universe. Underneath the structure of everything we can see, philosophers discerned a hidden power, a hidden logic that bound all creation together. That logic, that wisdom, was the logos, the word.

         John says the word of God was with God at the beginning of time. God created everything through that eternal word; the wisdom of God shaped and molded the whole universe. Not only did the word of God create the objects that make up creation, God’s word also touched the universe with the divine spark, the light of the world. In that moment at the beginning of creation the world came to life; God’s life sparked life and light in every living being God created. The plants and animals and people came to life by the loving, creative touch of God’s word.

         The eternal word of God was active throughout history. God created the world through the word, and God’s word and spirit continued to give light to those who had eyes to see it. Prophets and wise men and women saw the world by God’s light. They pointed others to the light of God’s love and justice. They reminded their neighbors that the world wasn’t really about power or wealth; it was about making sure everyone had enough to thrive.

They pointed to the light even in dark times. Elijah pointed to the light of God’s love even though he was chased into the desert by royal persecution. Jeremiah pointed to the light when he was locked up by powerful people who didn’t want to hear his message. Ruth pointed to the light of hope when she and her mother in law seemed all alone in a dangerous world. Even in the darkest times God’s light still shone; no darkness could quench that light.

Then the truly incredible happened. Maybe God got tired of waiting for people to see the light and change their lives. Maybe God’s heart ached so much because of our wandering, because of how we hurt and took advantage of each other. Maybe God missed us too much to hold back anymore. For whatever reason, one day the time was right and God’s word, God’s light, God’s love became flesh and lived with us.

"Shepherds in the fields", Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9:2-7
2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined…. 6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Gospel Luke 2:1-14
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 swaddling clothes, 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 swaddling clothes 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.

            This is a crazy story we’ve just read together. It’s even crazier because somehow, even in our increasingly secular society, millions of people hear this story every year. Those of us who grew up in the church can even forget how amazing the story is because it’s so familiar. It’s a story we keep coming back to for many reasons. We come back to this story because it is familiar: it feels good in difficult and changing times to be with people we know in a safe place hearing this wonderful story in words and music.

            We come back to the story too because it is comforting: God’s love and hope breaks into a dark and cold world in the birth of this special baby. New babies always remind us of hope for the future, and this baby’s arrival in a stable but still surrounded with love and protection is hope itself.
            We come back to the story because there’s just something about it that is compelling. Some of us wrestle with institutional religion; some of us wrestle with ideas like resurrection and miracles. But there’s something about Jesus that just feels right and true, something that calls us even if we can’t figure out why. His teachings cut through all the nonsense in his world and in ours; his words of welcome and challenge ring down through the ages. There’s a sense in the Gospels that Jesus is speaking right to us, because he is.

            Even here when Jesus isn’t saying anything, the story still speaks to us. We think about Mary and Joseph, newly married and full of hope. We think about them having to travel for this census when Mary is nine months pregnant. We imagine them far from home and without family or friends to care for them when it’s time for Mary to give birth. Soon after their son is born they will have to flee the country to save him from King Herod’s persecution. They will have to pick up their lives and start over again. In a year like this one that story speaks to all of us.

            But even in the midst of all that uncertainty, in the middle of a strange town full of people they don’t know, they find a way to keep Mary and the baby safe. They find a warm place with hay and some protection from the elements. And in that stable filled with amazing love, they bring a new life into the world. In that stable they became a crucial part of bringing God’s hope and promise into the world in a new way.

            We come back to this story because it’s our story. It’s a story for everyone. Mary and Joseph are regular people chosen for the incredible ministry of raising God’s son. The shepherds are regular people working overnight to make a living. Many people wouldn’t want much to do with the shepherds, covered with mud and worse from their weeks of sleeping in the fields with the sheep. But the angel makes a special trip to tell these shepherds the good news of Christ’s birth.