Friday, December 19, 2014

Advent Day 20

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” – Luke 1:39-45


In the old cowboy movies I used to watch as a child, if someone got in trouble, one of the things they did was to skedaddle, “Get outta Dodge,” as it were. It was to put some distance between them and the locale of something that probably was wrong or even criminal. Even today people look for a getaway when things get too strained or impossible to handle. The streets are full of such people.

We don’t know how far Elizabeth’s home was from Mary’s, but it seemed to be of some distance. Did Mary choose to leave home because of her unexplainable pregnancy or did her family send her away to protect her from what the neighbors might say until such time as the situation could settle down and everyone could see where they were and what they needed to do next. Mary probably traveled with a group since it would be massively unsafe as well as unwise for a single woman to travel alone much further from home than the town well or market. At any rate, she appears at Elizabeth’s front door, seemingly catching Elizabeth by surprise but not the unborn infant Elizabeth was carrying.

It seems so natural for women to seek the company and wisdom of other women when things are topsy-turvy. So often the life experiences and choices that one has made can help another through what seems incomprehensible and chaotic. It must have been a great comfort for Elizabeth and Mary to have each other to talk to, to help and be helped, and to share both their pregnancies and the knowledge that God was working through them no matter what.

What does it feel like to know that God is working through us? When good comes from it, when it glorifies God and not just us, and when a pregnant thought becomes a project that benefits all.

The best part is that we don’t necessarily have to get out of town to make it happen. Advent is a new beginning and what better way to celebrate it than to find something or someone to support in any way necessary and follow through on it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Advent Day 19

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. – Luke 1:34-38
As if it weren’t enough to suddenly see someone unexpected as she was sitting in her home, quietly working or praying, the young woman known as Mary was given news that would confound anybody. To be told she was going to become pregnant yet not yet a wife must have been a moment that seemed a lifetime long. Even though she was betrothed, a pregnancy now could literally end her prospects for marriage and shame to her family. I wonder how long it was before she could draw a normal breath.
The news of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy may or may not have been a shock. Perhaps someone from Elizabeth’s home town had passed the word on to Mary’s family or perhaps this was the first any of them had heard of it. In any rate, the family would have counted it a miracle since both Elizabeth and Zechariah were not exactly young newlyweds. They would have rejoiced with Elizabeth that the shame of her barrenness was about to be erased, but what would they think if they found their own daughter and kin was suddenly in the same condition?
We often speak of Mary’s meekness in assenting to such an announcement. Being a good and righteous daughter, she would have been brought up to respect authority and to do what was required of her as a daughter of the house. This, though, was a different kind of authority, one she barely had time to evaluate for herself and certainly not one she had been brought up to expect. Being meek, however, does not mean being a doormat. A doormat has had all choice removed from them and their sole purpose is to obey any order given them without compunction or hesitation. Somehow I can’t see Mary as a doormat. A humble person, yes, but definitely not so meek as to be submissive because she felt she had no choice.
I think Mary was a person of rare courage. What convinced her that what this person was saying was true? What made her assent to such an unthinkable scenario? How was she going to manage the effects not only on herself and her body but the shame of her family and the sly looks and whispered words of her neighbors? Mary did say yes, and, even though acknowledging that she was a servant of the Lord, she took a gigantic leap of faith.
During Advent there probably won’t be many of us asked to take giant leaps of faith such as Mary did, but we aren’t called to be meek in accepting the jobs God has for us to do, whether we are aware of them or have yet to discover them.
Perhaps now is a good time to practice saying, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord” and let God take over.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Advent Day 18

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured 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 favour 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.’ – Luke 1:26-33
You’re sitting there, minding your own business, mending a shoe or darning a tear in a piece of clothing, when all of a sudden you find you are not alone. Suddenly there is a faintly glowing presence standing in front of you and you hear a voice greeting you as a favored person. Most of us would do the “Who, me?” routine but silently, probably very much like the young woman named Mary did when faced with that same situation.
The presence goes on to tell you that you shouldn’t be afraid. Really. In this day and time, it would be a wonder if a person didn’t pull out a gun and shoot first, asking questions later. After all, this was an unknown person in the house without consent and who represented a potential threat despite the pleasant words. If, perchance, you allowed them to deliver the message they were obviously sent to give, you might find yourself running the gamut of responses from “Are you kidding me?” to “What the ….” to “How am I supposed to do that?” In Mary’s case, the angel didn’t tell her how she was going to do it, only that she would do it and what the results would be.
We hear constantly about things we need to do to make the kingdom of God come to reality here and now but we are still stuck in the “Who, me?” “Are you kidding?” “How am I supposed to do that?” mode of thinking. We hear tales of individual people who have done great things, but we don’t really expect to do them ourselves. After all, we have a job to do, a standard of living to maintain, a place in the community to uphold, a family to raise and who has time to do more than that? We may go so far as to take two minutes to write a check and mail it to an organization we know of and that seems to have the same goals we’d like to see achieved, but that’s it.
There is a well-known painting of Jesus knocking on a door. He probably is truly doing just that, waiting for someone to answer so that he can say “Don’t be afraid; here’s what I need you to do.” It’s probably going to be more than clicking “Like” on Facebook or dashing off a check to a charity. I have to think, though, am I going to just leave Jesus standing there?
Advent is about opening doors and preparing for something special. I wonder – would I really want to tell Jesus I’m too busy? I don’t think so.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Advent Day 17

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the trampling warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For 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. His 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. – Isaiah 9:2-7

The words of Isaiah are familiar parts of Advent. We hear them preached in church, we read them in our Daily Office, and we hear them on the radio and other media in the form of selections from Handel’s Messiah. This year it’s easier to understand the “…[P}eople who walked in darkness” because, despite sunlight and Christmas lights, the world seems so dark and fearful. Every day there are reports of more fighting, more shootings, more violence and it is so hard to try to meditate or try to practice peace with so many negative events and words flying around us.
Isaiah brought words of comfort. The kingdom of David would be restored, and a great king would rise to rule with wisdom and power, vanquishing all enemies, bringing prosperity and justice. Every king in the Hebrew Bible was supposed to be this kind of king, but many fell short. This one would not; he would be directed by God and respond with godliness himself.

We still expect our leaders to be like the king of whom Isaiah spoke. We expect so much and we are so disappointed and, yes, sometimes so angry when our expectations are not met. So many things are done in our name and, yes, even in God’s name, that do not truly reflect the very things we claim to stand for. We proclaim “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all” yet why is there need to have marches and protests and speeches calling attention to grave injustices in this same country? We need them because the voices of the prophets have not been heard, and the kings of industry and government have gone their own way.

We revere the Prince of Peace yet we so often do things contrary to his words and teachings. We looked for a messiah and yet chose to ignore him when he did not say or do things to suit us. We believe our Messiah has come, but we, like unfaithful stewards, have decided to look out for ourselves since the master is not here to keep an eye on us.

Perhaps it is time to do more than surface cleaning of houses, organizations, corporations, churches and governmental institutions. It is time for us to see a great light, and to walk in that light rather than darkness. The light is the light of the world for all people. This Advent, let us work to make it so.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Advent Day 16

You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” – Luke 1:14-17

Zechariah was in the sanctuary where he was joined by an angel with an astounding message that seemed to turn Zechariah’s world upside down. His barren wife, Elizabeth, was going to conceive and there would be a child, a son, for which they had longed for so many years. The angel even gave the child a name, John, and included a short job description of what he would do when he grew up.

Usually children became part of the family business as soon as they were able to perform even small tasks. By tradition, John would become a priest in the temple, but the angel said that God had other plans for him.

The Jews believed that the great prophet Elijah would return to herald the impending arrival of a messiah for whom they longed, a king who would defeat all enemies and bring the reign of God to the whole world. John was not going to be Elijah, but, infused with the Holy Spirit before his birth, he would have the power and spirit of Elijah and make the people ready for a messiah quite different from the expected.

I wonder how John would be received today? Would he be like one of those street-corner preachers or television evangelists, waving their well-worn Bibles in their hands as they shout for the people to repent and be saved? Would he ascend the lofty pulpits of some of the great churches and cathedrals to proclaim the messiah’s coming to bring freedom and peace? Would he sit in the living room of a house church or maybe even a table in a pub and speak of the kingdom of God that was coming? Would he be out among the homeless and destitute, wearing ragged jeans and a tattered shirt but offering comfort and hope? Where would we find him and would we really hear and respond to him?

As we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ child, what voices are we hearing? Are they the voices of fear, anxiety, and anger, or are they voices of healing, wise counsel and hope? What voices are we presenting to the world in our own words and actions?

Maybe messages of hope, healing, and wisdom are like voices crying in the wilderness, a place of emptiness where it would not be easily heard, but if enough voices took up the message, it could ring out around the world.

Advent might be a good time to try it, wouldn’t it?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Advent Day 15

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.  – Luke 1:5-15
Zechariah went up to Jerusalem to the Temple, as he did every 24 weeks. Aaron’s sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, provided twenty-four priestly descendants, one of whom was Abijah, head of the eighth group of priests to make their way to serve God. He left behind at home a wife, Elizabeth, herself a descendant of Aaron. They were righteous but for all their righteousness they were denied one thing they wanted – a child. During Zechariah’s turn at the Temple, he was visited by an angel who startled and terrified him, appearing in a place where he had expected to be alone with God. The angel gave him the news that he was going to be a father and that they would name the child John. But before giving him that announcement, the angel gave a standard assurance, “Don’t be afraid.”
Fear has become an almost daily occurrence, and it isn’t angelically caused. We absorb fear from news casts and programs that play to stereotypes. Even when we try to convince ourselves that we are somehow invulnerable or that we are projecting an image of alertness, ease and control, inside there is a little corner that admits that the façade is cosmetic only. Too often alertness must become hyperalertness, a feeling of being at ease shatters easily, and the sense of personal control may be taken by others to be a sign of defiance. It would be a good thing if we heard more messages of “Don’t be afraid” rather than “Let me see your ID” or “St0ries of global warming/racial inequality/homelessness are greatly exaggerated.”
We aren’t always offered a “Don’t be afraid” message when we are faced with something. How many times in the Bible do we hear that phrase, “Don’t be afraid”? Like “Here I am, Lord”, it is one that repeats over and over but do we really pay attention? There are countless people in this world who desperately need help but who have been shoved aside, verbally and physically, and made to feel totally worthless and therefore fearful of others. What would hearing “Don’t be afraid” coupled with some sort of help, maybe a dollar, a cup of water or hot coffee, a blanket, a bag of groceries, or a ride to a shelter or clinic or aid society mean to one of these people living on the margin?
Maybe the message we should hear this advent is “Don’t be afraid, get involved.”

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Advent Day 14

Reading from the commemoration of Lucy, Virgin and Martyr

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. -- John 1:9-13

Wintertime is a season of short days and long, cold nights. The evergreens show spots of color against the snow and the bare brown-black trunks and bare branches of the trees that not long ago were covered in gloriously colored leaves. Those days are gone, and it will be some time before the days grow longer, the sun warmer and the first bright green buds begin to show that the trees and bushes have come to life once again. But until then, we huddle inside as our ancestors did, around a fire in the fireplace or stove, if we happen to have one, but with electric lights forming an artificial daylight inside the houses.

We don't do well with darkness. It has always been a time of unease and even fear. Bad things seem to happen more often at night, and even as adults, some of us still look for the nightlights we had as children. Even with a tiny bit of light, the fear seemed to go away or at least become more manageable.

John's gospel describes a light coming into the world, enlightening it and all who are in it. Yet people didn't recognize the light, even though it had been present since before the world was made. The light had the power of a billion suns yet was contained in a small, newborn child just like every other newborn child, helpless and dependent on the care of others.
We look around us and surely, night by night, more white and colored lights appear, decorating eaves and roofs, doors and windows, even trees and fences. The night-world becomes a bit brighter in the midst of winter, and even one small candle in a window can be a beacon of hope. Somehow, they make the darkness and the cold more bearable.

What we need to remember is the light whose birth we spend Advent planning and waiting for. What we sometimes don't realize is that we ourselves can be candles, small ones, perhaps, but still potential lights in a window that will bring peace, hope and love to someone who struggles in the dark. We can't be The Light of which John spoke, but we can be pinpoints of light for a world in dire need.

Where can we shine our light today? It doesn't have to be a bonfire -- even a tea light or votive candle will push back the darkness.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 13,2014, under the title "True light was coming into the world."

Friday, December 12, 2014

Advent Day 13

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
– John 1:1-8
“There was a man…whose name was John.” His name really wouldn’t have been John but rather Yochanan, “YHWH is gracious,” a name given to his father, Zechariah, by an angel but which would have been a perfect name for the long-desired child of a childless couple who had all but lost hope. John grew up to be what we would call a prophet but who called himself a messenger, one who would announce the impending arrival of an adult Jesus as the one coming to bring light to the world.
How odd that John would be the one to testify to a light that was coming yet had existed before the creation of light itself. The gospel writer, himself called John, was one whose chronicle was filled with signs and wonders rather than miracles and more mystical understandings rather than just facts or stories. John (the writer) didn’t provide a nativity story or even a genealogy – but in essence, his was the ultimate genealogy. His was the only genealogy who traced Jesus back to God and the world before light and time.
We frequently use the image of light and the light of the world when we refer to Jesus. Later in John’s gospel Jesus said, “…I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life. “ (8:12b-c). We hear it often in sermons and devotions but how often do we think of it in terms of what it could mean in our own lives?
We need light to see where to put our feet, particularly at night. But how often do we look for a light inside when the soul feels dark and clueless. We could use a man like John (the prophet) to remind us that there is light. The light of which he spoke was coming and could shine through any darkness. What a message of comfort and hope that can be to someone whose world seems impenetrable and featureless.
Ever seen the face of someone in love or who is totally involved in work or art that they are passionate about? There’s a light that shows in their face that is really hard to hide. That is the light of love, the kind that brightens the world not only for the beloved or those who are benefitting from the passion but those who witness it. Can you imagine the brightness of the love God has for us? How bright the love of Jesus has been and is? Wouldn’t the vision of light that bright and that strong attract us to the light itself?
There is one more verse to consider. “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16b-c). When the light of Christ shines through you, it shows. Be a beacon for someone today who sorely needs a bit of light.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advent Day 12

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
  -  Mark 1:1-3

Every story has a beginning. Usually it sets the scene for what is to follow and, if the writer is adept, it hooks us and makes us want to read on. That’s one of the major things taught when someone begins writing classes or programs. Mark may not have had formal training as an author, but he had a story to tell and his opening certainly sets the stage for what is to follow.

Unlike Matthew and Luke and in common with John, Mark does not have a birth narrative. The stage is set, however, by introducing a prophecy from Isaiah that introduces a messenger and the main character whom he introduces to the world. John certainly was a voice crying in the wilderness; his clothes were rough and simple, and his diet was the product of living off the land. Undoubtedly he had been taught scripture and was open to being given a job that would daunt most people.

We have messengers today, people who see and understand what is going on around us, especially what is going wrong and needs to be corrected. Sometimes we listen to them, but most often we don’t, dismissing them as cranks and nay-sayers. Sometimes, like Martin Luther King Jr, they are killed because of their message and yet the message has been heard and the response to it grows stronger. At other times, though, the message is overtaken by a tidal wave of public opinion, denying that there is a problem or that those who are perceived to be or have the problem simply need to buck up, shut up and get on with life.

Who is a messenger in our world today? Look around; who is speaking out on a problem that many others wish or want to just be ignored or simply go away? What message are they trying to convey? Who will be helped if enough pay attention? Who will be hurt? We have many voices who seem to be crying in the wilderness.

During Advent we are invited to not only listen to the messages but to be messengers ourselves. The kingdom of God is the goal, a kingdom where there is no poverty, no marginalization, no oppression, no rank, power or privilege except being a child of God and carrying the message that all God’s children are loved and to be cared for. To believe in Jesus, we need to believe in the message he brought, one of peace, patience, and love of God. It does us no good to say we believe in Jesus if we don’t act to carry out his teachings and, in fact, become his messengers.

By taking a name from an Angel Tree, putting a dollar in a red kettle, bringing a toy or warm coat to a collection point is a good beginning. But how else can we carry the message, even without words? We must look for opportunities to be messengers to a world desperately hungry and needing the warmth we can bring. That is the gift we can bring to the manger and to the world.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Advent Day 11

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. – Malachi 3:1-6
As Christmas approaches, it is hard not to turn the pages of a newspaper or hear an advertisement on TV or radio for performances of Handel’s wonderful oratorio Messiah. Originally written in 1742 for performance around Easter, it has come to be an Advent standby, heard in large and small churches and concert halls. The first part is particularly suited to this time of year, and often scripture readings we read or hear in Advent start our minds hearing the performance of the particular piece which incorporates the phrase, verse or passage we are reading.
One of my particular favorites is the chorus “And he shall purify” which follows an aria usually sung by a bass that speaks of the messenger of God coming and acting like a refiner’s fire. Ores usually require great heat to melt them and separate the valuable metal from the impurities that become enmeshed with them. Malachi calls out the sons of the tribe of Levi for purification so that they can offer perfect sacrifices, but we can see a place for ourselves in that purification.
The passage lists four particular types of people who will be judged most particularly. These include those who are prevaricators who bear false witness, adulterers (which can be seen biblically as a property crime rather than merely a sexual one), those who do not respect, honor and obey God, and those who treat those who oppress the powerless: widows, orphans, workers paid substandard wages, and the aliens who live and work in the land. The privileges we take for granted mark us especially for the heat of those fires since our privilege often comes at someone else’s expense.
Repentance is one of the things we are encouraged to focus on during Advent. Where have we been oppressors, even unwittingly? Do we really believe in the refiner’s fire that Malachi brings to our attention or is it just part of a dynamic aria and chorus that we will hear once and then ignore again until this time next year?
Luckily for us, God is constant in God's love for us, even if that means we must undergo a bit of refining.