Shaking Up Life!

luke 1.jpg*Sermon preached on 23 Dec 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  (No sermon on the 16th, due to Christmas Cantata).  Blessings, Vinson

Gospel of Luke 1:46b-55 (New Revised Standard Version)

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

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INTRODUCTION

It came in the mail, in the days after Christmas, a cool surprise for the kids.  Literally.  My brother Loren, who still lives in upstate New York, had made snowballs out of snow that had fallen there on Christmas Day.  Packing them into a Ziploc bag, going to a dealer to obtain dry ice, Loren mailed them to Ben and Grace.  In those pre-9/11 days, so it was that a box leaking wisps of vapor appeared at our home in Hawaii.  Our amazed children immediately put them into the freezer, where they remained the rest of our years in Hawaii, a bit of a shrine, with kids from around the neighborhood coming to our home to ooh and ah over authentic Christmas snow.  I think if our children don’t remember any other gifts they received that Christmas, they both well remember the joy of those snowballs!

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Let’s face it, some things we just don’t expect to experience in life, like snowballs packed in dry ice, reminding two kids of their uncle’s affection and his affinity for pulling off wondrous events.  But after all, isn’t Christmas meant to be the wondrous event which shakes up life with the unexpected?

FOR INSTANCE

We may not expect to find the religious professionals are the skeptics with Zechariah having earlier asked for proof that the angel’s word was to be believed as to Elizabeth’s pregnancy, while lay folk like Mary asked only for an explanation as she is commissioned to her prophetic task.

We may not expect a text where the only speaking parts are that of the women – Elizabeth and Mary.  Certainly not in that age.  And, to be honest aren’t we still culturally resistant to fully hearing women?

We may not expect that in a culture where a woman’s primary purpose in life was to have children, an elderly and infertile wife who had endured a lifetime of being treated as a failure would have had her status reversed.  Yet, Elizabeth declares: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” [Luke 1:25]

We may not expect to encounter the miracle of this aged pregnant woman, only for her to encounter her younger cousin with an even greater miracle.

We may not expect social conventions to be cast aside with an unmarried pregnant woman having every reason to expect judgment, shame, even being turned away entirely – to instead be greeted with honor, before she can even begin to speak.  Elizabeth opened her arms, her heart, and her home to a relative whom her neighbors would likely expect her to reject, given how she herself had been treated during her years of infertility or perhaps out of some arcane notion of propriety as a preacher’s wife.

We may not expect Mary’s voice to prompt an immediate response from Elizabeth’s unborn child – whom we know as John the Baptist – fulfilling the angel Gabriel’s prophecy that even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit” [Luke 1:15] and point to the coming Messiah.

We may not expect the first prophets in the New Testament to be women, just as much as later on we wouldn’t anticipate they would be the first apostles – as witnesses to the Resurrection.  Prophets, you see, aren’t volunteers nor consulted about their role, although they always seem to object with words of inadequacy, like Moses’s plea that he was “not a very good public speaker” or Jeremiah’s response that “I am only a boy.”  In Mary’s case, the angel Gabriel confronted her with news that “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus,” to which Mary raised the logical question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” [1:34]  Nowhere in the Bible does God pay attention to objections by those whom he has called, nor suggest God will keep looking until He finds the right one.  God has chosen, and in Mary’s case no details are offered other than she “has found favor.”  As a friend of mine often says, “We don’t know what God knows.”  Time and again, our expectations are overcome by God.

We may not expect Elizabeth to not just prophesize, but to be one who utters what could reasonably be called the first beatitude of the New Testament – in a series that weave through this narrative and intensifies with joy and praise.  Mary being blessed as mother of our Lord, but also for her supreme trust in God’s promise.  In one instance “blessed” in that each generation will speak of her with praise.  In the other instance, the Greek word for “blessed” being the exact word Jesus would later use in the Beatitudes.  It is as if Elizabeth has proclaimed: “Happy is she who believes God promises, for she is given divine joy.”

We may not expect for a young woman, like Mary, to be the first to fulfill the word of the prophet Joel as to the Spirit of the Lord being poured out upon not just young men, but young women – as her praise presents a bold voice for justice.  God is shaking up the status quo, Mary declares, He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” [1:51-53]

We may not expect the impossible, as Elizabeth declares: “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?” even as the younger sang a psalm of Jubilee.  We forget that the prophet’s job isn’t to speak out of his or her own wisdom or eloquence, but to be a messenger for God – doing and speaking what is commanded in the spirit of the angel Gabriel’s proclamation to Mary: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” [1:37]

We may not expect the inclusive love Jesus will show among those whom society rejects and excludes – the invitation for us to reflect and act with openness to the ways that God chooses to act in our world, even as we observe Elizabeth bestowing joy and honor in welcoming Mary, blessing and celebrating her; treating her as more honorable than herself.

SO WHAT?

In of this, what we CAN expect is that God will always surprise us, surpassing our sense of justice and mercy, His grace greater than our imaginations, His love beyond comprehension, as God goes on surprising us – shattering the container into which we have too often confined ourselves and the container into which we have too often confined others.  Far more than we “can ask or think,” it seems to me that in this duet of prophetic women, we are reminded of our God’s expansive love for us and His affinity for pulling off wondrous events in the joy God has for the redemption of his creation.

Amen!

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What Would We Rather Say?

luke 3*Sermon preached on 09 Dec 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  Blessings, Vinson

Gospel of Luke 3:1-6 (New Revised Standard Version)

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

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INTRODUCTION

I’ve found myself pondering in this journey that approaches the manger, this season which is Advent, how the lectionary scriptures keep us from skipping over these weeks and going straight to the carols of Christmas Day.  Flip through the hymnal and you will find it’s thin on Advent hymns and rich on those of Christmas.

We want a happy month, and who can blame us?  Yet, we live in a pretty noisy world, and some of it can be pretty darned intense.  Relationships can be messy, sometimes downright damaging.  Work environments can be toxic and yet inescapable.  Children can have struggles which parents cannot adequately fix, creating an experience of impotency that is painful.  People we know or complete strangers can be downright mean, prejudiced, cold-hearted, unethical.  And, yes, health in one form or another can be precarious.  In the quiet, we would seek peace and speak hope.

We want a happy month amid our life in a pretty noisy world — and certainly we have had those moments of unbelievable joy.  We take in those transcendent moments when we see children and grandchildren thrive and achieve (I say this as our son graduates from nursing school this week).  We witness those moments when friends and neighbors clearly experience the full measure of life’s goodness, and may sample the shared joy of giving and receiving in the ministries of this congregation or out in society.  We may just have a good day, by whatever definition that is for us.  In the quiet, we would know love and speak joy.

In the midst of this, John draws us out into the desert.

Having spent plenty of time in deserts on one kind of another, I am reminded of the quiet that is the desert.  It’s where one hears and sees most clearly.  Senses are heightened; one is alert and without distractions.  In a place that, at a glance, appears dead, it always holds forth life, and it is in this very place that God becomes John’s companion, his confidant, his teacher.  On the stony, barren slopes of the aged mountains that lie toward the Dead Sea and lower Jordan Valley, a place where less than 12 inches of rain falls per year with the few communities built around springs:– it is here in this quiet and seemingly empty place that the one identified as “crying in the wilderness” would find his voice.  Here we are  called to embrace this messy discomforting dissonance of the Word that John brings, that this time of wonder of waiting for Christ is correctly seen as an invitation for us to consider the deeper parts of and meaning to our lives – as we seek wholeness and holiness, in our relationship with God, ourselves, and all others.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

It seems to me that John the Baptist beckons us to break through the spiritual hardness that can coat our lives, to prepare the way for the good news of Jesus Christ, to consider the words of one who spoke from the heart of the arid places.

FOR INSTANCE

From what was considered wastelands, a half a day’s journey from either Hebron or Jerusalem, John’s voice echoed outward through the compact land of the former Israel now divided into vassal states of the Romans.  By Luke’s dating, starting around our year 28, John began to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  We must admit, in some ways we have caricatured John into something of a madman who ticked off King Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and Peraea, for divorcing his first wife and marrying a woman who was both his niece and his brother’s wife, and how this is why John eventually lost his head.  Had he not confronted things so noisily, he wouldn’t have attracted too much attention, but he answered God’s purposes, as he drew in crowds with his message:  “The kingdom of God is at hand.  YOU are sinful and corrupt.  YOU must repent of your sins and be forgiven.”

It was a moment of clarity for his listeners.  And if we pull it apart, we’d notice the word translated from the Greek as “repentance” conveys “a change of mind, a turning around, a conversion.”  In our limited spiritual imaginations, I think it gets often limited to just sorrow for getting caught or for doing something wrong – when it’s actually the stepping away from damaging habits and actions.  God calls us here, not to an endpoint of guilt or sorrow, but to move beyond into life change.  Like all miracles, THIS repentance is built on acceptance – of both where we are in life and where God wills to bring us, that “forgiveness” may envelope us:– WE — “released” from captivity, gone our obligations, punishments, and guilt.  It really is the “jubilee” Isaiah foretold – for us both as individuals and as a society, when in such singular moments, our honesty with ourselves and our God, offers a path out of an otherwise unhealthy direction.

Going further a bit beyond today’s text, we would soon learn that it takes no time for John to tick off the religious establishment as much as he had the political one.  He called out how it was cozied up with the political structure out of its perceived hope to use the civil authorities to manage an agenda of religious control – not realizing it was themselves who had been co-opted in the process and were now “outside” so to speak.  Instead, it’s John who’s at “ground zero” of God’s heart, as he declares God is at hand, so let’s get at the tough stuff here in the desert.  It will ouch — and yet — it will also heal.

I will admit, the plain words of John the Baptist may not resonate with many of the younger generations, despite its eternal truth.  Perhaps we’ve just done a poor job of unpacking these words in ways that make sense, but it may be much more Christians being seen as having busied themselves using John’s words as a means to exclude others from the Lord’s goodness.  “YOU” has been distorted to mean those not in the club, so to speak, and to use contemporary language, “Christian” as a “brand” has become damaged.

Honesty demands we recognize this present reality.

I came across something earlier last week written by a prophetic pastor, teacher, and follower of Jesus, as he struggles with what it means to follow our Savior in our present age.  When I read his words to myself, it seemed as though a contemporary John the Baptist was making his plea, as this John spoke of having the “experience of a thing you once felt at home in, suddenly feel like foreign soil; a religious worldview that was solid bedrock, suddenly begin to shake.”  And so, John Pavlovitz writes of his exasperation;

“I CAN’T CHRISTIAN TODAY.

I can no longer be tethered to this thing that is so toxic and so painful to so many.

I can’t wade through any more bad theology and predatory behavior from pulpit-pounding pastors, who seem solely burdened to exclude and to wound and to do harm.

I can’t sift through all this malice and bitterness masquerading as Christianity to try to find what of it is left worth keeping.

I can’t do any more facepalming while reading celebrity evangelist’s Tweets, or seeing the viral video of joyless people spewing racist fast food restaurant rants, while saying they follow the same Jesus I do.

I can’t apologize anymore for people who are willfully hurting other human beings in the name of a God they preach is love.

I can’t align myself with the human rights violations and overt racism and rabid nationalism that is defining Christianity in America.

If being a Christian, now means supporting openly racist candidates and excusing sexual assault claims, and demonizing immigrants, and worshiping America—you can count me out.”

Ouch!  It’s a form of desert that many of us may be stumbling through in these days of chaos and pain and confusion.

Perhaps this is why in introducing John, Luke first lists all those rulers and all the chief priests – for John himself had no realm, but his voice, and no temple, but a desert.  He knew God would not be confined and owned like some idol, but instead speak afresh and directly to His people.  So if we do confess that our “brand” has suffered to the point that some wonder if Christianity is helpful anymore, Pastor Pavlovitz reminds us of what repentance would look and sound like among those who bear the name “Christian.”  He writes:

“What I do know, is that the compassionate heart of Jesus I find in the stories told about him, is helpful—and urgently needed.  The world can use more empathetic people, doing what they can to live outwardly, sacrificially, gently—and that’s probably the highest spiritual aspiration we can have: leaving people more loved than we found them.

I want to stand with the compassionate human beings, no matter where they come from and what they call themselves and who they declare God to be, because that is the most pressing need I see in the world.  I want to be with the disparate multitude who believe caring for others is the better path.

People don’t need any more heartless, loveless, joyless jerks; claiming they’re Christian while beating the hell out of them.  [Our world] needs people who give a damn in a way that emulates Jesus.

When I leave this place, I’m not very interested that anyone declares me religious.  I’d rather have them say, that to the marginalized and alone and hurting and invisible; that to the weary, wounded, tired people around me in this life — I was helpful.”

SO WHAT?

We may not run into a John the Baptist who brings us up short, but in those desert moments in life, in whatever Advent state of mind and spirit we find ourselves, we know we are unmasked to ourselves and to our God.  It may not be a comfortable encounter.  It might even be a tough event.  But, it does hold out to us God’s liberation of us from being “stuck” and evokes questions.  What will we make of this time when we are beckoned beyond ourselves… as individuals… as a society?  As servants of our God, will we fill in the valleys of grief and flatten the mountains and hills of power?  Will WE ensure justice where the paths have been crooked, AND that peace will come where there has been turmoil?  Will we, as persons and as a society, “prepare the way of the Lord… that all flesh shall see the salvation of God”?

Amen.

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Pastor’s Notes:  “Is Christianity Helpful Anymore?,” John Pavlovitz.  Dec 5, 2018, accessed on Dec. 8, 2018, at https://johnpavlovitz.com/2018/12/05/is-christianity-helpful-anymore/