Saturday, December 29, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel – Luke 2:41-52 - Christmas I

Read the text here: Luke 2:41-52
We do not have much information about Jesus’ childhood.  In fact the Gospel lesson for the 1st Sunday after Christmas – Luke 2:41-52 – is about all.  Of course we would be curious about what Jesus was like and what kinds of experiences he might have had when he was a child.  This natural curiosity prompted the creation of a book called The Infancy Gospel of Thomas in the 3rd or 4th centuries.  The book pretends to have been written by the disciple Thomas, but is a rather fantastic set of stories that make Jesus sound more like the pre-Hogwarts Harry Potter who didn’t know how to use his power and ended up causing all kinds of havoc as a result.  As fun as this book is to read, we can glean nothing about Jesus from it.  So we really only know two things about Jesus’ childhood for certain.  The first is that Jesus grew up in Nazareth that at that time was a small village.  Nearby, within sight, since Nazareth is on a hill, you can see the city of Sepphoris.  Between the time of Jesus’ birth and age 5 to 8, Sepphoris was involved in a rebellion against Rome.  As was usual, the Romans swept into the city, leveled it and crucified thousands.  All of this would have been visible from Nazareth.  It is interesting to wonder how the young and impressionable Jesus and his family reacted to the sight of the formerly prosperous city burning, men being crucified and refugees pouring into Nazareth being pursued by the Romans.
The other event we know of from Jesus’ childhood would be the story from Luke that is our Gospel text for today.  Jesus goes with his extended family to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  Jesus gets separated from the family and ends up in the temple listening to and questioning the teachers of the law (scribes and Pharisees).  Eventually, after three days, Mary and Joseph discover that Jesus is not with the family and, like any parent, they are scared and frantic.  They rush back to Jerusalem and look all over until they finally find him sitting with the elders, who are kind of amazed at how sharp this child is.  Mary chides Jesus for not staying with the family and Jesus responds with a statement wondering why his parents had such a hard time finding him, after all, where else would he be, but in the temple!
There are three important points to be made about this story.  First, it is important to make note of the parallels with the Passion narrative.  Jesus is in Jerusalem, in the temple – the same temple from which he will chase out the money-changers in 20 or so years.  He is in discussion with scribes and Pharisees about the Law of Moses; just like during the Passion week where Jesus spends most of the week in bitter discussions about the meaning of the law with scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus is in Jerusalem at the age of 12 for the celebration of the Passover; 20 years later he will be back again to celebrate the Passover.  And Mary and Joseph search for him for three days before he is found; ultimately the resurrection of Jesus will take place on the third day.  All of this points to the importance of the Temple, not only in the life of the people of Israel, but also to Jesus and his family.  Jesus has been coming to Jerusalem with Joseph and family since he was a child.  This is not a strange place for him.  He knows it inside and out.  The idea that the Temple in Jerusalem is not important to Jesus is called into question with this story.  Read this then next to the story about Jesus’ coming into Jerusalem for the Passion and recall how at one point Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and the temple (Luke 19:41ff – pew bibles NT p. 63).  This story puts that later incident in clearer focus.
A second issue that this story raises is the question of Jesus’ authority as a teacher of the Law of Moses.  Throughout all of the Gospels Jesus is constantly being challenged and criticized regarding the issue of his authority.  The church has always proclaimed that we believe that Jesus was without sin.  But the scribes and Pharisees would not have agreed.  To them Jesus was the worst of sinners as he did not seem to take seriously parts of the law regarding keeping the Sabbath and taking God’s name in vain – as they defined and understood those commandments.  By placing this story at the conclusion of the birth accounts and right before Jesus begins his ministry, Jesus’ authority as a teacher of the law is established even before he formally begins his ministry.  Jesus knows the law inside and out, even better than the official teachers of the law and Jesus honors the Temple. 
The third and last important point to be made about this story is that it calls into question exactly who makes up Jesus’ family.  Jesus’ extended family – probably uncles, aunts, cousins and so forth – all travel together to Jerusalem.  But Jesus doesn’t stay with them.  Mary and Joseph try to bring Jesus back into the small family circle when they find him, but Jesus rejects this: “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house.” Mary and Joseph don’t understand this comment, but we recognize that the Temple is not just Joseph’s house, it belongs to Jesus’ heavenly Father, who is also Father of the people of Israel.  Jesus is enlarging the boundaries of his own family here at the age of 12.  This he will continue to do not only throughout the Gospel, but even into the book of Acts when the Apostle Paul begins to reach out to those outside of Judaism and bring Gentiles into God’s family as well. 
We humans tend to be very selective and exclusive.  But even here in this pre-ministry story Jesus has started to redefine what it means to be a part of God’s family and the answer is an all-inclusive embrace.  And when you set that side by side with Mary’s song – “…lifting up the lowly… filling the hungry with good things…” we begin to get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God as being a place where God brings all of creation together in peace/shalom/well-being – which takes us right back to the song of the angels (“… and on earth peace/shalom/well-being among those whom God favors.”) This is the promise which accompanies Jesus’ birth and which is already being fulfilled in amazing ways that we did not expect.  And this is only the beginning – so stay tuned!
Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255-1319) - "Christ Among the Doctors"

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Eve – 2012 - Luke 2:1-20

Read the text here: Luke 2:1-20
Holy Time
“In those days…” begins the Gospel story.  “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus”  Luke is very specific about those days.  Which days are those days?  They are days marked by those who hold absolute power – Caesar Augustus and Quirinius the Roman Governor in Syria.  “In those days…” daily life is lived – both at the time of Jesus and in our own time.  “Those days…” are marked with successes and failures, joy and sorrow, loss and grief and most of all fear.  “Do not be afraid” says the angel first to Zechariah then to Mary and now to the Shepherds.  “Do not be afraid!”  Why is it that every proclamation of the angels in the story that takes the first two chapters of Luke is prefaced with these words – “Do not be afraid”?  Because fear defines and governs “those days.”  Fear is what prompts decisions and shapes relationships.  And this is true for us as well, isn’t it?  Fear continues to shape us in ways we may not realize; fear continues to govern and define us.  It doesn’t matter whether is it the fear of the emperor or the Romans or whether it is fear of terrorists, or of violence or of strangers, or pain, or loss or death.  Fear continues to shape us, our actions, our decision and our priorities, just as it shaped those who were a part of this first Christmas story in Luke so long ago – Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds.
“In those days…”  are our days…  So what fears and struggles did you bring with you tonight into this place?  Fear of loss, of violence – fear of financial instability, the fiscal cliff – job fears, job struggles – relationship struggles and conflicts – frustrations – anger - addictions – grief and sorrow - – worry and fear about children or grandchildren or family – worry and fear about health concerns - loneliness? 
The angel speaks: “Do not be afraid, for see – open your eyes – I am bringing you good news of great joy which will be for all people of every time and every place including all of you here assembled tonight in this place. - For unto you is born this day a savior who is Christ the Lord!  This day! This day bursts into those days and dispels the darkness and the fear.  This day is a new day – that holds all that I just listed that makes up those days – for this day brings with it hope and light and promise.
Do you see? Luke is proclaiming to us that time is transformed in the birth of Christ.  “Those days” are, in Greek, the Chronos, or chronological time that rules our daily lives.  Chronos Time is time that passes by quickly – seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years all fly by and too often they are governed by fear and failure and loss and darkness and death.  But “this day in Greek, the Kairos time or holy time is time that is pregnant and filled with the promises of God: time that is filled with hope and God’s love and God’s grace.  Kairos time, or Holy time, according the angels, is time that is governed and defined by peace or shalom – that is complete well-being.  The peace that the angels sing about is not just the absence of conflict – even Caesar Augustus could accomplish that!  No, the peace the angels sing of is a peace that “surpasses human comprehension” – for it is being at one, it is being in unity with God and with others. 
It is this gift that God holds out to us – “this day.”  “In those days…” dark with fear and violence and trouble a poor pregnant teenage girl and her equally poor and struggling husband make an unwanted and harsh trip by foot to a place which was far from their home.  The girl then goes into labor.  In the harsh environment and darkness of “those days” the husband can only find a dark smelly cave where animals are kept from the cold overnight.  In that very unwelcoming place this girl gives birth to a boy.  And this boy is none other the very incarnation of God, come into those days.  With this birth, this day bursts into “those days” and scatters the fear and darkness with hope and promise and light.  And the angels appear to the most outcast of outcasts of those days.  Shepherds who had been excluded from the temple, excluded from cities and villages, who were mistrusted, who were hated, it is to them the angels sing – “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”  That is: Glory in the heavens comes about when Peace or complete well-being takes over those days on earth.
“Unto you this day” has burst into those days for us as well.  We come into this place on this dark and cold night and we have all brought with us fears and struggles.  But on this day we can offer those  up to God, and hear the proclamation again that a child is born- God incarnate – Immanuel – God with us.  And we can give those days over to God asking God to replace fear with hope; asking and expecting to feel God’s presence; knowing that we all rest in God’s grace.  And here this day we can experience – even if just for a moment – a foretaste of the feast to come – a moment of shalom, of peace.  This is why we worship on this day! This is why come together to re-tell and remember and re-experience the story, so that the story of God’s incarnation can become our story.  This is why in this darkness we sing carols, say prayers, share bread and wine and sit in reverent silence – so that the hopes and fears of all the years of those days will be met in tonight on this day in Jesus, who is our savior and Lord.
An audio recording of this sermon, preached on Christmas Eve 12/24/12, can be found at

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Advent IV - The Magnificat - Luke 1:46-55

Read the text here: Luke 1:39-56
Singing of the Promises
In many ways the opening two chapters of the Gospel of Luke is a lot like a great musical.  Every time you turn around someone is bursting into song.  There are a total of 4 songs within the first two chapters.  It is as if the joy is too great to be conveyed in words and the various characters have to resort to song:
1.     Mary’s Song - The Magnificat, 1:46-55; (Sermon for Advent 4)
2.     Zechariah’s Song – The Benedictus, 1:68-79 (Sermon from Advent 2)
3.     The Angel’s Song – Gloria in excelsis, 2:14 (Sermon for Christmas)
4.     The Song of Simeon – Nunc Dimitus, 2:29-32 (Sermon for New Year’s Eve)
We begin with the elderly priestly couple Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Elizabeth is barren, but hopes for a child. Zechariah is visited by an angel who declares that he and Elizabeth will have a child – John – who will be a prophet and prepare the way for the Lord’s anointed.  Zechariah is skeptical and is rendered mute for his lack of trust.  Next the Archangel Gabriel visits a poor, teenage girl named Mary.  Mary is betrothed to Joseph, but he will not actually enter the story until chapter two.  Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah.  She gently questions the Angel, but then accepts the word of the Angel – Let it be unto me according to your word.  In the next scene Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and when the two women come together the missions and identities of the two unborn babies are confirmed and celebrated.  Elizabeth, the older and more established woman praises and defers to the younger unmarried Mary; and full of the Holy Spirit both she and her unborn baby John react to being in the presence of Jesus, even though he is also still unborn.  Luke has confirmed for us that not only John is a prophet, but so is Elizabeth.  In fact, she is more trusting and more faithful than her own husband, the priest Zechariah.
Mary responds then with the first song – known as the Magnificat in Latin for the first words that Mary sings: My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior!  Actually a literal translation of this first line would look more like this:  “My life magnifies the Lord, and my spirit – the essence of my very being – rejoices in God, my savior.”  Mary has opened herself completely to the Holy Spirit and is a true servant of God.  (In fact she admits as much in the next line where she thanks God for the fact that He has looked in favor upon his the lowliness of his serving-girl.)  In this way she is the model disciple – and a model for all believers who would take up the cross to follow Jesus throughout the ages.  At the conclusion of the song, in verse 54, she actually says as much – God has helped Israel (the people of God – now expanded to include the followers of Jesus) his serving-boy, in order (for them) to remember (make a present reality) his mercy, steadfast love, grace.  This passage is amazing.  Verse 54 completes the circle by bringing us into the song as part of God’s people.  Like Mary, then we are called to open ourselves completely to God’s steadfast love and grace so that in word and deed, in life and in spirit every part of our being would magnify the God who saves us and who calls us to remember, to make this grace and steadfast love a present reality in our lives that others would also experience through us.
The next section of the song is the difficult and controversial part.  When Luther translated the New Testament into German he actually left Mary’s song in Latin in fear of offending his Prince who might not like the line about casting the mighty from their thrones.  And in our own time it was not so long ago that there was a law in El Salvador which banned the reading, singing and preaching on this text because it was considered offensive to those who were rich enough to be sent away empty.  There is no way around this – we cannot spiritualize these words or ignore them, since they are just the first presentation of a theme that Luke will stay with throughout the Gospel and Acts.  And that is: God is on the side of those who are on the margins, the poor and those who are suffering and struggling; and God opposes those who take, cheat, hoard, who use and abuse others, who resort to violence to enforce their way, who amass power and wealth and use it to put others down.  But there are two points to be made to clarify exactly what this means.  First,  God casts down and sends away empty in the hope that they will open themselves to the Holy Spirit and also repent, turn around and become disciples, willing to giving of themselves completely to God; and secondly: The opening and closing – discussed in the above paragraph – make it clear that this is a song of promise, and those who are distracted by wealth, who are filled with self-importance and power, who use and abuse others, who hoard wealth and natural resources in order to enrich themselves and their own are simply excluding themselves from the promise; they are putting themselves outside of God’s grace / steadfast love.  This section of the song uses economic language, and there is an economic dimension to this to be sure.  But there is much more to it than that.  Greed and self-centeredness can place all of us, regardless of our economic standing, outside of God’s salvation – not because God puts us there, but because we put ourselves there by the choices we make and the way we are in relationship.
Finally a word about salvation: we tend to think of salvation as a future oriented thing.  Salvation is something that will happen when we die, or when Jesus comes again – something that happens in the future.  Well, not for Luke.  Salvation is NOW!  That is one of the points of the song.  Mary refers to God her savior.  She is not talking about God who will save her down the road sometime in the distant future.  God has already saved her!  She is experiencing salvation now!  And the question to be answered then is – how should she (we) respond?  For we too have already been saved.  Our salvation is now as well.  We respond by emptying ourselves of all that would separate us from God and others, opening ourselves to God’s grace, picking up the cross and following Jesus in the way of service – and this is what it means to remember God’s mercy, steadfast love and grace – to live inside the covenant that God has made with our fathers and mothers of the faith: Abraham & Sarah and on and on…
What is God calling you to in this text?  What are some of the ways you are called to remember?  In what ways can you Magnify the Lord with your life and spirit?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent III - "Rejoice?"

On Saturday I completely re-wrote my sermon for Advent III in light of the horrific tragedy in Newtown, CT.  The sermon attempts to address this shooting in the context of Advent III and the lessons appointed for the day: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-8.
You can listen to a recording from the Saturday evening service here:

The sermon makes mention of an Altarpiece from the 15th century artist Matthais Grünewald - 1475-1528.  Here is a digital copy of that beautiful artwork - please note how John the Baptist is pointing his finger towards the cross.

Here is a link to an article that I found very helpful for answering the question about how to relate to those who are experiencing this kind of pain and grief:

Finally - let us pray....
"When aimless violence takes those we love,
When random death strikes childhood’s promise down,
When wrenching loss becomes our daily bread,
We know, O God, You leave us not alone.

Through long grief-darkened days help us, dear Lord,
To trust Your grace for courage to endure,

To rest our souls in Your supporting love,
And find our hope within Your mercy sure." Hymn #764 - LSB

“Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) O God, whose own dear Son did gather children in his arms and bless them, we pray that you shower divine mercy on the pains of all your children. Give us grace to entrust these victims of unthinkable violence to your never-failing love and care. Have compassion upon those who now must bear unbearable grief. Deliver all from despair. And awaken us to the day when sin and sorrow will be no more, where you live and reign one God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – world without end. Amen.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Reflections on the Song of Zechariah – Luke 1:68-79

Read the text here: Luke 1:68-79

Promises – Ancient & Modern
On this 2nd weekend in Advent we receive two gifts: 1. We are introduced to John the Baptist in the first of two weekends devoted to him during Advent; and 2. We get to sing the song which John’s father Zechariah sang when John is presented in the temple.  The song, the 2nd of 4 beautiful songs that appear in the first two chapters of Luke, is known as The Benedictus, after the first word – Blessed (be the Lord God of Israel) – and has been a part of Christian worship since the early church.  The song focuses on promise.  In fact, one could almost make the case that the entire opening of Luke’s gospel focuses on promise – the promise given by God to God’s people and the promise brought to fulfillment in the birth of Jesus.
What is this promise?  For the answer to that question we need to turn to the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis.  Right in the very first few verses of the entire adventure of this couple God lays out the promise – Genesis 12:1-3:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  (It is repeated at intervals throughout the story)
What unfolds is a story of how God is faithful to the promise despite the unfaithfulness and undermining of this promise by Abraham and Sarah themselves.  Finally, two angels (messengers) appear to bring the news that Sarah would give birth to a son (Genesis 18).  The response to the message is, to put it nicely, skepticism.  Sarah laughs at the news.  It is, perhaps, a testament to her and Abraham’s sense of humor that they name the child Isaac – “Laughter!”
The story of Zechariah is very similar.  Gabriel appears to the old priest Zechariah with news that his equally elderly wife, Elizabeth, would finally give birth to a child.  Zechariah is skeptical.  And since it appears that neither Gabriel nor Zechariah seem to have any sense of humor at all in this story Gabriel punishes Zechariah for his skepticism.  He is struck mute for the duration of his wife’s pregnancy (some think he is struck both deaf and mute).  But when the child is finally born and presented in the temple for the naming, God releases Zechariah’s tongue and he bursts forth with this amazing song.
For my part I can sympathize with poor Zechariah.  The fulfillment of the promise and the announcement of a child to be born to this elderly couple is so far fetched.  Things just don’t happen that way in real life.  Older couples like Sarah & Abraham and Elizabeth & Zechariah don’t have babies.  Now, if Gabriel had announced that God was going to fulfill the promise in a spectacular, miraculous or supernatural way then perhaps Zechariah would have been able to accept it.  In fact, Zechariah would have probably been thrilled.  As it is his response to the news is, at best, grumpy, skeptical and disappointed.  It is as though he is saying to Gabriel – “can’t God come up with anything more exciting than this?”  We are like Zechariah in this I think.  We too often look for God to act in a miraculous, spectacular way.  But the news that God is going to work through the natural order, through human beings and human processes is not only hard to accept, but kind of disappointing.  Human birth is so messy, wouldn’t it be easier and more special if there were an element of supernatural in all of this.  Then no one could question it.  It would be obvious, right?  No, it would not be obvious, we would probably still dismiss it and besides this is not how God works.  This is the foundational issue for the entire opening of Luke = God is faithful to God’s promises and God fulfills them in an ordinary way using flawed human beings and flawed human processes.  It is called Incarnation - and it works.  Nevertheless we continue to be like Zechariah: grumpy and skeptical.  We want God to work in ways that are miraculous and spectacular and supernatural, and we are quick to dismiss God’s intervention and God’s presence when it comes through others like our family, friends, a doctor or even a stranger.   
In the story of the Ascension (the pivot story between Luke and Acts) the angels tell the disciples to stop looking into the sky and to look around them if they want to see God in action!  This is the message of this story as well to Zechariah and to us – stop looking up into the sky for God, lower your gaze and see that God is there, at work beside you.  
The song of Zechariah thus becomes our song.  Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has favorably looked on his people and redeemed them… that would be us.  As we go through this song the first section (verses 68 through 75) restate the promise itself: God has raised up a mighty savior… saved us from our enemies… shown mercy to our ancestors… remembered his holy covenant.  And then there is a shift to part 2 at verse 76 – You my child will be called a prophet of the most high… - Zechariah the father is now tenderly singing to his infant son John.  And John’s calling will be to continue in the line of the prophets to give people knowledge of salvation… to proclaim the forgiveness of sins… and remind the people of the tender mercy of God… Preparing the people of God for the dawn from on high.. which is Jesus who is the one who will bring light to those who sit in darkness… and guide our feet into the way of peace (Shalom).
Ultimately this song proclaims to us that we are included in the people of the promise.  We are the ones to whom John continues to call to repent and prepare; we are the ones to whom Jesus brings light into the midst of the darkness that at times threatens to overwhelm us;  we are the ones to whom the Christ has promised to bring Shalom – Peace – perfect well-being and unity with God and others.
Click here to listen and watch a beautiful setting from the Middle Ages with a slide show of art along with the words of the text:
Zecharias and the Angel by William Blake