In 2014, the television show sixty minutes told a story about a man named Nicholas Winton. Winton was a 29 year-old stockbroker living in England in 1938. He was planning a two-week vacation and thought he would go skiing in Switzerland. But he had heard stories about refugees in Czechoslovakia. He decided to go there instead. While there, he visited some of the refugee camps. He decided to rent a small office in Prague and invited people to come and tell the stories of their children, all Jewish. Armed with the names of children and their pictures, he returned to England. He decided to try to bring some of the children to England. Nicholas Winton had no special skill in diplomacy and no real contacts in government. He organized a small group of volunteers. He took some stationary from a non-profit agency and placed the heading children’s section on the page. He mailed out requests for people to host children, to adopt them. Winton was successful in bringing 669 children from Czechoslovakia to England. He is credited with saving their lives, keeping them from the horrors of the concentration camps.
Nicholas Winton was just an ordinary man with no special skills for the task he took on. He was an Anglican Christian, part of the worldwide community we belong to. One of the things that intrigued me about this man was his humility. He never spoke about what he had done. The work he did went unnoticed for fifty years. During the sixty minutes interview with Winton, he was asked, “How did you do this?” His answer was, “If something is not impossible, there must be a way to do it.” It seems to me that he lived the Christian life that Jesus taught us. Nicholas Winton didn’t stop helping others. He helped people who were mentally challenged. Then he decided to build homes for old people. He never stopped living the life of a Christian.
A constant theme during Epiphany is that Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus came and took us out of darkness and brought us into the light. Today, we hear something different. Jesus has turned the tables on us. We do not hear that Jesus was the light of the world but rather we hear from Jesus that we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. What does this mean?
We take salt for granted today but it had tremendous value in the time of Jesus. Roman soldiers were given a ration of salt as part of their salary. Salt was used both as a preservative and as a seasoning. Salt was necessary because they had no other way to keep meat from going bad. It made sure the food was edible. We use salt to flavor meat but they used it to extend the life of the meat. Salt is also used to purify. When I bless the Holy Water that is found in the baptismal font, I use salt as part of the blessing.
I understand that some of the salt used in the time of Jesus came from the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is so salty that you can float in the water without really trying. The salt taken from the Dead Sea was not pure salt, it was mixed with other minerals. After they had used it for a while, all that was left was the minerals. That is what Jesus meant when he said that salt had lost its saltiness.
When Jesus said that we are the salt of the earth, he meant that his apostles were responsible for keeping life on the earth from decaying. The apostles were the ones who followed the law and helped others do the same. They were an example to others in how they should live their life with God.
Rosemond Anaba, a pastor in Ghana suggested that “Salt, no matter how small in quantity, has the ability to change the taste of food just as light also, no matter how small the flicker is, has the ability to overcome darkness.” It doesn’t take a lot of effort for people to see our light or to recognize our faith.
The message about light flows through all of our scripture today. We find similar words in Isaiah, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” It is our inner light that will shine, not God’s light. Or perhaps we might better say that God’s light shines through us. This is what we hear in the Psalm, “Light shines in the darkness for the upright.” When we open ourselves to God, God’s light shines on us. We have all experienced the presence of another person who shares the light of Christ. On Wednesday someone reminded me of the expression about certain people who light up a room when they enter.
When Jesus said that you are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world, he was speaking about us in the same way he spoke to his apostles. Jesus didn’t actually require us to do anything specific in order to be salt or light. We are by the definition of Jesus both light and salt. Our very presence in the world as Christians means that we provide salt and light. We always worry about what we might need to do, but today Jesus doesn’t specifically ask us to do anything. We are light and salt. Just be yourself and you are salt and light.
Today’s passage comes as a part of the Sermon on the Mount. It follows immediately after Jesus provided a list of things that people are blessed for. I am saddened that we didn’t get to hear that list of blesseds. It is often a part of last week’s scripture passages but we instead chose to hear about the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. I think it is helpful to hear the two verses just before our passage begins. Just before the message about salt and light, Jesus changed from universal words such as “Blessed are the Peacemakers to words specifically meant for his followers. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Jesus was speaking to a regular group of people. There were no famous people among his followers, probably not many wealthy people, certainly not people in authority. Just a group of regular people many of whom were worried about where their next meal would come from. We should be normal people as well. We are not required to change the world like Nicholas Winton did by saving many children. We just need to be an example for those around us.
Jesus expected people to turn on his followers, to be cynical about faith or simply unimpressed. Jesus wanted his followers to remain strong despite the reception of others to the message of Jesus. Jesus didn’t want them to forgo their beliefs in order to be accepted by others. If they did that, they would lose their saltiness.
Mother Teresa wanted us to remain steadfast just as Jesus taught us. She said, “Words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.” She asked us to always follow in the footsteps of Jesus. While Jesus did say that we are already salt and light, he is asking us to remain true to our faith. He is asking us to have faith that is stronger than the faith demonstrated by the scribes and pharisees. Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” We don’t need to have words of great wisdom. We just should demonstrate the Spirit of God. Isaiah taught us that we don’t need to fast to show others how good we are. Rather than fast, we choose to show God’s love to other people, often people in need.
Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Jesus taught us to love one another. Jesus said that we are the salt and the light. It doesn’t require us to work harder or do something no one else has done. I believe it only requires us to be steadfast in our faith. As Jesus said, I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill it. Let us be persistent in our faith and allow God’s light to shine through us. Amen.
This past week I attended a clergy conference at Chapel Rock, the diocesan camp in Prescott. I had mixed feelings about going. I wasn’t looking forward to the cold weather and I struggled a little bit creating conversation with people I barely know. But the conference turned out to be special because of a presentation we heard on dementia.
Tracey Lind was the dean of the cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio and served on the board of the Church Pension Group. She started to have memory problems and eventually learned that she had early onset dementia. Her doctor told her that she needed to go home and get her affairs in order. Tracey decided that she needed to take early retirement from her career as a priest. She also decided her life was not yet over. She and her partner, Emily, decided that they would share information with others about how to deal with issues of dementia. That is how they came to speak at the clergy retreat.
Tracey is an amazing person. She offered personal details about what it is like to live with dementia. Some people may wish to hide their dementia issues from others, perhaps because they are ashamed. But not Tracey. She has great courage. She talked about the things you would expect. She told us things that she can no longer remember. She talked about the difficult issues a family must face when dementia rears its ugly head. She spoke about how she tried to plan for the worsening of her dementia, all the while not knowing exactly what it would be like.
I was not surprised to hear about how people try to be normal with others, to hide their disease. I was not surprised to learn about the frustration one feels when they don’t know the right words to say. I haven’t thought as much about how hard it can be to go out in public. For example, Tracey struggles when she travels on airplanes. She struggles in unfamiliar places and it has a physical effect on her. Her partner, Emily, has learned that she should go ask for early boarding, to minimize the fear and trembling, all the while worrying about how others will judge them when they don’t look like they have some disability. Tracey told us that she now watches TV because it allows her social interaction without the need for her to talk. I was amazed by the huge toll that this disease has on both of them emotionally. I learned that the care partner often dies before the person with dementia because of the stress.
Dementia is probably more prevalent than we realize. We may have 8 to 10 people in this congregation dealing with dementia. I have made some copies of the handouts they provided and left some at the back of the church. The package includes tips for dealing with a person with dementia, a list of helpful books as well as a link to their blog site. I hope you find something helpful if you are dealing with dementia in some way. If you wish to learn more, you may want to record the 60 minutes program this evening which I am told has a story on Tracey and Emily. I know you will be watching the Super Bowl when 60 minutes is on.
Today, we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. I will make a connection between the issue of dementia and the gospel but first let me share a little of the theology in the gospel. As faithful Jewish people, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple. The tradition was for Mary and Jesus to come to the Temple forty days after the birth of Jesus. He was presented as the first-born male. He was offered to God and in return was made holy. That tradition started in the book of Exodus.
One of the things that happened in the temple was the offering of a sacrifice. Once Jesus came along, we no longer needed to offer some bird or animal in sacrifice because Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for us. In fact, Simeon recognized Jesus as the Messiah and spoke of the sacrifice Jesus would offer many years later. He said, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. He told Mary that a sword will pierce your own soul too." Simeon’s words are about the sacrifice that Jesus would die on the cross for our salvation. His sacrifice is a gift that we received, a gift that we did not earn. It came from the grace and love that God has for us.
Our reading from Hebrews further described the gift Jesus gave us. Jesus became human and joined with all of us who are children of God. Jesus destroyed the power that sin has over us. In Hebrews it says, “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we are no longer held in the power of sin, we are free to live a life as God asked us to do. We no longer fear that we will die because we know that Jesus has created a way for us to go to heaven. Jesus is our merciful and faithful high priest, serving God and serving all of us. The reading from Malachi suggested that we must cleanse ourselves before we can stand in the presence of the Lord. Jesus offers that cleansing to God for us.
This feast of the Presentation offers many spiritual insights to Christians. It has been a day to bless candles representing the light of Jesus. It is a day to celebrate the humility of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I focus on the sacrifice that Jesus gave for us. Thus it is a day to remember all of the people who have entered into humble service, to offer their gifts to help others. Some are here with us today. I am thankful and I dedicate this service to their honor and to encourage them to continue their humble service.
Simeon was not the only one who recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Anna was also a prophet and she confirmed that Jesus was Israel’s Redeemer. She demonstrated that the Holy Spirit works though the community of all faithful people.
While I appreciate the theological meaning of the Presentation of Jesus, I choose to focus on the word Presentation or presence. Jesus came and presented himself to the priests in the Temple. But more important, he presented himself to God. His parents made the commitment that he would be a follower of God’s will, that he would do God’s work in this world. In the Temple, Jesus was consecrated to that service.
As followers of Jesus, we are thankful for his presence in our lives and thankful for his gift of salvation. In thankfulness, we follow the example of Jesus. We come each week to present ourselves to God. We ask God to consecrate our lives and we commit ourselves once again to do God’s work in the world. We also present Jesus to other people. We do so when we help another person who is poor or needy, when we comfort someone who is sad or sit with someone who is lonely.
This brings me back to the story about dementia. Tracey has dementia and spoke at length about how we might treat people who have this disease. She asked us to have compassion. It means that we must be patient, that is we need to give the person with dementia time to gather themselves before they are ready to speak. We need to find a way to offer help while still giving the person a choice. You might say, “I could read a book to you if you like but not I have answered your question many times, you need to listen more closely. It sounds like good advice for how we might treat people in everything that we do. It is the way we present Jesus to other people.
Gerald Darring wrote, “How do we present Jesus Christ to others? Do we present Jesus to others on such a pedestal that people can dismiss his example as unreasonable expectation, or is he “like his brothers in every way,” one of us, a brother human whose love of justice and peace can and should be imitated? Is the Jesus we present to others an indictment of them, or is he God’s “saving deed displayed for all the peoples to see,” the Messiah who rescues us from our personal and social sinfulness?
I hope that today you are lifted up by the gift of Jesus and the commitment that he made for us. I hope that you are thankful and ready to commit yourself to sharing the love of Jesus. May God’s presence be with you always. Amen.
This past week, I visited a church member who was recovering in a rehabilitation facility. After we had talked for a while I asked if he would like to pray with me. As is my custom, I asked him what he would like to pray for. I have done this many times and I have heard his response before. While people who are sick or recovering do want prayer for themselves, that is not the first request I usually hear. People often request prayer for their loved ones, they want to care for other people. In this case, the man asked for prayers for our country. He was worried about the divisiveness that exists in our country today and he asked for prayers that we would be unified, that we would work toward some common goal and not fight with each other so much. He wanted to pray for a peace that he said did not exist right now in this country. We prayed together for peace, for unity and for healing.
Another friend of mine mentioned his concern in a similar manner. He lamented the fact that we are no longer able to talk with each other. We wished together that the old saying about never discussing religion or politics could be put aside and that we would at least listen to each other’s views.
A third friend told me that he was unsure whether our country will be able to recover from the spite and anger and terrible words that are spoken by people that we are supposed to look up to as our leaders. It is difficult to find examples of good behavior. This friend is worried that our culture has changed in a way that it will not be repaired.
Some of you may not feel the discomfort of the world today. Some may say that it has been worse many times in history. While I am concerned, I also see some wonderful things that are going on in this country. I am thankful for this church because it is a place where people with many different views come and worship together. We find common ground in worshipping God together, to support each other in good and bad times, and to help people who are needy.
I am sure that some of you are wondering what this has to do with Scripture for today. Well, Jesus lived in a time that wasn’t so good either. The gospel begins with Jesus in Nazareth. You will remember that in Luke’s gospel, Jesus made some bold proclamations in the synagogue and was chased out of town. Today’ scripture says that Jesus heard about John the Baptist being arrested for speaking out against the immorality of the Herod. Jesus withdrew and went to Galilee. The use of the word withdraw is pretty mild. One commentator wrote that the Greek word suggested that Jesus was fleeing. The message that Jesus proclaimed was similar to what John had said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We know that the message Jesus shared was good news for the people, sometimes not meant to be good news for the leaders. Jesus left Nazareth because he feared for his safety. Jesus message was radical, that we should love one another and take care of one another. It was not generally the case in Jesus’ time.
But Jesus did not abandon ministry. Matthew borrowed from the proclamation found in Isaiah. Jesus came to the people who sat in darkness. In Jesus they saw a great light, “and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” When Jesus arrived in Capernaum, he began his ministry by calling disciples to help him accomplish his work. In addition to calling followers, Matthew told us that Jesus went about “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” I would say that Jesus came to cure not just physical ills but also to bring us together in unity and peace, to cure us of our other ills. In Luke’s gospel Jesus proclaimed that he was anointed to bring good news to the poor. I believe that is part of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.
If you are one who is uncomfortable or perhaps worried, even afraid of what is to come, we turn to Jesus, the light of the world and we ask Jesus to help us. We start with prayer. We should never doubt the power of prayer. People who have been ill and recovered have said that they felt the power of so many people praying for them. The theologian Karl Barth wrote, “To clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”. Max Lucado, a current day theologian wrote “"Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the one who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.” We pray for peace and unity.
We are thankful for God’s grace and we are thankful for our faith. In grace and faith, we pray that Jesus will help us continue his work. Jesus was and is a light that shines in the darkness. We wish to be inspired by his actions and strengthened to do God’s work by his grace and love. Just as Jesus started God’s ministry in the small town of Capernaum, far away from the big city, we wish to continue his ministry in this part of the world.
The most important thing we do at Transfiguration is to worship God in community. We praise God for God’s creation. We thank God for blessings. We ask God for forgiveness. We ask God to help us. And we seek to create a place where everyone is welcome, where we support each other whether something good is happening or something difficult is happening. I have been told that some who come here feel God’s love and the love of others in this church. Some say they appreciate the support they receive. I hope that we can make it that way for every person that comes here. May all of us continue to find God in this place.
Jesus brought good news to the poor. We have many ministries to needy people through our outreach programs. You may find updates about all of our outreach programs in the Peg Wier’s information in the Annual Report. This last year we continued all of our existing outreach programs, serving the hungry, providing clothing to the needy. We started two new outreach efforts in 2019. The first is the Caps 4 Kids. We collect plastic bottle caps and send them to collection points in Mexico. The caps are turned into art and other objects. The proceeds from the caps are used to provide cancer treatments for needy children. It is a program that has taken off not just in our congregation but among other friends we know.
You may not know much about a group called RIP Medical Debt. They use contributions to pay off the medical debt of poor people. In 2019, we identified this organization as a group we wanted to support with 10% of our Capital Campaign contributions. Medical debt is a big problem. RIP Medical Debt has identified over $40 million of medical debt that people in Mesa cannot pay. It seems like such a big number. We were fortunate in 2019 that our income exceeded our expenses. The vestry decided to use some of the excess to pay $7,000 to RIP Medical Debt and we have been promised that our contribution will eliminate $700,000 in Medical Debt for people in this area. A report on the results will be available in March.
In 2019, volunteers refurbished an office and we opened a nursery during the second service. I am thankful that Catherine Walecki is currently taking care of children on Sunday. We hope that more people will take advantage of this service.
On a sad note, our Children’s Sunday school program has seen a significant drop off in attendance and we have not had children attend on most Sundays. Our volunteer teachers are ready every Sunday to teach children that come to the church.
I wish to thank Linda Ostmeyer our office manager and Gary Quamme our organist and music director for their service. I also want to thank all of our volunteers who help this church. Without them, we would not be able to do what we do. I also want to thank my wife, Jan, for her dedicated volunteering. She is such a wonderful helper to me and to everyone in this place.
I am fortunate to be a part of this community. I believe that this church is a place where we try to live out our calling as followers of Jesus. In today’s gospel, Jesus told everyone that they were to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Let us pray that we will do what we can to live out that command. Let us pray that God’s spirit will always be in this place. Let us pray that we will never forget God’s calling to share his love with others. Let us seek to bring peace and unity to this world even if it is just to a small part of God’s creation. Amen.
I have never served on a jury. But I have imagined that I would listen intently to any eyewitness testimony. When someone tells me exactly what they saw, then I tend to believe them. However, studies have shown that eyewitness testimony is subject to unconscious memory distortions and biases. In fact, eyewitness testimony can be remarkably accurate or remarkably inaccurate. People can report different perspectives even if they see the same event. I can understand then that the gospels of John and Matthew may differ a little in what they report. It is remarkable to me that the themes of these two gospels are the same and the understanding of whom Jesus is matches exactly.
Last Sunday, we heard the story of the baptism of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew. Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John the Baptist. After Jesus was baptized, the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus returned to Galilee to begin his ministry.
Today, we hear a slightly different version of the interaction between John the Baptist and Jesus. This time the reading comes from the gospel of John. In John’s gospel, John and Jesus meet in the town of Bethany which is near Jerusalem. The baptism itself isn’t described but John states that he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus and remain there. It is interesting that John the Baptist introduced Jesus to Andrew and Simon, two men who became his apostles. In Matthew’s gospel Peter and Andrew meet Jesus for the first time in the area of Galilee and Jesus calls them himself. The two gospels differ on where things happened but they do not differ on what the events mean to us.
In John’s gospel Jesus is asked where he is staying and he answers “Come and see. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sees Simon and Andrew and calls to them saying, “Come follow me”. The invitation is the same. Come and see what you can learn and what you can become if you are with me. It was an invitation for the apostles and I hear it as an invitation for every one of us. We are all invited to learn about Jesus, the savior of the world.
Our Scripture is the message of Jesus from the eyewitnesses of his time including the authors of the gospels of John and Matthew. We are also eyewitnesses to the story of Jesus and each of us understands scripture just a little differently even though we may have the same belief that Jesus is our Lord and Savior.
We begin by listening to the message of the servant in Isaiah. Today’s reading is the second of four passages in Isaiah that are called servant songs. Last week we read the first of the servant songs. In that passage, God spoke and chose a person to be his servant. This time, we hear the servant speak. The servant described God’s call to him (or Her), I was chosen before I was born. The servant stated that God called him to bring the people back to God. And the servant is unsure of whether he is worthy of such a call. I think Isaiah intentionally kept the identity of the servant vague. At one point in time, the entire community of Israel is mentioned. Whether Isaiah meant this as a reference to Jesus or not, we believe in Jesus as the servant of all of us, the one who gave his life for us, the lamb of God.
How many of us have heard God’s call and wondered whether we were worthy of such an important adventure. Yet, God calls us. We may think we are weak, we may think we are sinful, we may think we do not have the right skills and yet God calls us. Perhaps we are called as a community to be the servant just as Israel was called. We are called to be the eyes and ears of Jesus on earth or more importantly his hands and feet. We are called to work together for a better world.
God’s call for the people to return to God was not just for the nation of Israel. Isaiah said that the servant was to reach far beyond the community of Israel. The servant was to go to every community, “to be a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth”. Jesus fulfilled that call.
Our calling is first to be in a covenant relationship with God. Covenant is a promise between two parties that we will be consistent in our actions with one another. God always lives up to the promise that God has made. God will always watch over us and care for us. God will forgive us and provide comfort and peace for us. We sometimes struggle with our part of the covenant. We do not always follow the commandments which were given to us. We also do not always care for one another as God expects us to do.
The Jewish people often forgot about their part of the covenant. Prophets reminded them each time they failed in their promises. Isaiah presents to us a servant of God, someone who will always follow God’s covenant and who will lead us into our covenant. The servant gives everything of himself or herself to see that we remain in covenant with God.
We all struggle to keep our commitments, our promises, to God. We all fall into temptation, finding ourselves all by ourselves, far away from God’s presence. But we are all strengthened by Jesus. I love the words we find in today’s Psalm, “He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.”
Each of us has our own desolate pit that we fall into. I sometimes want to stay in that pit, feeling sorry for myself. It is selfish when we allow ourselves to be mired into a pit of sin or a place of self-serving actions. And we use many excuses to stay there. We blame others for our problems or like to say that we cannot help ourselves. But the Lord is always there for us. All we have to do is open our hearts to Jesus and God will lift us out of the pit of self-despair. Our Psalm gives us the encouragement we need, “Happy are they who trust in the Lord”.
Psalm 46 reminds us that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” We are lifted up by the words of Isaiah found in chapter 41, “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. May we all hear those words of promise and turn to God. Just as Jesus called us to follow him, we turn to Jesus and ask him to lift us up, to bring us out of the pit, to bring us peace.
During this Epiphany season, we hear several consistent themes from Scripture. Jesus is the light of the world or the light of all nations. Jesus came to earth to save us from our sins. Jesus became a servant to show us all how we should care for others in the world. Jesus invited us to join him in creating the kingdom of God on earth. You will find each of those themes in our lessons today.
I am moved by the simple invitation that Jesus gave to his future apostles. He simply said “come and see”. We have the word from so many witnesses about Jesus. John the Baptist called him the lamb of God. John also told everyone that the Holy Spirit had come down and proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God. When they first met Jesus, Simon and Andrew called Jesus “Teacher” and later they referred to him as the “Anointed One”. It was not until much later that Peter said to Jesus, ‘You are the Messiah,the Son of the living God.’
Let us all accept that same invitation. Let us Come and See. Let us follow Jesus and see where that takes us. We know from all that we have been taught that Jesus will take us out of the Pit and bring us to the high places. We know that Jesus will give us the Peace which passes all understanding. We know that our lives will be changed. Hallelujah! Amen.
The story is told of a young man who was driving one day when he saw an older lady standing outside her car on the side of the road. It was clear that she needed some help. He pushed aside any concerns he had about stopping to help a person he did not know. As he approached her vehicle, she was worried about what this young man might do. After all he wasn’t dressed too well. She was a little frightened and so he tried to calm her saying, “I‘m here to help you, don‘t worry. My name is Bryan Anderson“.
Then he changed her flat tire. When he finished, she asked how much she owed him for his help. Bryan smiled. He said: “If you really want to pay me back, the next time you see someone who needs help give that person the needed assistance. And think of me“.
That evening, the lady stopped by a small cafe. She was served by waitress who was expecting a baby. The waitress had a sweet friendly smile even though she looked tired. The lady appreciated her kindness and it caused her to remember Bryan. The lady had finished her meal and paid with a hundred dollar bill. The waitress went to get change and when she came back, the lady was gone. She left a note on the napkin: „You don‘t own me anything. Somebody once helped me, just like now I‘m helping you. If you really want to pay me back, do not let this chain of love end with you“. The waitress found four more one hundred bills under the napkin.
As the waitress arrived home that evening, she was thankful for the lady who had helped her and wondered if the lady knew how much she and her husband needed the money. She knew that her husband worried their financial situation so she went to him and said, “Now everything will be all right. I love you, Bryan Anderson“. Yes, the older woman repaid Bryan without knowing it.
I don’t know if this particular story is true but we all know people who have helped strangers and expected nothing in return. We even have a name for this kind of giving. We call it Pay it Forward. The name comes from a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde about a twelve-year old boy Trevor McKinney who started the movement.
The concept of giving to others has been around for a very long time. Our reading from Isaiah is a good example. Some six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah wrote about the importance of being a servant. Today’s passage is the first of four servant poems or songs found in Isaiah. In this, God spoke to the people telling them about a servant God has chosen. The servant is a person in whom God delights. The servant has been selected to bring justice to the world. In fact, justice for all people is mentioned three times in this passage. Justice means that all people are taken care of. We don’t know who the servant was. It could have been a king or a queen. It could have been Isaiah himself or another prophet. Many think the servant was the entire Jewish community. As Christians, many believe this was a reference to Jesus.
The prophets of Israel often accused the people of committing injustice. Kings and Queens were usually harsh. The Servant of the Lord in contrast will be gentle and persistent in the pursuit of the responsibilities given by God. The Servant of the Lord will care for the poor, the blind, and the prisoners. The Servant of the Lord will be a light for all nations. The words of Isaiah offered great hope for the people who had just returned from exile and were experiencing the destruction which had been bestowed on Jerusalem. I would say that the Servant of the Lord described in Isaiah fits perfectly with our understanding of paying it forward. The Servant gave help to those in need and created so much hope that everyone would turn and give to those who were struggling.
The gospel story is about the baptism of Jesus. It is the first mention of Jesus as an adult, the beginning of his public ministry. Matthew indicates that Jesus came specifically to be baptized, it wasn’t some spur of the moment decision. John the Baptist made clear that John should be baptized by Jesus not the other way around. But Jesus responded with,“Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” We think if righteousness as being upright, being right with God. For the Jewish people of Jesus time, it meant living into a covenant relationship with God. It meant following God’s will. It meant being a servant to God and been a servant to others.
I wonder if you heard the connection between the servant song in Isaiah and the story of the baptism of Jesus. At the baptism, God proclaimed Jesus as “ my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It sounds so much like the words of Isaiah, “Here is my servant, in whom my soul delights”. In all things, Jesus followed the direction of God. Jesus proclaimed not long after his baptism that ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ It is another reference to Isaiah and a statement of his servanthood. Even when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed, Not my will, but yours be done.
We can find simple stories of people helping others around us all of the time. Recently, a Phoenix policeman stopped to help a homeless veteran who had fallen out of his wheelchair. He helped the man get medical attention that he needed. When we think of those who serve, we are thankful for our service men and women. I thought and prayed for them a great deal this week as the tensions between the United States grew significantly and more soldiers were sent to the Middle East to protect people from harm. They truly are servants for us.
Jesus committed himself to the responsibility of doing God’s work. His life and work are an example to all of us. Jesus taught us to do the same. He frequently told people that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Jesus taught us that with stories like the good Samaritan, a man who cared for his neighbor. The good Samaritan was one who paid it forward.
In our own baptism, we either committed ourselves to follow Jesus or our parents made the commitment for us. In our baptism, we said that we would renounce Satan and all spiritual forces of wickedness. We renounce all evil powers of this world and we renounce all of our sinful desires. We turn to Jesus and accept him as our Savior and we put our trust in his grace and love. We promise to life the life of a servant seeking Christ in others and striving for justice and peace.
We seek then to be servants of God just as Jesus was. It can be a joyful task and it can also be a difficult task. Billy Graham also offered words of encouragement for us to be servants, “When we come to Christ, we’re no longer the most important person in the world to us; Christ is. Instead of living only for ourselves, we have a higher goal: to live for Jesus.” It requires that we give up something we may want to do and we try to do what God wants us to do.
Martin Luther King Jr. offered this prayer, “Use me, God. Show me how to take who I am, who I want to be, and what I can do, and use it for a purpose greater than myself”. Our goal to be servants of God is something that requires God’s help, we cannot do it on our own.
The goodwill movement that we call pay it forward is a great idea. It has a great name and many good examples. But it is not really a new concept. It has existed for thousands of years and it is a part of our Christian heritage. We are inspired by the baptism of Jesus, we reconnect with our own baptism and we try our best to bring justice to the world and to care for those who are less fortunate. In all that we do, let us remember the words of Joseph Prince who said, “It will never be about our love for God. It will always be about His magnificent love for us.” May you feel God’s love as you seek to live as a servant to others. Amen.
This past week, I received an email from my sister. She lives in northern Ohio and had taken a trip to visit an ancestral home in Marietta, Ohio which is on the Ohio River. She went to a park which had been a farm of our relatives in the early 1800s before it was donated to the city. My sister found some bricks with the names of our relatives on them. She was excited. My ancestors had come to West Virginia and southern Ohio as part of the expansion into the Northwest Territories. They left Maryland soon after the Revolutionary War and traveled by wagon on the National Road or Cumberland Trail to southern Ohio. It would have taken them several weeks to make the trip even though we can make that distance in several hours today. They went to Ohio for economic survival and for freedom.
I have been thinking about long journeys as I contemplate our readings for today. On Christmas, we read about the trip that Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Today, we celebrate Epiphany even though the actual date of Epiphany is tomorrow, January 6th. We remember the journey of the wise men from so far away to come and see this child who will become the King of the Jews.
I would guess that everyone here has done some kind of move or relocation in their life. What caused you to make that change? Have you ever taken a trip for some religious purpose, a retreat or a chance to visit an important religious monument?
People have tried for centuries to provide additional details about the visit of the wise men. Matthew does not tell us how many wise men visited Jesus. He doesn’t tell us where exactly they came from. And he doesn’t tell us how old Jesus was when they arrived. Our understanding of the rest of the story is discerned from what Matthew wrote or perhaps just someone’s interpretation. We often refer to the wise men as three kings but they were not. We call them by the Greek word Magi. According to the Catholic resource center there are four possible meanings for that word Magi. “(1) a member of the priestly class of ancient Persia, where astrology and astronomy were prominent in Biblical times; (2) one who had occult knowledge and power, and was adept at dream interpretation, astrology, fortune-telling, divination and spiritual mediation; (3) a magician; or (4) a charlatan, who preyed upon people using the before-mentioned practices”. We believe it means court priests or astrologers. They may have come from Parthia which was in current day Iran. They were given the names Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Those names did not appear in Christian literature until five hundred years after the birth of Jesus. Saint Bede writing in the country we now call England in the seven hundreds wrote this "The magi were the ones who gave gifts to the Lord. The first is said to have been Melchior, an old man with white hair and a long beard... who offered gold to the Lord as to a king. The second, Caspar by name, young and beardless and ruddy complexioned... honored Him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. The third, black-skinned and heavily bearded, named Balthasar ... by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die." (from Catholic Resource Education Center). People believe that it would have taken several years for the wise men to arrive in Bethlehem and Matthew refers to them entering a house, not a manger. They probably didn’t come when he was an infant.
It is unlikely, then, that our understanding is exactly what happened and some of the stories about the wise men don’t match what we read in the gospel. The embellished stories may cause us to miss the meaning of Matthew’ gospel. What dedication, what commitment they had to travel for several years to see Jesus. I imagine how much faith they must have had in their celestial calculations. Their journey was a pilgrimage and we might think of our journey to see Jesus as a pilgrimage too.
Aren’t we also seeking Jesus? How much effort are we willing to put forth to meet Jesus? If you were to meet Jesus today, what gifts would you bring for him? The wise men brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Their gifts were the things of value in the lands from which they had come. These gifts were a sign that they would give the best of themselves for this King of the Jews.
Saint John Chrysostem, whose name means the one with the golden mouth, wrote about the meaning of the gifts this way, “For by gold the power of a king is signified, by frankincense the honor of God, by myrrh the burial of the body; and accordingly they offer Him gold as King, frankincense as God, myrrh as Man.” Jesus is so many things to us. Jesus is our King and he is our God and yet, he is the one who understands us best because he became human for us.
I appreciate the words of a 17th century saint name Alphonsus Liguori. He wrote about how we might consider the gifts of the wise men, “Give me, therefore, I pray Thee, this gold, this incense, and this myrrh. Give me the gold of Thy holy love; give me the spirit of holy prayer, give me the desire and strength to mortify myself in everything that displeases Thee. I am resolved to obey Thee and to love Thee; but Thou knowest my weakness, oh, give me the grace to be faithful to Thee!” These are beautiful words for us to live by as we celebrate the life of Jesus.
In the song, the Little Drummer boy brought his drum and played for him. I say the gift we can best give Jesus is our effort to follow him in all things. I also believe we should give him our heart.
Matthew wanted us to know that Jesus is the King not only of the Jews but the Savior of all people. In Luke’s gospel, the birth of Jesus as proclaimed to the shepherds, the lowliest people, were the first to come and worship Jesus. Now, Jesus is manifested, is proclaimed to three wise men, three kings. It says Jesus is also the God of the wealthy and powerful. Matthew makes it clear that even people from other faiths and religions and from other nations come to see this child and to give gifts to this Son of God.
Even as a child, Jesus created change. After all, Jesus stirred up all the people of Jerusalem and disturbed the reigning king. He sent notice that he came to earth to bring salvation to all people. Given all of this, let us come and worship this child who changed the world and changed our lives.
Epiphany speaks about the coming of Jesus. The readings provide a continuation of the themes that we have heard already during this Christmas season. In the letter to the Ephesians, we read that Jesus came to earth to bless us. We are given every spiritual blessing that is available in the heavens and on earth. All of this is ours because we are followers of Jesus.
As followers of Jesus, Ephesians says we have been chosen as children of God. Jesus has broken through the veil of sin which separated us from God. Now that the bonds of sin are broken, we are free to fully encounter God’s love for us and to share that love with others. Jesus anoints us as his brothers and sisters, thus we receive all the grace that God has to give. We are to receive the gifts of wisdom and are instructed that “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”
Epiphany speaks of Jesus as the light of the world. The wise men spoke of the light of Jesus rising. We think of it as a star or a cluster of planets or a supernova shining brightly in the sky. But the action of Jesus shows us that light. Jesus brings light to the world. Jesus takes us out of the darkness. Jesus brings us to the place where we no longer fear, where we have comfort and know of his grace and mercy. This theme that Jesus is the light will continue through the entire season of Epiphany.
I believe that our entire life is a journey. My ancestors traveled long distances for economic security and freedom. We may take a trip to see and learn many things. But our most important journey is our search and our effort to see Jesus. Let us be inspired by the knowledge, commitment, faith and dedication of the wise men. Let us never stop searching for Jesus and living our lives according to his teaching. Amen.
Sermon is based on these readings for January 5
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
"Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel."
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock."
For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the Lord.
1 How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
2 The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
3 Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.
4 Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way.
5 Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
6 They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.
7 Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; *
hearken, O God of Jacob.
8 Behold our defender, O God; *
and look upon the face of your Anointed.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
I think we all know the song the twelve days of Christmas. I find the repetition of this song a little boring after a while. I think that is why some renditions have chosen to put other themes and melodies into the song. A good example is the version by an a cappella group called Straight No Chaser. They added a Jewish song about a toy called the Dreidel as part of their version. I bring up this song because it is about the love one person had for another. So much love in fact that the gifts just kept on coming.
We are in the 12 days of Christmas, the time that includes Christmas day all the way through Epiphany on January 6th. I think we are fortunate that our readings for today keep us in that Christmas mood. Those of us who came to church on Christmas Eve heard the traditional story of the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke with its images that are planted in our minds. Today we read the meaning of the birth of Jesus from a more cosmic perspective. We listened to the beautiful poetry from John’s gospel. I like the fact that we get to have one more chance to ponder, to appreciate the birth of Jesus.
“In the Beginning was the Word” is how John starts his gospel. That phrase takes us back to the first words in the first book of the Bible, Genesis and the Creation story. John wants us to remember that everything God does on earth is about creating. God created a place for us to live and love and learn and give. Jesus’ birth is all about God’s creation. God’s salvation in Jesus is a part of the creation that God began so long ago.
God created such an interesting universe. Think of all the things we have learned about our universe over the last few years. Scientists saw a black hole swallow a star and they were able to produce an image of a black hole even though light cannot escape from it. Scientists are learning new things all of the time about the formation of planets. They now estimate that some galaxies formed more than one billion years earlier than they thought. And won’t our learning just continue? I am amazed by these things and amazed at the creation God has given us. Even with all the important things we have learned about the universe, there is nothing more important in creation than God sending Jesus to be among us.
“The Word was with God, and the Word was God.”" He was in the beginning with God. Jesus is referred to as the Word which is a translation from the Greek logos. Logos is thought of as God’s divine reason. It is God’s reason that established the creative order in the universe. I also found a definition calling logos God’s rationality or God’s self-expression. God created the universe according to God’s wishes. Jesus was and is part of the creative order that comes from God’s rationality or reason. When we use the teachings of Jesus to guide us and to help us, we have a better understanding of God’s reason and God’s desire for creation.
Jesus existed forever, before God created this world and Jesus brings us salvation as a part of this world, not something out of this world. God’s plan for us existed forever. It reminds me that God has always been with us and is always with us. While God came to earth during the time that Jesus was here, God never has left us. God is here now, living among us. God sent Jesus, God sent the Holy Spirit. God lives with us. I hope that you always feel God’s presence inside of you because that is what the gospel writer John was trying to tell us.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The Word of God came to be with us in the form of Jesus. It is not enough to say that Jesus became a human. Jesus took on all the characteristics of humanity including the vulnerability that existed in the baby in Bethlehem. Jesus took on all of the characteristics of humans except for our sinful nature. God’s reason and God’s Word came to earth as one of us.
John was talking about our faith. Not everyone in the world did or does today “see” that Jesus is God. As followers of Jesus, we are the ones who “see”. We are the ones who understand that Jesus is God. Those that don’t believe in Jesus don’t experience God’s creation to the fullest extent.
One of the early church leaders, Irenaeus wrote “The Word of God, Jesus Christ, on account of his great love for mankind, became what we are in order to make us what He is Himself”. Jesus was close to God and he wishes to bring us closer to God. Jesus is the Son of God and wishes for us to be children of God.
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. Jesus is the light of God coming into our lives. We want the light of Christ to be like a light bulb going off in our heads. That is exactly what happens when we accept the Word of Jesus in our lives. We read scripture and we see the light of God, the light of Christ in our minds and in our hearts. In faith, we pray that God will always help us to see the light of God’s intentions for us.
Because this is the Church of the Transfiguration, when I think of the light of Jesus, I imagine the light that emanated from Jesus when he was transfigured, changed up on the top of the mountain. The strength of that light is incredible to me. I pray that God will send that light straight to my soul, that I may always follow his will and his ways.
One of those gifts we receive from Jesus is freedom. That freedom is described in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul wrote that our lives were subject to the law, the commandments. We had to follow a set of rules for we knew no other way to live. But Jesus changed all of that. Through the salvation that Jesus gave us, we are freed from our sins and given the grace of God’s love and mercy. When we live our lives in the love of Jesus, it becomes easier to follow the commandments. We are free. When we live in Jesus, we only want to do his will for us. One commentator wrote that “by a life of service and sacrifice, God’s Son, Jesus, turned the law into a means of reconciliation”. Jesus is the one who brings us closer to God.
As Paul wrote, we are children of God, with all of the benefits that gives us, all of the gifts that children receive from their parents. It fits so perfectly with the Gospel of John when he wrote, “And 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.” Once again a commentator wrote that “because Jesus knew God as their Father, those who by faith in Jesus found reconciliation could know without a doubt that they had been adopted as God’s children. “
As we continue through these twelve days of Christmas, I hope that you will choose each day to remember the gifts that God has given you. In that song, the twelve days of Christmas, each day the composer suggested that on that day my true love gave to me. I know that the composer was speaking of the emotional love we have for another human. But I wish that you would relate on each of these twelve days to the gifts that God has given you. There are so many gifts that we receive. Maybe it is God’s love for you. Maybe it is the grace that God has given you. Or perhaps it is God’s mercy. More than anything, John’s gospel would suggest that we give thanks for the Word of God as provided to us in the Scripture that helps us every day. The birth of Jesus brought us closer to God and we understand it through our Scripture. Amen.
We like to listen to Christmas music at our house. As we are getting dressed and at meals, we turn on various kinds of Christmas music. I know others do this as well. We like old favorites from singers including Bing Crosby and Andy Williams. We like current singers such as Michael Buble and Taylor Swift. We appreciate secular Christmas tunes like Jingle Bells, It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and Santa Claus is coming to town. But our favorite Christmas tunes are more traditional or that have serious themes like Happy Christmas (War Is Over) by John Lennon, or hymns like O Come all ye Faithful, or Joy to the World. This year I found two songs that especially speak to me. One of them you may not have even heard. It is titled “A baby changes everything”. It was recorded in 2008 by Faith Hill and it was the number one song for three weeks.
The song begins by telling the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of Mary. Mary must deal with all the uncertainties of a teenage pregnancy and questions whether Joseph will marry her. She has to travel to Bethlehem just before her baby is born. She is afraid, she worries, she wonders what will happen to her and her baby.
The words of this song cause us to consider whether Mary experienced similar feelings to those of other mothers throughout history. Anxiety and wondering are common feelings for mothers. We know that a new born baby does change everything, Couples must deal with what it means to be a parent. Schedules are changed, child care must be found, special food must be purchased, sleep habits change. Babies change everything.
The second half of the song is different. As Jesus is born, a star shines down. The angels sing to the shepherds. A new King is born. We join in singing Hallelujah. The baby Jesus changed everything in a unique way. This is the Messiah. It is God coming to earth to be with us humans. The final verse of the song suggests that Mary was changed by these events. “My whole life has turned around. I was lost but now I'm found. A baby changes everything, Those last verses apply to all of us. Yes, Jesus changed everything.
From just a historical perspective, Jesus’ birth changed the lives of billions of people. Over time, Christianity grew into a major religion. Because Christianity became the religion of many powerful nations, the effect of Christianity has been felt throughout the world. Many wonderful things have been done in the name of Christianity and many awful things have been done in the name of Christianity.
I like to think about the wonderful things that have been done in the name of Jesus: the help to the poor, the medical centers that have been created often with the name of Good Samaritan to follow in the footsteps of Jesus’ healing, those who have tried to give comfort to people filled with grief, those who have shared the love of God for everyone.
The second song I appreciate this Christmas is the tune, “Mary did you know?. It was first recorded in 1991. This song offers a series of 18 questions that tell us the story of the life of Jesus. Mary did you know that your baby would one day walk on water? That he would help the sick and the blind? That he would calm the waters, that he would save us from our sins. It is written as if the singer is talking to Mary but it is meant for us. It reminds us that the baby Jesus will do all of these things.
Some Christians complain about the way Mary is presented in these two songs. Both songs suggest that Mary was an ordinary human. The complainers say that Mary knew all of the things that were to come. Yes, it is a slightly different view than what we hear when Mary visited Elizabeth and pronounced ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
Speaking of Mary in the way these two songs do helps me to relate to her situation even more. It helps me to think about how Jesus and his family lived in a way that was both ordinary and heavenly at the same time. Just as Mary was changed by the events of Jesus birth, the words of Scripture encourage us to think like Mary. Luke tells us that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”. How does the birth of Jesus Impact you today? How has the birth of Jesus changed your life?
One way to ponder these things is to try to place yourself in the scene. Try to experience the emotions and moods that are found in this story. It is a quiet night and nothing special is happening. Imagine looking into the stall and seeing a mother and father with a newborn baby surrounded by animals. There are no frills found in this birth. The mood suddenly changes. A host of angels appears, the night is filled with singing. The angel tells us that this evening brings news of great joy. In the midst of a quiet night we have great rejoicing. I hope that your heart is rejoicing this evening.
Another message for me is that Jesus first appeared to shepherds, the outliers of society. Later in Luke, we are told that Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor and to let the oppressed go free. Jesus came for all people. I hope that you are thankful knowing that Jesus came to earth for you.
When the angels appeared the shepherds were terrified. The angel acknowledged the fear and said, do not be afraid for the Messiah has come. May we all be calm in the presence of this baby, knowing that he came to save us, to set us free from our sins.
After the shepherds visited Jesus, they told everyone else what they had seen and these people were amazed at what they had been told. Let us be amazed that Jesus, the son of God came to earth, to live as a human among us. The angeled offer praise to God saying, Glory to God in the highest. Let us add our voices of praise on this Holy Night.
The angels proclaimed that the coming of Jesus would bring peace on earth to those whom he favors. It is an interesting expression. We just finished saying that Jesus came to earth for everyone. Doesn’t that also mean that he favors everyone. I prefer to think so. It means that the peace of Jesus is available to everyone of us. It is a gift that he gives us. It may not mean that war will be no longer. It may mean instead that we can find peace in our hearts knowing that Jesus is with us. It may mean that we will find peace with other people that share our believe that Jesus is the son of God. We find peace in our Christian community.
When the angel came to the shepherds the glory of the Lord shone all around them. Isaiah told us in chapter 9 that 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. We say that Jesus is the light of the world. We may not have seen the light of Jesus when he came to earth but we know his light from all that has been written about him and all that we have been taught about him. May the gift of Jesus take us out of our own individual darkness, may Jesus bring us to the light. May this baby show us how to live in his light.
All of us here have experienced Christmas before. But we may have gotten caught up in the things that surround Christmas in our life today, lights and advertisements and family activities. The real meaning of Christmas is something that should touch us each in our own way. It is all based on the truth that Jesus came to earth for you. I believe that Jesus comes to each of us where we are and gives us what we need. In Luke’s story, we hear about joy, we know that the shepherds were thankful, we know that Jesus came to bring comfort, others were amazed at what had happened and offered praise. The angels brought the light of the Lord with them and it shone around his crib. What do you need this Christmas? I believe that if you are open to it, Jesus will give you the gift that you need the most. It all can be found in his love. Amen.
You all know that I like to share stories and I enjoyed this one about patience. A New York City taxi driver pulled up in front of a residence and honked the horn. He waited a few minutes and honked again. There was no response. He thought about leaving because this was the last ride he planned to take that day. But something caused him to have the patience to get out and walked to the door. An elderly lady in her 90s opened the door and told him to come in. She asked him to take her small suitcase to the taxi and after he did that he returned and helped her to the car.
The lady gave the taxi driver an address and asked him if he would drive downtown on the way. The taxi driver told her that there was a much shorter way to get there. The elderly lady said, “that’s OK, I am in no hurry, I am on my way to hospice. 'I don't have any family left,' she continued in a soft voice..'The doctor says I don't have very long.’ The Taxi driver decided to take the time, have some patience and they drove downtown as the lady told him story after story of her life in New York. Finally, they arrived at the hospice center. The taxi driver refused to take anything for the trip and they shared a hug. 'You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,' she said. 'Thank you.’ Rather than being in a hurry, rather than worrying about how much he would make on the trip, the taxi driver decided to be patient, to live life as it came to him. The result was a memorable experience for him and a gift for the lady.
We have reached the third Sunday in Advent. We have been waiting for the coming of Jesus. On this day, we are encouraged to be patient as we wait. In the reading from James, we are told, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” The followers of Jesus had been waiting for about 50 years when James wrote this book. They wanted Jesus to come back again. The words from James fit our circumstance perfectly. We still wait for Jesus to come again. We say it often during our service, ”Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” It is a statement of faith. We wait during Advent for the second coming of Jesus and for the recreation of the first birth of Jesus. Will Jesus come again to save us? The writing from James continued with “You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”
What things cause you to be impatient? Are you wishing for something special to happen at Christmas, perhaps a visit from a loved one? Are you wishing for peace in the world or a time when you no longer fear violence? Are you frustrated that you have prepared in every way for Christmas and yet it is not here? Are you asking when God will come and fix everything that has gone wrong? Perhaps you are just tired of waiting for us to sing those wonderful Christmas hymns during the service because it is different than hearing them sung on the radio or your music app.
It can be hard to be patient when we have wanted something for so long or when it means so much to us. My own patience is insignificant compared to a man I read about who was convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison. At first, the prisoner was impatient, he wanted to get out as soon as he could. But he learned from another inmate that it was better to be patient and to live in hope of a time when he would be freed. That man is now out of prison and the lesson he learned about patience continues to guide him and to help him from being discouraged.
Perhaps we could have the patience of Abraham and Sarah who waited patiently until their old age had come for Isaac to be born. Or perhaps we could have the patience of Job. Job searched continuously for the reason why he was being punished by God. Job’s belief in God never wavered despite his financial ruin, the problems he faced with his health and the loss of friends and family. We can learn from the patience of Job.
A second theme for today is the feeling of joy. We lit the third candle for Advent and remembered the joy we have in the promises that God has given us. We are joyful in the knowledge that we can count on God to fulfill those promises. I find the joy we experience in the reading from Isaiah. We are reminded of the beauty of the desert when the rains do come. It brings us joy. We are joyful that God will care for us. We have joy that God strengthens the weak and the blind and those with a fearful heart. We find joy in the pathway that Isaiah anticipated, “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” Won’t it be a grand time, strolling along the highway with no evil people to cause trouble or to harm us in any way. This group of travelers will rejoice in the love of God as they walk the path. Isaiah’s words fit so perfectly with what John the Baptist preached. We should make straight the path of the Lord, he said. John wanted us to be ready for the coming of Jesus even as we wait patiently.
There is a little strangeness to the idea of being joyful in the midst of Advent. Isn’t Advent a time of quiet reflection, a time to prepare for the joy of Christmas? Absolutely! We just don’t have to wait until Christmas to be joyful. Our joy comes from knowing, from believing that Jesus is coming. We realize that our joy is an outcome from the patient heart that I spoke of earlier. For a patient and faithful person expects the good news of Jesus. In our patience we are joyful knowing that God is coming. We are assured that Jesus will watch over us, that Jesus will be our shepherd.
There is no better example of patiently waiting and joyful anticipation than Mary, the mother of Jesus. She said it so clearly in the Magnificat which we heard today. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” . Her faith made her strong and joyful. She was overwhelmed by the blessings which God had given her. She was amazed that God chose her to be the mother of God. She was ready to wait patiently for his coming and also to wait patiently until he grew up and shared God’s love with the world.
There is a well know minister named Joyce Meyer. Joyce does not come from our specific faith tradition, but all Christians share in the love of God. I found her words to be especially meaningful today. She wrote, “I believe that a trusting attitude and a patient attitude go hand in hand. You see, when you let go and learn to trust God, it releases joy in your life. And when you trust God, you're able to be more patient. Patience is not just about waiting for something... it's about how you wait, or your attitude while waiting.” Let us see if patient waiting will bring us joy.
Every life has good times and bad times. We should expect times of sadness. I know that Christmas is a difficult time for many people for it brings with it painful memories. The families of Elaine Sweet and James Stines are grieving this week at their passing. Everyone in this parish family who knew Elaine and James is grieving as well. I miss them both so much. We take heart knowing that they are both in the arms of Jesus.
The lessons from Scripture don’t take away the grief or the pain. Our lessons do remind us, however, that our joy comes not just from the things we experience on earth. Our spiritual joy comes from knowing and believing that joy came to earth when Jesus was born and brought God’s love and mercy to us. It also comes from knowing that we will share eternal life with Jesus. May our hearts be filled with joy as we reflect patiently on the good news of Jesus birth. Amen.
Last night, we had a lovely Advent Dinner. The parish hall was decorated with colorful lights and streamers. The tables had lovely decorations on them as well. The food was delightful. And it was so nice to be served by gentleman of this congregation who were dressed for the occasion. The desert was delicious. I am thankful for each person who worked so hard on this dinner.
Our Advent dinner is a way to give thanks to everyone in this congregation who has made this a special place. It is a time for us to enjoy each other’s company. It is a time to be with our church family as much as we might be with our relatives or friends during the holiday season.
The Advent dinner didn’t just happen. People brought food to church earlier in the week. Folks were here on Thursday making the room special. Cooks worked many hours on the food preparation. Planning started many weeks ago as Ruby and her team put together a menu, identified volunteers and discussed how to make the dinner a special event. It took a lot of organization and preparation.
How have you prepared for this Christmas season? Have you finished your Christmas cards? Have you identified and purchased the gifts that you will share with others? Have you decorated your house? Do you have a plan for visiting someone special or have you deep cleaned your house for a visitor?
The race car driver Bobby Unser spoke to the importance of preparation. He once said that “Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” Preparation matters a great deal with our secular and spiritual lives.
I ask you to focus on that word, Prepare. It is found in our gospel which has a quote from Isaiah. John the Baptist was “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Just as those wonderful people prepared for our Advent dinner and just as we prepare in a detailed way for the coming of Christmas. I say we are all encouraged to prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of Jesus, our Savior.
Scripture often reminds us of the need for preparation. Noah prepared for the flood by building the ark and placing food in it. Joseph prepared the Egyptians by storing up food for the drought. In Ecclesiasticus, we are told, “Those who fear the Lord prepare their hearts, and humble themselves before him.” If we wish to respect Jesus, we should prepare ourselves for his coming.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus told the parable of a rich man who stored up all of his goods in large barns. But God took his life before any of those goods were used. God said, what will happen with all of those earthly things you have prepared for yourself? We are told not to prepare for earthly things but rather heavenly things.
In Matthew’s gospel, we read the parable of the ten bridesmaids. Five were wise and five were foolish. The five wise bridesmaids kept extra oil for their lamp whereas the five foolish did not have enough. When the groom came the five foolish bridesmaids did not have enough oil. Jesus explained, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” It is another story about being prepared. God wants us to be physically, mentally and spiritually prepared for his coming.
And so, on this Sunday, 17 days before Christmas, I ask you to prepare yourself for the coming of Jesus. How might you prepare your heart and soul for his coming into your life? In the gospel, many prepared by going out to see John the Baptist in the desert. The desert is a place of quiet and reflection. Jesus went out into the desert before he began his own ministry. I ask you to find some time in your busy life where you can find quiet and reflection. It may only be for a few minutes. In that time, perhaps you will offer a prayer to Jesus asking him to help you. Perhaps you will listen for the word of God coming to help you.
Being prepared may mean reading a daily meditation offered for the season of Advent. Being prepared could mean reading Scripture. It may mean giving something to a needy family. It may mean praying for a loved one or a friend who is sick. It may mean visiting someone who is unable to leave their house.
There are many verses of scripture that refer to preparing a meal for a special visitor. We then prepare a meal for the coming of our king, Jesus. One of the wonderful things about God is that God also prepares for us. In Psalm 65, God prepared the earth for us to live in. Psalm 65 says, “You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it.” I often think about God’s love for us when I listen to the words from Psalm 23, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies”. God is always with us and prepares a place for us to be. In the gospel of John, Jesus said that he would go and prepare a place for us.
During Advent, we prepare for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. We recreate that night when Jesus was in Bethlehem and the shepherds came to see him. We celebrate the fact that God sent his son to live among us.
During Advent, we prepare for the second coming of Jesus at the end of the world or perhaps the day we will see Jesus when we die. This second coming of Jesus fits so well with the words of John the Baptist. John told all those who came to the desert to repent. In response, we remember our sinful nature, we repent and we commit ourselves once more to follow Jesus. We prepare for Jesus through repentance.
John told the Pharisees and Sadducees that they should bear fruit worthy of repentance. That phrase stuck with me this week. I often think of repentance as a time when we cut back. We take away our sin and wickedness. We get rid of the parts of ourselves that are unworthy of God. But John told us that repentance is a time of growth. In my Bible it is described as the beginning of a new relationship with God. Bearing fruit was traditionally thought of as doing good works that took away God’s punishment for our sins. But I see it more like flowering. We grow by experiencing God as the center of our life. We grow by being a part of a Christian community that seeks to share God’s love with one another. We grow by turning away from sin and turning to God.
This idea is described so clearly in the letter to the Galatians. We are called to turn away from the sins of the flesh including enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, envy, and quarrels. We are called instead to bear the fruits of the spirit which include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we still have questions Galatians even says there is no law against these things.
Which of these traits will be the way you bear the fruits of repentance? One fruit that you may seek is peace. It is the theme for today. It is a wish that I carry with me all of the time. I want peace in my heart knowing that God is with me. I want the peace that only God can give. I know God’s peace will give me freedom that I cannot find in any other way. I want the peace which is described in the Psalm for in God’s time there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
You might wish to bear the fruit of hope. In Romans we are encouraged to be steadfast in faith and to listen to scripture so that we will have hope for the coming of Jesus. Or you might wish to bear the fruit of joy in your repentance. We look forward to the joy we will experience when we see Jesus personally. The last verse from Romans suggests we seek each of these three fruits, “May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
May this Advent be your time of growth, a time to prepare and a time to repent. Let us look forward to the wonderful coming of Jesus. Amen.