After she woke up, a woman told her husband, "I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for our anniversary. What do you think it means?” "You'll know tonight," he said. That evening, the man came home with a small package and gave it to his wife. Delighted, she opened it to find a book entitled "The Meaning of Dreams.”
Now here’s a joke for the ladies. What do you call a man with half a brain? Gifted.
As you can tell our theme today is about gifts. A gift is something one person gives to another, a picture, some flowers or a bottle of wine. Gifts usually have great meaning to the person who receives it, even if it doesn’t have great value. The thought is what counts we say. In my lifetime, it seems that women are better at remembering and giving gifts. On Wednesday, a group of women met for lunch at the church. The women had agreed to be secret sisters to each other. An unknown person would send a note or a card to one of the other ladies just to let that person know she was being thought of and prayed for. On Wednesday the ladies revealed who their secret sister was. And as you might have expected many of the women gave a gift to their secret sister. I was fortunate to be invited for the luncheon. As I mentioned already, the offering of a gift has great meaning to the one who receives it and on Wednesday there were several examples of that.
A gift sometimes can also refer to a unique ability or talent. You have a gift for music. Or, you have the gift of discernment. When we speak of a talent as a gift, we mean that God has given that person an ability and that is why we call it a gift. Today’s lessons offer us examples of gifts of many kinds. It is a good day to be thankful for the gifts we have been given by friends, the gifts we have been given by God and to consider how we might share our gifts with others. Let’s first listen to some gifts that are given by God. In Isaiah, we hear that God will call us by name, actually we will be given a new name. We have heard this theme on a regular basis over the past month. God knows us individually by name and God knows us collectively as God’s people. Isaiah wrote about the Jewish people who had just returned from exile to the promised land. Isaiah wrote that the land of Zion will no longer be desolate but will now be God’s Delight. The people of Israel will be married to God.
In the King James version of the Bible, instead of referring to the land as married, the bible refers to the land as Beulah land. It is the Hebrew word for married. Over the centuries Beulah Land has come to have a special connotation. Beulah is a special and beautiful place. The slaves probably thought of Beulah land as a place of freedom. Others consider Beulah land to be a description of heaven. Some hymns speak of Beulah land meaning that God will show us into heaven, a beautiful and glorious place.
Just as God was able to change the people of Israel from the Forsaken into God’s Delight, so too was Jesus able to change the water into wine. Jesus’ first miracle is described in our Gospel lesson for today as his coming out, the start of his public ministry. It is the gift of Mary who encouraged her son to help people in need. What does the gift of wine mean to you? On Wednesday in our Bible study, someone suggested that it was a precursor, a preparation for us to receive the blood of Jesus in his crucifixion. What a wonderful gift. John Foley thinks the wine is a gift of abundance. He wrote that when Mary said to Jesus “They have no wine” it symbolically meant that the human race had no real life left in it. Water turned into wine is an image for anyone who is fresh out of hope and needs to drink of the promise that Jesus offers to us. “The full rich wine of life that we need is the love of God. That love was given to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus and is shown to us in the wine of Cana”.
Lindsey Trozzo, from the Princeton Theological Seminary, suggested that the miracle of the wine was a sign of our shared hospitality. Rather than taking the lack of wine as something the family shouldn’t have let happen, Trozzo suggests it was a community issue. She believes that guests usually brought the wine as a part of their wedding gift. Running out of wine was an indication that the community was unable to support this family during the wedding celebration. When Jesus offered the gift of wine, he lifted up the entire community. Changing the water into wine becomes a precursor of the abundant things we will receive from God. Trozzo wrote that “Jesus’ mission was to continue God’s work in the world that provides hospitality and a space of belonging despite the norms of society. Jesus heals our souls when we are in pain due to something expected of us by our societal norms today. In our thankfulness for God’s gifts, we are asked to consider the gifts that God has given to us individually.
The reading from Corinthians reminds us that our gifts come from God, specifically given to us by the Holy Spirit. No person’s gifts are better than another. We need the gifts of the entire community to bring God’s kingdom to earth. Many passages in the book of Isaiah come to fruition in our Gospels and Scriptural Letters. Isaiah spoke abut our gifts as well. In chapter 11 we read, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”
If we consider the spirit of counsel to be similar to the gift of prophecy, then four of the gifts mentioned in Isaiah are repeated in the letter to the Corinthians. Paul also listed healing and performing miracles, speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues. The sad situation in Corinth was that people were comparing their gifts as if there was a rivalry between them. There was an opinion that some gifts were better than others. The point that Paul was making is that our gifts should not divide us but rather unite us. For the gifts we have been given are for the common good, not for us to hold back and use only for ourselves.
Paul’s letter speaks of how the three persons of the Trinity work together. Each of the gifts mentioned comes from the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit and the one we call God the Father are united in this gift giving. And the Spirit is connected to Jesus. For no one who has a gift of the Spirit will say something against Jesus. The Trinity is united in all things. No gift is better than any other because the Trinity has given each person special talents and loves each one of us. Just as the Spirit of God has given us gifts, we turn and pray to the Spirit that we may be guided in what we should do, that we may allow God’s will in this place.
The people of this church have received many talents or gifts. We need the gifts of every person. Two years ago, we had a class led by Cathy Black from the diocesan office. It was a chance for us to consider our gifts and to identify our gifts for this place. We have so many gifts but I will always remember that we only had a few people who felt that their gift was leadership. In other words we have a lot of people willing to do the work but only a few who believe that they have a gift to lead a church project. We pray that we will find a few more leaders to help us finish the projects we are called to perform.
I ask you to consider the gifts that God has given to you individually and to us collectively. Let us be thankful for all of God’s gifts, especially that God has chosen us and loves us. Let us reflect on the gifts that God has given us and how we might together use all of our gifts to do God’s work in the world. For this church is a wonderful place and we ask God to help us grow together spiritually and to share God’s love with everyone we meet. Amen.
There is a cartoon showing Moses up on top of the mountain holding the Ten Commandments etched in stone. He is looking up to the heavens and asks God this question, “I am sure that they will believe me but will you sign them just in case?” It is a cute saying but a meaningful one as well. The Ten Commandments are an agreement between God and God’s people. It was not an agreement with Moses and the Israelites.
The Ten Commandments are an example of a covenant, an agreement between two parties. In Biblical terms we use the word Covenant to describe an agreement between God and God’s people. It is a word not often used in current day language. We usually speak of a contract between two parties or a promise made by two people to each other. Still, a covenant is an accurate description of what we seek with God. Covenant has a sense of sacredness for me.
Today we remember the baptism of Jesus and today we celebrate the baptism of Cory Rutledge. Cory was baptized at the 8:00 service this morning. Baptism is the creation of a covenant. Every person who is baptized makes a commitment and in return receives grace, love and other benefits from God.
I am so excited that Cory was baptized today. Cory has been such a blessing to this church. I appreciate his enthusiasm. During the peace, Cory often runs around from person to person in the church, greeting them with such a positive smile. I know that Cory often draws pictures during the service and I have been the thankful recipient of his work. I like the fact that Cory is willing to interact with adults. He has come to our adult education several times and talked with us about important and not so important issues. His spirit is infectious and a good lesson for some of us who are less enthusiastic about our lives. Cory, we thank you for being present in our lives and pray that you will always know how much you mean to the people of this church.
I believe that Cory feels welcome and safe in this place. That is something sacred that we are called to do. For in Cory’s attendance at church and in his baptism today, we make a commitment, all of us commit to supporting him as a Christian. It is our responsibility to help him on what is both an exciting and yet sometimes difficult journey of following Christ.
There have been many covenants in our religious history. God made a covenant with Noah. Soon after the flood, God said to Noah, “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. (Genesis 9:11-13).
God entered into a covenant with Abraham as well. God said, “this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Genesis 17:3-5 In the book of Jeremiah, God’s covenant was made with all of the people of Israel, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. Jeremiah 31:1
As Christians, we are thankful for these covenants but we focus on the new covenant based on the coming of Jesus Christ. Each time we experience a communion service the priest lifts the chalice and says, “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus brings us into a new relationship with God and offers us forgiveness for the sins we have committed.
In addition to forgiveness God promised other benefits some of which are mentioned in Isaiah today. First, God called us by name to be God’s people. Second, we are told to give up our fear for God has redeemed us. God promised to be with us when we enter treacherous waters. God is with us even when we go through the trial of fire. The water and the fire will not overwhelm us. It sounds like baptism. We are told that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire. Perhaps it is a fire of enthusiasm and courage just like that which Cory shows to us on Sunday.
In today’s world we think of the covenant that is reached when two people come together in marriage. They agree to live together in good times and bad, supporting each other for whatever comes. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, offered this perspective marriage, “Marriage has a unique place because it speaks of an absolute faithfulness, a covenant between radically different persons, male and female; and so it echoes the absolute covenant of God with his chosen, a covenant between radically different partners.”
Today, as we listen to the story of Jesus’ baptism and experience the baptism of Cory, I ask you to reflect on your relationship with God. Is it one of absolute faithfulness? Do you remember our promise to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior? Are you committed to put your whole trust in his grace and love? Are you ready to renew that commitment again?
Commitment is a hard thing and we know of many examples of people who have struggled with it. I am trying to get my swimming pool control unit fixed. I was promised a visit by a pool company this past week but it never happened. I am sure that you have your own stories of commitments made but not completed.
As a priest, I receive commitments from people all of the time. Some say they are going to attend church here but never show up. I have become jaded by talk without action, no longer expecting people to do what they say. But I trust in God. We understand that the commitment we make to follow Jesus is a hard one to live up to all of the time. That is why we come together in community. We seek to support each other as followers of Christ, hoping that our joint efforts will make it easier to stick to our commitment.
But today is much more about the glory of the gifts we have been given. In the water of baptism, we are cleansed from all of our sins, we are washed in the glory of Jesus and we become one with him. But it is not just Jesus that we unite with in baptism.
Both the gospel and the Epistle speak of the presence of the Holy Spirit in baptism. For the people in Samaria, they had been baptized with water but it wasn’t until Peter and John showed up that they received the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit came to be with Jesus when he was baptized. And so, the same is true for each of us. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever. It is as if we have received a tattoo with the Holy Spirit. Something we carry with us for the rest of our lives.
Baptism is an experience of all the senses. But it is not just water that we use in baptism. We offer a candle to Cory and his family, a sign of the light of Christ in his life. We also sign Cory with oil. It is our way of indicating that he has been ordained by God to be a part of this congregation, a part of the community of Christians. It is a sign that he has received the Holy Spirit.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he wrote, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God”. This morning, we have welcomed Cory as a new member of the body of Christ, a child of God. We welcome his spirit and his testimony and we are excited that while he is still a child he has joined all of us as an equal amongst the children of God in this community.
Today, we remember our covenant with God. We promise to follow Jesus. Let us be thankful for all that God gives to us in this covenant relationship. We receive God’s grace and love. We are forgiven for our sins. And we have Jesus and the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us on our journey. Joseph Prince, a pastor from Singapore said “God doesn't want us to have rigid rituals with Him. In the new covenant, God is more interested in having a relationship with us.” May we seek God in everything we do. May we be energized by our baptism, a time when we receive the grace of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I live in a part of Mesa where the number of street lights are limited in order to allow us to see the skies at night. And I enjoy looking up and seeing stars shining above. But my view of stars is limited because there is too much ambient light in the area.
While we don’t see many stars with the naked eye, we still have been blessed to see beautiful sights from the heavens. Just this week we got to see this picture of Ultima Thule, a small icy object some 6.5 billion miles from earth. Some say the picture of the object looks like a snowman. It took six hours for any information to be transmitted from the spacecraft New Horizons. It took days for the detailed picture to arrive on earth.
The Hubble telescope was placed in earth orbit in 1990 and has given us incredible pictures like this one of the Twin Jet Nebula. Planetary nebulae are the glowing shells of gas given off by dying stars. Since the Twin Jet Nebula is a bipolar nebula, there are two stars at its core. Its butterfly-like “wings” are caused by the interaction of the two central stars which are similar in mass to our sun and circle one another every 100 years.
There are some scientists who don’t believe in God but prefer to believe that the universe was created by a natural phenomenon. I, on the other hand, find it to be an amazing indication of the work of God. It gives me a sense of the awesome power of God when I look at these pictures.
During the time of Jesus, people could see many more stars in the heavens than we do. The wise men who came to visit Jesus were the astronomers of their day. Something that they saw in the stars caused them to conclude that an important person had been born, a new king possibly. They probably knew the predictions about the coming of a Messiah in the Jewish Bible. They decided to come and offer their homage.
Many people in today’s world have tried to recreate the star of Bethlehem. They want to have a natural explanation for what the wise men saw. So if you go online, you can read about stars and planets that may have created this image. Matthew’s gospel indicates that the star rose from the east which suggests that it may have been a planet. I am unsure of exactly what happened or exactly when. My favorite is this one. It was created by drawing lines from the location of each planet in the solar system to other planets around the time of the birth of Jesus. The funny thing is it includes the planets Uranus and Neptune which were first identified about 300 years ago.
For me, what is more important is the work of God. God wanted to make a big deal of the fact that Jesus came to earth. And God wanted everyone to know about the coming of Jesus. Our stories tell us about how God communicated. An angel came to tell Mary that she was going to have the baby Jesus. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to tell him about the coming of Jesus. Angels appeared to the shepherds when Jesus was born. In today’s lessons, we hear about the star of Bethlehem appearing to the wise men. The wise men were not Jewish and they came from a distant land. Some experts have said that they were pagans. Yet they came to see Jesus because God sent them a message.
I offer this quote from a website discussing Epiphany messages, “First, God went to some trouble (by providing the star) to announce Jesus' birth to people of another race and country. In other words, God loves all people everywhere. Jesus came to all people. Thus, as Jesus' followers, we are to be one family with all people everywhere. We are to exclude no one from God's church or from our family. Although this inclusiveness is to be extended to people in our own school and community, Matthew's account of the wise men focuses on God's insistence on racial, national, and cultural inclusiveness.”
I don’t know whether God created something special in the stars that caused the wise men to be attuned to the coming of Jesus or if it was just part of God’s original plan that the stars appeared. I do believe that God reached out to humans to tell of the birth of Jesus.
We are influenced greatly by the customs that have been created to celebrate our Christian feasts. So, we have a manger scene with wise men on camels who come to visit the baby Jesus. We don’t know how many wise men there were, tradition suggests it was three. Around 700 AD we decided to give these three wise men names. We don’t know if they came to visit Jesus on camels either. I was in a restaurant last Sunday and we were talking about Epiphany as the waiter came to our table. He quickly said, “Did you know that it took about two years for the three Kings to show up in Bethlehem?” Apparently, this young man had just learned that the visit of the wise men probably came some two years after Jesus was born. Our image of the wise men had left him with the impression they came when he was a baby. There is so much that we don’t know about the star of Bethlehem. But we do know that God was reaching out to share the good news with everyone.
I believe that God has never stopped reaching out to humans. So, I ask you, “How might God be reaching out to share the wonders of Jesus with you today?” We often call Jesus the light of the world. How might you see the light of Jesus in your life today? Do you see the light of Jesus in a sunrise or a sunset? Do you see the light of Jesus in the smile on a child’s face? Do you see the light of Jesus in the face of someone in need when they receive help? Or perhaps you see the light of Jesus in a candle on the altar and the glow of light that shines on the little baby in the manger.
Our reading from Isaiah refers to the coming of Christ as well. We hear, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” It is another way that God informs us about the Messiah. We look forward to the coming of Jesus just as the Israelites did so long ago. The good news for us is that Jesus is already here.
The apostle Paul continued this message. He was selected by God, changed by God’s actions from one who persecuted the followers of Jesus to one who proclaimed the good news of Jesus. Paul was chosen to bring the good news to the Gentiles. Paul wrote about how “the mystery was made known to me by revelation.”
Paul wrote that he was, “to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
We also experience that revelation of Jesus through God’s presence in our lives and through our own revelation. God’s secret plan, Paul wrote, is that we are all co-heirs of God’s glory in Jesus. That same message is meant for us. And yet, in the light sent by God and in the light of Jesus, we find fear and jealousy. King Herod was not happy. He thought Jesus was a threat to his kingdom. Herod set a trap for the baby, trying to get the help of the wise men. But God was ready for that threat to Jesus. God communicated with the wise men in a dream and they must leave Bethlehem in another way. Herod must have been furious but God protected his son. Sometimes God protects the weak and the innocent. Sometimes God deals with fear and jealousy.
I find that God is present and active in our lives. God shares the good news of Jesus with us. God is there for every person regardless of where they come from. Let us join the three wise men and offer our homage to the Son of God. They brought gold and frankincense and myrrh. What might you bring? Let us rejoice for the glory of God. Let us look to see how the Light of Christ may change us in wonderful ways. Amen.
On Christmas morning, Jan and I woke up early. Both of the Christmas Eve services seemed to go well. We drove up to Flagstaff and arrived just in time for our two granddaughters to wake up and open their presents. Christmas is a special time when you are with children. Because we were with children we had another special experience. On Thursday evening we drove about 30 miles to Williams, AZ. We boarded the Polar Express train which is offered by the Grand Canyon Railway. Our experience was enhanced because it started to snow just as we arrived at the train station. It made the entire experience wonderful and a little more real.
The Polar Express is a computer-animated movie based on a book. The story is about an eight year old boy who isn’t certain whether he believes in Santa Claus. He is awakened on Christmas Eve and looks out to see a train stopped right outside his window. The train takes him to the North Pole where he meets Santa Claus. Santa gives him a bell which falls out of a hole in the pocket of his robe. The train returns him to his home. The next morning, he finds that bell from Santa under the Christmas Tree. Only those who believe in Santa Claus hear the bell ring. Sadly, his parents do not hear the bell because they do not believe in Santa Claus.
Santa Claus is not something we discuss in church but belief is. All of us believe in the baby Jesus. We believe that this child is God, Emmanuel, God with us. Some of us have had a special experience that makes it easy for us to believe. Others have a deep-set faith that keeps their trust in God alive. Some others question how all this could be.
Today, we get a second shot at listening to the story of the birth of Jesus. This time it is not the story of Luke with its description of the visit of the shepherds. Rather it is a description by John of the meaning of the birth of this baby. The narrative describes the faith of the author and is a faith that we are encouraged to share.
Each Sunday we use a set of Scriptural passages prescribed by the Episcopal Church. We almost always use the choices found in the Revised Common Lectionary. That set of readings is used by the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Lutherans and usually by the Catholics in the United States and Canada. The nice part about it is that you can speak to someone in another part of the country about your experience at church and you will be able to discuss the exact same passages in Scripture.
This week, the Episcopal Church goes out on its own. Most Protestant churches are reading about a visit of the Holy Family to Jerusalem when Jesus was a young boy. Jesus stayed behind talking to the teachers in the Temple and was found later by his parents. We, however, have decided to read the first chapter of the gospel of John. For me, it is a decision that we make to continue for one week with the coming of Jesus. So we have the opportunity today to still listen to Christmas hymns and to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
In the Gospel of John, we learn that Jesus is the Word of God, Jesus is God. We hear that Jesus brings life to us. I have decided this morning to focus on words that are found at the end of the gospel, the idea that we are children of God. We often read that in Scripture but let’s consider for a few minutes how much that means to us.
It is the very coming of Jesus that makes us children of God. According to John, all that we have to do is believe in Jesus and he will give us the power to become children of God. This message is also found in the passage from Galatians today. It says, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” Once again, it is because Jesus came to earth that we have the opportunity to be children of God.
The passage from Galatians helps us understand the importance of being children of God. First, Jesus sends into our hearts the encouragement to call God, Abba. The word Abba provides a sense of intimacy or closeness. Abba describes the personal relationship that is available to us with God. It means we can call God Papa or Daddy. It means we can share things with our Abba that we would not be able to share with others. I know that some people in this congregation have or had difficult relationships with their father but I still hope you can picture the ease of relationship that this term is meant to give us. All of us can turn to God and share what is in our heart and God will listen. Jesus used this term himself when he prayed to God.
In Galatians, we also learn that we are no longer slaves or servants. We are not merely servants but we have been given authority in many things. We have authority over sin and the power to defeat the devil. We have a sense of confidence and hold our heads up because we are God’s family.
Paul also tells us that we are heirs. In Paul’s time, heirs got the lion’s share of the inheritance. Paul wanted us to know that what we will receive as God’s children is so grand and glorious that it is hard to imagine. God is so good and powerful that God gives this gift to everyone of us and each of us.
Paul wrote about our gift as children of God in Romans, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption”. Another gift of children is security. Servants are not certain of their status but children of God do not fear losing the relationship with their Father in heaven.
Paul wrote that “the very Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God”. Paul suggested that we are testifying to our faith in God, the Spirit gives us confidence that our testimony, our faith pronouncement, makes us children of God. The Spirit stands beside us to help us remain faithful.
I know that some of you will question me on the next gift. I call it discipline. It sounds like a bad term. But I believe that God gives us some mild form of developmental reminders as a way to keep us on the straight and narrow path. God’s discipline is good for us. It is intended to help us, not hurt us.
We say that we are made in the image of God. As children of God, we are brothers and sisters of Jesus. We learn from him and we imitate his actions to the best of our ability. It makes us more like him. Sometimes we even share in the suffering that Jesus experienced because we are committed to be a part of his family.
More than any other gift we receive as children of God, I appreciate the fact that we have God’s unconditional love. God wants us to be successful in our faith. God will forgive us when we do wrong. God will be there for us in times of great difficulty. God will not leave us alone and afraid. It is the most wonderful of gifts we receive.
I hope that you appreciate this one more opportunity to think of the baby Jesus coming to be with us. I know that it is not the same as Christmas Eve when you visited the baby Jesus at the manger. But we still focus on the coming of God to be with us on earth. It is a special gift and an amazing commitment that God has made to us. Let us be joyful for this gift and let us give thanks to God for all that we have been given. Today, we remember that Jesus is the light of the world and the giver of life. And we remember that we are now children of God, through our faith and our baptism. We remember all that it means to be a child of God and we live in thanks and praise for all you have received. Amen.
I love Christmas. I love the music. I love the lights. I love visiting with friends and family. I love giving presents to others and receiving presents from them.
More importantly, I love the thought of Jesus. This evening, we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Emmanuel, God, has come to be with us. We come to the manger at Bethlehem with awe and wonder. We come to worship and give thanks for Jesus.
The coming of Jesus, his incarnation, changed everything. Let me share this perspective I read from Karoline Lewis.
“The incarnation means that at the same time the incarnation is a revelation of God, it is also a revelation of who we are. We begin to realize that in God’s decision to become human that our humanity matters. We begin to recognize that in God’s commitment to bodies that our bodies matter.”
For those of you who are alone this Christmas, who feel the loss of someone important in your life, I hope that you can find comfort and peace in the visit of this little baby for Jesus wishes to be with you always. Jesus is there to be a source of strength when you have troubles.
Many people set out a Nativity scene in their homes. Children often have their own nativity sets which can create lasting memories. Our Advent devotions included a story of a three-year old child who told her mother to be quiet for the baby Jesus was being born for her. She had created a scene using several nativity sets as well as other characters such as Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber from Veggie Tales. My wife still has the nativity scene from her childhood and she puts it out each year. My sister sent me a picture the other day of the nativity set which was given to my parents right after World War II. I remember that set. These creches are personal, a way to connect with Jesus on an individual level.
We all come here tonight to celebrate this amazing event. Each of us comes to see and worship the baby Jesus. Some say that all babies are beautiful. I think that is true. Others would say that babies are not beautiful because they are red faced and scrawny. Despite their appearance, we come and admire babies, we want to hold them because they are so precious. Jesus is precious because we believe he is God. Can you imagine holding the baby Jesus in your arms?
So for just a little while, we put away the troubles of our world, the anger and hatred, the fighting and the disagreements. We believe that Jesus came to bring peace to the world. There are so many who seek to follow the will of Jesus, caring for others and doing good works. Still, it seems that we need that peace in our lives today.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent a long time in a Nazi prison and was eventually killed for what he said. But he still lived in hope. Here is an example
“...And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.”
We come to the manger in hope. I am reminded of a poem called “I Heard the Bell on Christmas Day” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth, I said,
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.
Jesus is called the Light of the world, the instrument of Peace. Jesus is the one who can clear away the darkness of your life and help you to see the light. Christians hear the story of Jesus as the Light of the world in the passage from Isaiah. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. This child who has been born will be for us a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah wrote these verses at a time of great trial and tribulation for the people of Israel. Do you feel some of that in your life today? Do you feel powerless as if someone else is controlling your life? Then this Jesus is for you.
The thought of Jesus as the light of the world is described in John’s gospel. John doesn’t tell us the physical details of Jesus’ birth the way Luke does. Instead, John tells us that Jesus is the word. And then, “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. Come Lord Jesus and bring your light of peace to each one of us.
In the Psalm we sing a new song because a new day has come. The world has changed. Our Messiah is here. We proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day. This evening is just the start of our excitement and our new life.
The birth of Jesus was just the beginning. Jesus was born in poor surroundings and Luke believed that Jesus was especially concerned for the poor and those who suffered. The first to visit Jesus were the poor shepherds. Jesus came for everyone. Compassion is the word that best describes his willingness to help anyone and everyone. Jesus came to save those he met from their struggles and he came to save us from our sins. He cared for those in need. We have so much to be thankful for as we celebrate this birth of Jesus.
But I think there is more to the story than just the visit of a baby. We begin to think about what Jesus did for us It took a long time after his birth for Jesus to become a public figure, to begin preaching to people about how they should live their lives and to let them know how much they are loved.
In our life, we make commitments to our selves and to those around us. One of the most important commitments we make is when we become parents. Whether said or unsaid, we make a commitment to do everything we can to raise child in the best way possible. We commit to keeping the child healthy, we make a commitment to protecting the child from harm, we make a commitment to teaching the child what that child needs to know and we make a commitment to giving that child the opportunity to be all that this child can be.
What commitment will you make to the baby Jesus? Are you willing to follow him wherever he leads? Are you willing to listen to his words? Are you wiling to seek him out when you need help? Are you willing to defend him from his enemies? Are you wiling to stay by his side when things go bad?
The idyllic nativity scene that we appreciate and love so much does not last long. As soon as the wise men come, we learn of the threat that Herod made to kill this baby. Jesus is taken to Egypt to escape Herod’s fury.
What I am suggesting is that we take this evening to consider the full scope of our visit to the manger. I ask you to say to this baby Jesus tonight that you are ready to follow him wherever he goes and that you are wiling to do his will in this world. We are not becoming the parents of Jesus but we are making a commitment to be his follower, and to let him be our teacher.
Karoline Lewis said,
“We begin to remember that God’s determination to be known in the flesh means that doing ministry in the flesh matters. We can respond to the coming of Jesus first by realizing that God being here matters and secondly by responding to God’s actions by doing his ministry on this earth.”
My focus during Advent has been to ask Jesus to come and be with us for we really need all that he brings. Let us welcome Jesus into our lives this evening, living with hope that he will bring peace to our world. Let us understand that this child brings love and mercy to outlives. Let us commit ourselves to help bring that peace in all that we do. Amen.
Last week I was in such a good mood that I was singing aloud in the church office. Our office manager, Linda Ostmeyer, took notice and asked me what made me so happy. Things were going well at work and at home and I was pleased. I love to sing to my two granddaughters because they make me happy as well. This past week, my younger brother welcomed his first grandchild into the world. They were so excited that they could not wait to see the baby. In the pictures, they just hold the baby and stare into her eyes. Have you ever been so happy that you just started singing out loud?
Today is a celebration. We remember the glory of God and give thanks for God’s presence in our lives. It is a change of pace from what we have heard in scriptures during the first two weeks of Advent. Now we are joyful. This day is called Gaudete Sunday. The word means rejoice. We get to rejoice even though we still have more than a week before Christmas arrives.
Our readings are full of descriptions of joy at God’s coming. We hear it in the reading from Zephaniah, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart,… for the The Lord has taken away the judgments against you”. My favorite portion of this lesson speaks about God’s happiness in us.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
According to Zephaniah, God is not up in the clouds someplace. No, God is right here, standing next to you and singing for joy. Imagine that! God sings happily for all of humanity and for you personally. God’s excitement over each individual reminds me of the parable of the Lost Sheep. Jesus said that the shepherd would leave the ninety-nine sheep just to find the one that is lost. God cares for everyone of us. The ending tells of God’ rejoicing for finding that one lost sheep.
We find joy in Paul’s letter. Paul wrote that we should Rejoice in the Lord always! We are to be happy and not to worry, he wrote. We should be confident in asking God to help us. We know that the Lord will give us peace through the care of Jesus Christ.
Our concept of a celebration is usually eating too much, drinking too much and staying out late at night. The kind of rejoicing we have here is more like a clear sense of the love and joy that are at the heart of our life. It is a time of feeling connected to others in a way that we might not have felt before. We are connected with God in a special way. Let’s celebrate!
I am sure that you picked up on several other themes that we experience today in our liturgy and in our readings. One of the themes is the hope we have in the salvation that God has given us. It is the theme we use for our Advent candle today. I am feeling a little rebellious today. Rather than talking about hope, I think today is about having a balanced life. I hope that you will think about how God helps you find balance in your life.
Choosing to rejoice in the middle of Advent is an example of balance in our church life. We know that Advent is a time of preparation and a time of contemplation. Today our faith and our liturgy give us the opportunity to be joyous once again, to not simply await the coming of Jesus but to celebrate the salvation that we have already been given. Listening to John the Baptist speak with his followers gives us another sense of balance.
When I think of balance, I imagine a ballet dancer. They are incredibly talented and I know that they practice for hours on end each day. I can see a ballerina jumping up lightly on her tiptoes and spinning around again and again. I remember as a child how I loved to spin around and how quickly I would get dizzy doing so. I would get so dizzy that I would fall down. But ballet dancers have incredible balance and they are able to spin over and over again. By the way, if ballet is not your thing, then I am sure you can imagine some other professional who is able to do fascinating things that require a great deal of balance.
We seek to find balance in our hectic lives standing tall even though we feel caught in a whirlwind of activity and a time when things are uncertain. Balance is something that our faith helps us to accomplish. Most of us are taught that we must make as much money as we can and save as much as we can in case we face a catastrophe or to support ourselves when we retire. It is our faith that helps us to find balance between the desire to have money for ourselves and the knowledge and wisdom to determine how much we should share with those who are needy.
Most of us experience a culture where the Christmas season is a time to purchase goods for ourselves and others. We are bombarded with advertisements and deals that make everything look good. Our faith provides the balance between buying everything we see and buying what is appropriate to share our love with others and to meet our own needs.
Many of us believe that we must live our lives to the fullest, running backward and forwards so that we are always busy. Our faith provides the balance to know that we need to make time for quiet in our lives and for God in our lives. As they say, “take the time to smell the roses.”
Even in our religious observances, our faith helps us to stay in balance. And our faith tradition helps us to understand that we should be joyous and thankful for the gifts that God has given us and at the same time we are called to do the work on earth that Jesus has given us to do.
The message of joy and challenge is described so clearly in the gospel. In the last verse we are told that John the Baptist brought good news to the people. You would be hard pressed to listen to all that John said and decide it is good news. John told the people that they were a brood of vipers. He chastised them saying that they were not living according to God’s expectation. John told them that it wasn’t good enough to say that you were a Jew, you had to produce fruit or you would be chopped down. He told them that they must behave differently and take care of others.
To be fair, there is good news as well. John proclaimed that Jesus was coming and that Jesus would baptize us with the Holy Spirit. We will be given the strength of the Holy Spirit to help us live our lives as God wishes. We must balance the good news with the good works.
Scripture often reminds us to rejoice. Matthew wrote “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven”. In the prodigal son story, the father asked his older son to “celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. When Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, John said, “the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord”.
Scripture also informs us that there is work to be done. When Jesus spoke about the judgment that will come on the last day, he described what he expected. We must feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit those in prison. In John, Jesus said, we must work the works of the God who sent me. Jesus also said, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do”.
We are a joyful people who celebrate God’s grace and God’s gifts. We are a joyful people who do good works out of thanksgiving for what we have received.
It is not quite Christmas but I hope that you will take the time to rejoice and celebrate today. We are encouraged to do good things for others in part because we feel the most joy when we do something for another person. May we have hope that God will give us a sense of balance in our lives, that we may always know how to live, how to celebrate, and how to share. Amen.
I have been thinking about the word repentance all week. John called for people to repent as he preached in the wilderness. The word repentance is found in our collect as well. The prophets preached repentance and we pray that we will heed their warnings. Most of the time I think of repentance as giving up a sin that I have committed and seeking instead to follow in the ways of the Lord. But then I read a commentary that suggested the Greeks and the Hebrews used this word in ordinary life to mean a “change of mind”. It has a similar meaning to giving up on sin but has a slightly different focus. So, in my analytical mind I decided to look it up in my Bible dictionary. I learned that repentance has several Biblical meanings that range from regret to reversal, from changing one’s mind to a complete moral or ethical conversion. Perhaps all of these ideas fit into what we are hearing on this day. How we approach repentance might be based on what we need. And it might be a little different for each one of us.
Our path to repentance may begin with regret. We are sorry for our sins. We are sorry for the people we have hurting. We are sorry for the things that have separated us from God. We wish to change all of that and bring ourselves closer to God once again.
A few may wish for a complete conversion. We, like Paul, believe that we are doing the right thing. But suddenly, we are struck by some powerful force; something like the lightning that struck Paul, and we are transformed. Paul was blinded, but in his blindness he could now see that Jesus was his Lord and Savior. I know of people who have had that sudden conversion experience. You may wish for that yourself.
I would like to spend a few minutes on the idea that repentance is a change of mind. For me, that depends on our faith. Here is one example. In May of 1950, a group of students from Oxford University gathered for a debate between atheists and Christians. The debate was chaired by C. S. Lewis. A philosophy student named Antony Flew argued the case for atheism in a speech titled “Theology and Falsification”. He subsequently published a paper based on his speech. It became the preferred argument for atheists around the world. Flew was accepted as one of the leading atheist thinkers. Now, jump forward to 2004. Flew declared that he had changed his mind. He simply believed that the evidence from science and philosophy now pointed to the existence of a God. Flew wrote that “he accepted the existence of a self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent and omniscient Being.” It took fifty plus years but Flew found repentance as defined by a changing of one’s mind.
In the last few weeks, I have encountered two people who were regular churchgoers but are no longer believers. When people find out that I am a priest, I get into some interesting dialogue. On our cruise, I met a lady who had been raised as a Christian but no longer felt comfortable with what she had been taught or believed. As we toured several cities in Southeast Asia, we often visited Buddhist temples. The people who worshipped at these temples were very sincere. They would light incense and say prayers asking Buddha to care for them in some way. After one of the stops, this lady decided that she wanted to talk with me. She said that she just didn’t understand why Christians were so consumed with believing that Jesus was God. After all, the Jewish faith only has one God, the Muslim faith has Allah and the Buddhist faith has no need for God to be human. Why then is it so important for Christians to believe that Jesus is God. We talked for awhile about the issue but neither of us changed our mind. She just no longer had faith in Jesus.
I heard another story about a woman who had been raised as a Christian who has decided that that was not right for her. She said to another person, “I just don’t get this Jesus thing”. Once again, we have a person who no longer had faith in Jesus.
Faith is something that we have and faith is something that is given to us by God as a gift. Many times we want to treat our faith as something that we have because we have studied the issues with our intellect and decided that we believe in God. I don’t think it works that way. The former atheist turned believer must have had some faith deep inside of him given by God. His faith churned inside him for fifty years as he studied and thought, finally coming to the conclusion that God existed
Faith comes from our hearts and faith is a gift that God has given us. I hope that today you are thankful for the gift of faith. Let’s thank God gives us faith so we will change our mind and turn our hearts to Jesus. We call out to Jesus praying, Come Lord Jesus and instill in our hearts faith and hope and love. Help us to change our minds. Help us to repent.
Another concept of repentance is such that we must reverse our course. We need look no further than the reading from Malachi today. This reading suggests that we must be purified, cleansed of our sins. I am not sure I would enjoy the experience very much. Refining gold and silver requires an extremely hot fire and I certainly would not like to be purified in that way. Nor would I like to be cleansed with the soap of the fuller, for the soap was powerful and the stench of the cleansing was overwhelming. Let us hope that our sins are not so bad that we need to be refined or cleansed. Wouldn’t it be better if we were just gently nudged to get rid of our sins and follow God.
Sometimes, the reversal requires us to look at something from a different point of view. There is a story that Abraham Lincoln once met with a group of ministers for a prayer breakfast. At one point one of the ministers said, “Mr President, let us pray that God is on our side”. Lincoln’s response showed far greater insight, “No, gentlemen, let us pray that we are on God’s side.” Religion is not a tool by which we get God to do what we want but an invitation to open ourselves to being and doing what God wants. Repentance then is a reversal of course. We switch from asking God for what we want to trying to understanding what God wants. Our repentance is to turn from our ways and follow God’s ways.
Regardless of the kind of change we need to experience, I want to remind you that we cannot do it alone. Yes, it does take some effort on our part and a willingness to be different, but much of the work is in God’s hands. That is why we ask once again that Jesus would come into our lives, that Jesus would help us to be changed. For we know that Jesus is the Emmanuel, God with us.
In each of our readings today, we hear about God’s coming acts that will save us. In fact, we learn that God’s justice will prevail and it will happen soon. In Canticle 16, we hear that God will come to his people and set them free. John the Baptist tells us that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. I find God’s work to be so prominent in the letter to the Philippians. Paul celebrated for the people heard God’s message to them. Our lives are no different than the people of Philippi. We have heard in Scripture that Jesus Christ is our Savior, he came to be with us and is with us still. We believe that Jesus will work with us so that we will be ready for the day that he comes. We have lived with the compassion of Jesus. And we try to show the world who Jesus is by letting our “love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help us to determine what is best”.
Advent is a time when we prepare for the coming of Jesus. We want to repent and return to the Lord. We know that we cannot do it alone. So we turn with hope and joy to Jesus and say, Come Lord Jesus, come quickly that we may do our best to live our lives just as you would have us do. Amen.
A gentleman from Ontario wrote that “When his daughters were little he would always tell them around Christmas that this is Jesus' birthday and he only received 3 things so do not be disappointed in what lies under the tree. When it came time for worship on Christmas morning, he asked the children what they thought Jesus would think of Santa and all the hype. Would Jesus ask Santa a question? His youngest daughter replied, "I think Jesus would ask how come I only got three things and none of them were toys?" ... SAL Ridgeway Ontario
Our liturgical season has changed. Thanksgiving is over and Advent has begun. Did you notice that we changed the colors on the banners to blue? The advent candle has been lit, the tone of our service is a little more contemplative. The world may have been talking about Christmas for several weeks but now we start talking about Christmas in church.
You know that Advent means coming. We look forward to the coming of Jesus. When you think about it, there are two different comings of Jesus that we prepare for. To start, we remember the first time that Jesus came to earth. We want to hear the story from Luke about how Mary and Joseph were denied a room in the Inn and we want to see the baby Jesus in the manger. That’s one coming. We believe that Jesus will come again at the end of the world. That is the second coming. Jesus told the story himself and we read it in today’s gospel. The Son of Man will appear on a cloud and judge all of heaven and earth. It will be a traumatic time with much fighting and lots of calamities on earth. It sounds like a time that we should fear. But for those of us who are faithful to Jesus, it seems like a time to look forward to because Jesus will be in full power. At that time, Jesus will judge us. It is our hope that we will be judged as having done well and we will be invited into heaven. We live our lives doing our best to follow the will of Jesus. We know it is the right thing to do and we hope that our good works will be recognized by Jesus on judgment day and that our wrongs will be forgiven. We live in the middle between these two comings of Jesus trying to look back and forward at the same time.
Most of us have been though lots and lots of Advents and Christmases. My suggestion is that you look for a way to make this Advent personal. It might mean that you change your point of view a little. Sometimes we approach Advent as something that is going to happen to us or for us. That Jesus is going to come for the whole world, or we remember that Jesus did come and did save us. I want you to think about the fact that Jesus is coming to you personally. It is not something that just happened a long time ago, or will happen later. It is something that is happening now.
What I am saying is that instead of thinking of this coming of Jesus as a passive experience, let’s find a way to be involved in it individually and actively. Jesus is coming for me and I cannot wait. I want Jesus to enter my heart and change me. Rather than remembering what did happen or imagining what might happen, let’s see if we can make something happen. Let’s seek an encounter with Jesus.
There are so many things we can do. For example, some of you will choose to have a special set of daily devotions for Advent. I have chosen to use this book called “O Wisdom, Reflections on the Names of Jesus”. Some people choose to make an Advent wreath and light candles at the dinner table just as we do here in church. Others have told me that in their house they had an advent calendar. Each day a child would open a little box on the calendar and a tiny figure would be taken out and shared. When she was younger, our daughter had a felt Advent Christmas tree. Each day, she would add an ornament to this tree. We are not kids anymore but let’s try to create some experience each day that reminds us of the coming of Jesus.
I know that many people feel the pressure of the holiday season. There are presents to buy, cards to send and gifts to wrap. There is decorating to be done and cooking to be completed. We may spend time at parties and we may make plans to see relatives. Is it possible that you could dedicate each of these activities to Jesus? After all, our decorating is about showing the light of Christ to all people. Our gifts can be given in remembrance that Christ gave us the gift of salvation. Our time spent with others reminds us of the times that Jesus shared a meal with friends or ate with those who argued with him about his mission on earth. Let’s consider our daily work this season as a way to honor Jesus.
I know that for some people, the holidays are a sad time. You miss someone who has passed or you cannot be with a loved one who is far away. I hope that you will find some solace as you turn your heart to Jesus that his coming may give you some comfort and peace.
I would encourage you try one more thing. I would suggest that you ask for and pray that Jesus will come into your life and into your heart. This is something we do often in our prayers and in our hymns. Some offer this prayer before a meal, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest and let these gifts to us be blest”. We sing the hymn, “Come Thou O Love Divine” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” as well as the anthem “E’en so Lord Jesus Quickly Come”.
Before the season is over, we will be singing that special hymn, “O come O Come Emmanuel”. But I think we should change the words a little bit. Yes we want God to be with us but not to ransom captive Israel but rather to lift us out of our depression. Yes, we want Jesus to come down from heaven and free us from Satan’s tyranny, to save us from our sins, to help us to sin no more. We want Emmanuel to come not to some ancient tribes on the mountain of Sinai but rather to those of us gathered here that we may follow the will of Jesus.
The presence of God in our lives is reflected in this beautiful passage from the letter to the Thessalonians. It is a prayer of thanks for the presence of other faithful Christians in our lives, especially those who inspire our faith and give us joy because of their dedication. It is encouragement for sharing our faith and helping each other during the times that we question our faith. It is a reminder that we live in the present, that we seek God each day and that our faith can be a source of joy. Paul was convinced that God would hear his prayers for his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica and that God would help them to grow in love and faith even though Paul could not be present with them.
At the very end of the Book of Revelation, the author, John, wrote that there will be a river of life flowing through the city and that on either side of the river there will be trees. The trees will bear fruit that will be for the healing of the nations. He writes that the Lord God will be the light and will reign forever. One of the last verses goes like this, “The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon. Amen. Come Lord Jesus”
I believe Jesus is coming to us soon, to each of us, before this year is over. In that coming, let us hope that the nations will be healed.
I would like to paraphrase from a prayer found in the Book of Occasional Services. It is our responsibility and joy to listen to the message of the angels and to go to Bethlehem to see the Son of God lying in a manger. We seek to hear and heed the story of God’s loving purpose for us including the glorious redemption brought to us by Jesus. We look forward to greeting Jesus into our lives once more on this Christmas. This Advent, we await the coming of Jesus. We remember his first coming and we prepare for the second coming. Let’s also ask Jesus to come into our life today and every day of this Advent season. Let’s have an encounter with Jesus during this holiday season. Amen.
One of the stops we made on our recent trip to Southeast Asia was in Bangkok, Thailand. Bangkok is a thriving, economically strong city. As we were driven through the city, we saw many pictures of kings past and present prominently displayed on the streets of the city. One family has ruled the country since 1782 and the tour guide made a point of telling us about improvements made by previous kings. These kings were successful in keeping Thailand from being colonized as other countries in the area were. One recent King, Rama the ninth, ruled for 70 years from 1945 until 2016. He was very popular as he worked to improve living conditions for the poor people in rural areas and his love of music and the arts was appreciated by the people. The country is now led by a prime minister who took over in a military coup in 2014. But it seems that the role of the king is more than that of a figurehead. The latest king does not seem popular and there is a power struggle between the king and the prime minister.
Kingdoms in our world are defined by space and by borders. Kingdoms are defined by people who seek power that will last from generation to generation. Some kings or queens are benevolent, trying to help to make their country a better place but others seem to be only interested in themselves.
Today, we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. It was started 100 years ago as an effort to change our focus from the things of this world to the things of God’s world. We emphasize Christ as our king not earthly kings.
Everything that Jesus did turned the concept of kingship upside down. Jesus spoke often that the kingdom of God was near, but it had nothing to do with space or time, it had nothing to do with control over a group of people. It had nothing to do with how people would exert power over one another. Rather it had to do with love and servanthood, with caring and helping. As Jesus said it had nothing to do with this world.
My experience in Thailand gave me a brief glimpse into the good and bad that monarchies sometimes provide. It seems appropriate because our modern world does not give us a great deal of experience with monarchies. In the United States we tend to look to our Canadian and British friends to understand what a monarchy is like. Queen Elizabeth has reigned for 66 years and she has been a model for what we wish a monarch would be. She is kind and caring. She is a giving person. But we know that not every king or queen has been so wonderful. Our experience may not prepare us well for the radical message Jesus provided.
As I said, Jesus turned the entire concept of kingship upside down. I must say that there are times when I struggle with the image of Jesus as king. I feel as if our two images of God are contradictory. On the one hand, we have an image of God as all powerful. God, the creator, who made the heavens and the earth. God who can move mountains. God who can destroy the world in a flood and build it up once again. This is the God we find in some readings for today. The book of Daniel provides an image of God, the Ancient One, who has been in existence forever. This God ascends to a powerful throne with fire spewing out, a demonstration of God’s power. This God is worshipped by so many that they cannot be counted. And we are introduced to a figure that is like a human being, who is given dominion over all things. Our Christian minds see Jesus as that figure and we understand why we are called to worship him as a king. This passage from Daniel is part of what we refer to as apocalyptic literature. It is written as a dream that Daniel had about what will happen at the end of the world.
In the Psalm, we also encounter images of God. This time, God is clothed in marvelous apparel and placed on a throne. Then we hear about the glorious power of God, a God who can control the water. If you have ever experienced raging waters that are found in a flood or a hurricane, you understand the power of water. But God controls all water, even the oceans.
The book of Revelation is also considered apocalyptic literature, another dream about the end of the world. This passage is a little different in that Jesus is specifically mentioned in the dream. Jesus is the one who will ascend to the throne and be given power over all things. Jesus is our king.
On the other hand, we have Jesus as the servant of all. The one who gave up his life for our salvation, the one who spoke of love not war. In the gospel of John, we hear Jesus speaking to Pilate just before he is taken out to be crucified. I imagine that Jesus was bound in chains and perhaps bloodied by the thrashing that he had just received. This is not an image of God clothed in beautiful garments and sitting on a majestic throne. But it is consistent with other times when Jesus preached about being servants. In Mark’s gospel Jesus “sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Jesus demonstrated that he was a servant because he taught all who would listen, he was a healer who took care of the sick, and he forgave people who had sinned.
It turns out that Jesus is both the mighty ruler and the humble servant. We are called to accept both of these images of Jesus as our God. In fact, we learn about how we should behave from the actions of Jesus.
Eleonore Stump offered this observation about what appears to be opposite views of Jesus, “What most people reject as the worst things in life turns out in Christ’s crucifixion to be the prize-winning goods. On the cross Christ makes manifest that real winning is what looks to the world like losing.”
And we also recognize the glory of Jesus as king. Eleonore Stump said it this way, “There is a time for suffering, when all worldly values and all earthly desires are turned upside down, a time when we struggle with sin and suffering. But there is also a time when things turn right-side up again and then all struggle ends. At that time, each one of Christ’s people will say of every affliction, “That was then; this is now!” Only that now, when all sin and suffering falls away, is an everlasting now. And the cross is the way to it. It is best said in the letter to the Philippians, “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:8.
The interrogation by Pilate gives us a great example of the humble Jesus. Jesus was not bullied or afraid. My kingdom does not belong to this world, he said. It tells us that worldly pursuits are less important than Godly pursuits. I saw a news article about some student council members who decided to invite a sophomore with learning disabilities who was eating lunch by himself to join them. It changed his day. We know that often it is the little things we do that make a big difference for others. It is an example of how we can be servants to others.
Jesus told Pilate that he came into the world to testify to the truth. Jesus was more interested in the truth than taking his rightful place as a king. The truth is that Jesus loved us and was a humble servant to all of us. The truth is that Jesus is God. The truth is that Jesus saved us through his sacrifice and reigns over the world at the same time. Although not included today, Pilate actually asked, “What is truth?” That is a question that we should ask ourselves all of the time. We should always be seeking the truth of the gospel and the truth of God’s message to us. It may not always be clear and there are many people who may turn us away from the truth. But let us always be the ones who seek God’s truth. Let us share in both the humbleness that Jesus taught us and the glory of his crowning as the king of all. Let us celebrate and seek to find the truth which is best found in following Jesus. Amen.
I have taken the trip from Mesa to Flagstaff many times. As you drive up the mountain, you experience so many climate changes. You start in the desert with little that is green and yet you are surrounded by the majestic saguaro cactus, silent sentinels keeping watch over the landscape. You end up in Flagstaff with its massive ponderosa pines giving shade to all who visit. Of course there are many other changes as well. Flagstaff has a small population relative to the huge numbers of people found in the valley. Flagstaff has an outdoor feel to it. Sometimes, Phoenix feels like a concrete jungle to me but Flagstaff has never had that sense for me.
I was reminded of the changes as you travel from Flagstaff and Mesa because of the setting of today’s gospel, Jericho. I haven’t been in Israel for many years but I remember the bus ride from Jericho up to Jerusalem. It is only twenty miles. But Jericho is 825 feet below sea level and Jerusalem is 2500 feet above sea level. Jerusalem receives about 20 inches of rain per year and has a Mediterranean climate while Jericho is an oasis in the desert. Jericho is a small city while Jerusalem is a large metropolis. Jerusalem was the center of the Jewish faith in the time of Jesus while Jericho was a small outpost.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus arrived in Jericho from Galilee. He was on his way up to Jerusalem. It was a pilgrimage that had been taken by religious people for centuries. There are several Psalms of ascent which are prayers offered during this journey. This was his last reported event before his arrival in Jerusalem, just before the joyous events we celebrate on Palm Sunday and the sadness of Good Friday. The journey Jesus took has some parallels to our situation. There are times when we take such trips, perhaps a pilgrimage of a different kind. Our lifelong journey, our pilgrimage, is filled with blessed moments and challenges. We wish that our journeys will result in a mountaintop experience, a time when we see God in a special way. We hope to finish our journey with a welcome into heaven by Jesus. The story of Bartimaeus can give us some suggestions about how we reach out to God during our travels. It can give us encouragement about how God helps us on our way.
Bartimaeus was blind and sitting by the roadside begging for money or food. There are three specific things that draw our attention. One of the first things to note is how he cried out for help. He must have heard about Jesus, especially about those who had been healed. Bartimaeus called out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” For many, referring to Jesus as Son of David meant that he recognized Jesus as the Messiah. It would have been a startling confession of faith.
Did you notice that the crowd walking with Jesus tried to drown out Bartimaeus? They didn’t want to be bothered. Their sights were set on Jerusalem and they didn’t want anything to get in the way. Several disciples accompanied Jesus on this journey. They continued to misunderstand his mission. Did they let their own interests get in the way of helping this poor man? Did they believe that going to Jerusalem was more important than helping others? Of course, we know that Jesus came specifically to help the downtrodden. Bartimaeus was just the kind of person Jesus came to help, despite the efforts by the crowd to drown him out.
I was struck by what Jesus said when they finally met. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked. Jesus wanted Bartimaeus to ask the question, to say explicitly what his need was. Bartimaeus didn’t say he needed food or money which was what he usually asked for. Rather he said that he needed to have his sight restored.
Bartimaeus was the one person who clearly understood who Jesus was. Despite his blindness, he could see that Jesus was the Messiah and Jesus was the one who could heal him. The disciples of Jesus, the close followers, were the ones who were blind. They tried to keep Jesus from what he was called to do. In the passage just before this, James and John asked for special treatment, they wanted to be honored when Jesus was made king. They didn’t understand that Jesus was going to die on the cross and that they too would be killed for their beliefs. It was another example of their blindness. Only Bartimaeus knew who Jesus was and when he was healed this former blind man followed Jesus to Jerusalem.
What might we take away from this lesson? The three takeaways are to cry out to God for help in faith, to be unfettered by anyone or anything that stands in our way of asking God to help us and to trust that God will care for us.
I think this lesson tells us that we should ask God for exactly what we need. That is a little tricky. Sometimes we know what we want but that may not be what we need. It is always okay to ask God for what we want but it is usually better to let God decide what we need. I am sure that Jesus knew what Bartimaeus needed before he spoke. But he wanted to hear the words from Bartimaeus anyway. Because in asking, Bartimaeus declared that Jesus was God. We too show our worship of God when we ask for God’s mercy and when we ask God to help us in our need.
There is another subtle message. The recognition of God may come from someone that we don’t know or expect. If Bartimaeus was the one who could see and know who Jesus was, then how might we be blind to the work of God in our lives? How might we learn from someone else about the wonder of God’s love?
The saving power of Jesus was found in his healing and in his sacrifice. The saving power of God was known by the Jewish people long before Jesus came to earth. The reading from Jeremiah speaks a similar story to the one we heard in the gospel. The people cry out to God begging that they will be saved, that God will return them to their chosen city of Jerusalem. It is as if they shouted out to God with joy because they knew that when they asked God for help, God would be there for them.
Psalm 126 fits perfectly with the reading from Jeremiah. It is a plea that God will bring back the Jewish people from their exile. The psalmist refers to the time when God gave the land of Israel to these people and asks that they once again receive that gift. It is the same cry for God’s mercy that we heard from Bartimaeus. The people are confident that God will hear them once again.
I cannot help but think of the horrific events in Pittsburgh yesterday. Eleven people were killed in a synagogue. Once again, the Jewish people have been attacked by someone who was opposed to their religious beliefs. The cry of the Jewish people in Jeremiah and Psalms that God will take care of God’s people could be spoken of this latest tragedy. We weep with the people in that synagogue. We decry acts of violence done for any religious purpose and we decry violence of any kind against unsuspecting and law abiding people. We join the Jewish people in their cry that God will save us from these terrible tragedies. We pray that God will stop all acts of violence against people who are worshipping in any church or synagogue. We ask God to help us find ways to defend ourselves against such violent acts. We pray that God will take away our fear.
The story of the blind man in the gospel fits our current day situation well. Let us always have faith in Jesus Christ. In faith we have the courage and conviction to call out and ask Jesus for healing. We do so with confidence and hope. We are ready when Jesus turns to us and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” We want God to keep us safe and we want God to heal us from every sickness. We pray that God will heal those people who have lost their way and believe that somehow violence is the answer to their concerns. And we live with that joyful knowledge that Jesus hears us and when Jesus decides that what we ask for is the best thing to do, we know that Jesus will act to provide that healing. That is why we come to church with joy. It is a joy that comes from knowing of God’s love and mercy for us. Amen.