Incarnation: Thoughts on what Mary understood, and what she pondered… A Christmas Eve meditation

Luke 1: 26-38; 2: 1; 3-20

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

2In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

I was listening to an Audible book this week about Christmas music.

Jingle Bell Pop, by John Seabrook.

Seabrook refers to certain Christmas hymns and songs as the Christmas Music “Canon”.

It includes those songs that we hear every year at Christmas time, and probably always will.

Some are focused on the birth of Christ, others more toward the “holiday” season.

Seabrook starts with “Silent Night” written in 1818 by Franz Xavier Gruber and Joseph Mohr.

He closes the canon with “All I Want for Christmas is You” written in 1994 by Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff.

Unfortunately, Seabrook does not give us a full list of the songs he calls “Canon” and I suspect we would have a long and lively discussion of those songs and hymns that should be included and those that should not.

One song I would include is the 1991 song, “Mary Did You Know?” written by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene.

The song asks a series of questions of Mary.

Mary did you know that your baby boy:

would one day walk on water?
would save our sons and daughters?
give sight to a blind man?
calm a storm with his hand?
walked where angels trod?
is Lord of all creation?
would one day rule the nations?
is heaven’s perfect lamb?

Well, did she?

Did she know all that on the day Jesus was born?

To answer that, I included the two principal scriptural events that describe what Mary was told about her child to be.

Mary knew the boy was special, but there was still a fair amount of uncertainty about the baby’s future.

So, this evening, I want to take a fresh look at these stories and Mary herself.

Think of it as a two act play with several scenes.

Act I

When the story opens, we are given background by the narrator.

Mary is a teenaged girl of marriage age who lives in Nazareth.

Nothing good comes from Nazareth, right?

Her father has arranged for her to be married to a carpenter named Joseph.

The marriage will be consummated when she gets to move in with Joseph.

That’s still a ways off.

Now the action begins.

Mary is occupied in her normal life, puttering around her parent’s small home.

Then enter Gabriel!

(Angels are always terrifying, by the way.)

Mary’s reaction to this unexpected guest evolves over the course of the encounter.

At first Mary is afraid.

I have an image that she is cowering behind whatever she can find to cower behind with wide eyes and gaping mouth.

She is gasping … panting.

Maybe she wants to scream but can’t.

Gabriel shushes her and tries to calm her down.

He delivers the message.

Mary is now more mystified.

With a puzzled expression Mary askes a few questions.

“Why do you (Gabriel is it?) call me favored?”

“That the Lord is with me?”

“What the heck does that mean?”

“Why do I get a visit from you (Gabriel, right?)?”

“Does God even know I exist?”

“I’m a girl from Nazareth.”

“Nazareth!”

“Nothing good comes from here, right?”

She drops her chin to her chest, shaking her head – “No, no, no …”

“I think you have the wrong person, Gabriel.”

Then the big reveal!

She’s going to have a son.

She is no longer cowering.

She bolts upright!

“Wait … what!?”

“A baby?”

“Me?”

“How is that going to happen?”

“Wait … what?”

“This is going to be God’s doing?”

“Wait … what?”

“This baby will be what?”

“You’re saying I will be the mother of the Messiah!”

Gabriel is nodding his head.

“How can this be?”

“How can any of this be?”

Then, after all this, the fear, the confusion, the incredulity, and no doubt intense teenage angst, Mary sits down hard on a chair.

She shrugs her shoulders and says:

“Whatever!”

The curtain closes.

Act II

Scene 1

We jump ahead a few months.

We look in on Mary.

She is now living with Joseph.

Mary is not happy.

She is pregnant – and packing.

She and Joseph have to go to Bethlehem for a census.

All that talk about who the child was going to be and do is lost in the midst of Mary’s physical and emotional pregnancy challenges.

She is mumbling under her breath.

It’s a long way.

A long trip for a pregnant girl.

Curtain closes.

Scene 2

She and Joseph are now in Bethlehem.

They are staying with Joseph’s family.

And Mary knows none of them.

A big crowd in a small house.

Everyone is a bit cramped.

Everyone looks at Mary with raised eyebrows as they walk through the house.

She is looking like she could go into labor at any moment.

Mary has many questions for Joseph.

“Where am I going to have this baby?”

“I need a bit of privacy, right?”

“Who will be with me?”

“All my closest friends are in Nazareth!”

“I know no one here.”

“Is it just going to be just you and me, Joseph?”

“And a midwife”, Joseph responds.

“We’ll go into the stable area.”

“It’s private there.”

“Plenty of clean straw.”

“Dry.”

“Warm.”

“It’s going to be fine.”

Mary scowls … and her water breaks.

Those of you who have given birth and those of us who watched know that the two-line description of Jesus actual birth leaves a lot out.

We are not told how long it took nor what Mary went through.

When Jesus was born, the midwife washes him, wraps him in bands of cloth and lays him on Mary’s chest.

Jesus is crying, which is good, because they want him to clear his lungs.

Only when Mary falls asleep is Jesus put in the manger.

You get the picture here.

This was not a silent night.

Curtain closes.

Scene 3

The scene shifts.

We are up in the hills near Bethlehem.

Several shepherds are guarding their sheep.

These guys are filthy.

They are smelly.

They are out taking care of the sheep because they are at the bottom of the social ladder.

Then … an explosion of activity.

An angel.

Heavenly Hosts.

The Glory of the Lord.

A celestial birth announcement.

Can you imagine being on that hill?

I would probably be digging a hole to hide in.

There is no place to run.

I would be shaking and maybe feeling a bit nauseous.

Angelic visitor. Heavenly host.

Glory of God.

Then it all ends.

I look at my fellow shepherds.

Maybe rocking back and forth from foot to foot.

Wringing hands.

Not making eye contact.

Then someone says, “Did that really just happen?”

“Um, yeah.”

“What do you think we should do?”

“Um … maybe we better go into town and find the baby.”

“I mean that’s what that … um … guy said we should do, right?”

“Yeah … right. That’s what we should do.”

Exit stage left.

Scene 4

Back to the stable.

Jesus is sleeping in the manger.

Mary and Joseph chatting quietly because they don’t want to wake the baby.

It’s been a big night, and now they can relax.

They begin to doze.

In troops a bunch of stinky, smelly shepherds.

“Hey, here he is!”

Just like that … um … guy said!

Mary grabs Jesus and holds him tight.

These unexpected visitors tell Mary about the otherworldly birth announcement, what the angel told them about the baby and that they were to go and check it all out.

While they tell their tale, what does Mary do?

She sits silently.

She has a demure smile, but a furrowed brow as she looks at her child.

The narrator tells us she treasures the words but ponders what they mean.

The curtain falls.

The end.

So, when you put the story together, what did Mary really know?

Her baby would be great and would be called the Son of the Most High.

That the Lord God would give to him the throne of his ancestor David.

That he would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there would be no end.

That he would be holy and would be called Son of God.

And that his birth would be news of great joy for all the people: A Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

How did Mary respond to all this?

She treasured it all.

And what mother wouldn’t when such words were spoken about her child?

But she also “pondered them in her heart”.

Again, the uncertainty of what the future would hold for this child.

But for this moment, he is her child.

All this other stuff?

Mary is not going to think about it right now.

Right now, Mary is just enjoying that moment.

The birth of her son.

Her first born.

We, of course, know the rest of the story.

Even though we have been told much, we, like Mary, still don’t really understand.

What we know and what we don’t know.

But it is Christmas Eve and all that can wait.

Tonight, let’s just sit with Mary and the baby, Emanuel, God with us.

Let’s just enjoy that moment.

Prince of Peace: Thoughts on the Peace that Jesus Brings.

This week we continue our Advent celebration of Christmas Carols.

Three weeks ago, we sang “Good Christian Friends Rejoice” and proclaimed the good news of the second verse.

Good Christian friends, rejoice,
With heart and soul, and voice;
Now ye hear of endless bliss:
Jesus Christ was born for this!
He hath opened the heavenly door,
And man is blessed evermore.
Christ was born for this!
Christ was born for this!

We proclaim that Jesus came to open heaven’s door and bless humanity forever more.

Jesus was born for this.

Two weeks ago we sang a different carol.

“Joy to the World”.

In this carol we proclaim:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,

We proclaim Jesus to be our king who reigns and rules.

Jesus was born for this, too.

Last week we sang a new Carol.

“O Come All Ye Faithful”

In that carol we proclaim Jesus to be:

Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

Jesus was God’s personification of God’s creative force.

Jesus was born for this, too.

This week we sing a new carol.

“Hark the Herald”

PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION

Luke 2: 8-14

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

In today’s carol we proclaim:

Hark the Herald, angels sing,

Glory to the new born king,

Peace on earth and mercy mild,

God and sinner reconciled.

This hymn is about our scripture reading!

The angelic herald comes to shepherds and provides good news.

It’s a birth announcement, complete with location and identifying features.

A savior.

A messiah.

The Lord.

And a prayer.

God be praised, may this baby bring peace to earth.

Which makes me think about the little ritual that we do most Sundays.

We “pass the peace”.

I say:

The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

And you say:

And also with you.

Then we spend the next few minutes wandering around, shaking hands and saying something like, “Peace be with you”.

Why do we do that?

I mean, we have the cookie and coffee table in the Narthex.

We say hello to and chat up all the folks we can.

Why do we go through this ritual in the service itself?

Well, it comes from Jesus.

In John 14: 27 Jesus has come to the end of his life here.

Jesus tells his disciples this at the Last Supper.

27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.

Jesus passes the peace.

Where does the peace of Jesus come from?

It is the peace we hear about in today’s scripture.

The peace that came with Jesus at his birth.

It comes from the prayer of the Heavenly Host who were praising God and who prayed this brief two-line prayer.

14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

A prayer of thanks for the delivery of Jesus and a prayer of intercession asking that the birth provide peace on earth.

The peace we pass is the peace that Jesus brought with him, left his disciples who passed it on to us.

And now we pass it to each other.

What that should teach us is that peace is more than just a feeling.

It is a thing.

The peace Jesus brought from God and passed on to us can be passed from one person to another.

And so we do that every Sunday.

What do we accomplish?

I mean, last time I checked, the world is not a peaceful place.

There is still a lot of conflict, right?

But I’m not just talking about fighting among ourselves.

There is plenty of that.

Today I’m talking about anxiety.

Kind of like the anxiety the shepherd felt in the story Linda shared.

He lost a lamb.

We all know what it is like to lose something important.

You search and search and search as the anxiety that you will not find it grows.

And if you don’t find it, the anxiety soars.

In Linda’s story, the shepherd no doubt thought he was a failure at shepherding.

The lamb he was to protect might die.

He might get fired, or worse.

His world might come to an end.

His concern is doubtless overwhelming.

I’m pretty sure we all know that feeling.

We worry about many things.

Financial.

Familial.

Societal.

Political.

Social.

The everyday apprehension that arises from our complex and scary world can overwhelm us and crush our spirits.

So, if Jesus has left us peace to pass, what does it look like?

What does it feel like?

This, I think.

It is a mindfulness that God is present.

God is with us, even in times of uncertainty.

That is a gift from God.

That peace came when God did come to be with us.

So, when we pass the peace, we are offering a prayer that the person we greet experiences God’s presence.

A sanctuary from the unease of life, even if just for a moment or two.

It might look like this.

Some time ago I read a book by Richard Foster simply called “Prayer”.

In it he describes a time when he was harried and anxious.

He was looking for a bit of peace.

So he began to pray:

“Rest.”

“Be still.”

“Shalom.”

And he repeated those words until he found it.

A calm.

A feeling of well-being.

An awareness of something more important and profound than his apprehension.

He called it the “presence in the midst.”

The presence of God in the midst of his life.

Not long after that, I was an adult chaperone on a high school mission trip to Agua Prieta, Mexico.

While we were waiting to go to the airport from a local church in Arizona, a virus burned through our group and sent around half to a local hospital.

One young man was particularly distressed as he got sicker and sicker.

His anxiety was worse than the physical symptoms.

I admit I was pretty anxious myself!

So, I told him to look me in the eye and repeat those Foster’s words.

“Rest.”

“Be still.”

“Shalom.”

As we repeated those words together, we both began to relax.

We became peaceful.

Things were going to be OK.

In five minutes, he was asleep.

One of the other chaperones had watched the whole thing.

He said, “I’ve never seen anything like that!”

Neither had I.

We had just experienced the presence in our midst.

The peace had been passed.

My law partner did something for me like that a while back.

In a particularly difficult and stressful time in our practice she bought me a plaque that said:

‘Be still, and know that I am!’

It comes from Psalm 46.

“Be still and know that I am God.”

It hangs in my office even now.

I read it this way:

“Be still and know that I am present.”

That plaque gave me peace, and still does.

Peace that was passed.

That is what happened in our scripture reading.

We hear the herald of Jesus birth, and we can have rest, stillness, shalom.

Go has come to us.

The presence in our midst.

Even during anxious and disheartening times.

And we can live that way, not only in our personal worry, but also in the worldwide uncertainty of our times.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer did.

After he was imprisoned by the Nazis, he wrote to his fiancé one Christmas.

Listen to what he said:

Be brave for my sake, dearest Maria, even if this letter is your only token of my love this Christmas-tide. We shall both experience a few dark hours – why should we disguise that from each other?  We will ponder the incomprehensibility of our lot and be assailed by the question of why, over and above the darkness enshrouding humanity, we should be subjected to the bitter anguish of a separation whose purpose we fail to understand. … 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 … God is in the manger … No evil can befall us … the God who is secretly revealed to us as love … rules the world and our lives.

His words:

“God is in the manger!”

That’s the kind of peace I sought … and got … when I went to church after 9/11.

I remember it well.

I was the managing director of a downtown law firm.

I was told about the attacks and turned on the radio.

The World Trade Center was in flames.

The Pentagon was devastated.

There was still one plane unaccounted for and it was near Pittsburgh.

We were being told to evacuate because Pittsburgh was the closest “target”.

I told everyone in the office to head home.

Then I sat down at my desk and prayed.

Hard.

I knew this was going to be bad.

The world had just changed.

Dark times were ahead.

It was going to last a long time.

But as I prayed, I felt peace.

I did not know what was going to happen.

I did not know if the world was going to survive.

But I knew that God was present.

The one who offers peace through his son.

The one who forgets and forgives the stuff we people do to each other.

I looked to Jesus.

I found my peace.

In Linda’s story, we hear a parable of the same thing.

The frightened shepherd is looking for that which will give him peace.

He thinks it is the lamb.

But in fact, it’s Jesus.

That is what the Heavenly Host prayed for at Jesus birth.

Jesus peace on earth.

The presence in the midst.

But as Bonhoeffer said, the darkness of the world enshrouds us.

We have trouble feeling God’s presence.

So we have rituals that we use to remind us.

The worship service.

The advent wreath.

The baptismal font.

The Communion table.

The passing of the peace.

When we do these things, we are reminded that Jesus promises that he was, is and will always be present.

And regardless of the anxiety and stress we feel during this advent we can break through the darkness and feel that presence.

Rest.

Be still.

Shalom.

And then sing:

Hark the Herald, angels sing,

Glory to the new born king,

Peace on earth and mercy mild,

God and sinner reconciled.

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church (Advent 4)

On July 22, 2013 Prince George was born to Prince William and his wife Kate. The little prince is third in line to the throne of Great Britain. How was the royal birth announced? A blank announcement was taken to the hospital where Kate labored. Once the baby was born, the doctors (there were four), filled in the blanks which included the time of the birth and the gender of the child. That document was then framed and presented on a golden tripod outside Buckingham Palace. The name of the child was not on the announcement because tradition required the name to be communicated to the Queen before it was announced a few days later. Then there was also a 41-gun salute! That is quite a birth announcement! Why such a big deal? The people of Great Britain now know that the House of Windsor will continue on the throne for at least three more generations. Many Brits look at this as a blessing from God and a sign of the continuation of their great nation. Maybe that gives them a little peace of mind.

In the Gospel of Luke, there is a much more memorable birth announcement described. The birth of Jesus. The birth of a king! It is a celestial announcement with an angel and heavenly hosts. The announcement was made to shepherds and included a brief prayer and blessing. The prayer and blessing praised God and asked that there be peace on earth and goodwill. When we read Luke’s description of the announcement every year, we hear those words; Peace on earth and goodwill. And when I read those words, I do feel a bit peaceful. But then I read the paper. Is there really any peace on earth? Can this royal birth give us peace of mind despite the conflict and violence we read and see and hear about? You bet! Come and hear about it when Pastor Jeff preaches “Peace on Earth” based on Luke 2: 8-14 at 8:30 and 11 at John McMillan Presbyterian Church. We will look forward to seeing you!

Word of the Father: Thoughts on the word made flesh.

 

This week I continue our Advent celebration of Christmas Carols.

Two weeks ago we sang “Good Christian Friends Rejoice” and proclaimed the good news of the second verse.

Good Christian friends, rejoice,
With heart and soul, and voice;
Now ye hear of endless bliss:
Jesus Christ was born for this!
He hath opened the heavenly door,
And man is blessed evermore.
Christ was born for this!
Christ was born for this!

We learned that this was what Paul proclaimed in his letter to the Colossians:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Jesus Christ was born for this.

And so good Christian friends rejoice!

Last week we sang a different carol.

“Joy to the World”.

In this carol we proclaim:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,

We are proclaiming Jesus to be our king who reigns and rules.

Jesus was born for this, too.

And so, we can proclaim joy to the world.

This week we sing a new Carol.

O Come All Ye Faithful.

John 1: 1-18 (excerpts)

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

… [T]o all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 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. …  16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. …  [G]race and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. 

In today’s carol, O Come all Ye Faithful, we proclaim Jesus to be:

Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

Good theology.

So, what does it mean?

When I read this scripture, something peculiar popped into my head.

When my son was in high school, had a part in the high school musical.

When he auditioned, I asked him what the musical was.

He said, L’il Abner!

L’il Abner!

I hadn’t seen L’il Abner since I was a little kid.

It was hilarious.

One of the best characters is Mammy Yokum, Abner’s mother.

She is a bare-knuckle boxer who was “champeen” of the little town of Dogpatch.

Not only was Mammy physically imposing, her personality was a force of nature.

In the town of Dogpatch, she had the last word on just about everything.

If there was ever an argument in her home, or in Dogpatch, Mammy had the last word.

When she said, “Ah has spoken!,” that was the end of any discussion.

“Ah has spoken!”

Words of authority.

Words that make things happen.

Words that made things happen.

These are not words of persuasion.

These are not words of negotiation.

These are not words of debate.

These are words, that when said, cause things to happen, or not happen as the case might be.

There are few times that any of us have that kind of power or authority.

Where we can speak and things happen.

And even in those rare moments when we do, it doesn’t last forever.

In L’il Abner, Pappy Yokum ultimately usurped Mammy’s authority taking charge of Abner’s rescue from the villainous General Bullmoose and even used Mammy’s famous line on her – “I has spoken!”

That is the kind of thing we have seen throughout history, right?

Leaders come and go.

Someone else takes over.

Most not even remembered in history books.

We remember the words of only a few.

And even fewer have had any real long-lasting impact with their words.

But there is one whose word has eternal power and authority.

John describes him in our scripture reading today.

Jesus.

Jesus is the “word of God” personified.

How do we interpret that?

To understand what John is describing, we need to understand the Hebrew and Greek meanings of the word … well … “word”.

In Hebrew, the word is Milah.

It is not just a sound, it is a thing.

A thing that once uttered, has an impact.

For good or bad.

Something that cannot be undone.

But for John, the word he describes is much more.

The word, the thing, is the will of God.

It is the will of God that creates in the beginning an enlightened universe out of the dark chaos and enlivens that universe thereafter.

It is the word that connects God with creation.

Always.

It has always been here, is here now and will always be here.

We hear about it first at the very beginning of the Old Testament.

The birth of the universe.

God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

God said, “Let there be a sky,” and there was a sky.

God said, “Let there be earth and sea,” and there was earth and sea.

God said, “Let there be vegetation,” and there was vegetation.

God said, “Let there be a sun and moon and stars,” and there was a sun and moon and stars.

God said, “Let there be fish and birds,” and there were fish and birds.

God said, “Let there be land animals,” and there were land animals.

God said, “Let there be human beings,” and there were human beings.

You get the theme here.

God spoke it and it happened.

God keeps speaking and it keeps happening.

Because “God has spoken!”

Isaiah describes it a bit differently.

Isaiah 55: 11
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 

God’s words go out and return fulfilled.

God’s purpose is accomplished.

God’s will succeeds.

God’s will has power.

And then we hear this, too, in Isaiah.

Isaiah 40: 8
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.

God’s word is eternal.

So God’s word is eternally creating.

That is the Hebrew perspective.

But John writes in Greek.

And to a Greek audience.

John uses the Greek word Logos.

The best explanation I have read on what Logos means was by William Barkley.

He said the Stoic Greek philosophers focused on these questions:

What keeps the stars in their courses?

What makes the tides ebb and flow?

What makes the days and nights come in unalterable order?

What brings the seasons around at their appointed times?

Their answer was the Logos.

All things are controlled by the Logos of God. The Logos is the power which puts sense into the world, the power that makes the world an order instead of a chaos, the power which set the world going and keeps it going in its perfect order. The Logos pervades all things.

So, if we combine those things, we see that both the Hebrew and the Greek use the concept of the word as the will of God that creates and sustains all things.

That is John’s message.

The word is the connection between God and us.

The Milah.

The Logos.

John says that Jesus is the embodiment of that.

We see what that looks like in Mark’s gospel.

Mark says Jesus came to teach people that the Kingdom of God had come near and that they needed to repent and believe in that good news.

What Jesus was saying is that Jesus himself was the Kingdom of God come near.

And he demonstrated it with his power to heal, calm storms, raise the dead, feed multitudes and cast out demons.

Jesus was demonstrating then he has the authority of God in his words.

When Jesus spoke, his words caused things to happen.

Because he said so.

Jesus had spoken.

Jesus did not come to work miracles.

He came to enlighten and to enliven.

He wanted people to listen to him and learn from him what life in the kingdom looked like.

So that they would know God.

That is the word.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

If you were going to tell someone about Jesus, where would you start?

Each of the Gospel writers approaches the issue a bit differently.

In Luke we learn of Jesus’ divinity when Gabriel visits Mary.

In Matthew we learn of Jesus’ divinity when the angel visits Joseph.

Mark, the oldest Gospel, implies that it comes at his baptism.

John’s approach is the most powerful:

In John, Jesus preexists not only his birth and his baptism, but … well … everything!

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being …

If you want a birth story, here you go.

The birth of the universe.

And it happened because Jesus made it happen.

But then this:

4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Creation is enlivened through Jesus as well.

It is lit up!

It continues because Jesus gave it life and light.

And so through Jesus, God is connected to us.

According to John, God, through the word, always has been, is now, always will be.

But why, then, the incarnation?

John puts it this way:

… [T]o all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

He came to pull us into his relationship with God.

To allow us to be adopted children of God.

Who would then become eternal children of God.

And then there is this, which should not be missed:

14 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. …  16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. …  [G]race and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. 

We see God in Jesus.

Jesus allows us to see the character of God.

Glorious.

Life giving.

Light giving.

Powerful.

Grace giving.

Truth speaking.

Creator.

Redeemer.

Sustainer.

As N. T. Wright put it:

That’s the theme of this Gospel: if you want to know who the true God is, look long and hard at Jesus.

The Word made flesh.

That is good news indeed!

Worth celebrating, right?

Worth coming to adore.

Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to Thee be all glory giv’n;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing;

Oh, come, let us adore Him, oh, come, let us adore Him,
Oh, come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church (Advent 3)

My brother and I are reading a series of book by Bernard Cornwall called the “Last Kingdom Series”. It is also a Netflix series. The series follows the adventures of Uhtred of Babenberg during the time of King Alfred the Great of the Anglo-Saxons (866-899 AD). Uhtred was the son of the Lord of Northumbria but whose rights to the castle there were usurped by his uncle after Uhtred’s father was killed by the invading Danes.  Uhtred was taken away and raised by the Danes. On his return, Uhtred spends his days serving King Alfred, though not always happily, while trying to get his castle back. These historical novels are better than any fantasy book you might be inclined to read (though beware, the church, while a major part of the stories, is not particularly well thought of by the fictional Uhtred ). Recently, my brother was doing some genealogical research of Babenberg in Northumbria, England, where the ancient Tindall family (or Tyndale, Tindol, Tyndal, Tindall, Tindal, Tindale, Tindle, Tindell, Tindill, Tindel or any number of other spellings) haled from. Much to our surprise, he found this on Wikipedia:

The first member of the family known by this name was Uchtred, Lord of Tyndale, who married Bethoc Canmore, daughter of Donald IIIKing of Scots from 1093–1099.[3] His name, the period of his life and his lands and position suggest a kinship with the Anglo Saxon Earls of Northumbria, one of whom was Uchtred the Bold, Earl from 1006 to 1016. These Earls, in turn, were descended from the Saxon Kings of Northumbria. 

What? I am royalty? Related to a real Uhtred? Who can know? But anyway, it is fun to try and understand who we are by looking back into our ancestry. If you were trying to describe your heritage, how would you do it? How far back in time would you go?

When the Gospel writers were trying to describe Jesus’ heritage, they each took a different approach. Mark said Jesus receive God’s blessing at his baptism. Luke said that Mary received the blessing. Matthew gives that blessing to Joseph. But then there is John. He goes back beyond the baptism; beyond the birth stories, all the way back to the beginning. I mean the real beginning. The Genesis kind of beginning. “In the beginning …” So, what does John say about this and what exactly does it have to do with Advent? Come and hear about it this Sunday at 8:30 and 11 at John McMillan Presbyterian Church when Pastor Jeff preaches “Word of the Father” based on John 1: 1-18. Come and hear about it on the third Sunday of Advent.

Jesus was Born for This, Too: Thoughts on why we welcome the “new born king”.

John 18: 33-37

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

This week I continue our Advent celebration of Christmas Carols.

Last week we sang “Good Christian Friends Rejoice” and proclaimed the good news of the second verse.

Good Christian friends, rejoice,
With heart and soul, and voice;
Now ye hear of endless bliss:
Jesus Christ was born for this!
He hath opened the heavenly door,
And man is blessed evermore.
Christ was born for this!
Christ was born for this!

We learned that this was what Paul also proclaimed in his letter to the Colossians:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Jesus Christ was born for this.

And so good Christian friends rejoice!

This week we sing a different carol.

“Joy to the World”.

In this carol we proclaim:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heav’n and nature sing,

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,

We are proclaiming Jesus to be our king who reigns and rules.

Jesus was born for this, too.

But what kind of King is Jesus?

If you wanted a king, what kind of king would you want?

Isaiah describes a perfect king:

… [A]uthority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for … his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.

I would like a King like that, wouldn’t you?

There have been many kings, queens and world leaders over the millennia.

I like to read about the history of England.

It is the history of kings and queens.

My favorite era is the time of King Alfred the Great.

He was the king who united all the different tribes in Brittan into what we now know as England.

But he was “elected” King of Wessex.

Elected, not elevated.

Alfred’s dead brother was king and had a son.

Typically, the son inherited the throne.

A Witan, a gathering of tribal chiefs who had given Alfred’s family an oath of loyalty, was called to decide who would be king was when Alfred’s brother died.

Alfred’s nephew assumed he would be selected.

But he was not.

Not with Alfred available.

Alfred was, because Alfred was more stable, more intelligent and more … well … kingly.

According to Wikipedia, Alfred had a reputation as a learned and merciful man of a gracious and level-headed nature who encouraged education, proposing that primary education be conducted in English rather than Latin, and improved his kingdom’s legal system, military structure, and his people’s quality of life. He was given the epithet “the Great” during and after the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

Alfred was a warrior who threw the Vikings out of the south of England and, with a peace treaty, kept them at bay in the north.

It worked out well for Wessex and, in the end England.

Alfred was the kind of king the people wanted.

The kind of leader most folks want.

But even Alfred was not perfect.

He did not meet all the qualifications of Isaiah’s perfect king.

Alfred had authority of the Witan, was a wonderful counselor and, though a warrior, created a peaceful kingdom at the end of his reign.

He was, by most accounts, righteous and just.

But he wasn’t the everlasting father, or a mighty God.

Alfred was king of this world and no other.

Jesus on the other hand, meets all of Isaiah’s requisites of perfection.

Because Jesus was the mighty God and everlasting father, too.

Which is why we attach Isaiah’s words to him.

But is that how Jesus describes his Kingship?

Not like Isaiah.

Jesus describes his Kingship this way:

‘My kingdom is not from this world. … For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

Jesus describes his subjects this way:

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

Jesus came to be the voice of truth.

What is the truth?

Jesus’ testimony.

What is Jesus’ testimony?

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

That’s the truth.

That truth comes from our King who reigns and rules with grace and righteousness and love.

A perfect king.

And we want to be his disciples, his subject, right?

We need to belong to him and listen to him.

We want to follow him.

But we need to remember that Jesus reminds us that his Kingdom is not of this world.

This world has different truth.

This world’s truth is that of distraction.

Constant activity.

Continuous communication and diversion.

Sensory overload.

TMI.

A world that pushes God into the background.

A world where relationships are electronic, superficial and self-centered.

A world that pushes us to be and do what the world wants, not what God would have us do.

But that is not what God wants.

God wants a relationship with us!

A deep, reciprocal, and personal relationship.

One that requires us to withdraw from the world, at least from time to time.

And we don’t want kings like Jesus who seem to require us to change or ways.

To move into a different world.

Which brings us to Jesus and Pilate.

The Temple authorities, the High Priest and the Sanhedrin have been given the civil authority over all Jews in Judea by Rome.

Now they have a problem.

Jesus has been teaching in the Temple for several days that the Kingdom of God is near, and that they should seek to encounter it.

He is calling the Temple authorities that they are hypocrites.

He is challenging their power.

Jesus is putting all that power at risk.

So, they have him arrested sent off to Pilate, the only one who has the authority to have Jesus killed.

But they had to make something up that would be grounds for death.

They tell Pilate that Jesus claims to be king of the Jews.

That is a direct challenge to Caesar!

Pilate is Prefect of Judea.

A representative of the king of the world, the Roman Emperor.

Pilate has the power and the authority to order a death sentence.

And here come these troublesome Jews raising a fuss over this Jesus.

Pilate’s most important responsibility was to maintain law and order.

His job, if he wanted to keep it, required that trouble be dealt with quickly and harshly.

Jesus claimed to be king of the Jews.

A threat!

But wait, didn’t Jesus just say that he was king of some other world?

Well, he said he was a king, so …

Off to the cross.

The people will not care because he is not the kind of king they want.

They want a king of this world.

Jesus does not offer that.

We should all be a bit sympathetic, right?

Jesus does ask a lot, doesn’t he?

He asks us to seek first the Kingdom of God.

To belong to it.

And live like it.

Disconnect from this world and enter into the Kingdom!

We find that really, really hard, don’t we?

We are in this world yet must live like we are in the Kingdom.

We straddle the boundary between Jesus’ Kingdom and the world.

How do we navigate that?

We change our focus from this world to the Kingdom, even if it is from time to time.

I think it looks like this.

From Krista Tippet interview of former Time magazine correspondent Pico Iyer.

  1. TIPPETT:We’ve spoken about your notion of stillness, and that’s one way you describe your practice. One way you talk about that — a Buddhist corollary is this notion of “right absorption.” I really like that, and I think that also applies to what you just described: a discipline and maybe even a necessity for all of us in whatever kind of life we lead.
  2. IYER:Yes, I love that word “absorption” because I think that’s my definition of happiness. I think all of us know we are happiest when we forget ourselves, when we forget the time, when we lose ourselves in a beautiful piece of music or a movie or a deep conversation with a friend or an intimate encounter with someone we love. That’s our definition of happiness. Very few people feel happy racing from one text to the next to the appointment to the cell phone to the emails. If people are happy like that, that’s great. I think a lot of us have got caught up in this cycle that we don’t know how to stop and isn’t sustaining us in the deepest way. And I think we all know our outer lives are only as good as our inner lives. So to neglect our inner lives is really to incapacitate our outer lives. We don’t have so much to give to other people or the world or our job or our kids.

This means that if we want to experience Jesus as King, we need to withdraw from this world from time to time and enter into his Kingdom.

Unplug.

Sit down.

Read some scripture.

Just think.

Just be.

Feed and heal our inner lives so we have something to offer the world we live in here.

Eugene Peterson says this:

To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us. To follow Jesus means … ways doing things … derivative FROM Jesus, formed by the influence of Jesus. … The way we talk, the way we use our influence, the way we treat one another, the way we raise our children, the way we read, the way we worship, the way we vote, the way we garden, the way we ski, the way we feel, the way we eat.  … And on and on, endlessly, the various and accumulated “ways and means” that characterize our way of life.

And Jesus doesn’t just make demands.

Jesus offers us much.

Righteousness.

Justice.

Love.

Salvation.

Redemption.

Peace.

A perfect kingdom with a perfect king.

So, maybe during advent we should unplug and take some time to just sit and reflect on a life in the Kingdom of Jesus.

He does have all the qualifications:

… [A]uthority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for … his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.

For this Jesus was born.

And so, we sing:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King.

This “Past” Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

Things got busy at JMPC and so, this did not get published. Apologies to my readers.

As I was thinking about Sunday’s passage about Pilate and Jesus, I tried to create a mental image of their conversation. Pilate is irritated that he has been tasked by the local religious authorities to dispose of this man, Jesus. Pilate believes he has Jesus’ fate in his hands. Jesus seems not particularly impressed by Pilate. I picture both of them basically saying to the other, “Who do you think you are?” And then this song by Jean Knight popped into my head!

Mr. Big Stuff
Who do you think you are
Mr. Big Stuff
You’re never gonna get my love

(Are you singing? Check it out on YouTube.)

I think this song fits. Pilate wants to know if Jesus claims to be King of the Jews. “Who do you think you are, Jesus, Mr. Big Stuff?” And Jesus wants to know why Pilate thinks he has any power over what was happening.  “Who do you think you are, Pilate, Mr. Big stuff?” Neither are going to get much love from the other. So, what does this have to do with Advent? It’s this. Jesus was “Big Stuff”. He was a king. (Which is a higher rank than Roman Procurator, by the way!) It’s just that Jesus was not the kind of King Pilate would recognize as being “Big Stuff”. So what kind of king was Jesus? And what about that made him “Big Stuff”? Come and hear about it Sunday at 8:30 (The Children’s Christmas Pageant is at 11) when Pastor Jeff preaches “For This Jesus was Born” based on John 18: 33-37.

Born for This: Thoughts on holding it all together and putting it back together.

Colossians 1: 15-23

15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in* him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in* him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Back in 1996, I read the Bible from cover to cover with a group of people at my church.

It took us a year.

We had a list of daily readings that, if we kept up, would allow us to complete the task.

I have to tell you that from time to time it got really hard.

Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, the Prophets were hard to get through.

At times the reading seemed repetitive, hard to understand, and tedious.

As the year went on, I alternated between absorbed, enlightened, fascinated, puzzled and bored.

And then in October, I read today’s scripture.

I was profoundly moved.

I read it over and over and over.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in* him all things in heaven and on earth were created in* him all things hold together … in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, … by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Paul tells of a creative power that is unlimited, eternal, and holds everything that exists together.

Paul tells us that our existence is not by chance or happenstance.

Paul tells us that our lives are not at the whim of some impersonal cosmic force.

We exist because it was intended that we exist.

Paul tells us that creation in both the heavenly and earthly realms has beauty and goodness and purpose because it was all created through Christ and for Christ.

And when we do our best to tear apart what God hold together, God forgives us and redeems us and fixes what we broke.

He does this at the cross.

I found great comfort in this passage.

When I read this passage, I think of two stories.

The first one is about me and my son:

Some years back, I went to Universal Studios with my family.

My son made me go on a roller coaster called “The Incredible Hulk”.

We sat down on the seats and a harness was lowered down over our shoulders.

As it locked in place, it was hard to take a deep breath.

Then the floor dropped away.

Our feet were dangling.

There was no getting off.

Then it took off!

Zero to 60 in about ten seconds.

Up through a dark tunnel then out into the daylight and immediately upside down.

Off on a wild ride.

Cork screw, loop d’ loop, rapid ascent and downward plunge.

No way to get off until it was over.

The only thing keeping us from flying off into space was this little seat and the harness holding us to it.

That harness was our safety line.

That is what God does for us in our lives.

God is the harness that keeps us from flying off into space.

God holds us to our seats as we travel that wild ride of life.

We should be comforted and just enjoy the ride, right?

Unfortunately, not always.

Some of us … all of us really …  spend a good amount of time trying to get out of the harness.

To be the ones who stand up on the roller coaster because we think that makes us look cool, daring, fearless, independent.

We want to be in control, not God.

Right up until we go flying off into space.

Want proof?

Take a look at the news.

We are early in the 21st Century.

The world is a far more dangerous place than it has ever been, ecologically, politically, internationally, morally, ethically …

We are like the ancient Israelites, given everything we need to survive, but who constantly strive for more, even when to achieve our goals, we must break with God, removing the safety harness of our lives.

And when we do, we are led to bad places.

Dark places.

Places where God does not want us to go.

Roller coasters without harnesses.

We start to realize we are about to go flying off into space.

We are in incredible danger.

And we don’t know what to do.

We don’t know how to get back into the harness.

We need a rescue.

Someone to come and get us.

As human beings, we seem to like stories of rescues.

Numerous movies and books and television shows tell tales of great heroic rescues.

People lost at sea are rescued.

People trapped in fires are rescued.

Soldiers behind enemy lines are rescued.

Kidnap victims are rescued.

Missionaries are rescued.

Spies are rescued.

Animals are rescued.

You can probably name many others.

Here is one of my favorites.

In August 1957 four climbers were climbing the 6,000 foot North Face in the Swiss Alps.

The Eiger.

The climb was very dangerous and the timing of the effort was not so good.

A storm came up before the climb could be completed.

Two climbers disappeared and were never found.

The other two climbers were stuck on two narrow ledges a thousand feet below the summit.

The Swiss Alpine Club was charged with saving climbers in trouble but would not try to save the two climbers because it was simply too dangerous.

So, a small group of climbers undertook a private rescue effort to save the Italians.

A climber named Alfred Hellepart was lowered down the North Face on a cable, a fraction of an inch thick.

The goal was for him to find the climbers, get them attached to the cable and haul them up to the top.

Here’s how Hellepart described the rescue:

As I was lowered down the summit … my comrades on top grew further and further distant, until they disappeared from sight. At this moment I felt an indescribable aloneness. Then for the first time I peered down the abyss of the North Face of the Eiger. The terror of the sight robbed me of breath. …The brooding blackness of the Face, falling away in almost endless expanse beneath me, made me look with awful longing to the thin cable disappearing about me in the mist. I was a tiny human being dangling in space between heaven and hell. The sole relief from terror was …my mission to save the climber below.

He got to them and saved them both, despite the fact they got themselves into their trouble.

This story reminds me of Jesus.

We are in deep trouble because of the dangerous or ill-timed things we do.

Like taking off the harness on the roller coaster.

Despite the fact we got ourselves into our individual or communal messes, Jesus lowered himself down to us.

Not on a cable, but through Mary.

He came to save us.

To rescue us from the edge of our individual and communal cliffs and pull us into his kingdom.

We all need rescued.

We have all taken the harness off at one time or another.

And we all feel like we are about to get thrown off into space.

The darkness Paul refers to.

But then, kind of out of the blue, we see this hand reaching out to us.

A hand with a nail hole in it.

The mark of someone who got hurt badly in the rescue effort.

We have to decide if we will take hold of it … or not.

If we do, Jesus will hold on and pull us to safety.

As Paul says in verse 13:

He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son…

Why would he do such a thing?

Because we are created for him.

Because we are loved by him.

Because he was born for this.

Thanks be to God.