Advent Devotionals (December 11, 2019)

December 11, 2019 Eleventh day of Advent

The greatest among you will be your servant. Matthew 23: 11

In college I was the goalie on the school soccer team. As a goalie, I was the final defender of … well … the goal. No goal was ever scored against my team unless it passed by me. And basically, I (and any goalie) would get the blame if a goal was scored. (Goals against average and save percentages are only calculated for the goalie.) Someone asked me once if that was a lot of pressure. My response? If I even had to touch the ball in a game, someone else on my team had made a mistake. There were 10 other players on the field in front of me who were supposed to keep the ball away from the other team. In the same sense, shut outs were credited to me as goalie, but I was well aware that it was the team who kept the ball out of our goal, and I was only one member of the team. As the saying goes, there is no “I” in “team”. A win or a loss is a team event.

What does it look like when someone believes himself or herself more important than others? We see it in post-game interviews where a player complains that he or she was not used properly, or others played poorly. I recently saw a player accuse his team’s medical staff of malpractice because one of his teammates was underachieving. That is what happens when people are elevated to positions of power either officially or in their own minds. They are concerned with only their self-interests, not the team’s. Not good!

While not a great analogy, this is kind of what Jesus is saying in our text today. Jesus is saying that we need to serve the interests of each other rather than our own self-centered interests. This is the heart of what Jesus calls the second greatest commandment. Love neighbor as yourself. Do not overlook the fact that serving the interests of each other also serves our interests. In other words, be a team player in whatever you do, whether it is at work, in your family, in the community of in your church. There is no “I”, there is only “us”. Self-centeredness or perceived superiority destroys “us”.

What does this have to do with Advent? I think we can all agree that God is superior. That God has power over all. That God has the right to blame us for breaking creation. But God did not do that. God came here, joined the team and showed us by example how to play the game of life better. God could have remained “I”, but instead became one of “us”.

Advent Devotionals (December 9, 2012)

December 9, 2019 Ninth day of Advent

You are the light of the world. Matthew 5: 14

In her book Becoming Wise Krista Tippet interviews Jewish physician Rachel Naomi Remen who recounts her Hasidic rabbi grandfather’s strange, mystical story of creation. It goes something like this. In the beginning, there was only God, the divine light, who was the source of life. God created the universe using the divine light and gave it to humanity to tend. But humanity broke the universe and the light was scattered and became hidden. The only way to restore the universe was to find the light. God gave humanity “… the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby restore the innate wholeness of the world. … It’s the restoration of the world.”

Remen goes on to say something profound.

And this [restoration of the world] is, of course a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are healers of the world. That story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.

This story and Dr. Remen’s comment made me think that this might have been what Jesus was talking about in today’s text. Let’s read the entire passage.

14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

When we become disciples of Jesus, we are enlightened by God and are given the capacity to shine light on the world around us. When we light up the world, even if it’s just the part of the world that touches us, we become healers of the world.

What does it look like to shine the light? Maybe like the statement on the Statue of Liberty.

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door! 

Or maybe it’s what Jesus said. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Give water to the thirsty. Care for the sick. Visit the prisoners. In other words, care about and for each other. Even if it’s just the “other” nearest to you in whatever way you can.

The Song of Zechariah: Thoughts on how God kept God’s promise to God’s people.

The Song of Zechariah

We continue with the “Songs of Christmas”.

These are not the Christmas Carols we all know and love.

Nor are they the 24/7 festive and fun holiday songs we listen to on the local radio stations.

These are the songs sung by those who witnessed the the incarnation.

These are the songs that burst from people’s mouths when they learned of Emanuel – God with us.

Last week we listened to Mary sing about how this great event made everything different.

This week we hear the Song of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, the baby that leapt in his wife Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to visit.

The song he sang at the birth of his son.

Luke 1:68-79

68 ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
   for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
   in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71   that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
   and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
   to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness
   before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
   for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
   by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

There is a commercial running on TV right now where an insurance agent is congratulating a customer about her purchase of a new car.

The agent asks the woman what she did with her old car.

She says her parents were giving it to her younger brother for his birthday.

The scene shifts to the brother whose eyes are covered but who is obviously excited as he stands in the driveway next to his birthday car.

When he sees it, he is profoundly disappointed because it is “Beige Betty” the beat-up old station wagon his sister drove.

“How do you expect me to drive this?” he exclaims.

His parents react by miming the use of a steering wheel.

Why is this funny?

Because the boy wanted a care and got a car, just not the car he expected.

This kind of thing happens a good bit.

Something on line catches your eye.

You make the purchase and wait for it to arrive.

When it does, you open the box and pull out the item and find out the on-line picture was not really accurate, or it does not fit, or it does not work, or it is not really what you expected.

You are disappointed.

Maybe angry.

You send it back and ask for a refund.

Maybe you give it a “no stars” review.

And that’s what it’s like in the “next day delivery” world.

What if you have had to wait for this thing?

That growing anticipation makes it far worse when it is not what you expect.

What if you were waiting for something and were not told when it was going to arrive?

What if you had been waiting all your life for it?

What if the waiting period had been going on for generations?

The wait itself sort of becomes a way of life.

Waiting becomes a matter of faith.

Faith that what you are waiting for will ultimately show up and be everything you expected.

Someday …

Someday …

Which brings us to Zechariah whose song we hear today.

To understand where this song comes from, we need a bit of background.

First, who is this guy Zechariah?

Luke tells us that Zechariah was a priest from an old priestly order.

An upper-class Jew who worked in the Jerusalem Temple from time to time.

Zechariah was well aware of the history of Israel.

Born out of God’s promise to Abraham to make his descendants God’s chosen people who would be blessed by God and be a blessing to all the world.

Generations later, these people became known as “Israel.”

Israel became a a world power, governed by God through God’s anointed King David.

Then it all fell apart.

The kingdom was conquered and while there was a brief moment of independence, they were conquered again and were currently occupied by Rome.

Zechariah and his people were no doubt wondering about that promise of a blessing from God and being a blessing to the world.

The prophets had talked of a Messiah who would come and be the blessing.

But when?

No one knew.

So, they waited.

It was a long wait.

Waiting was their faith.

Zechariah knew all this.

And he was waiting along with everyone else.

I doubt Zechariah really thought Messiah was going to come in his lifetime, but …

Someday …

Someday …

Then, Zechariah is told by an angel (Gabriel) he is going to have a son and that this boy was going to be a prophet and “prepare the way” for “The Lord”!

Zechariah knew what that meant.

The Messiah was coming – and coming soon.

And his son would lead the way.

The waiting was coming to an end.

The new King was on the way.

But what kind of King?

Zechariah describes what kind of king he expects in his song.

A mighty savior. 

From the house of David.

One who would save Israel from its enemies and from the hands of all who hate it.

Basically, a warrior king like David.

This is what Israel expected, too.

And so, Zechariah praises God for keeping the promise.

But there is more to the song than that.

Zechariah looks at his 8 days old baby boy and basically commissions him to be the herald of the coming king.

The one who will go before with the announcement that this new king was taking the throne.

An unenviable task in a place where Rome was in charge.

But with the new king taking over, it was something Zechariah sang about joyfully.

I can imagine that Zechariah was anticipating good times ahead for his son, for Israel and for the new king.

But here is the thing.

It did not quite work out that way, did it?

The next time we see John the Baptist, he is a wilderness prophet.

He baptizes Jesus and then dies in Herod’s prison.

I doubt this is what Zechariah expected for his son John.

And Jesus, as we all know, was no warrior king.

He died on a Roman cross.

I doubt this is what Zechariah expected of the promised Messiah.

I wonder if Zechariah, had he still been alive, would have thought Jesus was worth the wait?

Would he have been disappointed?

How does God expect us to follow a Messiah like that?

Can we get a refund?

Should we be disappointed?

Maybe not.

You see, Zechariah’s song also included this:

78 By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

You see, this is the actual promise that Zechariah wanted to be kept.

Mercy.

The dawn of a new day.

Light in the darkness.

The way of peace.

Well, Jeff, you might say, Zechariah would probably be disappointed about that, too.

What about that peace?

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

Just read the paper.

So, what is this peace that the incarnation promised?

The word Jesus would have used is shalom.

Shalom is in part an awareness that God is near.

That God is not some distant, aloof deity, but is close and caring.

Even in troubling times.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had such an awareness.

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

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.

That is our peace.

“God is in the manger!”

Emanuel – God with us.

Not distant.

Not aloof.

Knowing.

Caring.

Nearby.

Anxiety, worry, apprehension or fear are a product of not accessing that knowing, caring and nearby presence.

So, to find the peace God promised, we need to somehow become aware of God’s presence.

A presence that gives us a sanctuary from the anxiety of life, even if just for a moment or two.

Here is one way.

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.

He called it the “presence in the midst.”

The presence of God in the midst of his chaotic and anxious life.

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

While we were there a virus burned through our group and sent around thirty kids to a local hospital.

It was pretty stressful.

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

He was starting to have a panic attack.

He needed to calm down.

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

“Rest.”

“Be still.”

“Shalom.”

As we repeated those words, both of us began to relax.

He became peaceful.

His breathing slowed.

His eyes closed.

He fell asleep.

One of the other chaperones watched.

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

Neither had I.

We had just experienced the presence in our midst.

The peace of God.

That is the kind of peace we get from Emanuel – God with us.

Not necessarily world, cultural, political or familial peace.

But the peace of knowing that God knows, cares and is near to us.

And Jesus is how we know that.

The birth of a baby.

Emanuel.

God with us.

That is why we celebrate advent.

And we create rituals that we use to remind us.

The advent wreath.

The Christmas concert.

The potluck dinner.

The Children’s pageant.

Candlelight worship on Christmas Eve.

As we await the joy of God’s kept promise.

78 By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

Rest.

Be still.

Shalom.

God is in the manger.

Advent Devotional December 7, 2019

December 7, 2019 Seventh day of Advent

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:30

For us folks living in the 21st Century, the concept of being “yoked” is not something we really understand. Many of us might think “yoked” is what happens to a darkened house on Halloween. But that is not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus is talking about the “yoke” that bound two oxen together so the oxen could jointly pull a plow through a farmer’s field. One ox alone could not do it. It took two to pull the plow. Understanding that, how do we interpret Jesus’ words here? We need to read the full passage.

28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

This is Jesus’ offer to share our life’s burdens with him. The ones we can’t manage on our own. The ones that are heavy and wear us out. What might those look like? Anxiety in the United States is at an all-time high. We are overwhelmed with demands for out time and treasure and talents. We are exhausted by the responsibilities of caring for our families while wondering who is going to take care of us when the time comes. And society keeps telling us there are not enough resources to meet our needs. It really was no different in Jesus’ day. Jesus lived in a country occupied by Rome. The people were taxed by unscrupulous “collectors”. Survival was a day to day task at the mercy of the weather and where the fish were. It makes me tired thinking about it.  Jesus knows that and says something like this:

“You have a lot on your plate. Actually, that plate looks more like a platter. Maybe a palette. Let me give you a hand with it. We can use these carrying straps I brought. They’re not quite a forklift, but with both of us together, we can ease your burden.”

So, what is going on in your life that is a heavy burden and wearing you out? Jesus can help you with that. He does not promise to make it all go away, but Jesus does say he will give you a hand.

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church (December 8, 2019; The Second Sunday of Advent)

It’s Advent! The season of anticipation that something’s coming. When I was a kid I knew what was coming! Christmas! For me it started the Friday after Thanksgiving. No – not because it was the Black Friday shopping day. It was the day my mother would stack the Christmas albums on the record player and start playing them over and over, the same songs in the same order. The tree would go up the same day. Lights in the windows, too. There was a train set when I was really young. I would get out the Sunday paper to find out when all the Christmas specials would be on TV because I didn’t want to miss any. Loads of anticipation. Then came the wait. Impatience reigned. Counting down the days. Would Christmas morning ever come? It was the longest month – ever! And then there was the anticipation of gifts. What was I going to get? I imagined all sorts of things. Wonderful, exciting presents!

Israel was in a season of anticipation. It had been for a very long time. What were the Israelites waiting for? A Messiah! What was that Messiah going to look like? A king like David. One who would lead, guard, provide, and protect. But most of all a king who would fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham. It was a very long wait. But there was also an anticipation of that particular kind of King. A warrior, maybe?

Lots of anticipation! Lots of waiting! Would the anticipation be rewarded? Was the wait going to be worth it? Was it?

Come and hear about it this Sunday, December 8, 2019 when Pastor Jeff preaches “The Song of Zechariah” based on Luke 1: 68-79. We will anticipate your presence. (Do you see what I did there?)

Advent Devotionals (December 5, 2019)

December 5, 2019 Fifth day of Advent

 Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. Matthew 7: 7

Kate Bowler is an assistant professor of the history of North American Christianity at the Duke University Divinity School. She did her Ph. D. dissertation on the history of what is commonly called the “prosperity gospel”. For those of you who do not know that term, Bowler defines it this way in her New York Times op-ed piece, Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.

Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth [within the course of their human life] to those with the right kind of faith. 

Bowler points out that when Prosperity Gospel people do prosper, they call themselves “blessed”. They are blessed because they have the right kind of faith and so will receive from God whatever they ask for. It’s kind of like that Janis Joplin’s song “Mercedes Benz”:

Oh lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town?
I’m counting on you, lord, please don’t let me down.
Prove that you love me and buy the next round,
Oh lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town?

If Janis’ prayer would have resulted in a mysterious envelope with enough cash for an evening out, it was because she had enough faith to be blessed. If not … well … woe to Janet. Is this what Jesus is talking about? All we need to do is ask, search, knock and we will get whatever we want? No. We need to read the rest of the passage:

9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

What are we to ask for? Not “goods” but “good things”, because “good things” is what God will give us. You see, this passage is about prayer. It teaches us to rely on God for the things we need, in accordance with God’s will. Remember this passage follows Jesus’ teaching his disciples the Lord’s Prayer where we are told to pray for the will of God to be done. Not our will – but the will of God – will be provided.

I like the way Willam Barkley puts it:

God will always answer our prayers; but [God] will answer them in [God’s] way, and [God’s] way will be the way of perfect wisdom and of perfect love. Often if [God] answered our prayers as we at the moment desired it would be the worst thing possible for us, for in our ignorance we often ask for gifts which would be our ruin. This saying of Jesus tells us, not only that God will answer, but that God will answer in wisdom and love.

How does God answer our prayers? With the incarnation. There is nothing more we can ask for.

Advent Devotionals (December 3, 2019)

December 3, 2019 Third day of Advent

“Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Matthew 9: 13

These words of Jesus conclude the passage describing the call of Matthew to be a disciple of Jesus. Matthew was a tax collector. He got that job through a bidding process with the Roman government. Once the price for the job was set, Matthew paid the full amount to Rome. After that Matthew, like all tax collectors, collected the taxes to cover the price of the job. But the taxes collected were entirely within Matthew’s discretion. He would then overcharge and keep the excess collected. His “job” was a license to steal. To steal from his own people. Can you think how many of the Ten Commandments Matthew violated? But Jesus called him to be a disciple! And Matthew got up and followed. They then went to dinner at Matthew’s house to celebrate. Who else was there? Many tax collectors and sinners. And the Pharisees were appalled. To discredit Jesus, they wanted to know how Jesus could eat with such cultural vermin. The whole thing was unclean. It is here that Jesus speaks the words we read today.

12But when he heard this, [Jesus] said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

Jesus words are good news. He eats with tax collectors and sinners, and calls them to be his disciples, because they need him. They need to be healed of their moral sickness and inability to see the ways of God. This is the mercy that God desires of us. That we welcome all people into our community of faith, our community of disciples. Jesus sees the people who need a savior and simply asks them to follow him. So, should we. There are no prerequisites. There are no demands of repentance or belief in a series of religious tenets (like the sacrificial system in vogue at the time). Only to follow. That is what Jesus does for us as well. He asks us to follow. And then we have a choice. We can admit that we are not righteous and need a “physician” or we like the Pharisees, can rely on our own perceived righteousness, claim we have no need for Jesus and exclude all who are not righteous n our eyes. Jesus tells us to be merciful.

What does this have to do with Advent? We await the one who comes to give mercy and who requires no more than that we follow him into God’s Kingdom. That journey starts with the incarnation. The baby in Bethlehem. Come and follow him.

Advent Devotionals (December 1, 2019)

December 1, 2019 First day of Advent

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year for Christians. This is appropriate considering it celebrates the beginning of the incarnation. The birth of Jesus. John in his Gospel describes the incarnation as the “Word made flesh”. If Jesus is the “Word” of God, then the things Jesus says, the words he speaks, are of special significance. That Jesus’ words have special significance has been understood from the beginning of the church and has been highlighted in the practice of many Bible publishers to print the words of Jesus in red letters. Maybe your Bible is a “Red Letter Bible”. This Advent, Matt and I will be pondering some of those “Red Letter” sayings as Advent devotions. Join us on this journey as we await the coming of the Lord.

 “Take heart, I have overcome the world.” John 16: 33

These are encouraging words, are they not? These are the last words of Jesus’ “farewell discourse” to the disciples. The final discourse runs from Chapter 14 to these final words of Jesus at the end of Chapter 16. In his farewell discourse, Jesus recounts his pre-existence, birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and the changes between the people and God. Then, Jesus concludes with this:

I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’

What Jesus tells his disciples that because of who he is, what he has done and what he will do, they can have peace. They can have peace despite the troubles that await them for being his disciples. They can be courageous even in these times because in his life, death and resurrection, Jesus has defeated “the world” which is in rebellion against God.

We, as Jesus’ disciples also have access to that peace. That is what Paul tells us in Philippians 4.

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

During Advent we should pray with thanksgiving for that peace which comes with the incarnation, the Word mad flesh, the son of God, Jesus Christ, born to a young woman, in a little town in Judea.

The Song of Mary: Thoughts on the incarnation and how it changed everything.

Mary’s Song

Luke 1: 39-55

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

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

It’s Advent!

The Christmas holiday countdown.

What would December be without A Christmas Story?

The movie about the many challenges of a boy named Ralphie who wants a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas.

All adults, including Santa himself, seem to conspire against Ralphie’s dogged determination to get it.

“You’ll shoot your eye out!” is the constant refrain.

But there is a side plot that I always look forward to watching.

There is a school bully with yellow eyes who torments Ralphie almost daily.

After one particularly bad day at school, Ralphie gets a snowball in the face from the bully.

Tired of the abuse, Ralphie goes off in a fit of rage.

He attacks the yellow eyed enemy and pummels him while blurting out a string of obscenities that drops the jaw of everyone who hears it.

Ralphie’s mother shows up, sees what Ralphie does and hears what he says.

She breaks up the fight, walks Ralphie home and sends him up to his room.

There he waits for his Dad to come home.

Ralphie lies in his darkened room anticipating the impending wrath of Dad that is surely coming.

He is not alone.

Ralphie’s mother finds her younger son, Randy, hiding under the sink crying.

She asks, “Randy, what’s the matter?”

Randy sobs, “Daddy’s gonna kill Ralphie!”

Mom assures Randy that Daddy will not in fact kill Ralphie and that everything is going to work out.

But she too seems a bit concerned about what may come.

Soon Ralphie hears the sound of his doom.

He narrates:

I heard the car pull up the driveway, and a wave of terror broke over me. He’ll know what I said—the awful things I said!

Ralphie walks downstairs to meet his fate at the dinner table.

 After some small talk, Dad asks, “What happened today?”

Ralphie realizes it’s all about to come out.

He looks at his mother with a pained expression.

Then something unexpected!

Mom steps in.

“Nothing much. Ralphie had a fight.”

Tension rises.

 Dad puts down the paper and looks at Ralphie with a stern gaze.

“A fight? What kind of fight?”

Mom replies,

“Oh, you know how boys are. I gave him a talking to. Oh, I see the Bears are playing the Packers Sunday.”

Dad, attention deflected, goes back to his paper and comments on the upcoming game.

The danger has passed.

It dawns on Ralphie that something remarkable has just happened.

The doom he anticipated passed over him.

Ralphie’s mother interceded to save him.

A smile breaks across Ralphie’s face, and he beams at his mother.

Ralphie narrates:

I slowly realized that I was not about to be destroyed. From then on, things were different between me and my mother.”

The old ways were over.

Things were different now.

Mom was good, loving and forgiving, and would continue to be good, loving and forgiving.

Instead of wrath and punishment, there is mercy and grace.

There was hope for the future.

One wonders if Ralphie walked away from the dinner table singing some kind of praise song to his mother like:

“‘My soul magnifies my Mom, and my spirit rejoices in Mom my Savior, for she has looked with favor on the lowliness of her child.”

While it might a bit of a stretch, this is kind of like Mary.

Mary is a 13-year-old unmarried girl with a problem.

She has recently been visited by an angel with a very troubling message.

She is pregnant.

Through her, God is to become human.

She must have been terrified!

She was betrothed to Joseph.

What the heck was she going to tell Joseph?

What would he do?

Divorce her?

What were her parents going to think?

Would they disown her?

What would her community think?

She could spend the rest of her days struggling to keep herself and her child alive outside the safety of a marriage and community.

She could be stoned for adultery.

Mary had every reason to anticipate the impending wrath that would bring her destruction.

What does she do?

She leaves for a while.

She hurries to see her cousin Elizabeth who is 90 miles away.

No doubt she spends the trip contemplating her situation.

What does this all mean?

What is going to happen to me?

When she arrives at Elizabeth’s, Mary finds Elizabeth is also miraculously pregnant.

Elizabeth’s child leaps in her womb.

And Elizabeth cried out:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you carry. For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would bea fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Elizabeth tells Mary that Mary is not in trouble, Mary is blessed!

And so is Mary’s child.

The world as Mary knew it had just been transformed.

She was not going to be destroyed.

Everything was different between her and God.

And then Mary breaks into song:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

Mary sings about God’s favor on her.

She calls God “my Savior”.

Whatever she might have done, she has been absolved through her intimate connection to her God.

And Elizabeth confirmed it by proclaiming the blessing.

This pregnancy that could result in divorce, banishment or death?

Not going to happen!

Hey, Joseph?

Mary is pregnant.

Marry her anyway.

No big deal.

How bout them Stillers?

And that is what happened.

In the second stanza of her song, Mary sings about God’s favor on the rest of humanity.

The playing field is evened for those who have a relationship with God.

God confirmed this favor by the way God had favored the chosen Israel.

God scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

God brought down the powerful from their thrones.

God sent the rich away empty.

God lifted up the lowly;

God filled the hungry with good things.

The world was turned upside down.

There would be no destruction.

Everything was different between humanity and God.

Hey, you Israelites.

We have a special relationship!

Yet you are always turning away from me!

Just you folks being who you are.

No big deal.

I’ll pull you out of the pit when you need it.

How ‘bout them Penguins?

Now God was coming in the form of her child.

A new form of favor was in the future.

While Mary might not have known what the future favor was going to look like, she trusted God to do it.

There was going to be a new relationship.

Emanuel.

God with us.

God would step in and protect us just as he did Mary and Israel.

We will not be destroyed.

Everything should change between us and God.

Hey, you people.

You can’t stay on the path on your own.

I’m coming to live with you.

No big deal.

Follow me and I will show you the way.

How ‘bout them Buccos?

Mary didn’t know how Jesus was going to show favor, but we do now, right?

Jesus came to intercede for us.

Kind of like Ralphie’s Mom, Jesus interceded to save us.

And that is a big deal.

We will not be destroyed.

Our relationship with God is different.

And we should sing!

But it’s hard.

When Mary found out she was pregnant, she spent three months with Elizabeth no doubt commiserating about miraculous babies and what it all meant.

Only after that was she ready did she go home to give the news.

What do we think of the incarnation?

Not much pondering time available.

We have deadlines, meetings, activities, tight schedules that contain little room for pondering what God has done is doing and will be doing for us in our lives.

Now we are in the beginning of a season of activity.

Will we ponder what this thing called the incarnation means for us, the world and the future?

I mean Advent should be that time, right?

But we are like Teresa of Avila who wrote this prayer in the late 1500s:

How is it God that you have given me this hectic busy life when I have so little time to enjoy your presence? Throughout the day people are waiting to speak to me, and even at meals I have to continue talking to people about their needs and problems. during sleep I am still thinking and dreaming about the multitude of concerns that surround me. … I know that you are constantly beside me, yet I am so busy that I ignore you.

Maybe we should take time, like Mary, to consider the incarnation, what it means and how it affects our lives now and in the future.

Maybe we should read the devotionals Matt and I will write?

Maybe we can write our own?

Maybe we should just meditate on it.

And then consider how we should respond.

Maybe with our own song?

Maybe we should sing:

 Our souls magnify the Lord,
and our spirits rejoice in God our Savior,
for he has looked with favor on us.
Surely, from now on all generations will call us blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for us, and holy is his name.

Amen

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church (December 1, 2019; Yes this is late again)

I am a big fan of European football, which we in the USA call soccer. I love watching the games on TV. Something I noticed a long time ago was that one of the ways the fans at the game encourage their teams is to sing! These musical outbursts are called, according to Wikipedia, football chants or terrace chants. They are described this way:

A football chant or terrace chant is a song or chant usually sung at association football matches. The chants can be simple, consisting of a few loud shouts or spoken words, but more often they are short song verses typically performed repetitively, and sometimes they may be more elaborate involving musical instruments, props or choreographed routines. They are often adaptations of popular songs, using their tunes as the basis of the chants, but some are entirely original. Sometimes the chants are spontaneous reactions to events on the pitch. They may be considered one of the last remaining sources of an oral folk song tradition in the United Kingdom.

I like that. In the USA, we have our own chants. “Here we go Steelers, here we go” and “Lets’ go Pens (Bucs)” are a couple that come to mind, but these do not compare to the football chants of European football. Those chants tell a story and erupt merely from the joy of being at the game.

As we enter Advent, we read Biblical passages about what people thought about the coming Messiah. Many of these thoughts were expressed in chants. Nothing like “Here we go Jesus, here we go”! But more like a recitation of history, joy and hope for the future. We will be exploring these songs during Advent. First up? The Magnificat. Mary’s song. Mary’s outburst of music that included history, joy and hope. Come and hear about it this Sunday when Pastor Jeff preaches, “The Song of Mary” based on Luke 1: 39-56. Come and journey with us through Advent to Christmas. We will look forward to seeing you.