No Vacancy: Thoughts on how we tell the Christmas story.

Luke 2: 1-7

2In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 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.

When my kids were little, we loved to watch “The Muppet Family Christmas” during the holidays.

Fozzie Bear’s mother, Emily, is leaving for a Christmas in Malibu and has rented her home to Doc and Sprocket (of Fraggle Rock fame) for a quiet holiday.

Fozzie is unaware of his Mom’s plan and has invited everyone from the Muppet Show home for Christmas.

They arrive as Doc is settling in for some peace and quiet and Emily is heading for the door with her bags and sunglasses.

As Fozzie and Emily hug, all the Muppets come trooping in.

Fozzie, Kermit, Rowlf the Dog, The Swedish Chef, Bert, Ernie, Guy Smiley, Animal, Sam the Eagle, and Gonzo the Great, among many others.

As each walk in the door, slipping on the icy patch, both Doc and Emily are more and more stunned.

This was not the plan.

And just as things are getting crowded, in walk the folks from Sesame Street, who have also been invited.

Grover, Cookie Monster, Count von Count, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and even Jim Henson himself.

Finally, after much ado, Miss Piggy arrives.

Emily finally settles in to the idea that she is not going to Malibu and Doc realizes he won’t be having a quiet Christmas with Sprocket.

It’s going to be crowded, noisy and … well … festive!

Over the course of the arrivals, each visitor is assigned a place to sleep in the small house.

Then the fun begins as they sing songs, tell stories and plan the Christmas feast.

What does this have to do with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem?

Actually, it gives us an image of what their arrival might have been like.

Let’s take a look at the story.

Joseph and Mary are living in Nazareth.

They are engaged, and Mary is 8 plus months pregnant.

Augustus is Emperor of Rome; and he needs money.

So, he decides to levy a tax on all the people in the empire.

They are to go to their home towns and register for the tax.

Think about it.

On orders of the Emperor, everyone in the empire going home, not for the holidays, but to be taxed.

Joseph is from Bethlehem, so that is where he goes.

Mary, his almost wife, must go with him.

So, they get ready to go on the week long journey to Bethlehem.

Did I say Mary is 8 plus months pregnant?

I bet she had some choice words for Augustus.

We aren’t told how they traveled, but in all likelihood, they walked.

Luke mentions no donkey and in a small informal survey of mothers I know, I have concluded that riding on the back of a donkey is not something an 8 plus month pregnant woman is likely to do.

When they get to Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph need a place to stay, right?

Where do they go?

In ancient Israel, under these circumstances, Mary and Joseph are not going to look for a Motel 6.

Joseph is from Bethlehem, so he has relatives there.

And Joseph knows where they live.

When a family member shows up, you make room and provide food and shelter!

They will stay with Joseph’s relatives.

There would be no question.

And that is likely what Mary and Joseph did.

Off to the house of Uncle Rueben and Aunt Sarah.

It makes me think of my family’s house on the lake in Edinboro.

Every July 4th we all get together.

My brother’s family and my family.

And lots of friends and neighbors.

Who all stay for the weekend.

We sort of assign sleeping space as folks arrive.

The house is pretty small, so we have people on the porch, in the living room, three to a bedroom and a bunch end up in the attic on air mattresses.

As they come in, we just point to their spot.

It’s a big fat Edinboro 4th!

It’s noisy, crowded and … well … festive.

Back to Mary and Joseph and his relative’s home.

What did that place look like?

There would be a main room for Sarah and Rueben, a great-room/kitchen, a spare room (in Greek it is a katalouma which is also translated as – wait for it – “inn”) and an attached stable.

Yep, the animals are in the house.

What Luke tells us is that when Mary and Joseph got there, the spare room (katalouma) was full.

I bet it was!

Every one of Joseph’s family was coming to town for the registration!

Many of them were staying with Rueben and Sarah.

Everyone is packed into the katalouma.

Just like the Muppets!

Just like Edinboro!

I have this image of Sarah assigning floor space for each family member who shows up!

Its noisy, crowded and … well … festive!

Then there is a knock on the door.

“Hey everyone, it’s Joseph!

And … Mary … who looks like she’s about to give birth!”

As they are about to be assigned a small patch of floor space …

“Uh, Mary, are you OK?”

“I think I’m going to have this baby right now!”

“Well, there’s no room for that in the katalouma!

Besides, I am pretty sure you don’t want to have the baby in the middle of a family reunion.”

Plus, if she has the baby in there, it will be ritually “unclean” for a week at least.

No one will be able to stay in there.

“Mary, we need to find you somewhere else to deliver.

How about the stable through that door?

There is a small seat that can act as the birthing stool and a feedbox we can fill with hay for the baby.

It’s plenty warm, private and if you need anything, we are all right here.”

And Mary says:


And then she goes to the stable and has the baby!

Her firstborn son.


And she wrapped him up and laid him in a feedbox.

Despite all the excitement of the unplanned trip to Bethlehem and the packed house, this is kind of an ordinary occurrence.

This is the story of the birth of a baby.


Every year on our kids’ birthdays, we tell them the story of their birth.

The stories are very different, and each is told with the kind of panache that makes entertaining and memorable.

Taken alone, our scripture reading today might be just such a funny story about the birth of a child told every year on his birthday.

“We walked for days and as soon as we got to Aunt Sarah’s, your mother went into labor and they sent us to the stable.

Yeah, you were born in a stable!

After you were born, we put you in a feedbox.”

I wonder if Jesus heard such a story every year?

And yet Luke emphasizes that this birth was no ordinary one.

Luke has been leading up to this birth from the beginning of the Gospel.

Zechariah is told he will father a son who will be great in the eyes of the Lord.

He will be Elijah to the coming Messiah.

He will prepare the way of the Lord.

Gabriel visits Mary.

Mary is told that she will give birth to a son who will be the Messiah.

Mary visits Elizabeth.

She sings that her son will be the one who will bring down the rich and powerful and lift up the lowly and hungry.

When John is born Zechariah sings!

68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 

69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 

70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 

71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 

72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 

73the 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.

76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 

77to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 

78By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 

79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke uses these stories to point to the climax of his story.

Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem.

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger ….

It is the end of the beginning.

The conclusion of the first episode.

No angels, no kings, no shepherds – yet.

They will come, but for now?

Just God.

Come for a visit.

In the feedbox.

Luke’s story is more than just a funny story about Jesus’ birth, isn’t it?

This is a birth that is going to change the world.

And over the centuries we have added a few details, right?

Shall we sing “The Little Drummer Boy”?

So, is it important that we sweat the details?

Is imagining more OK?

When we look at our manger scene, what do we see?

We see Mary and Joseph and Three Kings and shepherds, and animals, angels and a star overhead.

We think of a “holy night” that everyone seemed to notice and broke out in song.

Hark, the herald angels sing
“Glory to the new born King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With th’ angelic host proclaim
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark, the herald angels sing
“Glory to the new born King”

These are the traditions that remind us that Jesus’ birth was a world changer.

A conglomeration of stories and traditions that combine to give us an image of what made this birth special.

And that is OK.

Because we are telling the story.

This baby is the light from on high that has broken upon us, who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, who will guide us in the way of peace.

However we imagine the actual birth, what we need to understand and proclaim is that this was the incarnation.

God come near.

To the lowly shepherds.

To the gentile magi.

And even to us, who look on from a time long in the future, from right here.


God with us.

In a stable.

In Bethlehem.

When Quirinius was governor.

When Augustus was emperor.

Thanks be to God.

Family Support: Thoughts on where you go when you feel alone.

Luke 1: 39-56

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 Savior,
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 forever.’

56 And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

In 2017, we celebrate just about every pregnancy we hear about.

The “baby bump” is out front (pun intended) and proudly displayed, whatever the circumstances!

It is hard to believe there was a time when pregnancy was a private matter that folks were reticent to discuss.

I remember my mother whispering in my ear that our married neighbor was “going to have a baby”.

Like it was some secret we weren’t supposed to know about.

Teachers were required to quit their jobs when they started to “show”.

What if the kids start asking questions?

Pregnant teens abruptly disappeared from school.

They were “visiting sick relatives”.

Older women, like my friend’s mom who was pregnant when we were high school seniors.

Her daughter told me, “She’s soooooooooo embarrassed! She won’t come out of the house. She’s not even coming to commencement!”

Back in those days, if you were pregnant at an inconvenient or embarrassing time, what did you do?

You went into seclusion.

Or you just went away for a “while”.

That is what Mary and Elizabeth faced when they found themselves pregnant at inconvenient and embarrassing times.

Elizabeth in her old age and Mary … well … unmarried.

They wanted to get away!

Let’s look at the story.

Mary goes to Elizabeth immediately after her visit with Gabriel.

She has traveled ten days to see Elizabeth for reasons Luke does not share.

Maybe she wants proof of Gabriel’s assertion that Elizabeth is pregnant.

Maybe she just wants to get away!

After all, in those days, an out of wedlock pregnancy was more than embarrassing.

It was life threatening.

What about Elizabeth’s pregnancy?

I heard a line the other night that I think describes it well.

Elizabeth is in the “Autumnal” stage of life when pregnancy is … let’s say … unusual.

And her pregnancy, too, has been the subject of an angelic announcement.

It goes back six months to when Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah is offering incense in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Zechariah gets his own visit from Gabriel who tells him that Autumnal Elizabeth is to become pregnant.

And that the child will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.

The boy will be like Elijah, a prophet from God.

And the child will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.

The Lord the boy will prepare the people for is the messiah.

And while Zechariah is prevented from speaking about it, he somehow communicates all this to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is soon pregnant.

She goes into seclusion for several months.


Maybe Elizabeth was a bit embarrassed.

Like my friend’s mom who did not even come to commencement.

Elizabeth might be afraid she will lose the baby.

That had probably happened before.

So why become the subject of wagging tongues, only to lose another child?

Like Mary, Elizabeth just wanted to get away.

But where do they want to get away to?

Where could they go?

Elizabeth withdraws into seclusion.

Mary goes away; to see Elizabeth.

What they are looking for is a place where they feel protected from the storm surrounding their lives.

A safe place.

A place we might call “home”.

Marianne Meye Thompson describes “home” this way:

Home is place that grounds us: where we find ourselves at rest, where we are reminded of who we are and, more importantly, whose we are. For at its best, “home” conveys a sense of well-being, contentment and belonging: I belong to this place, these people.

Home might be a place, but most often it is particular people.

The ones who don’t judge.

Who just listen.

Who encourage.

Who are safe.

Which is what both Mary and Elizabeth got in our scripture reading.

Let’s take a look at the meeting as if we are in the room.

When I was practicing law, my paralegal for many years, Susan, was pregnant.

She was closing in on her due date and we had to get someone to take her place during her maternity leave.

I called Chris, an old secretary who had left a few years before to go to law school.

I asked her if she wanted to sit in for Susan and she got real excited when she found out why.

She came right over and rushed through the reception area, right past me, and into Susan’s office.

Chris looked immediately at Susan’s belly.

Susan smiled, leaned back in her chair and pointed with both index fingers at her large waistline.

Susan got up and they hugged and laughed.

That is the way I imagine Mary and Elizabeth acted when Mary rushed in.

Can you hear Mary?


Mary’s eyes are on Elizabeth’s waistline.

Elizabeth leans back and points at her own belly and laughs!

Elizabeth … it’s true!

You are pregnant!

And guess what?

So am I!!!

That’s why I’m here!

You won’t believe what happened!

And Mary gushes out the story about Gabriel.

Any skepticism Mary had is gone.

So, the trip was worth it.

Mary is in a safe place … home with Elizabeth.

But wait …

Then something happens to Elizabeth that changes everything for her.

Her baby jumps!

Something she was waiting for?



The baby will live.

And there is more!

She and her baby are filled with the Holy Spirit and she knows.

Her baby knows.

Mary is telling the truth about her baby!

The baby Elizabeth’s son will prepare the world for.

And Elizabeth cries out:

‘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.’

And this communicates to Mary that Elizabeth believes her unbelievable story!

Now Mary cries out.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
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.

I see the two of them holding hands and twirling around, maybe laughing, maybe crying tears of joy.

They are no longer alone.

They have someone with whom they can share their fears, their joy, their secrets, their utter amazement.

Their pregnancies.

They are at home with each other.

After the joyful dance, like at all homecomings, things settle down and the conversation turns serious.

These children are going to turn the world upside down.

The proud will be scattered.

The powerful will be knocked off their thrones.

The rich will be sent away empty.

And the lowly will be lifted up.

The hungry will be filled with good things.

This was going to be dangerous work for these two boys.

Maybe lonely work.

They would certainly need some family support.

Someone to be at home with.

And that is what they sought out.

Just like their mothers.

John is baptizing people in the Jordan River and causing trouble.

Telling folks to prepare the way of the Lord.

He is probably wondering when exactly the Lord is going to come.

Back in Nazareth, it is time for Jesus to start his ministry.

Where does Jesus go first?

To his cousin John.

They have known each other their whole lives, but have lost touch in the last few years since John has been preaching.

Jesus approaches and sees John in the river.

John turns and sees Jesus.

For a brief moment, they don’t know what to do.

They are not Mary and Elizabeth, so a mid-river song and dance aren’t going to happen.

So, Jesus asks John to baptize him.

Wait … what?

Jesus is the Lord John has been waiting for.

A baptism?

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Jesus says, “No, I just need to be with someone who understands what is happening. What better way than this.”

To look in each other’s eyes, go through a bit of a ritual, and understand each other at a time no one else did.

A homecoming of sorts.

They both knew what was going to come soon for both.


And while we get no report of angels, we do hear that the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and God called Jesus a son with whom God was well pleased.

Jesus and John were, for a moment, in a place that grounded them: where they were reminded who they were and, more importantly, whose they were.

They belonged to that place, to each other.

They were home.

Like the dance Mary and Elizabeth had, it was Jesus’ and John’s instant of family support.

The encouragement that would get them through the hard times to come.

And while it was much shorter than the three months Mary and Elizabeth had, it would be enough.

That is the lesson of this story.

When the going gets tough, it’s time to go where you are at home.

Parents, siblings, kids, relatives, close friends, a particular place where you are known and feel protected and encouraged.

What do you do when you get there?

Do a little dance.

Sing a little song.

Take a breath and talk of serious things.

Important things.

Private things.

Go there.

Be there.

Its where you wanna get away to.

That is what we should be doing here at JMPC.

We want JMPC to be a place where people come for protection, for understanding, for safety, for encouragement.

A place to go when your life has taken a detour and you are disconcerted, embarrassed, confused or afraid.

Where there will be no judgment.

Where you can be heard and helped.

Where you can be safe.

Where you can get some family support.

Where you feel at home.

Some years ago, there was a woman who confided to a friend that her husband had left her and she was humiliated.

She had nowhere to turn.

The friend told her that the friend found great peace in church.

So, the woman came.

She was just welcomed.

No one asked her questions.

No one judged.

Everyone just listened.

And everyone told her to come back.

And she did come back.

She felt safe.

At home.

When she was ready to open up, she asked to talk to me.

We talked every week.

And that ended up going on for years.

I encouraged her.

The congregation encouraged her.

And she found her home.

That is what this place must be.

A place that is home to many.

Where Marys can come.

Where Elizabeths are waiting.

Where we all can get family support when we need it most.

We don’t necessarily break into song and dance when we see each other, certainly not me, but we are glad to see each other and talk to each other, and when necessary, get serious about our lives and our home – JMPC!

That is how we survive in a world where we so often just “wanna get away”.

Where can we go?

Right here.


This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

In 2017, we celebrate just about every pregnancy we hear about. The “baby bump” is out front (pun intended) and proudly displayed, whatever the circumstances! It is hard to believe there was a time when pregnancy was a private matter that folks were reticent to discuss. I remember my mother whispering in my ear that our married neighbor was “going to have a baby”. Like it was some secret we weren’t supposed to know about. Teachers were required to quit their jobs when they started to “show”. What if the kids start asking questions? Pregnant teens abruptly disappeared from school. They were “visiting sick relatives”. Older women, like my friend’s mom who was pregnant when we were high school seniors made daughter tell me “I’m soooooooooo embarrassed I want to die!” There were times when pregnancy was considered … well … a bit inconvenient and sometimes embarrassing. If you were pregnant at an inconvenient or embarrassing time, what did you do? You went into seclusion. Or you just went away for a “while”. That sounds pretty dismal. Not a lot of support. But that is what Mary and Elizabeth faced when they found themselves pregnant at inconvenient and embarrassing times. Elizabeth in her old age and Mary … well … unmarried. In our scripture reading this week, we see what they did. And how they coped. Come and hear about it this week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church at 8:30am when Pastor Jeff preaches “Family Support” based on Luke 1: 39-56. Then stick around for the annual Christmas Pageant at the 11am service when we present “The Christmas Shop Around the Corner”. It will be a great day at JMPC! Come and celebrate the third Sunday of Advent with us.

Whatever You Say! Thoughts on Mary and what we can learn from her.

Luke 1: 26-38

26In 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 forever, 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.

Well, it’s the second Sunday of Advent and I am in the middle of my annual reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

This year something came to mind that never occurred to me before.

Scrooges story is much like the story of the Gabriel and Mary in Luke.

Scrooge is going about his normal business, which includes refusing any nod to Christmas.

Then something unexpected.

Marley’s ghost!

Scrooge is skeptical.

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t.” said Scrooge.

“What evidence would you have of my reality, beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats.  You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.  There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Then Scrooge gets three more visits in short order and slowly comes around to believing.

The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge how he became lost in the material world.

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge how people who have little in worldly treasures can have much joy regardless.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge the emptiness of the life he chose.

Then Scrooge submits:

`I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.’

It takes Scrooge a while.

He needs a lot of proof.

But he finally gets it.

And is transformed.

Which brings us to our scripture reading today.

Here we are in week two of the unexpected visitors that populate the Biblical Advent stories.

Last week we read about the visit from an angel who told Joseph that he was called to do a hard thing.

To feed, shelter and raise the messiah.

Today we read about Mary, whose job was considerably harder … at least that’s what my wife tells me.

Mary has to bear and give birth to the child.

Talk about being called to do something unexpected!

Maybe unnatural!

But we get ahead of ourselves.

We need to slow down a bit.

It is hard to listen to a story for the umpteenth time without trying to cut to the chase.

It’s like when Uncle Bob starts telling the same old story at the Christmas dinner about the squirrel hiding in the Christmas tree he cut down, a story he has told innumerable times.

As soon as he starts the story, we all want to interrupt him with, “We know, Uncle Bob, ‘and then the squirrel jumps out of the tree and knocks over Grandma’s egg nog!’”

The trouble is that when we do that we miss important details of the story that make it worth hearing umpteen times.

That give it new meaning as we grow from child to adolescent to adult to senior citizen.

We lose the humanity of the story and its deep meaning.

It’s kind of like that with A Christmas Carol!

We hear “Scrooge” and we immediately go from Marley to Ghosts of past, to present to future to redemption to Tiny Tim saying God bless us everyone.

Which by the way does not happen at the end.

What we miss is some tremendous historical and cultural background and some really good prose.

I point that out because that is what we do with this story of Gabriel and Mary!

We have heard it over and over and over.

For as long as any of us have been able to comprehend this story, the focus has been centered on the one line that follows Gabriel’s announcement that Mary is going to have a child:

“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

And Gabriel’s response:

“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.

For most of us, that is the message.

The virgin birth.

And when we hear the story read to us, as soon as it starts, our minds jump to that point and we don’t hear the rest.

But there is something more going on here that we can learn from.

So, let’s listen to the story with fresh attention.

This story is our introduction to Mary.

Who is she?

Again, we burdened by historical hindsight.

One author describes our preconceived notions about Mary this way:

[W]e’ve buried her under so many layers of theology, piety, and politics, she’s nearly impossible to excavate. Some of us pray to her. Others ignore her on principle. Some call her a victim of divine coercion. Others, “Theotokos,” the Mother of God. For some, she represents a troubling model of pious femininity — ever sinless, ever virgin, ever mother. For still others, she is child prophet extraordinaire — a young girl who fearlessly announced the arrival of God’s kingdom to earth.

But we are not told any of that here by Luke.

We need to notice something else.

We have before us a brief ordered, factual narrative.

A synopsis of a historical event.

In Biblical times, the stories were orally transmitted and there was, no doubt, a fair amount of emotion in the tellers and the listeners.

Good stories generate that when told well.

If we really want to get the full picture of the event, we need a bit of what my theater major son would call “staging”.

Think of it as a one act play where the actors provide information on the plot with their actions as well as their words.

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 from Bethlehem named Joseph.

The marriage will be consummated when she moves in with Joseph.

That has not happened yet.

Now the action begins.

Mary is occupied in her normal life.

Then enter Gabriel!

You know who he is.

He’s one of God’s Archangels.

Her reaction to this unexpected guest evolves over the course of the encounter.

At first Mary is afraid.

It is the rare exception in the Bible that on finding oneself in the presence of an angel one is not absolutely terrified!

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

And we know Mary was afraid because the angel tells her not to be.


Why does this angel (Gabriel is it?) call me favored?

That the Lord is with me?

What the heck does that mean?

One writer describes her response this way:

Me? Who am I? Why am I favored? How can the Lord be with me? She knows her place. She knows who she is. And this should not be happening. She’s a she, a teenager, and from the wrong side of the tracks. 

Why does Mary get a visit from Gabriel?

Does God even know she exists?

I have an image of her dropping 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.

Can you imagine her incredulity?

Wait … what!?

A baby?


How is that going to happen?

Wait … what?

This is going to be God’s doing?

Wait … what?

This baby will be what?


The Son of the Most High?

He will sit in the throne of his ancestor David?

He will reign over the house of Jacob forever?

His kingdom will have no end?

He will be holy?

He will be called Son of God?


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

How can this be?

How can any of this be?

Wait … what?

Elizabeth, too?

Well, if Elizabeth can be pregnant, nothing is impossible with God.

Then, after all this, the fear, the confusion, the incredulity, and the no doubt much teenage angst, she seems to shrug her shoulders and say:


“Whatever you say!”

And Mary is all in.


She says the right words, but then does something interesting.

She runs off to see Elizabeth.

Why would she do that?

Maybe to see if Gabriel was telling the truth?

Is Elizabeth really pregnant?

Mary’s trip to see Elizabeth suggests a certain skepticism and pause before Mary’s final decision to be all in.

So, considering that Mary might be frightened, mystified, confused and skeptical, what might have been the interaction between Mary and Gabriel before her acquiescence?

How do we stage Mary’s reaction to all this?

If you want to get an image of what Mary’s reaction might look like, take a look at some annunciation artwork.

Depictions of what people thought it might have been like.

Particularly Sandro Botticelli’s painting, “The Cestello Annunciation”.

In it, Botticelli portrays Mary as withdrawing from Gabriel.

Creating distance between them as if she might flee.

Her hand is out in a “keep your distance from me” gesture.

Mary is looking down, averting her eyes.

Mary’s expression is not particularly joyful.

More ambivalent.

Is Mary telling Gabriel, “I need to think about his.”

Gabriel is on his knee, looking up into Mary’s face, as if trying to get her to look at him.

Is he afraid Mary is about to say no?

Is he begging her to say yes?

How long does this all go on?

Gabriel must be relieved when Mary utters her famous phrase:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

He departs.

And Mary runs to see Elizabeth.

It is only then that Mary is clearly all in as she sings her famous song:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor 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.

More to this story than you thought?

Maybe Dickens saw all that, too.

It raises issues and questions folks have been talking, and painting, about for centuries.

What do we make of all this?

What does the story of Gabriel and Mary teach us?

Something Like this, I think.

Mary was the human being through whom God became incarnate.

She brought the Son into the world.

It was unexpected.

It was inconvenient.

It was untimely.

It was hard to believe.

But she thought about it, and investigated it.

And ultimately, Mary agreed to do it.

And that is the lesson for us.

We, as members of the Body of Christ, are the human beings through whom God acts in the world.

We bring the Holy Spirit into the world.

We too can give birth to the holy!

It was unexpected.

It was inconvenient.

It was untimely.

It was hard to believe.

But we thought about it, and investigated it.

And ultimately, we agreed to do it.

But we have to agree!

Are we willing to let God intrude into our lives and, despite the cost and discomfort, emulate Mary’s “yes” to God with our own “yes”?

Can we as a church respond like Mary?

It might take us a bit to get over the fear, puzzlement, confusion, and doubt.

But, like Mary, we need to agree.

So here is my image of what that might look like:

Me: “Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and intends to do great things through you.”

Congregation: “How can this be? We are ordinary, everyday people.”

Me: “Yet you have found favor through God, and the Holy Spirit will come upon you, guide you, and work through you to care for this world and people God loves so much. For nothing is impossible with God.

Congregation: “Here we are, servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your word.”

So may it be.


This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

Some years ago, when I was practicing law, I represented a trauma surgeon. Her job was to put people back together after some terrible accident. She firmly believed that the most common last words her teenage patients said before they became her patients were, “Hey – Watch this!” The second would be, “What could possibly go wrong?”

If you have ever been the parent of a teenager, male or female, it is no surprise to you that teenagers from time to time make terrible decisions. They simply cannot make connections between their actions and predictable consequences. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the reason for this is simple. The part of the brain that sends the message, “That is not a good idea!” does not fully develop until we are well into our 20s.

Based on this, teenagers are more likely to:

  • act on impulse
  • misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions
  • engage in dangerous or risky behavior

They are less likely to:

  • think before they act
  • pause to consider the potential consequences of their actions

Having raised two children through their teenage years, I can attest to their ability to do the crazy things from time to time.

Which brings me to Mary. In this week’s scripture reading we are introduced to her for the first time. What do we know about her? Very little. She is engaged to Joseph and lives in Nazareth. Culturally we know a bit more. She is probably around 13 years old, which was the age when young people were sent off to marriage and child rearing. If this is true, how do we read the story of Gabriel’s visit? How does a teenage girl react to being told she will have a child before she moves in with Joseph? That the child will be a king? That all this is because she is favored by God? Luke says Mary basically says, “Whatever you say!” Really?

What if that happened to you? Even if your brain is fully developed, what would your reaction be? Come and hear more about this Sunday, December 10, the Second Sunday of Advent, at 8:30 and 11 when Pastor Jeff Preaches “Whatever You Say” based on Luke’s story of the annunciation at Luke 1: 26-38. See you then!

An Unexpected Responsibility: Thoughts on being called to do hard things.

Matthew 1: 18-25

18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

It is Advent.

Advent is a season of celebration and anticipation.

We anticipate and celebrate the nativity of Jesus.

Our Savior’ birth.

In our celebrations, we often gather for fellowship, food, gift exchanges and good tidings of great joy.

During Advent, company is always expected.

Either we are expecting company or are the expected company.

In the Biblical Advent stories, company comes, that’s for sure, but it is not expected.

This Advent we will look at four such stories.

The Angel comes to Joseph.

Gabriel comes to Mary.

Mary comes to Elizabeth.

Mary and Joseph come to Bethlehem.

The shepherds come to the manger.

Unexpected visitors.

But all these unanticipated visits are secondary to the one whose coming has been long expected.

The Messiah.

That is what I will be preaching about this Advent.

All the company that comes and goes as we await the coming of the one.

The light of the world.

Today we start with Joseph.

This is a great story.

Most often we tell the story at Christmas to describe the birth of Jesus.

To proclaim the nature of his identity.

But there is more going on here than a birth story.

It is a story about being obedient to God, even when it is hard.

And for Joseph, this was all very hard.

What do we know about Joseph?

Joseph is a righteous Jew who did his best to follow the dictates of the Jewish law.

One of those laws prohibited adultery.

It was a grave sin both against family and to God.

The punishment for adultery could be severe – even death.

Divorce was the least of its penalties.

Another of those laws Joseph would want to follow was this:

It is a religious duty (mitzvah) to extend the hospitality of one’s home for food and lodging as the need arises.

The requirement to provide hospitality was central to the nature of the nomadic life in the middle east.

As people traveled, they would stop at a community for food and shelter.

Receiving food and shelter was expected.

It was a matter of life or death.

To refuse to give hospitality was basically to renounce any sense of being part of the human community.

The Jewish people knew this and had utilized when they went into Egypt to escape the famine back when Joseph was Prime Minister of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:33-34 says this:

33When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

The principal of hospitality is ultimately commanded 35 times in the Torah.

No other commandment even comes close.

So, if a traveler showed up at Joseph’s door, he had to provide hospitality for as long as it was needed.

And finally, like all righteous Jews, Joseph had a messianic expectation.

And expectation that God would send a Messiah who would bring about the redemption of his people, a restoration of the Davidic kingdom, and bring in an era of universal peace.

So, that is Joseph.

And ordinary Jewish man.

But when we meet him in our scripture reading, Joseph has a problem.

He is engaged to Mary.

She would be his helpmate for life and the mother of his children.

This would be the start of a family which was central to life in Israel.

Then the surprise.

Mary is pregnant.

Under Jewish law, she has committed adultery.

As a righteous man, Joseph had little choice but to end their engagement.

But wanted to be kind.

It would be a quiet divorce.

No reason was required.

Just a piece of pater signed by Joseph and two witnesses.

Mary would not be disgraced, and would likely have been given some money for support.

Which, to me, implies Joseph had some amount of affection for Mary.

But at the end of the day, Joseph’s plan for his life was not to be.

This was a hard thing.

I imagine he was crushed.

Then Joseph gets a visit from an angel of the Lord.

The angel tells Joseph that all this was from God.

That God was doing something wonderful.

And that Joseph had a role in this wonderful thing, and it was indeed a hard thing.

One writer put a modern spin on this:

The angel basically said, “I know this is not what you expected, Joseph, but it is going to be OK. God is about to do something wonderful, despite the fact you are now in a rather socially unacceptable situation.”

Then it gets a bit harder still.

The angel tells Joseph to name him!

And in the naming, the boy will be adopted by Joseph as his own.

(Which by the way makes Jesus a member of the Davidic line.)

To provide hospitality for the unexpected visitor.

A lifelong responsibility of shelter and food.

Then it gets seriously hard.

Joseph is told to name him Jesus – God saves.

This is the messiah.

Joseph is to be the father of the savior of God’s people.

That’s a lot of responsibility.

Unexpected responsibility.

And Joseph agrees to do the hard thing.


Because he is a righteous man.

Because he trusts God.

Because he want to be obedient to God.

Joseph gets a visit from an angel and his life is changed forever.

But, you know, it does turn out OK.

Joseph gets Mary as his wife.

He also gets a family.

Just what he wanted.

So, what do we make of this?

There is a lesson here.

The lesson is that God often calls us to do hard things.

Unexpected things.

Things outside and contrary to our plans.

Life is going on and suddenly we hear:

“I know this is not what you expected, but it is going to be OK.”

This is the way God has worked throughout the Bible.

God continually calls folks to do hard things.

Noah, Abraham, Moses, the Judges, Samuel, David, the Prophets.

Hard unexpected and unwanted tasks.

That’s the Hebrew Bible.

In the New Testament, we see the calls to the disciples, particularly Peter and Paul who wanted nothing to do with Jesus.

And it continued on to the Great Commission.

All of them called out of their lives in unexpected ways to do hard things.

But they all trusted God.

And took on the unexpected responsibility.

What does that have to do with us?

It’s this.

At some time in our each of our lives, we are called by God to a particular task.

Unexpected and often hard.

Like them, we have a choice.

Do we accept the call?

Or do we do what is quiet and convenient?

I had to make that choice ten years ago.

My plan had been to practice law for as long as I could.

If I had done that, I might be in practice today with my wife and daughter, which I have to say would be pretty cool.

But I was called to become a pastor.

I had spent many years in seminary, but still, it was going to be hard.

It sounded something like this:

“I know this is not what you expected, Jeff, but don’t worry, it is going to be OK.”

So, I trusted God.

And you know what?

It has been a lot better than OK!

It has been a blessing.

It brought me here.

So, what about you?

What about JMPC?

I believe many of you all have had a similar experience.

I want you to think about the times in your own lives and the life of this congregation when God has called you to do something hard and unexpected and you just did it.

You trusted God.

It was not what you expected, but it turned out OK.

But we are not done.

Because, like Joseph, what we have been called to do is often a lifelong endeavor.

Not a one-time thing.

Joseph’s task was to feed, shelter and raise this child.

That’s a lot of hospitality.

What does God want from us?

Are we ready to continue with our unexpected responsibility?

Do we trust God?

I want you to think about that as we come to this table where we remember one particular event where God asked someone to do a hard thing.


God asked Jesus to go to the cross to accomplish his messianic task.

A hard thing indeed!

And Jesus had reservations.

Matthew quotes him:

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

Jesus trusted God … and did the hard thing.

As we hold the elements of our communion with Jesus, let’s think and pray about what we as individuals and as a church might be called to do in the coming year.

Something unexpected?

Something hard?

Are we ready?



Family Promise?


The Christmas Affair?

Ministry Teams?



Christian Education?

The choir?

The bells?

To be a liturgist?

The lesson Joseph teaches is the same lesson this table teaches.

If we trust and obey God, doing the hard things will be OK.

When writing this, I was reminded of John Kennedy’s speech about going to the moon in ten years.

This is what he said:

We choose to go to the Moon! … We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone …

Doing the hard thing.

That is what Joseph did.

It is what each of us should do, too.

A challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

It’s Advent! The season of anticipation that something’s coming. When I was a 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!

Joseph was in a season of anticipation. He was engaged to Mary. He was waiting for the marriage and her move into his home. That would be in a year or two. I am sure he was counting the days. Would the wedding date ever come? She would become his helpmate. She would take care of the home while he earned the money to pay for their needs. They would be a team. Mary would also bear his children. They would become a family. The family was the core of Jewish society and a center for its religious life. In the Jewish tradition, it is said that God waits impatiently for men and women to marry and have children. Marriage was a holy institution.

But then – something unexpected. Mary became pregnant. This created quite a bit of emotional and religious turmoil for Joseph. I can only imagine the disappointment. What he anticipated was not to be. But the something else happened – and it turned out to be something better, for him and for Mary. Want to hear more? Come and hear Pastor Jeff preach “An Unexpected Responsibility” based on Matthew 1: 18-25 this Sunday at John McMillan Presbyterian Church. Services are at 8:30 and 11. Let’s get the Advent anticipation started!

Christ the King 2017: Thoughts on the hope to which we are called.

Ephesians 1: 15-23

15I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

I am binge watching the Netflix series “The Crown” these days.

It is a docudrama about the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II of England.

It is really interesting … the way the English relate to the monarchy.

The Queen, as were her predecessors on the throne, is for the most part revered and loved.

Her coronation takes place in a cathedral and she is anointed as God’s chosen.

Elizabeth is the head of state.

She is the face of Great Britain.

Yet she is bound by a constitution that gives her virtually no authority to do anything in terms of actual governing.

Elizabeth is surrounded by people who tell her what she can and cannot do.

She wants to pick her own personal secretary, but is told she cannot because ther is a protocol that requires her to keep her father’s secretary.

To do something outside protocol would demonstrate independence that the people do not want in their monarch.

They want her to be under their control.

She has virtually no control over her own life.

She certainly has no control over the lives of her “subjects”.

We in the United States often watch this and wonder why the English bother with monarchs.

We don’t get the concept of kings and queens.

Particularly ones who have no power or apparent purpose.

The days of kings and queens are long over.

Which is why “Christ the King Sunday” is a bit puzzling to us.

What does it mean that Christ is king?

King of what?

With what power or authority?

Is Jesus a king like Elizabeth is queen?

All show and no substance?

Like a human idol to be trotted out when folks want a bit of comfort and tradition?

A king that cannot act independently from the will of the people?

A king not permitted to do anything different from what has “always been done”?


Paul is clear on that point.

20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.

Jesus is the supreme authority.

There are no other authorities that are superior or even equal to Jesus.



Jesus’ exalted Lordship is now and forever.

That has always been central to our faith.

The cornerstone of reformed theology.

Christ is king.

So, when we get to this point, we really should ask ourselves, “So what?”

What is required of us if Christ is king?

Do we just come to him on bended knee, proclaim our fealty and give homage?

‘You are my king, lord!’

Well, yes.

But Paul is not talking about individual fealty.

Paul is talking to us as a church.

Paul is talking about the relationship between the church and God.

A community of believers who seek to do God’s will as … well … a part of the Body of Christ!

‘You are our king, Lord!’

But is that enough?

Or are we, as a church, called to do something more by our king?

A king who is not dependent on the will of the people, but whose will is to be done?

Paul seems clear on this point.

We are called to more by Christ our King.

The church in Ephesus was.

The church in Bethel Park is.

That is Paul’s message to the Ephesians and to us.

Our scripture reading is in three parts.

It starts with a statement that Paul has heard of the Ephesians.

Paul has heard of them.

People are talking about them.

Talking enough that Paul hears about them while he is in Rome.

Think about that.

No internet.

No Ephesian website.

No Facebook.

No Twitter.

No social media at all.

The Ephesians have a reputation that spans countries and regions!


One writer has said a reputation starts.

When people come to our worship, our Bible study, our church school or our church suppers, and all the other things we do, they have to feel that special spirit.

That is what was going on in Ephesus.

What is the Ephesian’s reputation?

Paul has heard about the Ephesians’ special spirit.

He has heard of their faith in Jesus.

He has head of their love toward all the saints.

Paul is so pleased that he does not cease to give thanks for them as he remembers them in his prayers.

This is the kind of language one would expect to hear right before, “Welcome good and faithful servant, enter into your eternal reward.”

So, what do people say about us?

What is our reputation?

What is the special spirit people who visit us feel?

What we have been doing up on this hill for 50 years.



Christian Education.

Bible Study.


We live a life of faith in Jesus and love for each other.

The spirit is present and palpable.

But it is and has been particularly palpable here in November and December.

It starts with the Christmas Affair.

Who would deny that there is a special spirit then?

Next is the Thanksgiving Service.

Kids leading worship and collecting for those who need help.

Who would deny that there is a special spirit then.

Next is Advent when we have many events that anticipate the nativity of Christ.

The Christmas Concert.

A sermons series on hospitality.

A Christmas Pageant where the kids can deliver the meaning of Christmas.

Candle lit worship on Christmas Eve to bring a bit of peace and reverence to the celebration.

People who are here will find a special spirit in all these things.

A reputation of great faith and love and outreach.

And we should pray a prayer of thanksgiving to God who has encouraged us to be this great witness.

Faith in Jesus.

Thanks be to God.

Love for each other.

Thanks be to God.

We like that because it is traditional and comfortable.

And we hope it is all that is required.

But there is more required of us by our king, according to Paul.

17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you …

Paul offers a prayer of encouraging words that the church does what God has called the church to do.

Which means that faith in Jesus and love for their fellow Ephesians is not the be all and end all for the church.

We must follow Christ our King.

Even though it takes us beyond our comfort zone.

We acknowledge Jesus power as beyond any control we might want.

The church has more responsibility.

The church has more to do.

Paul prays that God gives the church even the wisdom and revelation so they come to know what more God is calling them to do.

Which is the hope to which Jesus has called them.

Faith and love are immediate and current.

The church has that.

But we also have to have hope.

Hope is something that looks to the future.

Something to look forward to.

That is what the church needs.

Hope for the future.

A mission to fulfill.

To participate in Jesus’ continuing work.

In obedience to our king.

To be God’s called out people who live as a community in obedience to God and as a holy example of what it means to be disciples of Jesus.

Paul is saying that the reign of Jesus is ushering in his Kingdom, and he expects us to participate.

Not as individuals but as a community walking side by side with Jesus on a common journey.

The journey to the completion of God’s plan for his creation and the arrival of his kingdom.

And that is our hope.

That we are subjects of Christ the King, and he will lead us and teach us that there is even more to come.

That is what Paul says a church is to do and be.

So how do we do that?

Paul is pretty vague on the details.

How do come to know the hope of our particular calling?

Like Paul, we pray for wisdom and revelation.

That our hearts be enlightened.

Then we pay attention.

We evaluate our greatest gifts and then evaluate where our gifts can serve the greatest need!

We will know when we feel the joy.

Eric Liddell was a Scott who was made famous in the movie “Chariots of Fire”.

He says this when asked about his decision to run in the Olympics rather than accepting a call to mission in china.

“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast!
And when I run I feel his pleasure.”

It is when we feel and understand our purpose and our gifts that we become wise and understand the hope in our calling.

We will feel God’s pleasure.

It looks like this:

People in such a church have a goal, a destination, and because they know where they are going, they have hope.

We are such a church.

We have done well.

We have a good reputation.

But that there is more we are called to.

And like Paul, we must pray that we become wise and receive revelation and feel the hope that is our continued calling.

So, here is my Advent challenge.

Advent is a time of anticipation.

Anticipation of what is to come.

For us, this should be a season of anticipation of wisdom.

For us, this should be a season of anticipation of revelation.

For us this should be a season of anticipation of the hope we are called to.

What will it be?

What more can we do?

More inspired worship?

More generous mission?

More enlightening Christian Education?

More sincere fellowship?

It is this we need to pray about as Advent begins and the year ends.

What kind of prayer?

Rich Mullins, one of my favorite songwriters put how we are to approach God as king this way:

Oh God, You are my God
And I will ever praise You
Oh God, You are my God
And I will ever praise You
I will seek You in the morning
And I will learn to walk in Your ways
And step by step You’ll lead me
And I will follow You all of my days

Do that and Christ our King will give us hope for our continued calling and to participate in his work here in our world, as we follow him all of our days.

Thoughts and Prayers: Thoughts on what we should do beyond thinking and praying.

Mark 5: 1-20

5They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ 8For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ 9Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ 10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ 13So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.

14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ 20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

It is almost time for the seasonal binge of “A Christmas Story”, the tale of Ralphie and his quest to get a Red Rider BB Gun for Christmas.

One of the characters in the movie is Ralphie’s nemesis, Scut Farkus.

The one with the yellow eyes!

Farkus is a bully who terrorizes Ralphie and his friends, twisting their arms up behind their backs until they say “uncle”.

Later in the movie, Ralphie gets hit in the face with a snowball thrown by Farkus.

Ralphie has finally had enough and does something Farkus does not expect.

He attacks.

He puts Farkus on the ground and wails away at him until Ralphie’s mother comes and pulls him off and takes him home.

My initial reaction to the scene when I watch it for the 1,000th time is:


Nice to see the bloody nose.

Farkus deserved it.

I think that is a pretty common response to bullying.

No one likes a bully.

Whether they be playground bullies or bullies of the more sinister or aberrant kind.

We have read about a lot of such bullies in the recent past.

These bullies do not twist arms, but obtain an automatic weapon and open fire.

These bullies take advantage of an imbalance of power to impose themselves on, violate, assault or humiliate another person, physically or emotionally.

We send “thoughts and prayers” to the victims.

Which is good, because they need it.

That is what we did last week here when we prayed for the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

We could have and should have offered our thoughts and prayers for the victims of abuse and humiliation and harassment we have heard about so many times in the past week.

Those folks need it, too.

But such responses have been criticized because of what is missing.


We need to do something, too.

Our knee jerk reaction is primitive.

We want someone to strike back, like Ralphie.

We want to see these bullies knocked down and bloody.

We praise the First Baptist Church neighbor who pulled out his own gun and shot the Sutherland Springs murderer.


He deserved to get shot.

And maybe we should applaud that neighbor.

He acted on the spur of the moment and might have saved some lives.

So that’s one response.

Here’s another.

Had the murderer survived and been arrested, we would certainly want him punished – and severely.

The problem is, that these responses alone are not enough.

It is too late.

It is reactive but not preventive.

We need to do something to prevent these bullies from doing their damage.

What can we do to prevent such things?

Does Jesus offer any advice?

Well, in today’s scripture, Jesus runs into a bully.

As Jesus gets off the boat, a man runs out of a local graveyard, rushes up to confront him.

Who is this guy?

A man who has been cast out of the community because he is dangerous.

The townspeople had unsuccessfully tried to restrain him with chains.

Then he was banished to live in the tombs.

In Matthew’s version of the story, he comes from the tombs and attacks folks passing by on the road.

He’s unsafe!

A bully.

You can feel the prospect of violence in the air.

But Jesus does something unexpected.

Jesus asks him his name.

In this context, asking someone their name is more than just for identification.

It is a request for a personal history that defines him.

And explains what he does.

The man responds that he is “legion”!

Multitudes life events that make him do what he does.

Jesus exorcizes what he does and the past events that make him do it, and leaves behind the man in his right mind.

The people are safe from him now.

Jesus prevents this man from doing any more damage to the folks in the town and on the road.

Jesus is peace making.

Jesus says this event is blessed.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

You know, the ones who don’t want to fight.

Who don’t want to retaliate.

Who want to seek solutions that prevent future bullying.

Jesus is not saying that people who “mind their own business” turn away are blessed.

He says that peace makers are blessed.

Peace makers are called children of God.

People who seek solutions!

That is life in the Kingdom.

A life that imitates Jesus.

And that is why peace making is blessed.

What does that look like?

Let me tell you a story.

A good friend of mine has a daughter who is a heroin addict.

This young woman did what addicts do.

She preyed on her parents for money and when they did not give her any, she stole it from them.

She would show up at their front door screaming for money, food, a car, any kind of support.

Her parents were afraid that she was going to end up dead.

That was her power over them.

She bullied them.

There are those who claim that the best response would be to banish her.

But that does not bring peace.

They decided on a different way.

Her mom asked me to help perform an intervention.

And we did.

We had a professional counselor help us through it.

It was something that is hard to describe.

It was very uncomfortable.

When we confronted the daughter, I felt like I was in Gerasene.

As soon as she realized what was going on, she freaked.

She screamed.

She cried.

She threatened.

She accused.

She denied.

She attacked.

She bullied.

It was like she was possessed.

She was possessed by her addiction.

Over the course of about 4 hours of this, we convinced her to go to rehab.

She left immediately with the counselor for rehab.

How did we do it?

We asked her questions.

We probed her feelings.

We tried to discover her motivations.

We confronted her misperceptions.

And we convinced her that her life would be better if she were clean.

Like Jesus, we cared for her and about her and sent her on a road to exorcize her demons, which were legion.

There was peace.

That is an intervention.

Can this work in other contexts?


But we have to ask some questions.

Why do people become bullies?

There are lots of theories.

Their parents are bullies.

They feel powerless.

They feel invisible.

They feel entitled.

They lack empathy.

These demons make them become violators of others.

What is interesting about all these things is that they can be fixed.

If we can find out their motivations, and why they feel the need to violate others, they can be taught to “exorcize” their “demons” that make them think their conduct is somehow allowed and somehow sanctioned.

With my friend’s daughter, it was a problem with a lack of self-esteem and a feeling of powerlessness.

It led to addiction.

And bullying.

Which brings us to the murders of 26 people in Sutherland, Texas.

Could this have been predicted and could there have been an intervention?


Here is a bit of interesting information.

A recent study found that of all the mass murderers in the recent past 54% were involved in domestic violence.

And the number might be higher because it does not include violence between people in relationships who are not married.

Why is this important?

If 54% of the murderers had been identified before the murders, there might have been an opportunity for intervention.

This guy in Sunderland Springs was an abuser of his wife and family.

That was well known.

For years.

An intervention years before might have made a difference.

Jailing him was appropriate, but that was a temporary fix.

What if someone had acted when his aberrant behavior first started?

How many lives could have been saved?

Find out what is going on and then do … something.

An intervention.

Like with my friend’s daughter.

And this is hard.

When Jesus intervened in Gerasene, they threw him out of town!

When Jesus intervened in humanity’s conflict with God, he got crucified!

So, what can we do?

We are struggling to find a solution.

Mental health care is inadequate.

Social services are insufficient.

Law enforcement does not take bullying seriously or is not given the tools it needs.

Folks don’t want to get involved.

But we have to find a way.

The Jesus way.

We need to pay attention, educate ourselves and seek solutions.

We can support addiction services, like Sojourner House.

We can support social services and nonprofits that offer interventions.

We can promote action!

We need to find a way to be peace makers.

To intervene, stop the aberrant behavior and point to a better way.

We aren’t there yet, but we need to keep trying.

It is what we are called to do.

To be peacemakers.

To be blessed.

To be children of God.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to watch a PBS Frontline documentary called “The Interrupters”. It was about former Chicago gang members who try to stop gang violence by interrupting the cycle of continuous retaliation. They work with an organization called CeaseFire (which has a chapter in Pennsylvania). CeaseFire approaches at gang violence as if it were a virus that can only be stopped by interrupting the infection cycle. These folks are on call in their neighborhoods. If there is a gang shooting, they go to the scene right away and start talking to the gathered crowd. They listen for words of retaliation and hate. Then they try to interrupt the spread of infection of new violence. They start telling the vengeful folks that there are better ways to deal with the event. That there are different ways to live. Many times their interruptions work. They are peace makers.

What is interesting about these people is that they remind me of the story of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is confronted by a man with an unclean spirit who is wreaking havoc on the towns people. Jesu intervenes, and interrupts and brings some peace to the community. Jesus, too, acts as a peace maker. Can we do that, too? Would that help to stop or slow the seemingly increased violence in our country and our world? Maybe. Let’s talk about it Sunday at John McMillan Presbyterian Church this Sunday at 8:30 and 11 when Pastor Jeff preaches “Thoughts and Prayers” based on Mark 5: 1-20.