Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Readings for Lessons and Carols Service on Sunday, December 31st

This upcoming Sunday, we will take the opportunity to read key Bible passages that tell the entire story of Jesus' birth.  Each reading will be paired with a Christmas carol that serves as a response to or an expansion of the reading.

Below, you will find the seven readings for this Sunday.  I have not included any notes from me because I will not be preaching this Sunday; instead, the readings and the carols will proclaim the story.  But if there is something that you notice or read anew this time around, let us know in the comments so that others can see what you see.

Genesis 1:1 – 5, 14 – 18:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.
 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

14 And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years,
 15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth." And it was so.
 16 God made the two great lights-- the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night-- and the stars.
 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,
 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.

Micah 5:2 – 5a:

2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
 3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.
 4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;
 5 and he shall be the one of peace.

Luke 1:26 – 35, 38:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,
 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.
 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."
 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.
 32 He 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.
 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
 34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"
 35 The 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.

38 Then 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.

Matthew 1:18 – 25:

18 Now 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.
 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
 20 But 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.
 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
 22 All 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."
 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,
 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Luke 2:8 – 20:

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:
 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."
 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
 14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."
 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;
 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Matthew 2:1 – 11:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,
 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."
 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;
 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
 6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."
 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

John 1:1 – 14:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
 2 He was in the beginning with God.
 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being
 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.
 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,
 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas Eve Sermon 2017

If you were not able to attend Christmas Eve services at your home congregation because of the winter weather and the road conditions, that is okay.  I trust your judgment of the road conditions and your ability to drive on messy/icy roads.

If you were not able to attend Christmas Eve services at your home congregation due to other circumstances, especially an emergency situation, that is also okay.  You did what was needed for you and your family at that time.

For all who were not able to attend Christmas Eve services on Sunday night, and for anyone who is interested in what I preached on the occasion of Christmas Eve, here is my sermon for Christmas Eve 2017.  I hope you find it meaningful, thought-provoking, humorous, and/or comforting during this Christmas season.  (The odd formatting helps me organize my thoughts as I write and calls attention to the points I want to emphasize during the sermon.)

I) Introduction – “Get on my level!”
A) I’ve noticed a new phrase that has entered the language of our culture in the last few months.  It usually comes in the form of a taunt during competition after one player makes a big move against another player or wins a round of a longer match.  In the midst of the celebration, a player will turn to the opponent and yell, “Get on my level!”
B) The implication is that the celebrating player is so much better than the opponent that he or she is on a different level of competition than the opponent.  The taunt suggests that the opponent must go back to the practice field, gain more experience, and develop more skill before he or she becomes a threat to defeat the celebrating player.

II) Common Message to Us: “Get on the Lord’s Level!”
A) This taunt reminds me of the message that many branches of the Church, whether intentionally or inadvertently, communicates to members and visitors.  That message can be summed up as “Get on the Lord’s Level!”
B) The longer version of that message is that we are sinful creatures who do not deserve the Lord’s love.  We must “get right with God,” change our ways, become as close to perfect as we can get.  Then, maybe then, the Lord will look on us with love and approval.
C) And this message is proclaimed under the assumption that all of this is possible if we would just try harder.  We have the ability to be perfect.  It’s up to us to follow through and do it.
D) But this goes against every story recorded in scripture.  We are not perfect, and we do not have the ability to be perfect.  We cannot work ourselves up to the Lord’s Level.  The only way that we can move up to the Lord’s Level is if the Holy Spirit raises us up to the Lord’s Level.

III) The Lord Comes Down to Our Level
A) Which is why the story of Jesus’ birth is so significant.  The Lord did not ask us to perfect ourselves and reach the Lord’s Level.  Instead, the Lord descended to our level.
B) The Father sent the Son into the world through the Holy Spirit and through Mary, a young woman in Nazareth engaged to Joseph, a descendant of King David.  The Son entered the world while the couple was answering a legal requirement to return to Joseph’s family’s hometown of Bethlehem, and the couple named him Jesus, just as the angel told them to name him.
C) Jesus descended to our level through the messy process of birth into a messy world driven by military power, religious tradition, and economic exploitation.  He lived the life of a child in a poor family and likely served an apprenticeship under his father to learn a skilled trade.
D) When the time was right, Jesus stepped into the spotlight to begin his ministry, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was drawing near and that the hour of the Lord had almost arrived.
E) If, by this point, he had not descended far enough to visit every level of human existence, Jesus descended to the lowest levels of shame and dishonor at the hands of the religious leaders who organized his crucifixion.
F) And then, the Father raised Jesus from the dead and lifted him back up to his original place on the Lord’s Level.  But not before Jesus proclaimed that he would give us the Holy Spirit, who would teach us and sustain us in this life.  And not before Jesus promised that he would return at an undisclosed date in the future, where he would raise all of the Lord’s people up to the Lord’s Level so that they can live in the Lord’s Kingdom.

IV) Closing – The Lord with Us on Our Level
A) The hope of that image, of life in the Lord’s Kingdom, begins here in the manger.  Jesus, the promised Christ, has come down from heaven to live on our level.
B) It is only because the Lord descended to our level that we can hope that the Lord will raise us up to the Lord’s level.
C) Tonight, we celebrate the Lord descending to our level to live among us.  We give thanks for all that the Lord has done, is doing, and will do within the world.  And we look for the Lord’s presence among us on our level while we await the day the Lord raises us to the Lord's Level.  Amen.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Monday Thoughts on the Readings for Sunday Morning, December 24, 2017

We are one week away from Christmas day, which means I am in the midst of one of my busiest weeks of the year.  Tomorrow night, December 19th, we will host our annual "Blue Christmas" service, a night where anyone who finds their celebration of the holidays restrained by grief, depression, illness, abuse, or by any other cause can name this trouble in a safe space and lift prayers to the Lord.  Then, on the evening of December 24th, we will have our annual Christmas Eve children's program at 7:00 pm and our annual Christmas Eve candlelight service at 11:00 pm.

But, on the morning of December 24th, we will not jump to our Christmas Eve celebration.  Instead, we will complete the Advent season with the readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent, which you can find below.  After each reading, I will add in italics my first thoughts/responses to the readings.  I invite you to share your comments, questions, and responses in the comment section below.

2 Samuel 7:1 - 11, 16

1Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” 3Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”
  4But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” 8Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 16Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

David has recently been established as the King of Israel.  He has a palace for his family, where he can rule over the nation.  But he is disturbed that his house is greater than the Lord’s house, the Tabernacle, which is a grand tent.  The Lord declines David’s offer to build a temple, a grand house, for the Lord.  (Side note for the curious: David reveals to Solomon the Lord’s reason behind this refusal in 1 Chronicles 22:7 – 10).  Instead, the Lord declares that the Lord will build up David’s house, meaning his family dynasty as King.  The Lord will also firmly establish the nation of Israel in their homeland.  In the missing verses, the Lord promises David that David’s son will be the one to build the Lord’s house; this becomes one of Solomon’s tasks after he becomes king.  The final verse, promising that David’s “house,” kingdom, and throne will be established forever, reminds us that Jesus is a member of David’s “house” and that Jesus continues to reign as King on the throne established by the Lord.

Luke 1:46b - 55

"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.
 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."

Luke 1:46b – 55 is the famous “Magnificat” or “Mary’s Song.”  Mary responds to the revelation of the angel (our gospel reading later) and the confirmation from her cousin, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s unborn son, John (the portion in between the two readings), by singing a song describing the Lord turning the socio-political world upside down.  The great ones of society will be humbled, and the lowly ones of society will be lifted up.  The Lord’s actions will fulfill the promises given to Israel over the generations/centuries.  Are the promises fulfilled at Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ death, Jesus’ resurrection, or Jesus’ return at the end of the age?  For me, the answer is “Yes.”  The fulfillment of these promises is not complete until the end of the age, but the promises were fulfilled at each of these events, and the promises are being fulfilled now, today!

Romans 16:25 - 27

25Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

This is Paul signing off at the end of his letter to the Romans.  The key phrases are “the revelation of the mystery” and that this mystery “is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles…”  This mystery includes the identity of the Lord and what we proclaim as “the mystery of faith”: “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”

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.

In Advent, we have worked backwards from the Second Arrival of Christ to now the proclamation of Jesus’ First Arrival (i.e. Jesus’ Birth).  Most Christians have heard this story many times and may not listen closely.  But there is a particular detail that draws us in.  “… the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  The promise in 2 Samuel was that David’s house and throne would be established forever.  But the angel declares that Jesus will establish not just the house of David but the house of Jacob, who was also known as Israel.  All of the descendants of Jacob are regarded as the house of Israel, and Paul declares that the Gentiles have been grafted into the house of Israel.  Therefore, Jesus reigns over all of the Lord’s people, no matter how they have entered into the “house” or the family.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Monday Thoughts on the Readings for Sunday, December 17th, 2017

We are preparing for the Third Sunday of Advent.  This year, we get a re-telling of the introduction of John the Baptist, which takes us in a different direction than last week's introduction.  How do we handle this distinction?  We also get another Isaiah story that is clearly referenced in Luke and a 1 Thessalonians reading that includes a few brief commands and a great promise.

I invite you to share your comments and questions below.  I will get back to you as soon as I can.

Isaiah 61:1 - 4, 8 - 11

1The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
  because the Lord has anointed me;
 he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
  to bind up the brokenhearted,
 to proclaim liberty to the captives,
  and release to the prisoners;
2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
  and the day of vengeance of our God;
  to comfort all who mourn;
3to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
  to give them a garland instead of ashes,
 the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
  the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
 They will be called oaks of righteousness,
  the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4They shall build up the ancient ruins,
  they shall raise up the former devastations;
 they shall repair the ruined cities,
  the devastations of many generations.

8For I the Lord love justice,
  I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
 I will faithfully give them their recompense,
  and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
  and their offspring among the peoples;
 all who see them shall acknowledge
  that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
  my whole being shall exult in my God;
 for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
  he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
 as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
  and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
  and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
 so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
  to spring up before all the nations.

It’s hard to read the beginning of Isaiah 61 and not hear the echo of Jesus reading from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16 – 30).  Leaving that story to the side, we find the Lord proclaiming through the prophet that the people will no longer carry the marks of mourning and exile.  The “recompense” for the exile, the Lord’s actions to restore the people from the harm of the exile, will include the restoration of Jerusalem and the reclaiming of the status as the Lord’s favored people on Earth.  Another Advent reading of this passage would focus on the multiple connections between the presence/arrival of the Lord and the presence/arrival of justice.  As we await the second arrival of Christ, we can look for the presence of justice as one sign that the Lord is present in a situation.

Psalm 126

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
 2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."
 3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
 4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
 5 May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
 6 Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Psalm 126 is a petition to the Lord for recompense/restoration.  The psalmist points back to a previous restoration, using this as a precedent for this request to “restore our fortunes…like the watercourses of the Negeb.”  The “Negeb” (literally “the South” in Hebrew, meaning the land south of Jerusalem) was an arid, desert land (and still is today, I believe).  But there were times when the wadis (the creek beds in the desert that would fill with water after a rainfall) were overflowing with fresh water and the land was temporarily restored.  The psalmist’s request is for a restoration of the Israelites that would be similar to the desert enjoying the fresh water of filled wadis.  Perhaps we can read Isaiah 61 as the Lord’s pledge to fulfill that request.

1 Thessalonians 5:16 - 24

16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.
  23May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

A couple of months back, we spent several Sundays reading through 1 Thessalonians, but we did not get this particular passage.  The passage raises this question: what does it mean to “quench the Spirit?”  My initial response is that we quench the Spirit whenever we hear the Spirit’s call to join the Lord’s work, but we resist the call because answering the call would require us to change ourselves, our congregations, and/or our communities.  The passage also gives us this great promise: “23May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”  Notice that this promise is completely independent from anything we might do to deserve or not deserve these blessings from the Lord.

John 1:6 - 8, 19 - 28

6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

  19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said, 
 “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
 ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
  24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

These selected verses from John 1 make up a different telling of John the Baptist’s story than we heard from Mark 1 this past Sunday.  The Gospel of John focuses on the priests and Levites attempting to identify who John the Baptist is supposed to be.  Is he the promised appearance of Elijah before the Messiah arrives?  John himself says no.  John also will not accept the designation of “prophet.”  John identifies himself as the voice crying out “Make straight the way of the Lord” that we first heard in Isaiah 40.  In this way, John testifies to the light of Christ.  This reminds me of the portrait of Luther in the pulpit, standing before the gathered community and pointing to the crucified Christ.  We join John and Luther in pointing to the light of Christ, the light that shines in the darkness, even the darkness of the Crucifixion.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Tuesday Thoughts on the Readings for Sunday, December 10th, 2017

My apologies for not posting my thoughts for last week’s readings.  I had a very busy schedule last week and did not make the time to share my sermon preparation with you.

Last week, the Church entered the season of Advent.  While the popular understanding of Advent is that it is a countdown to Christmas (complete with calendars), the true purpose of Advent is to point us forward in time.  The hope of Advent finds its fulfillment not at the first arrival of Christ, when Mary gave birth to Jesus, but the second arrival of Christ, when Jesus will return to Earth as the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven.  On that day, the Lord will fulfill all of the promises given to us: resurrection; forgiveness and justification before the throne of God; and salvation and eternal life in the Lord’s kingdom, the New Jerusalem on Earth.

On this upcoming Sunday, we also have a baptism scheduled, which narrows the focus for sermon preparation.  While I will give my thoughts on all of the readings, it will be evident that my sermon will focus on one particular reading this week.

As always, I invite you to leave your comments and questions below.  I would especially appreciate your feedback this week as I missed my weekly text study meeting due to an unexpected issue.  I will get back to you as soon as possible.

Isaiah 40:1 – 11

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.
 3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
 6 A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.
 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!"
 10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Isaiah 40 is a classic Advent passage.  “Prepare the way of the Lord…”  But the true hope comes in the second half of the passage: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”  Even if all created things die and fade away, the Lord can (and will) create all things new and gather all things within the flock of his sheep.  This is the message of hope that we can proclaim from the top of mountains (and other places, too).

Psalm 85: 1 – 2, 8 – 13

LORD, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
 2 You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin. Selah
  8 Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
 9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
 10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
 11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
 12 The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
 13 Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

The connection between Psalm 85 and Isaiah 40 likely comes from verse 13: “Righteousness shall go before the Lord and shall prepare for God a pathway.”  But you can also look at the first two verses in Psalm 85 and the similar blotting out of sins and the forgiveness of old iniquities.  It’s almost as though Psalm 85 addresses a people preparing to return from exile, the time that Isaiah 40 describes.

2 Peter 3:8 – 15a

8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.
 9 The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
 11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness,
 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire?
 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
 14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish;
 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

2 Peter 3 proclaims that the Lord views/experiences time much differently that we do; this makes sense, for time is something created by the Lord.  While we may experience the Lord as “slow” to fulfill the Lord’s promises, we remain patient because the Lord is not bound by time.  However, one must wonder what the author means when he asks “what sort of persons ought you to be in…hastening the coming of the day of God…”  What can we do to make the Lord appear sooner rather than later?  2 Peter 3 seems to suggest that the Lord is waiting for all to repent.  Others suggest that the Lord is waiting for a global conflict between certain powers, and the Lord will return during that conflict; this is similar to the belief of Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who stated a belief that the 12th Imam would return during a great conflict with Israel.  This question of what it looks like to “hasten” the day of the Lord is something I want to investigate, if only for my own curiosity.

Mark 1:1 – 8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'"
 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
 7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Mark 1 is a presentation of John the Baptist as the messenger sent by the Lord to be the voice in the wilderness crying “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  At that time, many people practiced baptism as a ritual for repentance.  John seems to be leading this type of ritual (especially in the accounts in other Gospels), but he points to another leader who will bring a different kind of baptism, a baptism with the Holy Spirit.  This is the baptism we will witness on Sunday.  Yes, this baptism involves water, but the key action is not my action or the parents’ action(s), but the Lord’s action through this water, sealing the child by the Holy Spirit and marking (with olive oil) this child with the cross of Christ Jesus forever.