01.10.21 adapted from the prayer of Thomas à Kempis.
Grant to us, O Lord, to know that which is worth knowing, to love that which is worth loving, to praise whatever pleases you most, to esteem whatever is most precious to you, and to dislike whatever is evil in your eyes. Do not let us judge merely by what we see with our eyes, nor to decide based on what we hear from ignorant men, but to discern with true judgment between things visible and spiritual, and above all to search out and to do what is well pleasing to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 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.
The prophet Isaiah spoke to a people who had, for centuries, failed to listen to God, a people who had turned from God, a people who had continued to listen to voices that did not belong to God. In doing all of this, in passively rejecting God, they had hardened themselves to the very voice of God. They genuinely began to believe the lies and deceit they had surrendered to, and in the process they had sold their passions to the false promises of political and religious agendas – agendas that were hostile to God’s creation and the humans God had created. Compassion and mercy were eagerly traded for promises of economic gain, national security, personal homogenous comfort, and a reality that was never real at all but instead a selfish fantasy.
Now, however, God was telling the prophet that the people had suffered enough – enough to realize their horrible turns and the damage of of their choices. Now, the fullness of time had arrived, the people were ready to receive hope, ready to search for truth, ready to do the actual the work of comfort, willing to make the sacrifice needed for redemption.
If you really think about it you cannot help but come to the conclusion that it is an outrageous pattern, it is an absurd plan this plan of God. God, the one rejected by the people, in the end, is God, the one who makes the ultimate sacrifice for the people.
Actually it is not really that odd, it should probably be one of the most understandable things of God. After all it is what a parent does, we as humans have the natural tendency, in this one area, to act with the same automatic sacrifice as the creator. It is our gut instinct to chase after the wayward child, to make every sacrifice possible in order to ransom back the rebellious beloved, we shed tears, we empty our bank account, we beg, we borrow, we do and do until we can do no more. Our critics, the ‘experts’ on the outside say ‘do no more’, ‘you’ve done enough’, ‘you are just enabling them’, ‘walk away’, ‘wash your hands and live your life.’ But a response of walking away is impossible to fully do, it is a response that is doomed to failure because it is not a natural response to our very real struggles with the mercy and compassion of the breath that God breathed into us at creation. A breath that we have long disregarded but still often we find ourself longing – longing for the freshness of that air, that sense of relief as we breath it in after holding it in while we find ourself under water.
It makes sense that the one area we naturally act like God is the one area we personally can identify with the compassionate response of God. God has shown mercy, kindness, and love towards us, it is natural with God, it is automatic. Even though we struggle receiving it, it is our natural response as well.
God looks at his own creation, and those he created, with the same passion we look at our created. To walk away, to wash his hands, is no more natural to God than it is to us. God lives with limitations just as we do, God is still restricted by the choice he gave to humans. Eventually, everything we do is restricted by the choice of the one we seek to rescue.
Isaiah explains this to a people who are finally ready to hear, who are finally ready to receive,
‘Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint, he does not grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.’
It is then, when time is ready, when time is complete, when time is full, when we are ready to see and to hear and to receive, it is in that moment that God acts. God defeats the Babylonians and sends the exiled home, God opens the heavens, he tears them apart, so that, at this perfect time, he can send a messenger to tell us, ‘Look, there it is! There is the Hope that you are now ready to see! Look!! Grab ahold of it! It has been there all along but now the time is here! Now your eyes and your ears are open and ready to receive.’
God opens up the heavens, he lets us see the evil around us that we have somehow not seen, he startles us awake, he shakes us to the core –
‘look you have not seen this before – let me wash away the very things that are causing your blindness, let me wipe your eyes clean, here step into and even under this water so I can lift you up clean!’
God opens the gates of Jerusalem, he permits the Persians to defeat the Babylonians, he lets the evil shatter the windows of our sacred buildings – all to wake us up, to pull us out of our complacency, to turn us back to him. And then the messenger says,
‘It is time, time to admit that your eyes have been closed, it is time to see truth and to turn back to God.’
‘A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’
In the wilderness, why does it have to be in the wilderness? Why? The wilderness is messy and it takes time to get there….you can’t sit down, you can hear very well, there is no coffee, and some of the people that do to ‘wilderness’ things are not the people we need to be rubbing elbows with!
And why does it have to be a ‘messenger’? Messengers like Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptizer, and their ilk, their clothes are repulsive and their smell is even worse, their diet is ridiculous, and their message is intrusive and unfair. Really, for this we leave our buildings, for this we walk out of our city?
And yet, people went. They went out to the wilderness, they went out to the messenger, they went into the water, they went under. It was filthy water before they ever stepped into it, and, after all the crowds descended into it – the water was a true health hazard. Every possible filth from every possible filthy human being had been washed into the water, it was now just waiting to stick to the next victim.
Into this, Jesus stepped. He didn’t just dip a toe, but he fully immersed himself, he was all in – feet, hands, face, hair, nothing was left dry, no part of his body was spared the disgusting impact of humanness and the human condition.
And then, oh, and then, what happened revealed everything. It was a game changer, it was radical and it was revolutionary. The water liberally covered his body, it creeped onto every inch of his flesh.
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, you are the Beloved;’ and God sighed just before saying, ‘with you I am well pleased.”
‘The heavens torn apart!’ God had broken through, God was set loose. Now, at the edges, there was God, now in the filth of humanity, God was there, now with us, God is here. God was no longer confined in a building, or by an institution, or a political party, or by a government, God is here, God is there, God is present!
God was loosed. Loosed. It was the first greek word we learned in seminary greek. loo’-o. To deliver, to unbind, to free, to dissolve, to release. It is a verb, is is an extreme action word, it is a ‘do’ or ‘doing’ word, it takes a deliberate effort, it takes action, it is not magical or automatic, it is not without expense or sacrifice, it comes with a steep cost. It takes something being torn apart, it takes a radical work that is beyond our human ability. It takes stepping down into, and under, the filthy water of humanity and taking on that very filth.
And, here is the thing, when Jesus came out of the murky, filthy water, the water was clean. It surely still looked a mess, but now all the filth that had been floating around had now clung to Jesus. So now, those who stepped into the water after were stepping into water that could truly cleanse on all levels.
To those of Jewish heritage, baptism held a very real, and needed purpose, to cleanse. It was truly to clean off all that was unclean. It was an early attempt to arrive at a level of hygienic safety removing all the contaminants that should inflict and harm. Now, this water, post Jesus, was truly able to serve in that fashion but now on a higher level. Now this water was able to remove away the contaminants of the soul. Jesus took all of the filth on himself as he arose out of the water and would carry this filth with him to the cross.
This is why Priscilla and Aquila asked an enthusiastic believer named Apollos ‘which water were you baptized in?’ It is what Paul asked the believers ‘were you baptized in John’s water or in Jesus’ water?’ See the water made a difference – not the literal water, that water was much too shallow to hold all the filth it could not fully do the work of ultimate cleansing. It was just a water that got you ready for the true cleansing water, the water that would refine your focus so you can see. That water was much more than a physical element, it was forever. ‘Was it the water where you left everything that would keep you from seeing Jesus, or was it the water that had been cleansed by Jesus? It was important to differentiate – it was essential for Paul, Priscilla, Aquila, Apollos and for us to identify the water.
And we cannot miss the voice, may we never miss the voice, may we too come up out of the water and hear that voice. A heavenly voice that has torn through and been loosed in our life. A voice that we can only hear when we go under and allow the cleansing water to wash away the gunk from our eyes and our ears, loosing us up see the presence and to hear the voice of God. It is not a one time literal baptism but a continuous eternal Jesus water to which we can hear the ‘well pleased’ words of the Father, in which we can see the ‘step out’ guidance of the Spirit, to which we can recognize the ‘it is done’ promise from the Son. We are talking about the waters that have been created, cleansed, and offered to us by God. The waters which have ransomed and redeemed us, a work that we were, and are, unable to do for ourself. Waters that have revealed the patience, love, mercy, compassion, hope, joy, and presence of God.
A little over a year ago I stood elbow to elbow with people who had come to understand that knowing their waters could mean life or death. Folks that had been kidnapped and held ransomed just for the tint of their skin, their bodily features that identified their nationality, they were tortured, and threatened until they could identify someone who could ransom and redeem them, someone who had the right water. Then, after they were loosed, after they were ransomed, they carried a ‘water identifier’. An often ten digit alphanumeric code that would say ‘they have been in the waters of deliverance, they are already freed’ to the next kidnappers who attempted to steal them away.
So we ask ourselves, which waters have I stepped into? What are the waters that I am permitting to pour over me? What are the waters that I am dependent on for my rescue? Out of which baptismal waters did I rise from?
We have just readily said goodbye to a year in which we have been confronted with the fact that there are things we, as humans, cannot change, things we can not control, things that are not only beyond our power but beyond the power of our institutions and the scope of our traditions. We have faced the truth that we are not immune to everything, that we are not able to outrun the curse of our ancestors, that our status, wealth, power, and geography do not hold the arrogant place that we have thought was unshakeable. We have been forced to see that we stand alongside all of humanity, not just those with whom we share a common belief, heritage, color, gender, philosophy, education, citizenship, or any other label. We do not have a baptismal privilege because the waters of our baptism were, or are, superior to the waters of others’ baptisms. We can now see the futility of waters of religious celebrities, of political parties, of worthy agendas and lofty philosophical aspirations. Those waters are filthy, they only contain more filth that will stick to us. Or, are our waters the waters that have been cleansed by and through the ultimate sacrifice? Are they waters that cleanse on the highest level, are they waters that give us back our sight, waters out which we can arise and hear. What waters were you baptized in?
We now stand at the start of a new year, just a couple of weeks in and we have already seen that, while there are things we cannot control, there are still things we can do, things we can search and seek, places we can stand, people for who we can stand, and things for which we can stand. It is a year in which we, once again, have been invited to step down into, and under, the waters that will wash the gunk off our eyes and out of our ears, to let us see and hear what Jesus saw, what Jesus heard as he stepped out of the waters over 2000 years ago.
Waters that move us to authentic and genuine actions. Actions that are out of that breath of God that leads us to act out of and with mercy and compassion.
This past Wednesday we all sat in shock as the sacred institutions of our democracy were breeched and defiled. We saw many who had chosen to step down into the waters that only piled on hatred and filth, waters that could not cleanse, waters unable to give life, instead they were waters that multiplied the hate and chaos they were designed to multiply. For many, they came out dirtier and more hopeless than before. There were those, those who didn’t really ever step into the waters but still, they felt the midst of the water as they stood near. To those, those who did not leave with additional hatred but instead sensed that breath of God, for those they had to find that Comfort that God provided.
U.S. House Representative Andy Kim from New Jersey felt that need for the comfort. In between the votes in the chamber after congress resumed the electoral process, Representative Kim had to get out into the building and view the destruction of what had taken place earlier. It only took a few moments for his eyes to fill with tears while he surveyed the damage, he sought out a trash bag. Soon, Kim was on his knees filling the large trash bag with cigarette butts and other refuse discarded by those who had unpatriotically trashed the sacred building. For over an hour and a half Kim picked up these pieces of debris that powerfully said so much. “I was cleaning up the Capitol because it was the right thing to do. That building deserves to be treated with respect, and it was desecrated,”,’ he replied when he was asked about it later. Truth was, it was the only natural thing he could think to do as he sought God’s comfort in such a discomforting time.
As we stand at the start of this new year, this new opportunity, as yourself, into what waters are you being baptized?
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 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.
On Christmas Eve, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, three American soldiers on foot found themselves lost in the heavy snow of the Ardennes Forest. As they desperately attempted to locate the American lines, they came across a cabin in the woods. Hungry and desperate for help, they knocked on the door. A German woman named Elisabeth Vincken, who lived there with her 12-year-old son Fritz, opened the door and was shocked to see three American soldiers. Recognizing that they were hardly older than boys and one was badly wounded, she invited them inside. The fact that they chose not to break into the cabin and threaten her for help made Elisabeth trust the American soldiers. Elisabeth, communicating with the Americans in broken French, was cooking a chicken for the soldiers when there was another knock at the door. Opening the door, Elisabeth was shocked to find four German soldiers, one of whom was a corporal. They, also, were lost and hungry. When they asked for help, she replied that there were American soldiers inside, including a wounded one. After a long stare, the corporal replied that there will be no shooting on the Holy Night. Elisabeth collected the weapons of all the soldiers and left them outside and welcomed the German soldiers into the house. There was immense tension between the German and American soldiers, but the smell of roast chicken and potatoes kept a peace. One of the German soldiers tended the wounded American. After they ate their food, the soldiers went to sleep. The next day, the German corporal checked the map used by the Americans and told them the way to get back to their camp. He even gave them a compass. Elisabeth returned their weapons and both sets of soldiers went in opposite directions.
The greatest hope is usually found in the places where the least hope is visible.
I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me
The greatest love never fades and is never taken away
I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
These things were said to a people who were on the wrong end of 7 decades of misery and pain, over 70 years of exile and slavery ahead, now away from their promised land – which was now a land of very little observable promise to even return to. It was here, on the human time line at point zero, that the timeless God assured them that there was indeed hope and that they would eventually see and grasp it in time. I cannot over emphasize the importance of understanding our ‘stuckness’ in time as opposed to freedom in God’s timelessness. It was a hope designed to endure almost a century, because it would take the people almost a century to recognize it – it would take that long before the people would be ready to receive it. Jeremiah called the people to live in a timeless trust of God’s hope – to return to living their lives, while on a higher level trusting in God’s hope that this life was not permanent. Timelessness enables us to trust God even when our humanness screams for us to focus on time. Hope waits, it waits for us, God does not hide it, because God does not hide, he waits until we are looking and then he lets us find it along with him.
Listen to the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 147,
It’s a good thing to sing praise to our God; praise is beautiful, praise is fitting. God’s the one who rebuilds Jerusalem, who regathers Israel’s scattered exiles. He heals the heartbroken and bandages their wounds. He counts the stars and assigns each a name. Our Lord is great, with limitless strength; we’ll never comprehend what he knows and does.
God puts the fallen on their feet again and pushes the wicked into the ditch. Sing to God a thanksgiving hymn, play music on your instruments to God, Who fills the sky with clouds, preparing rain for the earth, Then turning the mountains green with grass, feeding both cattle and crows. He’s not impressed with horsepower; the size of our muscles means little to him.
Those who fear God get God’s attention; they can depend on his strength. Jerusalem, worship God! Zion, praise your God! He made your city secure, he blessed your children among you. He keeps the peace at your borders, he puts the best bread on your tables. He launches his promises earthward— how swift and sure they come!
He spreads snow like a white fleece, he scatters frost like ashes, He broadcasts hail like birdseed— who can survive his winter? Then he gives the command and it all melts; he breathes on winter—suddenly it’s spring! He speaks the same way to Jacob, speaks words that work to Israel. He never did this to the other nations; they never heard such commands. Psalm 147
It is when we connect that there is hope when no hope can be seen; when it dawns on us that just because we are hopeless does not mean hope is not there, when we are able to live and accept that unseen hope – because we have accepted and live in Jesus, hope itself, it is then that our praise is deep, it is then that our praise is sincere, it is then that are praise is truly about who God who is strong when our world seems to be much stronger than us. It is then that we are praising the God who is strong for us when that which comes against us is too strong for us to overcome.
Faith engulfs us in Hope, recognizing and living in that Hope lands us at the home of peace, choosing that Peace over chaos and fear creates in us a Joy that is not overcome by the darkness, and wrapped around all of this, binding it together, is Love.
Let’s take a look back at the message of Jeremiah to a people who have now been conquered, exiled, and enslaved, after they had witnessed the completed destruction of their land, their city, and the temple, a destruction that honestly had begun with them as they disregarded how to care of the land. Now Jeremiah is telling them of hope that they would experience in 7 decades, and he addresses the elephant in the room, the fact that they are powerless, and their oppressors are powerful – too powerful, too strong for them to overcome.
We land at Jeremiah 31:11 where God wraps the ‘how can it be possible’ and ‘how will we see that strength?’ in a mere 15 words.
‘For Yahweh has ransomed and redeemed Jacob from one who is too strong for him.’
15 words, in which we will pull out the 6 words that explain, affirm, and assure our faith and our hope.
HAS – notice the tense of this word, it is something that has already happened, it is not a ‘will’ happen, or even a more formal ‘shall’ happen, it is a ‘HAS’ happened. God is assuring the people that necessary actions are already in motion, their rescue is already a reality – now it is up to them to grasp it – which will take 72 years. Remember, we are shackled by time while God is timeless – to us, 72 years is hopeless, to our timeless God it is just enough [time] to do the work of transformation that must be done.
RANSOMED AND REDEEMED – Two words that both appear as verbs in the midst of these 15 words. Both are actions taken by God on our behalf. Ransom is to pay a debt for the release of the person in bondage. It is an exchange of some kind involving something of equal or greater value. Ransom is Deliverance. Redeemed is to recover something that belongs to you. To take back something that originally belonged to you. Ransomed is deliverance that has already been secured, Redemption is a recovering and return of that which belongs to God.
JACOB – God says that he ‘has redeemed’ and that he ‘has ransomed’ Jacob. Jacob, is the son of Abraham, who originally received the promise, Jacob, not only had the promise past to him but he also was the physical mechanism, he moved the promise from ‘a person’ to ‘a people’, meaning he had a lot of sons. As we saw in Galatians last week, and in Ephesians this week, we, through Christ, as adopted sons of God, are a part of that ‘people’. Meaning, that Jeremiah spoke to the descendants of Jacob, their blood ancestor, our adopted ancestor, and, in using the person Jacob, he was addressing the descendants. This people – ultimately including us – are ‘the Jacob’ that Jeremiah names.
TOO STRONG – this is self explanatory but seldom self realized and accepted. We humans can, and will, come against someone or something, that is too strong for us to overcome, to defeat. There will always be a darkness that we are too weak to navigate. The depiction of the man, Jacob, is replete with his weaknesses, as are his descendants, as are we. That is the role of the Spirit, to ‘come along side’ of us, especially when we facing that which is too strong for us. As God says that he will deal with that which is too strong for them, they are in a time when their oppressors, the Babylonians, are physically too strong for anyone or any nation. However, at this point, seven decades before, God is raising up that which will be strong enough to confront the Babylonians – the Persians. The Persians will be conquers of the Babylonians, and their King will be the strong power that allows them to return home. God is our power when we are against that which is ‘too strong’.
Oddly, it was the German colonel who made the decision that it would be a night of peace, and a German single mother who chose to enforce that decision by removing the weapons from the equation. It was a decision, made and enforced by those who represented a country and military that had committed the brutal genocide killing over 6 million Jews and almost a million ‘unacceptable’ people from groups such as Disabled, Romas, Homosexuals, and anyone who disagreed with Hitler. The ironic thing in that house where enemies were sleeping was that the decision for peace was attributed it to being Christmas Eve – ‘The Holiest night of the year.’ It was an officer, who was part of the regime that was intentionally seeking to wipe out complete people groups that said the world ‘Holy’. The irony is outrageous, but it is also gives a glimmer of hope. There, in that cabin with 9 people crammed in together, the majority who considered others in the cabin as extreme enemies – because of an attribute of God, HOLINESS, that one man said there will be peace. On that night, somehow, truth broke through, on that night a German officer took the risk to recognize ‘Holy’. On that one night, at least one person remembered his path and the hope he had forgotten – this remembering led him to peace and peace is difficult to not share. It was surely one of the many sparks that ended the war less than 9 months later. That night, God rounded up all that he had done in the officer’s life since childhood and on that night, that perfect night, it came to fruition, in the fullness of time, the timeless God said ‘now’ and a man changed history at least for the 9 people in that cabin on Christmas Eve night.
What is our hope, what keeps us on the path and living according to the God who does not work on our time? John explains it best,
Even before our beginning there was the Word, the Truth, the Son, there was Jesus. He was with God and he was, in fact, God. Jesus existed at our beginning with God. Everything that was created – God created it. There was nothing that was created by any god other than The God. He gave life to everything that was created, and his very existence brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish the light. Jesus came into the very world he had created but a world that did not recognize him. He came to his own people but they actually rejected him. But, those who believed were given the right to be, and refer to themselves as, children of God. Don’t be confused – this was a hugely diverse group! Masters and Slaves, Jews and Gentiles, Men and Women, and every possible label you could imagine – of course God does not see those labels so it is not surprising that such diversity was drawn to Jesus. See, we were adopted by God, we are, therefore, children of God due to the fact that God put on flesh. God became a human and lived birth to death just like all humans. Those around connected the dots that the life of Jesus was a reflection of God, they saw love that had no boundaries or end, and they saw God’s glory – they saw the Father’s sacrifice.
That is our hope. A hope that has already been accomplish and completed. We, while living in a world bound by time, are able to rise above that and enjoy the freedom of God’s timelessness.
That is our hope. A hope that has already been accomplish and completed. We, while living in a world bound by time, are able to rise above that and enjoy the freedom of God’s timelessness.
Blessed be you, O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, in him you have blessed us with every spiritual blessing. You chose him to be holy and blameless before you in love, and therefore, since you have chosen Jesus, you have chosen us, for we are in him.
It pleased you, through Christ, to adopt us, it was your will. God praise you, praise your glorious grace which you showered on us as you showered it on Jesus. It is unfathomable that through the blood of Jesus we are redeemed, we are forgiven, all because you have lavished your riches on us, riches we do not grasp or even begin to understand.
God, we recognize that our wisdom and insight is limited, and that sometimes we fail to follow what we do not see, even worse, we often fail to follow even as we do see. We also know, however that you are wisdom and you are insight allowing us to understand that Jesus was always your plan.
We are impatient but you are timeless and your patience is limitless, therefore when it was right according to the fullness of our time you set Jesus on our paths. We usually don’t see your plan, if ever at all, but you have given us hope, peace, joy, and love to know that it is there even when we focus on hopeless, chaos, unsettledness, and hatred instead of your promised plan.
We fail to see that we have already been given our inheritance as your adopted children. We know that our path is according to your plan, your will, your purpose – purpose for us and purpose for all of humanity and eternity. On our path you engulf us with your hope.
God, we hear truth, which is all truth, we hear your salvation, you adopted us and marked us with the promised Spirit – this is what we know about the inheritance you have given. This is what permits us to live in your redemption, as your people, and to praise you as we exist in your glory.
As the apostle Paul was addressing the believers in Galatia, he was aware of the diverse makeup of the group – Jews, Gentiles, and with many diversities within both of those labels. Paul’s maintained a mindfulness of the depth of their diverse cultural strongholds while voicing the radical message of grace and freedom. One of the difficulties, however, in speaking to a diverse community of people who are bound together by faith only, is that those diverse cultural, religious, and even gender strongholds can wreck havoc if the members of the group are not strong enough in their beliefs to be able to separate truth and deceit.
This was the trigger that led Paul to write to the Galatians, his desire that they not return to the burdens of those practices, especially the religious burdens. This was the catalyst for everything he said to the group. Paul understood timing and he was very aware of the necessity of understanding the readiness and hesitations of his audience, and the obstacle keeping them from grabbing truth fully. Sometimes he had to tread softly, and sometimes he was able to write without hesitation. For the Galatians he did this by focusing on their belief systems while bouncing them off their cultural strongholds.
Paul’s primary purpose of his message to the Galatians was to give them an understanding of the law as opposed to this new found faith and understanding of God. There were those in the midst of the Galatian church that were preaching that they had to become ‘Jewish’ in their practices for their faith to be made whole. This meant they were instilling an adherence to the practice of Circumcision, and other requirements, even if they were not Jewish. They also were being told that they had to live under the oppression of the Mosaic Laws. So, to the Galatian believers, Paul sought to teach the faith in light of the law, while exampling for them what Grace and Freedom truly mean in the midst of their cultural demands. For instance, in chapter 3, Paul says,
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
See what Paul does, as he speaks of faith, he also reflects what that means in regard to the relationship of each believer with God and with each other. He takes the three areas in which they are most accustom, Religion in reference to Judaism, Free persons in regard to Enslaved persons, and Gender. These were the 3 prominent ways that their cultures labeled, judged, condemned, or exalted persons. Each of these categories determined their life, their future, and their eternity. Paul takes these, wads them up, and tosses them in the trash can as he states that, as believers, all believers, those elements no longer have any weight or power, as a believer they are now identified with, and by, Jesus their deliverer.
So, then, when Paul uses the illustration in chapter 4 of adoption and sonship, the usual divider of gender in inheritance, gender now has no relevance, for all are equal. So, as Paul stresses, that it is in living in faith, rather than under the law, sets them free, not only in an eternal sense but also in a ‘now’ sense. Religious practices of the Law now gave way to a freedom in Christ, burdens now become reflections. We live out the guidance of how to live because of the guidance of the Spirit rather than a fear of the human monitored law. Now, the law that could never save us is acquiesced to Christ based faith that has saves us.
Paul was a radical, he was calling believers to not return to the law but to be engulfed in the Spirit as they face the curves and turns of their path. Keeping our focus on God’s destination, while navigating an unfamiliar journey based not on a human aspect of time but on God’s perfect recognition of the fullness of that time.
So we return to the newborn Jesus and his parents Mary and Joseph. While , at the fullness of time, grace was given at the birth, however, it was not yet grasped, because time was not yet full. Time would be filled as Jesus lived out the law, a path no human could truly complete, regardless of time, it, even in this, time was still not the issue. For all humans, humans from the past and all to come would never have enough time, because time had nothing to do with grace. Grace was given at the right time, the time with the law would be fulfilled – fulfilled by the only human who could do it, this tiny newborn. So, these 2 parents of Jesus strived to live out the law, all the time knowing that for them, time would not make it possible. Nevertheless, they journeyed on, adhering to the law, living it out to the best of their humanness, revealing it to their son, to Jesus. They observed the law, so he could observe what it meant to not have enough time, so that he could fully witness the frailty of humanity. Mary and Joseph followed the law in order that their son, Jesus, could understand the ultimate destination of his path.
So, 8 days after the child was born, probably Joseph while possibly still in the stable, performed the act of circumcision on the son. Then, 40 days after the birth, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, made the 6 mile journey to Jerusalem, when the fullness of time permitted them to enter the temple in order to observe the religious ritual of purification and the dedication of the first born son – an observance of commitment of this child to a life of Holiness. It was there that Mary would add to her treasure chest of pondering moments, it was there that the Messiah would be first recognized and proclaimed.
One of those moments came as the prophet Anna appeared. Anna was very elderly and, following the death of her husband years before, she entered the temple and never left. Her time there was spent doing what ever needed to be done while prophesying about the coming redeemer. This had been her path for many years, this was her unexpected calling. It is not clear if she had fully recognized her destination or just knew the mission of this section of the path – she was looking forward to the coming Messiah, but may not have fully grasped that she would actually live to see Jesus. But she did, and as a result, her prophesying stepped up to levels no one had ever heard. No one that was in the temple that day failed to hear the voice and message from Anna.
Another moment came from another elderly prophet named Simeon. Simeon is described as a ‘righteous’ person who was very devout in his faith and was vigilantly looking for the redemption of Israel. He had clearly seen the destination of his path. The Holy Spirit had clearly told Simeon that he would not experience an earthly death until he had actually seen the Messiah. Now, we as humans usually interpret the things of God as being a blessing to us, we interpret end times as being a positive for us, we envision the word ‘blessing’ as being some type of wonderful windfall to us – this is a reality of our humanness, we automatically go to a self centered place, we ask ‘how will I, in a earthly sense, profit from this?’ Our fallenness makes a selfish theology inevitable. We usually interpret the story of Simeon this way – that, for Simeon, not dying was a good thing, not a burden.
I have sat by the bedside of several people who would have argued that ‘not dying’ is always a good thing, that it is always a positive experience. I have sat with individuals who could no longer communicate, but their eyes revealed that it was time and that they were tired and their body was exhausted – they were ready. One lady cried out ‘Why is this taking so long?!’ As she sat at a table doubled over from pain. Another, after choosing to not prolong her life by extensive drugs and treatments, questioned why she was still alive, also wondering, ‘Why is this taking so long?!’ The Spirit continually brought these experiences to my mind while I studied the story of Simeon this week.
On that day when Mary, Jesus, and Joesph entered the temple, the Spirit also guided Simeon to go to the temple. Once there he understood the why, he saw the three knowing this was what he had been waiting for, this is the moment that he would would see the Messiah and this was the day he would be released from this life. He immediately approached Jesus and his parents and took the child into his arms, he blessed the child and parents and then addressed Mary, telling her that she needed to keep her treasure chest of ‘affirmation moments’ close to her chest, she was going to need them.’
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Before any of these things were said by Simeon, however, immediately after he had taken Jesus into his arms, he spoke to God,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
In many mainline Christian traditions, Simeon’s statement to God, is referred to in the latin and observed as the prayer or praise of Nunc Dimittis (Noonk Dimitus).
It is another radical pronouncement, stating that,
Simeon had now reached his destination, he had stayed on the path, and remained alive, which had often times been an immense burden, but now he had seen the Messiah and he had seen God’s salvation, he boldly reminds God that this was the promise given by the Spirit , a promise of release at this, right time, the fullness of time – it was the time of the God who did not inhabit reside in time, Simeon’s body was worn out and ready to quit, it was time for his release.
Simeon also understood the why of his wait, the reason he was to see the infant, unexpectantly, was that he was now at peace, he could die at peace. He had not realized the need for this peace, it was, however, the privilege of seeing what he had been so passionately waiting for, God’s offering of salvation, reconciliation, redemption, consolation, life eternal. It was not important that he see the full life and destination of the Son, only that he saw and recognized Jesus – in recognizing Jesus, he saw his actual destination, not seeing the child, but seeing the child who would become that man, who would be the sacrifice of God, who would be the deliverer of this people.
Then the radical recognition, Simeon proclaims that this Messiah, this redeemer, this deliverer, was not just for the Jews, but for all peoples, all of God’s created, even the gentiles. This was unheard of, but it was truth.
Nunc Dimittis – we have waited until the fullness of time, we have recognized that which God has permitted us to see, we have recognized the depth and width of God’s love as well as the immensity of his all encompassing love.
What an addition to Mary’s treasure chest this was at this moment, what an affirmation this would be for the rest of her life, what a path for this family that God set before them, what a gift to all of mankind in this point in history, what a needed peace they had all experienced.
As we face this final week of the year 2020, let’s not just scream ‘Good Riddance’ as we view it in our rear view mirror speeding off into 2021. Let us take this final opportunity to recognize this baby that we have held this year. This infant that we held 12 months ago, not sure of what would happened as the infant aged over the course of the next 365 days, having no point of reference to all that would actually take place, because, for all of us we had never seen a year, or a child, bring us to so many untraveled paths on such an assortment of painful journeys. Instead of, in 7 days, looking back at what we have lost, our health and even the lives of some we love, our financial security, our way of work, play, and even how we do church, work, play, and especially how we do family, instead, – let’s now, this week, hold that baby again that we awaited a year ago the baby we then optimistically held. May we let God surprise us with what we have experienced, what we have seen, what we have held in this strange year. Let us remember how we learned how to be secure even in a very insecure time, we recognized the pain of many that we have so easily dismissed, we have begun to grasp the generation after generation discrimination towards many of our fellow human beings, we learned that we can still be together and do church even when we have to remain at a distance, we have understood why we need each other, we were gifted with the insight of the elements of loving others as ourself, we learned the sacrifice of self as we seek to live like God revealed in the flesh. Like Simeon, we too, can release those things that we held instead of the baby a year ago, those things that have consumed us much of our life, those things that kept us focused on self, our rights, our stuff, our politics, our traditions, our needs wants and desires, – we too can say ‘I dismiss that and look ahead at the path set before us’.
Before we move into the approaching new year, may we allow the Spirit a moment to remind us, to reveal to us, the nurturing, transforming, affirming, and hopeful moments we have missed in 2020.
This has been quite a year. This has been a year in which God has given us each an opportunity to recognize that the path set before us looks a little different, there are some curves and turns that we did not see before, and, with each new curve and turn, he is giving us the chance to say ‘yes’ to our transformation and ‘yes’ to our refinement. This has been a year when God has challenged us with the question – Does our love look like Jesus’ love?
Which brings us to today, on this day we light or fourth advent candle. Hope, Peace, Joy, and now, today, Love.
Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote,
There is nothing you can do that can’t be done. Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung. Nothing you can make that can be made. No one you can save that can’t be saved. There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known. Nothing you can see isn’t shown. All You Need Is Love. All You Need Is Love. All You Need Is Love, Love, Love Is All You Need. Love, Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love.
Burt Bacharach wrote,
Lord, we don’t need another mountain, there are mountains and hillsides enough to climb, there are oceans and rivers enough to cross, enough to last ’til the end of time. Lord, we don’t need another meadow, there are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow, there are sunbeams and moonbeams enough to shine. Oh listen, Lord, if you want to know…What the world needs now is love, sweet love, it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love, no, not just for some, oh, but just for every, every, everyone.
Rabbi Yehuda Lave wrote
“Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord”. Rabbi Akiva called this “the great principle of the Torah.” A moral society will succeed; an immoral or amoral one will fail. That is the key prophetic insight. G-d did not make the demand that people love one another. That was beyond their remit. Society requires justice, not love. Good people love God, family, friends and virtue. “Beloved is man,” said Rabbi Akiva, “because he was created in God’s image.” Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. God made each of us in love. Therefore, if we seek to imitate God – “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” – we too must love humanity, and not in the abstract but in the concrete form of the neighbor and the stranger. The ethic of holiness is based on the The vision of creation-as-God’s-work-of-love. This vision sees all human beings – ourselves, our neighbor and the stranger – as in the image of God, and that is why we are to love our neighbor and the stranger as ourselves.
Love is the spark and the fuel for the Holy events we observe in our remembrance of God’s gift of the Son to, and for, us.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.
In this, our initial introduction to Mary and Joseph, we see that God sent the messenger. God, meaning the full God, father, son, and spirit. They were all present, as they discerned that now was THE time, the plan that had been in place since before time began, before humans existed, before there was a need for a Messiah. The plan of redemption, of restoration, the plan that called for sacrifice and death, the plan with the purpose of life – life for all. As father, son, and spirit stood there, were they crying, were they excited and hopeful, were they concerned, or were they stoic and determined? Did they grab ahold of Jesus and hold on to him with all their might, not wanting to let him go? Did they have visions of the evil on earth running through their thoughts? This shared angst of the three was compounded by the fact that Jesus was about to step out of heaven and onto his earthly path in the most vulnerable state possible – he would begin as a helpless infant. Now there was no plan B in case things got too difficult, there was not a quick getaway if it became too painful and intense, this was THE plan. They were 100 percent confident with the plan, it was the perfect and, actually, the only plan to deliver all peoples. However, as they stood there they were more than aware that this had never been done, God had ever ever endured through anything like this path… just how brutal would it be, how difficult would it be to watch?
The three surely experienced all of the emotions, all the concerns, all the tears, and all the rejoicing that redemption, restoration, and life would bring back to creation.
Jesus, just like us, would begin his path with faith – faith that he would arrive at the destination, faith that he would achieve the purpose, faith that he would, once again, sit with the Father. But, still, this had never been done, God had never been subjected to this aspect of the human experience, especially not in such a vulnerable way – he would travel his path just like we travel our path. He too would be enveloped by hope, the hope which step by step, would bring him to peace, as he chose to reside in that peace he would live in the joy which would hold him through temptation, rejection, grief, arrest, beatings, and even death.
One more element infinitely and ultimately identified their actions – Love. God had this plan in place long before there was a need because God so loved his creation and his created. It was the factor that led the three to hold to each other on as long as possible, and it was love that led them to let go and send the willing Son to earth, to the world. It was love, ‘for God so loved the world that he…..’
Hope, Peace, Joy, and now, on our fourth Sunday of Advent we arrive at Love. Love binds all of these together.
Paul says to the church at Colossi,
Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
What ‘things’ was Paul speaking of, what is bound together in perfect harmony by Love? To answer this, we must go back a couple of verses where Paul says.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
Love is the variable factor that makes following God’s path different than mapping our own path.
Mary and Jesus are on two parallel yet unique paths. Mary’s path is a path paved with pain, misery, it will be a life turned upside down and knee deep in Eve’s curse. Jesus will experience his path with all the emotions and experiences of the human journey plus his will include a death unlike any death of a human. Parallel paths, different steps, the same purpose – to rescue the world that God so loves.
Much can be learned from the response of Mary as details of her path begin to unfold. Mary was already on her path when the angel appeared to her, she had already stepped on it by faith, she had already begun to grow in the hope that engulfs the path, she was already gaining a sense of what peace is, and possibly, she was seeing a glimpse of the joy that comes with residing in peace.
Each year we approach the nativity and birth story as our tradition, we tie it to the songs that are known, we get with family and friends, we over eat and exchange gifts. We fill it with sentiment, which is appropriate as that is what you do when celebrating a birth. Each year we put up the tree and switch our music to the Carpenters and Bing Crosby a little earlier that the previous year, we watch the same gooey Christmas shows we have watched for decades, we remember, we treasure, we enjoy. It is the ‘most wonderful time of the year!’ We settle into our cherished honored and comfortable traditions as we reflect on and learn from this group of people who were stretched in a time when life went in a direction they never expected.
Today, we focus on Mary, the teen that did not consider herself prepared to take this journey – the truth was, her entire life had been on this path, a path that turned out to be saturated with a hope-filled, peace-empowered, joy-inducing, love-binding journey – everything about her life had been a journey of readiness up to this point.
An angel appeared to Mary and proclaims to her, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ God was not a new figure on the Mary’s path. She had been on this path since childhood, she had stepped on the path by faith long before she even knew what faith was, she had listened to the teachings, followed the prophets words, and, like others, she had kept watch for the coming deliverer, the Messiah. She had sought truth and grabbed ahold of it every time she discerningly discovered it. This experience of the angel, however, especially an angel calling her ‘favored one’ was new and a bit disturbing. The words ‘Perplexed and Pondered’ describe the reactions of Mary at this messenger.
A more vivid translation of the greek word Perplexed is the word Agitated. This was a fully acceptable response, an angel shows up, which was not a common event in Mary’s life, in fact this had never happened to Mary, nor had any of her friends or family.
We don’t know a lot about angels. The visual presentation of the Seraphim given in the prophesy of Isaiah 6, presents beings that would be terrifying to the say the least. Imagine having that appear to you in in moment of quiet with no one else around.
Perplexed, agitated, is the emotion that Mary experienced, it was unsettling and upsetting. This was something that had not been a fixture in her faith and she knew not to just accept without proper truth seeking. We saw in our readings a week ago God calling us to be open to his moving but to not be gullible. This was an earthquake moment for Mary, it was a challenge to the faith in which she had become comfortable. Mary had not experienced angels and messages that spoke of ‘favor’, nor had any of the priests, rabbis, or even prophets educated her on this, it was totally new, it was totally, in her reality, without precedent. Unprecedented things such as this must be questioned, there has to be consideration, she had to seek truth here in the same way she had learned to search for truth all her life. Earthquakes happen, we are tasked with making sure they are good and true.
Next, we see the presence of a Pondering that rose in Mary. Pondering are the manner we consider and contemplate. She traveled beyond the experience and probably continued to turn it all possible ways in her mind to fully process the event. To better understand this verb ‘ponder’ we consider another verb, which comes after the birth of Jesus – the word Treasure. As shepherds appeared at the stable, as Simeon and Anna, separately approached the newborn Jesus in the temple, and even two years later as the wise men appeared at the doorstep of Mary and Joseph’s home in Bethlehem – Mary ‘treasured’ these moments in her heart. Treasuring is different than pondering. This treasuring response was much like a child’s baby book that a parent fills in the significant events in the life of the child. These filled pages of the baby book then serve to remind in a sentimental way but also when affirmation is needed. The purpose of pondering is to investigate and then accept or reject, the purpose of treasuring is to hold on to those affirmation moments for times when extra strength is necessary.
The angel informs Mary that she is going to have a child. Mary was not half listening, No, she was processing as the experience progressed, she was paying full attention, she was fully present and in the moment. Her response was very human, and again – very appropriate. She began to probe for answers – HOW? ‘How?’ She asked, ‘How is this possible? I am a virgin.’
We have forgotten the value of questions for understanding, even within the conceptual walls of the church. Much like in the time of Mary, the religious institutions have become the beacons of knowledge that was held in a vault – questions were repugnant, even now. Instead of asking ‘How?’ Or ‘Why?’ We say nothing in fear of sounding stupid or repetitive. Mary asked a question that needed to be asked, ‘HOW?’ The messenger gave her an answer that met her need for knowledge without overwhelming. The answer gave enough needed clarification to give her the affirmation she sought.
The messenger then initiated the treasuring system within Mary. The relevance of Mary’s situation was connected to the surprise and impossible pregnancy of Elizabeth. The two affirmed each other. Then comes the moment when all of the path before meets all of the path ahead, the moment when she recognizes that, indeed, this is the hand of God and that God can do the impossible, even those things never before done. God can fill in that gap that seems unfillable. And Mary responds with “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
So, we have an angel appear to Mary and proclaims ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ ‘Favored One’? ‘Favored One.?! Favored one, meaning that God is about to turn Mary’s world upside down, that she is going to become a social disaster, she will be uprooted from home and family, from the familiarity that is her life, much of her life would be on the run – Favored one, to have all her plans thrown out the door and now facing this great unknown, unknown because it has never been done? This is favor?
The irony of Christmas is that it is all about us and not about us at all, that it is all about giving while being all about receiving, it is all about self and not about me, or you. Christmas is not the beginning of God’s love but it is the place where we so powerfully see it.
Christmas is actually the most appropriate way to end the year 2020. It has been a year of unusual messengers that have brought unexpected messages. We have been faced with unprecedented times, events, inescapable challenges. Our usual way of life, of family, of work, of play, of church, have all been altered. We have been faced with the option of forcing the ways of our past, of yesterday, to retain our normal for the future, or, instead, to ponder the agitation we experience with these challenges and consider that fact that God has broken through and is refining our path in preparation for our future. It has been a time when we have been given the opportunity to Love God and Love all Others, or a time to return to primarily loving ourself. For such a time as this, we celebrate the time of a young lady who was faced with a similar challenge, a similar time, a time of refinement, recognition, and of surrender. It is also a time for us to recognize the transformation God has done in each of our lives, and in our church. I could spend paragraphs speaking of the Christians in our nation that have insisted on demanding their rights instead of loving others, religious institutions that have chosen litigation when facing the new twists and turns on their path, twists and turns that are mechanism for God’s transformation in our life.
I believe it has been a time when you, individually and as the small group of believers that go by the name Grace Fellowship, have indeed recognized that this world desperately needs Love. You have accepted the calling to be the avenues of that Love.
The prophet Isaiah spoke to a people who had the luxury to not listen. After all, it would probably not be them who would suffer when Babylon conquered Judah, when the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, when the Israelites would be taken away from their homes into decades of slavery – no, it was not them, but, it would be their descendants.
Even though they would be able to escape the brunt of the pain and misery, they would not be able to escape the blame. For they had warning, they had decades of warnings. Isaiah was one of those who made a full time job of warning the people who paid little attention to his message. Isaiah warned them of the siege and the desolation, he warned them of their pain, he warned them of hopelessness and desperation. He warned them, all the time, over and over. Sadly, even though the people thought they were avoiding the uncomfortable, annoying, and unpopular words of Isaiah, they were also missing the purpose and the hope of the coming events.
The words that God gave to Isaiah to prepare the people so that they could then prepare their descendants, were not only words of doom, they were also words of survival, of life, of redemption, of restoration, they were words of hope.
So, as we arrive at Isaiah’s prophecy of the final section of the Israelites path, the path of restoration and hope – the people, who were not prepared for hope by their elders, were overwhelmed and devastated instead of the intended state of hopefulness. They saw the destruction of everything they defined as home, the saw the desolation of the land, the ruin of the temple, they saw the vulnerably of Jerusalem, they saw pain and misery, they saw a lot of work to be done and a lot of sacrifice to be made, they saw the surrounding nations that hated them as a people, they saw a necessity of their own unity where unity was nonexistent. They needed hope.
It was in this time of time, a time of despair, that Isaiah calls out to God.
Oh, that you, God, would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at your presence — As when a forest catches fire, as when fire makes a pot to boil — To shock your enemies into facing you, make the nations shake in their boots! You did things we never expected, descended and made the mountains shudder at your presence. Since before time began no one has ever imagined, no ear heard, no eye seen, a God like you who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who happily do what is right, who keep a good memory of the way you work.
Isaiah, was calling out God, begging him to break into their world, to make his presence known, to do what only God could do. The ironic thing was that the people had just seen God act in this very manner. God had previously placed them into an environment where they were given the time to recognize and remember God. Time is not a deterrent to God so waiting was not a problem. During God’s wait on the people, God had revealed his patience for them to not only remember God, but to begin to function as his people, to begin to be A people. In this foreign land in a foreign status, the people had been without a temple, a visible presence of God. The religious practice of their past was no longer an option, they had been forced to figure it all out. In traveling this unfamiliar path, they had begun to be reunited with God. In the absence of the Temple they begun to practice their faith locally, in the midst of others. Synagogues had become a thing, relating to God everywhere and all the time rose as their religious practice, looking for God everywhere became their norm – they remembered their hope, they experienced God’s peace, inside they had changed, a miracle had taken place, God had ripped open the heavens, God had broken into their existence and they, miraculously, welcomed him in.
The people had waited, they had remembered their hope, nations around had seen the work of the God of the Hebrews, a work and a God that was totally foreign to these enemies.
Sometimes, before we can trust God for the now, we have to remember God that was for the past. Before we can grasp the fact that God will do as promised, that God will carry us through the unseen and the unknown, before we can stand peacefully on the hope on our path for the destination that is now in front of us, we have to remember that God has. He has already proven his faithfulness, he has already shown how our path is not untrod, it is not a path out of his jurisdiction. We can head forward knowing that God will because we are able to look back and see that He Has done, how He Has worked.
Then, as we remember, we can return to the mission, to the promise from God. In this week, Isaiah sets up God’s call on the Israelites who had returned home.
You will rebuild the old ruins, you will raise a new city out of the wreckage. You will start over on the ruined cities, you will take the rubble left behind and you will make it new.
This takes us to Mary, this teenager facing a dilemma that was unparalleled before and it remains unparalleled today. While there are echoes in Mary’s path of the paths of others and elements familiar to the journey’s of others, but Mary faced a destination that none others every had nor ever will travel. Mary was about to birth the Son of God, the eternal King, the Messiah. There is no way for us to be truly empathetic or sympathetic. For Mary it was not only a path unknown, it was a path that would never be known to anyone but this young girl.
In Luke 1:46-55 we see how Mary deals with her path. Mary’s path begins with faith, the place where all of our paths begin. Mary, before we are ever introduced to her, has stepped on the path by faith, having no idea of the details, and definitely having no grasp of the enormity of the destination. She was faithful, she had listened since childhood to the stories of how God Has done, how God has been faithful. Her path, just like our paths, began with stepping on to the path with no guarantees except that God already Has.
Second, we know that the Hope engulfed Mary as she willingly took step after step on the path – that is what steps do. We can look at the explanation from the angel to see that Mary was already a willing participant in this plan. ‘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.’ Mary had a choice, just as all humans have been given a choice, so, for the angel to say this, the choice had been made. Mary traveled in hope.
Third, Then an ever increasing hope,step by step, brought Mary to peace by the time she reached her destination – that is how hope grows, step by step. She had grown up hearing the words of truth, she then heard from an angel, there was affirmation through her relative Elizabeth, she now stood, and stepped on her path with a confirmed hope and peace.
This is the reason for peace, peace eliminates the power of chaos and fear, it restricts the control doubt can have over us – doubt will probably always be around when we live in a world with doubtful choices but peace allows us to confidently coexist. Peace however, allows doubt to be the catalyst for seeking and searching truth, but removes the power that doubt can hold over us.
This brings us to joy, possibly one of the most difficult words in the Bible. Joy is a word that has to be defined by its context, and often times, those differing contexts can cause the word to have differing meanings that can confuse and conflict.
Author Ann Lamott said, ‘I think joy and sweetness and affection are a spiritual path. We’re here to know God, to love and serve God, and to be blown away by the beauty and miracle of nature. You just have to get rid of so much baggage to be light enough to dance, to sing, to play. You don’t have time to carry grudges; you don’t have time to cling to the need to be right.’
Three Dog Night popularized the words of Hoyt Wayne Axton, singing ‘Joy to the world all the boys and girls. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, Joy to you and me.’
Henry Van Dyke wrote, ‘Joyful, joyful, we adore You, God of glory, Lord of love; Hearts unfold like flow’rs before You, Op’ning to the sun above. Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; Drive the dark of doubt away; Giver of immortal gladness, Fill us with the light of day!’
The apostle Paul, when writing to the church at Philippi said, ‘I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.’
But then James wrote, ‘whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy,’
‘The Angel proclaimed ‘Don’t be afraid for I bring you good news of great joy for all people!’
And returning to our first writer, Ann Lamott, ‘Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means that you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.’
Joy is what happens when we take residence in Peace. A peace based on hope which stands strong on hope. A hope that takes us back to the reminders that God is faithful in the past, God is faithful in the present, God will be faithful in the future. Joy is what appears when we live in that peace. It was where Mary was living when she able to sing,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.’
This Joy reminded her of the affirmation of her hope and peace, it is what gave her the capability to take up residence in God’s peace, that let her sing,
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy according to the promise he made to our ancestors.
Joy is the catalyst of our actions, our attitudes, our emotions, our responses, our lives. Residence always require intentional actions, allowing in, restricting entrance, critiquing every aspect of what we permit to impact us. Joy is what enables us to hear the audacious instruction and comforts to the believers at Thessalonica,
Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live. Don’t suppress the Spirit, and don’t stifle those who have a word from the Master. On the other hand, don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what’s good. Throw out anything tainted with evil. May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!
Christmas is about Joy. This is the reason that Jesus was born a baby in the lowly manger, it is the purpose behind the journey to Bethlehem. The journey of Jesus, was our journey, it was a journey that involved inconvenient journeys, frightening seasons, beautiful moments, loving relationships, devastating set backs, loyal friends, loyal friends that sometimes are not so loyal. Joy is a constant journey of vulnerability that permits us to be dependent on a God who gives us the power to survive and thrive in a world where we often feel that we do not belong.
Christmas is faith, hope, peace, and joy path, and next week we will see how that path is bound together to take us to our final destination – forever.
God, When you brought back the captives from exile, they were like those who dream. Their mouths were filled with laughter and their tongues with joyful shouting;
They said to all the surrounding nations, “The Lord has done great things for us.” Just like them, O God, we know that you have also done great things for us; we are joyful.
Lord, this year we have experienced a different type of devastation, while it has not destroyed our walls, our reservoirs, or even our temples, it has decimated all that we called normal.
O, Lord, the attacks on us have left us with different scars, different trauma. The attacks have not come from uniformed clad warriors but our attackers have been unseen, but the destruction is still read and present.
God, they have devastated our economy, our civility, our students, our leaders, they have inflicted illness, unrest, in the midst we have experienced fires and floods. They have spread death to every seen and unseen place.
Father, we have been been forced to take unknown paths and uncomfortable steps. We have been faced with a choice of holding to an undoable past or allowing your Sprit to take us down unfamiliar roads preparing us to release our grip on the attitudes, traditions and practices of the past.
Lord, we know that you use seasons such as this for your work of redemption which allows us to look forward to your gift of restoration. God, we pray that you would continue to open our minds to see bigger than our past narrow paths and ways, and instead to the vast and wide open fields to which you call us.
Father, we hold to your promise that those who sow in tears shall harvest with joyful shouting. We know that as we go here and there weeping, we shall soon be carrying your bag of seed and we will, indeed, come again with a shout of joy, bringing your sheaves with us.