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.
Last week we lit our first Advent candle – the HOPE candle. Hope was the catalyst for those who were waiting and watching for the coming Messiah. They did not have a clear grasp on the details of the arrival, the how and what of the Messiah – but there were those who were diligently waiting, constantly looking, and always hoping.They had the hope, and many had a thought or an idea, but in the end, nothing about the Messiah matched what they expected – which was a good thing. It was the hope that kept Anna and Simeon in the temple, day after day, waiting to see the Messiah. It is the same hope for us today, a return of Jesus, a new heaven and a new earth, whatever all of that will look like and however it will all play out – our call is to keep an watchful eye and a determined hope. Hope is the underlying theme of the Christmas story, it is actually the underlying theme of the Christian journey, including the crucifixion and resurrection, it was the hope of the promise to Abraham, it was the hope that sat with Joseph in the prison cell and with Moses on Mount Sinai, it is the same girding that the Holy Spirit empowers us with today. Hope. Faith gets us on the path, Hope uses the path to prepare us for the destination.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. Hebrews 11:1-3
Hope brings us to peace.
Our Advent candle today is PEACE. Peace is an end to hostilities, it is a comforting calming in the midst of anxiety, a sense of confidence in a time of insecurity – a necessary respite in the midst of chaos, fear, uncertainty, isolation, and all the other life situations that tie us in knots.
In his letter to the believers in Asia Minor Peter wrote encouraging them to ‘strive to be found, by Jesus, at peace.’
It is an interesting choice of words, ‘strive to have Jesus find you at peace.’
Listen to it in its context,
We wait for the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, while you are waiting, be diligent, without spot without blemish, and be found by him in peace II Peter 3:13-14
Look at the words in bold, these are the emphasis words, words that give us a key to understand what Peter is saying.
Peter uses the greek word eiréné (i-ray’-nay) for Peace. It is defined as one, quietness, rest. eiréné connotes peace of mind; wholeness, and the joining together of all the essential parts. It is a holistic state of being – Body, Mind, Spirit bound together, at peace in whatever the circumstance.
Look at the apostle Paul – a very religious and righteous man – he was faithful in his religion to the point of sacrifice and he was hopeful in in watching for the promised Messiah. He, in his faith, accepted the mission to eliminate anything that would mislead and misguide the followers of God. His specific mission, was to stop this new ‘Jesus’ movement from diluting the faithful following the true God. He had sought truth all his life, he had strived to live truth all his life, he had sacrificed everything for the advancement of truth. He was a seeker, a searcher, and a hopeful follower. On a path to the city of Damascus, he knew he was following God’s calling, and I think, he was right. He was going to address the ‘Jesus’ movement, he was going to identify the followers of Christ. He thought his destination was to stop the Jesus followers through any means necessary. While on the path – God transformed Paul, he corrected Paul, God redeemed Paul, God permitted Paul to see why he was on the path. Paul confidently approached the path by faith, on the path hope led him step after step, the hope of the path brought peace, peace allowed Paul to accept the new twist in his mission, a twist he had never seen coming until he arrived with peace. In reality this was not as spectacular as we would think. Paul had spent his life seeking God and looking for the Messiah, the path led him to both. Paul was not, however, expecting to become a Jesus follower, that was not the destination he was expecting. When he hears Jesus saying, ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ Paul biggest surprise was probably his own lack of surprise. This was a natural step of his path, he just had not known it until now, he was not ready to accept it until this peace. Now, he found what he was looking for, the Messiah, he recognized that this Jesus, the one who had been his problem and mission, was no longer a problem but still his mission. The hope and peaceful steps allowed him to recognize and accept this destination, permitting him to go to the house of a Jesus follower, not to persecute but to learn, not to stop a movement but to be a part of this movement – not to dilute his faith but now to complete his it. This was all a part of his path, he continued on the path, only now his mission had been clarified, refined, and defined. Now his hope and his peace was anchored.
2 Basics 2 Understanding
The Holy Spirit moves us onto our path which the apostle Paul refers to as our ‘salvation journey,’ which is not a journey TO salvation but a journey OF salvation. The path shapes and refines us FOR the destination which is earthly as well as eternal. Stepping onto our path is an act of faith, faith lets us recognize the Hope of the path. We may think we have the path and the destination figured out, or, instead, we may attempt to waste time on the path attempting to avoid lesson and transformation, however God builds the path time intentionally in order to prepare us for the destination. We responsibly ask questions to spot ‘wrong path’ signs – questions such as, ‘is this path in harmony or conflict with the life of Jesus?’, or, ‘does this path seem to be paved with a priority of Loving for God and Loving all Others?’ Doubts & questions are gifts from God to propel us to seek and search, to know God more in order to recognize the warning signs, even along the path. Paul was on the path, a path that he assumed was taking him to destroy the Jesus movement, but, actually it was taking him to build up the Jesus movement. The path, including an experience of blindness, were all part of the work of refinement enabling Paul to see and accept the ultimate purpose of the path.
Faith is where it starts. Hope provides a confidence that permits us to ‘hang in there’ on the path and to absorb peace regardless instead of our blindness, confusion, surprise, and fear. A wasted path that results in an absence of peace at the destination – such is the story of Jonah. The prophet Jonah was completely at home proclaiming the message of God, he was not a stranger to calling for the people to return to God. He had never scoffed at this mission until he stepped on a path and heard the destination coordinates. Ninevah. (A side note here may be helpful – this is why God often does not give us the destination – we need the path to prepare us to embrace the destination). Jonah attempted to change the destination, he headed in the direction of ‘anywhere but Ninevah’, while on this new path he even did God’s calling, only to a different destination and a different people, it was actually a very successful work. Gracefully, God provided a resistant Jonah a ride back to his right path, the path designed just for him, the path paved with Hope that would not only take him to a people in need of hope but also to prepare him to communicate great news. The path was intended to remind Jonah of his own hope path, letting him enjoy this path and destination with an unexpected peace. See, God wanted the brain in Jonah’s head to click on the switch of compassion and mercy letting him see that hope is a need of all people. Regrettably, Jonah used the entire path for pouting instead of hoping, therefore, at the destination he did nothing more and nothing less than God said to do, he failed to see Hope in action as he had failed to let God give him peace – instead of an experience of faith, hope, peace, love, and joy, Jonah ended up with a destructive worm, a destroyed vine, and a dastardly wind while finding himself at the geographical coordinates he deeply hated and despised.
The pattern of Hope and Peace is the same many times over in the Bible. Noah, a follower of God in a time when only he followed God was at peace in his own ‘rightness’, even though is was foreign, odd, and strange to everyone else. His hope was in God and that firm foundation increased his peace daily, a peace that was formed on his path that led him to an outrageous destination.. As a result, when God told him of the coming flood, his response was not to question or to resist, instead, he picked up his saw, grabbed his hammer and went to work. It was peace that woke him up each morning and put him exhausted to bed each evening. Or, Abraham, who came from a long line of idol worshippers, idol makers, idol sellers, he had grown up with nothing except for false gods. Then, the true God spoke to Abraham. We do not really have the details of the dialogue except that Abraham accepted. Abraham, too, was at peace saying yes, yes to this unknown God because Abraham had allowed the path to do its work of peace. There were three wise men, who were not Jews, who, for most of their lives, had been watching the stars, reading the prophesies, hoping to see the moment when God would break in, so when God said ‘It’s time’ they saddled up, with a path given peace that enabled them to follow the star. There are stories of prostitutes and priests, politicians and tax collectors, Kings and Queens, military leaders and and dismissed marginalized people, there are rich and poor, there are women, men, and eunuchs, there are lower class, middle class, and upper class, there are greeks, romans, jews, gentiles, hebrews, and even samaritans, there are masters and slaves, there are good and bad, they are all on their path, each facing the choice of refinement and peace or pouting and being stuck. Each faced a destination of joyously striving in God’s peace or an alternative to face their destination pouting, resisting, resenting, and seeing nothing but fear, hatred, and dread – that is their journey their path, that is our journey our path.
The Israelites faced a seemingly unbearable path that would take decades to complete, Isaiah spoke the Hope of their path to them, Peter spoke to a people who could only see suffering and pain on their path and he reminded them of their hope encouraging them to be found at peace. A strange prophet that wore even stranger clothes and held to a disgusting diet pointed out the filth of the paths that restricted many from seeing the hope that was already there. Two young people were put on a God awful path that could not have come at a worse time, but, as they traveled on that hopeful path, God prepared them for a peace that would carry them through a smelly stable, years away from home and on the run, a vicious and paranoid ruler, a cradle set next to a nursing cow, visitors from the pastures and palaces, and the Son of God, the Messiah.
So, along the path, we have 2 essentials of our path.
First, we are called to an ongoing search to know God, a constant pursuit. We know God through the written truth through which we never cease to learn and are never unqualified to use. We know God through the person of Jesus Christ and the revelation of the example of his earthly life. We also know God through others and everything around us –
The 2nd second essential tool of the path – In order to do number one we must stay awake & pay attention. This was the final request of Jesus to the disciples before his arrest. Staying awake and paying attention to others and everything around us, when this is accompanied by our growing knowledge of God we begin to notice and recognize notes from God, as well as identifying and eliminating those things inconsistent with God truth and the life of Jesus.
So, on the path, we learn and we notice, everyday of our life and every step of our path. Mary and Joseph were different people by the time they arrived at Bethlehem than they had been nine months prior. When Paul stepped on the path heading to Damascus he was a different person than he had been in the beginning of his religious vocation. The same is said for Eve, for Noah, for Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, for Moses, for Joshua, for all the prophets, all of the apostles, all the new testament believers, and for each of us. There are others, individuals like Jonah, King Saul, Judas, Annanias and Sapphira, who chose to miss the preparation of the path, they died with no growth, no hope, no peace.
We are on the path, our path, let’s make the most of it. Intentionally know God, do the work, pursue the relationship – knowing God is not a spectator sport. Next listen, look, question, everything, look for peace with every step you take. Don’t limit the Holy Spirit on revealing peace to you by limiting your pursuit to only a few approved voices that align with your thinking, also do not block out anything that the Spirit can use to teach and strengthen you on the path.
In his book, Peace In Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh says,
‘We know how to sacrifice 10 years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But, we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive. Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.’
Thich Nhat Hanh
God speaks, along the way, through many avenues and voices, God gives peace as we recognize him at work all over and all around us. It is the description of the path of those detailed in Hebrews 11, people that were headed to an unknown destination letting God gift them with hope and peace on the path. Be found at peace,
this is the encouragement given to us, it is the hope for a world in chaos, disappointment, confusion, hatred, pain, and death. It is the lesson of, and during, the path – it is peace regardless of what we can or cannot see. It is Jesus’ call to the Abundant Life, to an intentional Life, to a Real Life. It is God’s call to us.
Leadership has approved this budget to bring to the church. On Sunday, December 13, approximately five minutes after the closing peace, we will regather on our zoom meeting for discussion and affirmation of the proposal. In the meantime, if you have any questions or needed clarifications, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or a text to 405.329.4773. Leadership will response a.s.a.p.
In the proposal below you will find:
Basic financial details primarily about 2020.
The proposed budget which includes comparison budget amounts from 2018, 2019, & 2020.
Also, leadership would like to thank all of you for your faithfulness in giving during this strange year. We have, not only ‘kept the proverbial lights on’ but have been able to add to our savings.
Also, I want to shout out a thanks to our leadership who have gone above and beyond in striving to lead, example, and set the tone for a healthy Church!
We Love Grace Fellowship!
Contributions to Date January – November 2020 $129,247.14 Monthly Average Contributions to date $11,749.74 2020 Total Expected Contributions $140,996.88
Expenses to Date $112,372.92 Monthly Average Expenses $10,215.72
Cross Church has extended their lease of the 60th Avenue building for another year ($3,000 monthly payment included in contribution totals).
Emergency Fund, set up last year to be ready for unexpected but essential spending items such as building repairs on 60th Avenue property, currently has a balance of $5,344.50.
Future Fund has a current balance of $39,268.95.
At the close of November we had a surplus of $20,443.74 in our account (this is non-designated general fund money that has not been spent).
Sparrow House, a GF organic ministry, ‘closed its doors’ this year (thanks to Ruby and Larry Leighton and Paul and Martha Lewis, plus so many of you who have volunteered over the years!). With permission of the most recent donors who had contributed to Sparrow House (donors of funds that had not yet been spent), the remaining designated Sparrow House balance was switched to a newly established designated fund to provide Bibles and other needs to Oklahoma Prison Ministry.