God With Us – 12/26/2021

John 1: 1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Sermon Text

            If you were told today that tomorrow there would be no Bibles left in the world, what scripture would you want to memorize? Is it John 3:16, short and sweet but clear in what it tells us about Christ? Or perhaps Matthew 25, less salvific, but more definite in explaining what is expected of us as Christians. There are plenty of good Psalms, maybe even the ten commandments, but how can we ever choose what we would want to save if all of scripture were to disappear tomorrow?

That question is probably more daunting than any of us are prepared to face. However, if we think of it from the opposite direction, we can see what life was like in the early Church. Jesus was born between six and four BCE, his ministry spanned from somewhere between twenty-seven and thirty-three CE. The letters of Paul were written not long after this, but the earliest Gospel would not be written until the year sixty-five or seventy – thirty years after Jesus’s death and resurrection. While some pre-Gospel texts probably existed, the bulk of correspondence among Christians would be word of mouth, small snippets memorized and recited or sung together.

The opening of John is one of these early fragments that was likely passed among the early Church. The community which gives us John, the Johannine epistles, and Revelation is markedly different from the other New Testament communities. They were mystical Christians, focusing as much on God’s mission on this earth as they did God’s divinity in Heaven. It is this community that gives us the first concrete understandings of the Trinity which is only hinted at in other Gospels and Epistles. Likewise, John is the one to wrestle with Christ’s dual nature – human and God all at once. This deeply reflective tradition is reflected in this hymn which we read a moment ago.

The opening question I gave you, which scripture you would choose to memorize if you had no Bible, is important to consider when you see something like today’s scripture. As long as this passage may seem to us to read all at once, it would not take much to memorize. From learning it, a person would be able to quickly state some of the essential points of the Christian faith. The eternal Word of God, who is God, came to be with humanity, taking on flesh and bringing light into the dark world. Though this arrival was heralded by a prophet, this God was rejected by the people he had created, cast away. Yet, those who did accept this God were given a new life, one that made them part of the household of God.

That’s not bad for a page or so of memorization. You may not be able to write a systematic theology with it, but it will get the Gospel out and ultimately that is better than any ten-cent word we might chase after otherwise. John gives us, as an introduction to his Gospel, a summary statement of what we can expect to find within it. More than that, his audience probably knew the hymn even if they had not heard any other part of this gospel. By opening his telling of Jesus’s life in this way, those who heard it would be more familiar with what followed. Think of how much better engaged we all have been since the worship team has steered me away from unknown opening hymns – when we come into worship with something familiar, we are better prepared to see the details within.

The key focus of this passage is that God became human. Throughout all the Johannine writings there is a constant return to the reality of Jesus’s humanity. While we today tend to accept Jesus as fully God and fully human, that was not always the case. Some people denied Jesus’s divinity, saying that he was God’s best creation, but not God in himself. Others denied Jesus’s humanity, the most extreme among them, the Docetists, insisting Jesus was a Spiritual presence rather than a physical one. A Holy Ghost pretending to be a human.

John may have been primarily concerned with letting people know that God really had become human in the person of Jesus, but he was equally concerned in letting people know that Jesus was not a distinct being from God. The riddle that opens the Gospel is something which carries the weight of all our faith. In the beginning, before anything had been created, there was the Word. The Word was with God, standing face to face with God. And that Word was, somehow simultaneously distinct and united, also the same God. The Greek of this passage is one of the first things which is used to teach new Biblical Language students how to differentiate parts of Grammar, and it is a handy verse to memorize for parties. (Ἐν αρχη ἠν ὁ Λογος και ὁ Λογος ἠν προς τον Θεον και Θεος ἠν ὁ Λογος. “In arche ain ha Logos kai ha Logos ain pros ton Theon kai ha Theos ain ha Logos”)

 To identify the Word as being God would mean nothing without the further development of the chapter, namely that that word dwelled among us, taking on full humanity. This God was not someone who just stood on high and cast a judgmental eye of the fallen world, but was willing to be rejected if it meant giving us another chance. Even though the incarnate Word had made all things, nothing accepted their participation in the world. Even the disciples, close as they were to God’s presence on earth, ran away when the going got rough – all but a single, devoted follower.

In the close of this opening hymn, we are given the final bit of information we need to understand what this Gospel is all about. This incarnate Word had a name, had a personality, had a person that could be met and talked to – Jesus Christ, the only Son, who has made God known to the world. As abstract as John sometimes can be, and as philosophical as this opening passage may seem, it all ties into a single earthly reality – Jesus walked this earth and Jesus was the image of the invisible God made manifest in our lives.

For the early Church, recitation of this hymn allowed them to keep the essentials close at hand. It isn’t very different from humming your favorite hymn or sing it when you want to engage with the truth of God directly. The prayer which I most frequently pray, and which I have brought up a few times since coming here is another example of this kind of rehearsing God’s truth. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” As short a prayer as that is, it hits the same points that John 1 does. Jesus is the Christ, the Lord of all. Jesus is the son of God, divine from before creation. Jesus is a savior, and I am in need of salvation.

The simplicity of our salvation is that there is no need for long complex explanations. They can come in handy, and when we get down into the particulars of any given issue we are bound to have more and more to talk about. Yet, even for long winded people like myself, the more we stray from the essential claims of our faith the more we open ourselves up to blunder into something we do not intend. I love a complex theological conundrum, I love to wax poetic about incarnational theology, but at the end of all things my love of making things complicated cannot get in the way of the simple truths of God.

The opening of John is poetry, perhaps to help it be more easily remembered, perhaps to simply attest to the beauty of God’s entrance into human life. The metaphorical and artistic aspects of this story are often treated as obfuscating of some of the plain truths of Jesus’s presence on earth, but I think the opposite is true. Art is how we engage with the plainest parts of our life. If you think to any part of your life, one of the key things that you’re going to think of alongside anything that happened is the songs you listened to while it happened. The movies we love, the paintings that speak to us, we engage with the world around us through art. How fitting then that John’s summary of the Gospel is a song sung for thousands of years.

As we continue on in the Christmas season, twelve days which spans two Sundays this year, we remember the fullness of God which chose to dwelt among us. The simple truth of our faith, expressed in just about a page, is that we do not worship someone who is far off and away from us, but up close and personal. Jesus could have stayed up in Heaven, or maybe even have come to earth as a king living among nobility. Instead, Jesus chose a normal life, more than that a hard life among the poor and downtrodden. God became human, and God became a poor human at that.

We carry with us the simple truth of Jesus’s presence on the earth. We do not need long complicated formulations to understand what it means for God to have come to us, we only need to acknowledge that God made that trip down to us. Why would God do this? To bring us closer to the divine presence we long ago threw away. We were no one’s family, but now God has made us part of God’s own family. That transformation, that unity which we are all invited to, that is the essence of our faith. When we acknowledge that God is with us, that God is here to save us, then the rest finds its way bit by bit.

This does not mean we cannot be intellectual, or that we cannot study hard both the scriptures and the world around us. It simply means that we do not need to complicate the world as we do so. We are not saved by the mental tap dances we put together, but simply by faith in Christ. As we enter a New Year, let us commit ourselves to love and service, to study of scripture and prayer in the Spirit. Let us proclaim the Gospel, accepting that we are not only qualified for the job, but perfect for the job. The truth is simple, God is here to save us, let us all tell that story simply, well, and often. – Amen.

Christmas Eve 2021

Luke 2: 1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Sermon Text

The past four weeks we have been exploring, through our Sunday services, the various members of the Holy Family. The parents of John the Baptist, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and the Holy Couple themselves, Mary and Joseph. Today we gather on this cold winter evening to celebrate the final member of the Holy Family, the one that sanctifies all others mentioned and each of us gathered here today – our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The great drama of human history has finally met its main protagonist. God, the creator of all things and the author of every story, now has come to dwell among us as a human being. Born in a stable, laid in a food trough, the eternal Word of God now knows what it is to be cold, to be hungry, to feel the prick of straw bedding.

Christmas is the day we all take a moment to remember that the story of our salvation began with mundane pieces. A government official wants to collect more taxes, and so he calls for a census to be taken in order to determine exactly what amount he might begin taking in. A couple, unmarried and yet expecting a child, make their way from the small village of Nazareth to the slightly more cosmopolitan Bethlehem, as near to a suburb of Jerusalem as the ancient world could muster. There a child is born; there a mother falls asleep with her husband and child nearby. There, somehow against all odds, the salvation of all humanity was set in stone.

As with everything surrounding Christmas, we don’t know much about the night Jesus was born. We celebrate it on December 25th, but there are many reasons behind that, few of which have to do with Jesus’s actual birthdate. Some people do the math to say he was born in March, some others insist December makes equal historical sense. Yet, the actual date doesn’t much matter. While this day is fixed in our calendars, plenty of other important ones are not. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox, and yet that day is still important to us as though it were the actual moment Jesus rose from the dead. In the same way, today is, to us, the day Jesus was born, because we celebrate it as such.

Today the walls between Heaven and Earth lose all meaning. God sits among us. The long separation between God and humanity is finally erased. God is a human being. The long wait for salvation is finally ended. God has come down to save us. Christmas is the celebration of love, manifested in the most fragile of forms. An infant, born into a world where not many children lived to even be named. A child named “Salvation,” a child named Jesus.

The story of those who brought Jesus into this world are simple stories. A couple who longed for a child finally having one. A couple due to be married when a surprise pregnancy threatens everything they thought they had known. A loving cousin who keeps the young girl safe, a gentle angel that assures that boy that he is doing the right thing in going on loving his fiancé and her unborn child. The set pieces, minus perhaps the angels involved, are not unlike something we might see right here in North View. God could have made a grand entry into the world, but God chose to make a much more gentle one.

A hundred million lessons are set out before us when we pick up this story. The importance of worship, the power of family, the significance of a mother’s love. Yet, if we have been paying attention to the past few weeks we have spent together, I hope we can see that the real lesson of Christmas is in the simplicity of it all. Normal people worked to bring salvation into the world, and that remains true for us today. It is not the work of politicians and kings and rich donors that brings about the Kingdom of God. It is the work of the everyday person, of the poor and the disgraced, the cast aside and the unhoused, the lowest of the low. God came down on Christmas and God, who was owed a chariot of gold, came down in rags.

Though in the distance, foreign magicians were making their way across Arabia to visit Jesus, the only witnesses that night were shepherds. Unwashed, uneducated, rough and tumble shepherds were the first to attest to the glory of God’s salvation. How strange it would have been to see them dancing in the streets singing the songs the angels had taught them. They pointed to a distant stable, perhaps attached to a house and perhaps set into a stone wall, and they insisted “God is in that manger, cradled next to his mother, and God is here to save us.” Lunatics, madmen, or perhaps the first people outside of Mary to bring the truth of Jesus into the world.

As brief as our time together tonight is, it is a reflection of that night long ago. Unassuming though that night was, unremarkable in any of its features except to those who knew what it brought. A light, furtive and small, bursting out in the darkness of a sin-sick world. A light, blazing truth through the lies that we had built up around ourselves. A light that flickered, and threatened to go out, but would not be snuffed out just yet. The light of Christ, the shining love of God on display for all to see.

The work begins, once we leave here, to make sure that that light is allowed to shine. It is a light spread not with cruel flames that cut through the world, but with the gentle smoldering of our hearts. Love is like a fire, that jumps between the embers within us, alighting and bringing yet more light into the world around us. The simple message of Advent is summarized in Christmas, that God is coming to be among us, and God is already here. So go out tonight, to be with family and friends, and go out tonight in the knowledge that salvation truly is here with us. Go forward and love the world, love each person like they are family and protect them, feed them, house them, however you can. Christ is born in Bethlehem; Christ lives among us. The glory of God now must cover the earth, and all the world proclaim the glory of our salvation. Today we celebrate a world that will never be the same. Today we say, Merry Christmas. – Amen.

The Holy Family: Joseph – 12/19/2021

Matthew 1: 18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

Sermon Text

Sometimes you have to preach a sermon for yourself, or perhaps a sermon that you would have liked to have heard sometime in your life. Today we celebrate Joseph, Jesus’s earthly father and the one who raised him up in Nazareth. Like the rest of the Holy Family, Joseph is mostly known to us in legends and stories, and not so much as a person revealed in scripture. We know that he was engaged to marry a young woman named Mary, that he was kind and wanted to resolve the scandal of her pregnancy in a way that honored her, and that once an angel set him straight, he was committed to his wife and child.

The only other detail of Joseph’s life which we can say with some certainty is that he died either at the start of or right before Jesus’s ministry. This is revealed to us in his disappearance from scripture after Jesus’s visit to Jerusalem at age 12, and the fact that Mary eventually joins Jesus in his cross Judean ministry. She would only do this, following her itinerant oldest son, if the responsibility for caring for her had been transferred to him after Joseph had passed away. So, anything we say about Joseph has to be fairly abstract. However, as the last few weeks have shown us, the length of a person’s description on a page is not all that there is when it comes to understanding what they meant to those around them or as examples to us today.

Joseph is a pinnacle of love. It would have been easy at any point in his story to jettison himself from the situation he found himself in. When Mary was revealed to be pregnant, he could have publicly announced the reason for breaking off an engagement, but he instead planned to let her go quietly. When he was visited by the angel and told that this pregnancy was an act of God and that he was to raise the savior of humanity, he could have run away, but he submitted himself immediately to this work. Joseph had every chance to be callous, but he always chose love.

There are several legends about Jesus growing up in Nazareth and while some are quite fanciful, there is one that stands out in my mind. The author, imagining what it would be like to have a teenage Jesus around, described Joseph making the wrong cut on a piece of wood he was working on. Jesus, the faithful son, then miraculously lengthens the wood to account for this mistake.[1] While this story is only that, a story, it does let our imagination go a bit more freely. To see the way that Joseph would have embraced Jesus as his own, teaching him wood working and apprenticing him in his artisan shop. Jesus, in turn, using the powers he has as Son of God to help his earthly father. There is something beautiful to this sort of story.

Raising Jesus up probably wasn’t always easy. He had siblings after all, brothers and sisters born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus. We know the names of the boys: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas (not that one,) but sadly none of the sisters are named. Jesus’s siblings did not always understand him, once actively telling him to stop being such an embarrassment when he came home preaching his message. Jesus then seemed to refuse to go along with the family on pilgrimage. (John 7: 1-10) Scripture only speaks of when Jesus and his siblings were adults, it is hard to imagine what they were like as kids. More than that imagine if your eldest sibling was actually the son of God, and it wasn’t just what your mom thought about them!

Joseph had a big responsibility in raising Jesus. I’m not sure how much of Jesus’s earthly self was reflective of the way he was raised and how much was from his essential God-ness. I do like to imagine that sometimes he would say things that made his neighbors eyes roll, “Say what you want about the kid, he’s Joe’s boy now!” There must be something in the humanity of Jesus that reflected the man who raised him, and I often wonder what that looks like. Of course, I’ll be wondering until the day of resurrection about that, we just do not have information otherwise on that kind of mystery.

As with much of scripture, the thing that Joseph did, loving a child that was not biologically his own, was not unique. The miraculous quality was not in the act itself. Instead, the grace and mercy of Joseph is shown in the example he gives to us today, to love people even when we do not have an immediate relationship with them. We can count people as family without them sharing genomic markers with us, we can love people we have only just met because they bear within them that image of God we discussed last week in Elizabeth’s story. Joseph does something mundane; he loves a child he is raising, but the example he sets echoes through eternity and equips us to do the same.

In particular, I want to take time today to speak to blended families. They are so often left on the sidelines of church discussions of “Family.” We still treat as normative the idea of a father and a mother and their children and act as if any deviation from that is not worth talking about or somehow a diminishment of what could otherwise be. Perhaps to an idealist that is true, but in my own life, both as someone who grew up in a blended family, and as someone who knows a great many blended families, I do not think it is worth speculating on ideals when the beauty of what God can do in what is, is right in front of us. There is a blessed quality to blended families, a lesson and a blessing innate to them, that is not worth ranking above or below any other arrangement.

To speak to my own experience, I am blessed to have loving family on all sides. I have a loving mother, a loving father, and loving grandparents all by blood. I was raised fairly normally by sometimes normal people. My parents split up when I was ten and while that caused its fair share of trouble, it also introduced a blessing. Sometime after my parents had parted ways, my father met and married a woman named “Robin.” She had two kids of her own, a son named Brady who was a year and half older than me and a daughter named Jordan who was about a year younger than I am.

A lot changed with the expansion of my nuclear family. I came to live with father and stepmother and now shared a room with a brother, something I had never had before then. I was introduced to new grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles that were now, fully mine. All of this was an addition into my life and while it all caused some friction like any change will do, it was ultimately a blessing revealed again and again. It was this move that saw me attending church for the first time. First United Methodist Church of Berkeley Springs became my home and soon enough I was deeply involved in that congregation and well… The rest is history.

I can point to a lot of things about my blended family that made me who I am, however, there is one thing that no one can deny. That it that my stepmother is one of the best influences I’ve ever had. Beyond getting me into the church, Robin immediately showed she was an overwhelmingly loving person. She never for one moment treated me like I was any different from her own children. Sure, she knew them longer and did birth them, so things were never going to be identical. Yet, there was never any doubt in my mind that she saw me as her child, and that she wanted everything good for me that she could possibly give. She got me active in my school and in my church in ways I don’t think I otherwise would have. Things were never perfect, and I will never claim to have been a perfect child to any of my parents, especially perhaps her, but the sainted qualities of my stepmother is something no one will ever deny.

We who live in blended families know that it is not always easy to keep a balance going. We bristle at each other; we negotiate custody when kids are too young to drive themselves places. Holidays are divided up and negotiated over. You will never know anything messier than a blended household. Yet, when we take on stepfamilies, the attitude we should have is that the family we are taking on is just as important as the family we already had. We marry into, not just the person we love, but all the people attached to them. Children are, of course, less involved in that decision, and so it falls on adults to accept that reality and work to make it come true.

Blended families are the primary thing that comes to mind for me, but it goes beyond this particular kind of family dynamic. In-laws are also people we bring into our family, and we should treat them like family. That may get more difficult as the circles go wider and wider, but generally the pattern we put forward should be a more expansive definition of family. My siblings have married two wonderful people, my wife has two wonderful siblings, one of whom got married very recently. All these people are my family. Likewise, I have friends who are family to me, people who might as well be my sisters and brothers, whom I love fiercely.

Family is what we make of it, no matter how people come to be a part of it, we celebrate them. The Church is, in itself, people who found one another and decided to live as siblings, united in the identity Jesus has given them as Children of God. Today we celebrate Joseph, and by extension we celebrate family.

I speak so openly about my own family and experience today because Joseph will always be near to my heart. I love this member of the holy family, because every Christmas my stepmother’s eyes would light up when he was mentioned. The ultimate stepparent, who raised Jesus as his own, was the one she most aspired to resemble year after year. I can tell you today, she did that and then some. So let us all follow the example of Joseph, and as Christmas bells ring, only a little way off, let us see our family all around us. – Amen.

[1] The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. XIII

12/12/2021 – The Holy Family: Elizabeth

Luke 1: 24-25, 39-45

After [Zechariah received his vision in the Temple] Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people…”

[After her own annunciation,] Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Sermon Text

If I were someone who wanted to build suspense. We might have talked about Elizabeth before we talked about Mary. It seems that we are taking a step down from the miracle of the incarnation to the annunciation of a perfectly normal human pregnancy. While Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, would certainly go on to do a great deal in the history of God’s kingdom, he was not the Word made flesh. I’m not here for suspense though. Narrative arcs are for television, the pulpit is for the truth of God revealed through the scriptures and lived through our life.

We step back from Mary and her pregnancy, to look at Elizabeth and her own, to discuss another aspect of our life in Christ. Mary is a model of evangelism for us, she tells us how we can accept Christ into our being and then share Christ with the world. Elizabeth tells a different story through her life, one of the long suffering nature of faith, and of the difficulties that can come from living in a world that is not what we wish it was, not just yet at least.

Elizabeth is, like many of Jesus’s relatives, given little to tell us about who she is. She and Zechariah together are meant to be clear parallels to Abraham and Sarah, but outside of the general similarities we might see between a story in Genesis and a story in the Gospels, there is not much to glean about who they are. We know she is older than someone would usually be when they would become pregnant. It is hard to say how old this would be exactly. We know nowadays when menopause usually occurs, but it seems unlikely to me that that would not be impacted by environmental factors. Likewise, we know that Elizabeth was someone who struggled with fertility. We never know if that was because of something stemming from Zechariah or her own physiology. The ancient world always assumed women were somehow the deciding factor. Beyond these two truths, and her relation to Mary, not much is known about her.

We see in our scriptures, and we briefly discussed when we looked at Zechariah, that the ancient world often saw the ability for someone to have a child as a moral quality. Good people have kids, bad people do not. The impetus was placed on anyone struggling with fertility to invest a great deal into getting right with God. Sometimes this took the form of sacrifices or devotion, but whatever the form it took, the burden was on the couple, and especially the woman to somehow make the impossible come to pass.

As with anything, miracles are always possible, but the thing that defines a miraculous event is that it is not common. For many people who struggled with fertility in the ancient world, they were stigmatized as though they had done something wrong. Elizabeth, having realized that her dream of having a child was coming true, mentions this explicitly – pointing to the fact that she has suffered public ridicule because of her infertility. This mindset, unfortunately, was not ended with the fall of Jerusalem or the Reformation or any movement of the Church. Only recently have we begun to understand fertility for what it is – a complicated matter of genetics, physiology, and environment.

Much like Zechariah before her, Elizabeth asks us to consider the ways that we neglect to empathize with one another. With Zechariah we saw how accessibility is only something that comes to mind when we no longer have everything we are used to. Elizabeth asks us to think beyond our usual premises of how we define “fairness,” in the world. The fact that both she and Zechariah are presented as righteous in all ways a person can be, and yet as suffering what was considered one of the cruelest fates in the ancient world, proves to us that life is much more complicated than good things happening to good people and bad things happening to bad ones. Elizabeth, more than just being a story of a miracle, is a story of how we, the people of God, must be better than passive judges of all who suffer.

When Elizabeth is given the news that she is going to have a child, she is not able at first to enjoy what this child will add to her life. Her first thought is what the child has finally freed her from, the judgment of those around her. We are seldom better than the people who judged Elizabeth when we react to trouble in the world around us. While we can often be deeply sympathetic toward people we know and the problems they face, the further outside of our own sphere of influence a person is the less sympathy and the more skepticism we apply. Sometimes that skepticism is toward the person, “If they had done this that never would have happened!” or “Serves them right for getting wrapped up in what they were!”

If we cannot justify blaming an individual, we might look to a darker form of magical thinking. We start seeing malice in other people that somehow caused this event to take place. Rather than blaming an individual we look at those around them. We implicate certain people and things as bad influences or treat the difficulties a person faces like a puzzle to be solved. On grand scales these take the form of conspiracies, but on more personal scales they manifest in finger pointing that does anything but address the actual root of a problem.

This is not to say that there are not sometimes causes to a problem that exist within a person or within their surroundings. There are problems that are systemic and some that are personal. Yet, I would also say that some problems are just that, problems. They are things that emerge in the world around us. We can sit and try to explain the why and how of them, and if we can find something actionable to prevent or remedy them all the better. Yet, sometimes we come to a great wall, the wall of “the world as it is.” In this kind of situation, we do not do ourselves any favors by trying to explain what brought someone to the place they are in, it only matters that we support them and help them however we can through it.

Elizabeth was in a situation that only God could bring her out of, but that situation could have been made bearable if not for the callousness of her peers. It is hard enough in life to struggle without people accusing you of every possible reason why, if you only tried a little harder, you wouldn’t have that problem. Sickness and pain is written off, “You just need to try this supplement?” “Have you tried exercising?” “You should be eating at least three of these a day!” We wrap up our experience of the world so that there is always an answer to explain why someone suffers and we write off the continued suffering of others as a failure to adapt and adjust to those pressures.

Today a lot of people still face scrutiny for their struggles with fertility. We refuse to acknowledge their pain, pushing it far away from public view not for the sake of their privacy, but because we cannot stomach grappling with that kind of pain publicly. It is a common problem, that only recently has made its way from behind closed doors and into communities willing to support people as they face it. Like so many things that we as a culture decided was nobody’s business but our own, stigmatizing anyone who sought help or support and who disrupted our vision of a just world because of it, the plight of Elizabeth has seldom truly been heard when others cry out with it today.

But it is not just fertility. Chronic pain, lasting bouts of disease, chronic and congenital illnesses, sexism, racism, and all manner of bigotry – these are ailments to individuals and to society that we either make so broad we can do nothing about them, or so personal we write them off as someone else’s problem. If there is a trouble in this sin-sick world, then there are people tracing red threads through every aspect of a person’s life to explain why they have come to the place that they have come. Shutting up the doors of God’s mercy and opening up the floodgates of human judgment.

I’m not going to claim I’m not at fault for this either. There have been plenty of times in life where I see someone, obviously struggling, and I take time to justify why that might be. The mother with more kids than it seems she can handle, the panhandler who has given you a different story every time you have talked to them, the rough looking guy in a gas station that seems just a little off to our critical eyes. There is an essential and flawed part of us that wants to organize people into boxes. Those boxes make it easy for us to not feel responsible for their livelihood, maybe even to feel the troubles they face are appropriate given some imagined sin they may have committed.

The Arbinger Institute, in their book The Anatomy of Peace separates the kind of judgments we make in these circumstances in four categories.[1] The judgments we make are to preserve our feeling of superiority, of worthiness, of public perception, and even of our own insecurity. We look at the person who suffers and say, “I am too good to help them.” Or “They do not deserve my help, they can fix it themselves!” Likewise, we might say, “If I help them, people might start associating me with that kind of person.” or “I am in no place to help them, surely it is someone else’s job.”

The difficulty with any of these hypotheticals is that they are necessarily hyperbolic. I have never walked up to someone and thought, “I am too good to help them.” But I might think that the appointment I’m going to is too important to miss. The solution to all of this speculating about people, is to remove people from the category of item in our mind, to that of person.

It might seem strange, to say that people are people and then pretend some grand statement has been made. However, we very often do not think of other people as existing in the same way we do. While we can acknowledge the rich world of thought and nuance and emotion that encompasses our own heart and soul, we only see other people as things we interact with. Background characters in our life’s own narrative.

This has manifested in a bizarre way in certain groups online where people they run into in their daily life are called NPCs. Anyone know what that means? An NPC is a Non-Player Character, a term originating in role-playing games and most widely used in video games for anyone the player does not control. I love a good video game, but the moment I refer to the cashier at Kroger as an NPC is the moment, I have made myself so central to the story of life, I am no longer grappling with the reality that we are all of us here, equal in dignity and importance. Using NPC online is mostly a joke, but I think it has a kernel of truth about how people generally, not just the occasional OP, see the world around us.

When you meet someone, you meet an image bearer of God. That person bears the same imprint of the divine that you do. That means their soul, their inner-life is just as complex and beautiful. The troubles they face hurt them as much as anything that has ever hurt us. There is never a moment where we are not talking to someone just as complicated, as worthy of love, or as unfittingly suffering as ourselves. If we see the world, not in terms of who deserves what, but in terms of all people deserving the same goodness then we will come a long way toward a better world. Elizabeth suffered because other people were unable to see her as anything but the barren woman up the street, but if they had let themselves really get to know her, they would be pleasantly surprised.

They would know the devoted wife of a temple priest. A faithful woman who trusted that God would deliver her someway or another. She was a woman who, when she heard that her cousin was suddenly pregnant with her own miraculous child, she quickly called for her to come and take shelter away from the judgmental eyes of her neighbors in her own home. She cared for the expectant Mary and kept her safe in those first few, treacherous months of pregnancy. Elizabeth confirmed the message God had given Mary, she let her know that she really was going to be the one to bring salvation into the world. Elizabeth let Mary know that just because people say all manner of evil against you, it doesn’t mean that you are not deeply blessed by God.

Elizabeth teaches us about how God keeps a promise. God promised Elizabeth a child and she got one. Yet, I think that it would be a shame if we only looked to that part of her story. Like all of Advent, God asks us to look at the world in a different way. The Kingdom is breaking out all around us, and it is breaking out among the people we would least expect. The mute priest, the scandalous unmarried pregnant girl, and the old childless woman down the street. In our own life, we must accept that the kingdom will only grow if we can accept others as readily as we accept these figures we have lifted up the past few Sundays. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and it is to be a kingdom of misfits and weirdos, of people on the fringe of respectability, and those who have made their fair share of mistakes. The kingdom is a place we are all transformed, so let us be transformed into more loving, welcoming people.

The rumbling of a New World is upon us. Our third week of waiting is drawing to a close. Where does our salvation come? With loud trumpet and the cries of an army? No, but in the distant sound of labor just beginning, and the advent of a child, not yet born. – Amen.

[1] The Arbinger Institute. The Anatomy of Peace. (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler. 2020)

The Holy Family – Mary

Luke 1: 26-38, 46-55

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. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her…

And Mary said,

“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. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 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, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Sermon Text

 Our second week of Advent brings us to reflect on Mary, the Mother of God. She was a poor woman, from a four acre town in what was once called Israel. We know very little about her family, only that she had a cousin named Elizabeth who we will talk about next week, and another cousin named Zachariah who we already talked about last week. Little else is known about the woman who brought Jesus into the world. We do not know how old she was when she conceived, we do not know what she did with her daily life outside of raising Jesus and his siblings, and we do not know what happened to her after the close of the first few chapters of the book of Acts.

Despite this relative obscurity, Mary has captivated the Church for centuries. Legends describe her lineage, her battles with dragons and with demons, and in certain traditions her eventual ascension into Heaven. I do not think that Mary was likely taken up into Heaven like Elijah or Enoch, but there is no doubt that the Mother of God made her way to be seated in the company of Heaven. Wherever her grave may be, it goes unmarked and unremarked upon in the modern day. We do not know where Mary ended up, and so we are left with the few pieces we can be certain of. The most comprehensive narrative we are given in scripture to tell us about Mary are the one’s which we have read today, the annunciation – where Jesus’s entry into the flesh was announced – and the Magnificat – where Jesus’s life was foretold.

When we are told that Mary was visited by an angel, the exact stakes of what she is being told may not snap into our minds immediately. When an angel comes and tells you that you are going to be miraculously pregnant, that can be very good news. Zechariah was excited to hear he would have a child even though he had previously thought such a thing would be impossible for him. Yet, to have this kind of birth foretold when you are not married carries different kinds of baggage with it. The angel was not just telling Mary she was going to carry a child, but that she was about to become an object of public interest, of ridicule, and perhaps even an object of violence.

Formally, Roman rule in Judea had discouraged capital punishment among Jewish citizens. While Rome had the right to kill non-citizens for any number of crimes, local governments were more limited in their ability to execute criminals. Add to this the general perspective among the prominent rabbis of the time that capital punishment was needlessly cruel, “increase[ing] the number of murderers among the Jewish people,” and you get an environment where capital punishment for crimes outside of Roman law was unlikely.[1]

Now, why is this relevant to Mary and the news that she was going to conceive a child? Well, she was an unmarried woman in first century Judea. To an outside observer that would suggest that Mary had had relations outside of marriage. That in itself was not necessary a problem, assuming that this was a matter between herself and her betrothed Joseph. While probably a faux pas and certainly something discouraged, relations of this kind were not considered beyond the pale in the society of the time.[2] However, we know from other places in scripture that Joseph had considered breaking off the engagement before he fully understood what was happening. If that had happened, or if that had gotten out, Mary could have been in big trouble.

An unfortunate truth, as true today as it was in Jesus’s time, is that even when those with the theoretical authority to pursue death sentences have given that power up, people in communities will place that supposed power upon themselves. Mob violence, or even just an individual with the wrong sort of sense of superiority, could have caused great harm to Mary in the months leading up to her giving birth to Jesus. It is my earnest belief that, one of the reasons we see Mary move in with her cousin Elizabeth during the early part of her pregnancy was to protect herself and her unborn child. Something she was able to do even better once Joseph was fully on board with what was to come, but something that still took several months to sort out.

The blessing the angel brought, of Mary being able to carry the incarnate Word of God into the world, was therefore not a small thing for her to take on. She was being asked to face immediate danger for the sake of her child. A child who, we know from reading ahead in this story, she would ultimately have to give up to death on a Roman cross. The grief of a mother who had to face public scrutiny before their child was born, be jeered at by those who misunderstood his work during his life, and then pitied her after he died a criminals death, it is all just unimaginable to me.

Yet, the image we get of Mary is not of a broke woman grieving, but of a strong and confident prophet proclaiming the salvation of God to anyone who is willing to hear it. Mary takes on this assignment, not with apprehension or fear, but with a desire to understand more. “How can this be?” quickly transforms to, “Let it be with me as you have said.” I’m not foolish enough to say that Mary probably did not have any worries or fear, but her faith was sufficient to overcome them. She did not know everything coming down the line, but she sure did know that God was going to see things through to the end.

This is made most clear when she arrives at her cousin’s house. Elizabeth, as we will see next week, greets Mary and confirms that she isn’t just dreaming. She really is carrying a savior, one that will turn the world on its head. Mary does not miss a beat from the moment she receives this confirmation. The quiet and thoughtful Mary launches into her longest recorded speech – what we now call the “Magnificat.”

Following the example of prophets like Miriam before her, Mary describes the faithfulness of God throughout history. She begins with herself, saying that God’s actions even up to this point have shown her to be blessed. She is blessed to be the bearer of God into the world, she is blessed to be a mother who is going to go through Hell to bring Heaven to Earth, she is blessed in a way that no one will be able to deny in the future. She then speaks to God’s more general goodness. God takes the proud and knocks them off their pedestals, but God lifts up the lowly who know their real worth. God feeds the hungry and denies the rich. God brings justice wherever there is injustice, and God settles the score wherever earthly courts fail.

Mary is someone who we in the Protestant church too often neglect. While I understand some of the hesitancy we tend to express, I think that it is to our detriment. We may not regard Mary as the sinless mother of God, immaculately conceived and bodily assumed into Heaven, but she is still the mother of God and worthy of our respect. We can learn a lot from her, even just by thinking about what it means for her to have taken on her role, to have been the first evangelist in history. Some may point to John the Baptist, or to any of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible as the first bringing of good news, but I am admittedly being a bit more specifically Christian in my argument. If we define evangelism as bringing the Word of God, and the salvation that Word brings, to all the world, then I cannot imagine a better prototype than Mary.

She carried that Word of God within her for nine months. She gave birth to a child, naming him “God is salvation,” and then raised him up to love the scriptures and to be a part of the community he lived him. She gave him up to his ministry, eventually joining him in his travels when her husband died. Then, worst of all, she gave up her Son to the cross, standing beside him as he breathed his last breath. Even the resurrection, the confirmation that her prophecy before his birth was spot on and that she would see her Son again rightfully seated on the throne of Heaven, meant that she had to send her beloved child away, far from where she could see him or hear him call for her when he needed her.

We are all of us imitators of Mary. Though we do not suffer our separation from Jesus in just the same way, we still can feel some of what she feels. We come into the Church and accept the Word which is given to us. It grows within us, transforming us into people who more resemble the one who saved us. We then share that Gospel with all we can, through love and service as well as through proclamation and testimony. We wait earnestly the day we see Jesus face to face, and for the work to be concluded and our rest to truly begin. We imitate Mary in every step of our spiritual journey, and so to not give her, her due is a shame.

In a moment we will celebrate Holy Communion. Here we receive the gifts of bread and the vine, here we proclaim all that Christ’s salvific work has done for us, is doing for us, and will do for us. Then we all take it, and we receive it into ourselves. We grow strong through this gift of God and then go forward into the world in that strength to share the grace of God with all the world. Each action of the Church, as it pursues service to Christ, calls us to remember some aspect of those who knew Christ while he walked this earth, and few people know any person better than their mamas. On this, our second week of Advent, let us remember the fearless evangelist who brought our savior to the world. Let us all consider, and imitate, Mary in our devotion to the Gospel. – Amen.

[1] Mishnah Makkot. 1.10 Available at: https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Makkot.1.10?lang=bi

[2] Genesis 24: 67 captures one such instance of relations preceding any formal marriage.