One of my favorite pictures of my son, Fisher, is from one of his marching band competitions at MetLife Stadium. It is a close-up of him in his uniform with the field a green blur behind him. He is holding a mallet in each hand and he is leaning in, poised expectantly over his marimba keyboard.
His head is turned slightly and I know he is gazing intently at the Pit Director…waiting for his cue, anticipating his entrance. He stands, engaged, poised and ready to do his part in bringing the music to life. I love seeing him captured in that moment of urgent waiting.
It suddenly seemed like such an Advent moment…that barely breathing, eyes wide open, “get ready waiting” for something momentous about to happen….
That’s Advent waiting….
Advent waiting is not at all like waiting for a bus or a train…that impatient, distracted waiting…that bored waiting and waiting to simply get where you are going. Advent waiting is not at all like waiting in the doctor’s office…”killing time”…waiting to be next…waiting for your turn…waiting to be out of there!
Advent waiting is not like trapped waiting in the line at the grocery store…mindlessly browsing tabloid titles to see if there really are aliens, or miracle potato chip diets, or what famous couple has broken up…again…
Advent waiting is more like waiting for beloved company to arrive that you haven’t seen in far too long…Advent waiting is like waiting to finally be discharged from the hospital and go home…Advent waiting is smelling spicy pumpkin pie baking in the oven and checking the timer again and again to see how many more minutes before it comes out warm and ready to slice….
And, of course, Advent waiting is a pregnant young woman and her faithful husband frantically searching for a safe place to shelter and welcome their son into this world…
But it takes more than waiting and watching for Fisher to know the precise moment to lower his mallets and join in the music….it takes preparation and practice, lots and lots of practice.
Preparation is also a part of Advent.
John the Baptist is in the Jordan wilderness, preparing the way, preparing the way of the Lord, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John is waiting and watching and preparing for the one who will come after him to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
John tells the people, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor;for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John is telling his followers not to rest on their laurels or their history. John tells the crowd that their work is never done, their purpose is never fulfilled, and that their ability to bear good fruit is limited only by their lack of work and preparation.
So, the people come to John and ask him, “What then should we do?”
John answers, “If you have two coats, share with someone who doesn’t have any; share your food.”He instructs tax collectors to collect no more than the designated amount. He tells them to refrain from graft and skimming, to refrain from upping the tax demand and then keeping the difference for themselves…it is why tax collectors were so hated…they used their power and authority to bilk and prey upon the powerless among their own people…
Soldiers also come to John and ask, “What then should we do?”John says not to extort money using threats or false accusations. He instructs them not to use their power and might in order to bully and take advantage of those who are powerless.
John’s words still ring true for us today where too many people in positions of power and authority still bilk and prey upon the powerless for their own political agendas and their own personal gain.
John’s voice crying out for repentance and justice, reminds us all of God’s instructions to take care of the weak, not to exploit them, to make sure that others have the equivalent of what you have; that if you are eating, ensure that others are eating; if you are clothed, make sure you are clothing others. If you have shelter, then you must endeavor to provide shelter and sanctuary for others who have no place to go.
So, “What then should WE do,”..to prepare ourselves, to be watchful and ready to reach out and act in God’s name, to join in and do our part in bringing God’s kingdom to life? How can we prepare ourselves to help in making the world not just whole, but holy?
We prepare ourselves the way musicians do, by practicing. That’s one of the things we are doing here when we gather to worship together. We are practicing.
We practice becoming one mind in Christ, by reciting scripture, and singing, and praying together, becoming one voice. When we sing and pray out loud together, we even begin breathing as one. W…e become one great breathing, speaking, singing, instrument… God’s instrument… …making holy music together… …becoming God’s love song …rejoicing together in God’s name.
When we reach out and offer a sign of Christ’s peace to each other, we are practicing welcoming our neighbor, we are practicing putting God’s Word into action in the world…with that act of putting out our hand in Jesus name, we are imitating Jesus reaching out to everyone he met, not hesitating to stop and turn aside from his intended path, never hesitating to touch…to see, to heal…anyone…and everyone.
We join in saying Confession, to practice repentance to release our hearts from their burdens and to remind ourselves that we aren’t perfect…but that we are perfectly loved. We confess, so that we learn what a gift it is to receive grace and forgiveness, so that we can open our hearts and offer grace and forgiveness to others.
We gather for Communion to practice making room for everyone….and to remember that even the simplest acts in our lives, eating and drinking, when shared with others, become sacred and holy.
We gather each week, so that the lessons we read and hear, become a part of us, God’s Word sinking into our flesh and bones, layer after layer…week after week…month after month…until enacting God’s word becomes a reflex.
Just like Fisher poised and waiting who has practiced his part until he doesn’t have to think about it…he trusts the director, the music, and the other musicians, he trusts his body and his heart…and when the moment comes…he moves…he acts…without hesitation…doing his part to bring the music to life.
We come here each week to prepare a way for the Lord…to prepare our hearts to be ready to move at God’s command…to reach out without thinking or hesitation when there is need…We practice until God’s Word becomes who we are and how we are in the world.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians was written when he was in prison, waiting to see if he would be executed. Expecting death, he fearlessly wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made know to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
What then should we do, to prepare a way for the Lord?
Let us practice urgent, engaged, Advent waiting, gazing intently for signs of our creator…waiting for God’s cue, anticipating God’s entrance. Let us join together and stand, engaged, poised and ready to do our part in bringing God’s kingdom to life…
Acting without thinking about it…
Trusting in our bones, trusting with all our hearts, and above all else, trusting in God.
Fear not! Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
I’m living in the embrace of Night to see what miracles come to light. When the horn sounds and the walls come tumbling down and the barriers fall and the curtain in the Temple is torn from top to bottom allowing God to escape from the fisted heart which opens and sets the spirit free.
I’m living in the embrace of Night to see what dreams will come to light. When we see each other clearly in the dark of light when we breathe easy in the spirit of night What treasures will pour forth when we dance with God? What dreams will we find in the heart of shadowlight?
God called light Day and darkness Night There was evening, there was morning those liminal times when day and night meet, mingle, and merge where familiar landscape becomes unfamiliar terrain When there is a moment where the world hangs suspended between now and then, was and will be, known and unknown, dark light and bright night.
I’m living in the embrace of Night to see what visions will come to light. When we lay on God’s altar looking deep into the eyes of Abraham who’s sharp blade slices through the veils of who we think we are revealing how we ought to be when the log falls from our eyes and the pain we see blinds us with its glare.
When we stand once again, naked in the garden Let us stand in the blaze of moon wrapped in the peace of stars secure in the sacred starkness of night light.
I’m living in the embrace of Night to see what will be born in its light to discover how the spirit takes flight When we can dance in darkness and see only light.
Pregnant Mary comes to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. Elizabeth’s baby, will grow up to be John the Baptizer and we all know who Mary’s son is and will be. Elizabeth sees Mary and her child leaps in her womb and she is filled with the Holy Spirit!
She exclaims and cries out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb….as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” And Mary responds, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
This passage is often called Mary’s Song of Praise. Here she is a single, unwed mother who is impoverished – at least that is our best guess, because in those days you were pretty much either rich or poor – there was no such thing as a middle class.
For being unwed and pregnant, she could be stoned to death for the crime of adultery. She could be set aside by her fiance, Joseph. She could be shunned by her parents, her family, her friends, her entire village. She could end up an outcast, begging, or worse, to support herself and her baby to be.
This is what she knew she was possible when she said to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”This is what she knew was possible if she said, “yes” to God. And she said, “yes” anyway. And she learned what is possible when you put your trust and your life into God’s hands.
With so many reasons to show up at her cousin Elizabeth’s house, filled with fear and despair, singing a song of Lament, instead, Mary sings a song of praise, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” And Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit…and an unborn baby leaps with joy.
Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
So, what does it mean to magnify the Lord?
Well, what does a magnifying glass do? A magnifying glass enlarges things and lets us see them up close, it lets us see things more clearly. A magnifying glass also reveals things we can’t or don’t normally see. It helps us to see the world around us in new and different ways.
I love using the magnification feature on my camera. The higher the magnification, the more it reveals the intricacy and details of the most seemingly ordinary things around us. Magnification reveals the delicate veins of a flower petal, the soft furriness of a bumble bee, and the perfectly spherical drops of rain hanging from the tips of each pine needle.
A magnifying glass has another property as well. It can focus light into an intense concentrated beam that can set things on fire. Did you ever try to do that as a kid? Did you ever take some dry leaves and grass and hold a magnifying glass just right and concentrate that beam of light in one spot, and watch with growing excitement as it began to smoke…
…and can you remember the wild exhilaration of seeing that first tiny red glow…and then the excitement of that first tiny flame bursting into life!!!!
That is one way to think of our Advent adventure…taking a beam of a light that shone over a manger 2,000 years ago, and concentrating it, magnifying it with our souls, with growing excitement, until it bursts once again into the world and ignites our hearts, making us leap with joy!
Paul exhorts us to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, do not quench the Spirit, hold fast to what is good.” Really? Rejoice always? Give thanks in all circumstances? Even in the midst of sorrow, loss, fear, despair, frustration, anger, and even death?
How are we supposed to do that?
Mary teaches us how. In the face of possibly being ostracized, outcast, and even killed, she focuses her heart on God and sings a song of praise. She magnifies the Lord with her soul and with her life. She surrenders her life to God, and in surrendering, she finds peace. Peace that passes all human understanding.
And isn’t that what her son, Jesus, does as well?
It was this time of year four years ago that we were dealing with Bob’s Dad dying from brain cancer. He wanted to stay home and Bob and his seven siblings and all the spouses, did our best to set-up rotations to allow him to die in his own home, which he did that January.
We were not the least bit prepared for Bob’s Mom to be diagnosed with Esophogeal cancer not even three months after his Dad died. Taking care of both of them was challenging as many of you know from your own experiences taking care of sick and dying loved ones.
We set up a group email for the whole family, and we all started emailing each other every day and every single email ended with variations of “I am so thankful to have all of you.” “I realize how much I appreciate all of you.” “I thank God for all my family.” “I couldn’t get through this without all of you.” “I am praying for Mom and Dad and for all of you.”
We didn’t know it, but in the midst of our sorrow, and our grief, and our struggles, we were singing songs of praise to God. Our souls were magnifying the Lord, bringing God more clearly into focus, and shining God’s light like a laser beam on what was most important in our lives…and that was each other.
Our focus became those family connections that were our lifeline. Having each other and depending on God became the light that led us through those dark days.
What are you magnifying in your life?
The positive aspects or the negative? What we focus on is what becomes magnified in our lives. When our negative emotions become our lens for looking at life, our problems can be magnified until they become larger than life, and they become overwhelming.
Magnifying the Lord with our soul, gives us a positive lens for viewing our lives and the events in our lives – it brings God into focus and let’s God become our focus. Looking at the world with God as our magnifying glass, enlarges what is good in our lives. It clarifies what is most important. Then we can turn around and become God’s magnifying glass, concentrating God’s light through our hearts and out into the world.
Mary tells us to magnify the Lord, to focus on God and God’s love for us and for this world. Having faith in God’s action in our lives allows hope to grow. Having faith in God’s action in the world allows us to become God’s peace. Hope and peace create space for Joy in our lives, even in the midst of suffering.
Advent is our season for making room. Making room for hope. Making room for peace. Making room for joy, and making room in our hearts for Jesus to be born again into our lives.
Maybe that’s one reason why God sends the hope and salvation for the world to be born as a babe in a manger…what better way to fill us with the Holy Spirit and make our hearts within us leap for joy, than the gurgling coo, of a newborn!
Let us prepare the way for Jesus arrival, let us prepare!
While Mary sings….
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Like their ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and Elizabeth are blessed with a son in their old age. Zechariah is a priest, serving in the Temple when an angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife, Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.”
Zechariah can’t believe it and he says to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replies, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God…because you did not believe my words…you will become mute…until these things occur.”
After months of being unable to utter a word, when John is born, Zechariah sings! In her book, “Through the Advent Door”, Jan Richardson says, “Zechariah sings! Full of wild hope, he sings! Knowing the state of the world, he sings.”
Zechariah’s son is born and he sings a song of praise to God…he sings a song of hope for the future – the future day when the light of God’s dawn shall break upon us…and in breaking upon us…the dawning light will finally, fully, break us open to God, Alpha and Omega…beginning and ending and beginning again.
Advent is our time between ending and beginning…Advent is where we stand in a place of already been and not yet come…God’s light has come AND, God’s light is coming.
His son John is born, and “Zechariah sings! Full of wild hope, he sings! Knowing the state of the world, he sings.”
One of the things we love about Advent is that it’s our time to sing our favorite seasonal songs. Just as there are special foods we only make for the holidays, there is special music woven deep inside us that heralds Jesus coming again into the world.
There are songs that fill us with the promise of new beginnings, joy for the world, peace on earth, and hope for humanity. We sing and we remember God’s ancient and eternal promise of salvation and redemption.
God wraps his promise of salvation in the most beloved of gifts, A baby. All the hope for the world, wrapped in the Word made flesh. We gather at our Communion table, this community table and remember God’s gift of Jesus in a manger, given to us again and again every Christmas. Jesus, the gift that God never tires of giving us. We gather at Christ’s table, and our hearts join in singing, “For unto us a child is born, unto us, a child is given…”
What more blessed song is there than a baby’s borning cry that rewards a mother’s labor…and erases her cries of pain. There is such promise in a new born, all things are possible. We look at a baby and we are inspired to dream dreams of a bright and happy future.
We wish better for them than what we had, no matter how successful we have been or, all the more, if we have struggled and suffered, we wish a better world for our children…for ALL children. A baby reminds us that life continues. Babies bring joy in the present, and hope for the future.
Zechariah sings for his son a song of hope for a better world. “You will go before the Lord to prepare his way: to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of sins; the dawn from on high will break upon us…to give light to those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.”
We are always living in the shadow of death. Our own mortality is always a present reality. The creations of humankind are fleeting, an inhalation and exhalation of breath, a mere blink in the eye of eternal eons. And the increasing acts of human violence and the severity of recent natural events are casting fear and darkness all over the world.
The days grow shorter, the nights get longer, and we sit in Advent darkness feeling the cold, shadow of death stealing over us…feeling despair and hopelessness, discouragement, and dismay nipping at our hearts…and in this creeping darkness…
John’s task is to “go before the Lord to prepare his way,” to “guide our feet into the way of peace,” and to give light to those sitting in darkness. It is the light of Hope that starts us on our Advent journey. Hope lets us take that hardest, first fearful step into the darkness of the unknown future always just up ahead.
I had never realized until my son told me in grade school, that there were originally two ships that set sail for the New World. They were called the Speedwell and the Mayflower. The Speedwell leaked so badly that after only a few days, both ships had to return to England. Everyone had to get on the Mayflower. The Mayflower, now carrying twice as many passengers and far less supplies, set out for the New World alone.
During a storm, the main beam cracked and had to be repaired using a large iron screw.
They began to run out of food and fresh water.
Nine weeks into their voyage, crowded, cramped, sick, hungry, and afraid, so very afraid, some of the pilgrims wanted to give up and turn back. They all gathered together on the deck of the ship and they prayed.
And in spite of their fear, without knowing where they were going…or when they would get there…or even IF they would get there, they put their faith in God.
They chose to stay on the path where Hope was leading them. They chose the path that gave them Hope for a better world for themselves and for their children.
Isn’t that what we all want? A better world, especially for our children?
Our first step in darkening days, is to step forward in Hope even when we can’t see God’s road ahead. To step forward and to watch, eyes and hearts straining to glimpse the dawn…straining to see first light, God’s light dawning – dawning anew on Christmas Day. Straining, with all our heart and mind and soul, to stay on the path where Hope, not fear, where Hope will lead us.
It is Advent.
Our season when we gather ’round this table and we listen for the old, familiar songs. This table sings to us of God’s promises fulfilled, and God’s promises yet to come. This table sings to us of what was, what is, and what will be!
This table sings to us of God’s glory and God’s grace. This table fills us with songs of peace on earth, good will toward all people; fills us with Glad Tidings of Comfort and Joy; and sends us out to go and sing from the mountaintops, our ancient Christmas songs of hope and peace and God’s love for all people who on earth do dwell.
His son is born….and Zechariah sings.
Full of wild hope, he sings. Knowing the state of the world, he sings.
Can we sing this Advent season?
With the sounds of bombs and gunshots echoing in our hearts?
Can we stand up and sing?
Can we sing Songs of praise…songs of thanksgiving…songs of joy?
Even knowing the state of the world we live in….
Can we sing songs of wild Hope? and Peace?
The child being born again in the manger says, we must sing.
WE MUST SING!
-We must sing of God’s promised new day…
-We must sing of God’s kingdom here on earth….
-We must sing glad tidings of great joy….
When Moses leads the people of Israel out of captivity, they go out boldly, rejoicing in their liberation, confident in God and Moses. But then Pharaoh and his officials change their minds. I imagine it suddenly dawned on them that there were a lot of major building projects, and road construction, and gardening, and farming, and fruit picking, and laundry, and cooking, and cleaning, and childcare…
Basically, a lot of hard labor wasn’t going to get done without the convenience of an enslaved people under their control. So Pharaoh decides to re-nig on his deal, and he and his soldiers take off in hot pursuit.
When the people of Israel see the soldiers coming, their boldness dissolves like sugar in water, and they cry out to the Lord in fear. They turn on Moses and bitterly criticize him for leading them, not to freedom, but to death…their shouts of rejoicing turn to shouts of accusation and recrimination.
Moses says to them, “Be not afraid, stand firm. See the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.”
“Be not afraid.”
We hear that a lot in the Bible. When angels appear, the first thing they say is, “Be not afraid.” Jesus is always telling the disciples and those who gather to see and hear him “fear not.” In the face of seeming, certain death, Moses says to God’s people, “Be not afraid.” It’s much easier said than done. Maybe that’s why we hear it so often in Scripture.
There are just so many things for us to be afraid of…afraid of losing your job…afraid of not finding a job. Afraid of not being able to pay your bills or put food on the table…afraid of losing your home…
…afraid of not getting into college… afraid of not getting into a GOOD college …afraid of not being able to pay for college…..
We are afraid of our physical failings…afraid of falling…breaking something…afraid of cancer…or the return of cancer…afraid of heart disease and diabetes…afraid of hospitals…
Our media feeds and inspires fear because it helps get good ratings. We are flooded with stories about threats from terrorists, ISIS, stagnant and divisive government, scary immigrants, and immigrant children who are coming to take over our schools and bring crime and disease into our midst…
And now this past week, we are once again afraid of random shootings, lone-wolf gunman, concealed carry laws, living with guns, and living without guns…
And then there is the weather to fear…rising temperatures, fearsome storms, increasing climate issues. There are even the mundane close-to-home scares…local sightings of wild cats, coyotes, bears, infected ticks, rabid mosquitos…and on…and on….and on…and on. There is so much fear in our country, that the use of anti-anxiety meds continues to increase among adults, teenagers, and even children as young as three and four.
I am not in any way criticizing the use of medications when they are needed and can provide relief. I am lamenting, that as a society, we have allowed ourselves to become so scared and anxious, that we are making ourselves and our children sick with fear.
Fear in and of itself is not a bad thing. Fear is helpful when we are in dangerous and risky situations. A healthy dose of fear when mountain climbing; or walking on unfamiliar, dark city streets; or being on a subway platform late at night; or getting lost in an unfamiliar place, keeps us alert and prepared.
Healthy fear, provides adrenaline that sharpens our responses, clears our minds, and wakes up our senses. Fear is not healthy when it begins to consume our lives and influence our ability to set goals, or accomplish tasks, or to find joy in our lives. Fear is not healthy when we become trapped and paralyzed, unable to move or grow. When fear becomes toxic … it is a tidal wave that washes over us and threatens to carry us away and drown our spirit.
Moses says to God’s people, “Be not afraid. Stand firm. See the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” Being fearful is a part of being human. And it is difficult to just stop being afraid. So what are we to do when we become entangled in our fears? What are we to do to go boldly into the world?
I would revise Moses command and say, “Be courageous, be firm in your faith in God, and face what you fear.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, a mystic and world advocate for peace, says,“Fear keeps us focused either on the past, or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.”
He teaches us that one way to overcome fear is to “Be,” to be here and now, and to live mindfully, in the moment…or to break down what we fear into something that is manageable.
I hate shots. Who doesn’t? The way I have learned to manage shots is to ask the nurse to tell me “Now” and “Done”. That lets me be worry free until I hear “Now”, and I can always hold on through “Done.” That small space between “Now” and “Done,” is completely manageable for me. That is a small example of living in the moment.
Let’s practice!! I invite you to close your eyes for a moment, and simply “Be” present in this moment. Take a deep breath in and slowly breath out. Relax your neck and shoulders. Sink into your seat. What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you sense around you? What do you feel?
Embrace this moment, this moment, where you have shelter, warmth, the company and support of people who care about you and that you care about….Delicious smells that promise coffee and a lovely meal later…the sounds of birds chirping…the whisper of soft rain. Here, in this place, and in this moment…be not afraid. Rest in God. That is the peace beyond understanding that Jesus prays for us.
As a spiritual practice, I invite you to look for, and to create, these “not afraid” moments in your life, moments of safety and comfort, moments of love and joy, moments of peace and hope, in the presence of God. Notice them. Savor them. Hold on to them. Collect them in your heart like precious jewels. These moments are the divine antidote that will inoculate you against the power of fear.
Moses says, “Do not be afraid, stand firm. God will fight for you.” God is with you…face your fear, even though what you are facing seems impassable or impossible, step forward with faith and God will open a way…God will get you through.
Facing our fears means taking that first step onto dry land where water was only a moment ago. It means stepping out in faith, standing firm, acknowledging and carrying fear, but not letting fear carry you away.
One of my favorite books is a Sci-fi classic called Dune. The main character’s mantra that gets him through is this, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Let your fear wash over you and through you and then imagine it draining out of you, emptying like the Red Sea, until you find yourself standing on dry land, standing firmly on God, the rock of ages, the foundation of creation. Letting fear pass over and through us and letting it drain out of us, allows us to remain intact, strong, and firm within ourselves and within our faith.
Moses says, “Do not be afraid, stand firm. See the Deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.”
When you are afraid, Step out boldly, with faith in God. See the Deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you….today. This day…this blessed, gift from God, day. Not tomorrow. Not some day in the distant future.
Do not be afraid. Stand firm, and see what the Lord will accomplish for you!