Longest Night

195

Night Falls

 “Prepare the way of the Lord, make God’s path straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.  The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  (Luke 3:4 – 6)

John the Baptist cried out, “Prepare the way” and as Christmas draws near, we can often find ourselves caught in the race and grind of holiday preparations feeling depleted and exhausted.  Juggling family, work, shopping, planning, cleaning, and decorating creates a frantic sense of intense busy-ness layered with guilt for not being in the “Christmas Spirit.”

I invite you to imagine for a moment Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem.  A very pregnant woman on a donkey, a weary man on foot, urgency in every step of their journey as they frantically raced against a deadline over which they had no control, the imminent birth of their son.  As they journeyed alone through hostile territory, imagine Joseph’s worry and fear…would they get to Bethlehem in time?  Would they find shelter?  Would his son be born on the open road, in the middle of the night, just the two of them?

Imagine Mary’s worry and fear…was she feeling contractions?  Was she counting the time in between each one?  Was she afraid she would she have to give birth, without women helping, alone by the roadside…did she wonder if she would survive giving birth to this Holy child?  The angel hadn’t said anything about what would happen to her after her son was born.

Of course, we know that they made it to Bethlehem.  We know that at the end of their frantic journey they found refuge and sanctuary.  In that manger so lowly, for a time, they found peace.  Mary gave birth to hope for the world.  They discovered the joy of becoming parents.  Together they brought love incarnate into the world.

If you are feeling that out-of-control sense of careening into Christmas, come join us for our Candlelight Christmas Eve service of Lessons and Carols on Thursday, December 24 at 7:00 pm.  Come and find refuge and sanctuary from the pressures that the holidays can bring.  Come and find peace, for a time.  Come and renew your hope for the world.  Come and re-discover the joy in remembering that you are a beloved child of God.  Come, and lay your burdens down and gather at Christ’s table for the pause that truly refreshes!

Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

 

Sermon: The Way of Peace

Zechariah sings

Zechariah Sings!

Luke 1: 57 – 60, 67 – 80

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…Songs that fill us with the promise of new beginnings, a better 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 this table and remember God’s gift of Jesus in a manger, given to us again and again every Christmas…the gift that God never tires of giving us…

We gather at this 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. Rejoicing he sings, “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.

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” and to “guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Hope starts us on our Advent journey.  Hope lets us take that hardest, first fearful step in the darkness.  And Peace is the path we must follow in order to see God’s light.

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.  Dawning to lead us out of the cold darkness and into God’s warm and peace filled light…

The way of Peace can’t be negotiated.  “Truce” isn’t “Peace.”  God’s Peace isn’t treaties negotiated between ambassadors and politicians seeking concessions and gains.  God’s peace doesn’t flourish from embargos and sanctions.  God’s Peace doesn’t come from “tolerating” others.  God’s peace doesn’t come from walling “them” out and walling us in…

God’s Peace comes from love and acceptance.  Lasting Peace comes from seeing how you are the same as your neighbor…not how you are different.  Lasting Peace in our world, can only flow from loving your neighbors, and even your enemies, as you love yourself.

Do you hear in that commandment that peace can only begin when you love and accept yourself, first and foremost?

Peace can only begin when you love yourself as God loves you, Warts, faults, bad habits, and all.  Peace begins when you can forgive yourself for your mistakes, missed opportunities, the blind fumbling, the stumbles, and the falls. That is why when we gather at Christ’s table we celebrate and remember that we are understood, we are known inside and out, for better and for worse.

We gather and remember we are forgiven, and loved…and that prepares the way for us to understand, and to forgive, and to love others…for better and for worse…to love, first and foremost.  We gather at this table and we feast upon God’s love and God’s grace and mercy, and we drink our fill of God’s forgiveness.

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 sing from the mountaintops, our ancient Christmas song 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 Hope? and Peace?

The child being born again in the manger says, we must sing.

We must sing of God’s promised new day…

We, good Christians All, must sing the Good News!

If not us, then who?

Sermon: Birth Pangs

Mark 13: 1 – 8
Rev 1: 4 – 8

In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, Beirut, Bagdad, and now Mali, and Cameroon, homeland security levels are “the highest they have been since 9/11.” One news reporter said, “The terrorists are winning.”

Are they? Really??

Throughout human history, there have always been terrorists. Attila the Hun was a terrorist. Genghis Khan and his hordes were terrorists, the Vikings, and Cortes and the conquistadors were terrorists. For centuries, pirates were the “terror” of the seven seas.

Early settlers terrorized the Native Americans as they pushed beyond their treaties into lands that weren’t theirs….Entire native tribes of men, women, and children were ruthlessly and systematically wiped out. Germ warfare began with giving Native Americans blankets infected with Small Pox.

The Nazis were terrorists. Good, frightened people avoided speaking out because they didn’t want to attract attention…and then, it was too late and Hitler’s power was too strong. The Ku Klux Klan is a homegrown terrorist organization who used random acts of brutality, torture, and murder to create a rule of terror that still lingers and poisons today.

In Jesus day, the Romans were the terrorists. They held brutal rule over their conquests. It’s why the Jewish leadership, the Sadducees, and Pharisees, and..even King Herod, were so worried about Jesus. Even a hint of rebellion would bring the Roman soldiers out into the streets indiscriminantly killing in order to restore the proper level of submission and fear.

So let’s not kid ourselves that “ISL” has invented some new form of warfare called “terrorism.” Terror is an indispensable tool of war that has been used throughout the ages. War and violence create terror.

For this reason, it is distressing to see so many people in our “Christian” nation surrendering to fear and trying to hold all Muslims responsible for the acts of a few rabid terrorists.

It dismays me to hear leaders of our country suggesting that Muslims should be put in Internment camps, that mosques must be closed, and that desperate refugees from Syria can only come to our country if they are Christians.

We mustn’t forget that as Christians we are called to provide hospitality and succor to the poor, the stranger, the immigrant, the sojourner, the orphans and widows, our neighbors, and even our enemy…..even our perceived enemy…

Chris Christie said that not even orphans under the age of five are welcome here because you are never too young to be a threat. Now we are supposed to be afraid of children. Desperate, starving, terrified children.

Really?

This is what happens when we let fear rule our hearts. Fear opens the door to hate. Fear paves the way for discrimination. Fear leads us down the bitter road of divisive scapegoating. Fear IS the mind-killer. Fear IS the little death.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated March 4, 1933, this country was in the darkest depths of the Great Depression. This is the beginning of his inaugural address.

“I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impel. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we still have much to be thankful for.”

FDR made that bold statement 80 years ago. And…Our Nation has endured, it did revive, and it has prospered. And, more important….we still have so much to be thankful for…an one of the things to be thankful for is that those who came before us believed and were not afraid.

In our scripture today, Jesus and the disciples are leaving the Temple and the disciples pause for a moment to gawk at the beautiful edifices towering over their heads. Like excited children, they call out to Jesus, “Look, Look Jesus, what large stones! What immense buildings!” What wonders of human ingenuity and accomplishment! Magnificent! Awe-inspiring!

Jesus tosses his words like cold water on their enthusiasm, “Not one stone will be left here, one upon another. All will be thrown down.” Jesus goes on to say, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed…this must take place, for the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; and there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Jesus is responding to how impressed and awed the disciples are with the creations of human hands. Jesus is warning them not to place their awe and wonder and trust and faith in the things made by human beings because human things perish.

Buildings are built and torn down, just like that magnificent Temple was eventually torn down by the Romans sending the Jewish population into exile. Buildings topple in natural disasters and blow over in storms. Buildings erode and decay. The things and kingdoms created by human beings are constantly eroding, toppling, changing, and morphing….

That is why Jesus points us always towards God’s spiritual kingdom where love, peace, hope, and joy get us through all the wars, earthquakes, fires, natural and human made disasters, Those are the solid eternal building blocks of God’s kingdom that we can rely on in our world, in our lives, and in our hearts.

How do we live with today’s threat of terrorism?

We do as thousands of people before us have done throughout the ages, we believe and be not afraid. We each do our part in building God’s eternal, unending kingdom. We depend on God and trust in Jesus.

Each Advent, we remind ourselves how to do that, by celebrating and giving thanks for God’s greatest gifts to the world. Each Advent we remind ourselves how to defeat terrorism.

We build our lives on God’s foundation of Hope. We defeat violence with peace. We overcome despair with joy. And we combat hate, with God’s greatest gift, Love.

Jesus says, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed.” God’s Advent gifts to us are God’s weapons of mass “construction.”

Weapons of Construction.

God’s gifts are how we build up God’s kingdom in the world, how we conquer terror, and how we participate in becoming the changes we want to see in the world.

Jesus says, “This is but the beginning of the Birth pangs.” Birth pangs are painful. But birth pangs herald something precious is on the way. Birth pangs are a body’s way of saying “get reaady!” Get Set…something’s coming…something miraculous…something brand new!

The book of Revelation begins with this salutation from John, “Grace to you and peace from God, who is and who was and who is to come…And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, He who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.”

Take heart! Be not afraid!
Jesus comes into the midst of the worst that we can imagine.

Be not afraid!
Jesus comes into the middle of all the messes we make.

Be not afraid! Be assured!

Next week Advent begins, to remind us that Jesus is coming. Jesus is always coming. Let us prepare once again to welcome him into the world…into our lives…and into our hearts. Jesus comes again.

Let us prepare the way and make it straight!

Most important…

Believe!

and,

Be not, afraid.