Nine Months

 Inspired by Luke 2:1-20

At Easter time, a common saying you will hear is, “A lot can happen in three days.” I’ve always liked that. And I’m thinking at Christmas time we should have a similar phrase, “A lot can happen in nine months.” How does that sound? Nine months before the event that we celebrate tonight, and angel visited Mary to give her some very unexpected news, that she was going to have a baby, even though she wasn’t even married. [Gasp!] Scandalous! Oh, and one other detail, this baby is also going to be the savior of the world. No pressure, right! On the contrary, pressure was probably just one of the plethora of emotions that she was experiencing, and not all of them good emotions! As joyous of an occasion as it was for the rest of humanity, this wasn’t exactly the kind of surprise that she probably would have hoped for at that time in her life. Mary was young, she was engaged but still unmarried, and you can only hide a pregnancy for so long. What was this angel expecting them to do, have a shotgun wedding? This wasn’t exactly good news! This news was going to bring stress, financial burden, societal pressure, let alone shame. This news was going to ruin any plans that they previously had. Not to mention, how in the world do you raise the savior of the world?! Well, a lot can happen in nine months.

Nine months is also quite significant for us as well in our own time, isn’t it. Nine months ago, we got news of a deadly pandemic that had reached our shores. Not the news we were expecting. This pandemic has changed the entire landscape of our lives. Any plans that we had went right out the window. Worshipping together on Easter? Gone. Graduation ceremonies with family and friends. Gone. Vacation travel? Gone. And now, worshipping together in person for a Christmas Eve candlelight service. Gone. And even when these things do come back, it looks like it will be a long time before things go back to the way they were before, if ever. Like Mary’s world, everything has changed this past nine months, and not all of it for the better.

Years from now, when we tell the next generation of our experiences living through a pandemic, we can choose to only tell of what we lost, we can choose to only tell of the struggles, the heartache, how much we hated Zoom, all the things we didn’t get to do. But that’s a choice, and it’s a choice we’ll all get to make, but it’s not the only choice. We can also choose to tell the same pandemic stories, only instead of focusing on what we have lost these past nine months, we can focus on what we have gained. Not that we should ignore what we have lost, but what good will it do to focus our stories there? And more importantly, is that the best way for us to prepare future generations to face their own catastrophes?

That’s not what Mary did. Legend has it that Luke got many of his stories by interviewing Mary herself. I like that legend for a few reasons. Not only does it give legitimacy to Luke’s gospel but I love how it gives us a glimpse into how Mary remembered these events, full of blessings, in spite of their challenges. Who knew better just how much can happen in nine months! When I read this well-known Christmas story, I hear Mary challenging us to focus on the positives, on the blessings, not the negatives. I hear Mary calling us to look forward to what God has in store for us, and not backward on what we have lost. I hear Mary’s excitement at what will be, and excitement that is contagious, and rooted in trust—trust in a loving God who is always working for our good and fighting evil at every turn. I hear Mary’s wisdom, born out of challenging times and a faith in her God.

And so, with Mary as our guide, I ask you, what have you gained, what blessings will you be including in your own pandemic stories? I’m sure there will be a lot of pandemic babies born next year. Maybe a pandemic puppy? How about getting to know people that you otherwise wouldn’t have? Or getting to know people in ways you hadn’t before? What about learning new skills that you never thought possible? Technology that you never thought you’d use but learned anyway because you cared enough to? Spending quality time helping children and grandchildren with their school work, the rewards of which will be reaped for years to come? What blessings will you include in your pandemic stories?

I’ll tell you one story that I’ll never forget. A couple months ago I was at a total loss as to what to do for Christmas Eve. I was feeling the pressure to do something special but had no idea what could be done, let alone safely. Thankfully I wasn’t feeling much pressure to go back to in-person worship but still, I really wanted to do something that made this service stand out from the rest of our Sunday services. And there was the added challenge of not having a music director, but then I remembered that all of our youth love music. They all love to sing or play an instrument. So, I thought, I wonder if they’d like to do something. Nah! They’re all gonna tell me no because they’d be too embarrassed or they’re too busy with school, both totally legitimate reasons. So I just dismissed that crazy idea at first, but it wouldn’t go away. So, I went out on a limb and individually asked them if they’d be interested in singing or playing something for us, as I continued to try and hatch a plan b. Oh me of little faith, because lo and behold, each and every one of them gave me an immediate yes! They didn’t even need some time to think about it! I was floored! And so very thankful. And that, my friends, is the story of how our youth saved a pandemic Christmas.

Nine months after the news of pandemic broke and now we have a vaccine that is in the beginning stages of distribution. It’s going to take a while before we all can get it but it’s yet another example of how a lot can happen in nine months. I wonder what blessings are in store for us this coming year? What blessings will we be thankful for nine months from now? Will we be surprised? Shocked! What challenges will those blessings have to contend with? The future is always unknown. But I can tell you this, God will be with you, full of blessings, in spite of the challenges that are in store for us. And I say, we preemptively begin to focus on that! For we not only have so much to be thankful for now, but we will in the future too. How do I know this? Because of people like Mary, and our youth, who remind us to not only expect the unexpected, but that we never know what blessings will emerge from life’s challenges. Thanks be to God, and Merry Christmas, my friends. Amen.


Mary's Protest Song

 Inspired by Luke 1:26-56

In 1939, Billie Holiday began performing the song Strange Fruit in a New York City nightclub called CafĂ© Society where she was a regular performer. Written initially as a poem a few years earlier by Jewish-American Abel Meeropol, it is known by many as the song that launched what would later be known as the Civil Rights Movement of the U.S. American South. It was inspired by a photo taken at a lynching of two black men in Marion, Indiana, the photo of which I have chosen not to share here but will include a link when I post this for any who choose to view it. If you have the stomach for it I’d encourage you to, as it is certainly a part of our history that we should be ever vigilant of repeating. Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol, like many in their day, were sickened by the news of how black people in America were being mistreated and so used their influence, talent, and heart to raise awareness and speak out against it. The author used the metaphor of a fruit-bearing tree with powerful effect. I’d like to share the original recording of it with you now.

When Billie Holiday began performing the song she was afraid of retaliation and didn't know how violent it would be. But the song reminded her of her father so she continued to perform it. She would close each of her performances with this song, with the lights turned down except for a spotlight on her face, without an encore. Her record label feared the reaction in the South, and her producer refused to record it for her. She had to get an exception from her recording contract in order to find someone to record and publish it. The song went on to sell over a million copies and became her biggest selling record of her career. However, it is the powerful legacy that this song left on our nation that has lived on, as well as inspired countless activists, and even more importantly, change.

Protest songs have been a part of human cultures since biblical times, probably even earlier but I'm not a historian. The Bible has quite a few notable ones from well-known characters such as Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mom, Miriam, Moses’ sister, Hannah, Samuel’s mom, which we read two months ago, and the one that I read to you today from Mary, the mother of our Lord, known throughout the ages as the Magnificat. The last time I preached on the Magnificat I referred to Mary as a badass, to mixed reviews. As much as some did not like that language used in a sermon, it has become one of my more well-known sermons, and so, mission accomplished. I've even had people ask for the link to that sermon so that they could share it with a friend who needs to hear a different kind of sermon from a different kind of pastor. But don't think for a moment that I use language like that just to get a reaction or to be memorable. In Mary's case, it is done with the utmost honor and respect for her legacy.

She sang this song after a lifetime of living in a broken world, filled with injustices, and she used her influence, talent, and heart to bring awareness to that world, and more importantly, change. She took a look at the world around her, the evils that she had first-hand experience with, and shone a light on them to be seen and heard by all, that has endured for 2000 years. If she wasn't the baddest mother that ever lived I don't know who is! She had just been given the most incredible news the world had ever heard, that the savior of the world would be born through her womb, was asked to make this lifetime commitment to a project in the making since the creation of the world, and her response, is a protest song! I'm at a loss for words, other than, wow! Not to get ahead of ourselves or anything but her son grew up to be the world's most well-known protester and if anyone wonders why, all they have to do is take a look at his momma.

As I sit here and ponder this story, one word comes to mind—commitment. There are a hundred reasons that Mary is worthy of the pedestal that we put her on, and this is the one that is standing out to me now, her commitment. When the angel Gabriel finished sharing his good news to Mary, she could have said no. That was an option on the table for her. And before anyone thinks that God wouldn’t have asked someone that would have said no, you’re missing the point. Saying no to God is always an option for everyone, even Mary. Just ask old Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, about saying no to God and how that worked out for him. There’s a reason why he’s silent in this story! [Did you see what I did there?] Likewise, Mary could have said no, but she didn’t. She said yes!

Not just yes to Gabriel but yes to carrying this savior to full-term, yes to raising this savior through his terrible two’s, through the teenage years, yikes!, yes to caring for this savior for her whole life, yes to all the joys and heartache that was yet to come. It was a yes heard ‘round the world, that still echoes to this day! Who can read this story and not just sit there in awe of this momma to be? Especially us, who sit here on this side of the cross. But, again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves! Can you tell how excited I am to finally be reading from the Gospels again?

As I close out this time with you today, I’d like to invite you to ponder with me, all the people in your life, whose “yes” has had a positive effect on you, whose commitment has changed your life for the better, and most importantly, whose “yes” has allowed God’s “yes” to reach you all the more powerfully. Because at the end of the day, there is no pedestal high enough that we could place Mary upon, that could match the unconditional love, the tireless commitment, the ultimate “yes”, that we have received from God, through Jesus our savior. Mary would be the first one to tell you, that this is where her protest song was pointing from the beginning—to her soon to be baby boy, the savior of the world, Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Weeping Through Hope

 Inspired by Isaiah 61

Like many of you, I have been waiting to sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel all year! It is one of my all-time favorite hymns! I had a lot of fun searching for the best one online to share with you, and when I found the one I couldn’t help but sit here and just listen to it. I attempted to sing along but as you have witnessed more times than I’d care to admit, I began to cry. I just couldn’t help it. I miss singing with you all, and hearing our voices become one, rising to the heavens. Though I couldn’t sing it, I read through it, and pondered why this song has meant so much to me through the years. One reason of course is that we used to use this song for our family Advent devotions when our kids were young. We’d read a Bible passage, say a prayer, and sing a verse of this song, adding a verse each week. But as I read through it, I noticed something else that makes this song so moving for me, and that is its honesty. What I mean by that is, though it is a very hopeful song, it does not shy away from painful experiences, nor does it silence our lamentations, but rather welcomes them: using images of exile, captivity, tyranny, misery, shadow, brokenness, even Satan and hell get honorable mentions.

Why does this move me so? Because it speaks of this deeper truth that weeping and hope do not exist exclusively from each other, but they often go together with us, hand in hand, as partners. I love that because we need to make room for both hope and lament in our lives, and find balance in them as best we can. We should not live as if only hope exists and that remembering past pains is somehow contrary to that hope. Nor can we only live in our weeping, ignoring the hope given to us for our futures. Neither is healthy. And so, that hymn comes to us at the perfect time each year, now more than ever. You’ll notice that all our hymn selections today carry within them this dual nature that Advent provides us, weeping and hope. I don’t have to tell you how tough this season can be for many, especially as we remember those who have died that we don’t get to spend the holidays with. Not to mention the rampant mental health challenges that come with this time of the year for so many.

So we come to this final passage from the Hebrew scriptures with this same theme of weeping and hope. Yes, I said final, we are finally at the end of our selections from the Hebrew Bible for the year and will begin our Gospel readings next week, which will all come from Luke and will remain there until Easter. I love these old Hebrew stories, don’t get me wrong, but I’m really looking forward to reading through Luke with you, and I’m sure you are too. This final Hebrew passage comes from the end of the book of Isaiah, what has traditionally been known as Third Isaiah. Scholars have identified three separate works in Isaiah, occurring before, during, and after their exile, written by at least three different authors. I share this with you because Third Isaiah came to them after the exile when they were not only trying to put the pieces of their national and religious lives together, but also trying to make sense of the exile. And that’s where Third Isaiah comes in.

Like many of the passages we have been reading lately, it completely upends what they thought they knew about God and how God operates. For example, though not in our reading for today, Third Isaiah opens with the declaration that foreigners and eunuchs are to be included among God’s people if they want to be. This is not only a radical word of inclusiveness, but a radical departure from previous teachings, and dare I say, contradictory! What? The Bible contradicts itself! Never! Is my sarcasm coming through? Good. These are two groups of people, foreigners and eunuchs, that had previously, and explicitly, been excluded from among God’s people. And yet, here is the author of Third Isaiah saying just the opposite. Opening the door for more and more people the closer we get to the end of the Hebrew scriptures. Have you noticed that progression? It’s almost like this is all working towards someone just flinging that door wide open, isn’t it! Hmmmmm, wonder who that could be? But back to our reading for today.

Third Isaiah is known for its hopeful nature, and not only it’s hope but it’s future orientation. At that time, God’s people didn’t just need hope but needed that hope to direct them toward the future. Imagine a prisoner being set free after spending most of their life there. That was God’s people coming out of the exile. Have you ever seen the movie The Shawshank Redemption? If you haven’t, I highly recommend it! It’s a story that centers around prison inmates. Over the course of the movie, you get to see several of them released. There’s an old inmate that had spent most of his life in prison, and when he gets released as an old man, he returns to society, to a world he doesn’t really know. He has no family, no connections, no structure, no purpose, no hope for a future, and he, unfortunately, takes his own life. This is what Third Isaiah sets out to protect God’s people from—from the grips of despair, with a word of hope for their future.

The images in this passage are indeed hopeful. The author writes of: good news, liberation, vindication, comfort, joy, rebuilding, restoration, renewal, blessings, and growth! It’s hard to come away from this passage and not have your hope shored up and ready to take on another day! However, I also find the same thing that I noticed in our hymns for today. In the midst of the hope and encouraging words, there is also an acknowledgment of the pain and brokenness that they had just experienced and were still experiencing, for the author also writes of: the poor, the brokenhearted, captives, prisoners, the mourners, and the discouraged. It seems that weeping and hope have been partners for quite some time. Have you ever been made to feel like your mourning has lasted too long? Have you ever been told, in so many words, that you should be over it by now? It can come off as a bit judgy, can’t it, especially if it comes from religious people. As if your tears are somehow disrespectful to the hope that God has provided you.

I think this just comes from people who don’t have a good grasp on how hope works. It’s not a magic wand that turns off your tears like a valve. And again, our tears and our hope do not work exclusively from each other. In fact, dare I say, that they actually make each other all the more powerful, all the more effective? I believe so, and I find this truth of our faith to be so needed right now, in the midst of this pandemic, an exile of its own. Last night, my wife Sara told me that the company that she works for would be among the first getting the COVID-19 vaccine for her and her fellow employees as health care workers—and once again, I cried. And they weren’t just happy tears but pent up tears of frustration, fear, anger, and lament of so much we have all lost this year.

This passage from Isaiah is certainly coming at the right time for us, as it encourages us to remember our pain while we hope, it gives us permission to weep while we hope, it gives us a place to put our tears while looking forward to a renewed future. May we have the insight and heart to provide this for those around us, a place for weeping and a place to hope, and the wisdom to know that those aren’t two different places. Thanks be to God. Amen.


The Prophetic Baton

 Inspired by Joel 2:12-13, 28-29

One of my family’s favorite Christmas movies is A Christmas Story. And one of my favorite scenes is when Ralphie is getting punished for saying a bad word and lies about where he heard it from and says it was one of his friends from school, Schwartz, when it was really his dad. His mom then phones the mom of that boy to tell her about her foul-mouthed son. Do you remember that scene? Here’s what happens next…

Poor Schwartz. He never even saw it coming. He is a great representation for God’s people in the book of Joel, which is where our reading for today came from. Joel is a short little book, only three chapters long. It should only take you about ten minutes if you want to sit and read the whole thing. One thing unique about it among the writings of the prophets, is that it never explains why God’s people have endured such hardships. The book opens with God’s people being rained down upon with a swarm of locusts, a very biblical image of God’s punishment used numerous times beginning with the Exodus, but there’s no explanation as to why this punishment had come. Just like Schwartz from that beloved Christmas movie, without a word from anyone, a hailstorm of trouble comes raining down upon them. The difference here though is that unlike Ralphie’s friend who cried “What did I do, Mom!”, God’s people knew exactly what they did. Even though Joel may have not spelled it out, they had numerous prophets before Joel who had spelled out their misbehavior for them.

Maybe Joel thought that there was no need to rehash all that judgement upon them, that they had heard enough of it from his fellow prophets over the ages. But I like to think that Joel had other things he wanted to share with them in his short little three-chapter book, more important things, more powerful things to share with them. Let me first tell you where we are going to land and then we’ll follow the path that Joel takes us on to get there. The book of Joel, though short, packs a powerful punch, and as a whole, it’s a book that passes the baton. The book of Joel is possibly one of the last books to have been written and included in the Bible, depending on who you read, that coupled with the way the way the book ends seems to lend itself well to a prophet who is setting his people up for life on their own, without the guidance of prophets. So, that’s where we’ll land but lets first take a look at how Joel gets there by taking a look at these two short passages we have before us today.

Joel starts out our passage with the striking image and call to tear our hearts. It’s a visceral image, crude even, and that was the point. God says, “return to me with all your hearts, with fasting, with weeping, and with sorrow; tear your hearts and not your clothing.” This reference to tearing ones clothing was an ancient practice. It was an outward sign of repentance and mourning. Tearing your clothing was a signal to others and to God that you were sorry for what you had done and were taking the steps to get yourself back on the right path. It also had a sacrificial element to it because clothes weren’t cheap then either. However, even though God was calling them to fast and weep over their sins, both outward signs of change, that really wasn’t what God was after. We get the sense that God was kind of over those outward signs. God had had enough of animal sacrifices and tears and tearing of one’s clothes. What God wanted to see was a change of heart, or as God put it, a tearing of one’s heart.

Now, this tearing could be seen in different ways. Is God calling us to wound ourselves? Maybe, but I hope not. Is God calling us to sacrifice a piece of our hearts? Well, I think that’s getting closer. Is God calling us to remove something from out hearts? I think that’s a real possibility! We hold lots of things in our hearts, good and bad. When we say that something is close to our hearts, we are saying that it is valuable, that it is important to us. But I think we also let a lot of other things slip in, sometimes by accident and sometimes not so much. For instance, there was a time in my life when I thought there were certain sins that someone could commit that would automatically send them to hell. I held that belief close to my heart and thought that I was justified in doing so. At some point, I realized that though I held that belief so dear, it had no place in my heart, and eventually needed to be torn out. And those of you have done the same over the years, you know, it can be quite painful.

Joel then moves on to quoting the Book of Exodus with a verse that you might recognize from the season of Lent, we sing this as the Gospel Acclamation because it doesn’t have any Alleluia’s in it, “Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to forgive.” I love that this part is smack dab in the middle of our reading because it reminds us that this tearing of our hearts business is not a salvation issue. We love to make everything about salvation, especially when reading the Bible, when the reality is that very little of the Bible actually is. Two weeks ago, we read from Jeremiah, and according to Jeremiah, God was done playing the game of conditional love. Apparently, God is fed up with lots of the games that God’s people had been playing! No longer would God’s promise of love and presence in their lives be conditional on their good behavior. Period. This was known as the New Covenant.

We then move on to the part that really highlights the passing of the baton nature of this book. God says, “I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days, I will also pour out my spirit on the male and female slaves.” At our Wednesday evening Bible discussion a few weeks ago, when we first started down this path of the prophets, we had a good discussion on what a prophet was. The group made a clear distinction between a prophet and the average follower of God, the group really held prophets above us, put them on a pedestal, if you will. I think most of do that with just about any Bible character, let alone the prophets, so I didn’t challenge them on that…yet.

But then we come to this passage from Joel, especially these final verses, and Joel challenges all of us about what and who a prophet is! God says that God will pour God’s spirit on everyone! Ok, that sounds kinda like our Day of Pentecost, nothing out of the ordinary there. But then he describes what that spirit will make us do and who it will affect. It will cause God’s people to prophecy, to dream dreams, to see visions. Who does it sound like God is describing? Prophets! And who, again, will God be pouring out this prophet-making spirit upon? Everyone! And just in case we’re not clear on who “everyone” includes, God says, sons, daughters, the old, the young, even, get this, male and female slaves! When God says everyone, God means everyone! Even, you and me.

Look, I don’t have to tell you, today, in the midst of a global pandemic, we’re struggling. We need help. We need guidance. We need hope. We need prophets! We need people in our lives to be the mouth of God for us! We need people in our lives to dream dreams for us! We need people in our lives to see visions for us. And Joel comes along to tell us that we already have the power to be those things, to do those things, for each other and for the world. But boy do we resist that label of prophet don’t we! Maybe that’s what needs torn from our hearts, the resistance to call ourselves, to be the prophets that God, through Joel, has called us to be, for each other, and for the world—to grab the baton that Joel is handing us, and run with it, run with it. We tell God, the world needs dreamers, God! God says, then go dream! We tell God, the world needs visionaries, God. God says, then go envision! We tell God, the world needs to hear your word, God! God says, then go speak!

During the time when Joel was written, God’s people were returning from exile and rediscovering who they were. And Joel was there to remind them that, one, they weren’t alone, and two, they were more capable than they realized, for the very spirit of God had been poured into them. In the midst of our own exile, this damned pandemic, Joel once again speaks to God’s people as we rediscover who we are—to remind us that we are not alone, and that we are more capable than we know, for the very spirit of God has been poured into us. And when we emerge from this exile, and we will emerge dear friends, we will not come out the same people, we will have been changed. But I have to believe that because of the very spirit of God that has been generously poured into us, that we will be changed for the better. We will have a strength and perseverance that will rival any swarm of locusts that the world wants to fling at us, standing side by side with God, as prophets of God! Amen.