Watson Memorial United Methodist Church
Saturday, May 25, 2019

Sermons

Beginning Saturday, December 8, 2018, we will be posting sermons by our Pastor, Rev. Blair O'Quinn. Each week we expect to see the latest sermon that was given at WMUMC. Those sermons will remain at least two weeks.
 
 
[Wat Mem] Luke 6.17-26

A large crowd has gathered to hear Jesus preach, be healed, and exorcised of demons. By now, Jesus had transcended minor celebrity status and instead was known not just in his local area of Nazareth and Capernaum, but word had reached throughout the province of this man named Jesus. There is no way to be sure whether this is in parallel to John the Baptist or if Jesus was simply seen as the “new” John the Baptist. Luke does not place in his timeline when the death had occurred, only that it most definitely happened before Chapter 9. Whether the crowds gathering included those who followed John the Baptist, or those who followed the imprisoned/executed John the Baptist, we don’t know.

One thing is certain, Jesus is on a plain. This geography is in contrast to Matthew’s version of the sermon that is a bit more famous, the sermon on the mount. It is also different from Jesus preaching from a boat, rather this time Jesus is on the same level as everyone else, and there is no physical impediment preventing people from touching him. And so, the crowds do, reaching out and touching him and by doing so they are healed of whatever affliction.

This healing touch is not unique to this account. Later on in Luke 8, we get a story of a woman who reached out and touched Jesus and her faith healed her. But in this account, it is not just one person, but a large portion of the crowd reaching out to touch Jesus. I am reminded of those rock or movie stars that get swarmed by people when the pull up to a red carpet, but instead of just wanting memories, these people receive the gift of healing.

Jesus then looks at his disciples. Disciple in this case does not just mean the twelve, as earlier in the chapter the twelve are named and Jesus gives them the title of “Apostle.” Rather, disciple in this case means all of those who are now following Jesus. We don’t have a number for this, only that it was more than 12, though there are times when a 70 and a 120 are tossed around. At this point, it might be even higher than that, we just don’t know.

What we do know is the content of what Jesus preached. Christ gives us 4 “blessed are you”s and “woe are you”s, that mirror each other nearly exactly. We get:

Blessed are you who are poor/ woe to you who are rich

Blessed are you who are hungry/ woe to you who are full

Blessed are you who weep/ woe to you who are laughing

Blessed are you who people hate, exclude, and revile you/ woe to you when people speak well of you

These blessings and woes should be seen not as absolutes. “Blessing” does not mean immediate gain, nor does it mean an immediate moment of happiness. Rather, it is a happiness that is eternal, one that goes beyond our current world and into a happiness found beyond ourselves.

Likewise, “woe” does not mean damnation. It is instead a word for pity, as judgment is coming, and the scales of judgment do not appear balanced in their favor as a result of where they presently stand. It is a call to change course, a call to avoid divine judgment and to live into a more holy existence.

The poor/rich comparison is usually what leaps out in my mind when I read this passage. There is something poetic about this pair. There is something reassuring to the poor that things will get better, and something haunting about the rich having received their consolation. The poor are told that theirs is the kingdom of God, the very thing that Christ is proclaiming is imminent, the very thing we are waiting for to come into its full glory. But the rich become rich off the backs of the poor, through exploiting labor and paying them less than they are truly worth. This is a fundamental truth of our economy, and how the world works. Woe to them, and woe to us, indeed.

The hungry/full one is perhaps the most distant from our minds today. We live in a time where food is plenty, and even when we see beggars, we know that there are food banks that can provide staples to anyone who needs it, usually without even going through government procedures. But while most of us would be full and see few immediately around us who are suffering from hunger, we still live in a global society where people still go hungry while we produce so much food we turn much of it into fuel. And many leaders in the world hold their populations ransom for food aide in order to further their own political agendas, and we allow them to continue exploiting this loophole while they never miss a meal. Woe to them, and woe to us, indeed.

The weep/laugh comparison is perhaps the hardest to come to terms with. Afterall, who among us has not laughed or wept at different points in our lives? But this pair is more than just about a momentary cry of pain and sadness or a momentary laugh or joy, rather it is about whether we cry with others when they are in pain. It is about whether we ignore the suffering of those around us to make ourselves feel better about our lives. It is about if we try to put a positive spin on things when doing so would cause more pain.

I’m reminded of those times when people say to someone who is grieving: “your loved one is in a better place now,” or even worse, “God just needed another angel for his choir.” It is easy to look from a place of elevation when people are suffering, grieving, or in pain. As humans, we try to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, as the Utilitarians would say. But this does not help the person who is suffering, and instead all they can see is someone laughing. And I know we can all find ourselves in this elevated position at some point in our lives. Woe to them, and woe to us, indeed.

Finally, we have the positive/negative words spoken of you. This comparison is rather straightforward: consider it a blessing to be derided for your faith and actions in Christ’s name, and woe to those who shirk such things to be more likeable. Simply put, do not hide your allegiance to Christ, but rather proclaim it, even if doing so marks you for mockery. Now this is not to say be obnoxious about it. There are times where to most faithful thing to do is to silently be there with someone else, as is the case with grieving. But do not deny that Christ is your savior, and do not be afraid to say that Jesus told you to do something.

It is certainly easier to go on living as if God has no impact on our lives; to live as though Jesus only matters when we are in this building. But Christ demands that our actions reflect our belief in him, and so being the first to act in the crowd, even at the cost of our social standing in that moment, is what is worthy of great reward in heaven. But too often we hide and blend in, and keep our heads down when Christ has called us to act. Too often we think “someone else can handle that problem,” or “God will take care of things” when we hear God calling us to be his instrument. It is easy to put it all aside to gain standing and favor, rather than give it all up to follow Jesus. Even Peter, knowing that he who loses his life saves it and he who saves his life loses it, still denied Jesus three times so that he would not be hated. Woe to them, and woe to us, indeed.

We have much to be wary about. But we also have our marching orders. To give of our wealth to the poor at our own expense; to feed the hungry even at our own expense; to grieve with others, even at the risk of our fleeting moments of happiness; to not care what the world thinks of us, even if it forfeits our standing and our livelihood. For this is how Christ will bless us, as those who make up Christ’s body that is the church. For we as a church have the ability to go beyond what any one of us could by ourselves.

And so, let us pray:
[Wat Mem] Isaiah 6.1-13

It was a turbulent time in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The King Uzziah dies, and within a year there will be a war between the Northern Kingdom and Syria. Belief in God is at an all time low, with idolatry cropping back up everywhere, and sin abounds throughout the kingdom. The political situation is unstable, the religious situation is even worse, and the needs of the people have increased at the same rate as their sinfulness.

In all of this, Isaiah is called by God! We get a vision, complete with Seraphim, the Lord sitting upon a throne, and an altar before God, smoke filling the house. What a sight that must have been. And here is a man who is witnessing this vision. Is it any wonder why he might have been overwhelmed, or felt unworthy. While Simon Peter only needed to be told by Jesus what the plan was, it seems this ancient servant of God needed a bit more of a push.

The reason for the unclean lips is unclear, as is Simon Peter’s statement of him being a sinner. Perhaps these are people who had prayed to another God, or violated a commandment with their speech, or any number of explanations. We really do not know why Isaiah felt his lips were unclean. Only that it was worth bringing before the Lord, when the Lord appeared before Isaiah.

The cleansing of the unclean lips is also one of both physical and verbal decree. The use of a burning coal against the lips is symbolic, but the symbol would have no meaning if not for the words assigned to it. There are very few people who would voluntarily cleanse their unclean lips with a burning coal. I know I would hesitate for a moment, even if it was a seraphim holding the tongs.

Then the Lord finally speaks: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” To which Isaiah, having been cleansed of his sins says “Here am I! Send me!” And so Isaiah goes on to be one of the best remembered prophets in the old testament. What a wonderful story, I guess its time to sing that final song and go home!

Being called to do something is only the first step. The next step is to know what it is you will do, and then do it. Isaiah agrees to be the one sent by God, but the message he is given certainly is not an easy one. But he doesn’t run away from it, like a certain Jonah.

The message he is given is certainly a harsh one. A message without hope. The judgment of a people, without even a chance for repentance. This is a message that their doom is nigh, and that they really have lost most of their hope.

What is most striking is Isaiah’s response. There is no resistance to such a pronouncement. There is no defense of the people, no pleading for the judge to commute the sentence, no begging for mercy for them, no questioning of the wisdom of such a judgment. Whether this is because Isaiah is already in completely agreement with the judgment of not, we don’t know. The only question Isaiah raises may seem a bit strange in this context.

Isaiah only asks “How long, O Lord?” This is a very typical prayer for both Christians and Jews. Asking God “how long?” usually refers to asking when God will restore Israel or bring about his kingdom, instead Isaiah is asking “how long”” in regards to how long this judgment must be put out into the world. And Isaiah might have also been wondering just how long he would be expected to put out this judgment into the world.

God responds stating that until everything is burned away and only a stump is left, the judgment will be upon the people. Probably not what Isaiah, or any prophet, would ever want to hear. Bringing about such a level of purity into the world is a momentous task, one that very few would feel equipped for: to cleanse a land of unbelief, false idols, greed, and reliance on foreign powers would be a long undertaking. But there is hope, if only the faintest glimmer, as from the stump there is a seed will grow.

This is not the first time God’s anger would be known by the Israelites, nor would it be the last. But Isaiah was called to deliver this message, with only the tiniest glimmer of hope tied to it. How many want to end and sing “Here I am Lord” now?

That’s the thing about being called by God. We don’t get to decide what we are called to do. Sure there are some general guidelines: make disciples of all nations, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, but sometimes we are called to do things that are really… unpleasant. Sometimes we have to be the bearer or bad news to individuals or the nations. Sometimes we are called to put ourselves in grave danger for promoting the word of God, be it a financial risk or even a mortal risk. Sometimes our message can only have the tiniest glimmer of hope, that being that we are still waiting for the kingdom of God to come into full bloom.

Being called by God does not mean that life will be easy. Often, the opposite is the case. Think of Daniel and the lions den, or Elijah being forced to live off food from ravens, or Hosea being told who to marry as a representation of God’s relationship to Israel. Accepting God’s call can put us in contact with strange people, unpleasant situations, and with very little reward in this life.

But Isaiah, after hearing God’s pronouncement, still goes on and carries out his mission. From him, we have prophecies of a messiah, and beautiful prose on God’s relationship with us. Isaiah, despite sometimes issuing harsh judgments, is most remembered by us for these things, and is remembered even to this day. He carried out his mission, dutifully, and lived into his promise of “Here I Am.”

We too, have an opportunity to live into what God calls us to do. We have a chance to be for the world the body of Christ, called by God to bear witness to the spreading of the kingdom of God. Let us, as the body of Christ, bear witness to the holy seed that is the stump God told Isaiah about, all those centuries ago.

Let us pray with the words in our hymnal:
 
 
[Wat Mem] Luke 5.1-11

After being driven out of his hometown by the crowds, Jesus went on to Capernaum, a small city in the northern part of the territory. While there he taught, cast out demons, and healed people. He had he even healed Simon’s mother-in-law, at her house even! But Jesus had yet to call anyone to be a disciple.

Jesus calling his first disciples in Luke’s account is a very different from the other accounts. First, Simon’s brother Andrew is not mentioned at this time, at least not by name. Second, this version of the account has a crowd that necessitates Jesus getting into one of the boats, while the other two synoptic accounts speak of Jesus walking on the shore. Third, this version of the call story has a miracle tied to it.

The use of the boats in this passage is also distinct. While it should not be surprising that fishers would use boats to get their nets out into deeper parts of the waters, what is surprising is that these tired fishermen would decide to stay out on the boat after a long night with no success. Granted, it was at the request of the new celebrity prophet, Jesus, which would certainly be worth a good story to talk about how it was your boat he preached from that one time by the shore of lake Gennesaret.

But then Jesus asks yet another thing of Simon: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon must have been quite tired by this point, after all he had been out all night, and caught nothing. But whether if just to humor this man, get away from the crowd, or true belief, Simon still says “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

The motivation for believing Jesus is irrelevant here. Sure, Simon’s mother-in-law had been healed of her fever in a house call, but that doesn’t mean Simon should expect anything when he throws out his net again, right? Whatever his motivations, he throws out his nets again, and the catch is so large that the nets begin to break.

I want to pause for a moment here. When we picture ancient fishing nets, we think of nets that wouldn’t be as strong as our modern rope nets, but I would not be so quick to write a fishing net off. Certainly, it would not be like many illustrations that make the nets seem large enough that they could just swim through it yet are somehow stupid enough to get caught up in it. And certainly, the nets would be strong enough to handle the force of hauling in a ton of weight, water and all, from outside the boat and up into the boat, otherwise it wouldn’t be a very good net.

We don’t know how many fish were caught, or what kind of fish, or how many would be a normal catch for them, but clearly it was more than they were prepared for. Most likely, the nets are starting to break because of the force of the fish, but the weight was exceeding what would be typical for these nets, let alone how many would usually be carried back on the boats.

Simons crew signals other boats to help with this catch, and it causes the boat to sink. This is not to say that the boats would be unusable immediately, but most likely means that the boats were low enough that waves would sometimes slip in over the edge and into the boat, requiring immediate bailing or the boat will really fall into the sea.

But Simon is aware of the reason for their predicament, and instead turns to Jesus, and prostrates himself saying “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Simon feels unworthy of such a mercy. First Jesus had saved his mother-in-law, now he has made a large enough catch that would probably cover their expenses for days, if not possibly weeks. And yet here Simon is being singled out, by God, for reasons he cannot understand.

Knowing what happens with Simon Peter really helps illustrate why he would feel unworthy. It seems that every few chapters in the gospels, Simon Peter does something that gets him chastised by Jesus. Often, within the same chapter, he will be praised and then immediately do something that gets him called out again. Every time it seems like he really is destined to be this important figure and get ahead of everyone else, his own failings seem to get in the way.

Simon certainly feels unworthy of being singled out by Jesus. Would any of us really feel worthy? Should any of us feel worthy? Afterall, if Simon Peter is considered the greatest of the disciples, with as often as he comes up short, how can we hope to ever live up to the expectations of God? We should all feel a bit unworthy, as what can we say that would make us worthy of being disciples of Jesus Christ? What could we ever do to match the love that Christ has shown us, or match the works of mercy that Christ has shown the world?

There isn’t anything. There is nothing we can say or do that makes us worthy of Christ’s love. And yet, Jesus still calls our names, telling us to follow him wherever he would lead us. Worthiness has no part in why Christ calls us. If it did, perhaps only one in a billion or so would ever be truly “worthy.” But Christ calls us all the same, with the same words he had for Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

It is easy to get caught up in our faults when God calls us to do something. But these faults do not prevent us from doing what God calls us to do. Our prior sins don’t matter, what matters is how we live our lives going forward. It doesn’t matter what the world expects of us, what matters is Christ calls us to be his disciples. Because God calls to each of us, so that we might be agents of his kingdom. All we have to do is answer the call, and live into what Christ demands of us, so that God’s will may be furthered here on earth, just as it is done in heaven. Let us live into that call, without regard for whether we are worthy or not, so that all may experience the power of God’s Love.

Let us Pray:
 
 
 [Wat Mem] Luke 4.21-30

This is where Christ’s ministry truly begins in Luke. While they all have John the Baptist in their beginning, what happens next will vary from account to account. John gives us an in medias res version of the story, Mark talks about Christ’s calling of his disciples, and Matthew starting him in Capernaum, and Luke’s account has Jesus starting in his home town of Nazareth.

Unlike Mark’s account of this event, Luke has this as the first thing Jesus does. There are no disciples present, as none have been called yet. There are no unusually large crowds following Jesus around, as this is just a routine sabbath in the synagogue. He reads a passage from Isaiah and says a few words regarding the passage. Well, that might make it sound like this was a major sermon, which he had done some teaching before, but not here. His response to the Isaiah passage “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This sort of thing surprised those in the town synagogue. “Is this not Joseph’s Son?” they ask. Their disbelief on who Jesus is and who is saying all of this does read a bit strangely when taken with the whole of Luke’s gospel. Before this event, even though this is the start of Christ’s ministry, there is still plenty of other times that Jesus has had impressive moments that would show people he’s not such an ordinary person.

We have the circumstances around Jesus’ birth: divine conception followed by a humble birth, yet visited by a crowd of shepherds, angels, and later wise men from the east. Then when Jesus was 12, in the only story of Christ’s youth, he visits the Jerusalem temple, and stays at the temple after Mary and Joseph had begun to return home, and was found asking questions of the chief priests.

This sort of thing was not unknown to the family of Jesus. Though rare, Jesus had shown that he was not like everyone else, and they knew that he was going to be special. But after a few decades, such memories fade in peoples minds. Even Mary probably thought of the incident in the temple with more embarrassment than with pride, and so probably didn’t brag at the ladies luncheon about what her son had done in the temple.

Christ’s response to the amazement is one that is sure to make anyone angry. Jesus says that “no prophet is acceptable in his own country” and proceeds to give examples. This would not go over well in any gathering, as the people have just been told that while yes, Jesus has been sent to do all of these amazing things, Christ is not doing those things in Nazareth. Its not hard to see how this wouldn’t play well with the assembly gathered in the synagogue.

Christ’s examples are also fascinating. He choses two examples, one from Elijah and one from Elisha. Next to Moses and King David, these two would probably have been the most well known biblical figures in Jesus’ day. Elijah, in the midst of a famine, was sent to a town outside of Israel for food, and found a widow who was also starving. And through her faith, she, her son, and Elijah all had enough food to survive the famine.

The Elisha example also is memorable. A foreign king sends a favored military hero to be healed of leprosy to king of Israel. The king, bothered by this request, as it seems like an impossible task, is deeply disturbed. Elisha sends a message to the king calming him, and having Naaman come to him. Elisha orders him to bathe in the river Jordan seven times, and he is healed.

Neither of these stories benefit Israelites. Instead, God has his prophets interacting with foreigners, and through this God shows love, power, and compassion. But that is the key to both of these examples. None of them benefit the people, but demonstrate God at work in the world, healing the brokenness and letting the world know of the power that faith can bring.

Jesus intended to make this clear to those who heard him. These examples show that God’s plan doesn’t work the way we may necessarily want it to. We would want God to provide food within our country during a famine, or for healing to be done within our own city. But instead, God chooses these times to act, rather than others.

But through the actions of these prophets, God is made known. Were these people who benefited just more faithful than others? Possibly, but also doubtful. Certainly there are others who are faithful within Israel and even in other foreign lands. But in the case of Elijah, Israel was in a state of rebellion against God, and being led outside of Israel for a time would allow Elijah to live into his faith while allowing two others to live as well. And in Elisha’s case, the stability of the geopolitical situation was at stake, and so Naaman’s witness would also be invaluable to all who were uneasy about worshiping God.

Jesus, likewise, would not be confined to Nazareth. He was not going to be some local medicine man and teacher, but the savior to all of humanity. What good would it do for him to stay within Nazareth and die of old age, never venturing out beyond? Maybe the town would get some additional tourists that would want to hear what the man has to say, maybe a few extra healings here and there, and that be it? Is such an existence really befitting a prophet, much less the messiah?

No, God has other plans. God wants to teach the world what it means to love your neighbor, to proclaim the kingdom of God is at hand, and to spread the good news to places beyond Israel. None of which would have been in the minds of those in Nazareth that heard Jesus preach. And so, when hearing Christ’s response, they run him out of town. Thereby following through with exactly what Jesus said would happen.

When we hear Christ speak to us, what is our reaction? To get angry that it isn’t what we want to hear? Or to simply believe and trust in God, as God has provided for so many before us? We have a choice as to which group we want to be in, I pray that we listen and ponder before we react to what we hear.

Let us pray: 
 
 [Wat Mem] Matthew 2.1-12  (Epiphany Sunday)
 
 Today is Epiphany Sunday. Today we celebrate the magi, wise men, kings… astrologers… giving gifts to the Christ child. The Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They journeyed far from the east, and it took them quite a while to reach the Christ child. Their showing up is the icing on the cake of all the majesty and splendor of the Christmas story that we conclude today. There was much excitement going on in Bethlehem all those centuries ago, but it is these magi that start a chain of events that leads to the killing of every male child in Bethlehem under the age of two.

Before these Magi arrive in Bethlehem, they stop in Jerusalem. This of course, at least in a gentile’s mind, is the likely place that a Jewish king would hail from. But Jerusalem was already ruled by a king, King Herod the Great.

Now, this is not the same Herod that kills John the Baptist later in the story; this is a different King Herod. THIS King Herod has earned the title of “The Great” not because of his involvement in the Christ story, but because he was the one who ordered the expansion of the Jewish Temple, and paid for it. The second temple seemed quite small, and the Greeks certainly didn’t care about improving the center of religious life in the region. But Rome, having been in control of the region for only a few decades, was far more willing to let the Jews improve their temple. Furthermore, he lived a long life. He is over 70 at the time of this story.

But what I can’t help but wonder as I come across this story is a question that seems simple at first glance: What was Herod afraid of?

Now the easy answer is that Jesus was to be the Messiah, and this would obviously be competition for King Herod the Great. I’m not sure. After all, King Herod was an old man by the standards of his day. Even if Jesus lived up to the expectations the Jewish people had of a Messiah, he would not be able to take that role until after Herod was gone.

Perhaps Herod feared the legitimacy of his reign. Maybe he was afraid that this child was to be his David, a king anointed while a sitting king was in charge of Israel. But even this seems unlikely. Let’s not forget one simple thing that is clear in the story:

King Herod is afraid of a CHILD. The child who is no more than two-years-old. A toddler that was just beginning to walk. A child that he was not even aware existed a few weeks prior. This CHILD that could do nothing to threaten his rule at that time. And King Herod was afraid.

It can seem… ridiculous… if put into those terms. Especially when we consider that at this time, infant mortality and childhood diseases would kill most of them before they reached adulthood. A child is no threat, and won’t accomplish anything until they are old enough to realize their destiny.

Today we understand Jesus as being the Son of God, and the Word made flesh, fully human, fully divine, and our savior and messiah. We know all of that, but these are things we know now, not because of Jesus’ infancy, but because of what Jesus accomplished and taught in his lifetime. It is easy to get caught up at Christmas and get stuck there in the excitement of it. The drama and pageantry are infectious. Here is a king, worthy of Gold as an infant despite being born in a stable. But it's important to remember that Jesus is someone we care about, not because of that infant that received such a spectacle, but as a man who changed the world.

Jesus doesn’t stay as that infant forever. He grows up, heals the sick, teaches and preaches, and does all of the things that would be worthy of a priest, hence the gift of frankincense. He later dies on the cross and is buried, thus the Myrrh. All of this to say Jesus is more than just the babe lying in the manger.

A baby getting all of this attention is impressive, but that alone is not why we follow Jesus. Would we all be gathered here today, talking about a baby that angels sang to if that is all there was to the story of Christ? Would we be so worked up over a CHILD?

No. We wouldn’t. This is why Christmastide is so short.

After this week, we have Christ’s baptism and the beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ ministry convicts us all, yet ends with him dying for us all. A man who inspires us, heals us, and is the reason we continue to gather week after week for thousands of years.

This is why the Magi knelt before a baby and gave gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Not because they were afraid of the might of a conqueror or king, but because they knew that this infant would do great things. They were not afraid OF the Christ Child but afraid FOR the Christ child. It is this reason that they left for another road after their dream.

Let us be like the Magi. Let’s not just look for an infant lying in the manger, but instead look towards all the signs and wonders that God has shown us through Christ. There is more to the gospel than just the birth, as God did not leave salvation  here, in Bethlehem.  

 
 
 [Wat Mem] Luke 2.1-20 (Christmas Eve)

 

It is that time of year again. Everywhere you go, whether on the car radio, commercials on TV, shopping center loudspeakers, even in our offices, the sound of Christmas music is everywhere. And it is always music and words we’ve heard hundreds of times before, sometimes even this year. This familiarity can be a good thing: we know the words and so the music can be comforting and familiar to us. But sometimes we sing and say words at this time of year that we never use at any other time. 

 

 

For example: the word “manger.” While I know farming is not uncommon to this area, it still isn’t a common word even for this area. A manger is a feeding trough, and so we when talking about one, we would typically just use the word trough. It is adequately non-descript, accomplishes the same purpose with one less syllable, and is far more familiar to people.

 

The term “swaddling clothes” is also rare today. Usually swaddling cloths would be cheap clothes, but they specifically mean cloths used to wrap up a baby to make it immobile. This keeps the baby warm and secure, and also easier to hold without a newborn kicking and wiggling its way out of grasp.

 

“Tidings” is also an archaic word for “news” or “information.” It is why most modern translations of scripture say “I bring good news of great joy” rather than the archaic “good tidings of great joy.” It is just easier to understand to our modern ears, as “tidings” is really only used when quoting this passage of scripture in the King James. Words that sound fancier than they really are, as Afterall, this was what the angels said to shepherds.

 

All this is to say we go through the motions sometimes without thinking about what is actually being said. Sure these archaic words sound good to our modern ears, but it also adds a bit of romance that really shouldn’t be there when we think of the birth of Christ. It is easy to look at the nativity scene, whether made of porcelain, stone, wood, or metal, and envision this romantic notion of perfect people in a pristine open house with shepherds, wisemen, and angels all gathered around. But the reality of the text is not so clean.

 

The young couple Mary and Joseph had traveled quite a ways to get to Bethlehem. Traveling from Nazareth in the North of the roman province to Bethlehem in the South is about a 70 mile journey if taken directly, but with ancient roads we can guess to add an additional 20 miles beyond that. This would easily have been a several day journey, and a late pregnancy Mary certainly would have made that trip take longer. By the time they reach the small city, everyone else who was making the trip would have already beaten them there, and that does not include those who would have had a much shorter distance.

 

For an innkeeper to offer a stable is truly a last resort. Donkeys and horses of travelers would have probably filled the stable, not including any of the local animals that would have been brought in for shelter. The smell would have been quite strong, as while they were probably more comfortable with animals than most people today, Joseph was primarily a carpenter.

 

Using a Feeding trough as a crib is also quite extreme. Sure, we are used to seeing these cute little mangers as part of our nativity sets, but the feeding trough as probably well used by the time it became a crib. That is to say, quite unsanitary.

 

Now ancient understandings of sanitation and cleanliness were very different from ours. Certainly nobody today would want to have their baby in a barn, even if they didn’t want to have a hospital delivery. Ancient people would have had similar apprehension: better to have a birth in a home than anywhere else.

 

Cleanliness of a stable certainly would have been a concern. The smell alone would have turned many normal people away from staying there, and if not for a baby being born and needing a roof over their heads, I could see Mary and Joseph choosing to stay outside under a tree rather than in a stable.

 

It certainly would have been better than nothing given the circumstances, but it would not have been a choice they would willingly make. The rules for ritualistic cleanliness are vast and a complex subject in and of themselves, but even an ancient person would balk at being told to stay in a stable.

 

And the visitors they received were also shepherds. While we are used to seeing them depicted in simple clothing, this also does not do them justice. Shepherding is a dirty job. Sheep will wander and get stuck in almost anything, and need help getting through many obstacles. Bathing would be a low priority, and washing clothes would only be a luxury afforded to them when they went into town. And while I’m sure Bethlehem had more people wandering around at night than usual due to the crowds drawn into the city, a crowd of shepherds showing up at a stable certainly would be an unusual site to behold.

 

This is to say that despite how much gorgeous artwork, nativity sets, and dressing up we do for the Christmas event, we lose the most important aspect of this moment: the humbleness of it all. Because as we celebrate the birth of God incarnate, we sometimes forget the tangible and real aspect of it all. That in this ancient stable, a king was born. A child who would save us all from our sin.

 

Because in the midst of all of these creation moving things, a child is born in the humblest of circumstances. Circumstances none of us would chose for our own children. And yet despite this humility, Christ is born. Not to kings or world leaders, or in a temple or wealthy manor, but in a stable in a small town outside of the capital of a minor province of the greatest empire on the planet.

 

God does not follow our conventions, or let things such as circumstances of birth get in the way of salvation. God choose this to be the moment Christ is born, in such a lowly place. And if God sees fit to be born into such lowly circumstances, how much more does God care about each and every one of us, no matter how lowly our circumstances may be.

 
Let us pray:
 
Loving God,

 

Through your servant Mary we came to know your Son, Jesus. Just as the shepherds adored him that night all those years ago, we are gathered here to long for your Son’s return. We know that even as lowly and unworthy as we are, you see fit to call to us with your prevenient grace. And so, we pray that your presence will be known to us, even in as grand a place as this church, as your presence was known in that Bethlehem stable.

In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.
 
[Wat Mem] Micah 5.2-5a (Advent 4)

Why Bethlehem? Of all the places for this ruler of Israel to hail from, Bethlehem seems about as strange of a choice as you could get. It would be like saying a president would come from Staunton Virginia: while yes, it is a city, it certainly wouldn’t register in peoples minds as a likely location for a leader of a nation.

But Bethlehem has some things going for it that other places simply do not. It is the city of David. This is because it has quite a bit of history to it relating to David. It was the place Ruth and Naomi settled down after returning to Israel. Ruth was the mother of Obed, the father of Jesse, who was the father of David. The King David. It is the place where David was anointed by Samuel, and where the well was that his warriors brought him water from. According to extrabiblical sources, it may also be the burial sites of David, Ezekiel, Asaph, Job, Jesse, and Solomon.[1]

It is also about 7 miles from Jerusalem. Certainly walking distance to the capital, but far enough away to make it more than a simple day trip in ancient times. Perhaps it is enough to be called a suburb, if only to describe it as a barely noticed stop on the way to Jerusalem. City conjures up images of dense buildings and a ton of traffic, but Bethlehem was probably no more busy, complex, or dense in ancient times than Chatham or Gretna.

If not for its ties to David in their history, I doubt anyone would have bothered recording this prophecy. Jerusalem certainly is the busier, larger, and more important center of population, so it would make sense for a ruler to come from Jerusalem. Certainly the three wise man thought so, probably unaware of the prophet Micah’s writings. But Micah speaks of something that would have resonated with people. Afterall, Bethlehem had produced a great ruler before, so it would provide some comfort that another great ruler would come from Bethlehem as well.

Notice I say ruler and not king. In Hebrew, these are not the same word, and it is important to pay attention to how it is translated. The reasons for this distinction are twofold. First, in the time Micah was writing, Israel was under Persian rule, which gave them enough autonomy to run their affairs and religion without much grumbling for revolt. A king would therefor be a challenge to the Persian monarchy, so perhaps the word choice was avoided to keep the Persians happy with their border province.

On the other hand, as a Christian, I cannot overlook the significance of dropping the title of king for this ruler. Now while we just celebrated Christ the King Sunday 4 weeks ago, it is important to remember what Christ is king over. Jesus is not JUST the king of the Jews, or king of Israel, but ruler of ALL nations. Christ is king. But to limit Christ solely to king of Israel would be to miss all of the other parts that makes this ruler special.

Whether Micah understood this or not when the prophecy was given is immaterial. It is not uncommon for prophecies and oracles to be fulfilled in ways that people do not expect. Often we ascribe hopes and expectations to such things, which gets in the way of the truth being told. This would have definitely been the case with those who heard Micah speak these words. A ruler would have meant a king! A return to the monarchy and the great achievements of their ancestors. A return to the way things were, now just a distant memory to them.

And memory this prophecy would have to be. Because as much hope as Micah brings, even Micah tells the hearer that there will be even more time until this new ruler shows up. More Israelites would need to return from distant lands, most notably from Babylon and the rest of the Persian empire. Even with exiles returning, there were still more that took up positions in the royal court, as Israelites were seen to be extremely trustworthy. It wouldn’t be until Macedonian conquest through Persia by Alexander the Great that many of those Israelites would return to their homeland, as the Greeks liked to run things as close to their inner circle as possible.

 This waiting will be worth it, however. For this ruler will be able to feed his flock in the strength of the Lord. It would be easy to point to the miracles of Christ feeding crowds as evidence of this passage, but feeding could also refer to Christ’s feeding of spiritual food. Jesus certainly would give people the spiritual food they needed and were so desperately longing for in the shadow of the pharisees.

Finally, this prophecy speaks of this ruler being “great to the ends of the earth.” This vague statement would certainly lead the original hearer to think of the time of Solomon, when foreign kings and queens would travel to Israel to pay their respects to the king. But wealth is not the only way of defining “greatness,” just as power and conquest alone does not make someone “great.”

Instead, Jesus is great to the ends of the earth for an entirely different reason. Through him we are saved, and this simple truth has made it across continents, oceans, and into the hearts of peoples of all nations. Christ’s greatness is not from the sword or earthly kingdom, but from the kingdom of God. This is the ruler that he is. This is the peace that he brings. Not of force and power, but of truth and love. There is nothing greater than that.

Let us pray:

 

Sunday, December 16, 2018,  [Wat Mem] Zephaniah 3:14-20

 

Zephaniah, unlike most prophets, focuses very heavily on oracles. While our modern ears hear these two titles as being synonymous, this is most often is not the case in ancient society. By definition, a prophet is someone who determines the will of a deity. An oracle is a telling of the future. While there is quite a bit of overlap, they are distinct concepts.

 

Prophets usually were separate from priests, and most often served as advisors to heads of state. Their job was to tell their king what their chosen deity wanted. Often, this would be in the form of conditional statements, such as “do this or God will punish you,” or it would present a problem the commoners were having to the ruler that they might have been blinded to by nature of their position.

 

This type of prophecy is distinct from an oracle in that it poses this condition. An oracle, by contrast, tells things in far more absolute terms. “This will come to pass” is the tone and spirit of an oracle, rather than the warnings of woah that can yet be avoided.

 

A prophecy that presents this condition is exceedingly useful to a ruler. It gives them a chance to avoid whatever pitfall they are currently in or might tread into. An oracle by contrast is something unavoidable, often because God has decided to act, and there is nothing that can be done to change God’s mind.

 

Zephaniah falls in the latter category, but rather than speaking to tales of woah and apocalyptic endings as most of the oracles we remember do, Zephaniah instead speaks of a moment of God setting things right. Oracles, however, are usually cryptic and often are fulfilled in ways the speaker might never have imagined.

 

This process begins by God taking away the judgments against Israel. Israel had plenty of reasons to be judged harshly: rampant poverty and wealth inequality, corrupt bureaucrats, idolatry, foreign policy that involved Israel in wars it had no business being involved, the list goes on and on. Certainly, the later part had caused the most trouble for Israel politically, as they were stuck between the Assyrian and Egyptian empires’ spheres of influence, and often tried to play one against the other.

 

This sort of foreign policy would make enemies of the regional great powers, and Assyria was particularly brutal in their enforcement towards their “client kingdoms.” Israel’s political decisions further pulled it away from listening to the Lord, earning the nation its harsh judgments.

 

But the Lord will be within the midst of Israel. This prediction in the minds of those who first heard it harkens back to the time of a moving tabernacle, with God’s presence made known through the Arc of the Covenant roaming throughout the land, rather than confined into a temple. But none could have predicted the idea of God’s immanent presence being known through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, rather than what the people were more familiar with.

The imagery of God as a warrior also harkens back to a time long gone. To Zephaniah’s contemporaries, it would have reminded them more of the judges of old, such as Joshua, Gideon, Deborah, and Samson. A time when Israel won battles through spectacular means because God went with them. Such imagery would inspire people to know that God would deliver Israel from those that would seek it harm, but pay close attention to what is said. Verse 17 reads: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory;”

[1] Nowhere in this text does it specify that God as a warrior will triumph over specific nations, as many other prophets sometimes proclaim. Instead, Zephaniah’s words speak to a warrior victorious. This victory would manifest in God’s triumph over sin and death through Jesus Christ, rather than through leading an army for Israel’s liberation.

 

But the ordering of the universe is not the only thing Zephaniah speaks about. While such things are amazing and wonderful, superlatives upon superlatives, it can feel a bit distant from our day to day lives. But Zephaniah speaks of the lame being saved, the outcast being gathered, and their shame being taken away. Both are important parts of Jesus’ ministry. Because while it is important to emphasize Jesus’ ultimate salvific role, Jesus still spent time on earth, healing the sick and spending time with the dregs of society.

 

Even with his pointing to the ultimate coming of the kingdom of God, Jesus still enabled the kingdom he proclaimed to break through on a daily basis to those he encountered while walking the earth.

 

 It is this spirit of comfort that comes through the kingdom that we celebrate today. This comfort that what ails or isolates us no longer holds sway over our lives is a powerful thing. This comfort, that God will gather us together in our home, the home of God’s kingdom, is what we point to today.

 

For today, we celebrate the candle of Joy. Joy in this instance isn’t just a childish glee, or that sensation you get from eating something sweet, rather it is a state of being. A Joy of knowing that God has saved us and worked through Jesus Christ. A Joy of being able to be a part of God’s plan for the world, even if we are undeserving. The Joy of being a part of the congregation of God, here and now, in this church.

 

Joy isn’t simply a fleeting happiness. Joy is a state of exuberance in all things. Because even as the world around us may seem progressively getting worse and worse, and forces seemingly conspire to knock us down a few pegs whenever we start climbing back up on our own, we can still take to the “glad tidings of comfort and joy.” We can take comfort in the kingdom of God, whenever it begins to break into our world. We can be joyful for all the things God has done for us, and embody that joy to all those we encounter. More importantly than even that, we can be the bearer of that comfort and joy to others, and share in the wonders of God’s love for us.

 

We have a chance to share the wonders of this fulfilled oracle; to show others this positive outcome through the prophet Zephaniah. There is so much to live into, but most importantly today, we are to live into the Joy for all the world, as our “fortunes are restored before our very eyes,” says the Lord.

 
Let us pray,
 

 

 
Sunday, December 9, 2018, SNOW No Sermon
Sunday, December 2, 2018,[Wat Mem] Jeremiah 33.14-16 Advent 1
Why do we look forward to Christmas? There aren’t [m]any young children present, so I ask this question to you all as adults. Why is Christmas special? Like most holidays, it is a chance to gather with friends and family, but that is no different from other holidays, like independence day, or thanksgiving. There are also other religious holidays that provide the same benefit, most notably Easter. So what is it about Christmas that gets us excited?

 
The easy answer is it is a chance to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. And certainly this is true. Afterall, Jesus is the most influential human to ever walk the earth. God incarnate, the Word made flesh. Emmanuel, Messiah, king of kings, lord of lords, titles upon titles upon titles. Such a person is worth remembering, and what better opportunity than to celebrate their birth! But is that all that we are here for? If it was that simple, why light an advent wreath at all? Why make the waiting and anticipation so drawn out?

 
Today, we lit the candle of Hope. We celebrate what Christ was to the people of ancient Israel: Hope. Hope for a better world, one free of the Romans and their oppression. One free of outside interference, or foreign Gods imposed upon them. One where the nations tremble at the presence of God. And we certainly received that hope.
 
Not only was the political situation dire, but the world itself is bleak. We see evil everywhere, human cruelty and sin seems to know no limit. Death seems to follow in the wake of human tragedy, and suffering is a shared experience. God had every right to be angry, not just at Israel, but all the nations and peoples of the world. Many of these things we still see today, in our own communities, in our leaders, and sometimes in ourselves. Without Christ, there is nothing to save us from these things. But because of Christ, we have been saved from sin, evil, and death. That alone is worth remembering in this time of anticipation.

 
But advent isn’t just about putting us into the mindset of those who lived in Palestine before Jesus, but is also to remind us about what hope Jesus gives us today. This hope is something we can cling to because we know who Christ is. And Christ is many things to many people. He has brought many people hope through various aspects of his life and ministry.
 

Christ’s birth was a fulfillment of hope through prophecy. First, Jesus’ lineage can be traced back to king David, as Jeremiah and other prophets had pointed out. But that is the human side and speaks to the understanding of those who lived before Christ. Nobody could have expected God becoming truly human, the idea would never have occurred to people. Certainly, nobody would have expected to see royal lineage as somehow being of secondary significance to the salvation of Israel.

 
We see hope through the life and examples of Christ, where he healed many people and performed many miracles. People gained life, not just through the healing but also through being brought back into the community. Justice was done, not by the edge of a sword and the power of a king, but by meeting people where they were and experiencing the life of the kingdom of God. People could see the end of the forces reigning over them, that of sin, evil, and death.

 
Christ taught us how to live, both in relationship with each other but also in how we are to act towards God. He reached out to gentiles and Jews, and showed everyone a better way to live. Jesus conquered death, so that it has no more sting. We know this through Christ’s resurrection and triumph over the cruelty of the cross. Jesus did all of these things for us. There is so much to celebrate with his life, ministry, miracles, and teachings.

 
For us today, though, we don’t have to look forward to the messiah coming, instead we look towards to hope of Christ’s return. The hope we share isn’t just about what we gained through Christ’s birth, though certainly that is part of it. It is also about what we are all waiting for even today. It is why we still sing songs asking “Come thou long expected Jesus” or “O come O come Emmanuel,” even though “Love came down at Christmas.”

 
There is more to look forward to. The story of Jesus didn’t end with the ascension. The Church isn’t just here to proclaim all the deeds of the past. There is still more to prepare for, there is another act on the horizon. And we need a season to remind us what it is we are waiting for.

 
This anticipation is why we have Advent. This hope of the coming kingdom is what pulls us through this time. This hope is what starts us on our journey as Christians. It is why we open the Christian Year with a candle that symbolizes hope. Because without this hope, not just from who Jesus was or what he has done, but also from what Christ will do, we would have nothing to celebrate at Christmas. It would just be another holiday, one that we check off and go through the motions with. Instead, even as we get older, Christmas still has a sense of wonder to it. I hope we never lose that.
Hallelujiah. Amen.