By Pastor Tracey Leslie
(From the sermon series This Holiday Season: Unwrap Your Gift)
Scripture: Luke 1:39-45
Let’s just admit it right up front: this is a weird day in the church. Technically, it is the final Sunday of Advent – those four Sundays leading up to Christmas; a season to spiritually prepare for the arrival of Christmas. So this morning, technically, it’s still Advent. But this evening (when the sun sets at 5:25), it will be Christmas Eve – a completely different season on the Church’s calendar. It’s a bit of worship whiplash. Add the whole awkwardness that – although I know not everyone here this morning will be able to come back tonight at 6:00 – I hope at least many of you do and, for those who do, I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate hearing the same service and sermon twice in the same day. So, don’t worry. This evening will be different.
Now, this morning’s gospel is the story of what happens when Mary, the mother of Jesus, goes to visit her elderly relative Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Only Luke tells us this story. Not only is Jesus miraculously conceived; but the conception of John is also miraculous. Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, were never able to have children and now Elizabeth is too old to get pregnant. I mean, I don’t want to go into the birds and the bees here in the sanctuary but, we all know how it works, right?
Just imagine the remarkable joy when these two women, relatives, come face to face as first-time mothers-to-be. According to Luke, Mary would have been in her first trimester while Elizabeth is in her last. There would have stood Elizabeth, wrinkles and gray hair, no doubt as big as a house coming face to face with this sweet teenage girl whose little baby bump probably wasn’t even visible yet under those loose-fitting robes of antiquity. In a culture where elders were well-respected it shouldn’t surprise us that Elizabeth is the first to speak. But it is about more than seniority for Elizabeth is divinely inspired; “jump-started,” we might say, by the child in her own womb. John the Baptist launches his prophetic career before he’s even cleared the birth canal. And his mother’s words to Mary are a pronouncement of blessing; a trilogy of blessing really.
First, Elizabeth affirms that Mary is blessed because of her chosen role or “job position” for the Almighty; second, she is blessed because of the presence of this divine child within her womb; and she is blessed, finally, because she has believed in the Word of God. Last Sunday in worship I told the story of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary to announce Jesus’ birth. When the angel tells Mary that she will be impregnated by the Holy Spirit, Mary replies with her famous words: “Let it be with me according to your Word.” Mary believes – she places trust – in the Word of God. So she is thrice blessed.
But what does it really mean to be “blessed.” It’s a pretty over-used word in our culture. When people sneeze, we say “God bless you.” Sometimes when we ask Christians how they’re doing, they respond “I’m blessed.” Sometimes they elaborate, “Too blessed to be stressed” which seems a bit of an indictment upon those of us who are worry-warts by nature not nurture. So what does it really mean to be blessed?
Well, technically speaking, blessings can solicit, distribute, or celebrate the favor or grace of God. Furthermore, when we celebrate God’s favor or grace, it is a form of worship. Put in pretty mundane terms, it’s kind of like we’re thanking God and congratulating the person simultaneously. What I mean by that is that – to name someone as blessed – means that we name or identify how we see God’s grace working in their life; how it has been made real in their life. Blessing – at least the Greek word used here – is closely connected to the Greek word for praise. So blessing involves praising God because God is good and the source of every good gift. Blessing, my friends, is something we do out loud to identify and name the presence of God’s grace or favor in one another’s lives. Even before the birth of Jesus, Elizabeth is able to discern that this child in Mary’s belly will be the bearer of God’s grace or favor and so she names it, she celebrate it aloud, as a blessing.
Just before our service concludes this morning, I will recite Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus; a story we’ve all no doubt heard… if not in church at least on the Charlie Brown Christmas special. There is that line where the angel speaks to the shepherds and proclaims: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors (or graces).” That’s the line I want you to focus on. That’s the line I want you to remember. Glorifying and praising God is inseparably linked with the ways that God favors or blesses his creation. And blessing can be a way of glorifying God by identifying the ways that God’s grace or divine favor is operating in someone’s life. That’s what Elizabeth does. She understands that they are about to experience the saving grace of God through the child in Mary’s womb and she understands the critical role that Mary plays in “birthing” God’s grace or favor. Mary will deliver God’s grace as a baby and, I’m guessing, there were still days when Mary found that pretty astonishing and mind-boggling. So Elizabeth affirms what is taking place in Mary’s life; she names it and celebrates it. “You’re blessed, Mary, because God is doing something so gracious and favorable for all of us in and through you.”
Blessing is the way we name and identify God’s grace and that’s a very important thing because sometimes we struggle to see the evidence of God’s grace on our own. When we’re going through a difficult time, we may have trouble seeing God’s blessings in our own lives. Sometimes all we can see is what’s “not working;” all we can see is what’s going wrong. We develop tunnel vision. So we need others to help us. We need others to say, “Blessed are you!” and to name for us how they see God’s grace operating in our lives. What a gift that can be to someone who’s struggling; who’s feeling lost or has lost hope.
Even more than that, we can be the ones to pray or evoke God’s blessing over someone’s life. Blessings are performative speech; they make things happen. They hold power; they change reality. We all know and have experienced the power of words over our lives. The words children receive from their parents shape their identity and they impact them for the rest of their lives. Sometimes the words that couples speak to one another in the heat of an argument can create wounds that are deep and hard to heal. In scripture, the opposite of blessings are curses… not like swear words, but speaking in ways that seek God’s punishment of someone. Friends: words have power and we need to use them well. You can call forth God’s blessing over the life of someone else.
In Luke’s story of Christmas, the shepherds receive word from the angels about Jesus. It is good news of great joy for everyone; it is the news of how Jesus brings peace and reveals God’s favor or grace. When the shepherds get to the manger, they tell others what the angel said to them. They share those powerful words. And those words become a blessing to Mary; she holds them in her heart; she treasures and ponders over them. And shepherds, my friends, had no authority in the ancient world; they were disrespected and marginalized. So you don’t need to be someone especially religious or with theological training; anyone can speak God’s blessing over the life of someone else. We live in a world right now so full of angry, hateful words. Words hold power; words shape reality. Of all the gifts we give this Christmas – all the stuff under our trees – let’s not forget the gift of the spoken word. Give someone you love a blessing this Christmas. Because it’s up to use: we can choose to call forth and to name and celebrate the grace of God in the life of someone else. We can choose blessing.
by Pastor Tracey Leslie
(From the sermon series This Holiday Season: Unwrap Your Gift)
Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-9
If one were to read this morning’s words from Isaiah outside their context… Well, this might sound like some pretty bad parenting. I mean, who would ever let their child play with wild animals, especially venomous snakes, right? Because we all know, we live in a violent world fraught with danger. But the words of Isaiah are, of course, prophecy; words that paint the picture of what life in this world would look like if God had God’s way. This is what we endorse every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done”… though – if we look around at our world today – it might seem more like a Pollyannish fantasy than sound, biblical theology.
Presbyterian pastor Kimberly Clayton Richter writes of her experience giving a children’s sermon on this Isaiah scripture. She’d brought in a statue of a lion lying down with a lamb on his outstretched paws. When she asked the children what they thought of it, one little boy – clearly a budding theologian – replied, “Well, in the Bible it says they will rest together. But in real life, the lion would eat him!” Richter comments, “The vision is glorious. Real life is something else.”[i]
This year at Trinity, our Advent focus is upon gifts. Now, we generally think of gifts as an object, position, talent or attribute of great value or in high demand. But this morning’s “gift” hardly fits those parameters because this morning we’re going to discuss the gift of vulnerability. I don’t imagine the demand for that gift could come anywhere close to rivaling a, well a Fingerling for sale on Amazon.
This passage from the prophet Isaiah begins with a focus on a Davidic king. David was Israel’s favorite king; a man after God’s own heart. God had promised David that he would never cease to have an heir on the throne. But that didn’t last because David’s progeny became more obsessed with power than the righteousness of God. Eventually surrounding kingdoms destroyed the nation; but Israel never stopped pining for a king like David. You see, Israel thought of their kings as “sons of God,” specially anointed by God’s Spirit to carry out God’s will on earth. This morning’s passage from Isaiah makes clear what that would look like: a peaceable kingdom, one characterized by justice and righteousness for all of creation. As Christians, we interpret Jesus as a descendent of David; as God’s Son who came to carry out God’s purposes, to make manifest God’s kingdom. The gospels of Mark and Matthew are in agreement that Jesus’ first public words were: “Repent, for the kingdom has come near.”[ii]
But one of the things that make Isaiah’s words so remarkable is that little comment that “a child shall lead them.” Not a strong, strapping man with a crown on his head and a scepter in his hand; but a little child. Now today, we adore children. But that wasn’t the case in the ancient world where children had little value aside from their potential to grow up to be adults who would contribute to the honor of their family and function as a sort of ancient “social security” for mom and dad in their old age. Children, in bible culture, were in a very vulnerable and precarious position. To envision them as leading anything would have seemed ludicrous… which is likely Isaiah’s point because that is what happens in God’s kingdom; everything gets turned upside down. Today it seems such a romantic notion that God came to earth as a baby swaddled and nestled in a manger; but it was, quite frankly, a crazy notion. What could have been more risky? Children had no rights; infant mortality rates were enormous; Mary and Joseph were nothing more than peasants. The Son of God didn’t just choose to put on human flesh; he chose the route of maximum vulnerability.
Friends, if we want to keep Christ in Christmas, we’d better get ready to celebrate differently by putting far less focus on that stuff we get at Walmart or Amazon and by humbling ourselves, treating strangers like family, defending the weakest and the most vulnerable among us, and laying aside our own rights and power and privilege (and all that stuff)… ‘cause that’s what Jesus did. That’s what God did. If we offer our worship and our lives to that baby in the manger, we’d better be prepared to live in his kingdom on his terms because it’s pretty clear that tiny, vulnerable baby in a manger grew to be a man who preferred the poor over the rich, the weak over the strong, and the despised over the popular, and the vulnerable over the powerful.
The kingdom of our God isn’t led by an army; it’s led by a little child and if we want to live in that kingdom, we’d best be prepared to think, behave, speak and engage with others in the church and the world in ways that reveal wisdom and understanding, reverence and righteousness, gentleness, justice and peace… for everyone; not just people we like or people like us.
I continue with my prior quote from preacher and pastor Kimberly Clayton Richter, “In Christ, God has come to close the gap between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven. God is intent on a world where the streets are safe in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, where a life in Darfur or [Damascus] is honored every bit as much as a life in New York City. The announcement of [God’s coming] means that those of us who use power unjustly or waste resources carelessly are going to be judged… We’ll either have to change our ways or find some other kingdom to live in, because we can’t live like that in the kingdom of heaven.”[iii]
Friends, today we see camera footage of little children: nameless refugees, crying at the borders or in the squalor of refugee camps. Imagine what it might be like to be already poor and marginalized in a nation ruled by an oppressive dictator and to have your first-born child’s life threatened by the government; a government whose paranoia has already led to the slaughter of so many innocent people and now is a threat to your own toddler. And so you grab what little you have and you flee in a moment for no other reason than to save the life of your child. And you arrive in a different place that is not your place, not your home, and not your people; with no extended family to support you and no government assistance to sustain you. And that is the precarious, fragile beginning of your little child’s life. Can you imagine that? Well, God did because that little child, my friends, is Jesus and you can read that story in Matthew, chapter 2.
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.[iv]
[i] From The Advent Texts: Glorious Visions, Dogged Discipleship by Kimberly Clayton Richter in the Journal for Preachers; Advent 2004.
[ii] See Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15.
[iii] The Advent Texts, ibid.
[iv] O Little Town of Bethlehem; text by Phillips Brooks, see #230 in the United Methodist Hymnal.
By Pastor Tracey
(From the sermon series This Holiday Season: Unwrap Your Gift)
Scripture: Luke 1:5-17
It’s the season of gifting. If you saw last week’s news reports about record-breaking Black Friday, Small-Business Saturday and Cyber Monday sales, you might wonder if there’s anything left to buy. But don’t worry. It’s America; there’s plenty of stuff and… plenty of time; plenty of time to prepare for Christmas. That’s what Advent is about after all. It was around the year 380 that church leaders in Spain first decided that Christians needed a special season – a set period of time – to spiritually prepare to commemorate and celebrate the birth of Jesus.[i] Now the gospel of Luke is especially helpful with this process of taking our time and preparing well to celebrate our Lord’s birth. Luke’s story doesn’t immediately begin with the birth of Jesus. It does not even immediately begin with the announcement of his birth. Instead, it begins with the story of his extended family, an elderly couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth, whose own “miracle baby” – known to us as John the Baptist – will grow up to carry out the task of laying the groundwork for the public ministry of Jesus.
Zechariah, John’s father, is the first character to step on stage in this gospel. Zech and Elizabeth are good and righteous people. Not only is Zechariah a priest; his wife is a descendent of the very first Israelite priest, Aaron (the brother of Moses). Our gospel narrator emphasizes the righteous character of this couple because, well, some might wonder. You see, this couple is barren; childless… in a time and culture when children were considered evidence that one had been blessed by God. Now, for sure we still consider children a blessing and a gift from God. But, thankfully, we no longer consider those without children as being morally or spiritually suspect. We understand the science behind human conception and don’t assign moral blame to those who cannot conceive. But in the first century world, a couple without children were held suspect. Their neighbors would have assumed that something had been done by this couple or their ancestors to make God unhappy with them. So our gospel writer must take special pains to highlight that this is not the case, writing: “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”[ii]
As our story begins Zechariah is about to carry out the esteemed honor of entering the sanctuary of God to offer prayer and the sacrifice of incense. Again, dating all the way back to Moses’ brother Aaron (we read in the book of Exodus) God commands the priest to offer a sacrifice of incense on the altar every morning and every evening.[iii]
And it is at that very moment that Zechariah encounters the angel Gabriel who delivers a remarkable announcement that begins with these words: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.”[iv] Now it was pretty standard operating procedure for angels to tell people not to be afraid because fear was the automatic response of people when they saw one. But once the angel gets that out of the way, notice how he announces the catalyst for this visitation: prayer. The angel comes in response to prayer.
In Israel and other surrounding ancient Mediterranean cultures, incense was associated with worship, sacrifice and prayer. In fact, it is as if the rising smoke of the incense becomes a sort of “carrier” or transporter of people’s prayers. They seem to co-mingle and drift up into the heavens together. We find a scripture in Revelation to this effect. In the 8th chapter we read: “Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.”[v] So there is something fascinating and powerful about this blending of incense and altar and prayers and angels. And it may pull at something primitive, something visceral, in us.
When I was in college, I developed a boil on my foot. It was really painful. We happened to be visiting my brother and his family out of town at the time. My nephew was about four. I planned not to attend church that Sunday but to stay at home with my foot propped up. But my little nephew was adamant: it was important that we go to church so we could pray for my foot. I obliged.
Even as post-modern scientifically educated people, we still speak of God as being “in the heavens” and we long for some reassurance that our prayers are rising up and getting through. This image of prayers rising to God in the heavens like incense drifting up into the air is powerful. Still today during evening prayers in monastic communities included within that prayer pattern is this verse from the Psalms: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands an evening sacrifice.”[vi]
No doubt Zechariah was in prayer as he entered that holy space, sacred space. He enters on behalf of the people of Israel, a nation occupied by Gentiles, oppressed by the Roman government, mostly comprised of peasants poorer than dirt. They are a people who have been waiting a long time for a prophet and for their Messiah to come. That is their longing and Zechariah no doubt carries their longing into that sacred space to offer it up to God; to be lifted to the heavens, co-mingled with the incense. Zechariah carries in his heart the longings of a nation. But he is also a man; a man who is fatherless; a man whose own deep longing for a son has gone unanswered. And we can only assume by the words of the angel, that Zechariah offered this prayer as well. He lifts up the longings of a nation; but he also lifts to God his own deepest longings and desires, his own disappointment and pain.
And remarkably, it all co-mingles – the swirling smoke of the incense; and prayer for others and prayer for self and awe and wonder; then an angel in the middle of it all… sent, specifically, by God in response to Zechariah’s prayers. It is also interesting and important to notice that, while Zechariah is the only one standing before the altar, he is not alone in his worship and prayer. There is a whole congregation gathered outside waiting for him; and, as they wait, they too pray. And, one might assume, their prayers are like Zechariah’s – prayers for the Jewish people and their nation; yet also a lifting up to God of their own individual concerns – perhaps a family member who is ill or one who is grieving the death of a loved one.
Meanwhile inside the temple, the angel announces to Zechariah that he and Elizabeth will conceive and they will have a son and that little boy will bring them joy and gladness. Yet beyond their personal joy, their son will grow up to answer the prayers of a nation when he carries out his prophetic work of preaching and baptizing to prepare people for Jesus, their long-awaited Messiah. Talk about a two-fer. God, with all the creativity of the maker of the universe and the author of all life, God has responded to the longings of an old barren couple and a desperate, oppressed nation in one fell swoop. Remarkable!
So, what about you? What do you long for today? What burden do you bear? What prayers did you carry into this sacred space this morning? We all see and hear the news. We carry a common burden for the suffering of our nation and our world: the poor, refugees, the homeless, the hungry, the uninsured, children neglected or abused. But we also gather in this space with our own individual needs and longings tucked within our hearts. Some we may not even speak aloud to others; perhaps we feel embarrassed or ashamed or vulnerable; perhaps we fear others would find them trivial. But they are not trivial to us. And so, even as the pastors pray and we sing our songs together, you silently lift up your prayer – your desires – drawn from deep within your soul.
Prayer is many things and often hard to define concisely. But, among many quite acceptable descriptions, I would offer this one: prayer is about entering into sacred (or specially defined) time and space. It doesn’t have to be church. But it is time and space we set aside to be attentive to God, tuned in to God. And as we give our full attention to God, we offer up the needs of others and the deepest longings of our own hearts… knowing and trusting that God, our God, is able and willing to respond to it all in ways that are creative and astonishing; in ways that draw us together; in ways that remind us that “no man is an island”; that we are in this together.
I once had a friend who didn’t make it a habit of praying for himself. He figured there were so many people with greater, bigger needs. And I once had a parishioner who considered it a sin to waste God’s time with prayers for dogs or cats. But friends, I don’t think that’s how prayer works. I don’t think that’s how God works. I don’t think God is concerned about quotas or time constraints and I certainly don’t think he’s limited by them.
Prayer ought not to be something that separates us or “prioritizes” us among other people… or other species for that matter. Prayer can be that which draws us together; one common people, one common creation, humbled in prayer before God in our common experience of need and longing.
Our prayers all co-mingle and rise up to God and our God, who is remarkably gracious and creative, can respond to our individual needs in ways that also bring redemption and hope and healing into the lives of others.
[i] The New Handbook of the Christian Year; Hickman, Saliers, Stookey and White; Abingdon Press; 1986; p. 23
[ii] Luke 1:6. NRSV.
[iii] See Exodus 30:7-8.
[iv] Luke 1:13
[v] Revelation 8:3-4
[vi] Psalm 141:2
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