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Thursday, January 9, 2020

Unwrapping the Layers

Epiphany 2020 Matthew 2:1-12
            Our grandson, Alex, will turn 10 this month. At our family Christmas gathering just a little over a week ago, a gift he received was wrapped in a very special way. Tearing through the paper that wrapped his gift, he found – another layer of wrapping paper. He tore through that layer of paper and revealed another. He tore through that one, and you can guess – there was yet another layer of wrap, and on and on it went through a dozen layers covering his new book.
            Alex is old enough to have had great fun with this, and to have been a great sport about it, never getting frustrated, only more excited as he made his way through each layer, until he reached the real gift.
            The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a lot like that gift, with layer after layer of meaningful history and detail wrapped around the God’s greatest gift to us.
Today is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the eve of the day we – and much of the Christian world celebrates as the Epiphany. Today we read of the coming of the magi, and God’s work in and through them. The Gospels reveal to us the various ways in which God is revealed or ways in which God reveals something essential through the real gift of Christmas, Jesus.  
            The magi represent yet one more layer of wrapping removed as we seek the meaning of the ongoing gift of Jesus to the world.
Contrary to popular and traditional images of them, the strange visitors from a foreign land were neither kings – magi were more like magicians or astrologers or even men who belonged to a priestly caste from the Eastern religion, Zoroastrianism – nor do we know for sure how many of them there were – the Church probably settled on the number three because three gifts are listed in the gospel, though many Orthodox denominations have twelve magi who came.
Thanks to the King James translation of the bible, the magi are often referred to as “wise men”.  What makes them “wise” however, isn’t their background or origins, but their obedience to the divine message given to them in a dream, not to return to Herod but to go home avoiding him – and to seek the child worthy of their homage. The Bible doesn’t name them – though again, tradition has filled in that detail and given them the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.
            What we do know is that they were likely wealthy, were certainly Gentiles, they came a great distance from the eastern part of the continent, and they came because of astral events or signs they observed in the heavens. Finally, we know that they were compelled to follow those signs until they arrived in Bethlehem of Judea. There, asking around, they finally discover the Holy Family, and worship the Holy Child.
            Jesus is that child, born into a dark, dangerous, and inhospitable world. Herod the Great was a vassal king of Rome. He did not come to power through a royal line of succession and could therefore be considered an unqualified or illegitimate king by those he was sent to rule over. He was therefore particularly sensitive and insecure in his ability to hold on to his power and became fearful when he heard a child born in Bethlehem was being identified as “king of the Jews”.
Of course, we know that it was not his intent to worship, but to murder Jesus. And we know that being unable to find him, he ordered the murder of the innocents – all those baby boys two years and under found to have been born in the region identified by the magi. In his insecurity, through his fear, Herod represents the evil and darkness that work to deny Jesus his rightful place and purpose.
            But God will not be thwarted. God makes himself known through his divine Son, Jesus Christ. The magi know it. And we who believe in Jesus know it. And through this story we become aware that God’s love and salvation are sent not just to a select group of people, the Jews, but to the whole world.
God is there through the darkness and in the light.
            And, God has made his love and mercy plain to us in the Holy Child, Jesus Christ, our Savior.
We still live in a dark, dangerous, and inhospitable world. We still live in a world where those in power are insecure and fearful of losing their power. We live in a world that still seeks to extinguish the true grace and hope of God, who broke the power of death and illumines the way to life and immortality through the Good News of Jesus Christ. But the Epiphany makes plain to us the power of God to thwart evil and grant us his goodness and mercy.  
            For God saves us and calls us to live a holy life; to discern the false claims of divinity and favor on any human being. Through layers of grace God will defeat those who seek to do evil to the innocent of the world and on those who believe in him. By shining the light of His glory, which leads the way to Jesus, God reveals his plan to save us, a plan centered in godly grace and love.
            When we look upon Jesus, and when we come to know his words and deeds, God’s character is shown to us. Through the layers of his teaching, his example, and his cross, God’s character and plan for us are revealed. When we meditate upon his sacrificial death, and when his resurrection is revealed to us, Jesus uncovers God’s compassion and mercy to us.
            In our relationship with Jesus, our Lord and our King, God is revealed through our own merciful deeds; in Christ-like love that shapes our words, our actions, our thoughts and our prayers, His love is known. Our devotion to Jesus is shown as we die to sin and serve as his compassionate hands and heart to the poor, the despised, the weak and the rejected people of the world.
            God delivers hope to the hopeless in the light of eternal life given to those facing death, and to those persecuted, wounded, and murdered because of their religion, race, or identity, and those who stand for God’s forgiveness and mercy.
            The Good News of Epiphany is that as God once revealed himself through the small child of Bethlehem and through the gifts offered him by the magi, God continues to reveal himself through the ongoing gifts he gives through Jesus. As we linger in the light of the star, let us renew our commitment to sharing this good news with the world.


Thursday, January 2, 2020


Christmas Eve 2019 (Luke Birth Narrative)

So, last year I did a horrible, no-good, very bad thing. 

I lost Jesus. 

Actually, to be more precise, I didn’t just lose Jesus; I threw him away. I mean, who does that?! It was an accident, of course. I was giving the Children’s Sermon in worship one Sunday last December. The little baby Jesus that came with my nativity set at home was perfect for the illustration I wanted to use. When the morning was over, I packed up the baby Jesus, wrapping him securely in tissue paper to keep him safe (or so I thought) and then placed him in my tote bag with a million other things I was carrying that day. When I got home, I set the bag down to take care of later, while I tended to some other things, and forgot about him.
Later, in the rush and bustle that comes just before Christmas, especially if you are a pastor, I was cleaning up the pile of things I had placed aside to “take care of later” over the course of that week. I cleaned out the tote bag holding Jesus. Not remembering that he was in there or why I had a wadded-up piece of tissue paper in the bottom of my bag to begin with, I threw the tissue – and Jesus - away. It wasn’t until a few days later, after the trash had been taken out, and after it was picked up at the curb by the garbage collectors, that I realized what I had done!
I was horrified! How could I have thrown away the little baby, Jesus?! For the rest of the season, our nativity at home sat there, the manger empty, a reminder of my carelessness.  The figure of Mary in the nativity set has her hands positioned in such a way that the little baby Jesus figure could be held in her hands or lain in the manger – but Mary’s hands remained empty as well.
I love to have my nativity sets out this time of year, but I can tell you I was actually relieved when I got to put them away at the beginning of January 2019. I was relieved when I boxed up that set – and stored it for the year. But I couldn’t quite forget about what I had done, and what I was missing.
Whenever I thought about the discarded baby Jesus I always felt a bit sad and guilty. I Googled “replacement baby Jesus”, I searched on eBay, and I even checked out to see if I could find a new baby Jesus.
Oh, there are Jesuses out there, let me tell you, but none of them was right. None of them would fit both the manger and Mary’s positioned hands the way the real, the original, baby Jesus did.  
At the beginning of Advent this year, we put up our Christmas tree and pulled out the Nativity sets. As I set up my favorite set, the manger and Mary’s hands looked just as empty as I remembered them.
I searched on the computer again, to see if maybe now an appropriate replacement could be purchased anywhere. Finally, I located the company through with the original set was purchased. On their website they had other items you could buy – more shepherds, some animals, a Holy Family set, even a stable, which the original set does not have. But no Baby Jesus.
I did, however, find an email address for the company, so I wrote them explaining what had happened and asking if there was any way I could purchase a replacement Baby Jesus. They never wrote back. After a couple of weeks, I was getting ready to reach out to them again when, on my day off from work, I happened to stop by the office to take care of something. There, I found in my mail, a simple red box with the name Three Kings Gifts written all over it.
I opened the box and found – a brand new baby Jesus. There was no note, and there was no invoice. Just Jesus. The company had sent me a new Baby Jesus as a gift. I was so excited, so happy, relieved and joyful, I happily told everyone I came into contact with about how I had received this wonderful gift from strangers, a new baby Jesus. I think most of them thought I was nuts.
As I look back on my story, it seems to me to be so full of metaphor and allegory for our relationship with Jesus.
God gave us the perfect gift in sending the baby born of Mary whose birth we celebrate today. This gift of pure love, of peace, and compassion and mercy comes into the world and enters our lives and our world is never the same again. As John records in his gospel in one of the best-known verses of the Bible, God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to save us, that we might have eternal life.
At some point in our lives, whether as children or perhaps when we are older, we learn or we grow in faith enough to understand what an awesome and holy gift this is. It is a gift we treasure. It is a priceless gift we could never barter for or buy.
But sometimes we get careless with this gift. We take it for granted. We forget what a treasure it is. It may seem silly to get so bent out of shape about losing a little Jesus statuette. But the hole I felt in my heart in its absence is symbolic of the hole in our hearts and lives when we lose sight of our relationship with Jesus.
The people of Israel had lost sight of their relationship with God. Their world became a dark and foreboding place, so much so that for 400 years God was silent. He did not speak to them nor did he send a prophet to them (the way God usually communicated to them). Their yearning for God to send a Savior was intense. Finally, God decided to answer the longing of His beloved once and for all. And Jesus Christ was born.
This Child, Jesus, is the embodiment of God’s love and God’s mercy for a lost world. Without Jesus it is we who are lost. Without Jesus it is we whose lives are incomplete – lacking the essential goodness and light that make them worthwhile.
The sad thing is that there are times which are heartbreakingly real when it seems that Jesus is missing from our lives – when we forget about the treasure that we have in the Child born in Bethlehem. Sometimes, the loss happens through carelessness and the busyness of our lives – we cease to make time and space for our relationship with Him.
Other times, we become so distracted by other things in our lives that we “throw him away” not realizing what we are doing. In yet other ways, we fill his place in our lives with other things, figuring we’ll get back to Jesus later, or that it’s just not as important as we thought. We decide to take care of our relationship with him later. But then time has a way of passing in the blink of an eye, and the more distance we create in our relationship with our Savior, the more difficult it is to find our way back.
The thing is, though, that Jesus – the real Jesus – is never truly lost in the first place. It is impossible to throw Jesus away.
Jesus is there all along, eagerly seeking a crack in the shell we put around ourselves, so that he, our light and our life, can enter in, and fill all the dark corners and shadowed places of our lives.
Even in those times when we feel like we lost him, Jesus is really closer than ever because he never stopped loving us. God assures us through this babe born in Bethlehem, that the powers of the world will never overtake us.
Just as there was a spot in my nativity scene that I know only the “real” baby Jesus could fill, there is a spot in our lives that only the real, true, living and divine Jesus can fill.
In the end, I was willing to pay any price to have Jesus returned to my nativity scene. But, just as we learn in this story that takes place on a starry night in a little town called “Bethlehem”, he came without cost because he is priceless; he came as a lowly one born in a stable because he came to fill up the empty ones and lift up the lowly ones; he came among us as the precious gift of God, who seeks to give good things to His beloved.
Beloved of God, this Christmas, may you rediscover, cherish, and share this priceless treasure, Jesus Christ the Lord. And then, may you share and sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven – and peace to all on earth.”

What's in a Name?

Luke 1:57-80
            In literature, and this is especially true in the Scriptures, what comes at the beginning of a passage or a story and at the end often hold the greatest significance. The stuff in between might illuminate and fill out the meaning of the passage, but like bread on a sandwich, the words and images on the two ends hold the events and details together and give them shape and purpose.
Throughout December, we have been hearing from the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, as those passages lead up to the birth of Jesus.
We might wonder why Luke takes so much time laying out the details he reports in the first chapter of his gospel account. After all, we are eager to hear about the reason for the season, right? The birth of Jesus. And yet, Luke found it important to report on the events leading up to the birth, even in some detail the accounts of the people surrounding Jesus.
             On the first week of this journey through Advent, therefore, we heard the story of how it came to be that John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, the one who prepares the way for our Lord, was born to a religiously righteous couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Remember how, when the angel Gabriel, sent by God, announced the gracious good news that Elizabeth was to conceive a child, Zechariah was struck dumb because he could not quite believe, or “know this to be true.” He desired proof - some sign that God could or would do this wondrous thing. After all, both Elizabeth and Zechariah are old, and throughout their lives have proven to be barren.
            Finally, the baby foretold by Gabriel is born to Elizabeth, and it is time to name the baby. This typically happens for Jewish boys when they are eight days old.
            Naming babies holds different kinds of significance depending on your culture. When my husband and I were expecting our children, we carefully weighed the names we would give them, tossing out many possibilities that one or the other of us just found unacceptable. The names needed to have the right “sound” and they couldn’t be associated with a person with an unfortunate past, reputation, or personality. In the end, each of our children ended up having names that we liked, and as part of their name, a connection to one of our ancestors.
            In the culture of the Israelites, the name of a child was very significant, and also connected them with an ancestor. Family connection had become the most important factor in naming a child during the time of the Second Temple, when Zechariah was alive. Those gathered that day to conduct and witness the naming of the child fully expected him to be named after his father, Zechariah. 
In both the old Testament and the New, we know that God sometimes changed the name of a person, such as changing the name of Abram to Abraham, of Sarai to Sarah, and of Jacob to Israel. Jesus changed the name of Simon to Peter and Saul to Paul.
At other times, God gave the name of the child before birth. Such is the case with both John and Jesus. When Gabriel informed Zechariah that he and his wife would have a child in their old age, the first thing he did was to instruct this priest that the baby boy’s name was to be John, which, derived from the Hebrew “Yohanan” means, “Yahweh is gracious”.
As the group are in the process of naming the child, Zechariah is still unable to speak, so they begin to name him “Zechariah.” After all this name appears more than thirty times in the Bible and is often given to those related to the priestly Levite tribe, like this child’s father. And, of course, it is the child’s father’s name! But Elizabeth, in faithfulness and trust in the Lord, interrupts them and tells them no, this child will be called “John.”
Confusion and grumbling ensue since no one knows anyone in the family named “John”. Why would Elizabeth choose such a name? So, they turn to the one whose decision is final in such instances, the child’s father – and Zechariah carefully writes out his name for them – “John.”
The people are shocked and amazed. Instantly, Zechariah’s speech is restored. God removes the impediment, rewarding Zechariah for maintaining his faithfulness once more.
Zechariah’s response comes in his song, extolling God’s mercy. The true gift is not the birth itself, but the sign this birth represents of the mercy of God that comes through the events taking place and those that are to come. God’s mercy is the generous sandwich filling that gives shape to all the events that have taken place in this first chapter of the Gospel of Luke.
God’s mercy delivers a baby to an aged couple. God’s mercy fills Mary with child. In mercy, God gives the births of John and Jesus as miraculous gifts of love to a struggling, hurting, and lost world. 
Each person’s response to God’s grace in Luke’s gospel praises God for the Messiah’s coming in the light of their own circumstances, hopes, and aspirations. While the ministry of Jesus is many-faceted, like the many facets of a precious diamond, each psalm of praise tends to focus on one facet, and all of them together point out the manifold blessings of God manifested through His Son.
Elizabeth sings out her joy and wonder at the mercy and blessing of God among us. Mary sings of the mercy of God that raises up the lowly and gives them good things.
The old priest sees the fulfillment of what God’s word to him, and God’s mercy and deliverance from our enemies and all those who hate us. The words of Zechariah are called the Benedictus and to this day are sung at matins, or the morning prayer of the church. It concludes with the words, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
Neither Mary nor Zechariah could ever have known exactly how God would work through these babies, but they believed God’s mercy and love is steadfast and unending.   Zechariah trusted that God is working through the births of these children.
The light that comes into the world, sent by God in God’s great mercy, is the dawn that will overcome the darkness and shadow of death. The light is a guide. It will guide us into the way of all peace.
The awesome, hard-to-fathom, unprecedented promise of God’s mercy is that it is a gift. Unexpected, unusual, seemingly impossible by human estimations, yet through these Scriptures, and through the songs of response by Elizabeth, Mary, and the newly eloquent Zechariah, we receive the grace of God not because of anything we have done but because of what God does for us.
There is plenty of doubt to go around. The story of Christmas, from the annunciations of the conceptions to the events surrounding the births of John and Jesus, seems too fantastical, and too good to be true. We, too, wonder how God can make an old barren woman and a young peasant virgin become pregnant and bear baby boys whose lives will change the world.
While Elizabeth, Mary, and Zechariah sang out with joy and praise, the mercy of God addressing the afflictions of the world, we look around and see a world where the poor are still oppressed, where even in the “advanced civilizations” of the modern world people with black and brown skin are hated and are systematically made victims of injustice and persecution, where Jews continue to be murdered for being Jewish, where followers of Christ are distrusted and God’s Holy Word desecrated.
This month we celebrate with great joy the births of two baby boys under the strangest of circumstances even while we absorb the news that: yet another child has died in detention and millions around the world and in our country have been traumatized and many scarred for life by their experiences of war, poverty, famine, violence, family separation, physical and sexual abuse and exploitation, and homelessness.
The same God who sent his Son into the world to relieve the pain and injustices of the world, to overcome the darkness in our lives, and to free us from sin continues to come among us making a difference in our lives and in our world. God comes into the world in unexpected ways and daily grants mercy to those who believe in him.
Through the words of Zechariah, we come to recognize that God’s unending mercy still abides in the world, and that God uses unassuming and flawed people to show God’s love, compassion, and care.
God’s mercy overcomes the obstacles in our lives, especially the barriers we ourselves erect, and God delivers on God’s promise of unending mercy and love. This week was a crazy busy one for me as I know it was for you, yet I saw God at work last Sunday when several of you gave up hours of your lives to sing Christmas carols and your beautiful, smiling faces to our home-

bound and to the places where you live. I saw the faces of aged, confined people come to life when perfect strangers surrounded them with love and song.
I experienced the love of God through a colleague who spoke a few words of reassurance to me, during a hard week.
I felt God working through the members of the renewal team as we met on Monday and planned a month of activities here at Zion.  
There are so many ways to see and know God’s mercy and love, God’s faithfulness and abundance, God’s grace and peace.
As you enter the final days of preparation for Christmas, I pray that you too can join in the words of praise Zechariah sings, as the light of Christ scatters the darkness and grants you hope and grace forever. Amen.