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Friday, December 25, 2015

Star Wars, Baby Jesus and Hymns of Rebellion

Christmas Eve, 2015.
          While I may not have seen the long awaited, much hyped, most recently released installment in the Star Wars, I have seen the previous films. Whether or not you are a Star Wars fan or have seen each of the episodes in the franchise a hundred times, you probably recognize words from the opening crawl that set the story in time. Each one of the movies begins with a prologue. Those words let the audience in on what has led up to the point where the action begins as the start of the movie. 
          In the very first Star Wars movie we read the words rapidly crawling up the screen, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, …” as John Williams’ famous Star Wars theme plays in the background; and each movie afterward starts with the same music and a scrolling prologue that adds to the story and says in a few words what has happened leading up to the start of this particular movie.
          With each Star Wars installment, we remember the origins of the story. We remember the characters that have come and gone and the ones who have been central to the story. And we remember that at its core this is a story about the age-old forces of good resisting and rebelling against, the forces of evil.
          We witness the struggle between these forces in the movies. We root for the good guys who, at the end of each movie have gained the upper hand, yet we know that the struggle between the imperial forces (those are the bad guys) and the rebellion (the good guys) is not over. Far from it. [After all, there is another sequel or prequel to come.]
          At the conclusion of each of these movies, even as the x-wing fighters make their victory laps, we know that the evil still exists and will once again raise its ugly head, but we also revel in the fact that the Good guys continue to resist, that the rebellion continues to grow, and that good does triumph; and one day, hopefully, will overcome all evil. Despite the twists and turns in the plot, we can believe that it will ultimately win not just the hour or the day, but the whole shebang.
          Tonight we gather as we do each year on Christmas Eve, and sing our beloved Christmas carols and hear again the now-familiar biblical texts telling the story of the nativity of Our Lord Jesus.
          We rejoice in the fact that God’s love is so strong and God’s mercy is so broad that God came to earth as a little child. We revel in the birth of this tiny baby, which is just the beginning of that episode in which the grand story of our redemption is revealed.
          As we do every Christmas Eve, we hear the familiar words from Isaiah, our own prologue to the story: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them a light has shined.”
          And then, we hear the words we long to hear, the words we have been waiting to hear. We hear the words of hope: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
          Did you hear the wondrous, good news? “A child has been born.” And then, the words that tell us why this is good news: This child has been born For us. This child has been born for you and for me.
          This is our prologue. This is our song, and it sets the stage for the glorious story that brings us to this night. But this prologue also reminds us of the stark reality of our world. It reminds us of what is at stake. People walk in darkness. There is darkness in the world. Unlike the movies, this is not fiction. This is real. While good and evil still battle in the world, we rejoice tonight because God is the ultimate victor, for our sake.
          The truth is that God has reached out to humanity before – freeing Israel from slavery, giving us the law to guide our ways, sending the prophets to warn us of the danger we risked because we rebelled not against evil, but against the ways of God.
          Through it all, God’s love for humankind persisted. God’s desire for us grew ever greater. God’s determination that we should not perish but should enjoy an everlasting relationship with God was firmly rooted in God’s endless love. In the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, God sent God’s own eternal light and life to the world.
          We gather this Christmas Eve surrounded by the beauty of the night, sharing the story, singing hymns and carols because with the birth of Jesus God has inaugurated a new age. It is the age of hope. It is the age of our salvation. We sing our beloved carols, our own songs of rebellion against the evil and tyranny of the world:
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant! O come ye, to Bethlehem, and behold him, our newborn king. He is the highest most holy, light of light eternal…Jesus…and to him we give all glory and praise.
We sing our victory songs, acknowledging that God’s goodness reaches down to earth in this babe born in Bethlehem, and is the only power strong enough conquer the sinful forces that seek to claim us. And so, on this night, we are encouraged to shout out the good news:
Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere; go tell it on the mountain that down, in a lonely manger the humble Christ was born, as God sent us salvation this blessed Christmas morn.
          The history of the liberation of humankind from the evil forces of sin and death reads a little bit like the saga of the Imperial Forces and the Rebellion of the Star Wars movies.
          “In those days a decree went out…” and suddenly we attach a chronological time to God’s advent into the world through Jesus Christ. The mystery of the ages is that this miraculous birth then becomes kairos time – God’s time – the time when the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, and God descends to earth and enters our humanity in the birth of the Messiah.
          In this humble birth God stands against the powers of the world, the evil that lurks around us. God faces down sin and death. Through this birth, God came to tell us that we are deeply, truly and eternally loved and desired by God, and that nothing in the world can keep us from God’s love and grace and blessing.
          God’s message to us tonight is that God’s love is for all, and that God’s love not only wins the day but wins every day forever and ever. God’s love is for everyone, for you, and you, and me; whether we feel lovable or not; whether we feel we are worthy or not; whether we feel we are strong enough to resist the forces all around us or not. God’s love is for each and every one of us.
          In a few moments, we will sing out our battle cry against all the forces that would seek to deny God’s love, God’s power or God’s very existence. We will sing out a song of rebellion full of the blessed assurance of God’s eternal victory:
Love has come—a light in the darkness! Love shines forth in the Bethlehem skies. Love is born! Come share in the wonder. Love has come and never will leave us! Love is life everlasting and free. Love is Jesus within and among us. Love is Jesus, Immanuel.
Glory be to God, on high.
Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Flirting with Joy

Zechariah 3:14-20 & Advent 3
Rejoice! Shout! Exult with all your heart!
            These are the words that set the stage for us on this third Sunday of Advent, as the count-down to Christmas races on. It’s no wonder that these are the words we hear on this Sunday, a day known as “Gaudete Sunday”, Gaudete being the Latin word for “rejoice.” And our biblical texts this day all reflect this theme*. Rejoice! Shout! Exult!
            This exhortation represents a shift in our Advent journey from the messages of judgement and the warnings that we have heard delivered by the prophets through scripture the past couple of weeks.
            In our worship, the shift in tone reflects the excitement that is building as Christmas approaches and the time draws ever nearer for the coming of the Christ child, the embodiment of God’s love and mercy for all this broken world.
            And yet, even as these words ring out, Rejoice! Shout! Exult! I know that some of us struggle to feel cause for rejoicing.
            This has been a tough year. There have been major challenges in our individual lives and in our world. We are faced with the knowledge of our imperfection, our culpability in the pain and suffering of the world, in the prejudice and bigotry that resides deep within, in our failure to value every human life as Jesus does.
            A number of you, like me, have lost loved ones. Some have suffered serious illness, or undergone grueling medical treatments; others have undergone surgical procedures and rehabilitation. Physical, emotional and spiritual challenges have been faced and are perhaps still linger.
            There may have been broken or changed relationships and families.
            Even if things in your own life have been spared difficulties like these this year, it is likely that you have walked and are still walking beside a friend or loved one who was going through a difficult time.
            For these reasons and more, some of us may feel may feel ill-equipped to rejoice, exult, and shout for joy, or to even face the festive season or the future.
            Yet still we hear the words from Zephaniah, Rejoice! Sing aloud! Shout! Exult! And then assurance of Isaiah: Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.
            An article published in the New York Times this week reported that fear is at its highest level since the months immediately following 9/11/2001.
            A continuing onslaught of terror attacks around the world have set people on edge. Public confidence in our leaders to protect us is shaken.
            Even the most mundane of our plans has suddenly taken on a new dimension of doubt, planning, second-guessing and challenge. Should we travel? Should we fly in an airplane? Are trains safe? Is it wise to gather in any large venue? Who do we let in and who do we keep out? What are the limits of what we will do remain safe?
            How do we face this Christmas season with the buoyancy required to do as the prophets tell us to do, rejoice, shout and exult, when the reality of our lives is that we are stressed, struggling, and surrounded by fear?
            And then we hear it: another Word of God comes to us in each of our scripture readings:
“You shall fear no more;”
            “I will trust, and will not be afraid;”
                        “Do not worry about anything,….”
                                    And finally, even as he has pointed out the hypocrisy of those who claim to be followers, John the Baptist “…. proclaimed the good news to the people.”
            Placed side by side, these exhortations and proclamation invite us to hear and trust in God’s promise that God, who sees us just as we are – broken, sad, struggling, fearful, reactive, and full of sin – loves us still. God promises that through Jesus, he will remove the chaff from us – the outer, imperfect sheath of the perfect people God created us to be.
            This Sunday, three-quarters of the way through Advent, there is a burst of pink – the candle on our Advent wreath which was lit today – which signals the welcome hope and attendant joy that our sorrows, worries and the fear that plague us will not define us – because God will fulfill our hope that it does not.
            Rather, through the coming of the anointed one, God, defines us and will define us as God’s beloved children, worthy of redemption and washed from sin in the waters of Baptism.
            This Sunday of rejoicing alerts us that something better is coming – that as the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption is at hand – this Word begins to prepare us for the rejoicing to come with the arrival of God-with-us.
Rejoice! Shout! Exult with all your heart! Have no fear!  
            Because –
God will lift up the lowly,
            the suffering ones,
                        the outcast
                                     and the oppressed,
                                                and will enfold them
                                                            in unending, ultimate joy and protection. 
            Our worship today reflects the hope that abides within us, inspired by God’s Word, and plants the seeds for true joy that persists deplete all that assails us. Advent is traditionally a season of somber reflection and penitence, a counterpart to Lent. That’s why until this week our worship space has been devoid of festive markings and decorations.
            Fasting, repentance and spiritual preparation place our focus on this anticipation of the coming of the Lord.
            Right about this time in the season, we often hear the lament – and perhaps share in it that, for whatever reason – whether in our planning and busywork or by the placement of our hearts and emotions, we are just not ready for Christmas.
            Our lament, it seems, has a lot to do with the stuff we need to do, and little to do with what God has done and is doing in our midst.
            Such is the way of sin. Such is the way of the world. Such is the way of a humanity which calls out to be saved from all that frightens us – even from ourselves, but which steadfastly turns away from the mercy and love of God, is never quite prepared for God to come among us, is never quite ready to welcome God’s desire for us.
            But look around us today. There are signs of life springing forth all around us. As Zephaniah assured the people that their penance was over and God’s salvation was near, there are signs that God is at work here, today, not only in the greening of the church, but in the people who surround us, in the prayers that unite us, in the meal that feeds us, in the light of the candle of joy that shines before us.
            God will have the last word. On this day God’s Word to us reminds us that God is already in our midst as we prepare for the incarnation of God to come, bringing needed transformation to our hearts.
            Because of God’s love and even because of God’s judgement, even as we sit with the reality of a world gone wrong, even while we still sit with illness, pain, brokenness as our companions on earth, we CAN rejoice, we CAN shout AND exult, because God’s abiding presence with us gives voice to the hope and the acknowledgement that the joy God brings is not the claim that, for now, there is no suffering. God’s promise today and the prophets’ invitation to rejoice, shout and exult in the Lord does not mean that God is blind to the ways in which we continue to hurt, continue to sin, continue to oppress others, continue to fail to acknowledge with our lives the reality of the dawn of God which breaks upon us. Rather, the light that shines in the darkness, the light that breaks the bonds of our sorrow and hopelessness, is the light of Christ that assures us that new life is coming to live among us in the form of a savior who will show us the way to live.
            The same God who intimately knows us and who knows our fears and failures sends us abundant hope and promise:
            “Do not fear…The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” ….”
                        Do not fear” is not a plea, but a declaration.
                                    “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,”
                                                “Do not be afraid, Mary.”
            Later, on a night not long from now, in the story that the evangelist Luke tells of a night of fear and pain and dis-ease, we will hear the words, “do not be afraid…I am bringing you good news of great joy.”
            And then, another Gospel proclaims at its end, “Do not be afraid…he is not here, for he has been raised.” (Matt 28:5-6)
            Zephaniah and Luke join all of the voices speaking throughout the scriptures in a persistent, insistent biblical refrain. “Do not fear” is repeated over and over again because human beings are afraid of many things. But by God’s Spirit, they invite us to have faith; to believe that God is with us and for us, and God is preparing us for a new reality of living as God’s faithful people.  God declares that we shall fear no longer, because God will not only bring victory over the enemies all around us, but also those deep within. God will join us in rejoicing and song. God will join together a wide variety of people in singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving.
            We can rejoice this day because we can trust that God will restore the broken, destroy the fear, and bring to rights the cosmos and all that inhabit it, all the creatures God so dearly loves.
            And so, by the power and promise of God, we are confident as we listen again with the words of the apostle Paul:           
            “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Thanks be to God! Amen.

*Additional texts this Sunday are Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, & Luke 3:7-18.