Categories: sermons, Uncategorized
Categories: sermons, Uncategorized
Then [Jesus and his disciples] arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and did not live in a house, but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”—for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
Pent5 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 6-19-16
Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God, who loved us first, in Christ, Jesus. Let all who hear say, “Come!” Amen.
There I was, just minding my own business, when all of a sudden this guy walks up to me, from out of nowhere and says, “Come out of him!” And he’s looking right at me. Now, I knew who he was. I mean, I was pretty messed up at the time, but that much I understood. This guy was different. He walked with authority. And he wasn’t afraid of me. I had lost count of how many nervous breakdowns I had had. But it didn’t matter to him. He walked right up to me. The people of my village had long since left me for dead. I was more a ghost to them than anything. Their chains could no longer hold me. Whatever demons tormented me from within – they burst the bonds without. My clothes were in tatters – it was easier to just go about naked. What’s the point, anyway? Too many voices in my head had driven me to despair, to the point of bruising myself with rocks and banging my head against the tombs. “Let me in,” I cried, “I’d rather be in the grave than endure another moment of this torment.”
When night fell, I would roam the city looking for scraps to eat from the garbage of my neighbors. I must’ve been a sight. Understandably, they were afraid of me. And I played my part well, shouting back at them obscenities, cursing to the top of my lungs. Sometimes, all it took was an evil stare, or for them to get a good whiff of me, and then they’d leave me alone. Eventually, it became clear that fear had become the unwritten rule between us – that we should never speak to one another. Ever. It was just easier that way. So we kept to ourselves, mostly… until that day. “What do you want with me?” I shouted. (or was it the voices in my head?) “We know who you are, Jesus: the Son of the Most High God!” Why is he talking to me? Doesn’t he know that I’m dangerous? Maybe if I growl a little louder, or foam a bit at the mouth… no, he’s not buying it, and he’s not running away. In fact, he’s coming closer. He wants to talk to me. “What is my name? What kind of question is that? Don’t you know who I am? I’m your worst nightmare, Jesus. Everyone in town knows me. My name is Legion, for there are many of us in my head … so many that I’ve forgotten who I am. I’m nobody and everybody, what do you think of that?”
He just kept looking intently at me and I knew this was a losing battle. So, I begged him to go easy on the evil spirits. After all, they had become a part of me. “Send us into those unclean pigs over there, Jesus. Don’t send us into the abyss.” So he did and they left me that very instant. The pigs went crazy, just like I had, and rushed over a cliff and were drowned in the sea. Their owners were devastated and ran into town to tell their friends what had happened. All at once a curious calm came upon me. I felt hungry and exhausted. I felt just fine – finer that I had in years. Jesus gave me a bath and combed my hair. He helped me find some underwear and clothes. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for me. But I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d be back – those spirits. He didn’t seem to mind, he just handed me another piece of fish, “Eat up!”
Soon a crowd arrived from town and they saw me sitting there in my right mind talking to Jesus. “Hi guys,” I waved sheepishly. “Sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused. All better now, thanks to Jesus.” They just stood there with their mouths wide open, staring at me. And, if you think they were afraid of me before… the looks on their faces now betrayed a new kind of fear – a fear that Jesus was giving me back to them – that they would have to learn my name and deal with me as a person, not some filthy, raging lunatic. They were afraid that I just might snap again at any time. “Can we trust our children around this man?” Sometimes fear prefers the chains of isolation over the hard work of reconciliation. I could see some of them weren’t buying it. They begged Jesus to leave, so he got back in his boat.
“Take me with you!” I cried. “Don’t leave me here. No one understands me like you, Jesus. No one sees me for who I really am except you.” He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “They will. It won’t be easy, but they will. Go to your people. Tell them everything God has done for you.” So I did. And, guess what? I got my life back. I came out of the shadows, thanks to God. I found a place to live and got a job tanning hides to make leather into shoes. Yes, I still get some strange stares now and then. People who refuse to accept me for who I am. But others have taken me in – new friends who treated me like family.
And they know my name.
The story of the possessed man from Gerasene happens to fall on this 5th Sunday after Pentecost. It is one week after the horrific massacre in Orlando which, to date, is the largest mass shooting in modern-day history.
Just imagine all the people represented in that terrible event and ask yourself: Who is my neighbor? The shooter was a Muslim, who pledged allegiance to ISIS. It’s also been reported that he had mental illness. The victims were from the GLBT community and were mostly Latino. And the media, politicians, the NRA, gun control advocates, are all trying to have their say as we set up camp to engage in debate.
What we often fail to ask, though, is: What is your name? Who, in your life, has it been easier to ignore out of fear? Who have you kept at an arm’s length because you just don’t want to deal with that person as a person? Who do you know who is hiding in the tombs, tormented by demons, unwilling to come out and re-join the community? Maybe it’s even you, yourself.
Is it time for us to learn more about the faith of Islam – more than what we hear from politicians and pundits? Last summer, Lutheran Social Services, in conjunction with Luther Seminary, produced a new study guide called: My Neighbor Is Muslim. It’s a free download that can be found online. Other churches in our synod have been using it as a resource to become better informed about our neighbors and what we might learn from one another and how to coexist amid our differences. If there is enough interest, I would be willing to lead this in a future study group.
Is it time to rethink our beliefs about mental illness? And instead of building more prisons to house criminals (many of whom have mental illness) what about ways to rehabilitate and help people toward healing. Many people with mental illness are veterans, suffering from PTSD – which is treatable with medication and group therapy.
Is it time for us to reach out to the gay community? To say “no more” and to say publicly? I know a pastor who shared with me his daughter’s ‘coming out.’ He said, ‘The day she came out…we went into the closet. At the urging of a colleague of mine, this week I decided to contact 5 or 6 friends of mine who I know are gay (or who have children who are gay) and I sent them this message: “I’m thinking of you, especially, this week after the horrific events in Orlando. I see you, and pray God’s protection on all who live in fear of such senseless violence.” Most replied back with a simple thank you but one said the message brought tears to her eyes. She had been deeply hurt by her church – not in what had been said, but in what hadn’t been said. That her son had full value as a gay person, as much as anyone else. Sometimes, we in the church, say nothing in order to keep the peace. But that silence can be loud to those who are struggling with sexual identities. So is it time for us to say, “We see you? And we welcome everyone to the love of God?”
When Jesus cast out the legion of demons from the man of Gerasene, it was his own people who took on his chains – chains of fear. They begged Jesus to leave. Only the healed man wished to go with him; but Jesus sent him back to his own people. People who didn’t know what to do with him. But as people of faith, we know what we must do. As Paul said to the Galatians in our 2nd lesson: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, Slave or Free, Male and Female – for you are all one in Christ Jesus. We are all related. May this be our legacy in this time and place: that we loved those society had cast out – that we turned the walls between us into tables of reconciliation – that we looked into each other’s eyes and learned each other’s names. And may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds together as one, in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
I’ve been working on this handy little AI to see if we could embed it in our church’s webpage. Try asking a question and let’s see if it can ‘learn’ to answer. Still having trouble pasting in the html codes, but here’s the link in case you want to ask a few questions. 😀
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Christmas Eve / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 12-24-15
Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God, our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say Come! Amen.
This Christmas we are blessed with the work of many hands who have decorated our sanctuary and practiced music to share in our worship service. We have readers who’ve practiced their lines. Our Altar Guild hung Bible verses on the stairs that guide us to Christ, and arranged the poinsettias. The Worship & Music Team put up the tree and hung the greens. And a couple of our members built a sign of JOY out of wood for our altar and this beautiful Christmas Star to hang in our chancel this year.
These are all wonderful gifts – especially this time of year – why? Because they point us toward Christ. The wise men didn’t worship the star – but the one to whom the star pointed: Jesus Christ. The function of a star is to shine and guide and to show the way for others. And every star is different – no two shine quite alike. So, this Christmas, I want to ask you: how will you shine and light the way for others? And, to help you think about this, I wrote a little story about stars (with apologies to Dr. Seuss, as it’s done in that same style) about how we all shine in our own way. So, this is the sermon this Christmas Eve. I call it: Be The Star This Christmas!
Tis the season for wide-eyed wishes
And shining stars and Christmas dishes
The guests will all come singing songs, giving gifts
And we’ll toast them with eggnog and eat leutefisk!
And soon we can all breathe a sigh of relief
Being glad that it’s over (except the roast beast).
When guests have all shuttled away to their cars
Then we can go back to our lives near and far.
But wait, what’s that glow, through the trees up on high?
Could it be the Star of Bethlehem still drawing nigh?
Who knows, maybe this will be the year
That the star shines for us, some true Christmas cheer!
Oh, I wish it were true. It isn’t so trite
To imagine that peace in the world comes tonight.
It can happen in YOU. It can happen in ME.
All we need to do is SHINE so that everyone can see.
So, how will YOU shine in your starry-kind-of-way?
Will you glow oh, so gently or with bold, bright array?
Will you burn so hot till your friends need sunglasses?
Or will your light be warm and dark as sweet molasses?
You could plug IN your star to make it brighter than bright
Using string-after-string. Why, it would shine day and night!
Your friends would say ‘Wow!’ They would all come and see
But friends are not friends because of electricity.
Even if you’re famous and get on TV!
Or maybe you’re ashamed of the star in your heart
And feeling so down for not doing your part
Maybe someone laughed at your particular twinkle
And made you feel small as a Flim Flammer Flinkle.
(And that’s pretty small, let me tell you, I know.
I once had one for a pet. It did everything but grow!)
So what are we to do if we’re down with the blues?
And don’t think we could shine like the rest of those hues?
Could the answer be sitting at the top of my tree?
In a star shining brightly for you and for me?
Say, what if I shine for you and you shine for me?
It really doesn’t matter if no one else sees.
Don’t you wonder in a world full of hatred and sin
How a dear little baby could draw people in?
How he’d one day stand up to rulers with swords
And disarm them with love, not the force or big words.
This Jesus, this Mary, this Joseph, I’m told
Have much more to give us than incense and gold.
For the world still needs saving. Look around you, it’s true.
People are hurting, and maybe it’s you.
God sent the star for the wise men to guide
It wasn’t so big, but it shined far and wide
It shined so bright that they just had to pursue
Till this star came to rest over a stable with cow poo.
They weren’t much to look at, this family in the hay
But there was something about him that made the wise men stay
They knelt before the child and worshipped him as king
Doesn’t that sound like a strange sort of thing?
Star-struck lovers, they offered gifts untold
Of frankincense and myrrh and pockets full of gold
But the best gift they gave to the child in the hay
Was the gift of their hearts, for they had FAITH that day.
For that is what stars do – in the end of all things
They point the way for others to worship Christ the king.
It isn’t about their glow or how sparkly they are
No, they simply do what all stars do: show God’s love near and far.
So, someday when others may ask about God
Don’t be surprised and perplexed or feel odd.
No, the star that they’ve followed is YOU, you big star!
You’re the one radiating God’s love. You just ARE!
Yes, Christmas is about Jesus and the sharing of his love.
But we must shine it down here because it came from above.
So be the star this Christmas as you point the way for others
And shine the light of Christ on your sisters and your brothers.
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year in 2016!
Luke 1:46-55 / Mary’s Song of Praise
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Luke 1:39-45 / Mary Visits Elizabeth
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
Advent4 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 12-20-15
Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, “Come!” Amen.
I’m going to go out on a limb today and bet that everyone sitting in this room has, at one time or another, felt superior to or inferior to someone else; either more important or less important than another, for some reason.
We live in a society that is hard-wired for ‘winners’ & ‘losers.’ In school there are athletes and loners, popular kids and stoners. At the movies there are Jedi and Sith, and the Dark Side to play with. And, Santa’s makin’ a list and checkin’ it twice. Why? Gonna find out who’s Naughty or Nice. And, at the end of every sporting event only one team can sing: “We are the champions!”
So, whose side are you on?
It’s a tempting question we get asked a lot in life. But I’m not sure it’s the right question. Asking ‘whose side are you on?’ only drives the wedge of division deeper between us. Surely there’s a third way to live in this world between winner and loser. Mary shows us how in the song she sings on this fourth Sunday in Advent. It is known as “The Magnificat.”
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings. In this moment she is neither inferior nor superior – she is simply a ‘magnifying glass’ to show the world what God has done. Mary blows up the fine print of scripture, recalling God’s past faithfulness to Abraham and Sarah – who were also poor, unlikely candidates for God’s will to be carried out. Then Mary zooms in on her own experience of being loved by God (a very intimate and personal testimony): “You have looked with love on your servant here and blessed me all my life through.” And finally, Mary keeps the focus on what God has done (and is doing).
There is no haughtiness to her song: No, “I’m da man!” No, ‘woe is me’ self-pity, either. Only this magnificent testimony that Mary gets to participate in something bigger than herself – she has come, empty-handed, and has been made a vessel for the Almighty. Notice who the ‘subject’ is of nearly every one of Mary’s ‘verbs’ – God! “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly… [God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
So, inasmuch as Mary’s song isn’t ‘about Mary’ it does leave me wondering: Does God ‘root for the underdog?’ playing favorites with the poor? The powerless? The insignificant? Does God really flip the world upside-down – choosing Moses, with his speech impediment / or David, the scrawny shepherd boy /or Ruth the outsider to lead the people to greatness? Does God really birth kings from poor peasant girls whom nobody knows?
I mean, who else besides Mary understood the depth of this song? That’s right: King Herod. When he heard a child had been born and the prophecies were ‘that the government would rest upon his shoulders’ and that he would come from little town of Bethlehem, what was his reaction? He dispatched a garrison of soldiers to have every child under the age of 2 killed in that region. There aren’t any Christmas carols that tell that part of the story. Herod, that ruthless pawn of the Roman occupying force – who knew his subjects loathed him, but he could care less. Herod, who kept 70 Israelites prisoners at any given time, just in case he might die suddenly. His orders were that those 70 Jews would be killed upon his death, so that there would truly be mourning in Israel when he died (that’s how much his subjects hated him). What an ego trip! What a flagrant abuse of power! Needless to say, Herod was not one to feel inferior to others.
How different were the words of President Abraham Lincoln, when asked whether he felt God was on his side in fighting the Civil War. His reply was: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
And so, Mary’s song is not diminished, for she strove to be faithful to God throughout her ordeal. Even through the horrific slaughter of little children, her song stood the test of time. Governments in India and Guatemala once banned the singing of the Magnificat, or its public recitation – for this very reason: it’s dangerous and subversive because it might incite riots in the streets. Mary flips the world upside down as she sings about rulers being cast down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty. So how is it good news for everyone?
You see, if this song had only been about Mary it wouldn’t have been remembered. But the world was about to change forever in the birth of Jesus. This Magnificat is anchored in that promise that God works through the lowly and the insignificant. Through Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land. Through Mary, in her virginity and her poverty – through Elizabeth, in her old age – through you and me, when we think we have no power. Even through the tragedy of daily mass shootings in our country.
Today I want you to imagine God being born in you, like a song rising up inside of you. Not a victory song of winners or losers – but a song of faith, bringing about a new beginning. What does your ‘magnificat’ sound like? How has God loved you and blessed you, like Mary? You may not have words to express it. When the angel told Mary about it her response was: “How can this be?”
I once visited a gospel singer, Robert Anderson, in his home in Chicago. He was well into his 70’s by then. It was 1993, and I was interviewing him for school project. He spoke of a joy that wells up within the believer’s heart – that doesn’t come from worldly power or wealth. He said,
“Some folks can actually get up and say many things that they wanna say, that they got this and they got this. Yeah you got it, but how long you gonna keep it? And somebody else could receive the same thing, and won’t even think nothin’ of it, and throw it out to the wolves… So, these things don’t mean anything. I’d rather have the love of God, and have his concern than anything in the world. All of this don’t mean nothin’. I’ve sang in front of ambassadors and kings and queens. That don’t mean nothin’! If they haven’t received the word and received the Christ, they’re still sounding brass.”
So, what does ‘joy’ have to do with Mary’s song and Elizabeth’s child dancing in the womb? Just think how distraught Mary must’ve been – all the shame and talking behind her back that must’ve gone on there in that small town. People talk. They want to know who the father of the child is. Joseph wanted to know! And in the midst of all this stress and shame, Elizabeth couldn’t be happier to see Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” It’s pure joy that she greets Mary with. This child will rule with love and mercy – not fear and force. His joy will come from the Word of God. It was Jesus who would some day say: (in John 15:11) “I have said these things to you, so that my joy might be in you, and that your joy might be complete.”
Whenever our world seems to be spinning out of control, it’s in our nature to try and take over – to believe that old adage: “God helps those who help themselves” (which isn’t even the Bible). No, Mary will have none of that today. You want to talk about somebody who’s life is out of control? Look no further: Mary knows she cannot help herself. She has appeared before the angel, in her humility and vulnerability, and received all the power she needed from on high.
If the best we can do this day is to put our trust in worldly power – to “Make America Great Again” to be “Winners and not Losers” then we’re just riding the coattails of the Empire, like Herod.
Christmas isn’t about being naughty or nice – and worrying about which list we’ll end up on! It’s about being faithful – which is all Mary & Elizabeth had to go on – faith.
That’s why we need Mary’s song today more than ever. That song of magnificent love – full of the promise and hope and joy that is about to visit the earth. A song that invites us to receive all that is coming to be born in us.
Let us pray: O God, you come to us in ways we cannot understand. In a humble manger, born of lowly Mary. Be born in us ~ and may we too sing that magnificent song of faith, in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Categories: sermons, Uncategorized
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Advent2 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 12-6-15
Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, “Come!” Amen.
Today we light the “Candle of Hope.” Last week it was “Peace.” Or, as it’s named in Hebrew: shalom. We hear it every Christmastime as angels sing from the heaven above: Peace on earth and good will toward all.
And, in today’s lesson, we hear Zechariah’s song to his son, John the Baptist… who would help “guide his people into the way of peace.” These are hope-filled texts. In fact, there’s almost a “Lion King” feel to Zechariah’s song. You can imagine him lifting up baby, John, as the heavens parted and the sunbeam falls upon him as he declares with hopeful expectation:
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High
For you will go before the Lord to prepare the way
To give the people knowledge of salvation, by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassions of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death
And to guide our feet into the way of peace
As we light this HOPE candle for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, we prepare our hearts for the coming Christ-child. We pray with HOPE for PEACE in our world. When nations go to war with one another we send in diplomats for peace talks with the hope that eventually they will sign “peace treaties” (and actually abide by them). We admire those around us who seem to have found ‘a little peace of mind.’ – or, if nothing else, a little ‘peace and quiet.’ Jesus, himself, said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” But how do they do it?
I’m reminded of the story that is told about the young Ojibwe boy who was given the task of ensuring the entire village had enough wood for winter. This was the first time he had been given such an honor and he wanted to do it right. Before he went to work he decided to call the weatherman to ask what kind of a winter was to be expected. The weatherman told him it was going to be a warm and uneventful winter. The boy thought to himself, Great! I won’t have to work too hard and I’ll be able to look good in front of the whole tribe.’ Just to be safe, he gathered a few of his friends and they went to work for a week. At the end of the week, after chopping and piling the wood, the boy decided to give the weatherman a second call. The weatherman told him it was going to be a very cold winter. Shocked at this sudden change and not wanting to disappoint the elders of his village, he gathered more of his friends and they went to work. For two weeks they cut and piled wood, hoping that it would be enough to last the whole winter.
And, once again the boy called the weatherman and this time the weatherman told him, “Son, it’s going to be a very bitter, cold and long winter. Maybe the worst winter on record.” Exasperated, the boy had to ask, “What makes you say that sir?” The weatherman replies, “Haven’t you heard? The Indians are gathering wood like crazy!”
(At least they were paying attention to each other.) So, who are you paying attention to these days? In Isaiah 40 we read: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” And so, praying and waiting and listening are all a part of this Advent-kind-of-waiting. Remember for a moment the great expectations leading up to John’s birth. His own father, Zechariah, literally couldn’t speak for nine months until John was born.
That was his punishment from the angel, Gabriel, for not believing that he & Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son. “We’re too old! How can this be?” (It wasn’t much different than what Mary said when she found out Jesus was on the way). But, in stern-Gandalf-fashion, Gabriel declares: “For your disbelief you shall remain mute – unable to speak – until all these things have come to pass!” It is kind of harsh, don’t you think? Gabriel didn’t punish Mary for asking “How can this, for I am a virgin? I suppose nine months of morning sickness, public humiliation, and breaking the news to Joseph more than made up for it!
I wonder what we’d say – if we had only so many words TO say. Nine months is a long time to not say anything. Can you imagine? Some days it’s all I can do just to think before speaking. We should all learn how to taste our own words before saying them out loud. And, in a way, that is what Advent is all about. Watching, waiting, weighing our words – for when the time is right to speak.
In our culture there’s no shortage of words. We post to Facebook or tweet our thoughts and opinions – sometimes multiple times a day. It seems everyone has something to say. There is no shortage of verbage and thoughts to fill our news feeds and minds.
But when we are silent…
When we intentionally shut our mouths, even for a moment, to breathe and to listen – God stands ready to fill our hearts with gladness. Hear again the angel’s promise to Zechariah: “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” (Luke 1:14)
There is a sense of anticipation – I mean, once Zechariah let it sink in, what was happening, I’m sure he too was looking forward to it. And, when his tongue is finally set free he sings! His papa, Zechariah, speaks from experience – he, himself being the first to repent. Before he’s even born John is turning the heart of his father around. And, in the end, it is Zechariah who names him John: God’s gracious gift.
Alyce McKenzie puts it this way: “In those moments when we name God at work in the world, we find our voice, our identity, and our message.” No doubt, after nine speechless months, Zechariah had had plenty of time to think about it. And here, in this Advent season, he’s found his voice – he knows who he is and what his purpose is.
So what does this mean for you and me?
You may say to yourself: “I’m nobody.” “Why would anyone care what I have to say?” I would argue that John probably felt the same way. I mean, just look at this long list of dignitaries Luke begins his gospel with in v. 1 – Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip – all the bigwigs are here. Even the religious leaders, Caiaphas and Annas the High Priest, get a mention. And during that time, the Word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness. John? Who’s he? A ‘nobody.’
John became a prophet, as important as Elijah, calling people to repent and believe in the good news. This crazy preacher, clothed in camel fur, eating bugs & honey – cried out in the wilderness, and people didn’t know what to do with him. He had no credentials… but the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. Never underestimate what God can do with people the world calls “nobody.”
Consider Jeremiah, who hid his underwear down by the river (in Jeremiah 13) to show the people how they had spoiled themselves, though God made them to cling to him – closer than a loincloth (i.e Fruit of the Looms!). He was trying to make a point – and people remembered it.
Consider Isaiah who walked butt-naked and barefoot for 3 years (in Isaiah 20) to warn the people that they, too, would be taken prisoner – naked and ashamed – into a foreign land.
Consider Hosea who married a temple prostitute to show the people how much they had ‘cheated on God’ (in Hosea 1) by following after false gods.
Time and time again, God sent people to speak and to act in ways that woke others up. Now, I’m not suggesting you run off to get married… but I am suggesting that we should listen more for that voice that shapes our identity that shapes our message. The Word of the Lord was with those prophets – and lives were changed as a result. “Prepare the way” is not just a phrase for Advent. It’s for every day. What part of you needs to be brought down a notch – like a mountain laid low? Or, what part of you needs to be restored – like a valley being filled up?
It may be something as simple as snow removal. Do you even stop to think about the snow shoveling crews that we have on call this time of year at First Lutheran? Who shovels the snow and salts the sidewalks to prepare the way for worship? Who gave you a lift to get medicine or visit the doctor? Who prepared a meal for you during a death in the family so you didn’t have to think about meal planning while you were busy funeral planning? Who prayed for you when you were in need?
One thing is clear: when Christ comes into your life it is Good News. And it is irresistible – like a song, rising up from within.
I want to close with a poem by Madeleine L’Engle entitled: The Risk of Birth, Christmas 1973. She writes:
This is no time for a child to be born
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by the comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
Thanks be to God that love still takes the risk to be born among us! All around us – prophets are being born – people who prepare the way for us! People who show us how to love in a world broken by hate. So, what’s being born in you? What are you hearing in the silence? Something new is coming that will forever change your life. Let us pray:
O God, we ask for patience as we wait and watch and wonder at what you are about to do in our lives. We pray for HOPE and PEACE in our world. Give us the right words to say to prepare the way for others this Advent season, in Jesus’ name. Amen.