Archive for December 2015

Be The Star This Christmas

December 28, 2015

Matthew 2:1-12

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!

Magnifying With Mary

December 28, 2015

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.’

Stained glass window of The Visitation, Mary is pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, Church of the Reconciliation, Taize Community, Taize, Saone-et-Loire, Burgundy, France, Europe

25 Jul 2014, Taizé, France — Stained glass window of The Visitation, Mary is pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, Church of the Reconciliation, Taize Community, Taize, Saone-et-Loire, Burgundy, France, Europe — Image by © robertharding/Corbis

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.

Preparing The Way For A ‘Nobody’

December 28, 2015

Luke 3:1-6
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.

Advent Fish Out Of Water

December 3, 2015

Luke 21:25-36
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”


Advent 1 / John Stiles / 11-29-15 / First Lutheran Church

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, ‘Come!’ Amen.

There is an old Chinese proverb that goes: If you want a definition of water, don’t ask a fish. As we begin this new church year, with the season of Advent, I feel much like a fish in the water. We talk about Advent every year, we light the candle and hear the stories about the coming Christ-child, and yet I’m not sure we realize the enormity of it all. Like fish in the water, it’s easy to swim along through the Christmas season and miss the fact that were swimming in a whole ocean of grace about to be poured out on the earth!

Advent means “coming”. These next few weeks, we will prepare for the coming of Jesus. It is a time of anticipation and getting ready. We deck our halls with greens, the snow comes down, and we raise the banners of blue – the color of hope. There are trees to be bought, and lists to be made; letters to be mailed, schedules to coordinate. And in the midst of all of this swimming through the season, God sends us a wake up call — full of wonder and awe – and danger!

In Luke 21, Jesus tells his followers about the last days. And it’s pretty bleak. This section is filled with news of the end of time, but in the verses leading up to today’s reading (starting in verse 16) Jesus says,

“You will be betrayed even by your parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name…” “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars… for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

Merry Christmas to you, too, Jesus! Really puts you in the mood for spreading Christmas cheer, doesn’t it? Jesus told his disciples to watch for the signs of the time. Just as the fig tree puts out its leaves, telling us that summer is coming; so too, when you see these things happening, you will know that the Son of Man is coming. One thing is clear: these events involve terrible destruction. They should sound familiar to us all. Verse 10:

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues… “

Not a day goes by that we don’t hear about such things in the newspaper or online. Then comes this chilling indictment: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down… and that day catch you unexpectedly like a trap!”

Two common traps we fall into, especially during the holidays are worry and flurry. Simply speaking: worry constipates energy and flurry dissipates it!

VerizonThanksgettingThe trap of consumerism also looms on the horizon this time of year. Everywhere we look someone’s trying to sell us something. We fall into the trap when buying becomes more important than giving. Just this week, Verizon Wireless ran an ad campaign called Thanksgetting to promote all the features one could ‘get’ with a new phone plan.  It’s all part & parcel of the toxic soup we swim in as consumers. The word consume is actually a medical term, meaning literally to use up, lay waste and destroy. In fact, an early term for the disease tuberculosis was “consumption.” So, what’s eating at you this Advent Season? How are you really doing as you prepare your heart for the coming Christ child?

What are the storms that roar in your life this time of year?
Has a loved one been taken from you?
Have natural disasters destroyed your dreams?
Has someone hated you because of your views or because you’re different?
Have you been ignored or put off because you’re getting up there in years?
Have you been captured by a secret sin, and are just dying to break free?
Have you been hurt by a lover, scorned by a friend, or perhaps you yourself bear the guilt… and you wonder whether God even cares about your life.

It can lead us to despair, asking: “WHAT’S THE POINT OF MY STORY?! If this is God’s idea of a wake up call, I’d rather stay in bed, thank you. No, in fact, I am not awake. No, I do not want to get up. Just let me stay under the covers.” Most people know that there is no point to the senseless sufferings around us every day – racial unrest in the streets of Chicago and Minneapolis – homegrown terrorists in Colorado Springs and Charleston, SC – and a political process that has lost its civility and respect for one another. When did we lose the ability to simply be agreeable with one another, even if we don’t agree on something?

It’s important to note here that Jesus lifted up these very moments as the times in which he would come again. …the moments when we were to watch for him. He is even so bold as to say: (in v. 18) “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” What times in your life can you point to when that promise was put to the test?

When I graduated from seminary a classmate of mine, Barb Bullock-Tiffany also began her ministry. But just two years into the call, news came that Barb had cancer and she died within a year. Young, witty, talented, tender Barb. Barb the thinker and theologian. Barb the preacher, pastor and friend. I remember being angry and sad all at once. Most of her classmates came back for the funeral. They had us seated toward the front – rows upon rows of clergy, processed by her casket during the opening hymn. And as I walked by it seemed like the end of the world. It was so unfair. So terribly wrong. I remember saying to God, as I passed by her casket: “It had better be true… It had better be true… true that you are who you say you are – true that you rose from the dead – true that you’ll be there each time we have to do this.”

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus’ advice during these times is to stand up – and raise your head – for your redemption is drawing near.”

Just like Jeremiah stood up, in our first lesson. He gave his people hope that they’ll be going home soon. They’d been in exile in Babylon for years. And yet, back in chapter 25, while the entire city of Jerusalem was under siege, Jeremiah also spoke of hope. So much so, that he went out and bought a piece of land – knowing full well that the Babylonians are about to sack the city. “The days are surely coming…” said Jeremiah. “The days are surely coming…” It was a favorite saying of his. He might as well have said: “It had better be true!”

“The days are surely coming… when I will cause a righteous branch of David to spring up.” …refering to a new king to come… in the line of David. Even as Jerusalem is about to be destroyed, and the throne of David, which has never fallen since the boy king defeated the mighty Goliath… Jeremiah prepares them for the worst. A new king is coming: a Messiah who will save not just the people of Israel, but the whole world!

And so we wait… and we hope for what we do not yet see.

Like a fish in water, there are some things I just cannot understand. We see the signs and say, “This just can’t be how the story ends.” Now, more than ever, we need this gift of wonder – to awaken the faith and find our purpose in life. But that’s not always easy to see.

It’s like the time Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were on a camping trip.
In the middle of the night, Holmes nudges Watson awake, and says,
“Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”
“I see millions of stars, my dear Holmes.”
“And what do you infer from these stars?”
“Well, a number of things,” he says, lighting his pipe:
Astronomically, I observe that there are millions of galaxies and billions of stars and planets.
Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo.
Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three.
Meteorologically, I expect that the weather will be fine and clear.
Theologically, I see that God is all-powerful, and man, his creation, small and insignificant.
What about you, Holmes?”
“Watson, you fool! Someone has stolen our tent!”

It’s a good thing Jesus isn’t a fish. Sure, he came to be a fish — like us — to swim in the waters of this world, to teach us a few things along the way. He came to show us the way through those deep, dark caverns at the bottom of the sea, where dreams vanish and good people drown – as well as the beautiful lakes and reefs and clear, blue oceans – that give us joy.

British theologian, Lesslie Newbigin, describes it this way. He says, “How can we, who are still in the middle of the cosmic story, know what the point of the story is, or whether it has any point at all? Only if the author of the story has let us in on the secret while we are still in the middle. There can be no other possibility.”

This Advent season, Jesus is coming again to let us all in on a secret. He’s coming to tell us how the story ends. And through it all, his words of hope ring true:

“When these things begin to take place, stand up, raise your heads, your redemption is drawing near…”

In fact, let’s stand for this closing prayer – and lift our heads in prayer for a change. Let us pray: Awaken the faith in us, O God. Show us the point in our story. Walk with us in the midst of our sufferings that we, too, might stand tall in the faith this Advent season.