We find ourselves at the beginning of a new year, hoping against hope that 2021 will be better than 2020 was. We hope that new leadership in the government will move us in a positive direction. We hope that we are seeing the beginning of the end of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the gospel text we heard this morning, Jesus, too, was in a moment of beginning. As Mark tells us (and we have heard in our readings over the last few weeks,) Jesus was starting on the work of making God’s love known in a suffering world. He had been baptized by John and experienced temptation in the wilderness. He came into Galilee announcing that “The Kingdom of God has come near”, and called and invited disciples to join him to “fish for people”.
And now, in this morning’s gospel, Jesus enters the synagogue to teach. He was presumably proclaiming the same good news of God’s love that he had declared at the lakeshore, the message of a reign of justice and compassion that was beginning, the message of a power ready to transform the world.
And he was immediately accosted by an “unclean spirit” who, hearing Jesus’ teaching, asked “Have you come to destroy us?”
The unclean spirit recognized Jesus’ power and feared his message, feared the change that Jesus represented. The unclean spirit did not want the Reign of God, would not surrender to the power of love.
Pastor and theologian David Lose suggests that this first miracle in Mark’s gospel – because yes, of course, Jesus healed the possessed man by commanding the spirit to leave him – represents Mark’s fundamental message about Jesus’ ministry.
In Mark’s proclamation, Jesus “has come”, Lose observes, “to oppose the forces of evil, defined as anything and everything that robs God’s children of life.” (In the Meantime, Jan 26 2021)
And aren’t we in the same boat? Aren’t we surrounded – and indeed, possessed within ourselves – by forces that oppose the way of love that Jesus represents?
The exorcism stories in the gospels are somewhat hard to connect with. People in First Century Palestine believed in demons – evil spirits that had independent existence and were always on the lookout for human hosts in whom they could take up residence.
In the modern world we, of course, understand things differently. Most believe, in our time, that the people experiencing demonic possession in the biblical stories were suffering from what we now understand to be mental illness. In this sense, Jesus’ ability to “drive out” unclean spirits was much the same as his ability to restore sight to the blind or strength to limbs that had been paralyzed.
But perhaps we shouldn’t discount the notion of “unclean spirits” too easily.
To return to David’ Lose’s comment about “forces of evil…”, what can we observe to be the unclean spirits, the forces of evil that stand in the way of our wholehearted commitment to the way of Jesus and to the work of bringing about the Reign of God?
What is it in us that calls out to Jesus “Have you come to destroy us?”
Here are some things that occur to me; I’m sure that all of you can add to the list:
We’ve all experienced being possessed by anger or resentment. Sometimes there’s something very safe and comforting in actually nurturing the things that separate us from others, the things that allow us to avoid the hard work of reconciliation.
Likewise, it’s easy to allow ourselves to be possessed by fear. Fear and anxiety can immobilize us, can eliminate our ability to reach out, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. And in protecting ourselves from being vulnerable, we prevent ourselves from growing, and from doing gospel work.
The unclean spirits of depression, of addiction, of shame and guilt can also “rob (us) of life” by preventing us from loving others. Healing ourselves of so many of these unclean spirits calls for the help of others, including seeking professional help.
Similarly, we can trap ourselves in the rigidity of our assumptions and our prejudices, when we simply don’t want to hear or consider something that doesn’t fit with the way we view the world.
In this polarized time in which we find ourselves, I think we’re particularly susceptible to assuming the righteousness of our own convictions – politically, socially, ideologically – and to devaluing not only the views, but also the persons who see the world differently.
One of the “forces of evil” that calls very seductively in our time, as I suppose it always has, is the invitation to honor “my self”, my needs and my rights, over the wellbeing of the larger community.
To be human is to be complex. Just as Spirit of God calls us to be our best selves as God’s children, the other complicated dynamics that are a part of us all make it so very difficult to do so. But naming the unclean spirits is the first step.
One of the wonderful things about today’s gospel story is that Jesus doesn’t fix the whole world in one fell swoop. He heals one man with one evil spirit. He resists and banishes one particular evil that stands in his path in one moment and place.
We can do the same, together, can’t we?
Tonight we do come, as we have for many years, and through many generations. We come to remember and tell again and sing again of the birth in Bethlehem of Judea, the birth in which Love itself became human flesh.
We come to marvel and to be grateful.
But, as we’ve said many times in recent months, this year it is different. Tonight it is hard to summon up “joyful and triumphant.” I think it is important to acknowledge how hard it is not to be together physically tonight, how hard not to see and touch and greet one another in person, how hard to receive only a spiritual communion, and not the physical elements of the sacrament of Eucharist.
I was rather tearful when I read the first draft of tonight’s liturgy; I suspect that a lot of us will feel a lump in the throat during this evening’s service.
Many of our Christmas traditions center on the warm-and-cozy - families gathered in cinnamon-and-balsam scented air, watching adorable children re-enact Christmas card scenes of a wonder-filled holy family surrounded by pleasant shepherds and proverbial “friendly beasts”.
But that is not really the story we have heard from Luke’s gospel tonight. And the thing is, the realities of the events recounted in Luke’s story are realities that we can connect with in powerful ways in this Christmas in this strange and difficult year; as always, tonight’s story has much to tell us, even (and perhaps particularly) from the vantage point of this challenging Christmas season.
Luke’s narrative is set in a landscape of political unease -a first connection we can make. The Emperor, Augustus, had issued a decree requiring everyone to travel to their city of origin to be counted – not for anything that would benefit them, but for taxation purposes. Regardless of the cost or inconvenience, required compliance with political edict was nature of things for Jews of 1st century like Joseph & Mary – something in which they had no choice.
That the couple could find no lodgings and wound up in a stable added insult to the injury of the requirement of their travel from their home in Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem was not a commercial center with available lodging for strangers, but a small village. Joseph was not a stranger, however, but returning to the town where he certainly should have had family.
And if we know anything about the culture of the ancient near east, we know they valued and practiced hospitality.
What an extraordinary run of bad luck for Joseph and Mary that they should be required to travel just as she was ready to give birth, that for reasons unknown, there were no kinfolk to provide assistance, and that in a land of hospitality, the best shelter they could find was in a stable.
Mary and Joseph’s situation, that first Christmas, didn’t turn out the way they would have planned it any more than our Christmas is what we would have chosen.
And then there were the shepherds.
Shepherds occupied the very lowest rungs of the social ladder in first century Judea. Stereotyped as liars and thieves, shepherds were not permitted to give testimony in court. For the religious community in Judea they were outsiders; shepherds were considered ritually unclean and were unable to participate in the Jews’ required Sabbath rituals.
These were not the people to whom you would expect God to send a birth announcement, and certainly not who you would invite to visit the newborn. What must Mary and Joseph have thought when the shepherds showed up?
Luke tells this story he does to make a point about the birth of Jesus and the nature of God. It’s a point that echoes throughout the gospel – really, throughout all of scripture, - a point Jesus’ followers struggled with then, and that we struggle with today. Luke shows us (as do so many of the biblical storytellers) that God does the unexpected and the incomprehensible. That with God, things FREQUENTLY don’t turn out the way we expected or the way we would have planned.
The Christmas story show us that God arrives on the periphery, and where things are hard, which is always where God is needed. That night in Bethlehem of Judea, God shows up in the midst of the everyday realities of a baby being born and a group of disenfranchised fieldhands hearing the news and coming to see.
God takes on new life in human history in a setting of political oppression, and to a couple unexpectedly on their own in difficult circumstances.
The birth of Jesus says to us that God’s desire is to be with us in all times and places, not only when things are tidy and sparkly, that God comes among us even when we cannot be together as we wish we could.
The birth of Jesus reminds us that redemption of the world begins in small events in out-of-the-way places, that the small events in our own out-of-the-way lives are also a part of that process of redemption.
The visit of the shepherds, in Luke’s account, suggests further that the good news of God’s presence, God’s new life in the midst of chaos and discomfort, is news for everyone, and perhaps especially for those whose lives on the margins make them most open and receptive to good news.
As Martin Luther points out, the angels declare that Jesus is born “for us,” not merely that Jesus is born. We are called by this story to understand the birth of Jesus as a gift, something precious that blesses us and binds us to the Giver in love.
Like all the best gifts, this one can change our lives.
We must ask whether we are ready for our unexpected God to show up in unlikely places in our lives, and to invite us on surprising journeys – journeys that, as Heather pointed out in her sermon this past Sunday, we may not even quite feel ready for.
We always have the option of visiting the Nativity story once a year and allowing the Christmas-card images to wash over us, enjoying a sweet story without really entering its power.
But this story’s true value comes in its gritty reality, its affirmation of the messy-ness of human experience, its narrative of God’s great love for us, known in Jesus of Nazareth.
God intends for God’s love to be born and grow in us, to change us, heal us, remake us – not merely to delight and comfort us.
Moreover, this story takes its greatest power, not from Jesus’ birth, but from resurrection, from the continual rebirth of all that is good and true and beautiful, the conquering of the powers of terror and death that surround us and that are seen so visibly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Tonight we remember just the beginning of that story, but its power can sustain us throughout the coming year, whatever else lies ahead.
Christ the Savior is born.
Let every heart prepare him room.
In Advent we light the Advent Wreath both here in the sanctuary and in our homes, adding one more candle each week. We put away the green of “ordinary time”, clothing ourselves in blue, the color we associate with anticipation.
In “Year B” of the lectionary cycle we bid farewell to Matthew and his focus on prophecy and parable, turning to immerse ourselves in the Gospel story as Mark understood it, an earlier, simpler, more action-focused narrative.
Advent is a time of anticipating, of getting ready. As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we await the inbreaking of God’s Presence -
Our Hebrew ancestors looked eagerly forward to the days when God would intervene in history ushering in realm of peace and righteousness. They understood all that was terrifying in their world as punishment from God for human sin. They looked for a final judgment with the hope that their enemies would perish and that they would be spared.
We heard this fearful-and-yet-hopeful anticipation in the prophesy of Isaiah and the words of the psalmist this morning:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
Jesus, too, anticipated a time of God’s judgement AND GOD’S REDEMPTION OF THE WORLD; his emphasis in the teaching we hear this morning is on the experience of uncertainty, on our inability to know when these things will take place, and on the importance of remaining watchful and ready.
Well, we know all about worry and about waiting in 2020, as I have observed before. We know about fearful-and-yet-hopeful anticipation.
And on this first Sunday of Advent, we have the blessing of a symbol of hope in our midst. In just a few minutes we are going to baptize Justin Thomas Chabot, welcoming him into the Body of Christ.
It is always uplifting to witness the lively energy of a very small person, and to be with a family gathered to celebrate a new beginning – it reminds us of the promise and potential in every life. It feels especially joyful to celebrate the promise of baptism in a time when we’ve been surrounded by so much separation, so much isolation, such difficulty in maintaining hope.
It is, moreover, a particular joy to witness new generations of families with longterm ties to this congregation – it renews our sense of continuity and hope, and reminds us of God’s ongoing presence and love, supporting families and supporting this parish family through times of change and challenge in the larger world.
We speak of baptism as covenant – a word we’ll hear repeatedly in this morning’s liturgy. Covenants involve agreement and mutuality. Baptism involves both receiving and committing.
When I talk with a family bringing child for baptism, I always ask why baptism is important to them. I pretty much always hear some version of same answer –
We want this child to be in relationship with God – to have God as a fundamental part of his (or her) life.
This answer, this choice to baptize, reflects recognition and desire that the child be connected to something larger, something grounding and life-giving.
In his baptism and the early years of his life, Justin will experience the receiving-and-accepting side of baptismal covenant –
Receiving God’s grace and blessing as he is named as a child of God, not because of anything he has accomplished or earned, but because it is God’s nature to love and bless God’s children.
As he grows, Justin will be nurtured in G’s love – through the family, caregivers, teachers, and community who support and shape him.
Over time, he will grow into the responsibility-and-commitment side of baptismal covenant – that of being not only a child of God, but a disciple of Jesus.
Justin will eventually move into adult capabilities, into the capacity to make an impact on the world around him. Because of baptismal covenants we speak this morning, he will have the opportunity to make God’s love known in the world, to make God’s love make a difference in the world, through his choices.
Indeed, one of the blessings all of us receive in witnessing and participating in Justin’s baptism today is the reminder of our own baptism,
In the anticipation of God’s redemption of the world that we look for on this first Advent Sunday, we know that we are part of the process.
We know that God’s redeeming work takes place through the love of families and members of community who support one another, who do not lose hope, who choose to look beyond themselves and see God’s hand at work, bringing about something new. God’s redeeming work takes place in our choices to reach out and care for God’s children, in our choices to work for justice.
Our call in Advent is to wait and watch: recognizing the signs of God at work and joining in. Amen.
Just about everything was in order, except for the presence of the bridegroom. No one was sure exactly when he would arrive. Some of the wedding party went out to wait for the bridegroom’s approach and greet him. Because it had turned to evening, the ten bridesmaids who decided to wait on the road, watching for the groom’s arrival, brought along their lamps.
The hours dragged by: to the bridesmaids’ disappointment, there was no sign of the one they awaited, and eventually, their eyes closed in sleep.
When they heard a cry announcing the approach of the bridegroom and his friends, they startled awake and prepared their words of welcome. As their lamps were flickering with the last of the oil that fueled them, those of the young women who had come prepared with additional flasks of oil topped up their lamps, and they burned brightly.
Half of the young women had not had such foresight, however, and they watched in horror as the last of their lamps’ light sputtered and died.
You know the rest of the story: the wise bridesmaids did share their oil with their friends whose oil had run out, but instead, proceeded with the bridegroom’s party to the wedding hall, where the door was shut behind them. When the other young women finally arrived, having replenished their oil, they were denied entrance.
We know all about waiting in the dark.
Way too much waiting, not knowing when what we wait for will come.
Today’s parable from Matthew is largely about judgement, about the sad consequences that befall the ones who do not prepare for the challenges they might face. Jesus’ words to the disciples to whom he tells the parable are cautionary: Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour, referring to God’s judgement at the end times.
As I’ve suggested, however, it’s also a parable about the difficult experience of uncertainty, of hoping and waiting without knowing when we’ll have what we seek.
It is, as well, a parable about the need for light in the darkness, when the way ahead is uncertain and unclear, a light that shows the road so that we can move forward with confidence.
And it’s this powerful metaphor of light and darkness that I’d like to pause to dig into a bit this morning.
Light and darkness are a recurring metaphor in the biblical tradition; when you look it up, you find that there are more than 40 instances, between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, in which light and darkness are compared, as well as 335 times when “light” is used on its own.
Light and darkness are both recognized as “good” as God separates the two in the act of creation.
And the Psalmist cries out to God (in words that are echoed in our final hymn this morning) –
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
Jesus is never quoted as contrasting light and darkness, but he did frequently make use of light as a metaphor, about knowledge of God’s love as illumination to the human community, urging disciples, for example, to “let your light so shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
In John’s gospel, Jesus actually refers to himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:12 and 9:5), clearly building on the image of light as illuminating the way.
Unfortunately, the biblical tradition has also provided a foundation that human beings, in our frailty, have used to reinforce the sin of racism.
Many times when light and darkness are used together in scripture, the light represents that which is good, and the darkness represents that which is dangerous, which needs to be overcome.
Lutheran Pastor Lenny Duncan, in Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S., makes this observation about the way black and white, light and darkness are used as symbols in the Christian tradition:
Over and over again, in our music, liturgies, displayed artwork, and language and word choices, we have reinforced the idea that white is holy and black equals sin. These passive suggestions have created an entire subconscious theology of race….
Duncan goes on observe that “these powerful symbols”, our continual association of white and light with holiness and black and darkness with evil, have “ill effects on our community that we have yet to explore”. The power of these symbols has impacted both the oppressed and the oppressors.
So are we to entirely jettison all imagery, all use of this language and these symbols in our faith life? I don’t think so: images of light and darkness are deeply woven into our faith tradition, both biblical and liturgical. As theologian Paul Tillich observed, symbols cannot be intentionally stripped of their power.
Pastor Duncan suggests that we broaden the vocabulary of our symbols, and turn our focus away from exclusive (or even primary) emphasis on symbols that have been used to reinforce racist ideologies.
We need to think and pray and talk about these challenges. As we do so, it also seems imperative to me that as we continue to use (and pray and sing) symbols that are deeply embedded in our tradition but that have contributed to oppression, we do so with penitence for the ways and times that we have been thoughtless, complicit, and complacent, and that we be intentional in our work to transform the way we understand them, to work toward bringing an end to all that causes suffering.
And so here we find ourselves, bridesmaids waiting in the darkness for the sound of the bridegroom’s approach. We wait because we live in this world of viruses and climate change, of injustice, distrust and animosity, and God’s realm has not yet come, and too often we just don’t know what to do.
As we wait, we are the laborers in the vineyard, to call on another of Jesus’ metaphors. The bridegroom’s approach is ours to hasten. Our lamps must light the way to the wedding banquet. And Jesus shows us the way.
Our call is to stick together, to lift one another up, to remind each other of the love of God that surrounds us, even in those moments when it is hard to discern.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to exercise resilience and hope. We are called to roll up our sleeves and do the work we have been given to do. It’s work that we know and understand – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger and visiting the prisoner.
The oil that will keep our lamps burning is the strength we draw from our sacred stories, our worship, and our fellowship with one another; it is the presence of God’s Spirit.
Let us keep watch. Let us do the work. Let us those lamps burning, with hope. Amen.
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