Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
I spent part of my on-going recovery this week reading about climate change. You know, something light and relaxing. What caught my attention about this article was one line: “Collapse isn’t inevitable.” Collapse is not inevitable. That line comes from an article titled “What 5,000-year-old Skeletons tell us about living with climate change” by Kate Yoder. Yoder was discussing an academic article, “Climate Change, Human Health, and Resilience in the Holocene,” co-authored by Gwen Robbins Schug, Jane E. Buikstra, Sharon N. DeWitte, and Sonia Zakrzewski. These scholars looked at a whole bunch of human skeletons and mummies to see if they could see any patterns in the remains that would help them understand better how our ancestors responded to changing circumstances in the environment around them. What they found is that, as Yoder states, collapse is not inevitable. But, some communities are better able to respond to the changing climate around them.
I won’t try to summarize a summary of an academic text for you. This is a sermon, not a literature review. The shortest version of the information presented is that human-caused climate change is already affecting and will continue to affect the weather. Weather changes and the pollution that is a result of human choices about how to live in this world will affect food supplies, the availability of drinking water, and likely change the kinds of diseases that humans, plants, and animals are affected by. And, people are going to end up having to move around, change how and what we eat and how we clean water. The institutions that we humans have organized to help us live together are going to have to adjust to these changes or, they, and we will fail.
While the human-caused climate change we are facing is more severe than the climate event these scholars studied, there are some clear patterns in communities that were resilient in the face of significant changes in climate. People who live in mobile societies with flexible social structures that also got their food from diverse sources fared much better than societies with rigid social hierarchies, crowded living situations, and food that only came from the kind of agriculture that requires living on and working the same land the same way for a long time. And, communities that retain and pass along traditional knowledge about communal care, the ecosystem, and food traditions also were able to adapt more quickly and successfully in the face of environmental change. Also, societies that maintained significant social inequality in order to benefit a few wealthy people had a harder time coping with environmental changes, especially disease and malnutrition. If we want to have resilient communities that can withstand major upheavals, we will build societies that don’t require some people to be very poor for the benefit of the very rich.
Yoder cites one of the authors of the academic paper, Robin Schug, saying “We would not be where we are today without cooperation.” After looking at study after study, in regions across the world, it is heartening to hear these scholars offer confirmation that working together for the good is something that has helped humanity survive catastrophe again and again and again. While they are quick to point out that cooperation doesn’t always happen, they also note that the presence of a crisis doesn’t have to mean that humans will respond in violent and hoarding ways. We can choose to care for each other and work with each other and creation. Our scripture for today spoke of every good gift being from above. This research seems like a good gift to us, especially as we consider our ministry as a church in the midst of changing times and changing environments.
What would it mean for us to adapt some of these descriptions of resilient, flexible, and equitable societies to shape our calling as a church? How can we learn from our ancestors to adapt and cooperate and make changes based on the realities of the world around us. I am carrying this word with me: Collapse isn’t inevitable. It is possible to thrive and care for each other in the midst of great shifts in the world around us. May we be quick to listen, slow to exclude, and use any anger we have with the status quo to move towards a life lived according to God’s priorities of love and justice.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Kate Yoder's article: https://grist.org/health/how-ancient-societies-adapted-to-climate-change-anthropology-study/
The original academic article: https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2209472120
Matthew 4:18-25: Jesus Calls the First Disciples
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus Ministers to Crowds of People
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
Sometime between his baptism and the arrest of his cousin who baptized him, Jesus realized that he couldn’t or shouldn’t or didn’t need to do his work alone. According to the scholar Jillian Engelhardt, Jesus seemed to feel called to continue and enlarge the work John began. What we see in the Gospel, then, is Jesus doing this work, inviting people to repent, that is, set themselves right with God’s priorities. However, unlike John, Jesus would not preach that message alone. Jesus will have to leave the riverside and wilderness to find his coworkers.
In Matthew, Jesus moves from the riverside and wilderness outside of Nazareth, the place where John had centered his ministry, out to Capernaum in Galilee. This happens just a few verses before our reading for today. In a commentary on this text, the scholar Melinda A. Quivik invites us to pay attention to how this move is described. Remember, the gospel writers understood Jesus to be the Messiah described in Isaiah. The author of Matthew talks about Jesus’ move using a quote from Isaiah:
He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’
In her commentary, Quivik reminds us that the people of Galilee, that is the people of Zebulun and Naphtali, have been living in war for generations. During the era in which this story was recorded, Galilee was the land that Pontius Pilate ruled with an iron fist for Rome. Isaiah said that God would help the oppressed and raise up a leader in their midst. It matters that Jesus would begin his public ministry in the midst of people who had suffered at the hands of warmongering rulers. It shows us that God is always right in the middle of the shadow of death, with the people who need God the most.
As Jesus walked by the sea, he saw the fishermen, Simon and Andrew, hard at work. He invited them to join him, saying he would make them fish for people instead of haddock or smelt or whatever you fish for in the Sea of Galilee. What is perhaps most surprising is that they immediately follow him, without asking a word of explanation or clarification. I think I would have asked a few questions. Then, Jesus saw the brothers, James and John, who were also out working. He called out to them, inviting them to preach the word of the nearness of God. They also left everything and followed him. They were fishing with extended family and they left their family just sitting there, mending the broken nets. And, nobody, not even Jesus, takes time to explain to the new disciples, or us, what this “fishing for people” means.
Some might wonder why the brothers are willing to drop everything to follow Jesus in that moment. I read once that some scholars argue that these sets of brothers knew Jesus before he offered this invitation. They say that it is possible that they grew up with Jesus, or at least knew him by reputation. Some scholars argue that there was also a good chance that the brothers had heard John preaching before he was arrested. If the brothers already believed John's word that God was preparing to do something new, maybe they were just waiting for the sign to start working with God for that new thing. When Jesus showed up, saying, "All that stuff John was talking about... that's happening now. Come and be a part of it," maybe that was the sign they were waiting for.
I have to say, I kind of like the idea that they were already prepared and just needed a sign to start working towards the kindom of heaven. But, if I’m being honest, it’s mostly because I am more comfortable with the idea of them having a plan, instead of them just dropping everything with a moment’s notice and leaving. This whole story makes better sense to me if they are just waiting for someone, in this case Jesus, to show up and lead them. That being said, I don’t think the Gospel makes clear why they followed Jesus. All of those explanations are scholarly conjectures by people who, like me, have modern, fairly comfortable lives. What the story actually gives us is just four young men and the teacher who invited them to follow him. There is no explanation as to why they go.
I did read once a commentary Dr. Raj Nadella who noticed that, while we don’t know anything about these young men’s plans, it’s pretty clear that somebody in this story has a plan. You see, Rome has a plan. That plan is the unspoken undercurrent that shapes so much of Jesus’ life, and, ultimately, his death. Rome, like the other empires before them that made life hard in Capernaum, lived by a plan rooted in death and destruction, in conquest and forced assimilation. While being part of Rome meant that you might have good roads and aqueducts, it also meant having foreign soldiers breathing down your neck, conscription and slavery, theft under the guise of taxation. Violence was the primary tool in Rome’s plan. And, they wanted people to get so used to the horrors of occupation that they would feel powerless to stop it.
Jesus’ surprising invitation to these four brothers is a disruption of that plan. As many of us know, it only takes one moment, one event that is incredible or awful or confusing or full of potential to show you that you don’t have to keep doing what you’re doing according to someone else’s plan. So, maybe Jesus’ invitation was completely out of the blue and completely unprepared for and exactly what those young men needed at that moment. When they heard him, they knew the Empire didn’t have to control them. They knew that the kindom of God was offering them something more. So, they left the lakeshore and walked towards it. With no real plan about what came next.
The Holy Spirit moves in lots of ways. As you look through your annual meeting booklet over the coming week, I hope you’ll see the Spirit in the carefully crafted budget of our church, planned over several months to reflect our church’s call to participate in the kindom of heaven. But, I hope you’ll also remember that the Spirit moves outside of well-thought out plans, too. Jesus is still telling us that the kindom of heaven is close at hand. Let’s make sure we are walking towards it, even if our plan is still to be determined.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Melinda Quivick, "Third Sunday after Epiphany," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds. Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, and Ronald J. Allen, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012)
Raj Nadella: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-412-23-5
Jillian Engelhardt: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-412-23-6
Sermon for January 8, 2023: Fresh Epiphanies from Familiar Texts based upon Matthew 2:1-12 by Sarah Mills
Matthew 2:1-12: The Visit of the Wise Men
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.
Friends, I wonder if you, like I, often feel like you know a story so well that you can recite it backwards and forwards. You could summarize it in maybe ten words or less. So many of the stories we hear around this time of the year are stories that easily fall into that category. We hear them in songs and we tell them to children. They are tattooed on our collective Christian context.
Well, can I recommend a combination of two practices that work for me when I find myself drifting into this sort of overfamiliarity? The first is to open your Bible or your Bible app or your online search engine of choice, locate the story and read it. And then read it again. And again. And again. This practice of lectio divina or “divine reading” has been a tradition, particularly in the monastic world, for centuries. You meditate on the reading in a way that is different than just hearing it once, maybe twice a year read from the front of a church. And it is this act of really sitting with a text with intention and attention that leads on to the second practice.
Now, this practice is maybe more difficult or unnatural to us when we are faced with one of those ultra-familiar stories. When you read that story for the third or fourth time, step into a role. A role that is different than that of a Sunday churchgoer. Find a person in the story that you will choose to identify with as you read and re-read this story. Take on that role. Put yourself in their shoes during your lectio divina.
Now, I have found that there are a few keys to doing this second practice. The first key is total and utter commitment to the practice. It can be uncomfortable to sit with the point of view of a person or a group of people that our years of Sunday school and Christmas carols have chosen not to focus on. However, that is how our scriptural complacency can settle in. It’s how we think we know the whole story when we’ve whittled it down to ten words. So who are our individuals or groups of individuals in today’s scripture. Who is present in the scenes described? Well, there’s the obvious “stars”, if you’ll forgive the pun, of the show, the three kings. There’s Herod, of course. Then there’s the “chief priests and scribes of the people” who Herod calls to council him. And finally, there’s the holy family, sitting in their modest lodging in Bethlehem. Mary, the new mother, Joseph the (probably equal parts proud and nervous) father, and their vulnerable, tiny child. These are the four groups directly impacted by this story. So now, having identified these players, we turn to the second key to this practice: context.
Context is paramount when it comes to really getting into your role! As any theatre student will tell you, one of the keys to Stanislavskian method acting is to find points of connection with your character so as to more fully inhabit them. You cannot do this if you do not know where they are coming from, literally and metaphorically. So let us add some context to our four key players:
Re-read the scripture now, holding on to your chosen role, trying to put yourself in their place.
Read it again.
Read it one more time.
What was the experience like? Have you ever thought about the story from that point of view? What new insights have you gained? Do you have conflicting feelings about how you would react in those situations? What stories might have happened in between the portions committed to scripture?
Maybe there were hushed discussions in dark hallways of Herod’s palace. Secret conversations in native tongues as you walked the six miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Shocked reactions and hurried attempts to clean up when you hear foreign dignitaries have arrived to pay homage to your newborn son.
For me, this is what brings familiar scriptures to life. This scripture that we have heard so many times before can have new life, excitement, and relevance breathed into it. Suddenly, we are given new perspectives to consider, new moral questions to ponder, new reasons to tell the stories again. I encourage you to try this practice with any biblical text you’ve examined before. Or maybe try this combination of lectio divina and individual identification with your favorite story from the Bible. Lay your preconceptions to one side and commit entirely. Enter with context and background information, ready to dive into the story anew. Perhaps you will find yourself surrounded by outsiders, following a star to a great promised king and being met instead by a teenage mother, a worried, watchful father, and a defenseless, tiny baby. Scripture can still surprise us with these epiphanies of imagination, just as God surprises the world by joining creation as the most vulnerable thing imaginable, a wriggling, crying, cooing newborn. May we never take these surprises for granted, seeking them out with open hearts, ready to be moved by the guiding light of God’s love.
Haworth-Maden, C. (Ed.). (2004). The Glory of the Nativity. In The Life and Teachings of Christ. Saraband.
Muddiman, J. (2014). The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford University Press.
Newsom, C. A., & Ringe, S. H. (1998). Women's Bible Commentary. Westminster/John Knox Press.
Walton, J. H., & Keener, C. S. (2019). NRSV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Zondervan.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
On Tuesdays, I usually pick out the title of my sermon. I pick something based on what catches my attention on that day. This is often the part of the scripture that I feel speaks to the present moment best. On this, our final Sunday of the Christmas season, when we are remembering the stories of Anna and Simeon, the prophets who offer a final confirmation for Jesus’ parents that the message they heard from God was true... that this child before their eyes was the answer to their nation’s prayers... Simeon’s song caught my attention. He was so moved by the sight of this child that he broke out in song! And, these days, it would be good to see something so powerful that we would be reminded of God’s power to keep promises. So, on Tuesday, I decided that my sermon would be called “My Eyes Have Seen.”
Then, I sat down to write my sermon. I went to look at the last time I preached on this text. And, I was very surprised by what I saw. Guess what I named the sermon the last time I preached on this text? I named it My Eyes Have Seen. Apparently, that phrase often catches my attention. Now, maybe it’s because I know that hymn, the one that says “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” (it was written by Julia Ward Howe who spent a lot of time just down the road in Gardiner). Or, maybe it’s because, at the turning of the year, I appreciate a story of someone witnessing something grand and divine, a fulfillment of something long hoped for. And, this story is about past promises’ current fulfilment leading to a loving and just future. I, personally, would like to see more of that.
In his commentary on Luke, Fred Craddock notes that “Luke’s Gospel begins and ends in the temple.” Today’s reading is the moment when Jesus is taken to the temple for the first time as an infant. And, we are reading about this moment because it is important. Both Craddock and a professor named Shively Smith encourage us to pay attention to how devout Jesus’ family is. We must remember that this great religious devotion is happening among common, poor people, not royalty. Mary is responsive to the movement of God in her life. She knows that God stands with the lowly and will use her family to lift up the downtrodden.
After Jesus is born, his family remains devout. As a symbol of their commitment to God, Mary and Joseph fulfill the ritual obligations of their people. They have their son circumcised and named according to what God said to name him. They also presented him at the temple and offered a sacrifice in thanksgiving. Dr. Smith points out something interesting about the animal that the family sacrifices. If you remember from other readings, the devout were instructed to bring animals to sacrifice. Importantly, if you were someone of limited means, you were not required to bring in the same sacrifices as someone who was quite wealthy. In fact, there are lists of appropriate sacrifices for poorer people to make Leviticus 5, 12, and 14. If you were to look at these lists, you would see that one of the offerings is two turtledoves. This is an offering set aside for those who are the poorest. When the author of Luke shows us Mary and Joseph bringing turtledoves, they are showing us that God is doing what Mary said God would do, lift up the lowly and downtrodden. This child is a part of that lifting up.
Why would it be so important to emphasize to the reader that Jesus was both rooted in his religious faith and also from simple means? For Smith, this small detail is a bit of foreshadowing. In the book of Luke, Jesus will spend much of his time advocating for the poor. In chapter 4, when, as an adult, he spells out his own mission statement, he will read out the words of the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." A couple chapters later, in the sermon on the plain, he will assert, like his own mother once did, that God takes special note of, and care for, the hungry, the poor and the excluded. He will go on to assert that part of serving God is tending to the poor and that God's kindom will welcome most quickly those who need the most help.
In my preparations this week, I read a poem by Howard Thurman. It’s called “Christmas is Waiting to be Born.”
When refugees seek deliverance that never comes,
And the heart consumes itself, if it would live,
Where little children age before their time,
And life wears don the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly to death,
Where fear companions each day’s life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed.
CHRISTMAS IS WAITING TO BE BORN:
In you, in me, in all mankind.
Thurman believes that God’s promise salvation is not most clearly seen in the halls of power or wealth. But, instead, in the places of strain and upheaval and need. We would do well, then, to remember that when God chose to raise up a savior, God did so from among the ranks of the impoverished. Now, imagine the difference that makes in this story. A prophet named Simeon sees a poor family with an infant just more than a week old. Against all odds, Simeon sees greatness in this child. He sees God in this child. He is so inspired that he sings about it.
Simeon calls Jesus a light for the whole world, “for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to the people of Israel.” It is important to realize that Simeon saw, in this child, not just a leader for his own people, but a gift for the whole world. This shouldn’t be taken as a justification for the idea that Jesus came to coerce people into faith. But, instead, this is a confirmation that the world is connected and that God cares for the world, and that God is invested in a mission for love and justice for all of creation.
Simeon also offers this family a blessing and a warning. “This child is destining for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed- and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” A second prophet, Anna, then comes up to this small family. She, too, praises God for this child. She will go on to become one of the earliest preachers in Luke. It says that she spoke about the child to anyone who was concerned about the redemption of Israel. It is too bad that none of her sermons seem to have been preserved to this time, at least as far as we know. At least we have this account of her, praising God and preparing to tell everyone what she has seen.
In his commentary on the text, Fred Craddock says that “God is doing something new, but it is not really new, because hope is always joined to memory, and the new is God’s keeping an old promise.” I hope on this New Year’s Day, you will remember, with hope, these elders who greeted young Jesus with joy and wonder. I hope that memory inspires you to see Christ at work in this very present time and to be like Anna and share the story of God’s love and justice into the future.
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
Shively Smith: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3526
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5035
Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 2011)
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Luke 2:1-20 The Birth of Jesus
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The Shepherds and the Angels
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
When telling the stories of Jesus’ birth, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both want to teach you something about God’s leadership by comparing it to Caesar’s leadership. Matthew contrasts God’s Reign from the King’s Reign by showing us a king who is frightened enough by a baby that he will try to harm the baby. Luke shows us that God’s Reign is different than Caesar’s Reign by showing us how very different Jesus’ birth and life are from the lives of the powerful in the era. Jesus’ very pregnant mom has to travel to a whole other town when she is almost ready to give birth, not because she wants to, but because the emperor has the power to force regular people to do things he wants when he wants them done, not when is convenient for them. He wanted them to go to Bethlehem to be counted. So, they had to go. Dr. Melinda Quivik in her commentary on this text, reminds us that royal Roman leaders would have had everything they needed. Jesus wasn’t even born in his own home and he slept in an animal trough in his first hours of life. He could not be more different from Caesar. Thank God for that.
Jesus’ life and the way he wields power will be different, too. Whomever wrote Luke is an excellent storyteller because they pack in a lot of foreshadowing that tell us that Jesus will be different than the military leader many people expected the Messiah to be. One more bit of this foreshadowing is showing us who is entrusted to celebrate his birth. It will not be the wealthy and the powerful. First, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, is entrusted with the good news of the pregnancy. She has been similarly blessed with an unlikely pregnancy and Mary knew she could relate to this level of Divine Intervention. Then, after the birth, the shepherds are brought into the story. There are few people farther from Caesar than the shepherds in the fields. The shepherds are the first people outside of family to learn that there is something special about this child who has been born. They will end up not only hearing divine confirmation of the gift of his birth but also become a source of holy affirmation for Mary and Joseph. They received a gift and become a gift in the same night.
According to Dr. Fred Craddock, Roman poets and well-known speakers were known to create works in celebration of a child who was to become emperor. In Luke, it isn’t the well-known and articulate who celebrate the Christ child, but the Divine Wild and common shepherds. The heavens themselves sing forth in celebration. Their audience is not the wealthy patrons, as would have been true of the artists, but the very ordinary shepherds in the fields. Dr. Wesley Allen reminds us in his commentary on the text that these shepherds are likely not the people who own the sheep or own any of the land. They are either slaves or employees who are working the night shift. That’s why the author pointed out that they lived in the fields. They stay with the sheep, guarding them, either because they were ordered to by the people who owned them or because they were paid to do so. They are regular people with a demanding job that required a fair amount of skill to keep animals alive. It was a job that was utterly necessary as sheep provided food and clothing material. It was also a job that wasn’t necessarily well-paid or well-respected. Shepherds don’t usually get to hear the good news first, but they do in this story. They don’t usually hang out with the powerful. But, they will, in this story because God’s power will make space for them. We heard the first inklings of that in Mary’s song, with the lowly lifted and the powerful sent away. In inviting the shepherds to the manger, we are seeing God lift of the lowly as one of the first signs of the presence of the Messiah in the world.
I wonder what the angels looked like for them to have to tell the shepherds that they didn’t have to be afraid. Were they bright enough and loud enough to scare the sheep? Were the angels aware that, in the dark of night, any surprise visits could be interpreted as a possible danger to the flock? Was the instruction “be not afraid” more of a gentle way of preparing them for the incredible next words? “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” What a message to tell these hard-working, poor men! And, how wonderful it is that these men believed and traveled to find the child.
In reading up on this passage, I noticed that several different scholars are quick to point out that the life histories of Roman rulers never place them near common workers like shepherds, much less show them doing the work of shepherds. It is interesting that ancient Jewish leaders weren’t always so separate from this important and undervalued work. King David was a shepherd long before he was king. Luke tells us that Jesus was part of the line of David through his stepfather Joseph. Jesus was also born in Bethlehem, the city of David. In today’s reading, men who shared David’s earliest work would come to celebrate Jesus and confirm that his parent’s own angelic visions were true. The shepherds told Mary and Joseph what they had heard from the angels about their child. They would confirm the Divine future ahead of him. Everyone who heard the testimony of the shepherds was amazed. But, in particularly, Mary treasured all their words and pondered them in her heart. That means she thought about them, a lot. She considered the words the angels said to her, to her cousin, and now the shepherd, and what it means for her family and the world’s future.
Dr. Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero noted that, in leaving their sheep, the shepherds, too, are transformed, becoming God’s messengers alongside the angels. And, of course, poor, common people would do the work of God. In a couple chapters, when Jesus, as an adult, tells us about his mission with his own words, he will say that the poor will be of special concern for God and for him. Jesus himself comes from a poor family, despite having a royal lineage. God comes into the World through the margins of society, the homes over-full of relatives forced to travel and the darkened fields full of smelly sheep. Maybe you do work that is hard and often unappreciated. May you know that work is good, and that God can move through you, too. On this Christmas day, maybe you can consider what God is revealing to you while you work. And, may you see clearly how you can shepherd Christ into this world anew, in this time and this place. God called the shepherd and is calling us. May we sing out with joy.
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
• Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-day-nativity-of-our-lord-ii/commentary-on-luke-21-7-8-20-9
• Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990)
• Melinda Quivik: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-eve-nativity-of-our-lord/commentary-on-luke-21-14-15-20-18
• O. Wesley Allen Jr. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/shepherds-visit-2/commentary-on-luke-28-20
Rahab and the Spies, Frederick Richard Pickersgill, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57023.
Ruth: Swanson, John August. Story of Ruth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56561.
Mary: Wesley, Frank, 1923-2002. And the Word Became Flesh, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=59238.
Matthew 1:1-16 The Gospel According to Matthew
The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
Genesis. The title of the first book of our Bible and the second word of the book of Matthew in the original Greek. βίβλος γενέσεως ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ υἱοῦ δαυὶδ υἱοῦ ἀβραάμ. In her commentary on today’s reading, Mitzi Minor notes that a translation of this first line of Matthew could be “The book of the Genesis of Jesus the Christ.” Genesis is a Greek word that means “origin.” The book of Genesis is about origins: origins of the universe and our little corner of it, of humanity in general, and of the family of Abraham in particular. David Carr calls this the “primeval history” and the “ancestral history” in his introduction to Genesis. The author of Matthew takes great care to situate Jesus in relationship to the ancestral history in particular. In so doing, according to Minor, Jesus is also connected to the primeval history... to all of creation. Because God promised to renew all of creation. And, Jesus, who’s origin reached to David and to Abraham and through Abraham, to creation. The book of the Genesis of Jesus the Christ.
A colleague of mine, E. Carrington Heath, recently pointed something out. The Messiah is supposed to come from the line of David. If we believe what happens in the verses just after today’s reading, the ones where Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant with a child that is not his, then Jesus is not a biological descendant of David and Abraham, but adopted in through Joseph’s love and faith. Dr. Heath says, “In an age when we argue so much based on ‘biology,’ it’s amazing how God’s truth and love sometimes choose other routes.” The genesis of Jesus the Christ is a story about bringing someone into a family as much as it about tracing the origin of one specific family.
I don’t know how often you read the first 16 verses of the first chapter of Matthew. I’ve preached about this genealogy enough that I hope you have decided to read through it at least a few times. As I have said before, many folks skip over the first 16 or 17 verses to get to Joseph’s call story in verse 18. Please don’t skip these names, even if you don’t remember who everyone is. Because the names are here for a reason. Because Jesus’ story is very much about one who is brought into a family, we should likely pay attention to not just the fathers and their biological sons that make up this family tree. We should also attend to the women who are named in this list.
In a genealogy that is nearly all fathers and sons, the inclusion of four women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, stands out. Why would these women in particular be included when so many other women weren’t? Let’s turn to their stories for a moment. While there are a couple of different Tamars in the Hebrew Bible, the one who is mentioned in this genealogy is Tamar from Genesis 38. Tamar was a widow reliant on her father-in-law Judah for care. As was their custom, when her husband died, she married his brother. The first tragedy of her story is the death of her first husband. Then, she marries his brother, who dies. Then another brother who dies.
Judah, upon losing three sons, refuses to allow his fourth son to marry Tamar. This is a different kind of tragedy. In addition to the grief of losing her husbands, Tamar would have been left with no financial or emotional support because Judah refused to live up to his familial responsibilities. So, she devised a plan to save herself, a scandalous plan which implicated Judah in unrighteous behavior. The plan was risky and could have hurt her reputation, leaving her with even fewer options than before. Her plan ended up working. She survived and rebuilt her family, ending up in this list as an ancestor to David.
The second woman listed is Rahab whose story is in Joshua 2. She ran her own business, in the world’s oldest profession, out of her home that was built along the city wall of Jericho. She hid some of the Hebrew leader Joshua’s soldiers when enemy soldiers came searching for them. She even helped them escape to return to their army. Her actions helped Joshua to win the battle for the city and saved her own family from being destroyed in that same battle. She would go on to marry Joshua and convert to his faith. She is still remembered as one with a deep faith in God and as a righteous hero to the faith that she married into.
Ruth was a Moabite married to an Israelite man at a point when Israelite men weren’t supposed to be married to Moabites. Upon the deaths of her husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law, rather than return to her father’s home, Ruth creates a new family with her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi and Naomi’s distant relative Boaz. Their atypical family helps the women survive in an era where widows had few social safety nets. Ruth, who once said that Naomi’s God had become her God, who risked traveling to a foreign city where the men weren’t even supposed to marry her, would eventually bear her little family a son, Obed. In this act of trust and faith, in building new relationships and bearing new life, she becomes known as a renewer of her family’s hope.
And, Bathsheba? It is not clear when we first meet her in 2nd Samuel if she hoped to become the wife of King David. Kings were pretty free to do what they wanted with women in their vicinity, so her intent may not have mattered to him at all. David sent her husband away and took Bathsheba for his own purposes. While it isn’t clear if she wanted to be in the relationship where she was, but, once she was there, she would take great care of her son, Solomon. Solomon would become king, one of the most famous and wise kings of his people, as a direct result of the intervention of his mother. Her strategic forethought, especially in the face of the nearly unchecked power of King David, would change her people’s history.
I read a quote once by the author Linda Hogan, who was talking about the spiritual practice of listening to nature while out walking. She said, “Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands." We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood. And, all we know about his mother Mary’s is that it was likely disrupted by an unexpected and likely scandalous pregnancy. When Joseph decided to make them his family, to bring them into the line of David and Abraham, did Joseph remember these four women, his forebears? Did the Holy Spirit say, “look at where you came from. This pregnancy does not have to be the end of your and Mary’s story. It can be the beginning.”
And, Mary, knowing the stories of her people, was she bolstered by the intelligence and resilience of these women? Did they help her know that she could fight for a better future? If the love of thousands wasn’t clear to her, was the love of four? Would that help to her be unafraid to become the fifth woman in this genealogy? Maybe it did. Or, maybe that one angelic voice was enough. Perhaps this is one of the lessons of this story. You never know what the origin of your bravery will be. But, renewal is at hand, and each of us has the opportunity to be brave enough to be a part of it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mitzi Minor: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/genealogy-of-jesus/commentary-on-matthew-11-17-2
David M. Carr, "Genesis," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Tikva S. Frymer-Kensky, "Rahab," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Phyllis A. Bird, "Tamar," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Phyllis Trible, "Ruth," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Yehoshua Gitay, "Bathsheba," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
A Greek version of Matthew: https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/matthew-1-parallel-kjv-greek/
E. Carrington Heath: https://twitter.com/echeath/status/1598365528258641920?s=20&t=aOIJdj07cPdxRn-reITu4w
Linda Hogan: https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/23701
Luke 1:5-17 The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
Zechariah has gotten what should be good news. Zechariah is also terrified. It doesn’t even matter that the angel told him not to be afraid. He is still concerned about this whole situation. In this way, Zechariah is one of the most relatable figures we read about in the lead up to Jesus’ birth. Because he was afraid of this wild visitor from God and also couldn’t quite believe that what he was praying for would come true.
Zechariah is a priest. You’d think he’d be primed to recognize God doing a new thing in what is a pretty familiar pattern in the Bible. Can we remember anyone else who got told they would be parents years after they thought they would be able to conceive? Abraham and Sarah! That’s right. In her commentary on this text, Aubrey West notes that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth have much in common with their ancestors in the faith, Abraham and Sarah. They are faithful. They want children. And, they have reached their elder years without them. According to the scholar Elizabeth Johnson, during the era in which they would have lived, childlessness was often blamed on a woman’s barrenness, as though only her body could be the problem. Some might even take their childlessness to be a sign that God was angry with them. And, yet, even as they certainly grieved their infertility, they also seemed to find comfort in their faith, following the commandments, with God's help, to the best of their abilities.
The Incarnation shows us a vision of God rooted in relationship: the relationship between God and humanity but also relationships among people. Wil Gafney, in her commentary on this text, says that “Luke demonstrates that the Advent of Jesus is a community affair.” And, we know that God is happy to work through folks that the community doesn’t expect. The community might have expected Zechariah and Elizabeth to be faithful. They would have never expected them to have a child. Shoot, Zechariah and Elizabeth likely didn’t expect to have a child. But, the Incarnation will need a community... will need people to let everyone know they were on the way. Who better than this faithful couple to begin making a path in the wilderness that Jesus will one day trod?
Zechariah was already having a meaningful day, even without the angel showing up. He had been chosen to give the offering of incense in the temple. According to Marion Soards’ notes on this text, lighting the incense was a great privilege that was granted only once in a lifetime. This would have been a high point in his calling as a priest. And, then the angel waltzed in or flew or appeared or however they show up. And, his life and Elizabeth’s life was forever changed.
Do not be afraid. That is easy for you to say, Gabriel. In the dark inner room of the temple, with incense smoke swirling around them, the angel Gabriel looked at Zechariah and said, "Do not be afraid... for your prayer has been heard." Do not be afraid for God will keep God's promises. God will provide for you what you have needed. You will have a son and that son will have a great calling. Gabriel tells Zechariah that his boy would be a prophet, following in the footsteps of the prophet Elijah, provided the world with what they needed: a prophet to make way for the Messiah.
That’s where our reading stops for the day, but it is worth considering what else happens to Zechariah, father of John called the Baptist. Because I imagine others might recognize some of their own story within his response to the news that the angel brings. Rather than just say, “I got it from here Gabe! We’re ready for this baby,” Zechariah asks a reasonable question, similar to that of Sarah and Abraham: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” Gabriel will not appreciate this question. Rolf Jacobsen, in a commentary he wrote about parts of this story, describes what happens next as “Gabriel... point[ing] the angel clicker at Zechariah and hitting the mute button.” And, Zechariah will not be able to speak again until he really sees and really believes that God has done what God promised.
It must be noted that Elizabeth takes the good news and runs with it. Though she went into seclusion upon realizing she was pregnant, it doesn’t appear that it was to hide or because she was unsure what was happening. It seems like to was to care for herself and revel in the pregnancy that she thought wouldn’t come. In her solitude, she spoke words of thanksgiving, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” All the while, Zechariah is silent, unable to say aloud whatever was on his heart and mind as he waited to see if his son would be born.
In case this is a new story for you, I’ll offer a few spoilers. Elizabeth’s pregnancy will go well. A healthy boy will be born and she will come out of labor healthy. But even after seeing the baby born safely, Zechariah still will not speak. His fatherly fear will still be too strong, even with his son in his arms. For 8 more days, he will be silent. But, he will perform his fatherly responsibilities, even in his fear and silence. They will take the boy to temple to be circumcised, as was their custom. The officiants will attempt to name the child after his father. Elizabeth says to name the boy John, as they were told. They ask Zechariah for confirmation, and in that moment, Zechariah will live out a faith he hadn’t been able to find nine months earlier. He’ll write on a tablet: “His name is John.” And, at that very moment, his mouth opened and his tongue was freed and he would sing a song praising God.
Zechariah likely knew that a prophet is a difficult calling but he also finally remembered that God empowers humanity to do difficult things all the time. In being faithful through his fear, he could finally believe that God could even do a difficult thing through his family. What a powerful reminder that even as we are afraid, the divine can and will still move within us, connecting us to one another, making way for that which is Holy to move in this world in unexpected ways. Zechariah and Elizabeth made the way for their son. John will make the way for Christ. Thank God Zechariah’s fear couldn’t stop Emmanuel from being with us. May we remember that we can be faithful through our fear, too, even if we aren’t able to sing a song to God just yet. May we be able, just like Zechariah, to find our voice when the world needs it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Audrey West: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=460
Rolf Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2703
Elizabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/zechariahs-song-2/commentary-on-luke-15-13-14-25-57-80
Wil Gafney, "Advent 2" A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2021)
Marion Lloyd Soards' introduction to Luke in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Sermon for November 27, 2022: “Waiting in the Shadows” based on Matthew 24:32-44 (Written by Becky Walker)
Matthew 24:32-44 The Lesson of the Fig Tree
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
The Necessity for Watchfulness
‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Happy New Year, Church! This is a new year! The journey through Advent begins today. You might think the year would begin with trumpets and fanfare, or maybe the softness of Christmas Eve....But instead, we begin in the shadows of war, despair, sorrow, and hate. And it’s precisely here that the God of grace will arrive. It’s precisely here that the church is called to light candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. You are invited to listen, watch, remember, and wait...It’s a season that holds the certainty of the past and the predictability of the future with the choices we make.
The biblical story we heard this morning from the Gospel of Matthew, like most biblical narratives, was written several decades after the fact. Jesus is nearing the end of his public ministry and in this passage, there are signs that the current age is coming to an end.
The disciples have been asking Jesus questions all through chapter 24 in Matthew. When Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple, they ask him when it will happen and what are the signs of his coming. And we hear in this passage Jesus finally offering a direct answer to the “when” part of their question. But, it’s not the answer they’d been hoping for.
After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, there would be times of great suffering, but then, slowly, new signs would appear and Christ will arrive and make things right. But when? When will this happen? Not even Jesus knows. He stresses that only God knows the answer to when this will happen. “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Then, Jesus reminds the disciples about Noah, and how the people went about life as usual, right up to the moment when the floods came. Noah only knew the great flood was coming and prepared the best he could by building an ark and gathering a variety of animals before the sudden devastation happened. There would be no warning, no alert to let them know what was coming. “...and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away...”
“Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Watchfulness or wakefulness is not a defensive posture. It’s having heightened awareness to the signs of God’s presence. The power comes from preparing, preparing for the coming of the Lord even though we don’t know “when”. We are not supposed to know “when the Lord is coming”, like the disciples keep asking. Jesus tells us to stay awake and watch.
The season of Advent is a time of actively waiting for Jesus to come by entering the shadows of despair, conflict, hate, and sorrow. We light the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. Today’s passage helps us look forward without anxiety because we can’t be afraid to look back. As we look back on the time of Noah, we learn he prepared for the great flood. When we do that, we see what God has done and can have confidence in what God will do, in God’s own time. The beauty of the power of scripture is that it provides the stories that foreshadow what God is doing in our own time and will do in God’s time.
This morning, listen and hear what Jesus, and the writer of Matthew are saying. Enter into the shadows, the places where all hope seems lost. Listen to the desperate refugee, the lonely prisoner, the heartbroken addict, and the homeless. Once you’ve entered the shadows, you can proclaim the good news, and spread hope that God is on the way.
Keep awake! Be ready! Jesus is calling us, inviting us to repair the world, little by little, one person at a time, changing this anxious world to one filled with hope, hope of things to come...Peace, Joy, Love.
Jesus tells his disciples that the Son of Man is present healing the sick, standing with the broken and suffering, bringing sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. This is where we, too, go to see what God is doing.
Challenge yourself this Advent season to find the joy in turning toward God, walking humbly, to loving mercy, and doing justice. We have the power and the invitation from Jesus to change our lives as we learn from the past. So, keep awake and prepare as you wait in the shadows.....be ready! Amen.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week 1: “Be Ready”, Matthew 24:36-44, 11.27.22
Cheryl A. Lindsay: Sermon Seeds: “Stay Alert”, Matthew 24:36-44, First Sunday of Advent, Yr. A, 11.27.22
Stanley Saunders: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent/commentary-on-matthew-2436-44-6
David L. Bartlett, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, Westminster John Knox Press Louisville, KY: Matthew 24:36-44, pg. 20-24
The New Oxford Annotated Bible NRSV, Fourth Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press 2010) Matthew 24:32-44; Pg. 1783.
Hebrews 1:1-9 Letter to the Hebrews: God Has Spoken by His Son
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
The Son Is Superior to Angels
For to which of the angels did God ever say,
‘You are my Son;
today I have begotten you’?
‘I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son’?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’
Of the angels he says,
‘He makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire.’
But of the Son he says,
‘Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever,
and the righteous sceptre is the sceptre of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.’
One day during my chaplain training, I found myself in the neonatal intensive care. I was talking to a nurse I knew well. She had pulled me aside and pointed to three very tiny babies, each in an incubator. They were all very early... born at 24 or 25 weeks. The nurse was worried, not just about their health, but also about their families. Being a parent is already hard, even if your baby is healthy and full term. These little ones were going to need months of expensive and time-consuming medical care. After spending time with these families, who were just beginning to wrap their heads around caring for their babies, and looking pretty overwhelmed, the nurse told me that she was so unsure about how things were going to go. Looking at the scary and hard present, it was difficult for her to be optimistic about their future.
I don’t remember everything I said to her that day. We only talked about 10 minutes. But, I talked a little about my own life and the lives of people I know and care about. I said, “look at us. We are here. We have good lives. You have to leave a little room for grace. You have no idea what can happen that will end up being good for them.” I assured her that even though she was likely right in assessing the difficulties these families were facing, she couldn’t predict the good that would come into their life and wouldn’t know how they and their parents would mature into a family that cared for each other. Leaving room for Grace means being hopeful that there is a more healthy and hopeful future than you can see right now.
At some point, the nurse also asked what kind of cookies I liked. I told her chocolate chip. A few days later, I stopped in the main chaplains’ office and Steve, one of the staff chaplains, asked me what I had talked about with that NICU nurse and I told him the story. He handed me a bag of cookies. He said he’d never had anyone make a chaplain cookies before. I guess what I said was the encouragement she needed at that moment.
I don’t tell this story to brag on my ministerial skills. I mess up plenty, as I am sure you are all aware. But, I remembered this encounter as I was reading up on the book of Hebrews. According to the scholar Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Hebrews is best understood to be an anonymous sermon written for an early Christian community to encourage them during a hard time. When times are difficult, it can be challenging to imagine a hopeful future, especially if you are an astute judge of the present. I mean, you don’t always even need to fall into dour pessimism to worry about the future. The concern we have about the future in the midst of the hard times of the present is often realistic, not pessimistic. Despair and concern are often reasonable responses to the world we are witnessing and the world that we fear might come. And, yet, even our wisest assessments of the future cannot possibly take all things that might happen into account. We don’t know how the Spirit can move in surprising ways. So, even while things are hard, we can live in faithful ways because of the potential we know is possible with the Spirit.
The preacher who wrote Hebrews begins with a reminder of how God engaged with this church’s religious ancestors. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways through the prophets.” We know because we have shared the stories of our past that God spoke to us. This is a reminder and a promise. God has spoken and is speaking. The preacher goes on to talk about how God is speaking differently in what they refer to as “the last days.” Remember, people have often thought they were living through the end of the world. And, also, worlds end all the time. Even if the world is ending, you still have to figure out how to live through the end. This preacher says we live through this end knowing that God is capable of doing brand new things because God’s word was no longer simply spoken by the prophets but came alive in the Incarnation of Christ.
“The Son is the brilliance of God’s glory and the reproduction of God’s very being, and the Son undergirds all there is by his word of power.” That’s how Wil Gafney translates part of today’s reading. Jesus is the brilliance of God’s glory and the reproduction of God’s very being and undergirds all there is by his word of power. Craig Koester, in his commentary on this text, says, “The writer will not let the readers’ imaginations remain impoverished with a Christ who is too small.” Over the course of nine verses, this preacher quotes five different parts of Hebrew scripture to try to capture the radical and wild and new iteration of God’s Spirit that was Jesus called Christ. Verse 5 is Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7. Verse 6 is from Deuteronomy. Verse 7 is Psalm 104. Verses 8 and 9 is from Psalm 45. It takes the genres of prophecy, poetry, and history to even come close to describing the Jesus. And, the preacher is clear, faith in this Living Word of God who loved righteousness across time and space will be what carries this church through the hard days, through the end of all things, and into a future that they can’t even quite imagine yet.
Last night, I read a little bit of a conversation that the activist Mariame Kaba was having about hope being an essential part of her faith and work. Someone else in the conversation offered up these words by Rebecca Solnit:
“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with, in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal... To hope is to give yourself to the future - and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
It strikes me that this is the kind of hopeful faith that the writer of Hebrews was calling the church to. Yes, times are difficult. Yes, this feels like the last days of something vital. And, yet, the Word of God is alive as a reminder and a promise. Jennifer Vija Pietz describes the promise in this way: God is committed to pursuing relationship with creation, God is faithful, Jesus is dealing with sin and leading us on our journey, and God is greater than we can see. So, we must leave room for Grace, the Spirit, to move in ways we can’t yet see. We must wield our hope ferociously, cutting through our despair, making room for a healthy and thriving future to grow with the Spirit’s help. Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors and God still speaks today. May we have enough hope to keep listening.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.