The Faith of Mary

Meditation on John 2:1-11

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Pastor Karen Crawford

Jan. 16, 2022

Link to livestream of the service and my meditation: https://fb.watch/aAhHszOnjW/

Downloadable bulletin:

It wasn’t the week that I expected.

A couple days before I left for my week for my first intensive class with Austin Seminary’s D.Min. program, we received an email that our in-person class was cancelled because of COVID. Suddenly, we were switching gears—canceling our flights and preparing for a week of online, Zoom classes.

  All of us had to get over that disappointment of not meeting after all the anticipation of the trip. We would not have the opportunity to be together, not just during class, but before and after, sharing meals, talking and laughing, and worshiping together in the beautiful chapel.

    All of us felt dry and parched after nearly two years of ministry during the pandemic. We were thirsty for companionship with our pastoral colleagues. We came not just to learn about God and how to be better ministers and church leaders. We came to drink from the well that never runs dry!

   All of us were longing for God to fill our spiritual cups!

***

     Have you ever noticed that the wedding of Cana in John comes right after the calling of the first disciples? In John, Jesus doesn’t call the disciples from the seashore; and there’s no mention of fishing.

     Jesus decides to go to Galilee, finds Philip, and says, “Follow me.” Then Philip goes and finds his friend Nathaniel. The short discussion ends with Philip inviting him to meet Jesus, “Come and see.”

      There’s mystery and wonder with those invitations. “Follow me. Come and see.”

     Nathaniel is impressed by Jesus, though not so impressed by his hometown of Nazareth—but especially that Jesus seems to know him before they ever met.

     Other people in John’s gospel will have that experience with Jesus—the feeling that he knows them before they have met. That feeling of being known and understood will lead to their believing in him. I am thinking of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Before they engage in a long theological discussion, Jesus will ask for a drink of water, to which she responds, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Soon, he will offer her, “living water” so she may never thirst again. She will leave her water jar at the well that day and run back to the city to tell everyone she meets, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Many Samaritans will believe in Jesus that day because of the woman’s testimony.

      Now back to John 2—the wedding at Cana. Whose wedding is it? We don’t know. What is Jesus’ relationship to the bride and groom? We don’t know. Only that Jesus and the disciples have been invited—and they actually attend. There’s something wonderfully domestic and ordinary in imagining Jesus and his disciples, dancing, eating, and drinking at a wedding. Jesus taking time to celebrate a wedding—and having this account in one of our gospels—speaks of a God who comes to us truly as one of us, a God who cares about human relationships, growing families and the rituals and rites of passage that are meaningful to us. Wedding celebrations in Jesus’ time could go on for a week, and the whole community would be invited. The expectation would be that the food and drink would hold out for the entire celebration or else this would reflect badly on the hosting families, especially the bridegroom.

    Who else is there at the wedding? The mother of Jesus—not “Mary” in John’s gospel, just simply “the mother of Jesus.” She will play an important role in the miracle at Cana. You might even say, without Mary, there would only be, well, jars of water.

    Mary sees that the wine has given out and turns to her son, Jesus, for help. Who would ultimately be blamed and disciplined for this disaster? The ones responsible for monitoring the supply of food and drink and providing the wine are the servants.

      What’s interesting is that the Greek word used for the servants who are providing food and drink are diakonoi, where we get our word “deacon.” These diakonoi may also be slaves, as was the chief steward managing the feast. All would be concerned about keeping their jobs and avoiding punishment.

    So, it is easy to understand why Mary is concerned about the well-being of the slaves and avoiding the crisis that would have inevitably come HAD they actually run out of wine. What’s a little harder to understand is why Jesus doesn’t seem to care when Mary tells him, “They have no wine.” And I stress “ doesn’t seem” to care.

    Jesus says, “Woman (he doesn’t even call her mother!) what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”  Meaning, it’s not yet time for the glory of the Lord to be revealed to the world.

       Mary thinks differently. Jesus, the dutiful son, will obey. She tells the servants to do what he says—unquestionably believing that Jesus can and will do this miracle.

      He doesn’t do it alone. It really takes a village for this miracle—each working together, doing their part. But it starts with Mary’s faith, which puts in action the servants who gather the rainwater or running water in special, carved limestone jars that are used strictly for purification rituals—up to now. The people would wash themselves in this water so they would be spiritually clean or holy, according to the requirements of Leviticus 11:36 and 15:13. Then the servants draw out the water (now wine) and take it to the chief steward. He tastes the wine before serving it to the guests, without knowing where the wine has come from.

    He responds in wonder, without knowing the true miracle.  For this is what happens when we experience the abundance of God. For the wine that was only water is a finer wine than what was served at first. This stirs the chief steward to remark to the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

    This miracle, at the time, isn’t made known beyond Mary, the disciples, and the servants—who are never going to tell what really happened, for fear of being punished for letting the wine run out. But this miracle serves its true purpose. It reveals Christ’s glory to those whom he had first invited to “Follow me” and “Come and see.” And they immediately believe.

    This miracle continues to serve a divine purpose—in revealing the glory to God to everyone who listens, who has ears to hear. It is a reminder to all of us in the abundant life promised to those who respond joyfully, faithfully, fearlessly, to Christ’s invitation to “Follow me.” And, “Come and see.”

    And the miracle all started with the faith of Mary.

***

   Friends, I need to tell you what happened at the end of my first intensive week of classes. Those of us who were dry and parched, longing for our thirst for spiritual nourishment to be quenched, were in for a big surprise.

   It was on Zoom, after all. Aren’t we all weary of virtual classes, visits, and committee or Session meetings? So what good can happen in a Zoom meeting, right?

    On Friday afternoon, one of the students, a pastor, was presenting his part of the reading. We had just worshiped together for 90 minutes with the written and sung liturgy of the Easter Vigil, written by our professor. The Easter Vigil is held on Holy Saturday. It is the Second Day, the day before Easter, when Jesus is still in the tomb.

    The one who was leading the discussion asked us what keeps us connected to the Lord during times of grief and struggle. We hadn’t talked about the difficulties of ministry during the pandemic up to then. And suddenly the floodgates opened wide. Out poured the pent up grief and pain, disappointment and loss.

   At that moment, we were caught up in an indescribable wave of love. It was so powerful. It was like a Pentecost—a mighty wind rushed through us and the flames lit on each of us, stirring us to tears that were, for me, an ever-flowing stream. We were each moved to share how God had reached down to us, through our pain, and helped us weather the storms. For me, I remembered how gardening in the spring and summer of 2020—planting flowers and shrubs, digging with my shovel in the soil while the church was closed to in-person worship—was what saved me from utter desolation! My neighbor kept bringing me flowers from her yard for me to plant in my yard—and this is what brought me joy and strengthened me to carry on.     

     The one regret I have from last week is that I felt any anxiety leading up to the class. I regret that I fretted over getting the reading, papers, and project done, and could only hope for a blessing of a cup of water for my dry, parched spirit.

    If only I had hoped for what we DID receive. If only I had believed in the abundance God had planned for His weary servants, seeking him with all our heart, soul, mind and might, seeking to serve Him more and more with our lives.

      If only we had believed in God’s abundance, rather than settling for dwelling on human scarcities. Because that’s what we do as human beings. We always worry we won’t have enough. And what do we do when we are worried we might run out? We cling to what we have. We hoard it!

    Friends, there’s oh so much more of everything we will ever need. For with God, nothing is impossible, Amen??????

     What did worry or hoarding ever do for us?

     What a blessing to open up our hands and hearts, and give generously of all that God has made us and given us.

   Sisters and brothers, our cups are overflowing with an abundance of fine wine! May we all have eyes to see the abundance of the Kingdom, breaking in right now!

    We are no longer people of scarcity. That is the past! That’s history. We are they who live in freedom! We are they who have been redeemed by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We are they who say “yes” to Christ’s invitation, “Follow me!” and “Come and see!”

    But if only we had the faith of Mary!

Let us pray.

Divine Love, Lamb of God, Creator and Redeemer, thank you for your abundance, shown in the miracle at the wedding at Cana in Galilee. You turned water meant for purification rites into fine wine, better than the first wine that was served. Help us to believe, dear Lord, in your abundance. Help us to live as if we are the people of abundance and not dwell in scarcity, fear and envy. Strengthen us, those who have said yes to Christ’s invitation, “Follow me” and “Come and see,” to have the faith of Mary. In the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we pray. Amen.

Journey to Bethlehem

Meditation on Matthew 2:1–12

Pastor Karen Crawford

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Epiphany: Jan. 2, 2022

Link to a recording of the live-streamed service: https://fb.watch/ahDjcSZfyC/

Link to downloadable bulletin:

       On New Year’s Day, I got a call from my aunt, uncle, and sister, who live in Maryland. They live in a suburb of Washington, D.C., where I am from originally.

     Uncle Mel and I were talking about journeys—figurative and real ones. We talked about the journey that the pandemic has taken us on. We have all had different experiences, but there are patterns and similarities. He shared how he missed many of the activities he used to do, the people he used to see, and the conversations he used to have before the pandemic. What did we talk about before we talked about the virus?

     He misses the Israeli dancing he used to do once a week and his volunteer work as a docent in two historic homes in his area. While he used to attend Shabbat services at his local synagogue, the rabbi now leads them for worship on Zoom.

    The four of us marvel at how different our lives and routines are since the pandemic began—almost 2 years ago now. We spend a lot more time at home than we used to, though we are vaccinated and boosted. We are more careful of where we go, what we do. The world seems to us to be a more dangerous place.

    And yet, we journey on. We journey on to a new year with hope and anticipation of the goodness of God in 2022.

***

     The wise men in our reading in Matthew today are led to take a dangerous journey, although just how dangerous, they haven’t a clue. They are magi, a word that shares the same Greek root as our English word magic. Other magi show up in Acts 8 with Simon the sorcerer, who amazes the people of Samaria with his magic tricks until they hear the testimony of Philip, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus. Then,“ Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.” (Acts 8:13)

    But the magi in Matthew aren’t so much magicians like Simon. They are astrologers, those who practice an ancient pseudo-science—studying the night sky for signs and portents of significant events. From what they see, the magi are stirred to travel weeks if not months to look for the child born king of the Jews.

    Why do they care at all, some of us might wonder? They aren’t Jewish!

    God has chosen them. These Gentiles, says one theologian, are the first ones “to recognize the coming of the Messiah and to foreshadow the comprehensiveness of the coming kingdom he will one day proclaim.”  (Barbara Brown Taylor.)

     “The magi’s journey to Bethlehem,” says another theologian, “exposes God’s intention to welcome everyone ‘into the joy of God’s home not made with hands, but eternal in the heavens,’ and remarkably, on earth as well.” (Stephen Bauman)

    This passage makes me think of modern-day seekers. People try out all sorts of churches, denominations, and religions, but still, they aren’t satisfied. There will always be seekers—until Christ comes again. As Augustine of Hippo said in his book, Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.”

     The startling thing about the wise men’s journey is that they go to Bethlehem by way of Jerusalem—to Herod, of all people! The wise men’s arrival in Jerusalem frightens Herod and ALL Jerusalem with him. Jerusalem is right to be afraid, for Herod will call for the slaughter of all male children in the region, aged 2 and younger, to ensure the death of the one Herod fears would replace him and his heirs as the Jewish king.

    The arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem signals the declaration of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah 5:2 of a ruler being born in Bethlehem and the fulfillment of NT prophecy, as well. For Simeon told Mary in Luke 2:34-35, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposedso that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

    What would become of the wise men who were drawn to embark on such a dangerous journey? Leaving Herod, they set out to Bethlehem and, once again, see the star they had seen at its rising. It leads them to Jesus and Mary. They are “overwhelmed with joy.” They kneel down and worship him. Opening their treasure chests, they present gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some believe these gifts are symbolic—gold for a king; frankincense, an incense, a symbol of his divinity; and myrrh, an oil used for embalming, a sign of his death. For the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.

    Miraculously, the wise men evade Herod. They are warned in a dream not to return to the king. They go home a different road. Changed in the presence of Christ and by their journey seeking him, they carry with them the good news that will transform hearts and lives for centuries to come: Christ the Savior is born!

    We, each of us, my friends, are on a lifelong journey to Bethlehem—drawing nearer to the only one who will give us peace, a peace not like the world gives.

      On my New Year’s Day call with my family in Maryland, we talked about figurative and real journeys of the past, present, and future. I shared with them that I am leaving for another journey, a week from today.  I am flying to Austin, TX, to begin a part-time program of study leading to a doctor of ministry degree. For the next 3 years, I will be traveling two weeks a year for seminars in January and June. In the final year, I will be working on an integrative project in my own congregation.

     These next 4 years will be, for me, a journey of formation and transformation, enrichment and discovery. My hope is that I will learn and grow and be strengthened and equipped for the next 10 to 20 years of parish ministry—so that I can help the Church become all that God wants us to be.

     I am tempted to dwell on fearful possibilities as I prepare for this particular journey: my flights could be delayed or cancelled. I could be exposed to the virus and bring it home. May the Lord grant me patience, peace, and grace as I step outside my comfort zone, once again.

    You know that when I go to Austin, I take you with me in my heart and hold you in my thoughts and prayers?

    We are on this journey together—a modern day journey to Bethlehem, seeking our Savior, drawing ever nearer to him, wanting to know and love him more.

    Listen to the promise for those who seek him. “Ask, and it will be given to you,” Jesus says in Matthew 7:7, the Sermon on the Mount. “Seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

     The one thing I am sure about for our future is that it will be full of surprises.

     Yes, the world is a dangerous place. But the Light of the Risen Christ still shines for us, drawing us to take faithful journeys, knowing that God is with us wherever we go.

    And the Light of Christ shines through us, proclaiming with words and the witness of our lives the good news of the kingdom and the Savior, Jesus Christ.

Let us pray. Holy One, thank you for drawing the magi to Bethlehem to the Christ child, foreshadowing the door opening wide to salvation to the Gentiles, as well as the Jews. Thank you for all the gifts of the Spirit you lavish on us as we seek to follow your Light in our modern-day journeys to Bethlehem. Help us to keep on seeking you, knocking on the door that will be opened to you, seeking to be obedient to you, to be transformed in your presence. Give us courage, peace, and patience throughout this new year, Lord, with all its surprises and challenges, but also many blessings of love and joy. Help us to see your goodness and shine the light of Christ through our words and the witness of our lives. In the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.

We Have Seen His Glory

Meditation on John 1:1-14

Pastor Karen Crawford

Christmas Eve 2021

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Link to livestream of the Christmas Eve service: https://fb.watch/a78FTMJAPZ/

Link to Christmas Eve bulletin:

Do any of you have any last-minute Christmas shopping to do? Maybe, like me, you have a few presents to wrap? Stockings to stuff? Cards to write? OK, we’re going to be up all night, aren’t we?

It always makes me feel better to know that Christmas isn’t just one day. It is the beginning of a 12-day season. You know that, right? In other words, you and me—we’ve got some time!

My husband finished his sermon yesterday before I had written the first word of mine. I had read all the commentaries. They weren’t inspiring.

So, I took a break and watched Charlie Brown Christmas.

A materialistic Snoopy wins a decorating contest by covering his doghouse with flashing lights. Little Sally asks big brother Charlie to write a Christmas list for Santa. She has been especially good this year, she says, so it’s a long list. Or, Santa can make it easy on himself by just giving money—10s and 20s!

 Lucy never gets what she really wants for Christmas. She gets stupid toys, clothes, bicycles and other stuff.

“What do you really want?” Charlie asks.

“Real estate,” she says.

Charlie is persuaded to direct the Christmas pageant as a cure for his depression. “You need involvement,” Lucy says in her 5-cent psychiatrist role. “And we need a director.”

When the cast refuses to cooperate and chaos ensues, a frustrated Charlie asks what Christmas is all about.

Linus drops his blanket, goes center stage, asks for a spotlight, and recites Luke 2:1-14:

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, And on earth peace, good will toward men.”

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

 “What’s Christmas about to you?” My husband asks after the movie. “It’s not a birthday party for baby Jesus.”

It’s about hope. Peace. Love.

Love has come through a humble child in a manger.

Light is shining in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

***

I have wonderful memories of childhood Christmases. Baking cookies with Mom. Decorating the tree after my Dad put it in the stand and wrapped the strings of lights. Mom would start Christmas shopping weeks, sometimes months, ahead.  She was so organized. She stored the gifts in closets. I helped wrap the presents. That was my job. One time, we ran out of Scotch tape, so I used Elmer’s glue. It didn’t work so well! But it gave us something to smile about.

The one memory that stands out to me this year as particularly meaningful was going shopping every Christmas Eve with my dad.

This is how it worked. On Christmas Eve, in the afternoon, I would ask Dad if he had bought a present for my mom. “No,” he would say, shaking his head. And I would feign surprise, and we would bundle up in coats, hats, and gloves and go to Lake Forest Mall. Hardly anyone was at the mall on Christmas Eve. Most people were already finished their shopping by then. We had no trouble finding a parking space. There were never any lines at the registers.

We would go to every department store looking for a gift for Mom. J.C. Penney’s. Hecht’s. Sears. Macys. We would go from store to store but Dad was never pleased with what he saw. He would touch all the fabrics and shake his head. He’d wonder about sizes and colors. Finally, we would find the perfect nightgown, robe and slippers for my mom. We’d go home and I’d wrap the gifts and put them under the tree.

We did this every Christmas Eve.

Year later, we lived in different states, and I stopped traveling at Christmas because I was a minister; my flock became my extended family. That’s when I figured out why Dad and I had done this every Christmas Eve for years. And why it took so long to buy essentially the same gifts every year.

My dad didn’t really care about the gift. My mom didn’t care about it, either. She thought the whole thing was ridiculous. It was something Dad and I did together. It was about spending time together. It was about love.

And here it is—another Christmas Eve—and I would give anything to go shopping with my father one more time. Or even just to be able to call him up and laugh about how we used to go to Lake Forest Mall every year on Christmas Eve to buy my mom a nightgown.

I would give anything to have a few more precious moments with him. To hear his voice calling my name. I’m sure you feel the same way about your loved ones who are no longer with you.

***

Christmas is about Love.

God so loved the world that he became one of us. A child in the manger would become our Savior, suffering on the cross, and being raised from the tomb. The Word of God that was with God from the beginning, and WAS God, the One through whom all things were made, is the greatest gift of all.

Through Christ, God and human beings are reconciled. Through Christ, we have new, abundant and eternal life with our Heavenly Father.

The Word became flesh and lived among us. And we have seen his glory! You’ve seen it! I’ve seen it!

Let us share our hope, Christ’s peace, God’s love— on Christmas and every day.

The Light is shining in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it.

We have seen the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, thank you for sending your Son to be one of us and lead us back to You. Help us to love as you love and testify to the Light that shines in the darkness. Help us to see and be the reflection of your glory, dear Lord, the Word made flesh, and to reveal your Only Son, full of grace and truth. In the name of Emmanuel we pray. Amen.

Blessed Is She Who Believed!

Meditation on Luke 1:39–55

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Pastor Karen Crawford

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Dec. 19, 2021

Link to live-streamed service: https://fb.watch/a0Eg01TNPe/

Downloadable bulletin:

     I have been thinking this week at how grateful I am for the blessing of strong, Christian women—my spiritual sisters and mothers in the Lord. You know who you are!!  Thank you!!

     I received an email from one such strong woman a couple of days ago. Her name is Erma. Just the fact that she knows how to write and send email and do Facebook on her iPad is pretty amazing for a lady of 101—soon to be 102 Lord willing on January 25.

     Erma is a widow—has been for many years. Her late husband was a former pastor of the congregation I served on the prairie in Renville, Minnesota. He died relatively young, while still serving as a minister in another congregation. They had been living in a manse—church-owned housing. So, she had no home to live in or to sell. She had been a full-time pastor’s spouse and mother after teaching in a one-room schoolhouse before she was married. Now she had to grieve her husband, move out, find a place to live. Find a job. Start over. And she did, with some help from family and friends, but most of all, leaning on her everlasting Lord.

     She began a new life—and what a life it has been.

     She writes to Jim and me, “I think of you both so often and keep you in my prayers.”

     Young Mary in our gospel reading in the first chapter of Luke has already been visited by an angel who tells her she has found favor with God. And that she will conceive a son and name him Jesus.  “He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High,” the angel says. “And the Lord God will give him to the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

     Mary doesn’t question the angel’s words. But the young woman, engaged to be married, wants to know more. She asks, “How can this be since I am a virgin?”

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” the angel says, “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

      The angel then tells her about her older relative Elizabeth, who wasn’t able to have children, but is now in her 6th month of pregnancy.  “For nothing will be impossible with God,” he says.

      Being betrothed was a legally binding arrangement in the Jewish culture of Mary and Joseph’s time. Usually, fathers arranged a match within their own community and extended family. Mary and Joseph, before they married, lived with their families in the tiny village of Nazareth in southern Galilee, which was located in northern Israel. We have no idea how old they were at the time of their betrothal or marriage. Mary would have been young—a teenager by today’s standards. The customary age for a Jewish man of Joseph’s time to marry was 18, but the Roman custom was for the man to wait until he was about 30.

       “Betrothed” meant that Joseph’s father had already paid the bridal price or dowry to Mary’s father, but they didn’t yet have the wedding. Mary would have been in seclusion in her father’s home after her betrothal, awaiting her marriage, when the angel visited her. The bridal price wasn’t always money; sometimes it was paid with other goods, livestock, or service. When Abraham wanted a wife for his son, Isaac, in Genesis, he sent out a servant who  “brought forth jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment, and gave them to Rebecca; he gave also to her brother and to her mother precious things.”  Rebecca was the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, Nahor, and his wife Milcah.

       After Mary hears the angel’s announcement of her divine pregnancy, she answers, “Here I am, a servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.” And then she “sets out and goes with haste to a Judean town in the hill country”—to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. This passage of scripture is known as “the visitation.”

       Notice that the angel never tells Mary to go there. Scholars have different ideas of why she would come to such a decision. Even though it isn’t mentioned in scripture, some think that Joseph must have escorted her there, where she would have spiritual support, nurture, safety and shelter for the first three months of her pregnancy.         

       But the journey would have been difficult. Elizabeth and Zachariah’s village is thought to be a place called Ein Karem. It was on the outskirts of Jerusalem in southern Israel. The distance between the two villages was at least 70 miles!  And the young pregnant woman, favored by God, would have had to walk uphill more than 1,000 feet. Some say that her haste may have been partly due to the dangers on the road; the dirt path was a popular place for bandits!

     In any case, the point is that Mary seeks out and trusts the older, wiser woman of faith, without fear that she will be judged for being pregnant out of wedlock.  Elizabeth, too, has experienced God’s miracles for herself. With her pregnancy after many years of longing, waiting, and praying for a child, she is grateful for the Lord removing her ‘disgrace.’ For the two women live in a society that doesn’t value women who fail to get pregnant and blames women for their childlessness.

     Elizabeth, too, knows that nothing is impossible with God!

   What we sometimes overlook is that Elizabeth is a prophet, along with her son, John the Baptist. John leaps in the womb as Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit at Mary’s greeting. Because she is filled with the Spirit, she is the first to recognize the work of God and declare the true identity of the child in Mary’s womb. Jesus is the Lord!

      Elizabeth exclaims with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

   But the phrase that jumps off the page in our gospel reading to me is when Elizabeth proclaims to young Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Friends, it was Mary’s strong faith and faithful response that opened the way for the miracle the angel had announced.

     And I wondered if I had ever missed a blessing for lack of faith. I wondered if we have ever missed blessings God had wanted for us because we lacked faith.  Do we truly believe in what the angel proclaimed to Mary—that nothing is impossible with God?

     The visitation ends with Mary’s song—also known as The Magnificat. I discovered in my reading that the Early Church fathers thought it was Elizabeth and not Mary who wrote and sang this song, an echo of another formerly barren woman’s song—Hannah of the Old Testament.Like our reading from the prophet Micah that offers hope to an oppressed people, Mary’s song “declares boldly what God will do to rescue desperate people. The lowliest receive God’s attention and saving intervention. They are ‘lifted up;” the hungry are filled….a series of great reversals is announced: the proud, powerful, and rich are scattered, brought down, sent away empty; the lowly and hungry ones are lifted up, filled with good things.”

      Whether it was Mary’s or Elizabeth’s song doesn’t really matter, does it? For the song belongs to both of them—and it belongs to all of us. But let’s not miss that it is a revolutionary proclamation—by its words, by the surprising voice or voices that sing it, and the humble place from which it is sung. It is not sung from the temple in Jerusalem, but here in this rural home in the hills of the Judean countryside.  “It is announced by two women with no status, not by the learned official clergy. It anticipates a child who cannot yet live outside his mother’s womb, so tiny and fragile is he; yet he will grow and—like his older cousin—become ‘strong in spirit,’ the Savior of the world.” (Kimberly L. Clayton.)

      On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of LOVE and remember how Love became flesh and dwelt among us. We rejoice with Mary and Elizabeth for the gift of the Messiah and the one who prepared the way for Him. And for the God for whom nothing is impossible!

      And we give thanks for all the strong, godly women whose example has inspired us to keep going, press on, persevere, do what is right–no matter how hard and dangerous the path of righteousness.

       My 101-year-old friend Erma is walking with a cane now. She has trouble talking on the phone because of some hearing loss. She finds it hard to write because of arthritis in her hands but is glad she can communicate by email. In spite of her arthritis, I am sure she is still crocheting prayer shawls, blankets, and hats for newborn babies. This is Erma.

       She tires more easily than before. She uses the elevator at church. She doesn’t drive anymore. She rides to church with Inez—another strong woman of faith. But she still manages to take care of herself, she says, while other residents of her senior living community are on Assisted Living.

     We give thanks for the Ermas of this world who model for us how to walk in the light of the Lord when we journey through valleys of darkness. Who pray for us and encourage us by saying they pray for us! Who reveal God’s love and kindness with their love and kindness!

     Who urge us to hold onto our faith. No matter what.

      For blessed are YOU who believe!

Let us pray.

 Holy One, we thank you for Mary and Elizabeth—two strong women of faith whose obedience and willingness to be used by you led to the coming of the Messiah, the Savior and Light of the World.  Thank you for your love and tender care of us revealed through words and acts of kindness and generosity here on earth. Teach us to pray for one another, Lord, and to encourage each other as we journey through valleys of darkness. Give us strength and courage to pursue paths of righteousness no matter how difficult—like Mary and Elizabeth. Help us to truly believe in your miracles, your mercy, and your everlasting, unconditional love shown through the greatest gift of all—the sacrifice of your Son. Help us to embrace and share the angel’s uplifting words to Mary to all who need encouragement in a God who is present with us always, who wants to bless us with His miracles, a God for whom all things are possible. In the name of Emanuel we pray. Amen.

Filled with Expectation

Meditation on Luke 3:7–18

Third Sunday of Advent

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton

Pastor Karen Crawford

Livestream of the service: https://fb.watch/9S9N3jS_8A/

Bulletin:

Monsieur Charles Blondin became the first person to cross the Niagara Falls on a tightrope in the summer of 1859.  This was something the French acrobat would go on to do hundreds of times, always without a net! When word got out that he would be crossing the Niagara on a 1,300-foot rope, two inches in diameter, without a net, gamblers began to take bets on whether he would plunge to a watery death.

“On the morning of June 30, 1859, about 25,000 thrill-seekers arrived by train and steamer to gather on the American or Canadian side of the falls for a view of Blondin. He was dressed in pink tights and held a balancing pole of ash, 26 feet long and weighing 50 pounds. Smithsonian reports,“Both banks grew ‘fairly black’ with swarms of spectators, among them statesmen, judges, clerics, generals, members of Congress, capitalists, artists, newspaper editors, professors, debutantes, salesmen and hucksters. Vendors hawked everything from lemonade to whiskey.”

 “Children clung to their mothers’ legs; women peeked from behind their parasols. Several onlookers fainted. About a third of the way across, Blondin shocked the crowd by sitting down on his cable and calling for the Maid of the Mist, the famed tourist vessel, to anchor momentarily beneath him. He cast down a line and hauled up a bottle of wine. He drank and started off again, breaking into a run after he passed the sagging center. While the band played ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ Blondin reached Canada.”

On another crossing, he famously “carried a stove and utensils on his back,  walked to the center of the cable, started a fire and cooked an omelet.” Another time, he “walked backward to Canada and returned to the U.S. pushing a wheelbarrow. Two weeks later, he somersaulted and backflipped his way across, occasionally pausing to dangle from the cable by one hand. Shortly after that he made another crossing, and, after a brief rest, appeared on the Canadian end of the cable  with (his manager) Harry Colcord clinging to his back.

Blondin gave his manager the following instructions:  “Look up, Harry.… you are no longer Colcord, you are Blondin. Until I clear this place be a part of me, mind, body, and soul. If I sway, sway with me. Do not attempt to do any balancing yourself. If you do, we will both go to our death.”

The crowds are gathered at the Jordan River  with John the Baptist in our gospel lesson in Luke today. They come from the villages and the cities. They are curious about the charismatic preacher dressed in camel’s hair. They hang on his every word—for they have never heard preaching quite like this. He brings hope to those who long to be set free from the oppression of the Roman Empire, which controls every aspect of their life, including their religion.

But others come, too. Those of wealth, status, and power. The oppressors. Scoffers come to see what all the fuss is about so they can go home and tell everyone what a fraud this man John is, the errant son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Look at this man who so foolishly chose a wilderness pulpit over a nice, lucrative priestly career as a puppet of the Empire.

And they are afraid of John and his popularity, afraid of what the Empire might do to them because of John. These are the ones John is talking to when he says it’s not enough to be born into the faith—to have the right people on your family tree. God expects us to reveal who we are and what we believe by how we live.

John says,  “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  (And) do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John provides a vision of the Kingdom of God ushered in by the more powerful One who is coming after him! It’s nothing like any kingdom of this world.  For in God’s Kingdom, love reigns! When the crowd responds to John’s preaching,  “What, then, should we do?” John says,  “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 

Think, for a minute, how dangerous this mob could be if John had incited them to turn against their corrupt leaders and seek revenge. That’s what we often see in this world! Hate and revenge! But that’s not what the Holy Spirit does.  The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Hearts are touched! Lives are transformed!

What strikes me in this passage is that the peaceable Kingdom is BIG enough and God’s grace is WIDE ENOUGH to include even the “worst” sinners of the community in John’s day, if there are “worse” sinners. And if it’s BIG enough and Wide enough for the sinners of John’s day, it’s big enough and wide enough for all sinners today. The Kingdom of God isn’t getting smaller. It’s GROWING!

Luke says,  “Even tax collectors came to be baptized,” which would have sent shockwaves through the crowd.  Tax collectors had the reputation in the Roman world as “meddlers, crooked, and deceitful.” (Joel B. Green). John doesn’t “take aim at the tax system itself, but instead concerns himself with the behavior of particular tax collectors.” In other words, they don’t have to stop working as tax collectors to be faithful in the Kingdom of God. They have to change their wrong attitudes and sinful behaviors.  John tells them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed” for them.

And then there are soldiers, who use violence, threats, and intimidation to terrorize the people.  Now they want to change! They ask John what they should do. Notice he doesn’t say, “Stop being a soldier and come live with me in the wilderness.” They can still be soldiers and be faithful! He tells them to change their attitude and behavior. He says,  “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

This work of the Spirit  through John’s proclamation and the baptism of repentance stirs the people to want to be different. They want to be ready! For Christ is coming to gather the wheat into the granary and burn up the chaff, bringing with him the just and peaceful Reign of God.

 The people are filled with expectation. They wonder about John and his words. Is he a prophet? Is he Elijah? Has the Messiah finally come?

French acrobat and tightrope-walker Charles Blondin (1824 – 1897), real name Jean Francois Gravelet, on two of many crossings of the Niagara River, circa 1860. In the left frame Blondin sits down midway to eat an omelette and drink wine at a table, in the right frame he balances on his head. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“(Charles) Blondin performed in China, Japan, Australia, India and throughout Europe.  He soured on America in 1888 when he was forbidden to perform in Central Park and had to settle instead for St. George in Staten Island. Although he was then 65 years old, he carried his son and another man on his back and made another omelet for the crowd. By the time he gave his final performance, in 1896, it was estimated that Blondin had crossed Niagara Falls 300 times and walked more than 10,000 miles on his rope.” (Smithsonian) All without life insurance. He always joked that no one would take the risk.

Friends, can you imagine that you are at the Niagara Falls with Blondin in the 1800s—and you are riding on the back  of the French acrobat, like his manager did, without a net below you? Blondin is saying to you that for this journey, you mustn’t imagine yourself as a separate being.  No longer yourself, you are Blondin—body, mind and soul. “If I sway, sway with me,” he says. “Do not attempt to do any balancing yourself.”

And this is how it is with the Spirit of Christ living in us.  For the one who claimed us in our baptism dwells with us forever and wants us to rely on Him! This is how we can change the world, by changing ourselves. Each day, when we wake up and clothe ourselves with Him, we have a new beginning—another opportunity to become less us and more Him. As Paul says in Galatians (2:20),  “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Friends, let us also imagine ourselves in the crowd gathered at the Jordan with John in the wilderness.  Whatever our reason for coming—faith, wonder, doubt, curiosity, longing for change or to be changed, or just entertainment, as those who came to see Blondin cross the Niagara, all are welcome!

 Come and see what the Lord is doing. The Reign of God is BIG enough for all sinners. God’s grace is wide enough for all. For the one to whom we belong is the One who died to set us free from sin and death.  

 Come and be made new! For Christ is coming again in power with his winnowing fork—to gather the wheat into the granary and burn up the chaff.

 On this Third Sunday of Advent, let the good news of the Messiah and the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing.  And like the crowd who gathered at the Jordan long ago, may your hearing of the good news move you to LIVE IT and SHARE it.

 May you be filled with expectation!

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for the words of the prophets, such as John the Baptist and his godly example. Prepare us, Lord, for your coming—for when you gather us like wheat in a granary. Touch our hearts by your Spirit. Transform our lives so we are empowered to live now as you desire us to live, following in your perfect will, walking in the way of peace. Lead us to be more like your Son and bear good fruits of repentance, revealing our hope and joy, grace and love, humility and generosity, kindness and compassion. In the name of our Triune God we pray. Amen.

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