What is this? A new teaching!

 

Meditation on Mark 1:21-28

Jan. 28, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

     21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”  28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

***

We had two friends from church over our house for dinner on Friday night. We had a delicious meal, prepared by my wonderful chef husband, Jim. Hot spinach artichoke cheese dip for an appetizer. Chicken Francais as the main course with green beans almondine, pasta with a spinach sauce, and apple pie with ice cream for dessert. I set the dining room table on Grandma’s blue tablecloth covered with lace.

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We don’t usually eat fancy meals, and we hardly ever sit at the dining room table. More often, we are eating a simple meal on stools pulled up to our kitchen counter.

 

These friends had never been to our home before, though we had been talking about having them over for some time. We have all sorts of excuses why we don’t have guests very often– mostly how busy we are. But it isn’t just our full schedule that keeps us from having people over. It’s the time and work involved getting ready for guests.

A few hours before our friends arrived, we still had the Christmas tree up

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and our beige carpet needed some serious vacuuming.

 

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In the kitchen, newspapers were stacked high and dirty laundry overflowed their baskets. The bathroom needed a thorough cleaning and de-cluttering.

 

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Why do we stress out about cleaning our homes before guests come over? We don’t want people to see our homes messy, even though some of us have houses that look lived in most of the time. And we don’t want people to see us when we look a mess, either, just like people don’t post photos of themselves on Facebook unless they look good.

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On Sunday morning at church, our need to show our most attractive self to the world continues.

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We wear our Sunday best, rather than the more informal clothing we wear at home. But we hide our true feelings, too. When people greet us with, “Hi, how are you?” we almost always answer, “Fine!” even when we might not really be feeling our best or are troubled by a family problem or a strained relationship with a friend, or worried about a loved one struggling with illness.

We don’t want everyone to see our messiness, brokenness and vulnerability, even though every one of us is messy, broken, and vulnerable–and loved by God, just as we are.

***

Picture this: it’s Capernaum, a small fishing village on the north end of the Sea of Galilee. It’s the Sabbath, a day set apart for worship, prayer, and studying God’s word. The entire community is gathered for a holy encounter in the synagogue.

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And they are listening to the best teaching they have ever had.

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They are astounded at this uneducated young man named Jesus, a nobody, the son of a carpenter from a tiny village with a bad reputation. As Nathanael will say to Phillip in John 1:46, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (NIV)

The people of Capernaum don’t know the Son of God is bringing the message that, strangely enough, isn’t recorded in Scripture. You’d think that something so amazing would be retold and written down. But it’s not the message that matters this time but the way he is preaching–and what happens when he does. He is teaching with “authority,” “unlike the scribes.” The scribes weren’t just copiers of Scripture; they were educated teachers and interpreters of God’s Word. This Greek word for “authority” —exousia —may also be translated “power.” It was often applied to kings but was also associated with what the Lord will have when His reign has fully come. But what is this “new teaching” they keep talking about?

Well, as the people, dressed and behaving in their Sabbath best, are listening to Christ’s amazing preaching, Just then, there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit” yelling at Jesus. “Unclean spirit” is Jewish terminology for a demon. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” says the demon. “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

It isn’t clear if the man with the demon suddenly enters the synagogue or if he has been there all along, undetected by the people. It’s also not clear if there is more than one demon in the man, since the demon says “us”–or if the demon is speaking for all demons everywhere, challenged by Christ’s exousia. The demon uses “fighting words,” revealing his insecurity, fear and unwillingness to give up his power over the man. Evil rejoices in suffering, brokenness and lies, and seeks to “destroy” what belongs to God–all of us.

Christ speaks to the demon directly, rebuking him in vs. 25, “Be silent, and come out of him! 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, comes out…” The words translated with a more polite,   “be silent” are slang and more like our less polite,   “Shut up!” Jesus isn’t messing around.

This exorcism in the synagogue IS the new teaching that will bring Jesus fame throughout the “surrounding region of Galilee.” Christ’s “authority” won’t sit well with the religious leaders. Christ’s exousia is always used for God’s glory and for the good of human beings. Religious leaders will question and challenge his exousia –his power to heal and, and most of all, his authority to forgive.

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But now, the people at the synagogue are amazed by Christ’s display of power. They say to one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”  We will hear echoes of this exclamation in Mark 4:41, when Jesus calms the storm. “Who then is this,” his disciples will ask in awe, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

***

I found myself replaying, over and over, this dramatic scene of an exorcism in a holy, worship space this week. Not having any experience with exorcism or spiritual warfare, this passage speaks to me as a revelation of Christ’s power used for an act of kindness and healing. Jesus accepts this man, just as he is–messy, sinful, offensive, broken and vulnerable, for all the community to see. But Jesus isn’t about to leave him held captive by evil.

As Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, 12  “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Christ isn’t afraid of demons, just as we are taught to “fear no evil” in Psalm 23, for our loving Shepherd is always with us.  Only one person is healed on that day, as the community gathers around God’s Word. The message that they fail to hear and see, in their amazement over Christ’s power, is that those who are outcasts from the community, the obviously unclean and offensive, are still loved and cared for by God.

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Christ does not withhold his grace and mercy from this man, in such great need of healing. Neither should we withhold grace and mercy from others.

Nor should we ever hide our true selves from one another or God –or else we who are broken and sinful will not experience the spiritual healing and peace that Christ alone can give.

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On Friday, when Jim and I gathered with two Christian friends around a delicious meal, blessed by the Spirit, the surroundings faded into the background as we shared our private joys and hidden sorrows with one another. It didn’t matter if we were in a clean or a messy house. It didn’t matter whether we were wearing our Sunday best or our most informal attire. Our gracious and merciful God used us–willing though cracked vessels– to be instruments of his healing love.

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We are the ones being sent out for Christ’s sake. For the Savior’s exousia that God gave to him has been given to us to use for Him. Jesus says in Matthew 28:18-20a, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

To be a witness for Him, we allow others to see us as we truly are, giving God all the glory! We are fearful and vulnerable but confident and courageous in Him. We are weak and broken but strong and whole in Him. We are sinful but forgiven and being transformed by Him, day by day.

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And when we encounter evil, we need not fear. The exousia never runs out.  As Christ assures his disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Let us pray….

Heavenly Father, thank you for your Son, Jesus Christ, who, with all the power you gave to him, used it for your glory and for the good of human beings, even those who are on the margins or are outcasts from society. Thank you for loving us just the way we are–messy, sinful, vulnerable, weak– and forgiving for all our sins through your Son’s work on the cross. Thank you for your promise to transform us into His likeness, day by day. Use us, Lord, broken vessels, to be instruments of your healing and grace in our communities. Help us, Lord, to be unafraid to confront evil and injustice with your power, the power of love, evils such as racism, prejudice, hatred, greed, selfishness, and discrimination. May we feel your loving presence with us always as we seek to follow you. Give us your vision of the peaceable Kingdom, when your reign has fully come. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

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Meditation on Mark 1:14-20

Jan. 21, 2018

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.  20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

***

The day we went to the aquarium in Boston, 4-year-old Jessie announced that she was going to wear her Wonder Woman costume. No, she was going to BE Wonder Woman. As we put on our shoes and packed the diaper bag, she paced back and forth, asking, “Who can I help?” She was ready to save the world from all evil.

While we waited for the elevator in the hallway of their 4th floor apartment, Wonder Woman practiced flying, arms outstretched, tiny feet pounding the carpet, sound effects spilling out. Wooooooshhhhhh!

“Is my cape going out?” she wanted to know.

“Yes!” we encouraged her. She was surely flying.

In one of the wide sweeps, her gold hat fell off. She bent down and picked it up. Placed it on her dark, curly hair. Ta-daaaaa! Wonder Woman, again.

As her daddy drove us to the aquarium with her baby sister, Maddie, and Grandpa Jim, Wonder Woman, next to me in her car seat, said that I was no longer Grandma Karen. I was Bat Girl. No, Supergirl, she corrected herself.

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She told me what Super Girl would be wearing, if I had a Supergirl costume. Together, we Super heroines would save the world.

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At the New England Aquarium, Jessie saw penguins–diving and splashing in the water, climbing on rocks. She courageously stuck her hand in a tank with stingrays and petted them. She couldn’t wait to see the 90-year old giant sea turtle named Myrtle. She kept asking for, “Yertle the turtle.”

But Wonder Woman hadn’t slept well the night before. Or taken a nap that morning. As the afternoon wore on, she became more and more tired, cranky, and uncooperative. Her daddy gently put her up on his shoulders, and carried baby Maddie, too.

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After some rest on her daddy’s shoulders, a more subdued Wonder Woman walked out of the aquarium on her own. Supergirl was tired, too, so I lagged behind the stroller, pushed by Grandpa Jim, as we trudged to the car in the cold rain.

The wind lifted Wonder Woman’s cape. And for a moment, she appeared to be flying.

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She fell fast asleep in the car on the way home.

***

The fishermen Jesus called to be his disciples will all become weary in their journeys of faith. They will all be tempted to walk away when the going gets tough, when they realize that Jesus means it when he says, in Mark 8:34: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

But in the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, when he is walking beside the Sea of Galilee, four common fishermen will “immediately” drop their nets. They don’t hesitate to walk away from the only way they know to make a living and provide food for the families. They heed Christ’s call when he beckons, “Follow me.”

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No one but the Lord speaks in this passage. I would ask questions. Wouldn’t you? Questions such as, “Where are we going?” “How long will we be gone?” And I might say, “Wait, let me pack my things and say goodbye to my family.” I am sure I would have asked, “What do you mean, ‘fish for people’?”

The NRSV translation makes us think that Jesus is inviting them to change what they are doing. But what he really says is, “I am going to change who you are. You were fishermen. Now, you will be “fishers of men” or “people,” as we say in modern, inclusive language.

Christ’s call to those God has claimed for his salvation and ministry is so compelling, they can’t resist. Why did Christ call fishermen for first disciples? Do you ever wonder that? Why not shepherds? Moses, David, and Jacob were all shepherds that God calls as prophet, king and patriarch. The Old Testament is full of sheep/shepherd metaphors for God and his people. Psalm 23– “the Lord is my shepherd.” Psalm 100 calls us “the sheep of his pasture.” Psalm 95:7 says, “for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.”

But shepherds wouldn’t fit the metaphor of the mission. Shepherds don’t catch new sheep–that’s sheep stealing! The fishermen will gather believers that God has chosen to draw nearer to Himself. The harvest isn’t with bait and hook–no tricks! Believers will come like schools of fish that swim into the disciples’ net.

The Old Testament does use the imagery of fish for people, but it is not a comforting image. Ecclesiastes 9:12 b says, “Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity when it suddenly falls upon them.” Isaiah 19:8 is anything but encouraging “Those who fish will mourn; all who cast hooks in the Nile will lament, and those who spread nets on the water will languish.” Very few Israelites were fishermen before Jesus’ time. And there was only one word in ancient Hebrew for fish, and it sounds like our word, “dog.” What we call Jonah’s “whale” was actually a great fish: “dag gadol.” No fish is mentioned by name in the Old or New Testament.

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On the other hand, in the Early Church, the symbol for being a Christian wasn’t a cross; it was a fish. The Greek word for fish–ichthus–came to represent Jesus’ name. It’s an acronym or acrostic. The first letters of the Greek words for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” spell “ichthus.”

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The character of fishermen in Christ’s time may have been part of the reason for Jesus’ choosing of them. They are down to earth, hardworking people, not afraid to get their hands dirty and smell like, well, fish. They don’t give up easily, though they become tired, frustrated and discouraged. They spent entire nights fishing and not catching anything at all, as Simon says in Luke 5:5. They are not wealthy, though James’ and John’s father, Zebedee, didn’t rely solely on his sons for his fishing business; he had “hired men.” Christ sees riches as a hindrance to serving the Lord, telling his disciples in Mark 10:25, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The Lord himself was willing to live among the lowly and become one of us, for our salvation. Paul says in the Philippians 2:6-8, Christ was “in the form of God, (but) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,  he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

One of my seminary professors, Lee Barrett, writes that John Calvin “popularized this passage as a paradigm of the calling of all Christians.” Calvin thought that Christ purposefully called these four fishermen–Simon, Andrew, James and John– “rough mechanics” to show that none of us are called “by virtue of his or her own talents and excellences.” “Like those disciples who misunderstood and failed Jesus at every turn, we too are sinners in need of forgiveness for our multiple betrayals.” However, like them, we have the promise of being transformed by Christ into his followers, though some days, we may feel like 4-year old Wonder Woman, needing to be lifted up on the shoulders of our loving Heavenly Father–when we are weary and our faith grows weak.

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Yesterday, 35 people–children, teens and adults– came to our church workday. Pat Smith, our preschool elder, says, “So much was accomplished!” The annex and kitchen ceilings were painted, as was the men’s bathroom. The Memorial Garden was weeded. At the preschool, a cubby, 6 sets of bookcases, one classroom, 3 and 1/2 bathrooms, and the outside steps were painted. Baseboards were installed and the sandbox got a new shingle roof.

Sterling Smith emailed photos of the workers–smiling, I suspect, not because painting and the other work was really fun, but because they were enjoying fellowship, working together in shared mission for the Lord and His Church. And you know, we do have the promise in Matt. 18:20 that wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in His name, Christ is with us! The Preschool is a great example of a ministry that raises up modern day disciples and equips them to “fish for people.” Some of those whose faith is being nourished are as young as my granddaughters. There are blessings when we hear Christ’s voice–and immediately, without question or hesitation, answer the call.

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“Follow me!”

 

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, thank you for choosing us to be Christ’s disciples–to hear your voice and answer the call to share your good news. Help us when we are weary or discouraged. Build our faith. Fill us with joy. Let us feel your presence always and stir us to love others as you love us. Lord, transform us, as you promised your first disciples–fishermen– so that we may be “fishers of people” and enlarge your Kingdom, drawing near. In Christ we pray. Amen.

“Looking for Jesus”

 

Meditation on Matthew 2:1-12

Jan. 7, 2018

Epiphany of Our Lord

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

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:  6 ‘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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 

***

About a month before the Kids Klub Christmas show, our performing arts director was working on props. She asked for my help.

“What is myrrh?” she asked.  “What did it look like? And, how would the 3 kings have carried it?”

And I thought,  “Oh no, I am going to ruin the show.” As gently as possible, I would tell her there weren’t 3 kings, despite the wonderful song we sing on Epiphany,  “We 3 Kings of Orient Are.” The Bible doesn’t say they are kings and, although there are 3 gifts, the Bible doesn’t say there were 3 men carrying them.

“What?!” she protested.“But they have names!”

Slide33   I hated to tell her they are legend–shaped by Christian artists and writers over the centuries, Hollywood movie producers, and greeting card companies. But the wise men could have been kings. They could have had cool names like Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar, one of the important characters in our Kids Klub Christmas show. Here’s Balthazar. He leads the video game obsessed hero–and all of us—to find the real treasure and meaning of Christmas–the baby, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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She took it pretty well after her initial disappointment. She made a sparkly bag of myrrh for the “bandit” to hold up as the “ancient treasure of myrrh.”  Here’s Ben. 

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I showed the director the only New Testament passage that talks about the wise men looking for Jesus–our gospel reading today in Matthew. The “king” language isn’t in Matthew’s account, but Christians may have assumed the wise men were kings because of other Scriptures in the Old Testament. Psalm 72:11 says, “May all kings fall down before him.”

Isaiah 60 also mentions kings of all nations bringing their gifts of gold and frankincense (but not myrrh) to the Lord, bowing down to worship him and proclaiming his praise. Isaiah 60:1-6 is traditionally read in churches on Epiphany, along with Matthew’s account of the wise man. The word Epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, meaning the shining forth of God’s glory in human form at the birth of Christ. Epiphany is Christ’s first appearance to the Gentiles.

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The passage in Isaiah is a compelling vision of hope for the exiles returning from Babylon, about 500 years before Christ is born. They find their Holy City is a mess of crumbling buildings, corrupt authorities, and people apathetic to the faith of their ancestor Abraham. The returning exiles are devastated. Isaiah encourages them, foretelling how God will reveal his glory to Israel and all the nations. For God is still with them, though they can’t see him or see the wonderful things that are yet to come. The “kings” of other nations will see God’s light reflected by His people–and come to worship him. Isaiah urges Israel to see with eyes of faith. “Lift up your eyes and look around,” for their sons from far away will return, and they shall all “see” God’s glory and “be radiant.” Their hearts shall “thrill and rejoice.”

“Arise, shine,” Isaiah assures God’s people, “for your light has come.”

 

***

It is a light from God– the star of Bethlehem–that leads the first Gentiles to Jesus, the Light of the World, in Matthew. The wise men or “magi” come to Jerusalem, to Herod, looking for “a child” who has been born “king of the Jews.”

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 Being from the East, the “wise men” are probably from Persia, Arabia and Sheba or what is now today Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. They practice a mystical craft handed down from ancient Sumerians that predates Moses. They discern the fates by studying the stars.

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They are the magi, from the Greek magos, from which our English word magician is derived. Jews and later Christians will regard their mystical arts as deceptive and dangerous.

This is the first time Herod and the scribes and chief priests have heard of Christ’s birth. No wonder Herod is frightened, for his rule will be opposed and challenged. But did you notice that “all Jerusalem with him” is afraid? Why? A fearful, insecure leader will rule by intimidation, deception and cruelty, instilling fear in his people to keep his power and wealth. They may be afraid because in their experience, when the king is fearful, people die.

Herod calls the wise men to a secret meeting, wanting to know exactly when the star appeared so he can determine the child’s age.

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Then he gives them a real whopper of a lie. He sends them to search “diligently” for the child in Bethlehem–6 miles from Jerusalem–and come back and tell him so Herod may go and pay him homage. Are they worried that if they don’t obey, they will die? Surely they must know that Herod would never bow down to worship someone who would replace him as king.

Doesn’t it seem odd that Herod doesn’t send soldiers to kill the child, right then, or go to Bethlehem himself? Or why don’t the scribes and chief priests go looking for the child? If they are believers and study God’s word, wouldn’t they want the Messiah to come? Their lack of joyful response to the news of his birth reveals their hearts. They want the status quo. The wealthy and powerful will resist anything that threatens their wealth, power and status.

They aren’t looking for Jesus. They aren’t hoping in him.

***

The star again appears to the wise men as they leave Herod and leads the Gentiles looking for Christ, hoping in the one no longer an infant in a manger, but a “child” in a “house”–to the little town of Bethlehem.

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They are struck with joy in the presence of the child, with his mother, Mary. They respond by opening “treasure chests” and giving precious gifts: gold for the king of kings, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of deity and his priestly role, and myrrh (an embalming oil) foreshadowing his death so that we would be made holy and righteous through him.

The story ends with the wise men being warned in a dream not to return to Herod. And they go back home–to their own country–by “another road.” They disappear from the text as suddenly and mysteriously as they appear.

Do you wonder why the Lord might choose these astrologers, these Gentiles, to reveal himself to them?  Here are some observations about these mysterious men:

Their hearts were open to hearing from the Lord–and worshiping him.  They were already looking for the Lord, not just in books, but in God’s great creation! Bringing their gifts, they had hope that they would, indeed, meet him and were ready to give to him.  They made time in their lives for him and allowed God to lead them, following his star, though they did not know the God of the Israelites very well, if at all. They had not even studied Hebrew scripture, or they would have known that the child was born in Bethlehem, as Herod’s scribes will tell him, quoting the prophet Micah.

They won’t return, but Herod will be furious in vs. 16 when he learns that the wise men have “tricked him.” He orders the massacre of every child “in and around Bethlehem,” who are 2 years old or younger. But Jesus has escaped with his parents to Egypt, after Joseph is warned in a dream.

The Bible doesn’t tell us what happens to the wise men after they go home. Their lives, after seeing Christ face to face, must be forever changed. Others may have come to know the Lord, too, if they share their joy with them. I imagine they continue to live, looking for Jesus and hoping in him.

Are you, friends, looking for Jesus? You haven’t forgotten the joy of the Lord–so soon after Christmas, have you? Are you hoping in the God who is always with us–as exiles or free? Arise! Shine!  Your light has come.

 

Let us pray. Light of the World, Shine your light on us and through us, so all the world–Jew and Gentile–may see your love. Touch our hearts, Lord, so we feel your comforting, strengthening presence with us always, through times of discouragement or grief and times of joy. But at the same time, stir our hearts to always be looking for you in your word and all around your creation, listening for your voice, following your star just as the wise men did long ago. Lead us to hope in you and to walk in your way of peace. In Christ we pray. Amen.

Embrace Your Calling!

 

Meditation on Luke 2:22-40

Dec. 31, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

     22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

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     25 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. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 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, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 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 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed— and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

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   36 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 seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 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.

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     39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

***

I had a nice, peaceful Christmas Day at home with my family. Did you? My cat let me sleep a few hours later than usual, then we had coffee and opened presents as the lights on our Christmas tree twinkled.

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I made waffles and watched two of my favorite Christmas movies—It’s a Wonderful Life and A Charlie Brown Christmas.

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   The day after Christmas, my son, James, arrived from Minnesota with his girlfriend, Andrea. When they got on the plane in Minnesota that morning, the temperature was below zero. Thinking of James and my other children and stepchildren, I am reminded of one of the roles God has given me to serve in His Kingdom—I am a mother. Even when my children and stepchildren are grown and have kids of their own, I am still their mom. One of my newest roles is Grandma!

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On Friday, I took James and Andrea to Cocoa Beach. Living all her life in Minnesota, Andrea hadn’t been to the ocean but once as a small child. Her family’s vacations have been to the lakes in Minnesota, and to Duluth on the coast of Lake Superior, which seems as big as the ocean when you are standing on the shore.

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Even the birds looked cold at Cocoa Beach on Friday! It was in the 50s, cloudy and windy. I went back to the car to get my jacket, and when I returned to the beach, Andrea and James had gone into the water to take a photo and had gotten their pants’ legs wet up to their knees! Neither had a towel or change of clothes. What were they thinking?

I was a mother that day, too, but I tried not to scold. It was nice to have them stay with us. It was hard to say goodbye after only a few days, not knowing when we will be able to see them again. It had been almost 2 years since our last visit. I worry about them living so far away on so little money and not eating enough vegetables and fruits.

While I have other roles in the Kingdom of God, I am always a mother. I wish I could do more to help my children. Sometimes, prayer doesn’t seem enough. But I know it is the most loving thing I can do.

***

Even with my challenges as a long distance mom, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to be Mary and Joseph, raising her firstborn son, Jesus, the Messiah. Our reading in Luke provides details about Jesus’ family and 2 other people with unique roles in his childhood. Luke emphasizes the importance of his family, their faith and the temple in Jerusalem, to which they traveled 90 miles one way from Nazareth every year for the Feast of the Passover.

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But they are visiting the temple in Jerusalem for a different purpose on this occasion. Luke in 2:22 begins this passage with, “when the time came …” We can only guess the time; Jesus may have been 35 or 40 days old. But where were Mary, Joseph and Jesus staying from the time of his birth in Bethlehem, his circumcision at 8 days, to the presentation at the temple on this day? Did they go back home to Nazareth? Travel to Jerusalem would be time consuming, physically demanding, especially for a woman who just gave birth, and costly for a poor carpenter who may not be able to afford to stay in an inn for one or more nights. We only know that they “returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth” (in 2:39) “when they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord.”

The presentation, with a sacrifice of two turtledoves or young pigeons, was required for every firstborn son to be redeemed—bought back—from God. This is based on the story of Passover, when the angel of the Lord brought death to all the firstborn among the Egyptians, but passed over the houses of the children of Israel, whose doors were sealed with the blood of the lamb. As a result, God claimed possession of every firstborn male in Israel, according to Numbers 3:13.

Let’s think about this. Luke is telling us that our Redeemer has to be redeemed—bought back—not because he sinned, but simply because he is a firstborn son in Israel, belonging to God.

Now, did you catch that Luke grants Joseph the important role and title of father, though he is not the biological father? Joseph will disappear from Luke’s gospel after he and Mary lose 12-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem after the Passover and find him later in the temple. Mary will say, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” (Luke 2:48)

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A prophet named Simeon plays another leading role here. Luke says the “Holy Spirit rested on” Simeon and that the Spirit revealed to him, that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (2:26) This doesn’t tell us how long Simeon had been waiting, hoping and praying to see the Messiah– only that he was old and near death when the promise is fulfilled. Simeon looking forward to the “consolation of Israel” has echoes of Isaiah, such as 40:1, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” and 49:13, “Shout for joy, you heavens; rejoice, you earth; burst into song, you mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.”

Simeon bears good news of salvation for Jews and Gentiles but also a word for Mary about her son’s pain and her own suffering to come. He says, “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

A prophetess named Anna also figures prominently in this passage. This is the only place in the New Testament where Anna appears and anyone is called a “prophetess,” though the NRSV translates the word “prophet.” Being a woman in the Bible, she is identified by her relationship with men. She is the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher and was married seven years before becoming a widow. She spends the rest of her life—living to be at least 84!– wholeheartedly serving God—never leaving the temple, worshiping with “fasting and prayer night and day.” After seeing Jesus, she, too, praises God but then, unlike Simeon, shares the news of “the child to all who (are) looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

If there is one thing I wish I could change about this passage, it’s that it ends so abruptly. Luke sums up the first 11 years of Jesus’ life in one sentence. He says, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

I wish Luke told us more about Mary and Joseph and what it was like being parents of the Messiah, the child who brought God’s salvation to the world– a light for the Gentiles and for the glory of Israel. Did Mary worry about Jesus? Did she ever feel like prayer wasn’t enough?

 

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***

While I have other roles in the Kingdom of God, I am always a mother. What about you? I see mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers. I see fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers. I see brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles. I see children of God, loved by God, blessed with many gifts and unique roles in His Kingdom.

This year, I challenge you that instead of making resolutions that might discourage you if you aren’t able to keep them, why not choose to embrace your calling?

     Treasure the person God has made you! Pray faithfully for your family! It is the most loving thing you can do!

Let us pray. Lord God, we thank you for your salvation–a light for the Gentiles, glory for Israel! We believe in Jesus the Messiah though we haven’t, like Simeon, yet seen him with our own eyes. We believe that you are with us and hear our prayers and that your Spirit speaks to us and changes us when we pray. And that when we cannot think of the words to say, your Spirit prays for us! Thank you for using us in many roles and ways to build your Kingdom. Bless our families and friends, Lord, especially those in need of your healing, guidance wisdom, and provision. In the name of our Messiah, Redeemer and Lord, the Light of the World, we pray. Amen.

No Room

Meditation on Luke 2:1-14

Fourth Sunday in Advent (Christmas Eve morning 2017)

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

       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 room for them in the inn.

     8 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.  10 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:  11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

***

“Pastor Karen! Pastor Jim!” the children call out from the playground when they see us walking toward them from the parking lot. They anticipate our happy greeting to them and the Pajama Party Breakfast with Santa soon to begin.

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They line up along the chain link fence, wiggling, giggling and all talking at once.

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Do I like their pajamas? I do –very much. I see owls, penguins, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, elves and a miniature Santa suit.

They like my pink, Hello Kitty pajamas, too.

Little Jacob had asked one of the preschool teachers if the Santa that was coming was the real Santa or the fake one. She didn’t know how to answer that, she said.

Now he asks me, “Are there gonna be games?”

“I don’t know,” I answer truthfully, leaning over to give him and the others a hug.

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“Go check,” he says. It is my cue to exit. I head to the fellowship hall to join preschool staff and volunteers hard at work in the kitchen, flipping pancakes, and frying bacon and eggs.

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I had lots of other work to do on the Thursday before Christmas Eve, as does every other member of our church staff. But when Tammy, the preschool director, told me what she was planning, I canceled the usual Thursday morning staff meeting and said, “I’ll be there.” I encouraged other staff to come, if they had time. Leslie, our church secretary and Praise Band director, came–and, among other things, she washed all the pots and pans! I went to the breakfast knowing that saying, “yes” to one thing means saying, “no” to other good things. I said yes, knowing how easy it is to fill up my schedule, especially at this time of year. But that I must listen for the Spirit to make sure that what I am doing is truly God’s desire for me. This is something I am not always good at. I am a work in progress! I have to ask myself every day–have I made and guarded that sacred space in my heart and life for the things of God? Because, when we give up that sacred space, we lose our peace! This is always a temptation for us–to leave no room for Him.

 

***

Luke tells us that the timing of Jesus’ birth coincides with a decree from Emperor Augustus that all must return to the hometown of their ancestors to be registered. This decree forces Joseph with his young wife, Mary, to travel 90 grueling miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem in her third trimester of pregnancy.

Augustus, whose great uncle was Julius Caesar, is the first emperor of Rome. Born Gaius Octavius Thurinus in 63 BC, he is a shrewd leader during the tumultuous time following Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. He combines military might, institution building, and lawmaking to become Rome’s sole ruler, laying the foundations for what will be called “Pax Romana”–200 years of so-called “Roman Peace.” The Roman Senate gives him the title “Augustus,” meaning “exalted one,” around 26 or 27 BC, at the beginning of his 40-year reign.

It’s not a good time for the Jewish people. They struggled against Syrian domination before the rise of the Roman Empire. Now their land is ruled from Syria by a governor, Quirinius, appointed by Rome. The census for “all the world”– all the Roman Empire–has sinister implications. They aren’t just counting people to see how many they are. In ancient times, a census is an inventory of all the wealth in a region–its people, animals, crops–so the government can tax the people to the maximum. A census will mean exploitation. The poor shepherds keeping their flocks at night are now threatened by a greater danger than wolves. The predator is Rome, who will come and take their flocks and call it a “tax.” The campfire talk as they try to stay awake may very well be venting anger, frustration and fear for the darker times to come, as the rich get richer and the poor, poorer still.

Then, suddenly, an angel in a bright light appears.

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They are terrified, not just because they don’t understand what is happening, but because they are living during an oppressive regime, when bad things happen to anyone who speaks against the government.

But the one who startles them in the dark tells them not to be afraid. The angel brings “good news of great joy” for God’s people. He sends them to go and find the child who is the Savior, the Messiah and Lord. This is the only place in the New Testament we find these 3 titles together. “Savior” from the Hebrew Scriptures, had always meant one whom God sends to liberate Israel. But rulers misuse the term, calling themselves “Savior,” and claiming special power over their subjects. Messiah or “Christ” in the Greek means “anointed one.” The term was used for kings and priests in Israel as a sign of divine approval and authority. By the time of Jesus’ birth, God’s people had begun to hope for one Messiah, sent by God to bring about God’s final reign and Israel’s final victory over all its enemies.

This baby is not the Messiah they expected. The angel calls the child “Lord”–YHWH, the sacred, unpronounceable name of God from the Hebrew Scriptures. This is Emmanuel, God come to us, as one of us. The heavenly hosts –an angelic army– declare God’s glory and praise. They leave in Luke 2:15, and the shepherds say 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.”

Funny thing is that Scripture doesn’t tell us what happens to their flocks. They couldn’t possibly have taken all of the animals with them. Maybe the encounter with angels stirs them to shift their priorities–worry less about the things of this world and think more about the things of God.

They go “with haste” and find Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

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***

On Thursday morning, the children gather in the fellowship hall for a hot, delicious breakfast. I pour maple syrup and watch some of the kids down 2, 3 or more pancakes.

 

Suddenly, a man in a red and white suit appears.

“Santa!” the children squeal with delight, though some are a little afraid, at first.

One girl assures me, “I’m not scared. I already saw Santa at the mall!” Children begin lining up to talk with him. He asks each one if they want something special for Christmas. A doll. A penguin. Power Ranger toys. He asks them if they say their prayers and encourages them to keep on praying. They nod, “Yes.”

He asks each one if they have been good this year. Most say, “Yes,” but one little boy looks down silently. A little girl waiting in line bursts out, “No! He hasn’t been good!”

I play elf and give out Santa’s gifts — a picture book and a big candy cane. Santa is gracious. Even the little boy who might not have been good receives a present.

One child on Santa’s lap says that Santa wrote him a letter.

“He did?” Santa asks, before laughing and correcting himself, “I did?”

One boy with a serious expression asks Santa, “Where’s your reindeer?” Santa answers, “Oh, they’ll come when I’m ready to go.”

After visiting with each child and a few adults,

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Santa and I read aloud the picture book, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. The children excitedly point to St. Nick and yell, “It’s you!!”

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The little boy who asked where Santa’s reindeer was stands up and points to a picture of the sleigh on a roof. “There’s your reindeer,” he says.

Afterward, Santa and I visit the babies and toddlers in their classrooms.  

I am grateful to our Santa for putting on a hot, furry suit, complete with beard, boots, and hat, to bring joy to so many little children. And some adults, too! And I am glad that I went to the Preschool Pajama Party Breakfast, though I could have been doing all sorts of things last Thursday morning. The whole time I was there, I felt God’s presence, God’s peace. I knew that I was where the Lord wanted me to be.

I have to make room in my heart and life for Him.

Won’t you make room for Jesus, too?

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, we thank you for your good news of great joy to all people, declared by the Heavenly Hosts. Your Son, Christ the Savior, is born! Thank you for sending your Son to take our sins away and to lead us back to you when we had gone astray. Lord, help us to make room in our hearts and lives for serving you every day. Speak so that we may hear your voice. Lead us in your will. Grant us your peace as we seek to obey. Strengthen us with hope that although we may live in dark times, your light has come. Give us courage to share your light so that all the world may see and come to know you. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Servant Leader

 

Meditation on Luke 1:46b-55

Third Sunday in Advent

Dec. 17, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

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46 And Mary* said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

 

***

Last Sunday, we did something that we had never done before. We hosted our preschool Christmas program during our regular morning worship service, instead of on a weeknight. In addition to our congregation, the sanctuary was packed with parents, grandparents and siblings! Wasn’t it great to have so many pews filled up? Maybe they sat in your seat—but I know you warmly welcomed them and helped them feel comfortable—because they told me how welcomed they felt. They came to hear and see their little angels sing “Jingle Bells,” a Spanish color song with symbols of the season, and the traditional “Away in a Manger.” Soon, we began our unrehearsed “Paper Bag” pageant. This was the first time some of our members experienced the pageant that we have, for the last two years, done only at the early service on Christmas Eve.

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Well, Mason began to play, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” on the piano, but no prophets came forward to our chancel Nativity scene. I worried that folks might be confused about what they were supposed to do or were too shy to come up. I needn’t have worried! The hiccup was that no one, when they chose their simple costume in the Narthex, had chosen to be a prophet. Everyone wanted to be a star or an angel, a tree, a lamb, a donkey. No one wanted to be a shepherd, either, it turns out. So the sheep, said sheep, Jim and Jan McConnaha, ran wild!

We will have some wonderful memories from last Sunday’s pageant. Little, 4-year old Hannah, in our VPK class, got to be Mary. What an honor to chosen to be Mary! She was so excited that she practically ran up the aisle to the stable. I was really glad she wasn’t carrying a real baby when she stumbled and dropped her doll.

Hannah’s grandma told me afterwards that she was so moved with emotion throughout the service, she couldn’t stop crying. She couldn’t put on her costume and come to the stable because she was crying so hard. Other parents and grandparents were crying happy tears, too—and not just because their little ones were in a pageant. The Spirit of God touches us in worship, drawing us closer to the manger— to see what God has done and hear the promise of who we will become.

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***

Today’s reading, “Mary’s Song,” follows Gabriel’s announcement to Mary and her coming to Elizabeth, an older “relative,” miraculously pregnant with her first child in her old age. “For nothing,” the angel tells Mary, “will be impossible for God.”

This song is Mary’s joyful response to the prophecy of Elizabeth—and for being chosen by God for a unique role. Elizabeth feels greatly honored and happy by Mary’s visit, but also surprised. “And why has this happened to me,” she asks, “that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy…”

Studying this chapter, I am struck, at first, that the angel has sent Mary to an older relative out in the hill country of Judea, instead of having her stay with her parents in their hometown of Nazareth. But then I recall what Jesus says in Luke 4 after he preaches at the synagogue in Nazareth early in his ministry—and is rejected. “No prophet,” he says, “is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

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Presumably, Mary’s family doesn’t know what has happened, yet, and when they do, they won’t see her pregnancy in a positive light. They will share in her disgrace– the dashing of every young girl’s dreams in her day and age.

But God has given young Mary a mature faith. She trusts in him. “Here am I,” she says, “a servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” God has given her another valuable gift in her relationship with Elizabeth. The older woman, a descendant of Aaron and wife to Zechariah the priest, also possesses a strong faith. The prophetess will be Mary’s encourager, a mentor during the first 3 months of her pregnancy.

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Elizabeth tells Mary, over and over, what others will not understand–that she is, “blessed.” “Blessed are you among women,” she says. “And blessed is the fruit of your womb! … And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary agrees that she has found favor with God. She says, “Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty one has done great things for me.”

She understands that although she has been chosen for a special work, this work isn’t about her. She has been chosen to be the mother of the one who will bring about a transformation in all of society, which was as unjust then as it is today. She doesn’t complain about the sacrifices she will be required to make—beginning with her good reputation ruined by the disgrace of her pregnancy. Because of the Lord’s choosing her—a nobody in her world, “lowly” by her own admission– she will experience great joy, but also suffering and sorrow beyond measure.

But now, before Christ’s birth, young Mary is inspired by a beautiful vision of a just, peaceful future that the Lord has given her. She chooses joy and not fear or despair. She chooses obedience to God so that “the proud will be scattered in the thoughts hearts,” the rich and powerful will be “brought down from their thrones,” the poor will be “lifted up” and the hungry “filled with good things.” This God is one with whom she has a personal relationship.

My Spirit rejoices in God My Savior,” she says. “My Soul magnifies the Lord.”

***

Today, after worship, we will elect new deacons and elders to lead our congregation. We are blessed! We have many folks being called to serve who have never been ordained a deacon or elder before! As we seek God’s will for our leadership, it is fitting to have Mary’s humble, faithful servant leadership example before us. But also, to have Elizabeth’s humble, faithful example as an encourager and support for those who serve. Those who say “yes” to God’s plans and serve as deacons and elders, like Mary, need our prayers, encouragement and support. They need our help as they minister and seek the Lord for His will for the Church. This work of love may involve sorrow and sacrifice, but also joy as God gives them a vision for our future. Please be kind to them. Trust that the Spirit will guide them. Lift up your church and your leaders in prayer! Remember the power of your words to help and heal or to wound. Remember that you will help your Church when you nurture your own faith and relationship with the Lord through worship, prayer, and meditating on scripture.

Let us also remember that deacons, elders and pastors don’t just work on behalf of the congregation. They are called to invite the Church into deeper involvement and increased participation in the ministries of MIPC. In short, they serve to help equip and motivate us to follow Christ more closely, giving of our time, talents and resources to grow the Church.

So whether you are serving as a deacon, pastor or elder, or simply as a faithful, active member, let us be like Elizabeth and say to one another “Blessed are you who believe in the fulfillment of God’s promises!”

And may we also be like Mary, and respond to God’s call, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

“For the Mighty One has done great things for us!”

“Our Spirits rejoice in God our Savior!”

“Our souls magnify the Lord.”

 

Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for your example of Mary and Elizabeth—servant leaders—who didn’t question your need for them to work for your good plan for the salvation of the world. Thank you for your love and for sending your Son to dispel the darkness—within and around us. Thank you for bringing the children and families to us last Sunday and for all the joy we experienced. Draw them and us closer to you. Stir us to experience that joy and anticipation of your good gifts every day of our lives! Teach us to be patient as we walk this journey of faith together. Shape us into your humble, servant leaders and grateful, obedient followers. Help us to trust in you. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

Give it Away!

 

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Meditation on 2 Corinthians 9:6-15

Nov. 19, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

   “6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9As it is written, ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures for ever.’  10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you.  15Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” 

 

***

 

We had a great crowd for our annual Thanksgiving dinner last Sunday! Our church family filled up the fellowship hall.

 

We enjoyed one another’s company and ate delicious food. Thank you to all who came and brought side dishes and desserts that made our meal truly a feast! Many thanks to our Fellowship committee and others who generously gave of themselves, laboring Saturday and Sunday to set up, prepare the main dishes, serve, wash dishes and clean up. When Jim and I left after Praise Band rehearsal Sunday night–the lights were still on in the fellowship hall kitchen. The workers’ cars were still parked outside.

Then on Friday, Tammy and Robyn, our preschool director and her assistant, and Pat, our elder who serves the preschool, got up before dawn to prepare for the preschool’s Thanksgiving dinner. Carl got up early, too, and came to help cook, serve and clean up.

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The program for families started at 11 with 3, 4 and 5 year olds parading in, wearing paper bag costumes they had made that morning.

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They lined up on the stage and sang to the tune of Frere Jacques: “Mr. Turkey. Mr. Turkey. Big and Fat. Big and Fat. I am going to eat you. I am going to eat you. Just like that! Just like that!”

 

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And they sang, “Count your blessings, name then one by one…” They led us in a prayer of thanksgiving.

Then it was time to eat and fellowship with one another. Parents and grandparents told me they hadn’t expected such an event–so elaborate a meal, so large a gathering, so sweet a program. I think they hadn’t expected the generosity of spirit.  Many times in the day, Tammy said, she was so filled with love and joy, she fought back tears. “It was an amazing blessing from God,” she said.

 

The funny thing was that Pat, Tammy and Robyn worried that they wouldn’t have enough food. When the dinner was over, the serving tables were still loaded with food, and there was more in the oven! So they decided to give the remaining food to Ambassador Christian Academy. This is the K-12 charter school for students with special needs with whom we share our facilities and grounds.

Pat sent me a note to tell me what happened when they invited ACA:

“First the football players came and heaped their plates with food.  When they were finished, they folded all the chairs, put them in the Annex and thanked us for the food.  The teacher told us that, for many of these children, this will be the only Thanksgiving meal they will have.  After the football team, the teachers invited different groups to come and fix a plate of food.  They were all so polite and thanked us for the food.”

When everyone had eaten, there was still a lot of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, rolls, macaroni and cheese, and pies! So they gave it to the school to freeze and serve to the students later.

“ Many of these children do not have food and are hungry,” Pat said. “… Tammy, Robyn and I felt so good about sharing our food.  What a wonderful shared experience that was for the 2 schools. …. Sometimes we are so anxious to help others, but forget the need right in our own backyard!”

I was so happy and proud that Robyn, Tammy and Pat had shared our abundance with students and staff of ACA–and brought them joy and nourishment. Although I wasn’t there to hear what ACA’s administrator said about the preschool sharing their feast with them, I know Joy well enough to guess.

“Praise God!” she’d say of the gift of love and grace and the faith that stirred us to give. “Thank you, Lord!”

Then she’d look for a way to pass it on.

***

Our epistle lesson in 2 Corinthians today is also a thanksgiving celebration, with the promise that the harvest is rich for those who sow bountifully. Sow sparingly and you will reap sparingly. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

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If you don’t plant, what’s going to grow in your garden? Anything of value? Just weeds. In the apostle Paul’s agriculturally-based society, the sight of sowers, scattering seeds by hand is commonplace. “Ahh,” they would say at this analogy, nodding their heads. This passage brings to mind Jesus sending out his disciples to minister in his name, to sow seeds and make disciples. Jesus says in Matthew 9:37, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out more laborers in the harvest.”

Paul’s reference to sowing seeds is in a different context, but with the same desired outcome of building the Kingdom! His sowing seeds is providing financial support to help other brothers and sisters in the faith do ministry. He is inviting the relatively wealthy (mostly Gentile) Corinthian church to help the Mother Church–Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, struggling with poverty and persecution.

Will the Gentile Christians be anxious to give to the Jewish Christians? That’s a good question. For Gentile Christians were not always accepted by Jewish Christians in the 1st Century Church. They lived in separate communities and had a long history of animosity toward each other. So Paul has a challenge–not only because he is asking for money and it’s human nature to want to hold onto our worldly wealth and want to accumulate more, but because he is asking Gentiles to give money to Jews.

Other challenges for this fundraising campaign include the problem of the Corinthians’ wealth. It could actually get in the way of their giving! Just because a congregation has money doesn’t mean they will give more to the poor than a church with less. Generosity comes from faith in a generous and gracious God. Generosity is a fruit of the Spirit, Paul says in Galatians 5:22, a gift from God, he says in Romans 12:8.

God’s grace is evident in the generosity of the Macedonian churches, he says in 2 Cor. 8, who were not wealthy, but gave as if they were. They gave, in spite of “severe affliction,” “their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity…For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry of the saints…”

Paul anticipates resistance to his invitation for the Corinthians to give to another church. He uses Scripture–Proverbs and other Wisdom books–to support his argument. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind,” he says in verse 7, “not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” He argues for the benefits of giving for the giver. While we usually interpret these as spiritual blessings, such as peace and faith, Paul doesn’t rule out material blessings. But everything we have, we must be willing to share. For it has been given to us to bring glory to God and to grow the Kingdom. He says in verses 8-11: And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousnessYou will be enriched in every way, ” he goes on in verse 11, “for your great generosity.”

What strikes me in this stewardship passage is Paul’s emphasis on the unity of the Body of Christ, expressed in our prayers for one another, our longing and love for one another, and our willingness to share our resources for the sake of the gospel. Giving generously to help the faithful is not just a nice thing to do, an act of compassion; it is an act of worship, and emerges from our relationship with the Lord. Giving generously brings glory to God and produces “thanksgiving to God through us.”

For whenever Christians receive a precious gift, we recognize that 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.” (James 1:17) We know God uses friends, family, neighbors, and strangers to be vessels of blessings, instruments of God’s grace and love. And what do the faithful say when something wonderful happens?

“Praise God!” and, “Thank you, Lord!”

***

On Saturday, more saints gathered at our church to labor for the Lord. They cleaned and painted our fellowship hall.

 

They gave generously of themselves, without expecting anything in return. They gave because they love their church! And they want to welcome the world to come inside, come and experience friendship. Come and experience the love and grace of our Lord! For we have been blessed by the indescribable gift of God. And we want to pass it on!

The Kids Klub say it best in their Christmas Program, when they sing, “Give it away, for Christ has come. Give it away, joy for ev’ryone! Love came down for all, peace for great and small…. God gave his son, Hope for eve’ryone. We cannot keep it quiet anymore. We’ve gotta give it away!”

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Let us pray.

 

Holy One, we thank you for your love and grace and your indescribable gift to us–salvation through belief on your Son. We thank you for calling us to minister for you and providing us with opportunities to give generously from the many blessings you have given us. Help us, Lord, to let go of worldly cares and belongings and trust you–that you will supply all our needs and that we will always have enough of everything. Build up our faith so that we won’t hesitate to share abundantly in every good work–to scatter abroad and give to the poor, for your righteousness will endure forever. Make us cheerful givers! Produce in us the joy of thanksgiving. May we always sing your praises and give you thanks for every good and perfect gift that comes from above. In Christ we pray. Amen.