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Sermon transcript for January 25, 2015

Come, Follow Me!
Mark 1:14-20
Belmont UMC—January 25, 2015
Ken Edwards

The obvious question that comes from the Gospel text this morning is why these men follow Jesus without question. He speaks to them, “Come, follow me,” and right away they follow him. The Gospel of Mark begins with a flurry of things happening. There is no long birth narrative and here in the first chapter Jesus is baptized, spends time in the wilderness with the wild beasts and then begins calling disciples.

What motivates these four to become disciples? The two sets of brothers: Simon and Andrew, James and John, are all fishermen. Some wonder how successful they were. We see them mending worn out nets and casting nets into the shallow water on the wrong side of the boat. The only time they seem to catch fish is when Jesus shows them how.

In another place James and John have the nickname, Sons of Thunder. One has to wonder how they got that name. I picture them in preschool, a whirlwind of activity in the corner of the classroom, destroying all the other kids’ toys. I heard Tony Campolo say he could imagine them riding into Capernaum on Harley Davidsons, wearing black leather jackets, with the words, Sons of Thunder, emblazoned on the back.

Some have suggested that they were disciples of John the Baptist and already had some interest in the teachings of Jesus. What motivates them to be Christ followers?  

What motivates us to be Christ followers? When I was a child, fear was a motivator. I recall going to revival services in which the preachers could paint some rather scary pictures of the consequences of not following in the way of Jesus. It doesn’t appear that Jesus uses fear to motivate these four brothers.

When my older sons were in youth group they came to my office one Sunday and asked if they could go to something called Judgment House at a nearby church. Judgment House is what I would call a “Christian” haunted house, set up around the time of Halloween each year. I brought the boys in and told them that Judgment House was a series of fictional scenes that depict teenagers who have made some questionable decisions, got killed in an accident and wound up in the torments of Hell. I said, “You are not going. If you are going to become followers of Jesus, I want you to be loved into that decision, not scared into it.” They agreed.

Fear is not a very good motivator and it doesn’t have a lasting impact on our lives.
Neither is guilt. A lot of us were raised on unhealthy doses of guilt. It can move us to fulfill obligations but not because we want to but because we want to avoid feeling lousy about ourselves. Guilt doesn’t have a lasting impact on us either.

But love does. The Jesus that Andrew, Peter, James and John decide to follow is the one who heard God say at his baptism, “You are my child. I love you. In you I find happiness.” These four and many more after them will hear God say the same thing to them and so do we. Love is a powerful motivator.

Parents of preschoolers meet with disappointment on weekend mornings when they hope to sleep a little later. But their children wake up early and need their attention. It’s usually not a good idea to allow these young children to have free run of the house.

One morning when our oldest was about 4 years old he got up early on a Saturday morning. His mother and I did not hear him and we slept through the whole thing. He appeared beside our bed, which is a high four-poster bed and all I could see was his little face, which was smiling from ear to ear. He said, “Daddy, I made you some breakfast.” And though I grew up on a farm where big breakfasts were served, I am not a fan of breakfast. I like to get up early, drink a couple of mugs of coffee (preferably in silence), get some exercise, and then eat some yogurt, or if I’m really hungry, I’ll eat some fruit as well. I eat because I’m told I need to, not because I want to.

I looked down at the large bowl in my little boys hands. He said, “I made you a salad; I know you like salad.”  I do like salad but I do not like salad at 6 AM on a Saturday morning. In this bowl there was unwashed lettuce, crude chunks of carrots that were neither peeled nor washed, some whole radishes and a few things I could not identify. On top he had poured a pint of blue cheese dressing. I like blue cheese dressing but not at 6 AM on a Saturday morning.

I pulled myself up in the bed and took the bowl from the little boy. I patted the bed beside me and he climbed up and sat there. I put my arm around him and drew him close and said, “I love you so much, son.”  “I love you, Daddy.”  And I proceeded to eat the entire bowl of unwashed, disgusting food because of one thing: love. Love like that will make you do some foolish things. It might even make you put down your nets and follow a stranger.

So the Gospel text is not about what motivates these 4 persons to become Christ followers. Rather the Gospel is about what motivates God to call us in the first place and the answer is love. For God is love. (1 John 4:7)  God calls each of us God’s child. God loves each of us and God finds happiness in us. I will follow a God who loves me that much.

The other question that comes naturally out of this text is: Who is this Jesus that we are asked to follow? I’m not sure the disciples fully understood who they were following. And we have to confess that we fall into the temptation of recreating Jesus in our own image. Jesus is 62 year old white man who doesn’t like dirty salad covered in blue cheese dressing given to him at 6 AM. Jesus is a Democrat or a Republican. Jesus is my buddy who has all the same habits and traits I have. Jesus is easy-going and predictable. This Jesus we have recreated in our image is not very challenging or threatening to our status quo and we like it that way.  

This Jesus who calls us to follow him is the image of God. I recently sat at my desk and reread the little book, Three Simple Questions, by Bishop Rueben Job. At Rueben’s memorial service last Sunday I spoke of his stewardship of words. And in just a few short paragraphs, Rueben tells us who we are asked to follow in Jesus, the Christ. Listen to his words.

“The God Jesus reveals shatters all our little ideas about God and reveals a God who is author and creator of all that is. In Jesus we see a God who reverses the values of our culture and turns upside down our scheme or priorities, leaving us gasping at the sight of such bone-deep love, justice, and mercy. In Jesus we see such bold and radical truth that we tremble in awe and then cry out for help as we try to practice the faithful way of living he demonstrated so splendidly.”

“In Jesus we see a God who does the unexpected and the unpredictable. We see Jesus choosing to be the friend of sinners and being just as comfortable with the very wealthy as he is with the homeless beggar. We see a God who refuses to accept the boundaries that culture establishes and who moves with ease among scholars, religious leaders, soldiers, prostitutes, farmers, fishermen, tax collectors and demon-possessed men and women—inviting them all into a new way of seeing the world, a new way of living, a new kingdom.”

In Jesus we see a God who is not swayed by popular opinion, loud adulation, or noisy rebellion. In Jesus we see a God who is not controlled by any ideology, philosophy, concept, force, or power. In Jesus we see a God who is never under our control. . . . Jesus reveals a God who is always and forever beyond us, completely other than we are, yet who wants to come and dwell within us. Jesus reveals a God of love.” (pp. 21-22)

I was in Junior High School and I was sitting on the back row of church with a bunch of other young people. Our District Superintendent was preaching. We were passing notes to one another and giggling. Several times we got that scolding look from our parents as they turned and glared at us.

The District Superintendent was a kind and gentle man and I kept hearing him use the word love. He repeated, “God loves each of us.”  “God is love.” He kept saying it and I found myself listening, against my better judgment. He looked at us and said again, “God loves you.”  I knew this. We sang, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” in Vacation Bible School. I heard it in Confirmation, but on that day it was like I was hearing it for the first time. The Holy Spirit was delivering this message to my heart and my mind and I found myself transfixed.  

The sermon ended and the preacher invited persons who wanted to pray to come forward during the hymn. We were standing and all of sudden I realized that I was walking, walking down the aisle and toward the chancel. I fell on my knees at the kneeler. I came face to face that day with the One who has said to me all my life, “I love you. You are my child. You make me happy.”

Kneeling there, I heard Jesus say, “Come, follow me.”


Jurgen Motmann wrote, “The message of the prophet is a message for the people, a message sent into the camps of the exiled, and into the slums of the poor. It is a word against the captains of the arms industry and the fanatics of power. If we really understood what it means, it bursts the bonds of Sunday worship. For if this message really lays hold of us, it leads us to Jesus, the liberator, and to the people who live in darkness and who are waiting for him—and for us.”  (The Power)

This Advent may we hear our call to be witnesses to that light and hope that came to us in Jesus Christ. In Christ light and hope have come into our dark world.

 

Sermon transcript for January 18, 2015

“Your Servant is Listening”
1 Samuel 3:1-20
Belmont UMC—January 15, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching

There must have been times when the young Samuel wondered what his mother had gotten him into; he had spent virtually his entire childhood assisting in the temple at Shiloh, training to become a full time servant of God, loyally waiting on the priestly family of Eli.

But not once had he perceived God’s presence in the temple or God’s purpose for his life. Samuel had been dedicated to God, but where was God? What was he supposed to do now? The text says that there were not many words from God being heard and there were no frequent visions to guide him. It was a quiet, barren spiritual environment.

Because Samuel did not yet know the Lord, he must have been directionless, wondering, and confused. Why was he at the temple? Why was he dedicated to this barren life? His role models for life did not offer much encouragement either. As priests, Eli’s sons were greedy, gluttonous and completely self-centered. They cheated the people, stole from the temple and desecrated it.

Eli was Samuel’s mentor. Apparently, he was kind, wise and obedient, but he was incapable of controlling his sons’ behavior and the sanctity of the temple had not been maintained under his leadership. He was a weak leader. With no vision or experience of his own, all Samuel could hope for was a lifestyle like that of Eli and his corrupt sons.

Samuel lived in Shiloh and Shiloh was thought to be God’s dwelling place, where the light always burned to symbolize that God was at home and where an oracle could always be obtained by priestly rites and rituals. At Shiloh the Israelites believed that they had God’s presence as a captive audience. At Shiloh Samuel literally slept in front of the Holy Ark of the Covenant. But the word of the Lord had not been revealed to him. It was a visionless, voiceless, experience. Where was God? Why was Samuel in Shiloh? What was God’s purpose for him?

And then one night the word of God came to young Samuel in an exchange that was both comical and tender. It was comical because Samuel thought Eli was calling him and he woke the old priest up three times before Eli was convinced that the word was from God.

Where had God been all this time? Have we not asked ourselves this question at one time or another? Where was God during difficult days? Where was God when answers did not come? Where was God when depression or confusion came over us? Where was God when we went to church week after week and felt nothing of God’s presence?

The Psalmists often asked God this same question. Were you hiding from me God? Were you asleep? Did you turn your face away from me? Were you angry? Will you always remain silent?

Is God no longer around? Does God have no words to speak to our generation, our culture, our church? Does God no longer offer us visions of hope and direction for our future? Will God reveal God’s purpose for us?

These are fair questions but they may be the wrong questions. It’s possible that we, like Samuel, have been face to face with the holiness of God but unable to perceive God’s presence because our spiritual senses have been dulled by a dark night of the soul or our busyness, or because we have forgotten how to come into God’s presence and hear God’s word.

Henri Nouwen once wrote, “The question that must guide our organizing activity in the parish is not how to keep people busy, but how to keep them from being so busy they can no longer hear the voice of God who speaks in the silence.” (source unknown)

Where has God been? God has been in Shiloh, near the Ark of the Covenant. But the vision and hearing of the Eli, his sons and their attendant and trainee, Samuel, have been dulled to the possibilities of communicating with this revelatory God.

Where is God? God is here! And God has a word and a vision for the people of this church, but we will need to have our spiritual senses awakened! God has been here all along. God has a purpose for our lives and we will need to learn to listen for it.

In last week’s text on Jesus’ baptism, a voice speaks from heaven, “You are my son, whom I dearly love. In you I find happiness.” (Mark 1:11 CEB) We want to be able to hear God say to us, “You are my child, whom I dearly love. You make me happy.”

Bishop Rueben Job wrote of that passage, “Like a sharp clap of thunder God can get our attention. But at other times God gets our attention with something that may be more like a gentle breeze touching our cheek, or a simple thought or urge that will not let us go. . . . Our task is to listen and pay attention so that we do not miss the gentle whisper or that sharp clap of thunder. They often come unannounced from many sources, such as Scripture, prayer, worship, events of the day, and other totally unexpected sources.” (When You Pray, pp. 33-34)  

From the text we find clues for being able to hear God when God speaks. The first is to lie down! Be still! Samuel did not hear God in the moment of activity or when he was going about his daily temple duties, he heard God when he was lying still in the quiet of the night, alone, at rest, at the shutting down time of the day. We will need to be still, stop moving, stop our frenetic activity, our multitasking.

Mary Pipher described her journey to wholeness in Seeking Peace. She was learning to practice meditation and learning to be fully present to one thing at a time. She writes, “I have a long history of doing two or three or seventeen things at once. I am cooking, but planning my next road trip. I am talking on the phone but wondering if I have a can of tuna handy for lunch. I am bird watching but wondering if I have offended someone. I am walking, but even as I smell the French lilacs in the air and notice a heron on the lake, I am thinking of presidential politics.” (p. 218)

Through the Psalmist we hear God say, “Be still and know that I am God.”
If you are like me you have trouble being still. We have a work ethic that does not want us to take moments of stillness and quiet—it always seems like wasting time to us. There are times when I’m alone in the car, or running (not still physically but quiet and experiencing some level stillness is inside of me), at times when the house is quiet and I’m caught up with work or too exhausted to keep going. And in those moments I may experience some clarity about the God’s presence and purpose in my life.

I used to sit down and pray something like this each morning, “Okay, God, tell me what you want me to do today? What can I add to my already extensive list?” I prayed that prayer for 50 years and never got an answer.  I have changed my prayer practice. Most mornings now I will find time to sit in my favorite chair and say to God, “Here I am again. Allow me to be in your holy presence.” I don’t talk a lot and tell God what to do; I try to allow myself to be with God, to be still, to be quiet, and to wait. And God prepares my heart and mind for the day ahead and for what may come.

We need to be still! And we need to be quiet! Soren Kirkegard said that if he were a doctor and were allowed to prescribe one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, he would prescribe silence. Most of us fill our lives with sounds and most of us find silence a little unsettling. But Elijah heard God in the stillness and the silence of the holy mountain, at a time when he was too exhausted to go on his own energy and he had to rely on God.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. heard God in the quiet of his kitchen in Montgomery, Alabama, late one night. King had not set out to be an activist or a crusader but the day after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus, Ralph Abernathy talked King into accepting the leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association and King accepted assured that the bus boycott that had begun would be over in one day.

By the end of the second month of the boycott, King was feeling the weight of his role and began to despair. He offered his resignation and was refused.

Later in the month he returned home after a long day of meetings. It was around midnight and he was exhausted and he longed to join his family who had already gone to bed. A threatening phone call was keeping him awake—he was getting 30-40 threats a day. He made a pot of coffee, sat at the table with his head in his hands and he cried out to God. There he met the living Christ in an experience that would carry him through to the end of his life. He said, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, no never alone.” (Welcoming Justice, God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community, Charles Marsh and John Perkins, pp. 16-17)

When we are still and quiet we will want to listen! I’m not suggesting that I have ever heard God speak in those moments of quiet stillness, but sometimes in those moments there will come an inner knowing, a certitude, about something. Sometimes I come away knowing that I need to be quiet and still more often, but that’s a good message for me to hear. Sometimes I am inclined to check on a friend or a church member because they came to mind in those moments of quiet. Sometimes I hear that I need to let something go or pay more attention to my family. Sometimes I simply enjoy the quiet stillness and that is enough.

Today a story about a boy named Samuel allows us to imagine God calling our name in the quiet, stillness. God is calling us to fulfill God’s purposes in our world. God is calling us to something beyond ourselves. God is preparing us for the words, “Here I am!” “Speak, Lord, for your people are listening!”


Jurgen Motmann wrote, “The message of the prophet is a message for the people, a message sent into the camps of the exiled, and into the slums of the poor. It is a word against the captains of the arms industry and the fanatics of power. If we really understood what it means, it bursts the bonds of Sunday worship. For if this message really lays hold of us, it leads us to Jesus, the liberator, and to the people who live in darkness and who are waiting for him—and for us.”  (The Power)

This Advent may we hear our call to be witnesses to that light and hope that came to us in Jesus Christ. In Christ light and hope have come into our dark world.

   

Sermon transcript for January 11, 2015

“Remembering Our Baptisms”
Mark 1:4-11
Belmont UMC—January 11, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching

Marianne was a bright and precocious 8 year old who decided she wanted to be baptized. She mentioned it to her mother one Sunday after a worship in which we had baptized an infant. She asked her mother if she had been baptized as an infant and her mother said, “No, we did not attend a church when you were a baby.”  

Marianne had asked, “Can I be baptized now?” Her mother promised to ask the pastor and so I got a call the next day. I met with Marianne a couple of times with her mother present. It was good opportunity for both of them to learn about baptism. I told Marianne a lot of what I will tell you in this sermon today and that we practice 3 modes of baptism and each mode has a special symbolism. She perked up and asked, “So what are my options?”

I told her that most baptisms are called sprinkling and the sprinkling of water or placing the water on the head of a person symbolized cleansing. We also pour water on the person’s head as a symbol of God’s Spirit being poured out to each of us. We immerse people in water as a symbol of the old self being buried and raised to new life. She had lots of questions, but when she asked me about pouring I told her that I had never done that but I had idea of how would do it. She said, “Let’s do that so both us can have a new experience.”

On the Sunday of her baptism Marianne knelt at the chancel with her parents standing behind her. I took a shell and dip it into the font and poured the water over Marianne’s head. She looked up, water dripping down her face, and smiled and I gave her the shell to keep as a remembrance of this special moment of grace.

Do you remember your baptism? I don’t remember mine because I was a baby but I have an image of what it must have been like. I was baptized in the Mt. Zion Methodist Church, a small white-framed church in rural Robertson County. I imagine my young 24 year old parents, holding my 2 year old brother. Martin and Georgie Edwards, my paternal grandparents, and Sadie Watts, my maternal grandmother, would have been standing with them.

There are lots of other people in my imagination:  Lots of Lipscombs, cousins on my father’s side of the family, Aunt Maggie Watts, the Postons, the Hudgins, Fykes, Nichols, Ponds, Felts and Balthrops. In the small church we knew everyone and were kin to most of the people in one way or another. There are no photos from my baptism. My parents had not yet bought the little Brownie camera they used to take most of our early photographs.

When I moved to Lebanon in 1986 to serve a church there I was visited by an older retired pastor one day. His name of Raymond Qualls and he had lived near us when I was a child. He was in his 80’s and had thick white hair. He came by to welcome me to Lebanon and to share some coffee with me. He was telling me stories one day and he stopped in mid-sentence and said, “You know I baptized you when you were just a little baby.”  I had not known and I felt such happiness in hearing this and become acquainted with this dear man.

The language of Baptism of the Lord Sunday is “remember your baptism” but a lot of us don’t remember. The words mean “remember that you are baptized.” And for those who have never been baptized it means, “remember what baptism signifies to all of us.”

Baptism is primarily about God’s love for us. It is a celebration of God’s choice to love us from the beginning of our lives. When I talked to parents of infants about baptism I tell them the same thing I once said to a 70 year old man who wanted to be baptized. I tell them this is not about our choice to be baptized but about God’s choice to love us. God loves you and me and all of creation and the reality of that continues to be a joyous surprise for me.

Baptism is not only an experience for the person being baptized, but every baptism is an experience of whole community we call the church. Baptisms do not happen in isolation but in places where we are surrounded by those who have loved us unconditionally and sometimes sacrificially, people God has used as agents of prevenient grace (the grace that leads us to God) and the persons God will continue to use in our lives.

I mentioned all those people at the Mt. Zion Methodist Church because those were the people who loved me and my family, nurtured us in our faith, encouraged us when we were down, brought us casseroles when we were in crisis, stood beside us in our grief, and taught us the stories of Jesus. As my young parents stood at the chancel and handed their baby to Reverend Qualls, they had no doubt that everyone in that room loved them and wanted the best for them. And as the waters of baptism were placed on my head, everyone in the room experienced the grace of God.

Remembering our baptism means remembering the promises we made or were made on our behalf. We affirmed our faith in God through Jesus, the Christ. Baptism does not mean that we have all the answers or that we have reached any kind of perfection, but it means we are willing to go on this journey with Jesus. It means we acknowledge God’s love for us. It means that we believe that the grace of God has the power to change us.

At baptism God calls us and sets us apart for service. Remembering our baptism means remembering that God has work for us to do in the world and God has gifted us for that work. As we come forward today, may we ask ourselves, “Where do we hear God calling us?”

Several years after Marianne’s baptism, I went to the Mt. Juliet High School to watch my son play in a soccer game. At the Sports Complex I heard someone calling my name and looked over to my right and saw Marianne standing there. She was a young teen in her first year of High School. She was standing next to one of her friends. (I have to tell you that not every teenager wants my attention when I show up at the High School, but some do.)

Marianne looked at her friend and said, “This is my Pastor, Ken, and he baptized me when I was 8 years old.”  She looked up at me and said, “I still have my shell on the table by my bed.”  Here was Marianne, a teenager, about to go into a soccer game, and what was she doing, remembering her baptism with much joy and promise.

Today we are invited to come to remember our baptisms and what it means to us. Let us remember and be thankful.

If you are here today and you’ve never been baptized, you are invited to fully participate in this act as a hope for a future baptism and a celebration of the reality that God has loved you, and all of us, from the beginning of your life.


Jurgen Motmann wrote, “The message of the prophet is a message for the people, a message sent into the camps of the exiled, and into the slums of the poor. It is a word against the captains of the arms industry and the fanatics of power. If we really understood what it means, it bursts the bonds of Sunday worship. For if this message really lays hold of us, it leads us to Jesus, the liberator, and to the people who live in darkness and who are waiting for him—and for us.”  (The Power)

This Advent may we hear our call to be witnesses to that light and hope that came to us in Jesus Christ. In Christ light and hope have come into our dark world.

   

Sermon transcript for January 4, 2015

And Wait There’s Myrrh
Chris Allen
January 4, 2015
Epiphany Sunday, Year B

When I go to tell the story of the magi visiting baby Jesus I seem to find myself recounting more or less the Sparknotes version of this story. This is the version that's similar to the one we tell in our nativity sets. There is Mary and Joseph watchfully gazing at baby Jesus with some shepherd huddled up nearby along with their grazing flock plus maybe a harkening angel. Then on the other side there are the three wise men, with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They fit nicely into this mash up we know so well. But there is more.

I am indebted to the youth for some sermon inspiration. A few weeks ago during Sunday School the youth act out the Christmas story for the 3rd grade Sunday School class. As they prepared for this assignment I learned this joke from Ella and Anna: "The magi brought gold and frankincense and wait, there's myrrh." This clever play on the word was a reminder to me that yes there is quite more to this story.

Today, the church celebrates Epiphany Sunday, which is the Sunday closest to January 6, the day that marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas. The word epiphany has two dictionary definitions. The first is the celebration of Christ's manifestation to the Gentiles on January 6 as told through the story of the magi. And the second definition is a sudden realization or insight.

Growing up in Tampa, Tarpon Springs made the news every year at this time of the year for their Epiphany celebration. The area of Tarpon Springs has a large Greek population and an elaborate Epiphany celebration each year by the Greek Orthodox Church. In fact for over 100 years, boys around sixteen years old gather on small boats in the waters of the bayou awaiting the bishop to toss a cross into water. As the cross plunges in, there is an underwater, rugby-like scrum to find the cross. One of the boys will eventually find the cross and he'll arises from the water with sheer joy on his face at the sudden realization that he has found the cross. There is service that follows this event and the boy who found the cross receives a special blessing from the bishop. It is a quite a beautiful tradition that helps to tell the story of Epiphany and give meaning to both definitions of for the word epiphany.

So here we have these magi, our wise men who are thought to be Zoroastrian astronomers. This means they were not Jewish like Mary and Joseph. They may have even been considered pagans. They probably dabbled in fortune telling and astrology. They would have shown up Mary and Joseph's door speaking with a foreign accent and wearing very different clothes. It would have been clear that they were from another country. We have heard and told this story so many times that we often forget how crazy, bizarre, and strange it really is.  These magi were of another faith and they journeyed a great distance to worship "the King of the Jews."

Just think about how much the story of the magi differs from the story of the shepherds. The shepherds were mostly likely Jewish. Mary and Joseph would have probably recognized them as local shepherds by clothes they wore. The shepherds did not spend their nights watching the stars; they spent their nights watching over their flock. As they cared for their sheep one night, an angel proclaiming good news that a savior was born in the city of David startled them. When the angel left, they looked around and said let's go right now. The angel gives the, shepherds the immediate news of Jesus' birth and even the directions on where to find Mary, Joseph, and Jesus so they went quickly.

You have on the other hand the magi. Picture with me the story of the magi. They were watching the stars; one magi noticed something and then the second said to others, "hey, that's the star of the newborn King of the Jews." Which the third then responded with "let's follow it to see where it leads." What is so wise about leaving your homes in the East to trek across the desert with only the vaguest notion of what it is you’re looking for? The wise men definitely had their heads in the clouds.

The magi eventually find themselves in Jerusalem. Not a bad place to look for the king of the Jews but they stroll in and start asking for directions. The scripture tells us that "everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with [King Herod]" at their request for directions. At least the young men diving into the waters of Tarpon Spring see the cross before it’s thrown into to the depths.

It was a slow journey to find the Christ-child. At least several months has passed since the birth. The triumphal joy of Christmas Eve has faded by the time the magi arrive on the scene. In many ways it’s like our homes that have been decorated for Christmas. The lights will be coming down. The tree will soon disappear. The nativity set will be put away. The ornaments packed back up and stored in the attic. Normalcy will be returning.

By the time the magi get there, Mary and Joseph are probably in the normalcy of being exhausted parents of an infant or even a toddler. Gone is the stable. Did you notice that the magi entered the "house"? The star that previously led in the general direction of Jesus now seems to be a laser beam shining down on the one house where the child is. This house may have no longer be in Bethlehem, but the family may be back in Nazareth by the time the magi arrive. Even Matthew's gospel suggests in the verses that follow today's reading that two years may have passed if we take Herod's order in to consideration. There is no doubt that this was a long journey for the magi to worship Jesus. This was a journey filled with many stops to ask for directions.

So why do we include them at the end our Christmas story? I believe we include them because the magi serve as a reminder at the end of Christmas of our own long journeys. The magi, like us, have journeyed for some time with our questions and doubts, and we can only hope sometimes that we are going in the right direction.

The magi are the late arrivals to the party like many of us. It is as if the magi have more in common with the all boys who dive in the waters of Tarpon Springs and come up empty-handed. The magi were just beginning their search when the shepherds had already came, saw the newborn King, and went back home. The magi teach us that the journey to faith is not always as simple as the path the shepherds took.

We remember the Magi on Epiphany because, arriving on the scene when all the seemingly miracle stuff is already long gone, they encountered the miracle of that is the Christmas story, the miracle of a God who comes to be with us, no matter where you come from, no matter where you are on the journey, and no matter how late you feel you are to the party. The magi teach us that your questions, doubts, and searching are welcome here in this place. The story of the magi is a light of hope for us to keep journey because there is still more to this story.

Part of the "more to this story" is when we come to the realization of Christ's lordship in our lives, no matter how late maybe; we are called to return home another way. This path home will continue to have its own questions, doubts, and fears. Returning home another way is not a promise that the way will be free from tragedy - we may witness unspeakable evil or experience deep pain. It is not a promise that we will not turn on the news and see that another person has been shot by a gun or a child suffering from a disease. Or that we won't have a stack of things to do as we return to work tomorrow.  After Epiphany, we do now travel another way with this awareness that things are different because we know it is Christ who leads us and journeys with us on the path to live differently in the world.

Part of my spiritual disicplines each more includes the use of the book Common Prayer. I want to share with you the benediction that is included each day as it a reminder to me of the long journeys we often take to encounter Christ, and yet, we are sent out with the promise of Christ in our midst.

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you : where he may send you;
May he guide through the wilderness : may he protect you through the storm;
May he bring you home rejoicing : at the wonders he has shown you;
May he bring you home rejoicing : once again into our doors.


1 Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010)

Jurgen Motmann wrote, “The message of the prophet is a message for the people, a message sent into the camps of the exiled, and into the slums of the poor. It is a word against the captains of the arms industry and the fanatics of power. If we really understood what it means, it bursts the bonds of Sunday worship. For if this message really lays hold of us, it leads us to Jesus, the liberator, and to the people who live in darkness and who are waiting for him—and for us.”  (The Power)

This Advent may we hear our call to be witnesses to that light and hope that came to us in Jesus Christ. In Christ light and hope have come into our dark world.

   

Sermon transcript for December 21, 2014

“Mary, Servant of God”
Luke 1:26-38
Belmont UMC—12-21-14
Fourth Sunday in Advent

We have reached the 4th Sunday in Advent, 4 candles of our Advent Wreath have been lit, and we’ll gather again at Belmont for the Christmas Eve Service and light the Christ Candle. Our Advent journey has focused on repentance, hearing the words of John the Baptist, calling us to turn our lives toward God, and to do the spiritual work of preparation. Last Sunday our journey took us to a renewed understanding of light and hope in the Advent story. We are the ones who are to go out into the world with the message that the light of God has shined upon the earth.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we read a surprising story about a strange encounter between a young teenage girl and an angel, Gabriel. It’s a story with which we may be too familiar, too familiar to read it as though it is the very first time, but try to hear this story again with a fresh understanding.

An angel of the Lord appeared to this poor teenage girl to tell her that she was going to give birth to a child and “he will be great—and will be called the son of the most high and the Lord God will give to him the throne of David, his father. He will reign over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” Is that all?

While that sounds glorious, try to put yourself in the place of Mary. Not only was this stunning news, but there were complications. She was betrothed to a man named, Joseph. And Gabriel was telling her that she would be with child before they are married.

There were two steps to the betrothal. The first was consent (we would call this engagement), usually entered into when girls were 12-13 years old. She would continue to live with her parents for about a year. After this period the husband would take her to his parents’ home where they would assume support of her. Mary and Joseph were somewhere between these two steps when Mary is found to be with child. This created a difficult and embarrassing situation for them.

So it may not have sounded like the good news that we often associate with it. It was stressful and anxious news. It was a predicament! Gabriel called Mary “favored one” and she may have been thinking, “Please, don’t do me any favors—go favor someone else.” Luke wrote that she was confused or perplexed. I cannot tell if Luke was the master of the understatement or the master of overstating the obvious.

I think that we sometimes imagine Gabriel kneeling in front of Mary, looking up at her, waiting for an answer as though everything depends on her. “What’s it going to be, Mary? Are you with us or not?”  But that is not what happened. Gabriel appeared to tell Mary what was going to happen. “You been chosen by God and this is what will happen next.”

Mary answered with one question, “How will this happen?” We would have asked lots of questions. Why me? What will people say? Will Joseph still love me? Will I be taken to the doorsteps of my parents’ house and stoned to death? (the Law) “Will I survive this?” “Will anyone help me?”

Mary is called by God to be the God-bearer.
There were many calls in scripture and most of them were met with great reluctance. Moses was reluctant to go back to Egypt and made excuses. Jeremiah and Isaiah were reluctant prophets and made excuses. The disciples expressed their reluctance. When the angel visited Elizabeth and Zechariah to tell them of John’s birth, Zechariah had 20 questions and was struck silent until their son was born.

The call of Mary stands out in the scriptures. It was unique and dramatic. She was asked to accept the possibility that God would choose her, a teenage girl, from a small town in Galilee to be the bearer of God’s child. Amazing!

Mary was called to abandon her plans. Do you have a plan? Sometimes our Bishop asks, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I told him I was more of a 5 minute planner, not a 5 year planner. I remembered a movie where one of the main characters had a copy of his 5 year plan in his back pocket; he kept consulting it throughout the story.

Mary may not have had a 5 year plan, but she had plans. She planned to marry Joseph, a carpenter. The would settle down in the suburbs of Nazareth, make a nice home for themselves, enjoy their life together, and yes,  have some children eventually if that worked out.

But God had a different plan. Mary was willing to adopt God’s plan as her own, accept God’s vision as her vision. Her response is, “Here I am.” Mary said a “yes” that reverberates throughout history.

Mary is called by God and so are we. Sometimes the call interrupts our long range plans. My plans were interrupted 40 years ago and I’ve been living into that interruption ever since. Sometimes the call of God can interrupt our 5 minute plan. Mary’s story challenges us. When God calls, how will we respond? Will we say, “Yes!”?

Mary was asked to accept that the child was the child of God.
She was asked to accept that God would become flesh and live among us, that God would be so in love with the world that God would come to be one of us. Imagine that? Can you begin to imagine that God loved the world and everyone and everything in it that much?

Years ago an older friend said to me, “To be loved is a huge responsibility.” She did not say, “To love someone is a huge responsibility.” She said, “To be loved . . .” Isn’t that true? To be loved like that summons forth something within us; it raises the bar of expectation for us. We know it is something we’d prefer to lay aside or ignore, but we cannot.

In one of the churches I served, we started a simple tradition during Advent. We got the idea from another church. We took the Baby Jesus (pretend baby) from our church crèche, and on the first Sunday in Advent I would deliver the Baby (a doll wrapped in a blanket) to the first home. The baby was to be in the care of the person or family for 24 hours. The baby would go to work, to the store, to school, to the Christmas parade, to grandma’s house, etc. The caregiver of the baby would write reflections in a journal and take the baby to another house. The baby would come back to the church to be placed in the crèche for worship on Christmas Eve.

I recall being at the Christmas parade and a group of Girl Scouts marched by and one was carrying our Baby Jesus. I saw Baby Jesus in the grocery store and at the park. Some persons said that having Baby Jesus in their house caused their children to behave. Some children said their behaved better with Baby Jesus in the house. Some said that taking Baby Jesus to work with them gave them an opportunity to share their faith story.

On a first Sunday of Advent I delivered Baby Jesus to one of our oldest members, age 90--a bright, active, and incredibly plain spoken woman. She would say, “At my age I don’t have time to mince my words.” I’d prayed and thought about who should have the baby first and her name kept coming to my mind and I took that as the Lord’s prompting. I showed up at her door and explained the program to her, she looked at me and said, “Whose idea was this? I believe this is the stupidest idea you have come up with. Why don’t you take that doll somewhere else, I have a cold.” I persisted, “I’m pretty sure you are supposed to do this.” “Well, all right, put him over there across the room. I don’t want to give him my germs and you better come pick him up tomorrow.”

Later I read her journal entry. She wrote that she was initially disgusted with the whole idea, looking at the baby across the room. Finally, she walked over and picked him up and held him and thought, “What if?” What if God showed up at my door and handed me his child?” And then she wrote, “And that is exactly what God did.” (She noted in her journal that she had washed the baby and his clothes to rid them of her cold germs.)

The gift of God’s son changes Mary’s life and changes our lives forever.
We sentimentalize and romanticize all the life changing power out of this story, but to truly accept it is to be prepared to accept transformation. Barbara Brown Taylor tells us about 5 year old Sharon’s version of this story. “The baby was borned. And do you know who he was? The baby was God.” She leaped in the air, twirled around and dove into the sofa and covered her head with pillows.” Brown Taylor writes that this is the only proper response to the incarnation. To hear this correctly is enough to make us dive for cover, because this is the story that changes us completely and forever. (Mixed Blessings, “Decked Out in Flesh” pp. 50-51)

It reminds us that God has favored us with divine love, that we must yield our plans to God, that we hear God’s call and that call is for us to be God-bearers and that we are to carry the story of God’s love into the world.

Jurgen Motmann wrote, “The message of the prophet is a message for the people, a message sent into the camps of the exiled, and into the slums of the poor. It is a word against the captains of the arms industry and the fanatics of power. If we really understood what it means, it bursts the bonds of Sunday worship. For if this message really lays hold of us, it leads us to Jesus, the liberator, and to the people who live in darkness and who are waiting for him—and for us.”  (The Power)

This Advent may we hear our call to be witnesses to that light and hope that came to us in Jesus Christ. In Christ light and hope have come into our dark world.

   

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