Saturday, December 26, 2020

Christmas 1B

Nativity 2020 Wisdom 18:14-15

The First Sunday of Christmas 2020 
When all things were
wrapped in deep silence, and
night in her swift course
was half spent,
your almighty Word,
O Lord, leapt down from
your throne in heaven.

Wisdom 18:14-15

Presentation • Luke 2:22-32; 39-40

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

25Now 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. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. 27Guided 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, 28Simeon took the baby in his arms and praised God, saying,
29"Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
30for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
39When Mary and Joseph had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

O God, Our Help in Ages Past / Psalm 90

1 O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home;

2 under the shadow of your throne
your saints have dwelt secure.
Sufficient is your arm alone,
and our defense is sure.

3 Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received its frame,
from everlasting you are God,
to endless years the same.

2020: God With Us

We've been there, already done that whole entire year 2020; we have experiences, memories, and hopes to prove it. We started this study with Isaac Watts' "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" that paraphrases Psalm 90. New Year's Eve/Watch Night Services that say a formal farewell to the outgoing year, a formal welcome to the incoming one often include this hymn.

Before the first Sunday of Advent that initiated a new year of grace when we'll be hearing mostly from Mark's gospel, it was Matthew's lectionary year. How incredibly appropriate for the year everything that could go wrong apparently did?! You may recall Matthew begins with Jesus' genealogy as the story of a new creation. Matthew's Jesus is God-with-us—from the angel instructing Joseph to name the baby Emmanuel (God with us), to the end of Matthew's narrative when Jesus promises to be with us always, and then sends his followers out as his presence in the world.

Presentation / Canticles

"But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive adoption as children of God." Galatians 4:4-5

We're still in the season of Christmas, but now time condenses to 40 days after Jesus' birth, when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple to consecrate him to God. We've observed how most times the apostle Paul uses the word law he refers to sacrificial, ceremonial law—including circumcision. Here in Paul's only birth account, he tells us Jesus was born under the law. He'd been circumcised at eight days of age, and to further meet the demands of ceremonial law, Joseph and Mary dedicate him to God. Presenting infants or young children for baptism somewhat echoes this practice; in traditions that don't baptize until later, parents dedicating their babies or young children also is a parallel. Luke 2:39 says Jesus' parents finished everything the law required before returning home to Nazareth.

Luke is the only gospel that records three canticles that essentially are psalms or songs. "Canticle" comes from the Latin root for song or sing.

• Jesus' mother Mary sings the Magnificat [Luke 1:46-55], "My soul magnifies the Lord."
• John the Baptist's father Zechariah sings the Benedictus [Luke 1:68–79], "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel."
• Temple priest Simeon sings the Nunc Dimittis [Luke 2:29-32], "Now I can leave/be dismissed."

The liturgy of the canonical hours includes all three: Benedictus at Matins/Morning Prayer; Magnificat at Vespers/Evening Prayer; Nunc Dimittis at Compline/Night Prayer.

God With Us

During Advent we waited and prepared for Jesus' birth as God with us – "Emmanuel" – the name the angel told Joseph to name the baby. Simeon had waited in the temple a very long time because God had promised he would experience God's Anointed One, the Messiah. Martin Luther in his Wittenberg Reform and John Calvin in his Geneva Reform both included the Nunc Dimittis in their Holy Communion liturgies. Like Simeon, after we receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation we are ready for anything because we know the fullness of God's promised salvation. We know it because we've seen it, tasted it, touched it, smelled it, heard it – "splash the water, break the bread, pour the wine."

When the disciples asked the risen Christ if now he finally would "restore the reign of King David," Jesus replied, "The question is wrong. You need to wait here. You will be baptized with the promised gift of the Holy Spirit that will give you power to be my presence everywhere, and you will be the ones to restore the reign of heaven on earth." Acts 1:4-8

O God, Our Help in Ages Past / Psalm 90

4 A thousand ages in your sight
are like an evening gone,
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

5 Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
soon bears us all away.
We fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.

6 O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
still be our guard while troubles last,
and our eternal home.


As we finally say farewell to 2020 and welcome 2021 with excited anticipation, in the power of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, may we continue to be Jesus' presence everywhere we go. Amen? Amen!

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Advent 4B

Advent 4 Isaiah 61:1-2

The Fourth Sunday of Advent 2020 
The Mighty One
has scattered the proud
in the imaginations of their hearts
and filled the hungry
with good things!

Luke 1:51-53

The Fourth Sunday of Advent! Four days to Christmas Eve, five until Christmas Day. We've been waiting to celebrate Jesus' birth; most of all we've been intensely waiting for an end to calendar year 2020 with its unstoppable pandemic, environmental devastation, ethnic brutality, political crazinesses, economic woes. You've seen the memes and you've said many hope-filled prayers.

• The church's central proclamation is God's incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen.

• God calls us to live as Jesus' (incarnate, embodied) presence.

• Last March the church left the building. But after gathering around word and sacrament, the church always leaves the building to be God's presence in the world during the week. BUT! Last March the church left the building and has had to stay away since then.

2 Samuel 7:2, 4-7, 11

2King David said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent."

4But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribes of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?" 11bMoreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.

A Dwelling for God

David's idea to construct a quality home (okay, we purchase or rent a house or apartment, then living there makes it a home) where God could take up residence was more than reasonable because other divinities of the Ancient Near East (ANE) demanded tribute, sacrifice, beseeching—goods and services. Despite his knowledge of the history of God's people with the God of the covenants, David went along with what he'd seen, as humans tend to do. As the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reminds David's resident prophet Nathan, God has a long history of accompanying the people everywhere they went. God never has lived in a house because God fills heaven and earth, cannot be contained, cannot be located at specific longitude and latitude. Being on the move is God's nature.

Annunciation / Announcement: another Call Story

From the start, scripture reveals God's initiative and grace as God chooses, calls, sends, and equips people to live as God's presence.

Remember God's call to…
• Abraham?
• Noah?
• Isaiah?
• Jeremiah?
• This is Mary's call story
• Jesus' disciples?
• Us through baptism and then through where we find ourselves?

The Annunciation – Luke 1:26, 31, 34-38

26The angel Gabriel came to Mary and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."

31"And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus."

34Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 35The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God." 38Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." …


The Eastern church calls Mary Theotokos or God-bearer. Miriam is Mary's Hebrew name, the same name as Moses' sister. Coming out of the theological traditions of the Reformation, I need to remember Martin Luther had a great devotion to Mary; devotion and reverence toward a person or place is very possible without making it more central than Jesus Christ. Mary shows us how to trust and embody God's word. Mary carried Jesus, God's Word of promise, in her body (the literally em-bodied Word) with her wherever she went.

The Magnificat – Luke 1:39, 46-55

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted her cousin Elizabeth.

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

Speech, Song, Magnificat

Mary doesn't tell Elizabeth about her encounter with the angel Gabriel; she sings about how the unjust, impoverished, society ordinary people inhabit will be changed into a just and righteous place with enough for everyone, not too much for anyone. But notice she doesn't say she's pregnant or mention her baby's name? Like anyone telling a story, Luke didn't write down everything that happened, though Mary probably had told Elizabeth as soon as she got there. How different is song from speech? Simply saying "And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor Mighty God Everlasting Father Prince of Peace" is complexly inadequate once you've known the glorious musical setting in the Messiah. Singing magnifies and enhances speech.

Magnificat is Latin for making larger, magnifying, making greater, the way a magnifying glass enlarges. It has the same root as "magnificent."

We've discussed how everyone knew and memorized scripture two millennia ago. Mary's words reflect Hannah's song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. Mary and her contemporaries would have been so familiar with large passages of scripture they'd have been able to recite and paraphrase them, making those texts their own. How about us? If we ever get back (when we get back) onto campus, it might be interesting for people to take turns preparing, reading, or singing a paraphrase of the responsive psalm to open our study time.

Word in the World, COVID-19

The church's central proclamation is God's incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen. Advent waits for, hopes for, and expects Jesus! Martin Luther reminds us to know the fullness of God's power and reign, look to the Bethlehem manger, look to the Calvary cross.

Mary asks' "How can this be, considering everything?" Angel (Messenger) Gabriel explains it will happen because the Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Most High overshadow you.

When the disciples asked the risen Christ if now he finally would "restore the [Davidic] reign," Jesus replied, "The question is wrong. You need to wait here. You will be baptized with the promised gift of the Holy Spirit that will give you power to be my presence everywhere, and you will be the ones to restore the reign of heaven on earth." Acts 1:4-8

For nine months, pregnant Mary carried God's Word of promise (literally Jesus the Word) in her body everywhere she went. We have been baptized into Jesus the Christ, the one whose body he promised his followers would become. But we are not the word. Jesus is the Word. How can we be, speak, act and reveal Jesus? As God reminded David and Nathan, God always has traveled alongside the people. God calls us to be wherever the people are, in the 'hood, in the corporate boardroom, in the COVID ward, embedded in the world's hopes and plans for a future.

As always, the church has left the building. But the church has stayed out of the building most of 2020. Since the day we had to close the building how have we been out there alongside the people?

Like Mary, as the church we carry God's Word of Promise (Jesus!) with us wherever we go. Jesus of Nazareth, born in the Bethlehem manger, walked among doubters and outcasts, fed the hungry. Jesus of Nazareth, the one whose body his followers would become. The one whose body we, his followers have become among pandemic doubters and climate change deniers, as we feed hungry people in a dozen direct and indirect ways, as we stay safer at home when we can, as we mask up and keep our distance for love of our neighbors. Maybe paradoxically we know that probably at least through early January, staying put and going outside only for essentials is the best way we can testify to God's loving, merciful, care-filled reign on earth amidst this pandemic.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Advent 3B

Advent 3 Isaiah 61:1-2

The Third Sunday of Advent 2020 
To bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the year of the Lord's favour!

Isaiah 61:1-2
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

1The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

8For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Gaudete! Rejoice! Invitation!

The third Sunday of Advent sometimes is called Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday from the opening of the entrance prayer in the Latin rite. Taking a joy-filled break originated when Advent was mostly penitential rather than our contemporary season of hope.

Assuming we'll be meeting together on campus by Advent 2021, would anyone like to research and present a history of Advent? Maybe we'll even meet in person for Lent. In that case, any offers to assemble a history of Lent in Western and Eastern hemispheres? Whenever we begin a new liturgical season I always provide a quick overview, but It's always about current Western churches—Roman Catholic, Mainline Protestant, and other traditions that follow the ecumenical calendar. I know that information well, but I know close to zero about non-Western churches and about the overall timeline of how the church year evolved.


God of grace, God of unmediated presence, you don't need another news bulletin. You already know what's been happening on earth—you've been in the midst of it. Blue is advent's color for the hope of newness and rebirth; blue sometimes is advent's color because of sorrow. Grief. Loss. Hopelessness.

As we wait for daylight to increase and to celebrate Jesus' birth, we've considered scriptures that promise everything that hinders life will be turned around, upside down, redeemed, and restored. A planet beginning to heal? Ethnic and economic justice? The end of COVID-19? Food and shelter for everyone? The eventual death of death? All that and more!

God of the covenants, God of love, God of resurrection hope, please help us shine as your light your love and your hope for our neighbors who long for morning, our friends who yearn for resurrection.

In the name of Jesus, Light of the World, amen.

Isaiah, Prophets, Jesus

Again this week God speaks through Third Isaiah, offering challenge, comfort, and hope to the southern kingdom Judah after some exiles returned from Babylon to rebuild infrastructure, community, and traditions. He (it probably was a guy) also spoke to people who'd stayed behind and never left Jerusalem.

Prophets speak against the political, economic, social, and religious status quo. Prophets call people to repent, to turn around, to re-direct their lives. But more than anything, prophecy announces God doing a new thing, the inbreaking of the reign of heaven on earth, resurrection from the dead! This week's particular proclamation is exactly that: urban rebirth; rebuilding from ruins, blight and devastation; turning upside down the community's sorrow, grief, lack of initiative.

Does that sound like what we need right now?

in Luke's gospel, reading and affirming these promises initiated Jesus' public ministry.
16…Jesus went to [his hometown Nazareth] synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." … 21Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Luke 4

Does that sound like something we need right now? Does it sound like the ministry God has called us to?

Fun feature: Isaiah 61:11 uses the word sprout three times: earth sprouts; garden sprouts; righteousness and praise sprouts.

Questions for Advent 3

In any other year, either Advent 2 or Advent 3 would be Lessons & Carols. On Advent 3 or Advent 4 during more normal years we've discussed favorite Advent and Christmas memories, music, and practices.

• Are you ready for Christmas music? Have you been listening to carols or singing them? I haven't yet.
• Have you "attended" any virtual holiday concerts, either mostly religious or mostly secular events? Or maybe you're waiting for closer to December 24th? I've enjoyed several semi-holiday themed TV specials.
• Are you ready with a list of favorite winter (since we reside in the northern hemisphere) holiday songs and traditions? On Advent 1 I listed some of my brightest and best songs and will add more next week.
• Has the release and approval of two COVID-19 vaccines given you hope? Or are you still mostly in the depressive blues aspect of Advent? I'm feeling both/and.
• Do you truly dwell in hope the new year 2021 will be different, better, and life-giving rather than life-negating? Or are you in wait-and-see mode?

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Advent 2B

Advent 2 Isaiah 40:4-5

The Second Sunday of Advent 2020

Every valley shall be lifted up,
every mountain and hill made low,
then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together!

Isaiah 40:4-5

Psalm 85:8-11

Let us hear what God the Lord will speak,
for God will speak peace to the people,
to the faithful who turn to him in their hearts.

Surely salvation is at hand for those who trust God,
that God's glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
and make a path for God's steps.

Isaiah 40:1-5; 9

1Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
double for all her sins.

3A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

9Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
"Here is your God!"

Isaiah / Advent

At some juncture the three sections of the book we call Isaiah got assembled into a single volume. A single individual probably wrote each section; each also contains verses that don't match the rest, so most likely those were written by famous, prolific anonymous.

• First Isaiah, chapters 1 – 39: before the Babylonian exile. This writer sometimes gets called Isaiah of Jerusalem or the historical Isaiah.
• Second Isaiah, chapters 40 – 55: during the Babylonian exile. Chapter 40 opens with today's First Reading, "Comfort ye… every valley" we know from Handel's Messiah. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann observes, "Second Isaiah funded Handel's Messiah."
• Third Isaiah, chapters 56 - 56: back in Jerusalem and Judah after the exile, trying to rebuild physical, community, and religious structures.

Because YouTube videos never are there forever, I've stopped linking to them, but for several years I've loved MIchael Spyres' Comfort Ye-Every Valley. It will be at the top of a search for Michael Spyres Messiah Comfort Ye Every Valley. This performance may be so wonderful because although audio is good, the video gives the impression they'd decided to record spur of the moment. Everything comes across as natural and close to spontaneous—though clearly tenor and orchestra were extremely well-prepared. Preparation and spontaneity feels like a good model for our going into 2021.

Last Sunday Advent began and the church opened wide another new year of grace; I love our starting a new year a month before the official civic one on January 1st. During this Advent season we wait and hope together for God's presence with us in the infant Jesus. Isaiah announces God's arrival (or more accurately God's presence in a way people can see and appreciate because God never had left); God then calls the people (Zion) to announce God no longer being hidden. In exactly the same way, God calls us to proclaim and testify to God's presence in the world today.

The Road Home / COVID-19

Although this short Isaiah passage contains enough substance for a very long book, for starters:

The road second Isaiah sings about is not for the exiles' return home; maybe surprisingly, the highway is for God's journey. During Advent we wait and hope together, whatever unusual cyber-forms togetherness may have assumed this year. This scripture tells us we all will experience God's glory together, too.

It's a street, a path, an avenue, and not a static location with coordinates we can cite. The scripture continues with talk about earth moving and feats of civic engineering: Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Easier to walk on and drive on than we'd expected or known in the past, probably quicker, too.

Exiles in the culturally and politically strange Babylon wanted to go home, though you may remember Jeremiah telling them to settle down and contribute to Babylon's greater good—the original Bloom Where You Are Planted.

I've asked at least once if this pandemic breakaway from normal is exile (a place and way of being away from a settled place we considered home, like the Israelites'), or sabbath (a period of not working productively while trusting the sufficiency of God's supply for right now), or winter (a however long time that may look inert, but life is preparing to bloom when it's ready and the setting is right).

This Week's Questions

Short list: so far in 2020 we've had pandemic, economic recession, high unemployment, unprecedented wildfires, hurricanes, racial injustice, climate crisis, LARiots2020, disputed presidential election results, COVID-19 surge upon surge…

• Besides not another calamity before the calendar year ends, what do you hope and pray for this Advent 2020? For the entire year 2021?
• Does this seemingly endless and increasingly severe pandemic qualify as exile, sabbath, winter, or something we can't yet name?
• This week brought great news of two highly effective vaccines ready for approval and distribution with a third well on the way. Still others are at an earlier developmental stage. Are you excited about a vaccine? Or maybe not?
• Is home a perspective or a location or is home both/and? Or does it all depend (that's my answer)?
• How would you describe homecoming or home?
• As an individual or within your church, workplace, or other group have you ever gotten an "aha" moment as inspiration from God related to your next move toward a goal you might even consider a type of settled situation or "home"?
• Do you have a particular attachment to your childhood home or homes, the city or town where you grew up, a grandparent's house or a vacation spot you enjoyed as a kid?
• Do you ever go back to your place of roots, desire to go back, or do you consider that chapter thankfully closed?