Bearers of the Promise

A sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9:2-17

We are gathered amid the glow of candles and carols tonight, perhaps warmed by the cheer this special day brings, but it has been a rough Advent season for Epiphany Lutheran Church. Amid all the festive preparations that come at this time of year, our community has been laying out food for funeral receptions and gathering in the columbarium to remember the lives of three of our own—three we had every reason to believe would be celebrating the Savior’s birth with us this year.

Maybe that’s where you find yourself this Christmas, too. The prophet Isaiah tonight speaks of people who’ve been walking in darkness, of people who dwell in a land of deep darkness, and while Isaiah was initially speaking to an ancient Israel waiting for a redeemer, some of us feel something like Isaiah might be talking directly to where we are. It feels like darkness now: a sense of loss and wandering and wondering about how to move forward.

Two weeks ago I was visiting the hospital room where one gentleman was watching his wife of almost 56 years slowly slip away. As I prepared to leave he pulled me out into the hallway to speak one on one. Bereft and almost at a loss of words as their time was growing short, he looked straight at me and said, “Well, I can say I have fulfilled my marriage vows to her. I have been faithful. I have loved her. I have kept those promises I made back in 1964.” And then, to my astonishment, right there in the hospital hallway, with no prompting at all, as if to puncuate his heartache, between the beeping of heart monitors and the shuffling feet of nurses he began to recite those vows, one by one. “I, Richard, take you, MarthaiIn plenty and in want, in joy and sorrow, in sickness and in health.” A man’s love for his life’s partner, reaching its climax, even in her final days.

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It occurs to me that’s what this special day brings, why we’re gathered here, why the candles glow. The news of Christmas all about the fulfillment of promises. God has fulfilled his promise to shine a light in the darkness. It is about God staying true to God’s steadfast love, making good on his vow to be with his people in plenty and in want, in joy and sorrow, in sickness and health. Indeed, if we say anything about this night, it is that God has reminded us of his love for us, even as the world slips away. In the midst of a rough Advent season that man in the hallway spoke gospel truth to me, and tonight we gather to sing and be filled with joy. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.” He is ours. This birth is God’s promise that though we might feel lost, we are found…that though we might feel empty, God fills us with good things…that though we might feel defeated by what life throws at us, God has broken the rod of our oppressor as on the day of Midian, and the boots of the warriors that trample upon us—the sorrow, the grief, the despair—have been burned as fuel for the fire. Because God fulfills his promises in Christ, we have life forevermore.

For if a son has been given to us, a child born for us who comes as God’s own, then we have the assurance that everything we go through, everything we encounter as human beings on a benighted planet is something that God himself will encounter and experience. God weds himself this day to a world with newborn babies and our favorite Christmas treats and squeals of joy at presents wrapped and placed underneath a tree. And God weds himself this day to a world with impeachment trials and trade wars and cancer treatments and funerals. A child has been born for us.

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Martin Luther, the church reformer, puts it this way in a short little essay for his students from 1522 called “A Brief Instruction on What to Look for in the Gospels.” The essay’s title is its whole point: what one should be looking for when reading or hearing one of the books about Jesus in Scripture. And we read from one this night. Luther says, “Before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given and that is your own. This means that when you hear or see Christ doing something or suffering something you don’t doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you.”

When God decides to fulfill a promise, you see, when God decides to give a gift, God gives it wholeheartedly, and nothing can take it away—not religious authorities who think he is too gracious with his love, too liberal in how he shows it. Not disciples who vow one moment to defend him and then the next deny they even know him. Not forces of sin and darkness that try to nail him to the cross. God promises and God gives and the gift lasts forever. It is ours. Jesus is given to you.

And here’s the thing: those who receive it find they cannot help but give it again. Those upon whom God’s light has shined cannot help but shine it on others. It’s like the heavens break open with the blast and cacophony of angel voices over a field of shepherds. Those shepherds then leave their flocks and hasten to the gift and find him wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Those same shepherds then return, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.

We, who hear the promise tonight—we who receive the promise—become bearers of the promise of God’s unconditional love to the world. God makes good on God’s vows and we respond, shielding the weak, staying near the world in its fears, holding the hand of the lost. We, who sense the light tonight, or whenever, then shine the light where we go.

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Some of you may have noticed that this year our congregation did not set up its outdoor nativity scene, the one on our front lawn here where the characters of the nativity and the Epiphany slowly but surely make their way to Bethlehem. I’ve heard the disappointment from a few community members and nursery school families. That display of mannequins on wire frames and covered with fabric have become one of our best evangelism tools. We decided, given how construction was affecting access to the lawn and dependable electricity sources, it would be good to take a break this year.

But the other day I received a text from one of our college students. It was text of a photo of her house way out in Louisa County. There, on top of her house, her father had hung the huge star from our nativity display. Her text read, “Now keep in mind we live a mile off the road so no one will ever see it.”

Normally this man the one who uses a complex system of fly-fishing rods and weights to sling the massive star over our cross. This year he took it home and I’m proud to tell you it is shining from his roof. I guess he couldn’t bear for that light not to shine. because the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.

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A light shines in the darkness of Louisa County, VA

So, if the star is not here, but still shining out there somewhere, a beacon of promise, where then are the characters? Where are Mary and Joseph and the shepherds in the fields abiding, who eventually return glorifying God? Where are the magi, traveling from the East with their gifts, plodding their way toward the house in Bethlehem? That’s you and me, people.  This year and really every year. The gospel’s best evangelism tool, you are hope in the darkness, a sign that God’s promise of love has being fulfilled.

Here’s the “Brief Instruction on What to Look for Upon Being a Christian.” Bear the promise. Go with haste. Hang a star. Shine with your good deeds with the glory of a thousand angels. You and me, characters of God’s redeeming story out in the world, because the Son has been given. And they won’t miss the nativity scene because they will find it in you. And perhaps they’ll think in their minds, in the words of a simple tune by Garrison Keillor…

 

There are angels hovering ‘round.
There are angels hov’ring ‘round.
There are angels, angels hov’ring round.

 To sing in harmony
To sing in harmony
To sing, to sing in harmony.

 The shepherds on their knees
The shepherds on their knees.
The shepherds, shepherds on their knees.

 The child in her arms
The child in her arms
The child, the child in her arms.

 O world without end.
O world without end
O world, O world without end.

Maybe that’s what they’ll hear, you Promises.

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Wait list for Joseph

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year A]

Matthew 1:18-25

The congregation where I served as youth director during most of my years in seminary had a live nativity scene that was very popular in the community but even more popular within the congregation because of the ways it drew them together every year. It was a really well-done production, held outdoors so that people could easily gather underneath the star-lit South Carolina sky and watch it from their cars, if they needed to. One of the men of the congregation had a great radio voice and they had made a cassette tape recording of him—yes, that was still back in the days of cassette tapes—reading various parts of the Scripture story and the different characters would walk out of the dark into the nativity scene at the appropriate time.

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It was a well-loved event, and one of the things I learned about that live nativity is that there was an unwritten, unspoken wait list to play the part of Mary. The roles were never decided upon beforehand but everyone kind of knew each year who the next Mary was supposed to be. It was usually one of the high school seniors. One year, for a reason I was never entirely clear about, someone who must have been unaware of that unwritten wait list assigned a particularly eager young girl to play the part of Mary, but she was a seventh grader. And, boy, did that upset the whole system. There was an outcry because she was going to take the place of some other young woman who had waited years to be Mary. It all got sorted out eventually, but not before feelings were hurt and people talked through it.

In all my years, I’ve never heard of a similar wait list for the part of Joseph. I’m sure they’re out there. I’m sure there are some young guys who have their heart set on playing him, this silent, strong figure who stands by in the stable, For the most part, however, Joseph remains a guy somewhat in the shadows.

There are probably several reasons for that. One of them might be because we rarely hear from him. Unlike Mary, Joseph has no speaking parts. In the version of Jesus’ birth that is told in Luke’s gospel, Mary speaks quite a bit. She has a conversation with the angel Gabriel. She even sings a song when she goes to visit Elizabeth. Joseph never says a word. Even in the version of Jesus’ birth found in Matthew—this one we hear today, which is the lesser known one and, from my experience, almost never included when churches and youth groups do nativity scenes—Joseph doesn’t actually speak.

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the angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream

Perhaps Joseph’s relative background status is due to the fact he’s so silent, that he doesn’t display the reactions to Jesus’ birth that Mary does, but perhaps it’s because we never hear his story on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is for Mary and the manger and the swaddling clothes and the shepherds. This version of Jesus’ birth, which focuses more on Joseph’s predicament, is stuck on the fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s just not as well-known. It digs a little deeper with the complicated themes of the roles of women in ancient society and male-dominated power structures.

When the focus is on her, Mary comes across as a somewhat powerful figure. She upends the world’s expectations by bearing the Son of God as a baby into the world. She sings of the rich being sent away empty. Joseph’s situation seems to be more about how to handle his fiancée in the face of tricky social and religious obligations. His power is a bit more subtle—and it comes from the decision to change his mind, to listen to the angel in his dream and not to end their marriage arrangement discreetly, since death by stoning is what the law would have called for  in this type of scenario.

And that may be the key to what we can learn from Joseph, as quiet as he is. Whereas Mary demonstrates faith by doing precisely what the angel asks of her, letting God take up residence in her own body for a while and bringing him into the world, Joseph exhibits faith by not doing what was by almost all accounts considered the faithful and righteous thing to do.

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Mary steps up and delivers. Joseph moves aside and changes plans against what would have been enormous pressure just to stay the course. With Mary comes the promise that even the lowly, not the mighty, can bear God’s presence among us. You and I, even in our moments of vulnerability and weakness (especially in our moments of vulnerability and weakness!) can be a vessel of for God’s Word. With Joseph comes the understanding that God gives us a responsibility to nurture and foster the ways God is present in others.

Joseph shows the holiness of stepping to the side, of putting well-laid plans to rest, of even laying aside a desire to do what the law or what religion may tell us and observing how God is with us in new ways. For that is the always the challenge of a God who is going to be called Emmanuel. When God decides to be with us, which is what Emmanuel means in Hebrew, then God is going to be right in our face sometimes, right there where we’d least expect him, like in Joseph’s pregnant fiancée whose life and status hang in his hands. Or right there in the dreams and anxieties that keep us up at night, pushing us in a direction that feels uncomfortable. Or—might we even go so far to say—with us on a cross.

The church I served in Pittsburgh partnered with an inner-city Lutheran Church one year to resettle some refugees from Myanmar. We put them up in some apartments in the neighborhood of that other congregation, which was in Troy Hill. Some of the refugees happened to be of an ethnic Christian minority, and so the congregation was eager to invite them to worship with them, even though the refugees were not Lutheran and even though the refugees didn’t speak English and the church members didn’t speak Karen. The pastor and the church worked for days to prepare a Sunday School lesson that they thought the Burmese refugees could understand. They got some translators to help. They scrounged together some additional art supplies to do some hands-on activities. They were so ready to serve those refugees and teach them the Bible.

Then Sunday came and the refugees showed up, children of all ages and few adults. The pastor and teachers quickly noticed that none of them were wearing shoes. So even though they had spent so much time on their Sunday School lesson, they figured the right thing to do was just to use the Sunday School time to go get all the kids shoes. And that’s what they did. They moved the Scripture lesson aside and went shoe-shopping.

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Ignore the time stamp. This was taken in Troy Hill in winter 2007-2008. I never noticed the lady with the infant until now.

There may have been the urge to say,  “No, let’s do this lesson first and then go find shoes. Or make the charity agency aware of their situation.” Joseph could have said, “No, let’s follow my original plan and let God deliver Jesus some other way, in some other family, perhaps.” That congregation decided they were dealing with Emmanuel that morning. Yes, God certainly would have been with them in the lessons and worship they were so prepared to give but they discerned God was even more visible in the needs of their new neighbors.

Struggling to figure out how God is present with us in any given circumstance may be the main task of faith, and Joseph shows us that. Right there at the beginning of Jesus’ life, God is going to change people’s plans, tweak our ideas of righteousness, surprise us with the places he’ll show up. Right there at the beginning of Jesus’ life, God reminds us that all of this ministry, all of the things God’s Spirit does in this world all of the activities of the church are never really ours. They fall to us to safeguard and nourish, to protect and shelter. And we find God really moves and acts and transforms when we take ourselves and our agendas out of the way.

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I know some congregations can struggle with certain ministries and certain pet projects over time. We can get so identified with one particular way of serving or reaching out to the community or one particular task that we forget the ministry isn’t about us or about one set outcome we’ve envisioned. We need a wait list to be Joseph—to be ready to hand things over, to let the spotlight be on others, for when we do that, the spotlight will always be on Jesus. For Jesus is always going to find a way to be with us. Jesus is always going to find us, to work his way into our mess as well as our well-constructed plans and rescue us. You see, his name doesn’t just mean “God with us.” He is also named “He saves us.”

British poet Ursula Fanthorpe was a nurse and administrator in psychiatric hospitals in London in the twentieth century, and what she witnessed of their care and their healing became the subject of much of her writing. She went on to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry. She also wrote poems on her Christmas cards to her friends, and they were collected at one point in a book called Christmas Poems. One which she writes on Joseph manages to capture the struggle of his situation beautifully, finally gives him lines to say even though Scripture leaves him silent. Should you find yourself on wait list for Mary at some point, yearning to bear Christ’s light, may Joseph’s humble service remind you that God, Emmanuel, is already there with you.

 

I Am Joseph (by U.A. Fanthorpe)

I am Joseph, carpenter,
Of David’s kingly line,
I wanted an heir; discovered
My wife’s son wasn’t mine.

I am an obstinate lover,
Loved Mary for better or worse,
Wouldn’t stop loving when I found
Someone Else came first.

Mine was the likeness I hoped for
When the first-born man-child came.
But nothing of him was me. I couldn’t
Even choose his name.

I am Joseph, who wanted
To teach my own boy how to live.
My lesson for my foster son:
Endure. Love. Give.

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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Hallmark Advent movie

a sermon for the first Sunday of Advent [Year A]

Matthew 24:36-44 and Isaiah 2:1-5

Based on what I’m seeing from what people are sharing on Instagram and Facebook these days, and from the different conversations I’ve had over the past week or so, people got a pretty good head start on their Christmas decorating this weekend. Some, I suspect, have already completed it. The boy scout who lives across the street from us, from whose troop we ordered our Christmas wreath, showed up like expected last Sunday to deliver it. We wasted no time in hanging it, no matter what they say about waiting until after Thanksgiving to do that kind of thing.

For you the key ingredient to Christmas decorating may be a wreath on the door, or a tree in the family room, or even an elf on a shelf, but for an increasing amount of people these days a key ingredient for setting the holiday mood involves watching a Hallmark Christmas Movie. These relatively low-budget-but-high-quality, made-for-TV-format films are shown primarily on the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels. And they have become immensely popular. Don’t believe me? This year alone those two channels will air 70 new Christmas movies between October and New Year’s Day. The genre has become so beloved that they have made the Hallmark Channel the most viewed cable channel and, in order to get in on the action, Netflix will even produce six of their own Christmas movies, too.

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The popularity of the of the Hallmark Christmas movie is deep and broad, the genre itself is very narrow, and people readily accept that every movie consists of the same plot with only slight variations. For example, the movie’s always about a love connection that fits the opposites-attract scenario. Their relationship overcomes various odds and obstacles but eventually turns out OK, and the couple end up happily together. The storyline almost always takes place in a small town somewhere, and it’s snowing in the final scene.

 

Confession: I’ve never seen a Hallmark Christmas movie, but I have seen the granddaddy ancestor of that entire genre: White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. And I love it. It, too, takes place in small town, involves a love connection or two, and has snow in the final scene. It was a regular part of my family’s Christmas Eve schedule when I was growing up, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it since. We can all quote just about every single line as we watch it, and for some reason, even though we know exactly how the corny storyline goes, we still get a warm glow-y feeling at the big finale when General Waverly is genuinely surprised by the big bash his old army pals have thrown him. We still get a little misty-eyed when he straightens up his uniform and comes down from the stage to inspect his troops, who’ve assembled from far-flung corners. And the curtain goes up on stage at the very end to reveal the long-anticipated white Christmas no one thought would come…but yet everyone hoped would. I’m not sure why, but my hunch is we like these movies, we like these stories, because they speak to a longing we feel, especially at this time of year, for the familiar, the predictable. We don’t want too many surprises.

The truth is, Hallmark storylines, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, make for great Christmas movies, but probably not great Advent movies. If Jesus were to be the producer of a film for us to watch about that long-anticipated outcome no one thought would ever come but yet everyone hoped would, it would involve a thief breaking in to a house…at night. It would involve a flood that suddenly washes people away while they’re carrying on with their lives as usual. Its plot would contain a certain element of suspense that would keep us awake, even if the movie lasted far longer than we wanted it to.

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Why? Because Jesus would want to prepare us not for some warm glow-y feeling, but for the day of his arrival. Jesus’ goal would be to inspire us not for some seasonal mood or atmosphere, but to live in world that is redeemed and set to rights. For to prepare for the coming of the Son of Man, which is what the word “advent” means, means reacquainting ourselves not with our dreams for the world and for our lives, but with God’s dreams for the world. And God’s dreams are grander and bigger than ours. When the curtain goes up in the final scene, it reveals much more than just happy snowfall.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a parent in the congregation whose high school age child had just received her first college promotional piece of mail. Talk about a wake-up call! This mother was a little shocked that they were already at this point in her child’s life, and even though it is typical for sophomores to be on college mailing lists, it was still a bit of a surprise, and the small piece of mail reignited all kinds of big questions. What kind of life do I really want for my child? What kinds of sacrifices are our family prepared to make to get her there? What if my dreams and plans for her future end up not being the same as her dreams and plans? I think many parents encounter this fear and anticipation for their children at some point, regardless of whether college is involved or not. And most parents I talk to eventually let their own dreams for their children’s future fade into the reality of whatever the child ends up choosing, or whatever is chosen for them by unforeseen circumstances.

While God certainly has created a reality where we have choices and desires and opportunities for life and joy, a reality in which each of us encounters multiple options each day, each year, to design and build our livelihoods and fill our free time, the truth is that at some point God does make it clear that overall creation is heading in a direction God has planned. We can be lulled by our complacency and hunger for continuity. We can be satisfied with our appetite for the status quo, for the hope that things will carry on just as they are. God is our Heavenly Father who has in mind a way things are going to end and it is better than any of us can imagine.

“Swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” and “nation will not lift up sword against nation,” says the prophet Isaiah, reminding us of God’s dreams. Not just Israel, God’s chosen, will be included in God’s final vision. The prophets tell us all the nations of the earth, in fact, will stream to God’s holy mountain, which God will have established as the highest of all, towering over all the other idol-strewn hills on our landscape. These are glorious dreams and hopes that we may never think of ourselves or, if we do, they get often get overshadowed by other ideas which we, in our brokenness and self-centered-ness become fixated on.

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The statue outside of the United Nations features a man beating a sword into a plowshare.

When Jesus reminds his disciples of these dreams, when he gets them geared up to hear the plot of his Hallmark Advent movie, it can end up sounding like something from the Left Behind series from several years back, those books and movies about the rapture. The rapture is an unbiblical concept that came out of a fringe tradition about a century ago that makes it sound like one day God will just suddenly suck all the special, righteous people into heaven and leave the rest of us here to fend for ourselves in a time of threatening turmoil. Really Jesus is simply impressing upon his listeners just how surprising his eventual arrival will be, how drastically different the end will look from how things often are now. And there will be judgment to anticipate and fear. It will cut right through the happenings of each and every community and each and every heart. But the judgment God will make about the whole of creation and the part we’re playing in it has far more to do with the peaceful way God wants things to be for us than it does with where certain people are going to end up. The suddenness of Jesus’ advent might take us off guard if we’re not in tune with it.

We can choose to go on thinking, for example, that weapons and tools of war are just part of life as God sees it, that guns and bombs are just something we all need to get used to because they help keep the peace, for example. But the judgment is going to come as pretty surprising when it turns out God actually expects us to beat all our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks, our assault rifles into playground equipment. That’s the dream God has for us.

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We can choose to go on believing, for example, that races and tribes and ethnic groups work better when they’re kept separate by borders or neighborhoods or school systems or creeds or whatever, but it’s going to be a pretty big shock to us when the kingdom comes in full and all nations and peoples have a place on God’s holy mountain. As it turns out, the curtain will go up at the end and we’ll see people of all languages and identities have been gathered there in peace and unity, because that’s the dream God has for us.

That’s the plot-line, folks, of the Advent movie. The trick is, we don’t know when the actual end comes, and neither does Jesus. That’s part of living within time—there are beginning and endings—and all humans have to deal with not knowing exactly when the curtain goes up. But the cross of Jesus has already revealed the good news for those who believe. On the cross, Jesus dies to the other dreams humankind has, dreams of violence and revenge, dreams of borne entirely of self-protection and maintaining the existing state of affairs.

On the cross, Jesus shows us that we ourselves won’t be able to build these glorious finales, that we ourselves won’t be able to bring about this wondrous vision through our own efforts, but that God has decided to take care of that himself. On the cross, Jesus has shown us with his own blood and suffering that God graciously gives us this future, bright and spectacular. God has poured out his love for this future and empowers us to take part in it, to live now in such a way because we know how it goes.

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For now, that’s where we find ourselves—not just watching a movie unfold, but participating in it, ready for the end. And we’re the characters not just during Advent, not just in this time as we hang wreaths and drink hot chocolate, but all the time, each day of the year, each year of our lives. We are characters who know the good ending and start pounding swords into plowshares. We don’t necessarily know when the credits will roll, and to some degree it will probably surprise us no matter what. We understand there will be some obstacles, some bumpy roads, but there is glory and light and peace at the end. The General God will come out, proud and regal. He’ll step down from the stage and inspect his troops, lined up as we are from far-flung corners in our armor of light.

That day is near, sisters and brothers.  Be ready. That hallmark day is near.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.