Gospel Reading for Christmas

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Luke 2:8-14 (NRSV)

Did you hear what I heard?

I heard from my uncle in Bethlehem that a few years ago some lousy shepherds came into town in the middle of the night talking all crazy and asking bizarre questions.  First of all, what were they doing in the middle of town at night?  What kind of shepherd abandons his flock?  Some flaky shepherd that’s who.  Somebody who couldn’t care less about the sheep’s owner and all the money he’s invested in the flock.  Somebody who’s looking to end up begging in front of the Temple…that’s who.

What were they talking about you ask?  Oh, that’s the best part.  First, they come into town and start asking around about some baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths who is lying in a manger.  Nobody wants to tell them anything because what business does a shepherd have looking for a newborn baby?  I mean, you know those shepherds are filthy from hanging out with those sheep all day and night.  Who knows what they really do out there.  I had a friend once who had some sheep and hired a bunch of shepherds.  He wouldn’t even let them come near his house because they were so dirty and unkempt. I’m sure they’ve got all sorts of diseases on their clothes.  Anyway, when these shepherds were asking around, most people just laughed and told them they should spend less time looking for strange babies and get back to taking care of their flock.  When nobody would help them, they mentioned something about singing angels which only made everyone laugh harder.

Angels singing and talking to shepherds?  That’s a good one.  Everybody knows that when God’s going to talk, he will tell a priest or prophet first who then relays the message.  That’s how it works.  Haven’t you read the Scriptures?

Also, what kind of mother wraps up their baby and puts them in a manger?  If it was true, she must be one of the worst mothers to have ever given birth to a child.  Doesn’t she know that’s where animals eat from?  If some mother ever did that, her family should take that baby from her because she probably wouldn’t even know to circumcise him on the eighth day.  I bet they never even go to the Temple.

What was that?  Oh the shepherds?  Did they ever find what they were looking for?  Who knows.  Apparently a few hours later they came back running through town screaming about how they found that baby and that the angels were right.  You know, you really can’t trust those shepherds anyways.  They’re always out there making up stories about how they killed a bear with their bare hands or killed 30 wolves with their slings to protect the flock.  Blah blah blah.  You know most shepherds would run away and let a whole flock get eaten by a bear if one ever  showed up.  Those shepherds, sitting out under the stars, singing songs.  They last thing they’re going to do is try to fight off a crazy animal.  Speaking of stars…that just reminded me, there is an even more bizarre part to this story.

My uncle also told me that a month or so after the crazy shepherds came through town some peculiarly dressed astrologers from somewhere way out east showed up.  You know, east towards the Parthians and old Persia?  You know they believe out there that the stars can determine a person’s future?  Yeah, crazy…I know.  Don’t they know that no one can know the future?  Only God knows that.  But, that’s what these astrologers show up saying.  They mention that they saw a “new star” and that means that a new king must have been born.  They wanted to know where the king was because they were told he would be in Bethlehem?  They wanted to honor him and give him “gifts.”

Yeah, I know right.  A king?  From Bethlehem?  If you wanted to find a king, you should go look in Jerusalem or Rome.  I’m sure Herod or the Caesar would love your gifts.  They’d probably tax you on them too.  Or even better, I’m your king right here!  Shower me with your gifts!  And, what would these godless astrologers from the east know about our kings or where they are born?  I think all those strange spices and incense they have out East were getting to their heads.  If God was going to tell someone about a new king, or the Messiah for that matter, I’m sure he would tell a priest or prophet.  Not those heathen star worshipers.  I thought the shepherd’s story was crazy, but those deluded Gentile astrologers definitely came a long way for nothing.

I mean, seriously?  Have you ever heard such crazy stories?  First some dirty, foul-mouthed shepherds show up looking for a deadbeat mother who puts her baby in a manger?  Then, to top it off, some misguided astrologers from the East say they’ve been “led” by a star to come and worship a king?

Give me a break.  If God is going to tell us something, the last people he would tell would be shepherds and godless astrologers from the east. The next thing some Greeks will show up and sray is that Elijah has come back from the dead.  Sheesh.

Okay, hopefully you figured out this is a bit satirical by this point. Hopefully you’re laughing a bit at the character in the story. But, honestly who would have believed the story when they first heard it back then? What about today? What if some migrant farmers showed up asking where to find a newborn baby and that angels had appeared to them? What if some Buddhist monks, some Hindu gurus, or some Islamic Imams showed up saying they were looking for a king because they had seen a sign?

Would you believe them? Or…would you discredit them? Saying that a God only works through certain, expected channels and that he would never reveal things to those kind of people.

We’ll he did. And that’s part of the story we celebrate today.

Merry Christmas!

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Old Testament Reading for the Fourth Week in Advent

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
Isaiah 7:10-16 (NRSV)

I’m going to keep this reflection short and sweet since tomorrow is Christmas.  Tonight many of you will go to a church service or mass, you may light candles in prayer, you may sing songs, hymns or chant psalms.  Christians all over the globe will be gathering and remembering the arrival of God in the form of a baby and expecting his return as the resurrected Christ.  Tonight we will join together in expecting the arrival of Immanuel.  Immanuel in Hebrew means “God with Us”.  This is a strange and bizarre mystery of Christianity.  How is it that the transcendent God of the universe, who is untouchable and unseeable enters into a dark and dirty world?  How is it that the God who was so saddened by the world he created in the time of Noah now chooses to enter into the corruption rather than wipe it out?  What does it mean for God to be a “God with Us?”  What does it mean for God to be Immanuel?  Here are a few ideas that come to my mind.

God is with us when we gather together.

God is with us when we are far apart.

God is with us when we are in the light.

God is with us when we are in the dark.

God is with us in the maternity ward.

God is with us in the ICU.

God is with us when we are joyful.

God is with us when we are mournful.

God is with us as a tiny baby.

God is with us as a roaring lion.

God is with us when we find ourselves at church.

God is with us when we find ourselves in the gutter.

God is with us in life.

God is with us in death.

God is with us at the marriage altar.

God is with us at the divorce court.

When God declares that he is Immanuel, that he has come to be God with us, then he is with us.  He has come to us to be with us.  I pray that this becomes a deeper reality for you this Christmas.

What ways is “God with us” for you?  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

Prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that
your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion
prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of
the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Gospel Reading for the Third Week in Advent

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Matthew 11:2-11 (NRSV)

This week’s reading takes a bit of a somber turn.  John the Baptist is currently being held in prison by Herod.  The Gospel of Mark tells us that Herod was confused by John’s teaching, but he enjoyed listening to John.  Herod had married the wife of his brother, and John spoke against it often.  Yet, Herod kept him around because he enjoyed listening to him.  John was essentially a knick-knack that Herod was keeping on his mantle.  You know, like that one thing you got from your uncle 5 to 10 years ago that your spouse wants to get rid of but you can’t let it go because it’s kind of interesting?  That’s John, except he’s in a dark and dirty prison eating bad food.  I imagine his spirits are getting pretty low and he’s a long ways away from when we last heard from him prophesying in the wilderness.  While he is sitting in prison, John sends some followers to ask Jesus if he’s the one everyone is expecting.  Or, is somebody else coming?  John wants to know if Jesus is the Messiah.  John wants to know if his proclamations about Jesus were right.  John is starting to doubt himself and his statements about Jesus being “the lamb of God.”

John wants to know if he is living in the already or the not yet.

It seems to me that John might be struggling with the expectation inherent in his prophetic message.  He went out into the wilderness, preaching repentance and baptizing countless people in preparation for the coming Messiah.  When Jesus shows up to be baptized, John essentially pronounces him as such.  After baptizing Jesus the clouds open, a dove comes down and God shouts a blessing.  Some of John’s followers start following Jesus and Jesus begins his ministry.

Pretty miraculous stuff…yet here is John sitting in prison wondering if it all meant what he hoped it did.  He’s wondering if things are going to happen as he expected them to, as he felt Jesus was going to do and as he felt the scriptures were promising.

Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me; suddenly the LORD whom you are seeking will come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming, says the LORD of heavenly forces.
Malachi 3:1 (CEB)

The LORD God’s spirit is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the  LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement. They will be called Oaks of Righteousness, planted by the  LORD to glorify himself.
Isaiah 61:1-3 (CEB)

Inherent in the expectation and “coming” of Advent is the realization that we are still waiting.  Around the Advent wreath we have lit three candles, yet there are still two more to be lit.  The wreath has not yet reached it’s full potential.  John was sitting in prison, hoping that Jesus was who he said he was.  He had seen the first few “lights” of Jesus ministry yet the last few seemed to be hidden from him.  In the timeline of Jesus ministry John was living squarely in the already and not yet.  Jesus had come, he was walking around healing the lame, giving sight to the blind and raising the dead.  Awesome stuff was happening.  Yet, there was the lingering promises of the freeing the captives (of which John was one), vindication,  joy instead of mourning and praise instead of discouragement.  For some, those promises had indeed been fulfilled.  For others, even John the Baptist, they seemed still unfulfilled.

As we enter that last few weeks of Advent, maybe you too are discouraged as we seem to be living more in the not yet than the already.  Sure Jesus has come, sure we look forward to his second coming…but things are pretty tough right now.  The holidays are generally a time of celebration, but there are many of us who have a tough time celebrating during this season.  Families are not always the happiest of people to be around.  Maybe there’s a new empty chair this season.  Maybe you live far away from family that was previously very close.  In many ways we can feel like John sitting in prison wondering if Jesus is who he really said he was.  Wondering if Jesus is who we thought he might be.

Wondering if Jesus is who we once proclaimed him to be.

In this third week of Advent, I pray for those of who identify with the questions and seeming unmet expectations of John.  I pray for those who feel like they are in prison and can’t experience the joy Jesus is bringing to others.  I pray for those who in spite of the three candles already lit, feel the immense weight of the two candles that are dark.  I pray for those who live more in the not yet.

I pray that even now the light of Advent will already begin to dawn in your hearts and minds.

Prayer for the Third Sunday of Advent

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and,
because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace
and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for
ever. Amen.

Old Testament Reading for the Second Week in Advent

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked. And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins. The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.
Isaiah 11:1-10 (CEB)

A few years ago I worked as a part-time graphic designer for a local art museum. I have always been a fan of art but actually working with and being surrounded by art gave me a much deeper appreciation for it.  The interesting thing about art is that people will have differing opinions about the same piece.  Some will see something beautiful while others will see something with no artistic merit.  Some may look at a Jackson Pollack painting and see nothing but random splatters of paint while others will see a beautiful composition in the multicolored swaths of paint.  People will wander through a museum and put all sorts of meaning into a work of art without ever having a conversation with the artist about what the piece might actually mean.  Their own perception of the art seemingly allows them to make judgements about the art and maybe even the artist.

This week’s reading from the prophet Isaiah highlights an interesting promise about the coming Messiah.  The verse points out that, “he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth.”  This seems to be an odd thing to promise and praise about a coming Messiah.  How can you judge something without seeing it first?  How can you reprove or correct without having heard what needs correcting?  Seems like an odd statement.  But, Isaiah is full of statements like these that at first seem incoherent at best.  In Isaiah’s calling in chapter six, God asks him to tell the people, “Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend. Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so they can’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn, and be healed.”  What is it about hearing and not understanding, seeing and not comprehending, judging without seeing or correcting without hearing that God wants to get across?  I think it might have something to do with looking at art like I mentioned earlier.

What we see and what we hear can be subjective, embellished, understated or persuaded.

Especially when it comes to perceptions about the meek and poor often perceptions can be greatly skewed by what we often see and hear.  Seeing and hearing often do not require actually knowing or understanding anything about what what one is seeing or hearing.  Judgements made on that basis are then empty and misinformed.  The promised Messiah then is not going to base his judgements on simply seeing or hearing.

Righteousness and equity will be the measure of his judgements.  The meek and poor will be judged by the same merits as the rich and powerful.  Perceptions will not cloud his decisions.  They will instead by made with sound judgements and equal treatment for all regardless of what is seen or heard.  The Messiah will bring true righteousness and equity to his judgments.

Advent is a progressive lighting of candles, bringing light where there wasn’t any before.  Giving purpose to candles that at once stood lifeless and dark.  The judgments and corrections of the coming Messiah will not snuff out or eliminate light from the world.  They will progressively bring brighter light, allowing all to burn bright.  Allowing a community of light to develop with Christ as the main light in the center.  Providing righteous judgments and equal corrections should be a restorative action not a punitive one.  Restoring order and allowing each and every persons light to shine as God has intended.

So, as we continue to light the candles of Advent, may we also look to see how our own perceptions may cloud our judgment about others.  May we look to restore light in others that is not burning or has been snuffed out.  May what we see and hear not be the only determination of our decisions.  May we desire to truly know and understand and see things in the light of of the Messiah.

Prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach
repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to
heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy
the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.