The Lord is near…

Third Sunday of Advent

Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your heart and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:4-7 NRSV

Jesus is coming: Look busy!

It was on a button a pastor I knew used to wear on the inside of his suit jacket, hidden to all but a few. He suspected that some people would take it as a serious commandment when worn by a priest – as if God were a taskmaster just hoping to catch us falling down on the job.

Paul’s approach is different: the Lord is near, so let your gentleness be known to everyone. The response to God drawing near is to be gentle with others and gentle with one’s own soul. Don’t worry about what’s been done or left undone (worry doesn’t change it, and it stops us from being happy in God’s presence). Don’t put on a brave face or false air of self-sufficiency; ask God for what you need, and ask it thankfully.

If you aren’t ashamed of your own gentleness, if you admit you aren’t self-sufficient, you are braver than most because you are leaving behind the facade of perfection (impossible to attain, anyway); if you lose the facade, you are wiser than most because you live in the world with honesty and acceptance. This world isn’t without its difficulties and you won’t be without challenges, but they lose the power to trouble your mind and harden your heart.

But you can’t be brave and wise on your own, and neither can I. For that reason, God guards our hearts and minds, keeping them open to love and grateful for whatever life brings. For reasons beyond our understanding, we can live in God’s peace. After all, God-With-Us did…

Dona Nobis Pacem. Grant Us Peace.

Richard Stoltzman, Dona Nobis Pacem; The Carols of Christmas: A Windham Hill Collection [recorded at Little Big Feat, Monroe, CT, 1996]

Ebb and Flow

Readings: Isaiah 12:2-6; Amos 9:8-15; Luke 1:57-66

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. Isaiah 12:2

Over my recent sabbatical I decide that I wanted to try yoga on for size, so I signed up for a Sunday morning men’s class at a studio called the Ebb and Flow Wellness Center. It was a wonderful experience. As I walked in the door, I immediately experienced an abiding peace. The aroma of lavender was circulating through the air and I felt my body begin to let go of the stress of rushing to make it there on time. I paid my ten dollars and was led into the basement where the lights were dim and the music was soft and sweet. For over an hour we stretched and breathed. There was no judgment, no pressure; if I couldn’t do a pose, it was no problem, I would either do the best I could or just sit back and wait for the next pose. It felt good in that little cocoon, peaceful and relaxed. When the session was over, we all walked up out of the basement and back into the real world. As I left the Wellness Center I experienced the bright sun in my face, car horns honking, people milling around shouting at one another. It was even difficult to cross the road with the summer traffic, so I ran across the street to get to my car. Yes, I was back in the world again. After I got into my car to head home, I thought to myself, “life is really is made up of ebbs and flows.”

They say the earth is four and a half billion years old, give or take a half billion years, yet every day the ebbs and flows of the earth change the landscape and the seas forever. We don’t tend to notice it much because the changes are small and we are too preoccupied with what is going on in our own lives. We panic, we run away, we distract ourselves, we even make scapegoats of one another in order to cope with things beyond our control and at the same time, we search for and often discover moments of peace and meaning and beauty. These are the ebbs and flows of our lives, but they are not random or without purpose. All of life is contained in a reality that is too large to comprehend and yet as tangible as a piece of fruit dangling from a tree.

This reality becomes clear as you look over the story of the people of Israel. It is a reality that all of us will eventually succumb to. Elizabeth and Zechariah experienced it in a profound way as they pondered what would become of their son John and the meaning of his birth. Surely God is our salvation. Whether we choose to trust and not be afraid, well that may very well be subject to the ebbs of flows. Amen.   

[Offered by Dave Fredrickson, pastor, spiritual director, seeker of the Christ child.]

Gains and Losses

Readings: Isaiah 12:2-6; Amos 8:4-12; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?

We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals…’

Amos 8:4-6a, NRSV

[Note: an Ephah is a measure of grain a little more than a bushel; a shekel is the coin paid for a measure of grain. By shrinking the ephah, the poor farmer isn’t credited with the full weight of the grain; by enlarging the shekel, the seller pays less for the grain, cheating the farmer of the full weight of grain and giving over fewer coins in payment for the already diminished return.]

The conservation of mass: in a closed system, mass cannot be created or destroyed. It’s one of the building blocks of chemistry, this truth that while reactions can transform the state and nature of the original elements, nothing can be gained or lost overall.

The poor walk away with less than the crop was worth, the rich with the exact amount more than what it was worth. The overage for the rich equals the deficit of the poor, and the laws which govern free trade and commerce remain unbroken.

Newton’s Third Law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The wings that drive air downward cause the plane to move upward: lift.

The merchant’s illicit gain is equal to our farmer’s loss, lifting the merchant’s fortunes while driving the farmer down into poverty. 

Law of Love: Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. God, self, and neighbor always affect one another. One cannot be known fully in isolation from the other two.

Short-changing a poor neighbor to make a quick buck is the action of the spiritually blind. Only seeing the face of God in the face of a poor neighbor can cure such blindness. Perhaps that’s why God came as a poor neighbor: it was the only way to restore the fortunes and souls of the cheaters and the cheated.

Help me see your face, dear Jesus, in the face of my neighbor. Amen.

No Fear

Readings: Isaiah 12:2-6; Amos 6:1-8; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15

Surely God is my salvation;

I will trust, and will not be afraid,

for the Lord God is my strength and my might;

he has become my salvation.

Isaiah 12:2, NRSV

There are snakes, bees, and spiders living in my yard. I don’t see them very often, except when I am gardening. Then my thyme is humming, covered in bees, and there are webs connecting the butterfly bush to the daffodils. That green/brown on the stepping stone isn’t the stick I thought it was: it slithers off when my weeding hands are inches away. There’s a whole world of creatures living around me, and sometimes their unexpected presence startles me. If I move among the plants expecting to encounter nothing, their presence can be momentarily frightening. If the fight or flight instinct kicks in, I could injure them with flailing hands or crushing feet. My fear can harm these harmless neighbors who nurture my garden and enrich my life.

Knowing that God holds me fast gives me the chance to live in my own back yard with curiosity rather than in fear. I’m much less likely to harm the one who startles me because I won’t assume that I’m in danger. The beauty of spiderwebs, the buzzing of pollinators, and the stillness of the garden snake are gifts to treasure, not threats to eliminate.

If a life without fear can preserve the visitors in my garden, perhaps it can do the same beyond my hedge. I just might dare to see beauty and mystery in this great big world rather than imagining that everything means me harm. I just might see the world as God sees it: broken, beautiful, worthy of my love and sacrifice.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

[Photos by Jared Fredrickson]

Coming with a Vengeance

Readings: Psalm 126; Isaiah 35:3-7; Luke 7:18-20

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

“Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God. He will come with a vengeance,

with terrible recompense.

He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water;

the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Isaiah 35:3-7, NRSV

The disciples of John reported all these things to him.

So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them

to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come,

or are we to wait for another?”

When the men had come to him , they said, “John the

Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who

is to come, or are we to wait for another?’? Jesus had just

then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil

spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind.  And

he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen

and heard – 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.”

Luke  7:18-23, NRSV

The coming of the Lord, even the coming with a vengeance, isn’t marked by destruction or injury. Instead, it will be recognized by the good it does to those who need it most. We are cured of our blindness and our inability to hear the voices of those around us. The fear that paralyzes us is taken away, and we leap for joy. What was dry and incapable of supporting life offers refreshing water. Our world becomes hospitable.

John sends two of his own to Jesus, asking if he is the one. Jesus doesn’t try to impress them with pyrotechnics and loud noises. Instead, he tells them to use their eyes to see the life he restores for those who need it most – because the true vengeance of the Lord creates a hospitable world.

Good Lord, restore my sight and unstop my ears that I might see your face and hear your voice. Amen.

Love that’s beyond me

Readings: Psalm 126; Isaiah 19: 18-25; 2 Peter 1:2-15

On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts…

On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them…

On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”

Isaiah 19:18, 19-20, 24-25 NRSV

Egypt was a powerful foreign nation in the history of God’s people. Joseph ended up a slave there, and through his rise to prominence was able to save his family from famine by sheltering them within its borders. Years passed, kings changed, and the descendants of Joseph became slaves. The story of their slavery in Egypt, and their journey to freedom is well known, retold every Passover as the central narrative of the Jewish faith. Freedom from the bondage of Egypt formed the people of Israel: Egypt was the nation God rescued them from, not a people of God. The same was true of Assyria. They were the lands of God’s enemies, not God’s devoted followers. How could Egypt ever be God’s people, or Assyria God’s handiwork? How could any other nation be God’s when Israel is and always was God’s chosen?

It’s amazingly difficult to acknowledge that God might love those who have caused us pain. The people we hate are the people we fear, and it’s almost impossible to see in them God’s grace and mercy. And we suspect that if God loves them, maybe there won’t be enough love left for us. It’s much easier and much more comfortable to assume that God’s love ends where ours does. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t end with us because it doesn’t end at all. God’s love isn’t finite and it cannot be lessened no matter how many people and nations receive it.

I love how this passage ends with God blessing Egypt and Assyria. It means that God’s love cannot be limited by my limitations, and it just might mean that my love might not be limited by them either.

Thank you, God, for your love that embraces me and the ones I cannot love yet. Amen.

Up to something…

Readings: Psalm 126; Isaiah 40:1-11; Romans 8:22-25

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Romans 8:22-25

Groaning is a good way to describe the state we find ourselves in today. We are groaning for a world in a profound state of dysfunction and disarray, groaning for the countless victims of abuse and discrimination and violence, groaning for the seeming inability to find any common ground upon which to build a commonwealth. And if we are honest, we groan also for our own shortcomings and failures – our failure to be what we want to be, what at times we believe we might be. The question for us is: Are these groans the throes of death or the labor of new birth, are they reason for despair or for hope?

In one of the more difficult periods of my life, when groaning seemed like a constant reality, I was sustained by the simple mantra: “God is up to something.” Through the grace of God these few words became a foundation of hope, a hope that, over time, became reality in surprising ways that I could not have planned for or even imagined. Ever since then I have begun to see that the words are not just about me, but have a universal meaning. That, I think, is what Paul is talking about in these few verses. All creation groans because these words do have a universal meaning. In the midst of the struggle, I could not see what God was up to. Just as we cannot see with clarity or certainty what God is about in all creation. We can guess perhaps. But most of all we can hope. We can hope, because there have been times, fleeting times perhaps, when we have caught glimpses of what God is up to. At one time a simple mantra provided such a glimpse for me. On a silent night long ago events in a stable provided such a glimpse for all of us. It is a hope we have for something we cannot see, but which we know will become reality. It is an Advent hope, a hope that can sustain us as we wait, perhaps even wait with patience.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

Offered by Jeff Jones, writer, pastor, seeker of the Christ Child.

Strings

Readings: Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:3-11;          Luke 3:1-6

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Malachi 3:1, 2b-3, NRSV

Giving or receiving a gift should be a joyful experience for the one who gives and the one who gets. When the gift is freely given and gratefully received, it is. But that’s not always the case, and some would say it isn’t often the case. Sometimes invisible but powerful things are attached to the present. That car the parents bought for their daughter comes with new tires and the expectation that she will stay local and live at home after high school. The heirloom ornaments are handed down with the understanding that the grandchildren won’t be allowed to touch them. Those visits to aging relatives aren’t free – compensation is expected when Grandpa’s will is read. These unspoken conditions turn a gift into an obligation. What should be an offering of love freely given and happily received becomes the means for manipulation.

The messenger of the Lord will be sent to change just this situation, bringing to light the strings attached to the things we give. Laying bare the expectations shines a light on our mixed motives, removing the facade of selflessness and generosity that disguise self-interest and manipulation. But it’s only when we see what’s behind the gift that we can choose to change how we give and how we receive. Then we have the privilege of giving freely to God and each other – to present offerings to the Lord in righteousness, as Malachi puts it.

I think God sends a messenger to teach us how to give freely because until we learn this, we will never understand how God gives to us – why God joined our human world for the sheer joy of giving us unlimited love. We aren’t expected to earn this love, and it isn’t limited to a particular time and place. It’s offered to all of God’s beloved – and that’s everyone. The gift of a child who grew to love us so much that even death couldn’t take him away. No strings attached.

Baggage

Readings: Luke 1:68-79; Malachi 4:1-6; Luke 9:1-6

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money – not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.

Luke 9:1-6, NRSV

Compared to most of the people in line to board an early morning flight to Pittsburgh, my son and I travelled light – just a small duffel and a backpack with the essentials for a two day stay. Everyone else had those things plus computers, rolling carry-ons, briefcases, and oversized purses/beach bags. Who knows what checked baggage each traveller dragged along. We were in our seats and settled in under a minute while others were still settling in well after takeoff. Most of them missed the sight of Boston falling away in the early morning light, with stars still visible on the horizon. The same was true when the plane landed: people were so busy collecting belongings and checking devices that they didn’t see the glorious sunrise that began the day. Carrying baggage may be necessary for travel, but it takes attention away from the unexpected magnificence each day can bring. 

 I am easily distracted by baggage, and when combined with my tendency to stick to a pre-arranged schedule it can bring on a blindness to whatever and whomever is around me. Trying to get all my ducks in a row might be industrious, but is that really the point of the journey? I think that’s why Jesus sent the disciples on their way carrying nothing – they had nothing to distract them and no way to avoid engaging with the people they were sent to serve. He isn’t asking them to be irresponsible, just insuring that they will be responsive.

As for the “shake the dust off your feet,” I think that’s less of a testimony against the inhospitality of others as it is sound advice for letting go of the past rather than dragging it along as a new piece of baggage…

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

[Photo by Jared Fredrickson]

Rescue

Readings: Luke 1:68-79; Malachi 3:13-18; Philippians 1:18b-26

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them…

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. Luke 1:68, 72-73 NRSV

In the reading from Luke, Zechariah speaks of God’s mercy, His promise to rescue His people from their enemies and give them the ability to serve Him without fear.  Zechariah knew that his son John would be the prophet who would remind people of this covenant and prepare the way for the One who would guide their feet in the way of peace. 

Just as in Jesus’ time, our world is wrought with violence and divisiveness.  Do we believe God’s promise to rescue us from our enemies?  Who are the prophetic voices that can guide us on the path of peace, continuing to prepare the way of the Lord in 2018/2019? Could you or I be that voice?  Absolutely!!  I believe that God calls each of us to be like Paul in his Letter to the Philipians, encouraging each other, reminding each other that our hope lies in God’s trustworthy promises not in the false promises of this world. 

We hear so much about fake news but we need reminders that the only truth lies in the Good News of Jesus.  If we preach this Good News in the ordinariness of each day we will be able to reject cynicism and rejoice as Paul did.  Columba Marmion, a Benedictine monk, wrote: “Joy is the echo of God’s life in us.“  May our families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and strangers experience that echo through us.  I’m counting on your voices to encourage me!

Offered by Ann Fowler, spiritual director, writer, seeker of the Christ Child.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.