Remember last year at this time? Vaccines for the coronavirus were still being researched and developed. Many summer activities were canceled or postponed. As a way of providing hope, a local radio station did a twenty-four hour 'Christmas in July' music marathon. Twenty-four hours in July of Christmas music.
Over those particular twenty-four hours, I didn't listen to that radio station. At all. Which is a shame, because usually I do, and usually enjoy the music played on the station. Listening to Christmas music in July, during a pandemic, just seemed, well, a little off. I just could not bring myself to listen to Christmas music in July.
Fast forward a year. In planning ahead, there was the realization the days in July match the days in December. Both months have the same exact daily numerical listing. Thinking switched to "wouldn't it be cool (no pun intended) if we had a Christmas in July service on Sunday, July 25th?" The idea was dismissed, until our organist, Holly, commented "we should do a Christmas in July service."
Celebrating Christmas in July has been around possibly since the 1940's. One legend behind its start is that it was started as something to do at camp. Another legend is a pastor brought this tradition from one congregation to another as a way of encouraging the congregation to support global mission earlier in the year rather than at the end of the year. Still a third is to give those in the southern hemisphere a chance to experience Christmas in December.
Regardless of the reason, Christmas in July is perhaps a little quirky (aren't we all in our own ways?) And, I honestly don't know about you, but I'm okay being a little quirky at an unusual time of the year in an already quirky year. 2021 has been a quirky year for various economic, political, and social reasons. Our economy continues to recover from the impacts of so many out of work over the past year, and gradually returning to the work force. Politically, our differences continue to divide us rather than bringing us closer together as a nation. Socially, new variants of the covid virus are making their way across the country.
The continual quirki-ness of the world around us almost seems normal. Until we remember that when Jesus was born, the world had its share of quirks too: a government that required everyone to be enrolled for a census to be taken, meaning those who traveled to hometowns often were met with the reality of no place to stay. A baby boy was born in a manger -- not a hotel or hospital room, nota palace, but a manger. Who first heard this news? Angels announced it to shepherds. Shepherds in turn came to see what had been told them, rejoicing as they left what they saw. Later, wise men, sages, from the east would come to worship.
Perhaps the world isn't so quirky after all. Half birthdays are a reason to celebrate, right?
In the quirkiness of the world around us, we need Christmas in July. We need Christmas in July to remind us Jesus wasn't born for perfection. Instead, Jesus was born to love the quirkiness in each of us, to love the quirkiness in society. In loving the quirkiness of humanity and society, to take on human form, and lose his life.
Yes, we need a little Christmas this year. We need it earlier than December. We need a pause, a break from the quirkiness of the world to remember Jesus lived through quirkiness in his lifetime as well. More importantly, we need a pause to remember Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection continues to offer hope now more than ever. We do well to blend our voices joyfully in song (masked and unmasked) to sing "O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord."
"Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics." (Mark 6:6b-9)
When you go on a trip, regardless of the distance or the amount of time you will be gone, what type of packer are you? Are you an over-packer -- one who packs everything so that suitcases are overpacked and heavy? Or, perhaps you're an under-packer: packing essentially necessary items, needing to buy once arriving at your final destination?
Years and years ago for a family vacation, my parents did their best to instill in me the lesson "pack only what you can carry." Where they meant in one trip to the car and to our final destination, my child's mind heard it differently. Stacked by the bedroom door was a pile of items I wanted to take with me -- in multiple trips. Somehow, all the items made it into the back seat of the family car for that trip, into our final destination, and back home. I'm not sure how, but I do remember it being rather cramped in the back seat.
The disciples were a different bunch of packers: they were extremely extra light weight packers. No extra tunics, no extra money, not even extra food. The only items they were to take with them was a staff (think walking pole/stick) and their faith. They were to rely on the generosity and kindness of those who heard the gospel.
"Take only what you can carry." How often we go through life taking extra weight with us, whether the weight be from emotional, financial, personal, physical, social, or spiritual hurts and wounds. Walking through life with the weight of the world on our shoulders leaves little room for delight and enjoyment of others in our life, or the world around us.
"Take only what you can carry." I think of those from the Surfside Condo in Miami, Florida, forced to evacuate before the remainder of the building was demolished. Knowing there would never be another return, residents were forced to make difficult decisions of what to take, what to leave behind.
I think of those who left areas to avoid being in the path of Tropical Storm Elsa, and those who have left everything behind in order to find a new life here in the United States, and those who continue to leave everything for new life.
I think of the pilgrims, the immigrants, the settlers of American history, named and unnamed, famous, and infamous, who came searching for religious freedom, the search for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The difficult task of travelling across an uncharted country with unknown challenges: "take only what you can carry." -- possessions sold off to finance crossing oceans; or traded once arriving for food or other necessary supplies.
And I think, too of the Israelites fleeing from Egypt (okay, that might have been a little more than what they could possibly carry, but they were doing what had been told of them to do.), or Elijah fearing for his life, and going into the wilderness: a place of either running away from God or finding God; and Mary and Joseph travelling to Egypt, taking the infant Jesus with them. "Take only what you can carry" takes on new and different meaning.
Wherever you travel to, wherever you visit, whatever you pack -- remember to take your faith with you. It doesn't take much space, and can withstand multiple adventures, challenges, and opportunities. The best part? As it is shared, it grows, and still doesn't take much space.
Take only what you can carry -- take your faith with you in all things. You'll be amazed!
One of the jobs my sister and I were given at early ages was to set the table before supper. Younger years meant placing the silverware at each place there was a chair. As we got older, we were able to put glasses and plates at each place. With almost nine years between us, we had our moments arguing over who got to do glasses and plates, and who got to do napkins and silverware.
Setting the table wasn't boring. It was one of those tasks needing to be done, especially if we wanted to eat. But, I know, and remember a few times neither one of us wanted to do this simple task, trying to get out of it as best as possible.
Now, setting the table is a natural part of preparing dinner. It just is, and something that isn't thought about twice. Depending on what is being served, empty plates will be set out and food served, or plates with food already on them will be brought to the table.
I had not given the task of setting the table much thought until reading a commentary on Psalm 23 a couple of weeks ago. In Psalm 23, there is a verse that reads, 'You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, my cup overflows.' Whatever does this verse mean?
For a long time, I understood this verse literally. As in, a table of finest foods, the richest foods -- the lavish extravagance of God's abundant grace -- had been prepared, and I was the only one sitting at this abundant table. Surrounding the table were those who disliked and disagreed with me for any number of reasons. There has been comfort in this literal thought, comfort that was expanded in reading the commentary.
The commentary explained "Shepherd" was often used in Old Testament language to refer to kings and priests as well as those who tend sheep. One of the shepherd's responsibilities was to prepare a pasture ahead of time for the sheep. This meant clearing out poisonous plants, or nests of scorpions or other poisonous animals. Later, when the sheep were brought in from the pasture, the sick and injured were separated from the healthy to receive care. The sick and injured would have a healing oil massaged into their fleece or their joints. Or, they would be given a healing drink made from fermented herbs sweetened with honey.
This verse from Psalm 23 began to have deeper meaning. Jesus, as the Shepherd goes ahead of us to clear any danger in our way. There are -- and will be enemies that surround us. The cup -- the drink -- we are offered, is full to overflowing with the healing powers of God's love and God's grace. This cup never runs empty, even when most of it spills out.
In a few hours, I'll be looking at setting the table differently than before. I'll look at it through the lens of preparation instead of a task needing to be done. Through this lens, I'll look at it also in terms of keeping safe those in my care, whether it be my husband, or our three cats. And, when I take a sip from the glass of milk or water I'll have with dinner, I'll see it through the lens of love -- the abundant cup of love filled freely to overflowing.
Who sets the table for you?
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it." (Mark 8:34b-35)
I'm going to be honest: this is one of the teachings of Jesus I have a really really hard time with.
I got into running several years ago because I felt I had hit a plateau working out and needed something different. At first, I didn't enjoy it, until I crossed the very first finish line of the very first race. The sense of accomplishment was exhilarating! Since that first run, the distances have gradually increased, with a virtual full marathon completed last year.
Over the past year, the gift and grace of running (or walking) has been a fantastic sanity preserver. To be outdoors in the fresh air, able to socially distance with the running friends I have, feeling the breeze (or the wind), feeling the pavement under my feet, seeing the sights, seeing things I hadn't noticed before -- all provided stress relief and new perspectives.
And then it happened: a re-sprain of an ankle which aggravated the plantar fasciitis present since summer. Sitting still is simply not in my vocabulary.
As Divine Instigation would have it, the above passage was part of our Gospel reading on a previous Sunday. Losing one's life hit home, and hard. There were tons of questions to God about this: does the sprain mean it's time to give up running? Will there be the opportunity to run again? To register or not to register for an upcoming race? Can the race be done even if it's walked? Why does this important part of life need to be lost, and how can it be found again?
In sitting with this passage from Mark, Jesus made his presence known. Through the wisdom of colleagues, there was the gained perspective that being sidelined is temporary, and healing needs to take place in order to experience new life. Being sidelined is a matter of re-evaluating priorities to help determine what is or is not important in life.
If the past year has taught us anything, it's a reminder of what truly is important in life. Not the virtual races, not the race shirts, not the bling or the swag from completing a race. Physical self care is important, but more important is the relationship we have with God and with others.
Losing life is a matter of letting go of that which separates us from God -- our attachment, if you will, to sin. When we let go of sin, we are able to freely grasp the life Jesus offers us through his cross. When we grasp the life giving cross, we too experience new life -- the life Jesus intends for us.
When I preached on this text the other Sunday, I commented that within the 12 Step recovery communities, there is a saying of "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results." Holding on to sin, and expecting we or others will do things differently simply does not work. BUT, when we let go of sin and it's hold on us, we are able to live life in the fullness God intended for us. Perhaps it's time for you also to lose life, and in losing life, finding also the fullness of life God intended for you. What do you need to lose in order to live?
The Holy Gospel according to Mark, the 1st Chapter: "They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, 'What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.' "
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, 'Be silent, and come out of him!'
And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, 'What is this? A new teaching -- with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.' At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee."
Bless this word proclaimed, and we who hear it, O Lord, that our lives may give witness to the authority you have on us. Amen.
Over the past months, many conversations have been had, heard, and shared about the word 'authority.' These conversations have included, but not been limited to the use or misuse of authority, who does or does not have authority, along with the authority someone does or does not have. These conversations have taken place throughout media and news outlets, among family members, friends, and faith communities.
Authority is defined as the power or right to give orders, make decisions, or enforce obedience. It can be a power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior. Authority can be one invested with this power, or used to make or influence decisions over others.
Years ago, while babysitting a neighbor's child, the child refused to what had been asked of them. Looking me square in the eye, the child declared, "I don't have to. You're NOT the boss of me!"
In our Gospel from Mark this morning, the authority of Jesus comes front and center. Already this Epiphany season, Jesus has been identified in the first chapter of Mark alone as King of the Jews, Son of God, Lamb of God, Messiah, a preacher, and, for the past two weeks, one who calls disciples. Today, Jesus' authority is revealed as both a teacher and an exorcist. The scribes and others in the synagogue are both amazed and impressed by Jesus' authority. The amazement and impressiveness comes from the wisdom, knowledge, and relevance of Jesus' teaching rather than from a new teaching in and of itself.
Being fully Divine and fully human, Jesus teaches with an authority the scribes do not, cannot possibly have. Jesus teaches about God because he is God. In this teaching about God, Jesus teaches in love. Teaching in love is different from what the scribes do. The teaching done by the scribes was such it left those who heard it and those who tried to follow it chained to a way of life that was difficult at best to keep. Mind you, it wasn't that those who heard and followed the teaching of the scribes didn't try their hardest to obey the authority and teaching of the scribes. They did.
Rather, the teaching of the scribes carried with it a large amount of legality as well as consequence of what could or would happen if the letter of the law was not followed.
Jesus' teaching, on the other hand, is teaching done in love. The teaching and the love displayed in this teaching points to love, and in this love, freedom rather than legality. This teaching is such that even a demon, an unclean spirit recognizes the life and freedom Jesus teaches about. Knowing this, the demon asks what Jesus would have to do with them.
It is a subtle, yet interesting switch in pronouns: a man, first person singular, speaks in the third person plural: 'What have you to do with us?"
This is not a mistranslation from the original Greek handed through the centuries, but rather, Mark using the demon to speak for the scribes. Later in Jesus' ministry, the scribes themselves will question by what authority Jesus proclaims good news and brings healing to all in need. For now, the demon recognizes Jesus for who he is: the demon dashing boundary breaking Son of God that he is; the Holy One of God.
Hearing these words come from the mouth of the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus commands the spirit, to first be silenced, and then to come out. For the longest time, Jesus silencing the unclean spirit has always seemed off, if not a bit strange. Since Jesus came to bring good news, proclaiming the kingdom of heaven is at hand, wouldn't Jesus want even unclean spirit and demons to recognize his authority?
Reading a commentary this week provided an aha moment of clarity:
In the culture of Jesus' day, to name someone or something meant that whoever did the naming had more authority than the one being named. In other words, the demon's naming of Jesus as the Holy One of God is not that Jesus does not want to hear this BUT because it would mean the demon, the unclean spirit has more power, more authority than Jesus.
When you're Jesus, the Son of Man, and the Son of God, this simply cannot be. It cannot be because it goes against every grain of Jesus' ministry of calling people to repent, to believe in the good news, because the kingdom of God has come near.
Today's encounter with the unclean spirit is not once and done. It will be the first of many Jesus has throughout his ministry. These encounters are reminders confronting evil, confronting the unclean spirits even in our own lives is not once and done, but it takes constant courage to proclaim the truth in love, to be strong, and to resist the devil and all his empty promises. They are reminders too evil continues to exist in the world today, and of the need to rename them. Because when we name the evil, we are the ones who claim authority and power over evil, rather than evil placing a claim on us.
For Mark, Jesus is the strong Son of God who entered the world where forces of evil continue to work even today. We don't always see these forces of evil, but they exist. They are present. And as we heard and read in today's gospel, they exist even in the community of faith. In his teaching and his relationships with others, Jesus brings with him the power to health, to help, to give life, and to restore.
THIS, dear friends, is the life intended for us. Not one held back by that which separates us from God, but a life of freedom, of health, of healing, of restoration.
Among the authority figures and representatives in our lives, may you know, hear, and believe the authority Jesus has upon your life: the authority and claim made upon each of us in the waters of our baptism: we are God's and God loves us.
John 1:43-51 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, 'Follow me.' Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, 'We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.' Nathanael said to him, 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' Philip said to him, 'Come and see.'
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, 'Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!' Nathanael asked him, 'Where did you come to know me?'
Jesus answered, 'I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.'
Nathanael replied, 'Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!'
Jesus answered, 'Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.' And he said to him, 'Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.'
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Towards the end of the week, a news story caught the attention of many. The story is about a ten year old girl, named Emma, in Billings, Montana. Emma watched with her parents last week's events at the Capitol, especially the video of the Washington D.C. police officer, Daniel Hodges, who was crushed between the doors and people. Emma could not understand why people were hurting him while he was trying to do his job, and became upset.
Emma's mother suggested she write out her feelings. Emma did, writing both a letter and a get well card. When finished, Emma's mother shared the letter and card on social media in hopes an address could be found to physically mail the card and letter to him. A few hours later, Emma's mother received a response from the Washington D.C. Police Department that Officer Hodges was recovering and doing well. A t.v. station in Washington D.C. learned of the story and connected Emma with the police officer through Zoom.
When asked why she wrote the letter to someone she didn't know, Emma's response was simple: "I hoped it would help him feel better about himself and that there was somebody who cared about and didn't want him being hurt."
Emma's parents have taught her well: to be kind, caring, compassionate, and loving towards complete strangers. They are also teaching her the importance of being aware of her calling in life.
Were he alive, Martin Luther would argue Emma is living out her vocation -- her calling to serve God and neighbor. Luther would also argue this care for her neighbor -- a stranger she has never met, is her way of sharing her love of God with others.
In Luther's day, a calling, a vocation, was intended for those seeking the religious life. Luther argued back each of us has a calling, a vocation in life to love our neighbor. Luther viewed even a parent changing a child's messy diaper as being a vocation. A colleague reminded us of this in the weekly text study -- the simplest, mundane tasks are part of our vocation. Even the household tasks we like the least are part of our vocation. For example, with three cats in the Glover household, cleaning out the litterboxes is often an unpleasant, yet necessary task needing to be done. Caring for them by feeding them, cleaning out their litter boxes, giving them time and attention is part of the vocation of caring for creation.
Household tasks and projects of cooking, laundry, grocery shopping are also part of the vocation as wife.
Think for a moment of some of the unpleasant or unnecessary projects within your home or your career. As you think about these unpleasant projects, I invite you to look at them through a different lens of how you can best help others through the unpleasant or unnecessary project. And as you think of ways the least fun parts of your home or your career can best be used to help other, I invite you also to think of the ways others can possibly see Jesus through you.
Because ultimately, that's what each of our vocations is about: pointing the way to Christ Jesus, pointing the way for others to know Jesus.
Like Philip, our vocation, our calling, is to invite others to 'come and see'.
Philip says to Nathanael, 'Come and see'. Nathanael does, and is surprised when he meets Jesus. Nathanael's surprise comes in realizing Jesus knows more about Nathanael than Nathanael has shared.
Jesus' reply when asked how he knew so much about Nathanael is that he saw Nathanael earlier. In local language, there's a thought that 'under the fig tree' was reference to a good, local fishing spot. It's possible Jesus had been watching Philip, Nathanael, and the others before approaching them, inviting them to follow him.
In that brief conversation with Jesus, Nathanael's vocation and calling changes: from a fisherman to a disciple. Nathanael has no idea what this change of vocation means for him, other than it is both life giving, and life changing. Jesus assures Nathanael he will see and experience things never anticipated or imagined: the heavens to open, and angels will descend.
Like Nathanael, Philip, and Samuel, when we say yes to God's calling on our lives, we too are in for adventures, experiences, journeys, and opportunities as yet unknown. We are called into a daily vocation of service to God and to one another. In this vocation, we are invited to tell others "Come and see."
Come and see, dear friends. Come and see Jesus, here with us, in this moment, in this space, wherever this space may be.
Scripture: Mark 1:4-11 "John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, 'The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.' "
"In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.' "
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning, we're back in the wilderness -- the place we began our Advent Journey several weeks ago, the place of either encountering God or running away from God. One of the more fluid boundaries of the wilderness is the Jordan River. The Jordan River begins north of the Sea of Galilee, rapidly decreasing in elevation as it flows north to south. By the time it reaches the Dead Sea, sixteen miles south of the Sea of Galilee, it sits nearly two hundred feet below sea level. In its travels from north to south, the Jordan River picks up silt and sediment in its currents. This buildup of silt and sediment is helpful in the growth of plants and trees along its banks. The downside to this build of up silt and sediment is the murkiness of the Jordan River. This murkiness can create difficulty seeing the bottom of the river, which if afraid of water, can create a sense of panic of not being able to see or feel the bottom of the Jordan River. It is not the crystal clear, glasslike body of water Jesus is baptized in, but rather, the silty, murky, lifegiving waters of the Jordan River.
Here, God is at work: heavens torn apart, a dove descending on Jesus, a voice resounding from heaven naming Jesus the Beloved Son. Then again, murkiness is nothing new for God. Earlier in Genesis, we heard how that murkiness -- and chaos -- are the media God works best in. Making all of creation out of nothing, moving, churning, swirling over the face of the waters, finding and naming darkness and light, night and day. In this murkiness, animals of the air, the earth, and the sea came into being. Bushes, fruits, plants, shrubs, trees, vegetables of all shapes and sizes begin to sprout and grow under water and on land. Murkiness becomes clearer, more definitive. And in all things, God saw that it was good.
As humans, we don't always appreciate or view murkiness as being good. It's unsettling because of not being able to see, because we don't always feel as though we are stepping on solid ground. Besides the physical location of the Jordan River, there is a spiritual reason for Jesus' baptism taking place here at the boundary between civilization and wilderness. This reason is not only because of being God's Beloved Son, but to also be baptized into the murkiness of human reality: the good, the bad, the wonderful, the awful, the incredible, the hurtful, the inspiring, the hopeful, and so much more.
Then again, that's why we struggle with the promises made in the waters of our baptism: they're not as clear cut and defined as we want them to be. Our baptismal promises sound simple enough: renounce the devil and all the forces defying God, renounce the powers of this world rebelling against God, and renouncing the ways of sin that draw us from God. To live them out daily is when these promises become murky. The murkiness comes in the challenge of determining what is or is not the work of the devil, what is or is not a force that defies God, what is or is not a thought, word, or action that separates us in our relationship with God or with others. We saw a lot of murkiness this past week.
We may get so caught up in the murkiness that we lose our identity as Beloved Children of God, or we forget the greater reality we do not swim or walk or stand, or even sink in the murkiness alone. Instead, we stand firmly on the solid wood of the cross of Christ: the very cross that uplifts us when we flounder, strengthens us when we are weak, comforts us when we are grieving, soothes our souls when we are troubled. And even though we can't always see the cross of Christ in the murkiness of life, it's always here: guiding us like the star did for the Wise Men days earlier; guiding us always into a future filled with hope; guiding us as Light that shines in the darkness; and is not overcome by the darkness.
Several years ago, the Celtic musical group Gaelic Storm had a song called "Wade in the Water." Gaelic Storm became famous after the 1998 movie "Titanic" by being the musical group playing at the party below deck. Come on and wade way out in the water with me, we're drowning on dry ground,the refrain sang.
Drowning on dry ground.
In the waters of our baptism, that's exactly where we stand: on the dry, solid ground of the cross of Christ. We stand, too, on the promises made for us, that God will never leave us or forsake us. We stand too, on the words God says to us: YOU are my Beloved, my chosen, whom I have called, and whom I love with an everlasting love. YOU are mine.
Silty, murky, lifegiving waters.
Today, and in the week ahead, remember, and rejoice that in these waters of baptism, God calls us, God loves us, God leads us to stand firmly on the dry ground of God's love for each and every one of us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Grace to you and peace, from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen!
This week, we are back in the wilderness: that edge between civilization and seemingly empty space; a place visited by those who try to run away from God, and at the same time, those searching for God as well as those being challenged by God. What a difference a week can make, because even though we are back, it feels so, so, so much different. For a number of reasons. And that's okay, it is okay, and it will be okay.
Because with being in the wilderness again, we hear John the Baptist's message of repentance. "Prepare!" John tells us. "Prepare and repent!"
In the life of the Church, today has had a history of being known as Gaudate or Rejoice Sunday. This comes from the first words in Latin of Mary's response to news she was to become the mother of Jesus: she rejoiced. Like Lent, Advent was a season of both penitence and repentance: hearts needed prepared before receiving Christ. With a focus of penitence, Rejoice Sunday was a welcome intrusion of joy leading up to Christmas, in part because of Paul's words to the Philippians, 'Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice,' which was used as part of the service in the Roman Catholic tradition.
Every now and then, the thought has occurred as to how and why joy can be found in preparing and repenting. For example, I love having guests over, whether it be family or friends. Yet the prep work of deep cleaning beforehand can cause moments of feeling frazzled. That is, until the results of elbow grease and hard work becomes visible: tufts of cat hair are gone from the furniture and floors, bathrooms are spotless, and everything is in its proper place in the kitchen. Then, there is a sense of satisfaction and joy in the accomplishment and the work that has been done.
In light of preparing and cleaning a house for company, joy in John the Baptist's message of prepare and repent makes sense. It makes sense because those who heard John's message wanted to hear this message. They were the ones who came into the wilderness to hear this message, looking for good news, looking for new life, and more importantly, looking for the long awaited Messiah. Knowing Who else is to come is joyful. When that day comes of being able to gather together with friends and extended family, our joy will be great. BUT -- our joy will be much greater when Jesus comes again. This joy allows people to be free from every hurt and pain in life. This joy brings healing to the world, to broken relationships, and broken spirits. With this healing comes the restoration of creation and humanity in perfect wholeness.
And here's the best part -- John's message isn't about himself, it's about Jesus, One who is coming after him. John knew this even before he was born that One would be coming after him. John knew who he was, and knew also who he was not. He knew he was not the One.
The same is true for us. We humans forget the reality that God is God and we're not. When we forget this, we neglect to point the way to Jesus and pointing Jesus to others. Sometimes, we need others to point Jesus out to us. During the pericope study earlier this week, a colleague shared of their weekly experience at the grocery store. As shoppers leave the store, an employee tells the shoppers to 'have a blessed day.' For this colleague, it is a reminder of the presence of Christ in a way not always thought of.
Now, more than ever, the world needs us collectively and individually to point the way to Jesus. While it has been an unusually strange year, there have been moments of joy. There will be moments of joy. Find them. Claim them. Name them. In naming these moments of joy, share this joy with others. More importantly, be the joy that points to a greater joy yet to come. Today, tomorrow, and always. Amen.
Biblical Text: Mark 1:1-8
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let me begin by saying the way today is going is NOT what had been anticipated. Months ago, we were making plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Zion's first worship service in the present building. In those plans, we began to explore the ways of sharing our joy with Marietta and the greater community through the Marietta Candlelight Tour. And then, like so many other events and plans, Covid-19 changed everything.
While there is disappointment, if anything the past few months have taught us is the need for flexibility, adaptation, and the need to be prepared -- for anything. To prepare is John the Baptist's message this morning: prepare the way of the Lord. It was a message proclaimed, not from the temple or other building, but a location: the wilderness.
The wilderness is often seen as a location that is dry, barren, lifeless, desolate, and empty. It can be a place where one goes to find God.
Throughout the Bible, the wilderness is seen as both a place of desolation, and a place of life.
Consider Sarah's servant Hagar. Jealous because Hagar was able to have a child with Abraham when she could not, Sarah sent Hagar and Ishmael to die in the wilderness. God had other plans: sparing their lives, including them in God's plan of salvation.
Later the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years until they entered the promised land. During those forty years, the Israelites found their relationship with God, struggled with this relationship, lost it, found it, and experienced God's covenantal care in ways they never expected or anticipated.
At a critical point in his ministry, Elijah sought relief from his critics by also seeking death. Again, God had other plans: providing food for Elijah to continue his journey, encouraging him to stay with a widow with limited means, yet means that did not run out.
Later, as he began his ministry, Jesus was led into the wilderness for forty days. As he neared the end of those forty days, Jesus was tempted by the devil.
Yes, the wilderness: a place both of struggle and of the Holy Spirit; a place both problematic and promising at the same time. And yet, there is something about the wilderness where faith grows, is encouraged, and is even strengthened.
There was something about John the Baptist's location in the wilderness AND the message John preached that led many in Jerusalem to come, to hear John's message, and to repent. Often the wilderness is seen as an edge: an edge of civilization, and edge of unknown, a margin. Here, at this edge of the unknown, John the Baptist encouraged people to repent, to change their ways.
Had we used it this morning, our first lesson would have come from the Prophet Isaiah, the 40th Chapter. In this chapter, Isaiah uses beautiful imagery of mountains lowered, valleys raised and filled in, rough places smoothed out, curves straightened. Being intentional in righting wrongs, mending hurts, repairing or restoring relationships -- that's the preparation we are called to do this Advent season. The other aspects of this season, while important in their own way of helping us celebrate, can often run us ragged, taking from us the joy of the season, prompting us to miss the true meaning and original point of preparing and repenting.
In many ways, this past year has felt like a wilderness: a season of unknowns, change, and constantly shifting sands. Yet in this wilderness and these constant changes, God continues to reveals God's self to us. We've learned, as much as we have memories of activities, ministry, events, and people from the past fifty years, that we are church, and continue to be church outside of Zion's walls. You, as a community of faith, as people of God, have continued to care for one another, and for our neighbors in need: with donations of food and blankets for the food bank, gift cards for the needy families, bringing in toys for the Toys for Tots campaign. It was noticed yesterday as community members dropped off toys to help with the Toys for Tots drive. It has been noticed as you have contacted one another while we are apart. The past few months have encouraged us to be creative as we think about God's calling on our lives outside the proverbial box, and how it is we understand God's work in our lives and the world.
Fifty years ago, when members of Zion planned to move outside of Marietta, they could not have known we would be worshipping online, or event that a pandemic would take place. What they did know, was a change in location, one the edge, was needed to continue the work, the ministry, the mission, the witness, and the sharing of the good news of the Gospel. In the same way, we don't know what life will look like fifty years from now. What we do know, is even in the wilderness of 2020, God continues to remain faithful. In this faithfulness, we are called to repent, to prepare, to watch. Above all, we are called to have hope. A hope that sees the pain of the world; a hope that sees the need of the world; and a hope that also sees the presence of God in the midst of this pain. There is hope. There is always hope -- a hope that invites us to prepare, to repent, to come to the wilderness, and experience new life -- today, tomorrow, and always.
Thanks be to God. Amen.