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Practiced in Joy

(a sermon for January 10, 2021, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Text: Isaiah 60:1-6)

I remember the moment as though it were yesterday.

It was the fall of 1982, I was living in Houlton, up in Aroostook County, Maine and serving as student pastor of the church up there while commuting back and forth to seminary classes in Bangor. I actually hadn’t been in town too long; in fact, I was still in the process of trying to get “settled in” at the church and in the community. And one day, I’d gone to the local drug store to buy something or other, and as I put my items on the counter, the cashier looked at me for a moment and said, “Aren’t you that new minister at the Congregational Church?” Surprised by the question and nervously looking around to make sure she wasn’t talking to somebody else, I stammered back, “Yesss… that’s me… I guess.” 

And immediately, as I was soon to discover was and is a fairly common thing up in “the county,” this woman started talking to me like she’d known me all her life!  She wasn’t a member of my church, she said, but she knew folks who were, and “those ‘congregationals’ are good people… especially dear old Mrs. Smith… she used to be my kindergarten teacher, you know!” And isn’t Houlton a wonderful little town… you’re really going to like it here!  And that’s how the conversation went: we talked back and forth like that for a good ten minutes and finally, as I started to leave, this woman, still smiling from ear to ear, said to me, “Well, it was really nice to meet you; you have a nice day, and God bless you, pastor!

I’d barely made it back out to the street when it hit me like a thunderbolt: she’d called me pastor!  For the very first time in my life, somebody had recognized me as “the minister!”  Even all these years later, friends, I cannot adequately express to you how that felt. Understand, it wasn’t that there was this perfect stranger who had recognized who I was; nor did it have anything to do with being able to puff out my chest and say, “Look at me, everyone, I’m the new minister in town!” Rather, it was the sudden realization that for the better part of a decade (since I’d been 15 years old, in fact!) everything in my life – spiritually, academically, even socially – had been focused on a singular calling, a calling that I sensed to be of God, a calling that I should become a church pastor. And now, here I was, standing on a sidewalk in the middle of downtown Houlton, having been recognized as just that! It’s no exaggeration to say that I was now standing on the threshold of the rest of my life, and the realization of this filled me with an incredible joy unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.

Now, after close to 40 (!) years in my vocation as a church pastor, I can tell you that I’ve felt that same kind of joy on many other occasions, most certainly on the day of my ordination, but also in the midst of other, seemingly random times and circumstances over the years: worship services, weddings, even memorial services; times when it’s been clear that God is present and at work, and I’m suddenly aware that I’m just where I’m supposed to be at that moment. And it’s not necessarily “happiness” I’m talking about here, per se, nor is it some fleeting joy that passes with the moment, but rather a joy that’s pervasive and lasting because it’s been a long time in coming. It’s a joy that’s greatly anticipated because it’s a joy that’s been well-practiced.

But, then, you know what I mean, don’t you?  It’s like when a child is born: it’s not just the joy of the birth you feel – although that’s very real – but it’s also the culmination of nine months of this child’s of growing in the womb; it’s the joyous relief that comes in finally knowing that all is well and the baby is healthy. Same thing applies for those who are seeking to adopt: the joy that’s felt in that moment when everything comes together for a family is a joy that had its birthing, so to speak, long before the birth itself. 

Recent events notwithstanding, much the same can be said about the permutations of an ever-changing world: I’m put in mind, for instance, of a newspaper photo I saw recently, one that dates back to 1994, of Nelson Mandela voting for the very first time in a South African election after years of apartheid rule in that country.  It’s basically your standard-issue news photo; except that in it Mandela has this look on his face of a kid on Christmas morning as he performed the very simple act of placing a voting card through a slot into a wooden box. There was a profound joy in the act of voting, yes, but even more so because this represented the fulfillment of generations’ worth of hope and struggles for freedom. So when the joy finally came to pass, Mandela and so many others in South Africa knew it for what it was; nobody had to tell them what to feel or how to react, for this was a moment they had anticipated for years, even amidst the times and situation when there seemed to be no hope that such a moment would ever come to pass. When the moment finally came to pass, you see, they were well-practiced in their joy!

Well, that’s what this morning’s scripture reading is all about: joy well-practiced and joy fulfilled: “Arise, shine;” the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you… Lift up your eyes and look around… then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”  I love this passage; everything about it carries an air of proclamation and triumph. And although these words were written many generations before the birth of Christ, it does seem to bring something of a fitting closure to our re-telling of the Christmas story over these past few weeks. Did you notice that there’s even talk of kings “coming into the brightness of… dawn” and of camels – “a multitude of camels,” we’re told – bringing gold and frankincense? Sounds familiar, and one reason that this passage is traditionally read, along with the story of the Magi, on the Day of Epiphany. But even though this passage is full of celebration and triumph, we need to understand that for those for whom these words were originally intended, life was anything but triumphant.

This is another portion of Old Testament scripture that can and should be viewed in a couple of different contexts: historically, it was addressed to Israel in the years just after their exile to Babylon, returning home to Jerusalem only to find that city in ruins and their life as hard, if not even harder, than before. And spiritually, of course, we view it prophetically, anticipating the coming of a Messiah; of light entering into a darkened world in the person of Jesus Christ. It’s the promise that God’s glory will be seen in the midst of his people, that the life of those people will be restored and that they will be honored among all the nations. And so, when the prophet says unto Israel, “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” it’s a promise that is, in fact, “not yet,” but which is so very real, so very close, so immediate to them in that moment that their joy is already full and triumphant in its expression.

And so, when Jerusalem is restored and when the Messiah does come, it will be the fulfillment of something they already know, not unlike how we know before it happens that the sun will rise in the darkness of the eastern sky to bring forth the dawning of a new day.  When God’s presence brings joy and hope into the darkness of their despair, their oppression and grief, they will know that presence for exactly what it is; no one will need to tell them what to do or how to act – they will rejoice! – for they will already be well-practiced in joy!

Actually, you know, it occurs to me as we come to the end of yet another Christmastide, that perhaps this is part of our problem regarding Christmas, and for that matter regarding our faith in these days of confused situations: the fact is, friends, we are not practiced in joy! Oh, we’ve heard the familiar words of Christ’s birth and of light coming into our darkness, but are those words real to us and do they stay close to our hearts? We’ve celebrated the promise of joy to the world, alright, at least as much as time and pandemic would allow us this year (!); but is the truth of it that this joy has gotten put away as quickly and easily as do our decorations come the first of January?  

How does this happen to us, friends?  How does the Advent of God into our world become something we could put in a box and place up into the attic?  Isn’t that word of promise and hope as much for us now as it was for Israel so long ago!?  “Arise, shine!  For your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you!”  Have we forgotten that the glory of the Lord comes to us even now in the birth, the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ? That Christmas is merely an expression of what we know to be true as God’s people 365 days a year and in every year of life now and eternally? And that “peace on earth, goodwill amongst all people,” is more than merely some verse on a greeting card but the very principles by which you and I are called to live and, might I add, to govern ourselves? 

Now, perhaps more than ever before in our history, we need to proclaim that joy is ours in the coming of the Lord and that it is made manifest in the Lord’s love and his sacrifice and his mercy and his goodness and his salvation; but also that it must be practiced in the way that Christ lives within us and among us… in the way that his work is our work… as persons, as a people and most especially as the church.

We know all-too-well that we live in a world severely lacking in hope and woefully unpracticed in joy. And as though we needed another reminder of this, the horrific events at the Capital Building in Washington this past week served to show us, amongst other things, that in such a sinful and divided world as this, peace on earth does not always prevail. Truly, amongst the great ironies (to say nothing of the great sacrileges) of the violence that took place on Wednesday is that it happened on January 6, the Day of Epiphany, our Christian celebration of God’s light being revealed to the world in Jesus Christ. And as sad as it is for me to say, especially as someone who truly loves and believes in this country, it ended up as a stark reminder that our first allegiance and our hope as believers can never be unto the government – no matter who we voted for – or even unto the nation itself, but our allegiance can ever and only be unto God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

That said, however, there is something important for us to remember as the world seems to be spinning out of control; in truth of fact, the same message that we’ve heard again and again in recent weeks: that GOD IS WITH US as we go into the world. To quote Halford Luccock, the great 20th century Methodist commentator, the first words of the Christmas message from the sky were, “Fear Not!” and those still are good words for these days of “jittery,” fearful apprehension. And they are words we need to take to heart right about now.

Fear not, friends, for God is with us in the uncertainty of life in these times.  Fear not, for whatever struggles come our way as persons, as a people and as a nation in this year to come, we are not alone, but in the presence of a Savior who will carry our burdens on his shoulders. Fear not, for even in those moments when the darkness the world surrounds us, we have been given a light that will burn brightly and can never be overcome.  Fear not, for we will be given the vision and strength not to truly love one another as the Lord has loved us, but also to love those who the world has chosen not to love.

Fear not; in fact, rejoice!  For despite all worldly appearances to the contrary, your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!  Christ is working in us, through us and around us even now; and that is reason enough to be practicing the joy of it in all that we do. Beloved, let us be well-practiced in joy, so that when the Advent of God comes in its fullness we will know it for what it is, and no one will need to tell us what to do or how to act.

We will simply rejoice!

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2021  Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.

 

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The Lost Christ

(a sermon for January 3, 2021, the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, based on Luke 2:39-52)

“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”  That’s what Luke tells us in his gospel, but as far as I’m concerned it does absolutely nothing to satisfy my curiosity!

Actually, one of my great fascinations involving the gospel story has always been that of which we know very little: how Jesus, our Christ, grew from that tiny, helpless baby in the manger to a 30-year-old carpenter from Nazareth who came preaching salvation and the coming of God’s kingdom.

I wonder, for instance, if Jesus was ever a fussy baby.  Was he colicky?  What did he like to eat, and did he have a special toy or a “luvvy” (as our kids referred to it) that he clung to at night?  What made him smile and laugh (was he ticklish?), and did Jesus work and play well with other children?  Did Jesus go through “the terrible twos?”  And I wonder… how did Mary and Joseph react when he misbehaved?  Knowing what they did, could the two of them treat Jesus like any other child; would Joseph give him a “stern talking to,” or was there a little pat on the backside if he needed it?  I mean, how do you discipline the Son of God? And while we’re on the subject, was Jesus at all rebellious as a teenager?  Did Jesus really enjoy working alongside Joseph in the carpenter’s shop, or would he have rather been out with his friends?

Small questions, I know, and probably a bit impertinent; but I do wonder about such things, because in all honesty these are the questions that bring Jesus nearer to me and my life; for me, thinking about Jesus this way makes him human as well as divine, and I can wrap my mind and heart around that.  And I take solace in knowing I’m not alone in my wondering: biblical scholars, to say nothing of novelists, poets and artists throughout the centuries have long speculated on this subject.  In the end, however, all we have is speculation, because it turns out that we just don’t know all that much about Jesus’ childhood and youth.

In fact, one of the only stories we have about Jesus during this period is the one we just shared, regarding an incident that occurred when Jesus was about twelve years old, as he joined Mary and Joseph and a great caravan of other families from Nazareth on a trip to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 

Actually, that in and of itself tells us a great deal: that Jesus was raised in the rich Hebrew tradition of his family and community.  You see, not only was it Jewish law that every male Israelite living within fifteen miles of Jerusalem attend the festival of Passover there, it was also customary (and a privilege) for young, growing boys to make their appearance there as part of their passage into adulthood.  So, at age twelve, this was probably one of the first times that Jesus made the pilgrimage as required by law; and that’s significant for our understanding of who Jesus was, and the history and tradition of which he was a part.

But what’s even more significant about this story comes in what happened following the feast itself; for according to Luke, what we learn is that Mary and Joseph, in fact, lost Jesus!  Now, to be fair, it was nobody’s fault, and anyone, especially parents, can understand how such a thing could have happened.  You see, as regards these large caravans traveling to Jerusalem, the tradition of the time was for the women and children to start out on the journey earlier than the men; this was because the women and the children traveled more slowly.  The men would start out later in the day, moving at a faster pace, so that by the end of the day, the men and women would meet at the place of encampment at more or less the same time. 

This was also how, after the Passover celebration, they would make their way back to Nazareth.  But what happened was that Mary assumed that Jesus, having nearly reached the age of manhood, was with Joseph; and Joseph, on the other hand, assumed that since Jesus was not around, that the boy was surely with his mother.  It wasn’t until nightfall, when they’d set up camp for the night that Mary and Joseph realized, much to their horror, that Jesus was still back in Jerusalem!  And so what else could they do but then turn around, leave the caravan, and go back by themselves a day’s journey to Jerusalem to find Jesus!

See, it was an honest mistake! Mary and Joseph were not lax in their parental duties, nor were they neglectful of their son; but the fact remains that quite without their knowledge, they had lost Jesus and had gone on for quite some time without even realizing it! 

If you think about it, it’s actually quite a parable.  Here were Mary and Joseph, these two young people who’d brought this child into the world in a cold, dark stable; who’d willingly become refugees so to protect him from the murderous rage of King Herod; who’d let their lives become completely altered for the sake of God’s own son.  We look at Mary and Joseph and cannot help but marvel at their love and devotion to Jesus and yet, they still lost him!  And here’s where it becomes a parable; because, friends, if it’s possible for Mary and Joseph to lose Jesus, however unintentionally, then it’s also possible for you and me to lose him as well!

Truth is, it happens all too easily: we’re walking what we’re thinking is the sure and certain pace of the Christian walk; we’re moving along on what feels like a good and spiritual pathway for our lives, and suddenly we look up to notice that Jesus just doesn’t seem to be there!  That’s the irony of it, friends: we can be good, loving, faithful Christian people in just about every sense of the word; going to church regularly, involving ourselves in the church’s ministries, as well as doing good things out in the places where we dwell.  We’ll give of ourselves spiritually, physically, financially and otherwise, and do it all with love and as an act of praise and devotion… and yet we still somehow manage to have lost Christ somewhere along the way!

How it happens is hard to say – no doubt at one point Jesus had been there at the center of it – but now, even amidst all the so-called “religious” activity, there’s a palpable sense of emptiness.  Perhaps the meaning and purpose of what we were doing got overshadowed by the work of it, that is, our need to “get the job done,” so it had become less about our “faith response” than it was dealing with another obligation in our lives; or maybe it’s simply that we stopped paying attention to the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives, to the point where now, where a “Christian life” is concerned, we’re just going through the motions!

However it happens, the fact is that it can and does; and therein lay the question for each of us as we look around at our lives and living; and reflect on how this gift of divine love we’ve been given defines us, and how we live: Is Jesus there?  And if not, then where is he?  Can it be said of us that we, in fact, have lost Christ?

Of course, our story this morning has a happy ending: Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the temple, talking with and asking questions of the teachers there regarding matters of law, tradition and theology.  In fact, we’re told that “all who heard [Jesus] were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”   All very well and good – wonderful, in fact – but as you can imagine, his parents are still pretty upset, and understandably so!  Mary says to her son, “Child,” (notice that suddenly it’s “child!”) “why have you treated us like this?”  Didn’t you know that we’d be worried?  We’ve been looking for you all day, we had to come all the way back here to find you… what have you got to say for yourself, young man?

And to this, Jesus very calmly replies, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Luke goes on to say that “they did not understand what he said to them,” but Biblical scholars and theologians make the case that Jesus, even then, knew who he was.  But even more than this, I think that Jesus knew where to go.  Even at the age of twelve, Jesus understood that a life of faith is a life of seeking; always seeking, always asking questions, always wanting to know bit more than you knew before.  It’s about growing, in wisdom as well as in years… but growing ever and always in the company of God, there before you and beside you.

Friends, I ask you this morning, how can we really know God if we don’t take the time to be with God?

How can we live for Christ, if, in fact, we don’t seek to bring Christ near?

How can we know which way to walk on this Christian pilgrimage we’re on, if we don’t take the time to ask for directions in prayer? Or to pause along the journey to reflect both on where we’ve been, and where we’re going?

How can we call ourselves faithful when we won’t seek a deeper understanding of what that faith means?  Or to put it another way, how can we know the answers if we don’t first ask the questions?

I think that even as a child, our Lord understood that though God actively seeks us out where we are, we need to seek God… and seeking God begins with an incredible life-long walk with Jesus!  And if, along the way, we find that we’ve lost Jesus (or perhaps, more accurately, that we’ve misplaced him), the good news is that he can be found.

It oftentimes takes some rather intentional searching on our parts; it certainly requires getting out of our own way for a while, and by that I mean rearranging some of the priorities that may well have taken a stranglehold on our lives!  It means asking questions: sometimes very hard questions, not only of ourselves but also of God; and then prayerfully, deliberately and intently listening to God for answers. 

What we’re talking about here is spiritual discipline; but in such a discipline comes the remarkable discovery that not only have we found Jesus, but that all along Jesus has been waiting for us to find him!  All along the journey, no matter in what direction we’ve veered off the pathway, the good news is that Christ has been waiting – patiently, lovingly and relentlessly – waiting for us to find him.  Truly, this is the gift of every Christmas and the blessing of each and every New Year – most especially in this new year of 2021 – that even when we somehow manage to lose him, Jesus is ever and always there to be found!

It’s like that little phrase you’ll see printed on cards and signs and even t-shirts this time of year, usually with a picture of a manger, a star and perhaps a camel or two: Wise Men still seek him.  Wise men, wise women, wise children: we would all do well to live our lives searching diligently for the child in the places where we dwell.  Because I’ll guarantee you one thing:  if we look, we’ll surely find the child who’s been waiting for us all along!

Dear friends, may you have a blessed and happy new year in the presence and blessing of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God!  

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2021 in Christmas, Jesus, Life, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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Christmas, Even Now

Well, once again at long last, it’s Christmas Eve! 

I have to say, friends, that of all the times we come together as God’s people throughout the year; this is probably the night I look forward to most. In fact, I figured it out and this makes 37 years – 9 of them right here at East Church – that I’ve had the great joy and privilege of leading Christmas Eve worship as a pastor; and I’ve got to tell you, all of those years and all of those times shared in worship are filled with memories and meaning that fill up my heart more than I can possibly express.

I’ve actually been remembering something tonight that was said to me at another church many Christmas Eves ago by someone who came through the vestibule to greet me after worship.  She shook my hand quite vigorously, she gave me this great big hug (as we are fond of saying up in Maine, she “muckled right on to me!”) and then, with tears in her eyes, she said, “Oh, thank you, thank you so much for this service!  I just love coming to your church on Christmas Eve, because it’s the same old thing every year!”  

Ummm… you’re welcome?

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about that as of late, because I realize that if there’s one thing we can say about anything having to do with Christmas Eve 2020, it’s most assuredly that this year it’s not the “same old thing!”  In fact, I think we can safely say that this year’s celebration of Christmas is to say the very least, unprecedented and nothing we could have possibly imagined a year ago.  And I’ll confess, it still seems inconceivable that we aren’t able to be together as a church family in this sanctuary on this holy night… and yet, out of an abundance of concern for the safety and well-being of everyone around us (to say nothing of our love for one another), it is both appropriate and good, friends, that this year we aren’t gathering for in-person worship.

So yes, this year is different… and yet, I dare say that there’s so much that’s still the same.  After all, we’re still worshiping together as God’s people… we’re just doing so from different places and in a multitude of different ways.  We’re all still singing all those songs and carols … or at least, I trust that we’re all singing from wherever we are!  We’ve still been reading that old and wonderfully familiar story of our Savior’s birth… perhaps this year we’ve even heard it in a way that’s fresh and new!   And in a few minutes, we’ll be lighting candles that will remind us that the light of Christ has come into our darkened world, singing “Silent Night” as we do.

So considering all that, in many ways I still have to agree with that woman who spoke to me with such joy and thanksgiving all those years ago: yes, in every way that matters, it is the “same old thing” again this Christmas, even now… and thank the Lord for it!

Actually, you know what; I also have to tell you that one of my favorite moments every Christmas Eve is one that few people in the church ever get to see: it’s after the last carol has been sung, after the organ has been switched off, the candles extinguished, and all of you have gone home, perchance to get a few hours of slumber before the kids are up and the Christmas celebration starts in earnest.  The heat gets turned back here at the church, the lights are switched off; and finally, after I do a last-minute check of things, I lock up for the night and head outside to go home.

And every year, that’s when it happens: I’ll look up at the night sky, feel the cut of the night air, hear the utter quiet that has descended upon the busy streets; and suddenly it’ll hit me:  Dear Lord, at last it’s Christmas!  And all over this community and nation and world this night, people are celebrating and singing and worshipping – almost certainly in a different way, but still celebrating nonetheless – all because God so loved this world that he gave us his son. 

In these moments I’m inevitably reminded of the words of a poem that I have known and loved for many years now; written by the Rev. Phillips Brooks, who was also the composer of “O Little Town of Bethlehem:”

 
 

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