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Category Archives: Old Testament

Are You Listening?

(a sermon for January 17, 2021, the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Samuel 3:1-20)

The story goes that two men were at the local diner one day, talking over a cup of coffee.  And the first man says, “You know, I’m concerned about my wife.  She’s talking to herself a lot these days.” And the second man thought about this for a moment, and replies, “Ayuh, my wife does that too, but she doesn’t know it.  She thinks I’m listening!”

LISTENING, it can be said, is one of the most important tools for a marriage or any relationship, and conversely, the lack of listening can be its greatest detriment.  As a pastor, I can tell you that I talk to people all the time – couples, parents and children, family members and friends – for whom this holds very true.  And as a husband and father, I can vouch for the fact that the vast majority of any conflict in our home can be traced back to a lapse in listening skills (and I will leave to your imaginations as to who that involves!).  Listening, you see, does not always come naturally to us, nor does it come easily; in fact, our dilemma is wonderfully expressed by the title character in Marjorie Kellogg’s book (and subsequent 1970’s era movie), “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.”  In that book, she declares to one of her closest friends, Arthur, “The trouble with you, Arthur, is that you seldom listen to me, and when you do you don’t hear, and when you do hear, you hear wrong, and even when you hear right you change it so fast that it’s never the same.”

So does that sound at all familiar?   I’m guessing it probably does, because the sad truth is that this is precisely how a lot of us listen to each other; but what’s even worse, especially for us who are people of faith, is that this is also how a great many of us listen to God!  

I’ll say it again: listening is one of the most important tools for any relationship, and the lack of listening can be its greatest detriment; and this is especially true as regards our relationship with God.  Let me put this another way: if God calls our name, how will we know unless we’re listening?  How will we know what God is saying to us or where God might be leading? For that matter, how will we recognize that it’s actually us that God is talking to; or even if what we’re hearing is God at all, as opposed to, say, some other overpowering voice in this world that demands our attention?  How will we know any of this… unless we’re truly listening?

One thing is clear: listening – and this applies whether we’re talking about our relationships with one another or our relationship with God – involves more than merely hearing; listening, in truth, is all encompassing.  It’s no accident that in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the word for listen is also the word for obey, which means that to listen to God is to open one’s whole life and self to God; and to attend wholly to that to which God is calling.

We see this very clearly in our scripture reading for this morning, the story of God’s call to Samuel; who was to become, as a judge and a prophet, one of Israel’s great leaders. But at the point we pick up the story today Samuel is still just a 12-year-old boy; who’s been sent by his mother Hannah to live in the temple as a servant of God under the authority of an old and blind priest by the name of Eli.  Right from the outset, we’re told that “the word of the LORD was rare in those days,” and that “visions were not widespread;” but what’s also true about those days is that Israel’s leadership at the time was particular corrupt in nature.  For Israel, this was an era of moral ambiguity and societal degradation that happened from the top down; not unlike our own time, really, when a voice of true faith can easily be drowned out in the sheer cacophony of all the world’s noise.  So yes, you can kind of understand how under such circumstances one might miss God’s call; after all, when there’s a hundred different voices clamoring for your attention, it’s hard to discern the one voice you’re supposed to be listening for!  

Actually, Samuel did hear that one voice; it’s just that he mistakenly assumed it was Eli calling his name.  This happened three times; and each time Samuel arose from his bed to go to Eli, assuming that the old man was in need of something. Samuel had no idea at all that it this was the voice of God calling him; it was, in fact, old Eli who finally began to realize that it was the Lord calling the boy.  “Go back and lie down,” Eli says to Samuel, and “if the voice calls again, say, ‘Speak, God, I’m your servant, ready to listen.”

And sure enough; it’s when Samuel understands that it’s God who is speaking to him – and then, of course, when he starts to really listen – that’s when things start to happen.  Did you catch what’s the first thing that God says to Samuel:  God says, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”  Tingle!  Don’t you love that?!   That’s the perfect word for this; as author and UCC pastor Donna Shaper has written, it’s the experience of “hope kicking into high gear, forgiveness writ loud… [feeling] pins and needles all over your body because you [are] so excited” over what God is about to do!  In this case, what God is about to do essentially results in the fall of Eli’s house and the rise of Samuel’s; so what we’re seeing here is the beginning of a new life for Samuel as a messenger of God, and the thing is that it begins at the precise moment that Samuel stops to listen!

What this story reminds us is that ours is a God of intrusion; and by that I mean that just when we’ve assumed that, in times like these when the word of the Lord does seem to be rare; when we reluctantly decide that religion ought be something best kept silent and settled, here comes God… quite literally bursting forth into our lives and living, bringing change and disruption and newness of life!  Barbara Brown Taylor talks about this; she says that “God’s language is not limited… [and] God’s word is not chained.  We cannot capture it in church, in time, in culture.  We cannot even capture it between the covers of the Bible, because if [scripture] is God’s true and lively word, then [it’s going to be] inventing new words all the time – percolating with the same creative energy that made heaven and earth.”

Perhaps at the end of the day that’s why you and I are so often reluctant or even afraid to listen: for in truth if we were to really listen for the word of God – in the silence of our hearts; in the journey of our lives; and even in the work of the church – if we really did listen, we might feel that tingle, and that would change everything for us forever!

Some years ago now, I attended a training seminar in Florida as part of the Stephen Ministry program; which is, if you don’t know, a wonderful and very worthwhile ministry of Christian caregiving for laity. I was actually being trained as a Stephen Leader, so that I could go back to my own congregation and equip the people of our church for a ministry of caregiving.  Well, part of that training involved learning the mechanics of peer supervision, in which those trained as caregivers gather regularly to discuss their own experiences in a nurturing and confidential manner, so to assure that those people you’re trying to help get the best care possible.

In that regard, we’d been asked the day before to come up with a case study of sorts; to either make something up, or, if it was to be based on something out of real life, take it out of the distant past or at least change it in a significant fashion.  And then we would do these role plays as if we were actually meeting as “Stephen Ministers” dealing with a caregiving situation before us.  So we’re around this table – there’s eight of us from all over the country and from across the “denominational spectrum” – and through the process we decide to discuss in-depth the situation of this one woman at our table, whose “care receiver,” according to her case study was an 18 year-old boy battling severe depression and now rebounding from several unsuccessful attempts at suicide. 

In the course of that conversation, we talked a great deal about how difficult a thing it can be to be a caregiver to somebody in this situation; we spoke about how hard it is to have your heart not break when you see what they’re going through.  We talked about the necessity of boundaries, the need for faith and the power of prayer; and we talked about letting go emotionally, and letting God carry the burden.   I’ll tell you, friends, I’ve never been a big one for role play as a way of learning (it’s always seemed a little too much like theater to me) but I must confess that afterward I was struck by how very real this experience was and how much I had learned.

Well, then it was all done; we went on to something else, and in fact, I didn’t see that woman again until the last night of the seminar at our closing service of worship.  After we had sung a closing hymn, as part of our benediction we passed the peace of Christ to one another; and this is when this woman comes over to me, gives me this big hug, and says simply, “I just want to thank you.”  And of course, I’m just kind of looking at her with this clueless look on my face because I don’t know what she’s thanking me for; but then she says, “You know the 18-year-old that I spoke of the other day?  That was my son.  And I know he’s going to be alright now… but now for the first time in a long time, I know I’m going to be alright.  And I just wanted to thank you for that.”

I’ve never forgotten that, mostly because even all these years later I’m still not sure what I said to her that made that kind of difference.  But I think maybe it was just that I listened; that all of us around that table listened.  In that moment, you see, it didn’t matter that we were in all actuality this group of random strangers who were totally from different places and backgrounds; all that mattered is that when we started to really listen to what was being said in that place, we became kindred spirits in the Lord, and somehow, God’s remarkable, ear-tingling, life-changing word got through.  And when that happened, things immediately started to change… for the better.

This is something I’ve always believed very strongly, but it’s something I don’t think that I have said often enough, especially in these days when we’ve all been scattered as a congregation.  And that’s that we’re all ministers, you and me; though I might have the “Rev” in front of my name, in this tradition we believe in the priesthood of all believers, and what that means is that every one of us – every one of you – is called to the work of ministry, and invited to it challenges and its joy.  It also means that we’ve been equipped and empowered by God; so that we might do what God needs to have done. 

Who knows what form that will take in each of our lives… maybe it’ll be to speak the words of love and support that need to be said at a crucial moment; perhaps it’ll be the opportunity we have before us to “teach our children well,” and to nurture them in the Christian faith; maybe it’s to be caregiver of one sort or another; and maybe it’s to stand up and work boldly toward a strong vision of the kingdom of God in this place and in these strange and difficult days.  Or maybe it is simply to listen: where you are and to whom is with you at that moment; which trust me, beloved, is no small gift. 

But whatever your ministry happens to be, it starts… with listening.  There is no limit as to what God can do through you and through me; but it all begins as we tune out the noise and chaos of life and fear and violence and the politics of the world around us… and begin focusing our ears and hearts on the sound of God’s voice in the midst of it all; to listen to God’s call and God’s plan.  

God is calling us, beloved; I pray today that we will have the grace to answer, “Here I am, Lord… speak, for we, your servants are listening.” 

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

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

 

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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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Christmas, Now More Than Ever: God, With Us

(a sermon for December 20, 2020, the 4th Sunday of Advent; fourth in a series, based on Isaiah 7:10-17 and Matthew 1:18-25)

Before the magi followed a star rising in the east or a motely group of shepherds heard the song of the heavenly host…

…before a stable full of animals became the makeshift birthplace for a baby king or when Bethlehem became the place where a ruler was to born…

…even before a young girl is told by an angel of the Lord that she was to bear a child who would be called “Son of God…”

…long before any of this comes to pass, the story of Christmas begins: with a weak and rather wicked ruler by the name of Ahaz, and a battle of… faith versus fear.

Now, what’s interesting about this passage from the 7th chapter of Isaiah, and the reason we tend to return to it every Advent season, is that it does contain the prophecy of a young woman bearing a son who shall be named Immanuel; a single verse that provides the perfect entry into the familiar gospel story of Mary and Joseph and the manger birth of the Holy Child.  Yet the not so familiar story is the one about what prompted Isaiah’s prophecy in the first place: Ahaz, you see, was the king of Judah who came into power around 735 B.C. when he was about 20 years old (!) and ruled for about 20 years; he was the son of King Jotham, who was regarded as a “good king” of Judah, which makes it all the more interesting that Ahaz was just the opposite: we’re not exactly sure why, but he literally seemed to relish going against the precepts of God.  It is said that Ahaz’s many destructive practices – idol worship, sacrilege against the temple of the Lord, even the sacrifice of his own children (!) – contributed to the ultimate downfall of the entire kingdom of Judah!

And as we pick up the story in our text for this morning, Judah is in fact surrounded by at least two foreign armies and quite literally facing its own imminent destruction.  Just prior to where we started reading today we’re told that “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind,” and as you can imagine, King Ahaz is evaluating the situation and he’s worried, fearful for the future of Judah and quite honestly, concerned for his own well-being and survival. And yet, here’s the thing: all this worry and fear is happening despite the fact that Isaiah had already brought to him God’s assurance that his kingdom would prevail.  And we’re told that Ahaz is so unconvinced of this that God actually invites and encourages Ahaz to ask for a sign as to the certainty of the promise:  ask for anything, the Lord says, “let it be deep as as Sheol or high as heaven.”  Or as The Message translates it, “Be extravagant.  Ask for the moon!”

Now at this point and perhaps to his credit, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, not wanting to put the Lord to the test; but to God’s credit, God offers up a sign anyway; that of which we know so well: “a young woman [who] shall bear a son,” and a child who will know “how to refuse the evil and choose the good.”  But even after this news, this monumental news, Ahaz is skeptical; and we’re left in this passage with the clear sense that even with this incredible news of heaven and earth colliding, this king of Judah is far too wrapped up in his fear of what his enemies were planning to even notice what God was even at that very moment doing in faithfulness and with love.

Not exactly the kind of story you want to hear just before Christmas, is it?

But while Ahaz’s response is certainly short-sighted and more than a little self-serving; friends, I have to confess to you this morning that I get it, most especially right now.  Because if there’s nothing else that can be said about our lives in this strange, woe begotten year of 2020 it’s that when the world goes crazy, fear tends to come into direct opposition to faith.  It’s one thing, after all, to profess that we’ll all get through this global pandemic and we won’t get Covid-19 and that life is going to return to normal sooner rather than later; but it’s quite another thing to not let our worries and fears about the uncertainty of it all get the better of us. 

And never mind the pandemic for a moment; I dare say that every single one of us can name a time or situation in our lives when there has quite literally existed a tug of war between “keeping the faith” on the one side and “giving in to fear” on the other.  And the truth of the matter is that when your back is against the wall and all the problems of this life just seem to keep piling on with no end in sight, it’s hard to accept the promise of relief or support coming anytime soon; easier, if I might quote Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary, “to trust in alliances and arms and investments and securities [rather] than God,” because to “not worry about tomorrow… is easier said than done.” Much easier, even more tempting at times, to give up, give in and let fear rule the day; that’s the problem, you see, for the King Ahazzes of every generation, and for that matter, that’s also the problem for you and me in these times in which we’re living.  But there are consequences for that kind of stance: as the Lord himself says to Ahaz (again, just prior to our reading this morning), “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” (v. 9)

So isn’t it good, then, that God offers us the gift of standing firm amidst the fear?  Isn’t it good that God is with us in the standing?  And isn’t it wonderful in that it’s all going to come about… because of a child?

“Look,” says the prophet, “a woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel,” a name that literally means “God is with us.”  This will be a child who will be barely grown before he’s able to make good and moral choices; a child who will be able in all things to “refuse the evil and choose the good;” a child who will make war and conflict and division a thing of the past; a child who will bring faith in the face of all fear.  And perhaps most importantly, the birth of this child was to be the sure and certain promise that God would remain faithful to his people no matter how fearful they had become.  God would be with them… come what may, and forever more.

As I say, I suppose had I been in Ahaz’s situation I might have been skeptical.  After all, what possible help can a small, newborn baby possibly be against two powerful armies just about to end his kingdom; better that “the sign” from God be some show of military force!  But then, isn’t this what God always does, to bring forth hope and love and life in the places where one least expects it?  The truth is that God always enters in to our places of greatest weakness to stand firm with us and for us no matter how fearful we become.  To quote the Rev. Brent Neely, a Lutheran pastor and writer from Cape Elizabeth, Maine (!), “Even in this day and age when fear runs amuck, we have no need to fear for a small child has proven to us that God is with us and that God is faithful to his promises.  When our faith is weak [and] our fear is strong,” Neely writes, “God steps in without us even asking for it.  God tells us, ‘I am with you!’  Hope is coming [and] the enemy that you fear is nothing compared to the promise that God has made with us.”

You know, truth be told, I wonder sometimes if Joseph was at all skeptical about the promise of this child who was about to come into his life.  As the story is told in our text for this morning from Matthew, we already know that when Mary “was found to be with child” Joseph had resolved to “dismiss her quietly” so not to expose to public disgrace; but then, of course, the angel appeared to Joseph in his dream and all that changed.  Still, you still have to wonder if Joseph was asking what all of this really meant; not just to him and Mary, but also to the whole world.  Surely, there must have been some significant and legitimate fear in considering just how very much was hinging on the two of them becoming parents to this tiny, helpless infant who was no less than God come to earth!  You have to wonder, even with all the prophecies and dreams and angels’ songs that had led him to this time, if Joseph didn’t wonder, why me?  Why us?  Why now?  And what if it doesn’t happen?

Again, on the face of it, it all seems a pretty unlikely scenario, but therein lies the beauty and the purpose of God’s plan; that this child, this birth, this coming of this Messiah simply didn’t seem to make sense by the standards of the world.  That the whole of Israel’s history; that all the prophecies foretold from days of old; that the sum total of human history should all hinge on a young girl saying yes, she’ll be the handmaiden of the Lord; on a husband who would not walk the other way; and on the chance that the two of them would find themselves in a dark, damp stable in Bethlehem on one particular holy night that divinely chosen from the foundation of the world (!)…

…but that was the sign, wasn’t it?

The sign that the Lord himself has given us: what you and I would deem a miracle; a miracle of divine proportion planned and laid out for centuries before it actually unfolded in all its glory.  That’s the thing we need to remember, you know, especially as we draw closer now to Christmas; that all those wonderful things that make the story what it is – the angels’ chorus; the shepherds out abiding in the fields; the shining of a star in at a unique place and at a preordained time; and the magi who traversed across the miles so to discover where that star would finally rest – none of it was happenstance.  It was all part of God’s plan and purpose; the miracle workings of a miraculous God whose promise it is to be with us… come what may and forevermore.

This is the true gift of Christmas, beloved, one that we need now more than ever: the Lord’s own sign of a child that shows us, again and again and again, that God is still and ever and always watching over the fearful and fretful people of God’s choice.  And most especially in these strange and uncertain days, that this amazing, holy child continues to be a sign unto us and an unending reminder that God is with us still, offering to us strength and love in our times of weakness and assuring us that we are never alone, no matter the size and force of the enemies we face.  No matter what we’ve had to face in 2020 or what may befall us in 2021, we are God’s people and God is with us, and so we have no reason to fear.

Hope is coming to us, and a small child is the sign of its coming.

For the child to be born is named Immanuel… God, with us.

Thanks be to God in Jesus, our Immanuel.

Amen and AMEN!

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

 

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