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Category Archives: Worship

Attentive to the Word

(a sermon for February 3, 2019, the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and Luke 4:14-21)

I know it’s an increasingly rare thing these days, what with every phone having a digital camera and photos being stored in a nebulous “cloud” in cyberspace, but I would dare say that most of us here probably still have one or more of these:  some sort of bin filled with old photographs; with a great many of them still in the developer’s envelopes, waiting for someone to find the time to sort them out and maybe even put them into albums (remember photo albums?).

I’d also wager a guess that most of us have pretty much the same pictures: countless shots of birthday parties, Christmas mornings, camping trips and first days of school; not to mention two generations’ worth of pictures of the same people sitting around the same kitchen table at the in-law’s house!  And even if you get to the point with all these pictures where you know you’ve got to start reaming out the lot of it, you discover that every photograph sparks a special memory and so you hang on to them for a few more years!

“Photographs and Memories…” the pastor as a young child!

Actually, the blessing and the curse of old photographs is that they are stark reminders of what we used to be, and perhaps are no longer;  trust me, every photo album we have makes it increasingly clear that I used to be much younger, a whole lot thinner, beardless and less gray than I am today!  What’s more, old photographs have a way of making us confront the truth of where we’ve been on the journey of life, the choices we’ve made and opportunities either seized or lost.  Not that this is a bad thing, mind you – most times, in fact, it can be life affirming (!) – but sometimes these old pictures also manage to remind us of who we were as opposed to what we are, and maybe even what we’re supposed to be but somehow lost along the way!

Think about that in the context of our Old Testament reading for this morning, from the book of Nehemiah, which is the story of the people of Israel returning home to Jerusalem after having spent many years living in Babylonian exile. Actually, this was what was left of the people of Israel, because after years of slavery, there were far fewer of them than before; and those who remained were poor, demoralized and frightened, having literally suffered for generations only to come home to face a totally ruined land and a city that’s been destroyed.  All they could really do now was to buckle down and begin the process of rebuilding their city and their lives.

To that end, two men of God come forward: Nehemiah, who’d been appointed Governor of Israel and sent to help the people rebuild their land; and Ezra the priest, who comes to help rebuild something almost more difficult than the city wall: the integrity of their faith and worship.  You see, over the years of exile much of the tradition and practice of their faith had been lost, along with their understanding of the law, and perhaps most importantly, their memory of God’s presence, his power and his gifts to them across the years.  To quote Old Testament Walter Brueggemann here, it was the “memory of those gifts and that relationship [that] was the glue that bound the Israelites together.  It was what kept them close to God, reliant upon God and responsive to God.”  But now after so many years there were fewer and fewer who even could remember God’s Word, much less follow it; so in essence, these people of God had become but a shadow of their former selves. Quite literally, all that was left of their faith were the stories told by parents and grandparents, and even those were fading from memory.

So on this particular day, just after the walls of the city had been rebuilt all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate,” that they might hear the Torah being read.  Understand how significant a thing this was; it was the first time in many, many years that the Word of God had actually been spoken aloud!  And what makes this even more significant is that it wasn’t Ezra the priest who initiated the event; it was the people who told Ezra to “bring the book of the laws of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel,” so that everyone, “both men and the women and all those who could hear with understanding” would be able to hear the Word of God.  But here’s the key point of this story, friends; we’re then told that “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”

It’s a big moment, and it goes on for over six hours (!), but the enthusiasm of the people never wanes!  Rather, it grows with each word spoken; this word of the Lord that was at once brand new to them, and yet was as familiar and as close to them as their very breathing!  And while this is going on, some of the people are pacing up and down the square, shouting “’Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands,” as Ezra blessed the Lord.  Others are on their knees – faces to the ground in humility and awe – and all of them, every one of them, are weeping: weeping for themselves and weeping for their nation; mourning for what had been lost so many years before; rending their hearts in the realization of how far they’d strayed from their faithfulness to God’s law.

So there was mourning; but the point here is that at the end of this incredibly holy experience, there was joy!   It was as though in the reading of the scripture – this “album” of Israel’s memory of God – they had regained their identity as God’s people, and at that moment their lives began anew, because they knew that from that moment on, they would live as they were always supposed to live; they would be who they were always meant to be:  a people who lived knowing “the joy of the Lord [was] their strength!”

Flash-forward about 500 years; at a synagogue in the village of Nazareth, where a local boy – the son of the carpenter, no less (!) – is about to preach in his hometown pulpit.  Now, the locals had known Jesus and his family nearly all of his life; and what’s more, there’d been word from places as far away as Capernaum that Jesus was mightily impressive as a teacher.  So as they’re gathering at the temple they’re all thinking, this ought to be good.  But turns out that what they hear from Jesus is neither expected nor wanted.  Jesus simply reads from the prophet Isaiah,“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” proclaiming release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom of the oppressed; and then he rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the usher and sits down, saying, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

But unlike Ezra’s reading of the word, this short sermon is not met with tears or prayerful affirmation; just anger!  In fact, if you read on beyond today’s passage, you’ll find that almost immediately their amazement over “the gracious words that came from [Jesus’] mouth” turned to rage, and the hometown folk were ready to run Joseph’s boy out of town and hurl him off a cliff!   And why, we ask?  Well, perhaps it was true what Jesus said about how “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”  Or maybe there was something about his reading of that portion of God’s Word that hit too close to home for those folk in Nazareth; perhaps revealing somethng about who they were as opposed to what they were supposed to be as God’s people.

Who knows for sure; but that’s the thing, you see, about the word of God… because however you might hear it or even receive it, there’s something about it that always reveals the truth; and that truth will affect us!

I think that one of the big mistakes we make about scripture, and by extension our very faith, is that too often we think of God’s word as merely a blanket laid out for our lives and living; because then it has no more function than to make us feel all warm and fuzzy in the chill of life.  And yes, do not misunderstand what I am saying, it can be and often is that; but God’s Word is also meant to reach out and take ahold of us, so to enliven and redirect our lives.  It is meant to confirm and reconfirm our faith, setting us on a new and right and ultimately different path.

That’s what was so powerful about what the people of Israel heard that day at the Water Gate in Jerusalem, and that’s  certainly what the people of Nazareth could not handle about Jesus!  Simply by lifting up God’s Word, Jesus challenged them to a different way of thinking and doing and being: to be involved in a ministry directed not to the proper, the good and the pious, but rather to the improper, the sick and outcast; and then, by the way, proclaiming the vision to be fulfilled by his very presence!  It’s unsettling, to say the very least; but then, that’s what that’s what God’s word is supposed to do:  it unsettles us, it challenges all of our assumptions, it moves us forward and it gives us life; all the while moving us closer to where we’re meant to be, this new realm, a kingdom of God.

That’s the Word of God, beloved… so it just stands to reason that you and I ought to be attentive to it!

Ultimately, the reason we’re here every Sunday morning is so that we can be truly be attentive to the word of God; this word that calls us to be the church and challenges us to follow Jesus as true disciples’ bringing good news to the poor and healing to those afflicted by all manner of pain and suffering.  It’s that word of God that truly holds us together as the church; and yet how many times have we treated holy scripture as though it were little more than story or poetry or mere philosophy? How often have we left here inattentive to the word of God?

Once when my son Jake was in grade school, he had to read the book “Treasure Island,” for purposes of a book report; a task, which by his own admission (and mine, too, to be honest!) was pretty rough going.  Truth be told, as classic a tale as is that story, the words of Robert Louis Stevenson don’t always translate well to the vernacular of our time!  So finally, we decided that the best thing we could do was to read the story aloud, of course in the requisite pirate voice, complete with “arrghs” and “ahoy mates” for proper effect!  And it worked; because what happened is both of us began to hear not only what a great story “Treasure Island” is but also how beautiful and lyrical that language can be!  It was all about our having been attentive to what’s being said and to give voice to what it all means!

What would happen, friends, if as God’s people we were not simply reading the Bible or hearing scripture be read on a Sunday morning, but truly being attentive to God’s word as contained in that scripture?   What would we learn about God, about our faith?  What would we discover, you and me, about our own lives and living?  What would our lives then become?  And what would we end up doing here as the church of Jesus Christ?

I wonder… all I know is that if we were to truly be attentive to the Word, along with devoting ourselves, through prayer and study, to seek to understand it – and, might I add, to open ourselves to the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit as we do – there’s no telling where and how we might be moved as God would lead!

Scripture tells us that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” (John 1:1); and we know in faith, that God will have the last Word. What you and I need to remember is that what God has said and will say in this time between the now and not yet needs our full attention!

So let us truly listen, beloved, so that God’s word indeed takes root in you and me and this church, and lead us into all rejoicing.

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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God Believes in You

(a sermon for January 13, 2019, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

It is very striking to me that while the story of Jesus’ baptism that we just shared ends with the heavens opening up and the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus “like a dove,” it actually begins in an atmosphere of turmoil, with the threat of such a baptism being something akin to “chaff [burning] with unquenchable fire.”

It was one of the very first infant baptisms at which I had the honor and joy of officiating as a newly-minted pastor; and since at that little church where I was serving we didn’t often have the opportunity to celebrate that sacrament, let me tell you it was a big deal not just for me but for the whole congregation! Not only were we anticipating a much larger than usual congregation that morning, there was also going to be this huge reception afterward; plus – and I’ll take some credit for this (!) – since, again, this kind of thing didn’t happen all that much in the life of that congregation, we decided that this baptism would provide the perfect “teachable moment” for the children of our small Sunday School.  What would happen, you see, is that we’d spend some time before worship teaching the kids all about baptism – what it means, how it happens and why it’s such a special time of celebration – and then they’d come into what was referred to there as “big church,” sitting all together in the front pew to watch and see Rev. Lowry baptize this little baby!

Perfect, right?  What creative, progressive Sunday School is supposed to be all about (at least circa 1983!), right? Well, maybe; except that just before worship as I’m about to enter the sanctuary one of the Sunday School teachers rushes up to me and says, “You better come out back with me right now… because we’ve got a problem.”  And yes, we did; apparently, just about the time the teachers had begun to explain what their minister was about to do out there during the service, one of the little girls in our Sunday School – maybe five or six years old and whose family had actually just started coming to our church  – started crying.  I mean, really crying: weeping, wailing and utterly inconsolable!  And by the time I got there, it had only gotten worse: this little girl was now at the point where she could barely take a breath between wails; she just kept pointing her finger at me and crying for all she was worth, “No, no, no, no NOOO!”  Trust me, nothing was calming this little girl down, most especially not the efforts of the student minister who for all his bright ideas was absolutely clueless as to how to resolve the situation!

Eventually, thanks to her mother who, thankfully, was very quickly on the scene, we got to the heart of the matter: that somehow this little girl had gotten it into her head that in this baptism I was about to perform, that strange man in the robe might actually drown the baby, and that idea was terrifying to her and so of course she cried!  But here’s the thing: as silly and as bizarre as that sounds as I’m telling you about it now, her fear was actually based on some reality; for it turned out the only other church this little girl ever been to in her young life was of the variety where adult baptisms were the norm, and then only by immersion!  So basically, all that she remembered about baptism involved people being placed fully underwater at the hand of a minister (!); so thinking about that in relation to a tiny, helpless baby… well, no wonder the girl was crying her lungs out!  Suffice to say that once we understood what was happening, we were able to explain that our baptisms had to do with sprinkling rather than dunking (!) and that rather than being in any kind of danger the baby was perfectly safe, and loved, and yes, even blessed!  It did turn out to be a teachable moment in more ways than one (!) and, as I recall, all went well from that point on; nonetheless, even as the baptism was taking place I could still feel that one little girl’s steely gaze on me the whole time from her seat in the front pew… just in case I got any ideas!

Well, there was a different, but no less intense, sort of turmoil on the day of Jesus’ baptism, and what’s interesting about our text for this morning is what leads up to Luke’s account of this very dramatic and important event almost seems to have more to do with what James Howell refers to as the full “ferocious mood” of John the Baptist than it even does with Jesus! Even before we pick up the story today, Luke’s already treated us to some of the ravings of this so-called wild man of the wilderness:  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come… even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:7, 9)  Not exactly a feel-good prelude to a baptismal celebration!

But we need to understand there was a method to this “madness,” as it were:  that John was in fact, explicitly proclaiming a baptism of repentance, calling the people of Jesus’ time to abandon their sin and turn their hearts wholly back to God, so that they might truly be ready for the Messiah who had in fact already come.  Moreover, we’re told, John had not at all been reticent about speaking truth to power and for all his troubles was  just about to be “shut up” in prison by none other than Herod Antipas himself!  All this to say that Jesus’ baptism, this incredible scene of divine affirmation and blessing, all happens within a backdrop not only of sin and degradation, but also “in the thick of intense political and religious opposition, downright belliger[ence]” on John’s part and even “not shying away from the use of brute force!” (James Howell, again)

Which makes it all the more amazing that this is the scene in which Jesus – this man without sin, this Messiah, this one destined to baptize his followers by the Holy Spirit, and whose sandals John did not even consider himself worthy to untie (!) – walks right up to his cousin (‘cause remember, Jesus and John do happen to be related!) and asks to receive this baptism of repentance.

And now, here’s Jesus, going under the water (no sprinkling here; it’s full immersion in the waters of River Jordan) and then coming up out of the water.  Here’s Jesus, praying his own post-baptismal prayer, when suddenly the sky “opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him.”  And then here’s a voice, speaking directly to Jesus himself, but in a way that all who were gathered could hear:  “You are my Son, the Beloved,” or, as The Message translates it, “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”  Again I say it:  amazing… amazing that in a world filled with such turmoil and marked by such sin and conflict amongst the people that a baptism of repentance would be necessary for the sake of their souls, the power and glory of God to destroy evil in the person of his Son Jesus, the one chosen and marked by his love. The infamous theologian Karl Barth put it this way: that this baptism was more than mere theatrics; for “when Jesus was baptized, he needed to be be washed of sin – not his sin, but our sin.”  For you see, right from the very start, you see, it was about our forgiveness and our redemption; by offering to wash our sins away in his baptism, Jesus provides you and me a new baptism… a baptism of promise.

Actually, it all comes down to a very basic and dare I say, singular Christian truth:  that God believes in you.  God believes in you, friends, and he believes in me; enough that he would claim us and reclaim us as his own again and again, even as we stand in strong need of repentance because of sin and our utter unworthiness before God. And lest you think this preacher’s becoming overly judgmental, let’s be clear: with the exception of Jesus, we are all sinners, all unworthy and all without hope save in God’s sovereign mercy.  But the good news is… because of Jesus, who was baptized and now offers us the baptism of promise, God believes in us; we also are “precious in his sight, and honored and beloved” by God; and because of this we are saved indeed.

Over the years in various congregations where I’ve served as pastor, I’ve have the privilege of leading confirmation classes for the churches’ youth and young adults.  Confirmation, of course, is the rite of the church where those who were baptized as infants are given the opportunity as young adults, after prayer and study, to “confirm” the Christian faith as their own, which has proven to be an interesting and often enlightening experience for confirmand and pastor alike.

Which is not to say it was always easy:  like the year there was this rather headstrong and opinionated ninth grader in the class who right from the “get-go” seemed determined to challenge every bit of spiritual wisdom I ever sought to impart!  And it began the very first day:  I’d just finished explaining all the requirements that our church and its pastor had for them to be confirmed later that spring, and immediately this kid (whose name was Jason) raises his hand to ask, “Rev. Lowry, does being an atheist make a difference on whether I can be confirmed?” Well, yes, Jason, it kind of does, I answered, and then adding in a very pastor-like fashion, but the question is, if you don’t believe in God, what do you believe in?  “Do you have to believe in something?” Jason persisted.  Well … nooo, I said, you don’t have to, I suppose, but it’s kind of hard not to believe in at least one thing in your life.  “Like what?” Jason would reply, and we were off on to a dialogue that continued pretty much uninterrupted for the next eight months and which led, years later and long after he wasn’t confirmed, to a mature Christian faith nurtured and confessed in the mission field.

Actually, as I think back on it such has been the questions and dialogue I’ve shared with a lot of folks over the years:  “Does it make a difference if I believe in God, because I’m not sure I believe?”  Sometimes that question is borne out of an honest, sincere and relentless search for the truth; often it’s the result of a crisis in somebody’s life that has led to a crisis in faith; and maybe it’s the eventual and inevitable result of just so much piling on that there’s simply no more strength or will left to believe in… anything!  And quite frankly, there are those in this life who are determined to direct their lives in any direction except toward the divine, and who have a tendency to not so much ask questions about God as to fire them at you!

But I’ll let you in on a little secret: the truth is while there’s a whole lot I can and do say to that, there’s also very little that I can say; because even as a pastor, I can’t force anybody to believe in God.  All the sermons, proclamations and apologetic in the world mean nothing without an open heart to receive that message! But I can say this, something I believe in my heart of hearts: that while you may not believe in God – today, or tomorrow, or ever – I am sure that God believes in you.  I know this as surely as the sun will rise in the sky tomorrow morning and that the new life of spring will surely, if eventually, follow the dead of winter; I see it in the wonder and beauty of nature, in the strength and resilience of the human Spirit, and in hope, joy and peace that can only be the handiwork of an infinitely loving God… and I know it because Jesus has already made it real in his sure and certain promise of life abundant and eternal.

Perhaps you’ve come here today not at all sure that you believe… or at least that maybe you have a few doubts; and if that’s the case, I’m glad you’re here.  Because this, beloved, is the place where we rejoice in the God who does believe in us so much that he reminds us again and again, “Do not fear,  for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…” and why?  “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

You are precious in my sight! You are honored to me!  I love you… I love you!

God believes… thanks be to God, he believes!  I hope and I pray this day, beloved, that this will help you to believe as well!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Simeon’s Song: Worth the Wait

(a sermon for December 30, 2018, the 1st Sunday after Christmas; last in a series, based on  Luke 2:22-40)

Sometimes the only thing you can do is sing.

An old friend of mine from my seminary days, a bright and bubbly older lady who went by the name of “Mickey,” used to tell the story of how one snowy winter morning in Maine she’d decided to go cross-country skiing along a beautiful wooded trail that she knew, one that stretched far from any nearby roads, houses or people. The idea, she said, was for some spiritual solitude, but as fate would have it somewhere deep in the woods Mickey fell off her skis and managed to fracture her ankle; so now not only was she injured and unable to make her way home, but also, ironically enough, she was totally alone!

Now, given that this was a time long before cel phones and with no other way of calling out for help out there deep in the Maine woods, most people might have panicked under those circumstances; but not Mickey!  Surely, she reasoned, on this beautiful snowy morning someone else would be out skiing or snowshoeing and happen by, so she’d simply wait there in the snow until someone came by who could help her!  And that’s what she did; however, as the hours began to pass and the snow accumulated all around her Mickey started to wonder, however fleetingly, when or if help would ever come!

So she started to sing.

Actually, she started by reciting psalms and other passages of scripture she’d known from childhood (“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” [Psalm 121:1-2] Actually kind of fitting when you think about it, she said afterward) And then, it was Christmas songs, followed by verses from all the old hymns and snippets from choir anthems that she’d sung at one time or another and had always remembered. And as that long day went on Mickey just kept on singing, singing everything and anything she knew how to sing and even a few songs she didn’t!  She sang through her pain and she sang through her fear, and she even sang a bit through her doubt, but above all Mickey sang out of a faith-borne assuredness that the Lord was with her and that she would be alright!  And when eventually, just as darkness had begun to descend, another pair of skiers did happen by so to bring her to safety, they asked how she was doing and Mickey simply smiled and replied in very typical Mickey fashion, “Oh, I’m fine… I hadn’t run out of songs yet!”

Sometimes, you see, the only thing you can do is sing… but when singing is an act of faith, that may well be enough!

In our text for this morning, Luke’s gospel tells us that at the time of Jesus’ birth there was “a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon,” and Luke makes a point of letting us know that this Simeon was a good man, “righteous and devout,” and as The Message puts it, living “in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel,” that is, waiting for the coming of the Lord’s Messiah.  We’re also supposed to surmise from this passage that Simeon was quite old and that he had been, in fact, waiting just about all his life for this singular event to take place; but, you see, that was alright. For as Luke tells the story, “the Holy Spirit rested” on Simeon and that same Spirit had “shown him that he would see this Messiah of God before he died.”  That’s it… no angel making an “annunciation,” as what was given unto Mary, nor even any heavenly rebuke as what happened to old Zechariah back at the temple; and as for that “heavenly host” that they’d heard about from a bunch of random shepherds?  There was certainly none of that for Simeon; no miracles or signs or wonder, just simply and profoundly this continued assurance from a truly Holy Spirit that this thing was going to happen, it would happen in Simeon’s lifetime… and it was definitely going to be worth the wait.  So keep the faith, Simeon… keep on singing and just wait for it.

So now it’s about 40 days after the child was born in the manger of Bethlehem; which means that Jesus was around a month and a half old and the time had come both for “their purification” (which actually had more to do with Mary than with Jesus, as it was required by every Jewish woman after childbirth) and for Mary and Joseph to come to the Temple and offer up a sacrifice (which because of their poverty, amounted to “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons”), so to consecrate their child to the Lord.  Understand this was a sacred ritual, a duty required and performed by all faithful Jews; and so you have to imagine, as David Lose puts it, that Mary and Joseph “must have been in a reverent, even solemn mood that day, the way many young parents in our congregations are when their first child is to baptized.”  So also imagine, then, how started, even frightened Mary and Joseph might have been when in the midst of this quiet procession into the holy courts of the Temple, here comes “Simeon, old beyond years and beaming with ecstatic revelation, coming up to them to touch the child,” and then, as if that weren’t enough, he starts singing!

You see, on that day of days Simeon was guided by the Holy Spirit to go – go now (!) – to the Temple because there at long last he would see the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit’s promise and the consolation of Israel.  And so, make no mistake, there’s absolutely no reluctance, hesitation or even any kind of appropriateness here on Simeon’s part; I mean, you don’t just run up to new parents and just pick up their baby, but here’s old Simeon fairly well running into the Temple and scooping up the baby Jesus away from Mary and Joseph, all so he can hold this child in his arms; and once Simeon’s seen that angelic little face, once he’s touched his little fingers, maybe counted his toes and then marveled how something so tiny and so delicate can be so… divine, that’s when Simeon’s song begins, a song of praise and thanksgiving for this child who was and is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

In Latin, it’s referred to as the Nunc Dimittis, which means “now send away,” and it’s actually used today both during services of holy communion and as a funeral liturgy, for not only is this song this incredible proclamation of God’s salvation prepared for all people, it’s also Simeon’s joyous affirmation that now that the Spirit’s lifelong assurances of a Messiah had come to fruition Simeon himself could die in peace.  In other words, my waiting is over, your work is done, so as in the elegant words of the old King James Version of scripture, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:  For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

There are some, you know, who tend to read the words of Simeon’s song as something rather morbid; I mean, why would he even want to talk about death and dying at a time like this, when the light and life of Christmas, to borrow a line from Jean Shepherd here, is at its zenith and all is right with the world?  But you see, Simeon knew that everything in his life had led up to this particular moment of this particular day, and that now that he’d literally seen and held God’s promise in his hands, “after touching and feeling the promise of life which God had granted to him through Christ…” (David Lose, again) then he could accept death “courageously and confidently in the light of God’s promised salvation.”  He could let go now, because the promise had been fulfilled and it had most definitely been worth the wait.

Of course, it needs to be said there that Simeon’s song wasn’t entirely one of joy and praise.  After he’d blessed this child and his parents, Simeon then looked to Mary, and as though to perhaps warn her of what was to come (?), he sings a second verse of his song, of how this child was to “be a sign that will be opposed,” – a “figure misunderstood and contradicted” – “so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”  And, oh yes, Mary, by the way?  “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

It turns out, you see, that there will be more to this story than merely a tale of angels and shepherds and Magi from the Far East bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  This child, this baby whose is named Jesus, Emmanuel, Messiah, Christ the Lord… his story will continue; beginning with a baptism of repentance in the River Jordan through great acts of healing, miraculous signs, teachings that change lives and the world, and at the last a triumphal entry into Jerusalem that leads inescapably to the cross.

Even after the shepherds have gone back to their flock; even once the star overhead has faded to blend in with the rest of the night sky and the Magi have opted to go home another way; even after Mary and Joseph settle in to the business of raising an infant even as they’ve had to flee to Egypt as refugees, the story goes on. The baby Jesus, you see, grows up… and his journey, as well as ours, is just beginning.

You know, it’s always struck me as a bit odd that we inevitably end up viewing Christmas as an ending rather than really what it should be, a new beginning.  I realize that this comes in large part because since before Halloween (!) this world has been wholly focused on the run-up to everything surrounding the Christmas holiday, and so once December 26 comes along even the most ardent of Christmas elves are apt to breathe a sigh of relief!   And even here in the church, for over four weeks we’ve devoted ourselves to Advent waiting and watching for the coming of Christ; and so yes, I have to confess that there’s a palpable sense of conclusion in our finally arriving at the manger.  In other words, we’ve come to worship, we’ve sung all our songs and now it’s time, like the shepherds and wise men before us, to return to life and the world and business as usual.

But I ask you, is that actually the case? Is Christmas truly over?   Have we really run out of songs to sing?

Not yet.

Because despite whatever closure we have by our taking down decorations or switching to music other than the holiday variety (!), the fact our journey to Christmas has not so much ended as it is just beginning!

You might have noticed that our text this morning contains a bit of an epilogue to this story of Jesus’ presentation at the Temple and Simeon’s song of praise and glory.  It seems that there in the Temple was also “a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.” Anna was an 84-year-old widow, and in fact pretty much lived at the temple, “worshipping night and day with her fastings and prayers,” [The Message] and we’re told that at the very same moment Simeon was offering up his tribute, Anna also showed up and “broke into an anthem” of her own, one of “praise to God,” and one that was apparently reprised again and again as she began “to speak about the child to all who were look for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

That’s the key, you know… that’s how Christmas becomes for us the starting place of our journey rather than its conclusion.  It’s in our proclaiming the good news of his coming; it’s about telling the story of his holy birth, yes, but it’s also continuing to tell of his presence and ministry among us and of the price he paid for our redemption before God.  It’s in the work of Christmas that we are called to do: in those powerful words of poet Howard Thurman:

“To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.”

Yes, to “make music in the heart!”  Christmas is always about singing out our praises unto the Lord each and every day that we live and breathe; it’s about singing through our pain, and singing through our fear, and even at times singing through our doubt; but it’s ever and always singing out of that faith-borne and faith-full assuredness that the Lord is with us and that we will be alright!

Christmas is not over, beloved; in fact, it’s just getting started!

So let that journey of prayer and praising and service begin with us here and now… and let’s keep singing, because there are plenty of songs yet to sing!

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2018 in Christmas, Jesus, Maine, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series, Worship

 

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