The People Who Walk in Darkness

Scripture Passage:  Isaiah 9: 2-7

2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 3You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

In a national survey this past week, The Washington Post found that the top three words that people use to describe 2020 are “exhausting”, “lost”, and “chaotic”.  We can probably identify.  We’ve spent this season of waiting looking for something, looking for a light in the darkness, a hand in the shadows, an order to the chaos.  Well, the darkness is beginning to fade as the light has begun to make its way into our lives.  The thing is that we have to be prepared to see it.  Are we?  After this long season of preparation in a longer year of chaos, have we done all our preparing?  Are our eyes adjusted?  Or will we again need turn away and look toward the darkness because we are so unprepared to see the light?

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 

These verses begin by speaking of past events.  Darkness is a metaphor for despair and death and the light symbolizes joy and life.  What probably began with a joyous mood over the deliverance from a particular oppressor (perhaps the Assyrians) becomes a vision of perpetual peace and joy.  Then midway through the passage, the writing changes to present tense.  Taken together, it is a reminder of what God has done and the proclamation that God is indeed doing it again, this turning darkness into light.  This announcement of a joyous and hopeful birth, the fulfillment of the promise of a son of David’s house, was written probably eight centuries before the birth of Jesus.  They were probably uttered about the birth of a specific king in Judah.  The words became part of the lives and the faith of the people and were handed down as a glorious reminder for generations that followed. So when the early writers of the Gospel began to write what had occurred with the incredible birth of Christ, they drew on these words, affirming that God has acted graciously and fulfilled promises before and that God continues to do that.  They are powerful words—that God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace is made flesh in the smallest and weakest of human creatures, a baby in a manger, a light that shines on those in the darkness.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 

But we are a people that tends to run from the darkness.  We don’t do well with it.  We don’t do well with the unknown, with not being able to see (and maybe even control or clean up) our pathway.  And yet so much of our faith journey is made in darkness.  In fact, so much of our faith journey actually begins in darkness.  Creation begins in darkness.  Seeds sprout in darkness.  Birth begins in darkness.  Even light begins in darkness. But we try our best to dispel the darkness, to light our lives with whatever artificial light we can find.  And we fill our lives with enough light so that we will never experience the darkness.  And because our lives are so full, there is no place to begin.  There is no room for light. 

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 

In my old neighborhood, there was an old French colonial house with wonderful verandas lining both floors of the house.  For years, the house would outline the verandas with twinkling Christmas lights.  It was beautiful.  Then, for some reason I’ve never completely understood, they began to add more and more lights.  They started by stringing lights across the verandas three, five, seven, fifteen times.  Then the next year, they did the same to the house.  They must have had 50,000 lights!  I would describe it as a veritable blob of holiday lights—so many lights, in fact, that you could no longer see the lines of the house itself.  The house had been overtaken by light.  And, let me tell you, it was no longer beautiful.  Light is not pretty or comforting or even helpful alone.  In fact, it’s blinding.  Light is at its best when it illuminates the darkness and creates shadows and contrasts so that we can truly look at the light.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 

Part of our Advent journey is traveled in darkness.  Part of our lives are traveled in darkness.  It is a darkness where we wait for what is to come, not really knowing how or when God will come, but knowing that the light is just up ahead as we journey down this Holy pathway, never alone.  Traveling in darkness means that we must look to the One that guides us.  And, here, in the darkness, we will be able to see the light as it dawns on our world.  Do not run from the darkness, do not try to make it go away before its time, do not attempt to dispel it from your life because that is where the Light will shine.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 

This journey of waiting is nearing its end.  The Light will soon again pierce the darkness.  Think about that first journey.  Mary and Joseph were not wealthy, prominent citizens of the capital city of Jerusalem.  They were poor working class citizens of a no-name town in what was essentially a third-world country.  Remember the Scriptures:  nothing good comes from Nazareth.  There was nothing there.  And we tend to romanticize their trip to Bethlehem, making it into some sort of painting of a starlit camping trip with a lovely dark blue backdrop and a beaming star above.  That wasn’t exactly the way it was.  If they did indeed have to make that journey as the writer of the Gospel According to Luke claims, it’s about an 80 mile trip, a 4-day journey under the best of circumstances.  But, as we know, the teen-age Mary was pregnant and at that time, they would probably want to avoid Samaria (which was not the friendliest of territories to the Israelites), which means they probably would have circled through what is now modern-day Jordan, making it an even longer trip.  And, remember, the whole reason that they were traveling at all was for the tax census, imposed by a foreign government to pay for foreign rulers that ruled their lives.  These were not the best of times.  They traveled in darkness.  But that part of the story often falls away.  We need to remember that the darkness is part of the story, part of every story of God.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 

In every beginning, there is darkness.  The darkness of chaos seems eternal, Yet form emerges: light dawns, and life is born.  (New Union Prayerbook.)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

First Light

Scripture Passage:  Genesis 1: 1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Today is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day (and the longest night) of the year.  This night that just ended in the wee hours of the morning was about 14 hours long in the southern part of the United States. If you live farther north, you had an even longer night.  In fact, the northernmost parts of Canada and Alaska had less than 3 hours of light.  (And winter has begun, so Happy Winter!)  The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin “solstitium”, from two words meanings “sun” and “stand still”.  Technically, this comes from the fact that during the days surrounding the solstice, the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky and then seems to have the same noontime elevation for several days in a row.  To early astronomers, the sun appeared to hang in the sky, suspended, paralyzed, as if waiting for some word to move on.

So today we read the passage that speaks of the first light, the first time that the light was spoken into being.  I think some people have this notion that nothing existed prior to that.  But it did.  God was there.  God was there in the midst of what is described as a formless, disordered void, as darkness that covered and consumed everything as winds swept over the waters.  There wasn’t “nothing”; there was a seemingly dark, chaotic, noisy something.  And then God, in God’s infinite wisdom, spoke the light into being.  And the light pushed its way into the darkness, parting the grasp on everything that the darkness had held.  Now note that this isn’t the sun.  (That came later.)  Sometimes we make the mistake of reading this passage and we tend to think of the sun as the source of all light.  But go back and read beyond the passage I showed.  The sun doesn’t come into play until the “fourth day” of the passage so there must have been eons of time between when light came to be and the creation of this sphere of hot plasma that reflects it.  The First Light was something different.  The First Light was a new creation, parting and intersecting the darkness, weakening its grasp on everything, and shining into what was ahead.  The First Light is what God created to lead the way to everything else.

It’s hard for us to get a sense of the profound sight of light dispelling utter darkness. We are seldom, if ever, in utter darkness.  We have the benefit of moonlight and stars and streetlights and car lights and the glow of cities that never really sleep.  Years ago I stepped into a small boat and floated through a glowworm cave at Doubtful Sound in Southwest New Zealand. (How odd, you say!) The cave was lit with artificial light that helped us maneuver our way to the deepest part of the cave.  And then they shut the lights off.  I have never been in darkness like that.  It was the kind of darkness that almost hurt your eyes as your brain’s memories of light bounced off of it and back.  There were no shadows, no rainbow-type rings around dim lights.  There were no forms of anything (huh…it was “formless”, to refer back to the Scripture passage!).  There was just darkness.  My three friends and I were in this boat with two Japanese tourists and two German tourists.  None of us spoke the other languages.  When the lights went off and the darkness consumed us, our initial response was to reach for each other and hold hands.  So, as I floated through this darkness in complete silence with only the sound of the water lapping at the boat, holding hands with my friend Debby and an older Japanese man that I had just met,  As the boat turned down another tunnel, we got our first glimpse.  It was only two or three or first but as we continued on, there were eventually millions of glowworms shining into the darkness.  We could see the cave, the boat, each other.  We sort of sheepishly dropped hands at that point as if we were somehow intruding into each other’s light.  But what I realized is that you can only see the First Light when you’re in the darkness.

Sometimes the darkness is just too overwhelming for words.  Even though this is a joyous season, the world is still hurting.  There is still violence and tragedy.  And for many of us in our personal lives, there is still pain of loss or hurt.  Some of us are grieving someone that is not here this Christmas.  Some of us are struggling with job loss or frustration or changes that we’re just not really ready to handle.  And we are all living in this almost surreal time created by a pandemic that is scary and all-consuming.  The promise of this season is not that there will be no darkness any more than the promise of this life is that there will never be sadness or grief or disappointment or depression or despair.  Life is full of shadows and longest nights.  Life is full of those times when we cannot see the light.  Life is full of roads on which we cannot see where to go to return from exile.  Life is full of poverty and destruction and terror.  And life is full of those times when we’re so afraid, we just want to hold hands in the darkness. 

But in the midst of the darkness, God dwells, unknown and mysterious, the Word that created and dwelled in the darkness even before light came to be.  And even in our darkest places, the first light begins to break through.  That, my friends, is indeed the message of the season.  God tiptoes into the night and gently, very gently, hands us hope for our world, peace for our souls, and light for our longest nights in the form of a baby who shows us the way to walk through the darkness so that everyone might begin to see the world through a new light.  When we are standing in the light, and we look at the darkness, we don’t see darkness.  Light does that—it teaches us to see even through the darkness. 

Maybe the reason we celebrate Christmas in the darkest week of the year is because for generations our ancestors have known that it is in the darkest darkness that we recognize the light of hope.  So in the midst of a season of darkness and endings, we choose to celebrate birth and beginnings.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “when it is dark enough, [we] see the stars.” There is a Maori Proverb that says to turn your face to the [light] and the shadows will fall behind you.  Look, my friends…the Light is beginning to break, dispelling the darkness around us.  It is the First Light that shows us the beauty and leads us to everything else.  And it is very, very good.

Too many of us panic in the dark.  We don’t understand that it’s a holy dark and that the idea is to surrender to it and journey through to real light. (Sue Monk Kidd)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Magnificat

“The Magnificat, Therese Quinn, rsj, Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart

Advent 4B Psalter:  Luke 1: 46-55

46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 

We love this passage.  It is Mary’s Song, the poetic rendering of her realization that she has truly been blessed, that she has been called to do what no one else has done, what no one else will do.  She has been called to give birth to God in this world, to deliver the promise that her people have always known.  But don’t get too lost in the poetry and the familiarity. American Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones called The Magnificat “the most revolutionary document in the world”.  It is said that The Magnificat terrified the Russian Czars so much that they tried to dispel its reading.  More recently, it was banned in Argentina when the mothers of the disappeared used it to call for non-violent resistance.  In the 1980’s, the government of Guatemala banned its recitation.  It is an out and out call to revolution.  Less subversive language has started wars.  Edward F. Marquart depicts it as God’s “magna carta”.  It is the beginning of a new society, the preamble to a Constitution that most of us are not ready to embrace.  We’d rather chalk it up to the poetry of an innocent young woman and keep getting ready for Christmas.  But we can’t do that.  It’s something much, much more.

See, this is God’s vision for the world. It is not a world where the best and the brightest and the richest and the most powerful come out on top. It is not a world that we can control. It is not a world where we can earn what we have and deserve who we are. It is rather a world where God’s presence and God’s blessings are poured onto all. But it comes with a price. Those who have, those who are, those whose lives are filled with plenty are called to change, to open their lives to God and to others. Because God will scatter the proud, those who think they have it figured out, those who are so sure of their rightness and their righteousness.  In other words, those of us who think that we have it all nailed down will be shaken to our core.  The powerful–those with money, those with status, those with some false sense of who they are above others–will be brought down from their high places.  The poor and the disenfranchised, those who we think are not good enough or righteous enough, will be raised up. They will become the leaders, the powerful, the ones that we follow.  The hungry will feel pangs no more and those who have everything–the hoarders, the affluent, those are the ones whose coffers will be emptied to feed and house the world. 

God is about to turn the world upside-down.  Look around you.  This is not it; this is not what God had in mind.  And God started it all not by choosing a religious leader or a political dynamo or even a charismatic young preacher but a girl, a poor underage girl from a third-world country with dark skin and dark eyes whose family was apparently so questionable that they are not even mentioned and whose marital status seemed to teeter on the edge of acceptable society.  God picked the lowliest of the lowly to turn the world upside down.

But this is not some isolated poem in the middle of Mary’s story.  These words are the Gospel. Let me say that again.  These words ARE the Gospel.  If you were to put the Gospel into its Cliff Notes version, I would think you could take the words of The Magnificat, Matthew 22: 37-39 (love God, love neighbor), and Matthew 28:20b (“I am with you always until the end of the age.”) and have a pretty good idea of what Jesus was trying to say—love God, love each other, know that I am there, and let my vision be your world. 

There are those who will read this and dismiss it as some utopian socialist notion, something that flies in the face of our capitalistic society. I don’t think it’s either. God’s vision does not align with any form of government on this earth but is instead ordered with love and grace and abundant mercy. It is not a vision where everyone is treated the same; it is a vision where everyone is loved. So we are called to turn the world upside down, to be part of making a world where everyone is loved.

And when you’re turned upside down, things tend to spill. No longer can we hold onto what we know. No longer can we rest on the laurels of our past. If we’re going to be part of God’s vision of the world, we have to give up those things that are not part of it. We have to change, learn to live a new way, look upon the world and others not as competition, not as threats, but as the very vision of God pouring into the world. So, THIS Advent, what are you willing to let go of so that you will have room to offer a place for God? How willing are you to turn your world upside down? How are you being called to give birth to Christ in this world?

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected by power, because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. (Thomas Merton)

God help us to change, To change ourselves and to change our world
To know the need of it. To deal with the pain of it
To feel the joy of it, To undertake the journey without undertaking the destination, The art of gentle revolution
—Michael Leunig

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Let It Be

Advent 4B Lectionary Text:  Luke 1: 26-38

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Annunciation literally means “the announcement”.  The word by itself probably holds no real mystery.  But it is the beginning of the central tenet of our entire Christian faith—The Annunciation, The Incarnation, The Transfiguration, The Resurrection.  For us, whether we realize it or not, it begins the mystery of Christ Jesus.  For us, the fog lifts and there before us is the bridge between the human and the Divine.

The text says that Mary was much perplexed.  The truth is, this young girl was so confused at first. Well, of course she was confused!  And on top of that, she was terrified.  You see, to put it into the context in which Mary lived, there is a folktale that is told in the Apocryphal Book of Tobit that tells of a jealous angel who would appear on a bride’s wedding night each time she married and kill her bridegroom. This story, of course, was part of the culture in which Mary lived.  She had grown up hearing that story. And remember, that even though Mary and Joseph had yet to be formally married, they were betrothed.  This is more than just being engaged.  The commitment had already been made.  There had already been a dowry given. So Mary could have thought that this angel was coming to kill her bridegroom.  Not only would she lose her intended spouse but she would be left with nothing.  As one who was already betrothed, she would essentially be relegated to the class of widow with no resources.  Then the angel tells her not to be afraid.  Don’t be afraid? Good grief…she was terrified!

I think Mary’s initial response (as its translated in our Scriptures) is one of the most profound phrases ever: “How can this be?” How can this happen when it doesn’t make sense?  Why me?  Why of all the people in the world that you could have chosen, why choose me?  In other words, you have got to be kidding me!  We identify with this.  Even when we intend to obey God, we struggle when it is so far out of the parameters of the life we have that is makes no sense.  It is the question of faith. It is what we all ask about our lives.  Because, surely, in this moment, Mary saw her world toppling down.  And the world waited.  God waited.  How can this be?  Because, you see, it CAN’T be–not without God and, interestingly enough, not EVEN without Mary.

The passage tells us that Mary pondered these things.  I love that image of pondering.  So, what does it mean to ponder?  If you read this Scripture, it does not mean thinking something through until you understand it or until you “get it”.   Nowhere does it say that Mary was ever completely sure about what was going to happen.  Nowhere does it say that she ever stopped asking questions, that she ever stopped pondering what this would mean for her life.  It really doesn’t even tell us that she actually stopped being afraid.  Nowhere does it say that she expected this turn of events. 

And then this angel shows up.  What if Mary had said no?  What if her fear or her plans had gotten the best of her?  What if she was just too busy planning for whatever was going to happen next in her life?  What if she really didn’t have time to do any pondering today? Now, as much as we’d like to think that we have the whole story of God neatly constructed between the covers of our Bible or on that nifty little Bible app that you have on your iPhone, you and I both know that there is lots of God’s work that is missing.  We really just sort of get the highlights (or at least what the writers think are highlights).  Who knows?  Maybe Mary wasn’t the first one that God asked to do this.  Maybe she was the second, or the tenth, or the 386th.  After all, this is a pretty big deal.  I mean, this pretty much shoots that whole long-term life plan thing out of the water. 

But, you see, this story is not about Mary; it’s about God.  And through her willingness to ponder, her willingness to let go of the life that she had planned, her willingness to open herself to God’s entrance into her life and, indeed, into her womb, this young, dark-haired, dark-skinned girl from the wrong side of the tracks was suddenly thrust into God’s redemption of the world.  It is in this moment that all those years of envisioning what would be, all those visions that we’ve talked about, all of the waiting, all of the preparing, it is here, in this moment, that they begin to be.  This is the moment.  Just let it be.

That’s what this whole Advent journey has been about:  Preparing us to respond, to respond not to the gifts that we think God will bring, not to what we have experienced before, but to what God offers us in this moment. We are no different from Mary.  God is waiting on our response; waiting to hear whether or not we, too, will say “yes” to birthing the Christ Child in our own lives.

So God waits patiently for Mary to respond. The world stops, hangs suspended if only for a time, its very salvation teetering on the brink of its demise. Oh, sure, if Mary said no, God could have gone to someone else. Surely God could have found SOMEONE to birth the salvation of the world. But it wouldn’t have been the same. After all, the Divine did not just plunk a far-removed piece of the Godself into a womb. Our understanding is that, yes, the Christ was fully Divine; but Jesus was “born of a woman”, fully human and, as a human, Jesus carried Mary’s unique and specific DNA with him. Mary was not just a container through which God came into this little world. Mary’s DNA, Mary’s response, Mary’s “how can this be?”, Mary’s “yes” is written all through the salvation of the world. In this moment, this moment for which the world has waited, the moment for which we have prepared…in this moment, the history of the world begins to turn.  The Light begins to come into focus and the heavens begin winging their way toward us, full of expectancy, full of hope.  Mary said “yes” and the Divine began to spill in to the womb of the world. Salvation has begun.  The world is with child.

“What is the good if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 2,000 years ago, if I do not give birth to God today?”  He says that “We are all Mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.” (Meister Eckhart)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

The Other Side of the Manger

The Annunciation of Joseph, St. Joseph’s Church, Nazareth, Israel

Matthew 1: 18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:  23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.

Ahhh…those words…”Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”  After weeks of reading about John the Baptist and the Assyrians and people in exile and stories of years upon years of people waiting and waiting, we FINALLY get to one of “the stories”. Doesn’t it sort of stop you in your tracks?  This is it.  This is that for which we’ve waited, that for which we’ve prepared, that for which we’ve hoped.  This is the beginning of the story that we love. Now I know what you’re thinking.  This is about Joseph.  Where is Mary?  Where is that Annunciation story to which we’re more accustomed?  [Advertisement:  That is tomorrow!]  So, today, we’re going to look at the other side of the manger.

Poor Joseph! He really doesn’t get much of the spotlight.  In fact, the lectionary only has us read this passage once every three years, and, technically, this is not one of those years.  In the Gospels, the writer known as Matthew is the only one that even talks about him.  So Joseph is usually relegated to supporting cast status and we often just skip him.  It’s easy to do because he doesn’t even have a speaking role.  There’s no “how can this be?”, no offering of his opinion, no shaking his fist in utter disbelief.  He’s actually almost rendered speechless.  So we really know very little about him. We know he was from Nazareth, a sort of no-name town in Galilee.  We can surmise that he was a carpenter because Jesus is described as the son of a carpenter several times in Scripture.  And we know that he was engaged, or actually betrothed. to Mary.  Now understand that this is not like our notion of an engagement.  This was a marital contract.  It just wasn’t consummated.  They were not just dating.  They were really pretty much considered husband and wife.  And you know what?  Joseph had plans.  He had some idea laid out of how his life would go. 

You know, when you think about it, Joseph had to be hurt, probably even angry at Mary.  But he had apparently already decided what he was going to do (a plan that it should be noted in the face of the tradition was EXTREMELY merciful and compassionate).  He was going to quietly dismiss her and, I suppose, Joseph would have faded into the pages of the story.  Maybe Mary could have gotten help from her cousins.  Maybe Jesus and John would have grown up like brothers.  It could have all worked out.  And then came the dream.

It was apparently a wild fit of a dream.  I mean, the Lord came.  That cannot have been a comfortable situation.  And, true to form, God tells him not to be afraid.  “Oh, no,” Joseph thought, “I have read this before.  When the Lord tells you not to be afraid, things tend to happen–things like the floor of your world on which your standing giving way and you falling uncontrollably into something that you never imagined and for which you certainly could never have planned.  Hold on!”  And the Lord hands him a story that doesn’t even make sense.  Joseph is being asked to step back into the story.  And oh what a story it has become!  Joseph is being asked to raise the child that IS the Messiah.  Joseph is being asked to love him and guide him and discipline him (Good grief, how do you discipline a Messiah?  I mean, does he get like some sort of Divine time out?)  Joseph is even told what to name the child—Emmanuel, “God With Us”.

Well, I’m betting that Joseph’s first thought when he awoke was that he had eaten some bad lamb or something.  He probably laid there for a few minutes processing it all.  I mean, remember, we know from the verses before the ones we read that Joseph was descended from a long line of dreamers.  In fact, old Grandpa Jacob (like 34 “greats” ago) had fought back, wrestling until the break of day!  Remember that?  And then Joseph got up and moved out of the way and followed.  He had plans.  He had a reputation to think of.  He had a face that he had to present to the temple.  He had a life.  But Joseph moved aside and fell speechless.  And then, and then God gave him his voice.

The name “Joseph” means “God will add” or “God will increase”.  God called Mary as the God-bearer; but God called Joseph to also respond, to add to the meaning of the story.  After all, it is the Joseph side of the story that once again upsets the social and religious expectation apple cart, so to speak.  It is Joseph that must break the ranks of laws and righteousness and instead become human.  This beautiful nativity story is both wondrous and scandalous at the same time.  We tend to relegate it to a star-lit evening.  Mary had made a choice that would change her life forever.  And so, somehow Joseph had to trust this strange news that he, too, was being drawn into the story.  Somehow Joseph had to get on board with God turning his whole life upside down.

So, are you ready?  Are you ready for what comes next?  I’m not talking about whether or not you’ve cooked everything, or finished your shopping, or wrapped the gifts, or finished trimming the tree.  Are you ready for what comes next?  Are you ready to birth the Christ into your life?  Are you ready to add to the story?  Are you ready for the unexpected, for your plans to be shattered and your world turned upside down?  Are you ready for the floor of what you know to give way?  Are you ready for the night when the angel comes?  So what will you do?  Most of us don’t go running through the darkness to Bethlehem.  We hold back or we wait or we cower in the darkness hoping that someone else will do it.  But heading into the darkness, into the unknown, is the only way to see the Light of the World.  And if you pay attention, you will have a night when an angel comes and asks you to turn your world upside down.  And if you let yourself fall into it, THAT will be the beginning of everything that God has in store for you.

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us. Joseph Campbell

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Doxology

Advent 4B Lectionary Text: Romans 16: 25-27

25Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

This passage that our lectionary assigns us for the fourth Sunday of Advent is a doxology.  It comes at the end of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  Interestingly, though, it’s not found in every translation of the letter and in some it appears in a different place (like after Chapter 14 or something).  So, truthfully, we’re not sure what it is. Scholars think that it is quite possible that Paul did not write these verses but that they were attached to the end of the letter perhaps AS a doxology, a statement of praise and proclamation.  But regardless of who wrote it, this is a statement of response.  It is, to use Paul’s words, an “obedience of faith.”  The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ invokes our response; otherwise it is virtually meaningless.  German theologian Helmut Thielicke said that, “faith can be described only as a movement of flight, flight away from myself and toward the great possibilities of God.”  The whole Scripture in its fullness is about our response, about our movement, our journey.  It is our faith that moves it and opens up the possibilities that God envisioned.

We read this doxology alongside the veritable imminence of Jesus’ birth, the story of Mary as God-bearer, as the one who responded to God’s call to birth the Savior into the world.  The story is truly beginning to unfold.  And, yet, the story has been there all along.  As Christians, we come into a story that is already there.  God has been calling and people have been responding for thousands of years before Jesus.   It’s not new; it’s continuing.  (Maybe instead of “Old Testament” and “New Testament”, we ought to call it “The Story of God” and “The Continuing Story of God”.  I like that!)  The Letter to the Romans is the Apostle Paul’s understanding of that story.  (It’s really incredible.  You should read it “cover to cover”, so to speak, if you haven’t already.  It is truly a masterpiece.)  And at the end, either Paul or someone who read Paul’s letter and then wrote a response of praise, added this doxology.  It was the writer’s praise to God for the unveiling of something for them that had been around from the very beginning.

So why are we reading a doxology?  Doesn’t that come at the end of something?  Isn’t that the point where we pick up our purse or put our jacket back on set to music?  Isn’t that the point where we put our bulletin away and get ready to get out of there first so we can go eat?  Well, here’s the deal.  We are one week away from Christmas Eve, one week away from the end of all our looking and waiting and preparing for the coming of God yet again.  And part of our preparing is thinking about what comes next, what we’re going to do with all this preparing, all this waiting, all this changing that we’re doing to ready ourselves for God.  See, if you’re not thinking about what you’re going to do with it, what actual response you’re going to make, then the preparation is worthless.  The call means nothing without a response and the proclamation is empty without the doxology.

Advent is not just the “pre-Christmas” season.  These days leading up to Christmas Eve call us to envision what God envisions and then move toward it.  I think it’s a season that teaches us to see through the shadows of the world.  Because this world often seems random and meaningless, full of pain and despair, sickness and loneliness, and even death.  But into this world that is often callous and lacking in compassion, directionless and confused; into our lives that many times are wrought with grief and a sense that it is all for naught; into all of it is born a baby that holds the hope of the world for the taking.  We just have to be ready, open, and willing to take it—and respond.  The great illustrator and writer, Tasha Tudor said, “the gloom of the world is but a shadow.  Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy.  Take joy!”  This is what this doxology says:  All of this that has been laid out for you, all of this that has been created; all of this that has for so long been moving toward your life…take it.  Take joy!  And, as part of your Advent preparation, listen for how you are called to respond. 

The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end in all of us that is not yet Christ.  Thomas Merton

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Dis-Placed

Micah 5: 2-4

2But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 3Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. 4And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. 

Don’t you sort of wonder how God chose Bethlehem?  It’s not a big city.  In the big scheme of world power and wealth, it’s not really even on the map.  It was not a seat of religion.  It was not a big international port.  It was not the scene of some great military conquest.  In today’s terms, it doesn’t even have an airport.  And on the real map, it’s a little less than 4 ½ miles from Jerusalem, which was not very convenient to Nazareth, another city in our story. Honestly, it’s a small, little-known place on the outskirts of what is happening.  What a strange choice to pick to birth the Savior of the world!

Now, understand that the passage that we read did not originally associate this with the Messiah’s birth.  The original writing was probably claiming a new Davidic king, one that would rule relying on the strength and wisdom of God.  And to those in exile, those struggling to regain hope and identity and life itself, it seemed that the line of David was ending.  In all likelihood, it probably seemed like life was ending.  The gates of the city were bowing with the pounding of the Assyrian armies.  Things were about to change.  Darkness was seeping into their lives.  And the prophet proclaimed that, regardless of what seemed to be, regardless of how the people saw themselves, the Light was indeed coming, even as unlikely as it seemed to be.

Bethlehem, April, 2010 (Yes, that’s part of the wall!)

Truthfully, there’s not 100% agreement that these two Bethlehems are even the same.  But I don’t think that really matters.  Rather than honing in on the place, look instead at what God has done and what God continues to do.  See, God does not always come to the places that we expect.  God doesn’t always show up to those places that are prepared for God.  In fact, it seems that God seldom obeys those rules of life that we have created. Thanks be to God! Over and over, God comes into the outskirts of civilization. Over and over, God comes into the places that we would rather forget, into the places of the displaced, the refugee, the places of homelessness and poverty and a world that doesn’t really have room, the places that are not prepared for God to come. And in the darkest corners of the world, God enters and Light comes to be. Because, really, if God only came to the places that knew God was coming, to the places that were cleaned and sanitized and ready for the maker of the world to enter, the places that were only filled with those who knew God was on their side or agreed with them or didn’t think they needed to change into who God thought they could be, then, really, why would we need God to show up at all?  Instead, God comes to the displaced and the dis-placed.  Interestingly, God raises places just as God raises people, taking the ordinary and the less-than-suitable and breathing holiness into it.  Isn’t that amazing?

This year some of our normal places for Christmas Eve may be questionable.  In a world of masks, social-distancing, and discouragement against gathering at all, many of us will be forced to spend Christmas in new ways and perhaps in new places.  But, remember, God comes into those places that we don’t think are fit for God.  Light comes into the darkness, whether or not the darkness recognizes itself. Light seeps into through the cracks and crevices of our carefully-constructed world that we have walled off to others and begins to make a home. Light comes uninvited into those places that have only known darkness as well as those places that never knew they were dark at all. Light comes whether or not we are ready, whether or not we’ve planned it, whether or not we have done what we should do, and Light makes a home in a manger or whatever else it will find and we will never be the same.  So, this year, find yourself one of the dis-placed.  Look around you.  God is there.  Light your candle and bring the Light of God into whatever place you find yourself to be.

Whoever does not see God in every place does not see God in any place. Rabbi Elimilech of Lizhensk, 1717-1787)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli