This Sunday, December 30

There is a now-classic Christmas movie one of my kids just watched during her break from school. It’s called “Home Alone,” and it is about the adventures of a 12-year-old boy (Kevin) who has been inadvertently left behind while his family goes on vacation over the holidays. During this Sunday’s sermon, I’m going to give a little of a review of Home Alone and compare it the story of Jesus staying behind to discuss the Scriptures with Temple scribes in Luke 2. 41-52. Does the sermon title, “What a strange child!,” refer to Kevin in Home Alone, or to Jesus in the Temple, or both? I hope you will come and continue our Christmastide celebration this Sunday at Eastminster!

Christmas Eve meditation (John 1.1-23)

Christmas Eve meditation (John 1.1-23)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, 2018
Tom James
We have been waiting. Waiting is a crucial part of what it means to be human. It’s also an essential feature of the Christian faith. We wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises. We wait for the coming of the Messiah. We wait for the end of the story, when, we hope, it will all make sense.
Tonight, we remember that the key to the story of human history has already been given. The Christmas message is Immanuel, God with us. And so, tonight, we sing carols and we tell the story of Christ’s coming. There are several versions of the story. One of them is the Gospel of John. This version has none of the familiar features we associate with Christmas pageants and the like—no shepherds, no angels, not even a Mary or a Joseph. Instead, we focus on the themes: what the story means, mixing into our telling of the story both Scripture and song…….
john 1.1-3a
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
Jesus comes to us as the word. Jesus is the word because he is the expression of God’s heart. John’s Gospel tells us that the word was involved in the creation itself. God does not exist without the word. God is never without something to say. According to the book of Genesis, the world itself comes into being through what God says. And the aim of what God says is love. God creates the world out of love. God liberates Israel from slavery out of love. God sends prophets out love. And it all comes to fulfillment in Jesus. Jesus is the best expression we have of love, the most fully articulate expression of what God has been saying all along.
john 1.3b-9
What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
We’ve all heard the saying that Jesus is the “light of the world.” It comes from another passage from the Gospel of John. Here, the phrase is, “the light of all people.” What strikes me, though, is that, in this passage, “the light of all people” is a way of describing something else. First, we are told, in him was life. One of the most important things we can say about Jesus is that in him was life. Not just that he was alive, but that, with the coming of Christ, life appeared. It is as if all the living that was done before him was just a dress rehearsal, and now it is time for the real thing. Jesus is life, the true life of humanity that we were always meant to have and to be. That is why the life of Jesus is the light of all people: his life, from its very beginning, shows us what true life is. If we follow the story out, true life is being a healer rather than a destroyer and a user; true life is crossing borders and boundaries to share humanity with others; true life is attention to the least of these; true life is faithfulness; true life is a willingness to give life.
john 1.10-13
10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
Jesus wasn’t supposed to be rejected. The coming of the Messiah was supposed to unite the people and lead them, like Moses, to liberation from their colonizers. At least that’s what many people thought. After Jesus was arrested and handed over to the empire to be killed, his disciples searched the scriptures to see if they could make sense of what happened. What they found was that, far from a rebuttal of his status as Messiah, being rejected by the people was actually part of the job description. The Messiah was always going to be rejected. The true life of the world wakes us from our sleepwalking, our zombie existence. The true life of the world challenges us and calls us to cross borders and boundaries, to give attention to the least of these, and experience life by giving it away. Not everyone will be up for that. But with those who are, Jesus shares his life, and his power, and his grace. To those, to us, he gives his power to be children of God.
john 1.14-17
14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
15(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”)16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
The title, “Son of God,” is not often used in the gospels. By itself, it only means someone who is faithful to God. Kings and prophets and various people of God may be called “sons” or “daughters” of God. But, here, John’s Gospel tells us that we have seen the glory as a “father’s only son.” There is something unique about Jesus. He is “son of God” in a special way. It isn’t just that he is faithful, but that he fully carries out God’s purposes. And that is his glory.
We should recognize something stunning here. Again, follow out the story. What does Jesus do, and where does the story lead? After border and boundary crossings, after healing and offerings of forgiveness, after teaching and preaching and criticizing corrupt leaders and officials, Jesus’ story leads to betrayal and execution. And that is glory. From ignoble beginnings in a feeding trough, because there is no proper room for him, to an ignoble end on a cross, behold the glory of God. Irenaeus, one of the great theologians of the early church, once said the glory of God is humanity fully alive. Once again, we come back to what it means to be truly and fully alive as a human being. Not only does it mean crossing borders and boundaries, paying attention to the least of these, healing, forgiving, and loving—apparently it means risking oneself to betrayal. It means giving oneself for the sake of love. That’s how we are children of God.
john 1.19-23, 29
19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.
29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
John the Baptist represents the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures. He points to the Messiah in the same way that the hope of Israel has always done. But he goes a step further. He says, “here he is.” And not only that, he goes far beyond our expectations. The reality here exceeds what we have imagined or hoped for. It is not only Scripture that reveals the Messiah, but it is also experience, history—life itself. To say that Immanuel is here—that God is with us in the flesh—means that who he is and what he means for us can only be known as we experience him. Jesus is revealed—the Word of God is spoken—not in a vacuum, and not to prophets or scholars or priests, but to us, in our lives, in our experience.

This is the meaning of Christmas, friends. The savior is not a character in an old story or a topic for a sermon. The savior is not even a few words in our favorite carol, but a living reality in our midst. The savior is the power of salvation that we feel in our bones tonight, calling us to life, enabling us to cross borders and boundaries, to pay attention to the least of these, to heal, to forgive, to give, and to love. The savior is one who is born in us today. Amen.

The one of peace (Micah 5.1-5a)

The one of peace (Micah 5.1-5a)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Advent 4C (December 23, 2018)
Tom James

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. The word “Advent” has a specific meaning. Literally, it means “coming.” This is a brief, four-week season right on the cusp of Christmas, placed right here and now to remind us that our Christian faith is built on hope for a better world. During these days, we await the coming of the Lord, when the world will be set right, when wars will cease, when injustices will be overcome, when fears and sorrows will be turned into joy.
Advent happens right here and now, though, when wars continue to rage, when injustices still multiply, when fears and sorrows sometimes engulf us. The word of the gospel comes not to a world that is getting better and better all the time, but to a world that is, you might say, under siege. Worse than that, the word of the gospel comes to a world that is on the verge of destroying itself, that courts catastrophe and seems to have no solutions to the problems that it creates. The word comes us who have created armies which now dominate us, encircling us, drawing off our resources, choking out our life. The word comes to us who have created an economy that turns us all into dispensable drones, cogs in a machine to create wealth while destroying the people, using our bodies and minds as fuel to be consumed. And so, it is appropriate, perhaps, that one of the prophetic texts that come to us just a few days before Christmas in 2018, here and now, was written for a people who appear to have been under a literal siege.
The prophet Micah lived and wrote during the eighth century B.C.E., partly during the reign of King Hezekiah in Judah. This was during the expansion of the Assyrian empire which destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 and threatened the southern kingdom of Judah, from which Micah wrote. We know from history that, at one point, an Assyrian army encircled Jerusalem itself. This is where our selection from Micah’s prophecy comes from.
But we need to take a step back. Some of us may remember some of Micah’s most famous lines—“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The prophet preached and wrote in the context of a kingdom, and kingdoms in the ancient world were set up for two reasons: first, to maintain a standing army; and, second, to extract surplus produce from the countryside. And these two reasons were closely related. In other words, kingdoms represented a massive centralization of wealth and power, and were able to maintain their dominance by means of a permanent armed force that was used to exact tributes from the peasantry, to protect massive accumulations of private wealth, and to keep peasants, who actually produced most of the wealth in the ancient world, feeling helpless and afraid. The ancient kingdom was, in fact, just what the tradition of Moses had refused and fled because the early Israelites understood that kingdoms inevitably meant slavery, whether it be the kingdom of Egypt or of the city-states of ancient Palestine which they fought off during Joshua’s time. And, so, prophets always had issues with kingdoms, and Micah was no exception. In fact, you might say that prophets like Micah, and, later, Jeremiah, were telling Judah that, if you want to play the kingdom game, just be aware that there are those who are going to be able to play it better, like Assyria and Babylon, then later, like Persia, and Greece, and Rome. And just be aware that you might end up being slaves again. In fact, ancient world history can be read as a series of great kingdoms succeeding one another in violent suppression of the lands and people of the ancient world.
Israel was not created to play this game. Israel was created to be different, to be a light, a beacon of righteousness to the nations. Israel was to be a land in which the vulnerable were not forgotten; in which land and work were to be shared; where there would be justice and peace. But here we are in Micah’s time, with the Assyrians on their doorstep, with Judah having tried to play the kingdom game, having bet on its armies, and lost.
Here comes a little word that changes everything. The word is “but.” That little word, so easy to miss, signals a change in direction that sums up the meaning of Christmas. “But 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.” Bethlehem was a small town, in the shadow of Jerusalem. It was quite easily overlooked. Bethlehem, though it was not far from Jerusalem, might as well have been a thousand miles away. It had nothing to do with the halls of power in the kingdom. It was outside of the royal courts; its inhabitants were far removed from the line of royal succession. Bethlehem was the settlement of a minor clan and not a great family. If you had been there, you would have found it easily forgettable.
But we do remember Bethlehem, right? It isn’t forgettable to us Christians. We read about it every year. We have songs about it! But it didn’t turn out to be the seat of a new monarchy for Judah. It wasn’t as if leaders in Judah read Micah’s prophecy and thought, great, let’s move the capital to Bethlehem and start a whole new kingdom, a whole new dynasty, and then maybe we’ll be able to hold out against these empires that always threaten us. No. What was to happen at Bethlehem, many centuries later, was that a story was to take hold of something much more in line with Micah’s other famous words—less a matter of setting up a grand kingdom than with acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. What was to happen at Bethlehem, many centuries later, was that songs would be sung of a new beginning, humble, in a stable, with animals and shepherds and a peasant family from Nazareth.
One these peasants from Nazareth, many centuries later, was given the same gift of prophecy that Micah had. Before she went to Bethlehem with Joseph, Mary of Nazareth cried out that God had “looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” She would go on to say, “[God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Now, if we are being honest with ourselves, Mary’s words sound a little divisive. After all, Christmas is for the powerful and the rich, too, is it not? But, in the ancient world, it was understood that the rich are rich precisely because they have taken from the poor. There was no theory of all boats rising with economic growth in the ancient world—for the good reason that that’s not how it worked! Kings grew rich by siphoning off wealth from the countryside, and that meant that those who lived in the villages in places like Galilee worked not for themselves but for those who ruled: the great and the powerful. It meant that they had barely enough to survive, even though they produced more than enough. It meant that much of what they worked for was taken from them by force of arms. And that meant that the simmering antagonisms between city and country, between rich and poor, could only be resolved by redressing the imbalance between them. So, the “one of peace” that Micah prophesied many centuries earlier is the one who restores community in Judah by destroying the imbalances that fracture and divide it. Lift up the low places; level the high places to make the road straight. Lift up the lowly; humble the great. Give good things to the poor; send the rich away empty. Establish justice in the land. And then you will have peace.
And so it is. For unto you this day a child is born. Unto you a son is given. A new beginning comes to life. Not a new king or a new kingdom. Not a new ruler or a new master. They will call him “Lord,” but he will be the kind of Lord that forces us to rethink what we mean by “Lord.” He will be one who teaches us how to love and respect each other; how to form true community with each other. He will be one who teaches us how to cross borders and boundaries, who inspires us to imagine that there is now no longer Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, that we are all siblings in Christ.
Many centuries later, we still haven’t caught up with the meaning of Christmas. Perhaps we are still a little too tied to the prestige of kingdoms, a little too impressed with splendor and power.
Our annual celebration is just two days away, now. Hopefully, we are ready—or at least ready enough not to have to scramble. And, as always, for most of us, Christmas day will be a day wrapped in the familiar. Traditions that we have honored for years, if not for generations. Familiar songs, foods, and faces. The same tree, perhaps, hung with ornaments that recall pleasant memories of perhaps simpler times. And yet, the full meaning of what we are doing is still a mystery, as always. There is something unfamiliar amid all the familiarity. The one whose coming we celebrate is still bringing new life, still announcing a new world, still shaking our expectations, still challenging our kingdoms, still calling us to a better way. And we still can’t imagine quite what that means.
And that’s ok. Because the one who comes is meant to confound us, to cause us to reach out a little beyond what we know, maybe even beyond what is comfortable. The one who comes is meant to stir our imaginations and to stretch our abilities.

And, so, may each of us wake up in a couple days like that great Charles Dickens character, Ebenezer Scrooge, rejoicing that night has not taken us, that the kingdoms of the world have not destroyed us, rejoicing in a day that is new. May each of us receive our savior as a promise and an invitation to life, as the one who brings peace. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

From shame to praise (Zephaniah 3.14-20)

“From shame to praise” (Zephaniah 3.14-20)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Advent 3C (December 16, 2018)
Tom James
When I go to the store, I’m focused on what I’m going to buy. In fact, I start to zero in on my target well before I enter the store. Even when I’m in the parking lot, I’m already thinking about that sweater I’m going to get someone for Christmas, or that tool I need for some project I’m working on. And that means that I’m not thinking about my car as I pull into my parking spot—or, more importantly, where that spot is in relation to all the others. And so, pretty often, I exit the store with that prized purchase, feeling like I’ve accomplished my mission, and then look out on that sea of cars in the parking lot and have no idea where mine is. At that point, it’s time for a guess. Hopefully, my guess gets me close enough so that I can at least see some part of my car and then quickly and as gracefully as possible make the necessary course adjustments. But then, there are those times when I guess wrong. And then, of course, rather than worrying whether I will find my car, I worry about whether someone will see me looking for it. That blank expression on my face, wandering aimlessly, furiously pushing buttons on my key fob hoping that I will see the flashing lights as my car unlocks—I can’t imagine it’s a very good look.
Now, I can tell that story because we all know what it is like to be embarrassed. It’s a little uncomfortable, but in order to deal with the shame of embarrassment that is certain to come in life, we have to learn at some point to laugh at ourselves.
But there’s something that cuts a level deeper than embarrassment. Something that we can’t deal with simply by laughing it off. I’m talking about humiliation. Most of us have stories of being humiliated, too, but the person or people we tell those stories to have to earn the right to hear them. We don’t trust just anybody with stories of humiliation. They cut to the core of who we are—they threaten the image we may have of ourselves, and we need to know that the people with whom we entrust those stories and those feelings won’t trample on us or somehow make our humiliation worse. We have to feel like they are on our side before we expose our inner selves to them in that way.
The thing about humiliation is that it tends to stick with you, like gum to the bottom of a shoe. It’s like a mark or a burden that we can carry around for a long time. It creates a memory that is hard to shake, and it can also affect our expectations. In fact, in extreme cases, a humiliation can all but take away our sense of a meaningful future. We feel defeated, beaten, helpless, unable to move forward.
Groups can feel that way, too. I’ve enjoyed watching my children’s sports teams over the past few years, and I’ve seen the pattern I learned from my own childhood sports experiences being repeated—a bad play or some bad luck can get easily amplified in its effects because the team gets down on itself, loses confidence, gets rattled. It’s why I don’t watch college sports much anymore—North Carolina basketball, or Michigan football! How often they disappoint!
But sometimes it’s way more important than sports. I’m struck by a line from our Old Testament reading for this morning. God says, “I will remove disaster from you.” What’s interesting about this is that disaster is not treated as an unfortunate event that comes and then is gone—rather, disaster is something that the people possess. Disaster is something that clings to them, like a stain, like a burden they must bear, like gum on their shoes.
This passage was most likely written during a time of exile after the kingdom of Judah had been destroyed, after its temple had been leveled and its leadership taken captive. It was written, in other words, in the wake a stinging defeat. These are words that are spoken from the depths of a lasting humiliation. And so, the disaster that has befallen Judah—and if we follow the story, we recognize that it comes in no small part because of their own faults—this disaster is something that Judah has to live with. It’s a shame that remains attached to them, exposing them before the nations and before each other.
Shame is not something that we talk about very much in the church. I guess it’s for a good reason—shame is something that wants to stay hidden! But I wonder how much you and I, and how much our little group of Christians today, are plagued by shame. I wonder if we don’t look around ourselves sometimes and see empty pews, and feel a little twinge of defeat. We remember when these pews weren’t so empty, when the church was much stronger and more influential than it is now, when we had to break out the folding chairs to accommodate everyone who heard our voice and responded to the call to worship in this place.
I’m not talking about guilt. Those of us who are here are doing our best, and we know that there are forces beyond our control that have a lot to do with how things stand today. But, still, becoming smaller, less powerful, less respected, less noticed, even—doesn’t that sometimes stir feelings of shame?
And we know that, sometimes, shame visits people who have done nothing wrong. A good part of Job’s famous suffering was shame. Anyone who has been sick for a long time or who has borne the burden of a long season of grief and hears for the thousandth time, “how are you feeling today?” knows that even well-meaning compassion can remind us of our weaknesses and ratchet up feelings of defeat.
Would it surprise you to know that the Bible is much more preoccupied with the problem of shame than with the problem of guilt? Guilt is an obsession that comes much later in history when our culture became more and more focused on the inner experiences of individuals. Guilt is driven by a sense of moral failings; guilt is hidden on the inside of us, but shame is for all to see: it comes from defeat, from being exposed as weak and fragile, from public disgrace.
And, so, shame is something that, in order to be freed from, requires that our defeats must somehow be reversed. It isn’t enough to be forgiven or to experience some kind of psychological change that makes us see ourselves differently. For our shame to be removed, our circumstances must be changed. This is the way Zephaniah puts it:
How can this happen? Researcher Brené Brown has studied shame and how it is overcome. According to Brown, shame can’t survive being spoken. There’s something about telling the story of our humiliations that takes away their power over us. But, of course, we can’t just tell anyone. We have to find people that we trust—perhaps, people who have undergone similar defeats. Support groups and recovery groups are incredibly important. They allow people to speak their shame among people who understand it, and speaking it can actually begin to destroy it.
Well, but, does that change our circumstances?
It can. The shame of alcoholism is the loss of control the alcoholic has over their life. Recovery groups can help them put their life back together. The shame of a nation’s destruction is that there is no more national identity—the bonds are broken, and the power of collective action is gone. But, in exile, people can begin to share their stories and to rebuild the old solidarities, and a nation can be reborn, perhaps even refounded. As Zephaniah says, God may gather them, and bring them home, no longer a people who, in their indifference and complacency, are ripe for destruction, but a people have been tested and who know what it takes to be a people.
Ultimately, what changes us, and what takes away our shame, is not a stroke of luck or a series of them. It is the insistent spirit of life within us, the spirit of God who comes to us in our weakness and isolation and makes a people out of us, who gathers us anew: moving us from weakness to strength, from complacency and boredom to bold and intentional action, from an inward focus that seeks simply to maintain ourselves as we were to an outward focus that seeks to impact the world.
God’s advent, God’s interruption, happens within us. Things may not look all that different. All that happens is that we begin to get real. We talk to each other—more than just Sunday pleasantries but our hopes, our dreams, our disappointments, and, yes, our humiliations and defeats. In other words, we tell our stories. We open ourselves to the truth. And the truth begins to free us, and we find that our conversations are taking us somewhere. And then, we listen to the stories of those around us. The shame that keeps us shackled to strategies of mere survival begins to lose its power, and, in its place, faith. And, with faith, new life.
This is nothing other than the story of Christ’s church, from age to age. And the story lives today because it keeps getting restarted. We need new beginnings in order to be the church. We need advents. We need to welcome the savior, again and again, in order to be who we are.
“And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.”

 O come, O come, Immanuel. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

This Sunday, December 16th

Have you ever been embarrassed? I’m guessing all of us have. Usually, we can laugh at ourselves when we are embarrassed. But there is a step beyond embarrassment that isn’t funny at all: humiliation. Being humiliated is painful, and the stigma that we feel can last a long time. This Sunday, we will be talking a little about the humiliation that was experienced by the people of Judah when they lost their kingdom and their temple. The last section of the book of Zephaniah (3.14-20) was written to address their “shame,” and promises that their shame will one day be turned into “praise.” This turning of shame into praise is one of the facets of the gem of hope we know as “Advent.” Essentially, Advent means that God is still God, and therefore pain, guilt, and shame can never have the last word: pain can be turned into healing, guilt can be turned into forgiveness, and shame can be turned into praise. In what ways have we experienced shame as Christians in the twenty-first century? And, more importantly, how might that shame be turned into praise? 

Hope to see you Sunday!

Did you know? (Luke 1.39-55)

A recent popular Christmas song has become part of the season for many people. The song, “Mary Did You Know” was written by Mark Lowry in 1984, and was first released in 1992 by Michael English. Since then, it is been recorded by a wide array of well-known artists, and at least one of my daughters knows how to play it.  Here are the words:
Mary did you know that your baby boy would some day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.

Mary did you know that your baby boy would give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when your kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary did you know

The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am

Well, in our scripture text, though, we find a Mary who seems confident that she knows quite a lot, actually. Mary’s song in Scripture has a very different feel to it than Lowry’s song about Mary.  And you might say that Miriam (to call her by her Hebrew name) comes by her confidence honestly.  She is picking up on centuries of prophetic Jewish tradition when she launches into her famous lines.  Many of the old themes of the coming of justice and peace to the people are repeated, only now with more clearly universal relevance (it will be for all the nations) and with a beauty and grace that is unrivaled anywhere.
So, does Lowry’s song have it wrong? How can it be that Miriam is blessed with the spirit of prophecy which pulls back the veil upon God’s strange working in history, and yet unable to know, unable to grasp the full meaning of what is happening to her right here and now?
Unless, the spirit of prophecy is precisely about not knowing things; unless pulling back the veil upon God’s strange working in history does not make it any less strange, but more so.  Is Mary, in her quiet contemplation and in her bold prophecy, the one who most clearly knows that she cannot know but must simply trust?
For many Christians throughout history, Mary has been a symbol of the church as it should be: humble, trusting, faithful. In fact, many theologians have suggested that the Mary that we see in the verses we just read is humanity as it should be:  she is the one who joyfully welcomes the approach of God when it is impossible to know what that could mean. And that, perhaps, is the most faithful thing we can do. After all, isn’t it true that, according to Scripture, the human condition is that we are asked to trust in a God we cannot see, to believe in a God who takes us on paths into the unknown?  The prophetic tradition has ways of talking about this strange unknown to come: valleys shall be lifted up; mountains shall be laid low; the poor are to be made rich and the rich, poor; a young woman from the outskirts of an insignificant colony will be the bearer of God. The significance of Mary is that she is the one who faces all of these strange promises, and says a simple, unambiguous, unqualified, “Yes.”
God entering history, joining with our lives, is not something that you and I can really understand.  Mary’s song hints that it is full of dangers, rife with upheavals and reversals, but what that actually looks like, who can say?  Maybe it means being a part of a community whose narrow self-sufficiency is shattered and who is broken open so that others may enter?  Perhaps it means that a new and unimagined way to succeed and to flourish opens up?  Maybe it means that something rather mundane and unimpressive—a new program, or a new outreach, a few new songs—will stir new possibilities for worship and witness?  Who can guarantee that the coming of God won’t bring discomfort as well as joy?  Loss as well as hope?  Even provoke doubt as well as faith?  Who can say what the coming of God brings?  Maybe the only good thing to say, in the end, is “Yes.”
A straight line runs through Advent, from John’s “Prepare the Way of the Lord!” to Mary’s “Yes.”  From God’s amazing grace which calls us from our places of comfort to a new world, to our response, which is at its best uncomplicated and without reserve.  “Yes.”  I will take that offer.  Yes, I will be that person.  Yes, we will be that church.

Mary’s song is the church’s song.  It is a song of hope.  And it is a song of determination to welcome a God of mystery into our hearts, our lives, our homes, our church.  May we learn to sing it.  In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

The days are surely coming (Jeremiah 33)

“The days are surely coming” (Jeremiah 33.14-16)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, December 2, 2018 (Advent 1C)
Tom James
You’ve heard the expression, “You reap what you sow.” Most of us don’t farm very much anymore, I’m guessing, but we can still understand the metaphor. Put a seed in the ground, and, though you may not see much going on and you might even forget that you put it there, rest assured, something is happening in those hidden depths. And something will happen as a result.
The problem is that we human beings—and I think this is true of our generation more than previous ones—we have a tendency to forget what we’ve put in the ground. In other words, life is moving so fast that we are pretty much focused just on keeping up, and we can easily overlook the big picture or the longer timescale. We can forget that we’ve done things to people, to nations, to the environment, and that those things are going inevitably to have consequences. A controversial preacher some years ago now called this, “chickens coming home to roost.” How much of what our ancestors sowed long ago, perpetrating what some have called America’s “original sin” of slavery and racism, aimed both at people within our borders and those beyond them, is now being reaped in a contemporary harvest of devastation? How much of what we are sowing now will be reaped as a harvest of devastation for those who will come after us?
Jeremiah was writing in a time when the chickens were coming home to roost. He was probably in jail after offending the king with his prophecies of doom. What had gotten Jeremiah in trouble were his sermons about how injustices in the land, the exploitation of the poor, the neglect of the vulnerable, the king’s attempts to safeguard his own security by making alliances with Egypt, all were going to lead to no good end. Jeremiah told the king that his kingdom was tottering, that disaster lay just around the corner. Kings don’t want to hear that! Heck, no one wants to hear that. We want our prophets to tell us good news, or at least to sugar coat the bad. We want to feel good, to be assured, to have blessings repeated to us, even if that means numbing ourselves against the pain of reality.
But Jeremiah was made of a different kind of stuff than that, you might say. They call him the “weeping prophet,” and not because he indulged in self-pity but because he shared God’s grief over a failing nation. Israel had been chosen, set apart to be an expression of God’s own heart, caring for the widow and orphan and remaining hospitable to the foreigner and resisting the imperial pretensions of the surrounding nations. Israel was supposed to be different. But it had failed to do those things, and God’s judgment was about to fall upon a nation that insisted on remaining ignorant of its faults and of the consequences of those faults. It preferred to numb itself with bromides and clichés and to wrap itself in self-righteous complacency. But the Babylonian empire was knocking at the door, and soon, Jerusalem would fall, its leaders would be deported, and its temple would be destroyed.
Jeremiah wept for Israel, and he wept for God.
But, by the time we get to chapter 33, we read that “the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah a second time.” I suggest that two sentences capture the meaning of Advent for us Christians. First, the title of this sermon: “The days shall surely come.” Whether we can see them coming or not, whether we welcome them or not. The days are surely coming. The future is not fully determined by the past—but what we have done has a bearing on what will be. The chickens will come home to roost. But, do you know what has an even greater bearing than our actions? God. “The days shall surely come” means something completely different when you figure in the work of God. And the second sentence that is important for Advent points in that direction. The second sentence is, “the word of the Lord came a second time.” The coming of the word of the Lord a second time tells us that the first word, a sorrowful word of judgment, an expression of God’s disappointment and heartache at a dream deferred and a nation that has failed, is not the last word. Another word, a second word, is even greater than the word of judgment and grief.
This is the point, the gospel, the life-giving word, in a nutshell: God is still God, even if we have made a mess of things. Even if Israel failed to be Israel, the God of Israel did not fail to be God, and hope for a restoration did not crumble with the city and the temple. The word of the Lord came a second time.
Of course, this isn’t just for Israel. Even if, in our own time, the church has failed to be the church, even if all that was glimpsed in those glory years when the church was new, those first stirrings of a faithful community that grew more powerful as it engaged in ministries of healing and sharing and hospitality—even if all that has degenerated into a dying institution filled with meaningless repetitions, even if the only thing it now strives for is its own preservation, even if it has grown into the habit of numbing itself to its neighbors and shutting itself off from God’s world; even if the church has not really been the church, but more like a club or a clique whose time has come and gone; even if all that is true, still, God has not stopped being God. God’s love for the church remains because God has not forgotten what the church could be. And, so, the word of the Lord comes a second time.
What does it mean to look up from the rubble of a broken city, or country, or church, and hope? Nelson Mandela, called by many the “grandfather” of South Africa, was imprisoned for nearly 27 years for the trouble he caused the Apartheid government. He fought hard against Apartheid. He struggled with all his might for a country in which blacks and whites could live together justly and equally. One of his famous, most oft-quoted lines from his speeches and writings was, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Freedom for himself and for his people must have seemed a long, long way away from his prison cell. It must have seemed like he was facing an impossible task as if he were on a fool’s errand. The obstacles were too big, the odds too long, the powers of evil too entrenched. And yet, we know that he did walk out of that cell and into a new country. I wonder if the line came back to him: It always seems impossible until it’s done.
I wonder if that could be a third sentence for Advent. It’s a season in which we await the impossible—or what seems impossible until it comes.
Advent is a new song time. Because we are looking forward to a new beginning with the birth of Christ, it’s time for us to sing new songs. Now, new songs are not new in the sense of being unfamiliar to us—they are new in the sense that they announce something that is hard to imagine without a great injection of novelty into our lives. The great American rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that only covenant people sing new songs. What he meant was that only those who are gathered to hear the word of promise, a word that contradicts the frozen words of despair daily repeated in the prison cell, in captivity, within the rubble, are able to lift their voices and sing of a new reality, to string new words together, to imagine and embrace a new way of life.
I challenge you to listen to the hymns and the music this season, not just for the pleasing old melodies that warm our hearts every year, but to the words of longing and promise. Most of the songs we will sing are songs that we have sung countless times, and they remind us, perhaps, not of the future we long for but of the past whose memory we treasure. But listen to the words, again. Let the stories and the lyrics strike you as if for the first time—with all their audacity and their radical hope. Let them remind you of what it means to hope, and even to expect. For we exist as a people who are defined by what we hope for. We exist as a people who know that life in our community is not yet what it could be. We exist as a people who await a savior. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.