The Reluctant Prophet

Jonah 3:1-5, 10   Mark 1:14-20   Epiphany 3  January 25, 2015

 Epiphany is the season of light, the season of the church in which we reflect upon our lives in light of our baptism. It’s a time to examine how we live out our baptismal calling. In other words, how are we disciples? What kind of disciples are we? Most of us are familiar with the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. As Jesus walked along the shoreline, he saw Simon and Andrew casting their net into the sea, and he shouted over the roar of the waves, “Follow me! I will make you fish for people!” Immediately they dropped everything and began following Jesus’ lead. Then this group came upon the Zebedee brothers, James and John. They were fishermen, too. It was a family business, and so father Zebedee and other employees were in the boat. Immediately upon seeing them, Jesus called to James and John and immediately they came, leaving everyone else behind.

What were Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John thinking when Jesus called them? Notice the beginning of our reading: “Now, after John was arrested…” It seems pretty dangerous to follow Jesus! I wonder what the disciples were thinking when they dropped their careers into the ocean to follow Jesus. The gospel writer Mark tells us what they probably had heard before Jesus extended his invitation; the kingdom of God has come near, turn around (which is what “repent” means), and believe in the good news. What were they thinking? They didn’t even ask Jesus, “Fish for people? What does that mean?”

How would you have responded to this call? I would have asked a lot of questions! Can I just wrap this one thing up first? Where are we going? Are we walking or do you have a van? Can we stop at the Cheese Shop for lunch? Will we be back before dark? Wait, what are we doing? Not so for the disciples, who immediately stopped what they were doing and joined Jesus. Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John just went, no questions asked.

Simon was the one to whom Jesus gave the name “Peter,” meaning “rock.” Sometimes Peter was as solid as a rock, and other times he was as dense as one. Peter didn’t understand why Jesus washed feet, and he didn’t get it when Jesus told him that he would suffer and die nailed to a cross. But Peter, the most vocal of the disciples, was the first to confess Jesus as Christ the Messiah. He was part of Jesus’ inner circle, and after Jesus’ death, he was instrumental in forming the church, small “c.” When have you jumped right in when God has called? Do you always understand what God is up to?

Just as God through Jesus called Simon Peter, God called Jonah, the prophet in our first reading. Unlike the fisherman who dropped everything, no questions asked, Jonah was reluctant. He was also judgmental and self-centered. Directionally speaking, and with respect to geographic proximity, God told him to go from Judah to Turkey and he went in the opposite direction to Spain. Jonah thought he could escape God’s call. Have you ever tried to hide from God? Where do you go when you want to avoid God? God wanted Jonah to tell the people of Ninevah just one thing: “Forty more days, and Ninevah will be overthrown!”

Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, and at the time of Jonah, the Assyrians were ruthless conquerers. Assyrians were comparable to Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter, and Jonah just loved to hate them. Not to mention, God gave Jonah an impossible mission. What good would it do to warn those people of God’s impending destruction? The people weren’t worth it, and it probably wouldn’t succeed. So Jonah didn’t want to go do what God told him to do. What holds us back from doing what God tells us to do?

It took Jonah three chapters to turn around and get to Ninevah! As he found out, God is inescapable, and is quite persistent. In trying to get as far from Ninevah as he could, Jonah got on a ship and was thrown overboard. God saved him from drowning through a hungry whale who swallowed him, and then literally vomited Jonah up. Standing there wet and smelly, Jonah decided to go along with God’s plan. As one commentator observes, Jonah’s way seems easier at first, but in the end we will get thrown overboard and end up in the belly of the whale.

After Jonah arrived in Ninevah, he told them exactly what God said to tell them, “Forty more days and Ninevah will be overthrown!” Jonah didn’t believe the people would or could change. But they did. The king, the people, and even the cows put on sackcloth and ashes, signs of repentance. Every creature large and small repented. I’m not sure about the cats, though. No, probably not the cats. Even though God’s message was a declaration and not a conditional statement, God changed God’s mind when the people were sorry for their behavior, and they were not destroyed. Jonah was prepared for the people to get what he thought they deserved, but not for the depth of God’s mercy. God’s ethic of love is always more interested in helping us live in response to God’s love than the corruption of our past. God worked through Jonah, despite Jonah’s attitude of exclusiveness and his lack of heartfelt commitment to God’s mission for him. Has God ever worked through you, despite your attitude?

In this season of Epiphany, remember these words that we hear in the rite of baptism: We are united with all the baptized in the one body of Christ, anointed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and joined in God’s mission for the life of the world. We join Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John and Jonah in speaking God’s word, acting in God’s name, working toward God’s mission for the life of the world. Are we like Jonah, running away, and thinking God’s mercy is only for certain people? Are we like Simon Peter, jumping right in with both feet, but not understanding the big picture? I think it is true to say that, over the course of our lives, we are sometimes more like Jonah and sometimes we are like Peter. This is what it means to be human! But God still works through us. It’s a crazy plan, but God keeps inviting us to follow, to lead, to be forgiven and continue on. Our inadequate attempts at ministry are transformed by God’s grace. Jonah and Peter remind me that God will accomplish God’s mission no matter how we mess up, and that no matter how much we mess up, we are still of use to God. Thanks be to God!

 

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

 

What Is God Up To?

 

1 Samuel 3:1-20     Second Sunday After Epiphany     January 18, 2015

 

 

Is it just me, or do you feel like hibernating too?  That’s especially true for me when the sky is gray, and cold rain or sleet is coming down.  Do you think there might be an annual, biological rhythm that our bodies need to return to at this time of the year, when the hours of daylight are brief and the nights are long, more time to sleep, to be quiet and contemplative?

The season of Epiphany encourages contemplation.  With its theme of light, our prayer is for illumination, so that we can see, so that we can come to an understanding of what it is that God is up to in our human flesh.

I don’t think this is a coincidence: in nature, this is the darkest time of the year – and in the liturgical year, the theme of light is very important!  During Christmas we celebrated the birth of our Savior, the light of Christ come into our world.  From the gospel of John two weeks ago: What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

Twelve days ago was the Epiphany.  That’s the day we contemplate the magi arriving at the place where the Christ child is.  Do you remember that story?  (It’s only in the gospel of Matthew.)  What do the magi follow?  A star!  (The stars that are surrounding us in our worship space remind us that the theme of light continues to be important during these weeks of the season of Epiphany.)  An epiphany is a manifestation.  It is a realization.  It is an instance of receiving an understanding, of something coming clearly into focus in our minds.   What are we seeing, in this light of Epiphany?  What is God doing, in this Jesus, this Savior who has been born into our human flesh?  What is God up to?

What is God up to?  That is precisely what the young boy, Samuel, and the old priest, Eli, are trying to understand, in this morning’s first reading.

We’re three chapters into the book of First Samuel.  So far, here’s what’s happened in the story.  An old priest, named Eli, notices a woman named Hannah, who is praying in the place of worship.  Hannah, it turns out, is barren.  She has given no children to her husband, Elkanah.  Could there be a worse thing that could happen, for a woman in the ancient Middle East?  A woman has value according to the children (and particularly the male children) she bears to her husband.  Now – are you ready for a wrinkle in the story?  Elkanah loves Hannah much more than he loves his other wife, Peninnah!  (May I insert here that I’ve never been able to understand what Bible thumpers mean by “the Biblical view of family?”)  It turns out that Peninnah gets her revenge.  You see, Peninnah has borne children to Elkanah.  And so, she taunts Hannah, “provok[ing] her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb….Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat.” (1 Sam. 1:6-7)  Whenever Hannah goes up to the house of the Lord, she prays that God will allow her to have a son.  In fact, she promises that she will give that child to Eli, the priest, for life-long service in the temple.

Well, what do you think happens?  Samuel is born!  Hannah’s psalm of celebration, in chapter two, is a joyous passage!

But, in chapter two, we also learn distressing news.  It turns out that Eli’s sons, who would inherit the priesthood from their father, are corrupt.  Basically put, they are skimming off the offering plate!  (You need to read the story to get the details.)  Eli is a man of great integrity.  But God resolves to remove the priesthood from Eli’s lineage.

For us, it is Epiphany.  It is the season of light in the darkness.  The story we read this morning is set in a dark time for the people of God.  Do you remember the first verse of the story?  The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.  And, we read: At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of Lord, where the ark of God was.  Allow those details to become metaphors.   There is the increasing darkness of Eli’s blindness.  Visions of God are not widespread.  But – the lamp of God had not yet gone out!  God has not abandoned the people.  What is God up to?

When you explore the history of God’s people at the time of this story, you find that they are experiencing radical dislocation and disruption.  The old way of doing things no longer works.  The worship life of the people needs to be re-imagined.  What does it mean to be the people of God?  Much that is basic and fundamental needs to be reconceived.

In the story, Samuel will be designated as the only source of God’s word during this period of displacement and transformation in Israel.  Samuel is called to do that, and you remember how that happens in this wonderful story.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.   Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”

Is it Eli who is calling the boy?  Of course not!  But [Eli] said, “I did not call; lie down again.”  So he went and lay down.   The LORD called again, “Samuel!”  Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”  But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”  Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.  Remember: this is a period of darkness.  The word of the Lord is rare, visions are not widespread.  It is hard for God’s people to even recognize God’s voice!  And Samuel is young.  He has little experience of God.

Let’s read on.  (Do you remember how it’s always very significant when we encounter the number “three” in the Bible?   The LORD called Samuel again, a third time.    And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”  Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy.  (Samuel needs the guidance of this elder in the faith journey – just as you and I often do.)  Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’”  So Samuel went and lay down in his place.  Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Samuel will be called to be the only source of God’s word.  And the call comes to Samuel in those specific circumstances of displacement and transformation in Israel.  So too, for you and me,  God’s call always comes to us in our specific circumstances.  So let’s use this story to provoke some questions for your prayer and contemplation.

What is God calling us to do, now, during our own times of displacement and transformation?  What is God up to?  What dislocations may be necessary to follow God’s calling?

What does that look like, in the specific circumstances of your life?  How are you being called to use the time and the talents that God has given you, to serve those you encounter who are in need?  How is God calling you to love and care for those you have made promises to, those you are committed to and responsible for?  What is God up to?

Could it be that you are trying to be patient as you discern what God has in mind for you, vocationally?  What is your next job?  What work does God have in mind for you to do?  What dislocations will that require?  What is God up to?

Could it be that you are adjusting to a physical disability?  What must you do to adjust to this “new normal?”  How will God lead you through this dislocation?  What is God up to?

Could it be that you have received good news: the dire diagnosis is not the case!  How do you use this “bonus” time that you’ve been given?  What work does God have in mind for you to do?  What dislocations will that require?  What is God up to?

Who in this congregation is your “Eli?”  Who is God giving to you, to help you figure out what God is up to, in the dislocations and disruptions that we all experience?

Listen.  What is God saying to you?

In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

– Pastor Andy Ballentine

All of Us, Called through our Baptisms, Doing Ministry in the World

 Mark 1:4-11     The Baptism of Our Lord     January 11, 2015

 

Why did Jesus even have to get baptized?  Do you ever wonder about that?  Isn’t Jesus God in human flesh, after all?

This year we’re reading through the gospel of Mark in worship.  Mark was the first gospel written, and the stories are fast-paced, straight description, no elaboration.  Look at this morning’s verses.  John the Baptizer appears.  Jesus is baptized.  Then, here are the next four verses: And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.  Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Boom!  In the first 15 verses of Mark, John the Baptizer appears proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; Jesus is baptized; Jesus is tempted by the devil; John the Baptizer is arrested; and Jesus begins his work (with words that sound an awful lot like John’s words!).  All of that, in only 15 verses.

Mark’s bare-bones story telling gives us his answer to the question: “Why did Jesus even have to be baptized?” – because what comes immediately after Jesus is baptized and tempted?  He gets to work!  He speaks words of good news, calling people to return to God who is full of compassion and forgiveness.

In some traditions of Eastern Christianity, there is a teaching about baptism that I’ve been thinking about: that, when Jesus was baptized, he made the waters of baptism holy!  Isn’t that wonderful?  And doesn’t that carry implication for you and me, we who have been baptized, and those who are feeling drawn towards baptism?  When we are baptized with the water that Jesus made holy, God includes us in the work that Jesus is doing.  In our actions, in our words – our ministries! – we issue the same invitation as Jesus does in this morning’s story from Mark: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 

*  *  *

In the Sunday morning bulletin, where the church staff is listed, you’ve noticed who’s listed first, right?  “All of Us, Called through our Baptisms, Doing Ministry in the World.”  This is a particular emphasis of Lutheran theology.  Martin Luther was the first to teach widely that God intends any vocation to be a calling.  The work that you do – whether that work be done for pay, or as a giving of your time and talent for the community – becomes ministry, work that God has called you to do, when you are working to bring God’s kingdom that has broken into our world in the birth of the Christ; when you are working for justice, mercy and righteousness.  “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”  Until Christ comes again, we are the body of Christ, bringing God’s forgiveness and compassion into the places God puts us, among the people God gives us to live with and play with and work with; touching people, in our actions and our words, with that good news!

All of us are called, through our baptisms, to do ministry in the world.  So here is a baptismal question: What is the work God calls you to do?  The promises we make at the baptismal font, and when we affirm our baptisms make it clear: we gather together because we need to receive nourishment from God the Holy Spirit, through our worship, through our study – so we can make known God’s kingdom that has broken into our world in the birth of the Christ: the kingdom of justice, mercy and righteousness.  Here’s the language in the liturgy that we’ll use when we receive new members into our congregation in a few minutes:

You have made public profession of your faith.  Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism:

to live among God’s faithful people,

to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,

to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,

to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,

and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?

The response is: I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.[1]

We gather here, “among God’s faithful people.”  We “hear the word of God and [we] share in the Lord’s supper.”  Then, when you scatter from this place: what is the work God is calling you to do, at this juncture of your journey?  How is God calling you “to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?”  What are your gifts that God is calling you to use?  Is God calling you to continue doing the work you have been doing – whether that work is for pay if you are following God’s calling by the way you are giving your time and talents for the good of others?  Or are you discerning something new?  Is God calling you to use your time and abilities in a new form of ministry?

*  *  *

            Thomas Merton was a spiritual giant of the 20th century.  In one of his writings he asked, “How am I to know the will of God?”  He wrote: “the very nature of each situation usually bears written into itself some indication of God’s will.  For whatever is demanded by truth, by justice, by mercy, or by love must surely be taken to be willed by God.”

Merton continued: “The requirements of a work to be done can be understood as the will of God.  If I am supposed to hoe a garden or make a table, then I will be obeying God if I am true to the task I am performing.  To do the work carefully and well, with love and respect for the nature of my task and with due attention to its purpose, is to unite myself to God’s will in my work.  In this way I become [God’s] instrument.  [God] works through me.”

And then Merton wrote this: “Unnatural, frantic, anxious work, work done under pressure of greed or fear or any other inordinate passion, cannot properly speaking be dedicated to God, because God never wills such work directly.  He may permit that through no fault of our own we may have to work madly and distractedly, due to our sins, and to the sins of the society in which we live.  In that case we must tolerate it and make the best of what we cannot avoid.  But let us not be blind to the distinction between sound, healthy work and unnatural toil.”[2]

All of us encounter times when there is tremendous pressure on us in our work – deadlines, anxious co-workers; even worse, my own pride (thinking it’s all up to me) or fear (what will people think of me?).  That’s what Merton is talking about when he mentions our own sins and the sins of the society in which we live.  Don’t you find that it’s almost always your own sin; that it’s pressure your putting on yourself?  That encourages me to point out a detail of the story we read from Mark this morning.  Do you remember the description of what happens when Jesus is baptized, when he is coming up out of the water?  He sees the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And he hears a voice [that comes] from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  The voice names Jesus as the Beloved before he does a single thing!  This isn’t a matter of earning God’s love!  So to for you and me, of course, in our baptisms.  What joy we experience when we actually believe that, and live in that grace, resisting our own sin; our own fear that God and others will judge our performance.  What joy there is when our work is our response to God who takes the initiative, acting first, in grace!

What is the work God is calling you to do, at this juncture of your journey?  How is God calling you “to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?”  Thomas Merton describes the sweet spot: “To do the work carefully and well, with love and respect for the nature of my task and with due attention to its purpose, is to unite myself to God’s will in my work.  In this way I become [God’s] instrument.  [God] works through me.”

What joy there is, in responding to God’s immense grace that is ours because we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection!  What joy there is, to live each day of our lives “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[3]  What joy we experience; all of us, called through our baptisms, doing ministry in the world!

In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

 

[1] Liturgy for Affirmation of Baptism in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

[2] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961), pages 18-19.

[3] From the funeral liturgy in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

Grace upon Grace

Jeremiah 31:7-14  John 1:1-8     Second Sunday of Christmas    January 4, 2015

Home. Home is where the heart is. I’ll be home for Christmas. Sweet Home Alabama. Click your heels three times and say, “There’s no place like home,” and you will be there. Home. Close your eyes for a moment. Is home a town, or a city, or is it a house? What does home look like to you? Is it your childhood home, or the home you live in now? Does it smell like cookies baking in the oven? What do you hear? Are there children laughing? How does home feel? Take a deep breath and open your eyes.

While I hope that your remembrance of home is comforting, it isn’t that way for all people all the time. Through our feeding ministries, we have seen people who have no permanent residence. There are those who have spent their childhood in orphanages, and there are adults whose home is now prison. Sometimes home can be a place of violence and fear. Sometimes, home can feel like a place you don’t belong.

Jeremiah, the prophet—not the bullfrog—was speaking to people who were living in a place in which they didn’t belong. In 587 BCE, Jerusalem was destroyed and the people were exiled to Babylon. The people were thrown out of their homes by a powerful enemy. They became refugees in a strange land, not by their own choice. Although Jeremiah had been given the chance and chose to stay in Jerusalem, when the political situation became more dangerous for him, his people forced him to go to Babylon. Jeremiah continued to prophesy while he was in exile among the other refugees.

In Babylon, things were different! The culture was not like it was back home. The food tasted sketchy, the people’s language was hard to understand, and they dressed differently. The natives worshipped many gods, and the Jews had no place to worship their one god.

Exile, being in a strange place against your will, is a place to which we have all traveled. Some days, maybe even weeks, or sometimes even years, we feel like we are in exile, and all we want is to be able to go home again. We want to go to the place where we feel we belong, where things are comfortable. Exile is uncomfortable. Exile is when death claims someone we love, employment ends, a change in health brings diminished capacities, we have an addiction that we can’t seem to stay on top of, or a partner decides to find love somewhere else. Suddenly we are forced to live in a place where we don’t want to be.

God does not forget who we are, or where we are. No matter where we are, God gathers up every aspect of our lives. Hear again God’s word spoken through Jeremiah:  See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble.

Do you hear who it is that God is going to bring home? The blind, the lame, those with child, and those in labor. These are the people who are considered unclean, the ones who are disenfranchised. Those who mourn, those without a job, those who are alone, and those who suffer. Those who are the most vulnerable will be part of the community. God promises:  Their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. Then the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

God’s promises to the exiles in Babylon were fulfilled by bringing them home to Jerusalem. God’s promises to us are fulfilled in and through Jesus Christ. They are made real through our baptism, when we are joined to Christ in his suffering, death and resurrection.

Without Christ, and on our own terms, we have no hope. On our own terms, in our exile, we allow those things that describe our life to also define who we are. If our partner leaves, we are not worthy of love. If we lose our job, it is because we are a loser, if we are physically diminished, our net worth as a person diminishes. If we make a mistake, we feel we are a mistake.

Through the Word made flesh, we are led home. Listen again to our gospel reading: To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

Jesus came that we might become children of God. David Lose summarizes that we are children who are not dominated by the circumstances in which we find ourselves, not defined by our limitations or hurts, and who destinies are not controlled by others. Rather, we are those individuals who know ourselves to be God’s own beloved children [1].

Not everyone has physical recovery or reversal of circumstances. We cannot bring deceased loved ones back to our physical earth, and for some a care facility remains the best option. We cannot make the one who left us fall in love with us again, and a well paying job may not come. But through Jesus Christ, God brings deeper healing. The God who created us tells us that our infinite value is in God’s love for us. No matter what our circumstances, we are God’s children. There is no illness, no human relationship, no mistake that can change that. There is no person who is beyond recovery, and no grief that is beyond consolation.

We are still in the Christmas season, celebrating God’s decision to become one of us. God became human flesh, sharing our life, sharing what it is like to be disappointed, hungry, happy, afraid or lonely. Since God chose to come in human flesh, there is nothing about our days, our celebrations, our sorrows, or our circumstances of which God does not want to be part. Our lives matter to God. Through the water and the word, we are adopted. We are marked as God’s child. Christ rescues us, redeems us, and restores us. We, who are unable to save ourselves, become the recipients of grace upon grace. This comes to us without our approval, our will, or even our understanding. Thanks be to God!

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2980

 

Finding God in the Disruptions

 

Luke 2:1-21     Christmas Eve, 2014

 

Usually things go smoothly, don’t they?  For most of us, in fact, day-to-day life goes smoothly enough often enough that we come to believe that we’re actually in control of events.  Isn’t that true for you?  Don’t you make up your to-do lists for each day, because you assume that things will go according to plan and you’ll be able to work through them?  Oh, sure, most days there are items you don’t get to.  But don’t you just move them over to the next day, because you assume that day will go smoothly as well?

What about when your plans are disrupted?

For example: one day, recently, my to-do list was short.  (In fact, leaving the house that morning, I was actually under the illusion that I would be able to spend time in Swem Library, reading!)  First thing on the agenda was a meeting.  During the meeting a text came in: one of us was at the hospital with his wife who needed some sudden surgery.  A few minutes later, another one of us stopped by.  Her husband had been taken from his doctor’s office straight to another hospital, and she was on the way to see him there.  My to-do list for that day didn’t matter much anymore, did it?  I hopped on my bicycle, rode home, took off my informal shirt and put on my clerical collar, started my car, and drove to make my hospital calls.

What a disruption to my plans for that day!  But, in the disruption, I was able to remember that this was essential work that God was giving me to do.  The drive to the hospital was an opportunity for prayer time: centering on God’s presence and gifts in the disruption; giving thanks that Pastor Griffin was preparing the sermon for the coming Sunday so I had time to respond to these needs; giving thanks for my own health and ability to respond.

May I ask a question?  Do you think I would have been aware of God’s presence and gifts to me that day, if events had not disrupted my sense of being in control?  Here’s what I think.  The disruption lifted me out of myself.  It made me aware that the only thing I can do is to rely on God.

Have you ever had such an experience?  Of course you have!

And you have experienced disruptions much more significant than that, haven’t you?  A loved one is suddenly unable to speak the words his brain wants him to speak, and he’s feeling numbness on one side of his body.  The  phone rings, and it’s your child, calling from the police station.  The middle-aged college faculty member, with a new book just published, up for promotion to full professor and thinking  she’s doing well.  Then there’s a blood rupture in her brain stem.  The corporate executive who’s advancing in her career; doing well, she thinks; who’s called in by her boss to hear, “We’re closing your department here.  We want you to take a job in Salt Lake City.”  The man who’s been feeling run down lately, so he makes an appointment with the doctor for a check-up.  He’s sent to a cardiologist who does a heart cath.  Next, he’ s scheduled for heart bypass surgery.

I wonder if there has to be disruption, for us to trust in God’s promises?  Isn’t it true that, when day-to-day life is going smoothly, we come to think that we’re in control?  Well, then, who needs God?

Life is not going smoothly for Joseph and Mary, in the beloved story we read tonight.  Their lives have been disrupted, big time!  So far in the gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel has come to 12-year old Mary, betrothed (promised by her father to Joseph) but not yet married.  The angel has told her that she will bear a child and his name shall be “Jesus,” the one from God who will bring salvation.  Joseph, for some reason, does not throw Mary away as anyone would expect.  (After all, he knows he’s not the father!)  Now there’s further disruption.  Joseph has had to make his way to Bethlehem with Mary, his pregnant but not yet legal wife.  It’s a journey of about 70 miles from their village of Nazareth to the city of David.  (How did they get there?  Did they walk?  The story doesn’t say anything about a donkey; we’ve just made that part up.)  It’s the Roman Emperor Augustus who has disrupted their lives.  He has proclaimed that a census must be taken, and Mary and Joseph have no choice but to obey.  It’s just the latest experience of their powerlessness, as peasants in that society.  The census, of course, is so the Emperor can know how many people he has subjected in this backwater of a region, so he can know how much tax revenue to expect.  (The tax burden on peasants was onerous!  Do you remember learning about “Pax Romana” in school?  The “peace and prosperity” of the Roman empire was produced by plunder and then taxation of a conquered people.[1])

But God is in the disruption?  Do you notice the clues that point to this?  Look at the political and theological statements of defiance in the story!  The “Emperor Augustus” is named explicitly.  Doesn’t this refer to Octavian, recognized in antiquity as “the divine savior who has brought peace to the world?”  But, wait, you and I who are reading this story from Luke.  Who is the divine savior of the world?  It certainly is not the Emperor!  When the proconsul of Asia proposed beginning the new year on the Emperor Augustus’ birthday, the provincial assembly declared this about him: “Whereas the providence which divinely ordered our lives…sen[t] us and those after us a saviour who put an end to war and established all things; and whereas Caesar when he appeared exceeded the hopes of all who had anticipated good tidings…; and whereas the birthday of the god marked for the world the beginning of good tidings through his coming …”[2]

The story describes God disrupting all of this!  Listen to how the angel’s announcement uses similar language to expresses God’s defiance of this Emperor worship: “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  God is disrupting the world of Emperor Augustus with the Word of divine promise!  That Word is enfleshed in a baby who has been born!

Joseph and Mary’s lives are disrupted by this order from the Emperor Augustus Caesar!  But who’s in charge, in the disruption?  The Emperor?  Or God?  The story makes that clear.  We find God is the disruption!

In fact, as the story continues, it’s as if God is piling on!  Who receives the announcement of God’s intervention?  Is it the Emperor?  Or the local king, Herod?  Or even the Jerusalem temple authorities?  (I’ve just gone down the hierarchy of status in that ancient culture.)  Does God announce the stupendous news of a Savior to any of those with power and status?  No!  The announcement comes to some who are at the bottom of society: to shepherds.  God’s Kingdom is appearing in the birth of a baby, and it is a new world radically different from the one now entrenched.   We find God in the disruption!

Have these past weeks been a disruption for you?  The “Christmas season” is a disruption for many.  There are deep emotions swirling around that we feel, in particular, at this time of year.  There has been too much to do, and we’ve been feeling the pressure of that.  We fall short of creating “the best Christmas ever” (to quote the covers of women’s magazines).  There is the accumulation of griefs.  We miss those who have died, and those we cannot be with.  Many find this to be a tough time of year.  Do you find God in this disruption?  I wonder if God uses this disruption of these weeks – to clear away any idea that we are in control of events, that our to-do lists are not all that important?

Each time we gather for worship, we come together “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[3]  That is where we are on this night.

Our hope is sure and certain because God has come among us in human flesh to guarantee God’s promises!  And God is with us, now, in our human flesh.  (The gospel writer of Matthew makes that explicit, calling Jesus “Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”[4])   But our “sure and certain hope” is still hope: there is still crying and dying; there still war, there is still sexual violence, there is still division among those of different races and creeds.  We are still waiting for fulfillment.  We are still hoping.  But where is the power of the Christmas story?  It’s in its circumstances of disruption!

It is in the disruptions of our lives that we find God, born into our lives as the Christ, experiencing what we do!  What comfort and consolation there is in that.  What joy!

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

 

[1] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), page 58.

[2] Ibid., pages 58 and 133.

[3] To quote from the liturgy said at the graveside.

[4] Matthew 1:23

(If you would like a copy of an earlier sermon, e-mail Pastor Ballentine or Pastor Griffin and s/he’ll send you a copy!)