The Christmas story from Luke and Matthew includes many important names—Emperor Augustus, Governor Quirinius, King Herod—the people who run the world, who change people’s lives with the stroke of pen, who order soldiers, and wield power others can barely imagine.
Even the angel Gabriel is named in his essential mission to announce the mission to the soon-to-be Mother of the Messiah. Of course, Mary and Joseph are named as Jesus’ human parents who will raise this Christ child to be named Jesus. But after Jesus is born, wrapped in bands of cloth, and laid in a manger, these specifics drop out—no one else is identified by name.
Who is this angel who appears to the shepherds and tells them good news of a great joy? Is it Gabriel? Michael? Some underling with her first big assignment? And how about the multitude of the heavenly host? Maybe they would like a mention by name in Scripture—even the third grip—whatever that is, gets their name mentioned in movie credits—but the third alto of this heavenly host? Nothing. And what about the shepherds? No names, not even a number of how many there were. And the wise sages from the east?—people of high status themselves—nameless, with not even a mention of their country. We can deduce by the way they watch the stars that they are Zoroastrian priests from Persia—or perhaps from as far as India or the Arabian Peninsula.
Why is the text so specific in the beginning, and then so vague as the story progresses—all these nameless characters—no one in particular shares or receives the news of the Messiah and responds?
Certainly, the Gospel writers want us to know Jesus’ birth took place in a specific time in history. But another answer lies in the angel’s words to the shepherds. This nameless angel says two things that at first sound contradictory. First, she says, “I bring you good news of a great joy for all the people. God’s love in the birth of Jesus is for everyone—it’s all-inclusive.
It’s the same message as other places in Scripture—“for God so loved the world, the cosmos, all people –that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” There are no names, so everyone knows that this message literally includes all people!
But shepherds, who are at the bottom rung of society, usually do not feel included in the “everyone”—in “all the people.” They are like the day laborers today who hang out at the Valero gas station near the High Five hoping a builder will pick them up for work. They are used to being overlooked and shoved aside. All the people often feels like everyone else—those who have a better family, a decent job, people who do not struggle like they do, who have more on the ball, are more worthy, less lonely, more faithful, more sure in their beliefs, who do not feel beaten down by life or like they are flunking in some way. Some days, we all feel like a shepherd—that we are on the outside looking in at all the people God really loves.
So in the next breath, right after the angel says, “I bring you good news of a great joy for all the people,” the angel says, “to you”— to you, shepherds, personally, specifically, “to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Lord, the Messiah.” To you— Tom, Arlene, Kristin, Bill, Gail, …… To you a Savior is born. What do you need from the Savior who is born to YOU this day?
I asked our homebound members this on my visits this month, and one said, “peace,” another said, “to know I am loved,” someone else said, "to become stronger," another said, “to be transported to heaven,” and still another said, “deeper faith.”
The savior is born for everyone yes, and also, the Savior is born to you—the names are dropped so we can put ourselves in the story, and we can hear the angel speaking to us.
And the names are gone, so we can see that there’s a multitude of angels which means there are plenty to go around, including a guardian for each of us.
So, with the shepherds and sages, we can gaze around us, and see God in all things, be it an angelic presence appearing in nature, in the stars, or the shimmering light of love manifest in an infant, a smile, a human connection, a moment of hope.
With the shepherds and the sages, we are always on the journey of faith. Because the Savior is born to us, we live with the joyful expectation that we get to participate in what God is doing in Jesus here and now. All we need to do is bring ourselves because Jesus does, in fact, know you by name.
Unexpected and holy God, your love shines through the ages, making real your presence in our own story in the form of an infant. We rejoice that you sent yourself-- this great gift of hope, peace, joy, and love to all people, to everyone, to the whole world. Open our hearts to receive that you are also born to us, personally. Enable to ask for the saving we need, at this moment, in this time, as you place us in the story of incarnation and salvation with the shepherds and sages. Give us the joyful expectation that we will see your angels, your stars, your light, your love aflame in the world, hidden in plain sight—in the people around us, in your creation, in the faces of those in need, in every act of love. Wrap in bands of healing cloth, those who are sick and suffering in any way, especially those who are lonely or distant from family, and those on our prayer list. Make us faithful and joyful in our journey with Christ as we shine his love, share our gifts, and carry the good news that he is born to all, and to each one. We pray in the name of the Christ child, born to us this day. Let all the faithful, say, Amen.
“Expectations are pre-meditated resentments.” I first heard this when I was learning about addictive family systems and family systems theory, and it stopped me up short. I was a master at high expectations and judgment when people did not live up to them. When we were dating, Dan noticed this prevented me from even enjoying movies, because if they didn’t turn out how I was expecting, I did not like them.
Part of my personal and spiritual growth over our marriage has involved learning new ways to operate in relationships, in the world, and in ministry, so I would not hobble my spirit with self-made resentments born of my own constructed reality. I embraced this theme for Advent, of “Great Expectations” with a little fear and trembling…
All of that is to say, I understand John the Baptist, now sitting in prison—wondering what is up with Jesus. John has done his due diligence in preparing the way for the Messiah: he has confronted the powers that be in their self-righteousness and arrogance; he preached preparation and repentance with Baptism, a fire-y message that refines and purifies, so the Messiah can come with redemption and judgment. John is paying the price at the hands of the powerful who are not so thrilled with his message—he’s awaiting death in Herod’s prison.
There John hears stories about Jesus—but Jesus is not what he is expecting. John expects the liberation of God’s people from oppression and bondage, more fire-y judgment, but so far nothing has happened. The domination of Rome, its local rulers, and the religious powers are carrying on as usual.
Instead of upending them, Jesus is focused on healings, exorcisms, and banquets with sinners of every kind including those colluding tax collectors. Jesus is great at healing and restoration, but weak on judgment and vindication like John. With his expectations disappointed, John begins to doubt Jesus. Are you the one? Are you the Messiah we have been waiting for or should we look for another, someone who behaves like the real deal?
It's comforting, isn’t it? To hear John the Baptist struggle with doubt? To know that in the midst of his suffering in prison, fearing death, he begins wondering if he got it all wrong. He is cold, hungry, probably tortured, and his pain causes the questions in his mind to run rampant.
Physical, mental, or emotional suffering does lead to spiritual doubt. We have probably all experienced it one way or another—the doubt that comes with suffering. I certainly have—a hollow dark night of the soul in chemo-hell that I pray I never to experience again. And we wonder, if God is all powerful, why am I sitting here in so much pain? Why are we still waiting for Jesus to redeem the whole world? Why is there still war and injustice, exploitation and violence, poverty, and horrible illness? Is Jesus the One who is come and save us or should we look for another?
This is one of those moments when we really want Jesus to give a direct answer like, “Yes! It’s me! I am the One. I am the Messiah! Ta-dah!” But he doesn’t do that, does he? Instead, he wants John’s disciples to testify to what they hear and see. They have to look for evidence of God’s power breaking in to people’s lives through Jesus. They need to discern God’s presence and the kingdom. They have to watch for good news—well—they have to engage in Advent with great expectations of seeing God breaking into ordinary life in extraordinary ways through Jesus: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
Jesus does make this part very plain and direct. If that is not God’s power breaking into this earthly realm and transforming reality, what is?
This good news should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Scripture or who reads Isaiah and longs for the restoration of this nation who has suffered. Because this always been part of the vision:
• Isaiah 29:18-19 – the deaf shall hear and the blind shall see
• Isaiah 35:5-6 – says the same thing and adds then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
• Isaiah 42:18, Listen, you who are deaf, and you who are blind, look up and see!
• Isaiah 61:1-3 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners,
• We hear more of the same in Psalm 146 which we just sung.
Jesus hopes the elite will overhear all the testimonies now being told by John’s and his disciples and all those being healed. It is really the whole nation who is blind and deaf to their own Messiah. Will those in power who are blind and deaf to the needs of the people also begin to see and hear the truth?
Franciscan priest Fr. Richard Rohr says, “the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” John expected Jesus to overthrow the oppressors and instead Jesus practiced the better—the empowerment, healing, and restoration of the oppressed. The powerful’s shameful treatment of the sick and outcast became evident as the crowds flocked to Jesus for food and healing. The feeding of the masses, the empowerment of the poor, the healing of the marginalized, was indeed upending the system and disrupting the power structure. If it was not, there wouldn’t have been such powerful movement to execute Jesus. Jesus did not go about it how John expected, but never has healing and feeding been so threatening or subversive. Really look, John. Really watch. (Those who really understood this are Martin Luther (educate and feed the masses!), Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandhi, Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement through the church in South Africa).
In his response to John, notice that Jesus is not offended by John’s questions or doubt—in fact he praises John as the greatest prophet. I hope this gives you comfort and relief in your own questions and doubts and wonderings about God and Jesus as the Messiah. Theologian Paul Tillich wrote that “doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is an element of faith.” Doubt is an element of faith for John the Baptist and he knew Jesus personally—Jesus is not fully who John expected—Jesus may not always be completely who we expect either.
But Jesus does love us in our doubts, and he always enters our suffering because he himself suffered. Jesus heals and transforms from the bottom up –which means that he enters at the worst, hardest and lowest point and meets us there, where we think no one can, and there he loves us, there he embraces us, there he says, God’s love is big enough to carry you out of this chasm, this hurt, this depression, this sorrow, this illness, this fear. I will not leave you or forsake you, for I have suffered so that you know that I will never abandon you, not even death—even there, I will carry you over to a new life with God.
If Jesus can praise John the Baptist in his doubts and transform the lepers and the lame, then surely he can love you and me in our doubts and in our suffering. Because death could not hold him—the powerful thought they won—and they did not! He rose to defeat the power of evil for good!
Jesus’ power—alive today—breaks into our lives and that’s what we watch for, wait for, look for and what we expect—that’s what gives us hope in the midst of doubt.
Because every experience of love, every kind word, every meal, every hug, every encouragement, every prayer said on our behalf, are all moments where the life and love Jesus break into our ordinary days with healing and hope.
Jesus wants us to go through our daily life with the ability to see and to hear God’s presence and love available and showing up for us—so like John he wants us to look for evidence of God’s power breaking in to people’s lives through Jesus…to discern Jesus’s presence— to watch—and to engage in Advent all year—with great expectations of seeing God piercing our ordinary life in extraordinary ways in Jesus. This is what enables us to make a difference in our community together.
I still do have some expectations –I expect God to show up every day—to see signs of love and hope around me and in the world, and these expectations help me keep on the lookout for what Jesus is up to around me and in other people’s lives.
This week I want you to watch for a Jesus-sighting—a moment where the extraordinary breaks into the ordinary. A moment of love or kindness, something your kid or grandchild said or did, something good breaking into your everyday when you felt hope, peace, joy or love—the four spiritual gifts of Advent. And I want you to tell someone about it. Testify—tell your family at the dinner table, call up a friend, send me a text--I want you to blow up my phone this week! Post it on our FB page in the comments on one of our Advent posts that come out every day! It doesn’t build up anybody else’s faith, or help anyone else see or hear what Jesus is doing if you keep it to yourself. Jesus said, “tell what you have seen and heard!”
Our first Jesus-sighting is going to be after church today with lots of great cookies, packing Hunger Helper lunches, and a herd of shepherds and a choir of angels fitted for your costumes in the congregational life center! I'll see you and Jesus there!
Thank you for your prayers for my dad, he's recovering and doing much better!
Yesterday, I presented Pr. Gnana’s Advent Bible study at the women’s event since she was home with pneumonia. One of her opening comments was that John the Baptist is our primary biblical character for Advent—And my first thought was, “what a bummer!”
“Brood of vipers, wrath to come, judgment, and fire–?” I echo Indiana Jones’ question, in the movie the Raiders of the Lost Ark, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” Do we really have to go through all this to get swaddling cloths and shepherds, and praying for peace on earth in the fullness of time? I have already promised myself that next year, I am picking my own Advent texts and John the Baptist and me? -–we get a year off.
But Pr. Gnana is right of course –because just like he did before Jesus’ earthly ministry, John calls us to repent–to turn around and away from our sinful, destructive, or hurtful ways, and turn toward God, preparing the way for Jesus to come anew into our lives.
The religious leaders also come out to hear what all the fuss is about at the river, with so many people being baptized, and opening themselves to a new way of life. Here we see that the judgment John offers is not just about bad, immoral or sinful behavior–repentance is a truth-telling.
It may not just be something you did, or a thought pattern that needs to change, but what you need, who you are, where you are lost, how you are incomplete, where you are broken, how you are willing to turn around to be in a relationship with God to experience what is missing. Repentance is really about learning to die before you die–to die to those things that do not bring life, so you can really live.
The deeper question in repentance is “What is the hardest thing to let go?” Maybe it’s a resentment. Maybe it’s control. Maybe it’s fear or anxiety. Maybe the hardest thing to let go is the belief you have to earn forgiveness, that you are not worthy of grace.
John prepares us by asking us to come to the waters with whatever needs to be changed, whatever needs to be released, whatever truth that has not been spoken so it can be said and let go, so our hearts can be washed clean. For me this week that has meant letting go of control, and trying to do everything, and believing I can do 3 jobs while staffis out recovering from surgery or sick, and doing everything without help.
Preparing for Jesus is really about dying before you die–letting go of those things that are hardest for us to let go of to make room for the life of Christ so we can really live. That’s the truth of repentance–it’s about willingness to be changed–not just to have the slate wiped clean so we can out and do the same things over again--or just pick up a different sin.
Enter the snakes. Perhaps the religious leaders did not get the message that they should not come to the river or see John the Baptist if they do not want the truth. They quickly discover that if they are not prepared to offer honest repentance, truly change or tell the truth about who they are and what they need to let go–John will tell the truth for them.
John’s anger was not against the Jewish religion, but toward anyone who was self-deceived, acted as if they had no sin (as it says in 1st John 1:8-9) especially those with wealth, power, and authority–with the power and resources to change the lives of the poor and oppressed for the better.
Hearing no repentance, nor hearts turned toward God, John called them a “family snakes”–echoing the Garden of Eden from Genesis with a serpent as satan–he viewed the powerful who did not use their power for the good of all as instruments of evil. Then John talks about bearing fruit, cutting down trees, and burning chaff, mentioning fire three times, so it sounds like he is mixing metaphors, but he isn’t really.
It was customary for farmers then, as it may be for some today, to burn the stubble in the field to get ready for the next planting season, and as the fire came near the vipers’ dens, the snakes were often visibly slithering away from the flames. "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance."
John offers an image of preparing the field for an excellent planting season ahead, and many snakes are caught in the fire. This fits with the rest of what he says–a tree that bears good fruit, and the good wheat that is preserved to grind for bread, while the chaf, the dead wood, the fallow stalks from last year, and the broods of vipers are burned.
The fire is purifying, cleansing, refining, where evil is cast aside; the fire is the place of rebirth and re-growth, so something new can come. Fire is the process of repentance–of dying before you die, so you can make room for the life of Christ and really live. The goal for John in repentance is to be cleansed in Baptism to bear the fruit of the coming Messiah in the world–to be cleansed and open to his life and Spirit, words and character, dreams and hopes– that we bear the fruit of the kingdom in the world.
This is John’s life expectancy for us–that in telling the truth, in dying to ourselves and letting go of what crowds out Jesus from our thoughts and our heart, and our day, we open up space to become infused and grafted and implanted with the Spirit, fire and life of Christ within us that his life is our life and our life is his life. Our life expectancy is not about time or how long, how old, but how much light and how much love; how much joy and how much good; how much hope and how much compassion did we share?
Our life expectancy is the fullness of our life in Jesus, the new life he can grow in us when we are willing to die to ourselves–our own ego, or control needs, or addictive patterns, or whatever it is that is the hardest to let go–and allow the life expectancy of the fruit of the Spirit to expand in us– love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control!
This week I want you to contemplate what it is that is the hardest for you to let go of–really sink into it in some contemplative time beyond your ego, and find the answer in your true inner self. This is why listening prayer or quiet prayer or contemplative prayer is important. Whether you have 5 minutes or 15–(even if it’a in the bathroom and you get 5 minutes by locking the door)--it is the practice of dying to self, a practice of repentance and giving ourselves to God: we die to the monkey mind and listen for the mind of Christ; we die to the false self full of agendas and get in touch with the true self that God created; we die to the illusion of separation from God and we experience union with the Spirit who always dwells within. Even 5 minutes of this practice a day will help reveal what is hardest for you to let go of this Advent season, open your heart in repentance and create more room for the life expectancy Jesus has for you as light and love for others.
Those whose ministry is to listen to the dying teach us many things. They say that the only two questions almost everyone wonders about at the end of their life regardless of age, is “am I loved?” and “did I love others well?” When you identify the one thing that is hardest for you to let go of, ask yourself how letting go of that and making more room for Jesus’s love will enable you to experience deeper love from others and also to love others well. The dying tell us not to wait to pay attention to this in our life.
Hospice chaplains also share that many are caught by surprise in the dying process, and wish they had been better prepared. Learning to tell the truth and die to ourselves before we die, so we can be filled with the Spirit of Jesus is a spiritual practice that prepares us not only for a full life expectancy here, but a great transition into our eternal life expectancy.
Trusting in the power of Jesus Christ to give us life and life eternal, we do not have to fear any death– whether it is change, fear, having things my way, giving up something we hold precious, like our health or our independence—Jesus covers all of it and all of us, here and into the next life, forever!
That is an amazing life expectancy!
John the Baptist urges us not to wait until the end of our life to fulfill this life expectancy–but to do it now. John knows that the only way to be loved and to love others well–bearing fruit in the kingdom, is through the love of Jesus Christ working in and through our freed and available hearts.
Message for Advent 1 on Matthew 24:36-44, Romans 13:11-14 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. You can view a video of this sermon by going to our YouTube page and watching the worship video here.
And here it is, one of the Bible passages Christians have used to terrorize people for centuries. Everywhere else you go this weekend; you hear Christmas carols and holiday cheer. Not so much at church—I know it’s a rude awakening for those who are new here.
The season of Advent gets us ready for Jesus’ to come—it would seem it is for the birth of the babe in Bethlehem, and that is part of it, but it is really about preparing us for the second coming of Jesus at the end of time. We become aware of how much the world needs a Savior, and we feel more deeply, the disconnect between the world as it is, and the world as it should be—the world we envision as God’s kingdom. So, Advent begins with an apocalyptic passage about the end time when Jesus will return and set it all straight. (I know we heard this just a couple weeks ago from Luke—lucky us—but Jesus gave me something new to say!)
Even though Jesus clearly tells us that no one knows the hour or the day of his return, it’s human nature to try and figure it out anyway. We are so uncomfortable with mystery, with living in the gray. We have grown accustomed to data analytics, artificial intelligence, long-range forecasting, 538 poll aggregators, Doppler radar, storm trackers and so on —all of which feed into our control-freak nature, that to step into the mystery of faith, into a relationship with God who does not give us all the answers—well, that proves difficult if not downright impossible.
We might take a cue from Jesus himself, who seems comfortable with this mystery; he, himself is not privy to the answers either. And for all of our imaginings about judgement and who is in and who is out, the truth of the matter is, this passage does not identify punishment nor reward. In Noah’s time, it was not good to be left behind and swept away; but to first century ears, it was much better to be left behind than to be taken by the Romans--when one could be imprisoned, and possibly tortured or worse. The passage is purposely ambiguous—why? Because About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father!
So, what are we do to?
• We embrace not knowing (take a deep breath)
• we accept we are not in control (relax your shoulders)
• we lean into the gray of our relationship with God where we do not have all the answers (unclench your jaw and your hands)
• we sink into mystery (relax your hips and your feet. When you relax all this main muscles the rest of your body follows)
As we do this, Jesus calls us to pay attention, just like we when read a mystery novel, or meet someone new and get to know them. We keep alert, we remain vigilant, watching for the details, looking for the signs of God’s presence and power that will keep showing up when we least expect them, giving us clues to God’s complete presence and love for us in Jesus.
For even in the mystery among questions that do not and will not have answers, we do have rock solid assurance of that which is most important: We live in the time of resurrection and the defeat of death—Jesus has already conquered our most feared unknown—death itself—so we already know that whether we are left here or there, whether in this life or the next, whether next week or the next millennia, we are with Christ Jesus, raised from the dead, whom God sent to save us.
This truth gives us new ways of living in the mystery of what has not yet been resolved in this life. Romans tells us to “wake up sleepy head! Put on the armor of light!”—look for resurrection, watch for life, be vigilant in noticing the power of Jesus’ victory over this present age in all of your circumstances!”
When I went into prayer and meditation and asked the Lord what he wanted me to say to you to today, I heard exactly this: Resurrection is around us all the time, every day—we just do not see it because we expect to see bad news, destruction, and death. We experience what we expect to experience. We see what we expect to see.
Psychologists and scientists have studied this for decades. It is called “motivated perception”—and studies show that what we see is biased, selective, and malleable. Our thoughts, wishes and preferences affect what we see and perceive. Well, be biased toward resurrection! Be selective about looking for the life of Christ! Be malleable when it comes to seeking the good, the noble, the Christlike, the signs of hope, and renewal and life! Change the channel in your brain and attitude to the Resurrection-Jesus Station! Tune in to RJS—this is better than all the other alphabet soup out there—MSNBC, FOX, CNN, CBS and so on!
Jesus calls us, as disciples, to be people with great expectations—to be people who expect to see and experience resurrection— to prefer, wish, think, and be motivated to see Jesus at work in the world. Jesus calls us to look for and participate in instances of new life, healing, forgiving, transforming, comforting, feeding, clothing, praying, housing, and offering hope in all circumstances. Our job is to look for Jesus everywhere, to watch for him, to be vigilant in seeking him—to train our eyes, our minds, our brains, and our attitude toward the expectation of seeing and experiencing Jesus breaking into our everyday life and situations.
Did you know that in Matthew, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary arrive at the tomb empty-handed? They do not have spices to anoint Jesus’ dead body. They believe Jesus who announced that he would rise after 3 days. They are not going to see the dead but the living—they are showing up expecting resurrection! And they are the only ones who actually get a front row seat to the earthquake, the angel, the empty tomb, and the risen Lord on the road!
Where has new life and resurrection broken into your life recently? And if you did not call it resurrection, can you see it that way, now?
- Maybe it was a conversation over Thanksgiving, with a loved one in-person, or who lives far away
- or being able to travel to be with people you rarely see;
- maybe it was a moment in nature when you felt peaceful, and at one with God,
- perhaps it was a connection with a stranger while out shopping
- maybe it was cuddling with your pet in a moment of blissful hibernation
- or the attention of the healthcare workers attending to someone you love,
- or the love and generosity of an unexpected gift--
After Paul and I discussed the opportunity for him to work in a position at his own church, I was driving home and started praying about what I was going to do about an Administrative Assistant coming up to the holidays, and the Holy Spirit immediately said to me, “hire your son, Daniel.” That’s the honest truth. I did not think of it myself, even though the option was right in front of me, living in my own house. Now I know it was a moment of resurrection!
Since the ransomware wiped our office drive, we have had on-going computer issues, and this week, Daniel has solved two of them—the email scam and the fact that my emails were not being received by church office computer. If you have ever found it impossible to get anything done during one of your busiest seasons because of computer problems and then had some of it fixed, you know it’s an experience of new life and resurrection!
We are here together because we have great expectations of experiencing resurrection—in each other, in the grace of forgiveness, in bread and wine, in music, in the children, in conversation, in community!
Jesus’ resurrection is around us all the time, every day. How and when Jesus’ resurrection will show up in your life and my life this week remains a mystery.
Your calling is to watch for it, recognize it, and then to share it! Every day, we will have Advent posts on St. Luke’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter—please respond to these posts, sharing where you see Jesus’ resurrection and new life breaking into your daily experience!
We prepare for Jesus’ second coming by expecting to see the new life of Christ everywhere. Jesus may come back when we least expect him—but when we are looking to see his presence and power every day, we will be ready when he shows up!