Tag Archive: Christmas


This was the sermon I preached on January 4th at Community Lutheran Church.

Well, here we are in 2015! Another year has rolled by and I find myself reflecting on the past year, as well as this coming year.  After the holidays, get-togethers and parties, I can at least say that I feel this much from Isaiah’s reading is true: “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.  I will give the priests their fill of fatness…” After so many delicious meals and wonderful treats, I can certainly attest to the last part!

In all seriousness though, we’re still in the Christmas season, even as we’ve celebrated the turning of the year and the beginning of something new.  In John’s Gospel, we hear an echo of Genesis – of a new creation.  Of the Word taking on flesh to live with us and to show us who God is.  In each of the texts for the day, God is up to new and exciting things, but they also remind us that it’s through the birth of Christ that these new things are springing up in our lives.

john-1-001This first chapter of John has come up a couple times in the past few weeks, and what jumped out at me this time around was actually the last verse: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  The phrase that particularly caught my attention was “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart.”  Close to the Father’s heart. It sounds like Christ is near and dear to the heart of God.  There is an intimacy and a type of tenderness there.  Jesus, who is God, is at the very heart of God – he knows God’s heart.  As I did a little more researching, this phrase actually means “in God’s bosom.”  It’s a very maternal type of image.  This matches up with one of the descriptions of God found throughout the Old Testament – God is described frequently as Rachoom, which is often translated as “compassionate,” but literally means “having a womb” or “womb-y.”  These are images of care, tenderness, affection, connection and relationship.

Ok, so now you’re thinking, where on earth is she going with this?! All of this imagery helps to show not only who God is, but also the relationship of God and Jesus.  John’s Gospel is trying to say that while no one has seen God, Jesus, who is so intimately connected with God, has shown God to us, by becoming human and living with us.  John is trying in every which way to show that a God, unfathomable, mysterious and cosmic, has become fleshy and earthy in order to have a close relationship with us.

Not only does that mean God living among us, but it also means us becoming the daughters and sons of God.  As John’s Gospel puts it, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become 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.” And Ephesians says, “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. … In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.”  Through our dying and rising in Christ in baptism, we have been adopted as God’s own beloved children and given the inheritance of God’s promises.

At the turn of the year, we make resolutions and, yet, we don’t often keep them.  Maybe they are only halfhearted attempts at changing and that’s why they often fall by the wayside at some point early into the New Year. Habits are hard to change and new habits difficult to implement, but maybe it’s a mindset that needs changing.  As children of God, when it comes to thinking about resolutions for our faith and our lives as disciples, maybe it’s helpful to think about continually growing and maturing in our faith.  Maybe it’s more helpful to reframe our thoughts in terms of children growing in God’s grace rather than checking the box for a completed resolution.

Think about being in a loving relationship with a parent who has our best interests at heart.  When you’re a child, you take delight in being with your parents, spending time with them, and learning from them.  Prayer, reading Scripture, and service do take effort, but they are also activities that bring joy and delight because we encounter God in doing so.  In a relationship with God, the loving parent, we receive joy, support, care, affection, encouragement, but also gentle correction and forgiveness.

Growing and transforming are difficult.  Maybe we really don’t want or know how to change.  Maybe we don’t even know what changes we need.  Perhaps we don’t really want the kind of intimacy with God that Jesus has – being close to the Father’s heart.  That can sound wonderful and yet also a bit threatening or uncomfortable to us and our independence.  Maybe we worry that that kind of relationship with God will put us out of sync with those around us, our culture, or our world.  I have wrestled with these questions – wanting to grow in my faith and yet wondering what changes might need to occur.  Wondering what others might think.  Wondering what I might have to face about myself.  But that kind of loving relationship is what we are called to as children of God, as disciples of Christ.  It’s interesting, but the only other time the word “bosom” is used in John’s Gospel is when the disciple whom Jesus loved leans on Jesus at the Last Supper.  We, too, are the disciples whom Jesus loves.  We, too, are being invited into a deeper relationship with God, this year and every year.

We make resolutions – I should eat better, exercise more, spend more time with family, watch less TV, spend less time online, devote more time to my relationships, pray more, spend more time serving others, etc.  And it all seems so overwhelming. We want to make better choices and form healthy habits, but we think it all needs to come at once.  We want to grow up and have our lives together.  Maybe we think that when we reach a certain age or time of our lives, things will suddenly fall into place.  But I think what we actually learn as we grow is that change happens over a period of time.  We slowly begin to understand that we are always a work in progress and, maybe, we begin to extend more mercy to those around us who we know are also works in progress.

Jesus is born as a human child, experiences the growing pains of childhood, and lives life into adulthood.  Yet he does it as the divine Word of God, succeeding where we fall short and revealing at each step the overwhelming love – the face and the grace – of the Father.

And even when we fail at our resolutions or fall short of who we are called to be, we remember that, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  We are in God’s grace, forgiven and strengthened to keep trying and doing our best, calling on Christ and other disciples for help.

Because we can’t do it alone.  Maybe part of the reason our resolutions fail is because we try to do them by ourselves.  But we have been given the gift of the church – the gift of relationships with other disciples.  In the community of faith, we help one another as we grow in grace.  We, too, bear the love and the face of God to one another as we stumble and stagger, fall and succeed on the bumpy road of life.  We need encouragement and insight from each other, and we need people to challenge us to help us grow and to take the next steps.

So thinking about being close to the Father’s heart, how do you hope to grow in your faith this year? What keeps or holds you back from pursuing or entering into a greater intimacy with God? Over the coming weeks, I invite you to spend time in prayer, listening for what God might be calling you to.  Find a friend, talk it over with them and test what you’re hearing.  Pray together, encourage and support one another.  And if you feel inclined, let Pr. Joe or me know what you’re thinking so we can help support and pray for you, too!

Just as Jesus is close to the Father’s heart, we have been invited through him to be close to the Father’s heart.  To experience the love, care and tenderness of God, while continuing to grow and mature as children of God.  To receive grace upon grace through God’s outrageous love.That is part of the mystery and promise of Christmas.  That is the promise that we can cling to no matter how many resolutions we break or how many times we fall short.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

The Christmas Eve sermon I preached on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20] at Community Lutheran in Sterling, VA

A few weeks ago, my husband Jeff and I were decorating our Christmas tree and I began to think about the ornaments. We’ve got some I made when I was a child and are now looking a little rough after many years. Some are gifts given by family, neighbors, and friends. Some from Tar-jay… that’s Target in case you didn’t know! And some from Christmas markets in Germany. Each of them has a story and a memory attached to it. And as we pulled out the ornaments and hung them, one by one on the tree, I was reminded of all the stories we share and hear at Christmas.

During this season we gather with family and friends, telling stories of Christmases past. We watch movies and laugh or cry over stories and quotes we all can repeat in our sleep, whether it’s, “God bless us, every one,”or “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” or, “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” The last line is from my favorite Christmas movie!

And tonight we gather together to worship and hear once more the story at the heart of it all. The story of a God who loved the world so much, he became a human, taking on the form of a tiny, helpless baby – growing, teaching, healing, preaching and dying among us, so we could know that love.

The story of Jesus’ birth is miraculous, dramatic and joyous. And what struck me meditating on this story again were the timing and the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Jesus is not only born in a humble stable during the rule of the oppressive Roman Empire, but the reading tells us he was born under the reign of the Emperor Augustus. This was a man known in imperial decrees as “Son of God” and the “savior of the whole world,” the one who was rumored to bring peace.

But that’s not the way the Gospel writer sees it. Instead, Luke’s Gospel, through the proclamation of the angel of the Lord, declares to the Empire that this little, vulnerable baby born in a stable is the true Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. That flies in the face of everything people knew and were accustomed to. Besides that, the angel and the angel host, or army, don’t show up to the powerful or the esteemed. No, they show up to some shepherds, who, like baby Jesus, have no place to lay their heads since they live in the fields.

In that time, shepherds had a pretty bad reputation. Since they worked in the fields, they didn’t practice Sabbath observances or worship in the Temple, and most likely, they smelled pretty bad. They were also seen as dishonest since they sometimes grazed their flocks on others’ land. According to teachings of the time, this made them ineligible to act as witnesses in court. Ironically, these are the people God chooses to become the first witnesses to the Messiah’s birth!

2,000 years ago, in a time of occupation, oppression, poverty and darkness, Jesus was born in dingy, dangerous, and stressful conditions and placed in a feed trough. Then angels appeared to stinky outcasts and God’s glory shone all around them. Out in rocky, rolling fields under a dark sky, God’s glory washed over people who were looked down upon. While God’s glory was born to a poor couple from the backwoods of Israel, a messenger of the Most High God shows up to some rough shepherds with good news of great joy for all people – even the outsiders – and proclaims peace in a brutal and tense time.

In January, I was lucky enough to travel to the Holy Land and visit Bethlehem. There, I visited the Church of the Nativity and the land where the shepherds must have been grazing their sheep. But I wasn’t as moved by the landmarks themselves, as I was by a quote that I saw in the courtyard of the church. On a simple stone in English and German, there was a quote that read: “When dark is the world today, This Child brings the world light.”

From the Courtyard of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

From the Courtyard of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

We pick up the newspaper or flip on the news and we hear all too often of the darkness of the world. We receive bad news from family and friends. We worry about our loved ones, our schoolwork, our jobs, our health, our finances… Fear, anxiety, disappointment, low self-esteem, painful relationships, and the shadows of our past mistakes and sins haunt us and weigh us down.

But the story of Christmas tells us that Almighty God, out of a love we can only begin to fathom, took on frail human flesh in order to forgive us and restore our broken relationships with God and one another. That God, creator of the universe, became a tender, gurgling infant in order to show us the depth and breadth of God’s love. Christmas shows us the ridiculous lengths to which God is willing to go to reach out to us and touch us with God’s grace, love and forgiveness. This is a God who doesn’t look upon us from a distance, but was born into the heart of the struggle of what it is to be human.It’s the beginning of the wonderful news the Gospels will continue to proclaim. The news that God’s salvation in Jesus Christ is for all people: rich and poor, powerful and weak, proud and humble, the religious and the impious, the saints and sinners, the outcast and the admired. The good news that whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever you’ve done, or whatever you’re facing, God loves you and welcomes you.

The real miracle of Christmas is that Jesus is not only the light born in the darkness of a night long ago, but that he is the light shining brightly in our darkness, here and now. In the words of Isaiah, Christ breaks the yoke of our burdens and snaps in half the rod of all that holds us back, freeing us to let our lights shine into a dark world.

Take the shepherds, for example. They were so overjoyed by the vision and the message they heard out in the fields that they ran to find the little child they had heard about. And once they reached him, they were so filled with awe, they bubbled over telling Mary and Joseph about what they had experienced and then bolted out to tell others. In spite of their social status, they knew they had been transformed by what they had experienced and they wanted to share the precious news with everyone they met. If God showed up to, transformed and embolden shepherds seen as sinners and outsiders, what might God be doing through each of us?

Christ is our light, our hope and our joy. In the middle of the darkness of the world, there is a little child born to lead us into the way of the kingdom of God – the way of love, mercy and peace for all people. As Christine Sine writes, “How many fathers would give their son for us. How many mothers would pour their love into a child for us. How many kings
would leave their thrones for us. Only God in the birth of a child, in the birth of a kingdom, in the birth of a new world, would give up everything for us.” This Christmas, may you know the depth of God’s unfailing love for you and for all people. And may your lights shine brightly as you follow the light of the world. Thanks be to God and Merry Christmas! Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Awake in Advent

Last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, I preached on Mark 13:24-37 at Community Lutheran Church:

If you’re anything like me, the past few days have been spent in a sort of hibernation mode. Packing in delicious food, watching T.V. and meditating on the wonders of comfortable pajamas and sleeping in. I am slightly ashamed that I really didn’t do a whole lot that was productive in that time. Yet, at the same time, I know that it was needed. Valuable time to rest and recharge. Precious time to spend with Jeff, the dog, and my family and friends. And I hope that you were able to have some of that time as well.

Each year, it seems that the Christmas season starts earlier and earlier. Now, emerging from a turkey coma, the world is going full steam ahead into Christmas, with decorations, shopping, parties, cookie baking, Christmas carols and the hustle and bustle of the holidays. With this flurry of activity and stress, it can be really easy to lose sight of God.

Meanwhile, we in the church enter into a time of expectant and hopeful waiting, yearning for the coming, or Advent, of Christ. As a result, the four weeks of Advent are kind of an odd time because we know that Christ has already come 2,000 years ago, yet we’re awaiting Christmas and Christ’s second coming where he will reign in the fullness of his kingdom. Holy and anticipatory waiting contrasted with the busy-ness and often chaos of the month of December.

And then we get these fiery passages about God tearing open the heavens, suffering in the world, the sun being darkened, the moon’s light giving out, falling stars and the very powers of the heavens shaking. Ummmm… yikes! I definitely feel the draw of watching the Grinch, making snowmen, eating gingerbread and laughing at ridiculous hip-shaking dancing Santas!

When we hear texts about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ, I think we have one of two tendencies. We may get nervous and try to figure out when it’s happening and how to read the signs of the times. It makes sense that we would try to figure it out given what we hear in Scripture, but Jesus also tells us, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Not even Jesus knows when all of this is going to occur! I think our second tendency is to say, “I don’t know when this is going to happen, so I’m not going to think or worry about it.”

Both tendencies, however, miss what we are being called to. And that is faithfulness. We’re being called to keep our eyes peeled – to be like watchmen, waiting with our senses on high alert, prepared for whatever will come next. That’s why we hear this Gospel text in Advent – in the season of waiting, preparation, anticipation, and hope for the things to come.

But what do we do while we’re waiting? We keep watch and keep alert for the ways God is active in the world. And we keep watch and keep alert for the places and ways in which we can actively participate in God’s kingdom, whether that’s listening to those who are hurting, cooking for and serving the hungry, praying for and encouraging others in the faith, or repairing and building homes for others. We use this season to prepare our hearts to receive Christ at Christmas and every day through worship, prayer, fellowship and service. We live out our baptisms and are fed by the Word of God, and at the Lord’s Supper. We use this time to allow God to continue shaping us and helping us to recognize Christ in our neighbor.

I’ve been struggling over the past week, and maybe many of you have been, too. I’ve been listening to conflicting reports from Ferguson, Missouri, reading articles, opinion pieces, and listening to interviews… I’ve been trying to figure out what happened there. I’ve been disturbed by the violence, not only of Michael Brown’s shooting, but also of some of the protestors. I’ve been upset by the hate and the vitriol I’ve heard and read. I’ve been saddened by families torn apart, by the hurt, frustration and the brokenness of the situation in Ferguson that is rippling across the country. And I’ve been wondering how I, as a follower of Christ and a white woman in Virginia, can or should respond. I know that by virtue of my skin color, where I’ve been born, and my circumstances in life, I have been lucky – I have not had to worry about the affects of racism. So when an event occurs that highlights the racial divide, the poverty and lack of opportunity for people of color in our country, I struggle to find what to say or do.

I know, however, that the temptation is to hear about these events, acknowledge them, and then just continue with my life. To hit the snooze button rather than keeping awake for the places God might be calling me to use my voice, my role, or my gifts for the sake of my brothers and sisters. But the truth is, while we await the fullness of Christ’s loving, merciful, and just reign, we are invited to be a part of God’s kingdom work. To keep alert and attuned to how God is tugging at our hearts.

And God is tugging at each of our hearts a little differently. Jesus says in his parable, “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.” Each of us has our own work. We have a voice and we have opportunities to get involved in our world. We are invited to be a part of the conversations and reconciliation needed in so many different issues at hand, whether that’s poverty, education, working for peace, caring for the sick, comforting the dying or grieved. You have been invited by God to speak to and live out the hope and love you have been given in Christ Jesus. To keep awake – to be alive and fully present instead of asleep, complacent or missing out of the life into which God is inviting you. Where do you feel like God has awakened you to a need in our world? How might you use the gifts God has blessed you with to make a difference?

There is one other time this phrase “keep awake” or “keep watch” is used in the Gospel of Mark. It’s in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus urges his disciples to stay awake with him and keep watch as he prays about his upcoming trial and then crucifixion. The disciples, as you may recall, fall asleep not once, but twice, nodding off at one of the moments of Christ’s greatest need.   As we begin the season of Advent, we are reminded not to ignore those in need around us, or to ignore God in favor of perfectly decked halls or the most expensive or decadent gifts. We are reminded to slow down a bit and to savor this time, watching with the eyes of faith for opportunities to experience Christ in others and to share Christ with others.

There is an Aramaic word that appears only once in the New Testament, but I think it helps to paint a wonderful picture of Advent. The word is “Maranatha.” Say that with me: “Maranatha.” It can either mean “Our Lord has come” or it can be read as a plea or command: “Our Lord, come!” This word is the prayer of Advent. It is stating with hope and confidence that our Lord has come. Although things may be difficult, God is in our midst and is working in and through us to bring about the kingdom. We know this because we know Christ has come, has died and was raised from the dead. We know that we have a God who brings about healing and forgiveness in even the darkest situations – even from the cross.

And yet this prayer expresses the eager longing of people tired with the way things are. It cries out and asks God not to delay in bringing about the fullness of the kingdom where all are seen as children of God, where justice abounds for rich and poor, black and white, young and old, and where love is the currency people spend freely.   Maranatha. Our Lord has come. Come, O Lord. Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Born Into Our Suffering

This is the sermon I preached at Community Lutheran Church yesterday on the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

Here’s the text from Matthew 2:13-23 for the First Sunday of Christmas:

13Now after they [the wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead. 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

As Jerry Seinfeld might say, “what’s the deal with the Gospel reading for today?!” I mean, seriously, it’s the First Sunday of Christmas, and the lectionary gives us the slaughter of the Holy Innocents?! What happened to the angels and shepherds, the wonder of the manger and the word become flesh?!  It even feels like this gospel sets a totally different tone than the other readings for this morning.  Isaiah speaks of recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord, of praise and God’s mercy.  The Psalm speaks of angels, men and women, birds, beasts, sea monsters (that’s my favorite part!), and, indeed, all of creation praising God.  Hebrews speaks of God bringing God’s children to glory.  And then Matthew speaks of Herod killing all of the children two years old or under.  It’s… awful.

All together, the readings present celebration and praise of God alongside the struggles and pains of life under Herod’s rule.  Herod the Great, who is the ruler Matthew is writing about, was a powerful king – a “Jewish” king in name only known for his complete and unabashed loyalty to Rome as well as his incredible building projects, which included the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, entire cities, and several fortresses.  He was also known to be a ruthless leader, harshly squashing opposition, even to the point killing multiple members of his own family! Talk about family drama…

Bearing all of this in mind, it makes sense that Matthew writes about Herod being afraid when the magi mentioned that they were looking for “the child who has been born king of the Jews.”  And it makes sense that Herod is infuriated that the wise men hadn’t returned to tell him where exactly they had found the boy king.  Herod the Great, a man who lived to defend his power, was terrified at the prospect of a new threat to his throne, even if that person was to be the Messiah!

Now, different traditions say that there were varying numbers of children killed, and we may never know if this massacre actually took place.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that there was a vicious tyrant ruling the region where the Messiah of God was to be born.  A Messiah who was to be the true ruler of God’s people – not the empire of Rome, not the puppet kings appointed by Rome, but a true king, with the best interest of God’s children at heart.  A king that would be worshiped not only by Israel, but also by Gentiles like the wise men who had come from afar.

Needless to say, this made Herod a wee bit uncomfortable and he responded to his fears by commanding that all the children under two be killed.  Now, if Herod had remembered his peoples’ history, he would have recalled the slaughter of the baby Hebrew boys at Pharaoh’s hand and how one baby, Moses, was spared.  He would have remembered that Moses was saved to deliver God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land – to bring about a whole new chapter in Israel’s history.  And if he had remembered all that, it might have crossed his mind that maybe God was acting again in his own day to bring about a new type of liberation.

But he ignores all of that, or at best, forgets, and, instead, innocents die while Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus flee to Egypt.

Last week on NPR I heard a shocking statistic about the war in Syria.  There have been many statistics about this war, but this one caught me completely unaware and caused me to tear up in my car.  I heard that so far, 11,420 children have been killed in this brutal civil war.  11,420.  That is roughly 10% of the total war deaths.  And over half of the 2 million refugees are children.

In addition to these statistics from overseas, we cannot forget that on December 14, we experienced the first anniversary of the shooting of 20 children and 6 educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

Sadly, it’s clear the slaughter of the innocents continues in our own day – this isn’t just a story about Herod, Jesus and the children of Bethlehem.  It’s a story about us, Jesus and all the children of God.

Giotto di Bondone - The Holy Innocents

Giotto di Bondone – The Holy Innocents

It turns out that this story isn’t the antithesis of Christmas after all.  In fact, it is the very meaning of Christmas that God comes into our hurting world and walks with us through all that we encounter and go through. You see, Christ is born in the midst of the ugliness and hatred and violence of this world.  In a fragile, helpless baby, God enters into history and human time in the flesh.  God is born into our pain and suffering.  And there’s the good news.  God is born into our lives and our experiences – not just into some far off land in another time, but directly into the middle of – the very heart of – our darkness, pain, brokenness and suffering.  And we heard it in the Isaiah reading for today: “…and he became their savior in all their distress.  It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”  In God’s love and pity for us, God chooses to be fully present with us in Jesus.

And Jesus didn’t only live as a human, but also died as a human.  God is a God of the cross, bearing our pains and experiencing death as fully human.  Because God has taken on human life, God is intimately acquainted with the distress, despair and grief we encounter.  As the author of Hebrews wrote: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Or, in the words of one of my favorite Christmas songs “O Holy Night:” “The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger, In all our trials born to be our Friend; He knows our need, To our weakness is no stranger. Behold your King, before Him lowly bend! Behold your King, before Him lowly bend!”  The fully human and fully divine Jesus is our real king, not a tyrant like Herod.

Of course, we can’t forget that the story continues after the crucifixion.  Our God is not only the God of the cross, but also the God of the resurrection and of new life, conquering sin and death once and for all.  He brings forgiveness, life, comfort and hope to all in need.  This is the promise of Emmanuel – “God with us” – in all that we go through, no matter how difficult or hopeless the situation seems.

In our baptisms, we too, are marked with the cross and given new life in Christ.  As such, we are called and challenged to walk among and with those who are suffering as Christ did, meeting people in their needs and journeying with them – helping to bring about transformation in the name of the One whom we serve, one step at a time.  Where we see the slaughter of the innocents, the oppression of God’s children, the destruction of creation, we are called to step up and respond.  To make a difference, acting in loving service as a response to God’s amazing love and grace in our own lives.  Where there are barriers between God’s children, we are called to work to knock down the walls and bring reconciliation.

As we reflect on God being present in our suffering and that of the world, we can reflect on how we can be present to those around us in their time of need.  What can we do for those suffering in Syria?  What can we do to lessen the violence in our world? What about the children hungry in our own backyard – the children who receive backpacks of food each Friday at our local schools before leaving so that they can eat over the weekends?

Herod feared Jesus and what this baby boy might do.  He feared change and the loss of his power.  And to some extent, Herod’s fears were grounded because Jesus’ birth did change things.  And as our texts for this morning point out, that’s what Christmas is all about.  It’s the celebration and praise of God’s almighty acts and God’s entering into history to bring hope and new life.

Today, Jesus continues to threaten the status quo and promise change and transformation in our lives and in our world.  It’s like that line so often heard in movies: “Is that a threat? No, it’s a promise.”  Jesus doesn’t only threaten change and transformation, but promises it.  Continuing to try to follow Christ in our daily lives transforms us, little by little.  And through God’s grace, we are invited to be a part of changing the world even if it’s hard to see that we are making any difference.

We, like Herod, may fear the change and transformation Jesus brings to our lives, even if we don’t respond as dramatically as Herod did.  We might find ways of ignoring or resisting God’s call, or just feel uneasy about what we might need to face within ourselves to better follow Christ.

But God has come to walk with us in our lives.  The question is, how we will respond to God’s presence? Will we respond with fear like Herod and continue abiding by the status quo? Or will we welcome and embrace God’s presence and the kingdom of heaven?

God never stops coming to us in our lives, seeking us out, and calling us to welcome the ways of God’s new kingdom.  Even if we respond with fear or trepidation, God continues to gently invite us to be transformed by grace.  Thanks be to God for God’s steadfast love that comes to us at Christmas and every day.  Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Scandalized by God

This was the sermon I preached at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA on Sunday.

 

This week I received a chain e-mail from a friend of mine.  Now normally I skip over these things pretty quickly, but I was intrigued by the subject line, “The ‘W’ in Christmas,” so I opened it up and read.  Maybe you’ve received this as well, but for those who haven’t, the story goes like this.  There was a mom who, despite all her best efforts to cut back, still found herself running around like a crazy person trying to get ready before the holidays.  She found herself exhausted, frustrated and unable to focus on the true meaning of Christmas.

Her son was in kindergarten that year and he’d been excitedly memorizing songs for his school’s “Winter Pageant.”  Unable to make the actual nighttime performance, his mom went to the final dress rehearsal that morning.  Joined by other parents in the audience, she watched as each class stood and sang their song.  Being a public school, she expected songs about winter, snowmen, reindeer and joy.  However, when her son’s class was up, they announced they’d be singing “Christmas Love.”  As they sang, the children in front held up large letters: “C is for Christmas,” “H is for Happy,” continuing on down the line.   Everything was fine until they reached a small, quiet girl in the front row, holding her “M” upside down.  As the elementary school kids began to snicker, the teachers tried unsuccessfully to quiet them down, but the girl continued, proudly holding her letter, unaware of her mistake.

As the final letter was held up, a hush fell over the crowd.  Suddenly people realized why they were celebrating Christmas to begin with, and why, in the middle of all the chaos, there was still plenty of room for rejoicing.  The message spelled out on the cards: “Christ was love.”

Now, even if this story isn’t something that actually occurred, it still tells us something powerful about expectations.  A mother’s expectations that her son’s pageant would be full of secular songs were turned upside down when she encountered the very Christmas message she’d been seeking in the chaos.

This morning’s reading from Matthew is all about expectations as well.  Pr. Joe reintroduced us to our wild and fiery prophet John the Baptist last Sunday.  Well, John finds himself in a difficult position in this week’s Gospel.  Sitting alone in prison, John is wondering if Jesus really is the Messiah.  Now remember, earlier, John had baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.  And not only that, but John initially didn’t want to baptize Jesus at all, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ Now, locked in a prison cell, he’s wondering if he’s really picked the right messiah.  After all, Jesus wasn’t walking around with his winnowing fork in hand burning up chaff with unquenchable fire.  He hadn’t overthrown the oppressive Roman rulers.  He hadn’t come in like a powerful king, ready to reestablish the Golden Age of King David.

Instead, of fulfilling all of John’s expectations, he’d been teaching and healing people, wandering throughout the land and consorting with all the wrong types of people.  I imagine John pacing around his cell, wondering about this Messiah he’d decided to support, wringing his hands and muttering, “is Jesus really the one?”  Finally, he can’t stand it any longer and he sends his disciples out to ask Jesus directly if he’s the Messiah.

But Jesus doesn’t answer him directly.  He tells John’s disciples to report back to John, bearing witness about what they’ve seen and heard and experienced with their own senses.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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 tells them to tell John they’ve seen and heard the promises of Isaiah’s oracle coming true before their very eyes.  In other words, the proof is in the pudding… and maybe since it’s around Christmas, we can say, “the proof is in the Figgy pudding.” It’s up to John to decide who he believes Jesus to be.  This is a theme we will hear ripple out through Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus asks his disciples, “who do you say that I am?”

Jesus doesn’t just tell John’s disciples to bear witness to these healings, he also tacks on this last sentence: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  Hmmm…  what’s that all about?  The Greek word used for “offense” is one we’re more familiar with that you might think: it’s scandalitzo (σκανδαλίζω).  Say it with me: scandalitzo.  “Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me.”

While this word is used figuratively here to indicate taking offense at Jesus and his words, it literally means to cause someone to stumble.  Is Jesus telling John not to be offended or not to trip up over the fact that he doesn’t meet John’s expectations of who the Messiah should be and how he should act?

I hear these words about taking offense at Jesus and I don’t think they’re just meant for John the Baptist.  I hear Christ asking each of us if we are offended, scandalized or tripped up by who he is.  What do we find difficult about this Messiah we follow?  Where do we find ourselves stumbling?  Is it when Christ speaks words of judgment in the Gospels?  Is it when Christ calls us turn the other cheek or welcome outcasts?  Is it when we hear Christ’s call to pray for our enemies? Or do we find ourselves tripping up over really believing that the good news is real? And that it’s for each of us?

Rather than being upset or distraught that we are scandalized by Jesus, it’s an opportunity and a challenge to reflect on why we are offended.  It’s a chance to examine where God may be inviting us to grow in different areas in our lives.  If I am scandalized by the fact that Jesus lifts up the poor, perhaps I am being called to grow in my understanding of stewardship and generosity.  Or, if I find myself stumbling over the fact that Jesus calls us to forgive others seventy times seven times, perhaps I’m being called to look again at what it means to forgive and be forgiven.  And in doing this work, it’s important to keep in mind that even John the Baptist was scandalized by Jesus to some extent because he didn’t meet his messianic expectations.  I know I take comfort in hearing that one of the great heroes of the faith struggled with doubts and uncertainties even after he baptized Jesus!

In this morning’s reading, after encountering John’s disciples, Jesus affirms the Baptist’s important role as not only a prophet, but, “more than a prophet.”  In fact, Jesus says he’s the very one who prepared the way for the coming Messiah.  But Jesus isn’t one to just explain things.  Instead, he asks the crowds who have been listening to him about John the Baptist.  “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?”

Jesus makes it very clear that this person who appeared to be a wild, raving man was actually the greatest among those born of women.  The one preaching in a wasteland was the one come to prepare and point the way to new life and growth.  He wasn’t what he seemed.  But this isn’t just a message for the crowds that gathered over two thousand years ago.  It’s a message for us.

“What did you go out to look at?  What then did you go out to see? What were you expecting? When you came to church this morning, what did you expect?”  Jesus asks us to think about our own expectations about encountering the holy.  What do we expect to see and hear from God? How do we expect or want God to act? What do we expect God to do? Have those expectations been fulfilled, let down, or changed altogether?

Our tendency is to try to make sense of things.  To organize things into categories and boxes so that we can understand them better, or at least pretend that we understand them! And I think we often try to confine God to a box, describing God in our own terms and putting boundaries on God.  But the amazing thing is that God keeps breaking out of the boxes that we try to keep God in.

C.S. Lewis’ children’s book and Christian allegory, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, describes this well.  In this book, Aslan, the magnificent lion that represents Christ, leaves to go about his mission in the world.  One of the characters explains his departure in this way: “He’ll be coming and going.  One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down–and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

I love that! God isn’t tame.  God is consistently breaking through the barriers we try to put up, which makes us a little uncomfortable and maybe even frustrated.  Bursting through the boxes we try to stick God in and shaking up our expectations, God is wild and mysterious.  And God, in Christ, comes to stir things up – to turn the world upside down through bringing about a new kingdom!  God is active and alive, not confined by our preconceptions.

This time of year, we celebrate God coming to earth and bringing about this kingdom.  We think about Jesus as an adorable baby in a manager surrounded by sheep, donkeys and oxen, which is totally appropriate.  But it’s also important that we remember that this baby is one who came to change the world and bring about an entirely new way of being – to bring life out of the barren wilderness, and to bring light into the darkness.

So, what do you expect see and hear when you encounter God? And how might God be changing that? Are you open to having those expectations changed, or does that offend and scandalize you?

I invite you to take the card you should have received when you came in this morning.  Write down your expectations of God and write down where you feel offended.  Pray about these things.  And listen for God’s response in your life.  How might these places be areas to grow and change in your life this Advent and into the coming year?

Let us pray… Open our hearts, O God.  Scandalize us with your gospel and your love!  And may we grow closer to you as you continue to challenge us to go beyond our comfort zones into the places and spaces to which you call us.  In the name of your dear Son we pray, Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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