Proper 26 (B)
Sunday, November 2, 1997
On Being Near the Kingdom
Mark 12:28-34
How do you measure distance in God’s kingdom? Is it metric or feet and yards? Is it linear and spatial or in terms of time? Is it like the distance from Atlanta to Nashville or Seattle to San Francisco or is it like the distance from Martin Luther to Pope John Paul II? If a car trip were made in God’s Kingdom, would there be incessant cries of “Are we there yet?” In this pericope, the one commendation Jesus ever gives to a scribe is to say, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
It is now the last week of Jesus’ life. He has made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds have given Him their acclaim as a conquering hero. He has cleansed the temple, thus throwing Him into conflict with the religious gatekeepers of Jerusalem. The Pharisees and Sadducees have had their turns in putting Jesus on the defensive. If they weren’t asking Him about ridiculous scenarios with multiple marriages and the resurrection, they were trying to pin Him down on taxes.
Now Jesus’ critics try to get Him on the essence of the law. It’s a fair question. What is the essence of the law? After all, there are a lot of laws. It can be a lot to try to keep up on what they all have to say. If we could remember a rule of thumb, wouldn’t it be easier? Discussions like this took place among the Rabbis. The Rabbi Hillel, was challenged by a Gentile, “Make me a proselyte on condition that you teach me the whole law while I stand on one foot,” replied, “What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbor; this is the whole law, the rest is commentary; go and learn”
It was not unusual to attempt to summarize the law in a catch-phrase of some sort. What was unusual was the spin Jesus puts on it. The Rabbis taught that love was one law along-side of all of the other laws. Jesus said law was the essence of the law — the primary commandment. Further, while Hillel put a negative spin on the law — don’t do what you don’t want someone else to do to you — Jesus said, “Do what you would want others to do for you.” Christianity is active. Faith without works is dead.
Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. We often speak of these as dimensions of love which are spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical. That may be true but Jesus is not speaking of a compartmentalized kind of love. Rather, He is saying “Love God with everything that you have and that you are.” This love flows from the unity of God, the God who has taken the initiative to reveal His love in Jesus Christ.
These were the words that the devout Jew was to quote every morning. These were the words that the devout Jews tied to their foreheads and to their arms.
The partner of love of God is love of neighbor. One is to love his or her neighbor as he loves himself. Jesus is not ordering self-love as much as he is presupposing self-love. I don’t know that Jesus ever told anyone that their problem was that they didn’t love themselves enough. It is much more likely that he would say, “You’re too wrapped up in yourself, go do something for someone else.” How does love of neighbor manifest itself on an individual level? As Jesus has summarized, it is the Golden Rule. Do for your neighbor what you would like someone to do for you. Don’t waste energy trying to stir up self-love before you attempt to minister. Give yourself without reservation and discover true Biblical self-esteem.
What is interesting in Mark’s telling of this story is that we have the one occasion when Jesus commends a scribe. The scribe “got it”. He knew Jesus had answered wisely. The power of Jesus’ words probably pierced his heart and brought conviction upon him. Yet, there is no indication that he gave his heart to Jesus. Jesus said, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
Those words are hopeful but sad. Regrettably, “so close” is “yet so far.” (Mark A. Johnson)
Proper 27 (B)
Sunday, November 9, 1997
True or False?
Mark 12:38-44
In the teaching experiences I have had, I have given the students weekly quizzes to insure that they kept up with assigned readings. One student wrote on their course evaluation, “Your quizzes are too picky. They deal with the readings and some students don’t read their textbook.” Don’t you just love students?
As my own preparation would get frantic and harried, I found it easy to give true/false quizzes. They were easy to make and the students had at least a 50% chance of getting the right answer on each question. I’ve heard it said, though, that the more you know, the more difficult it is to take a true/false test. The rationale is that it is too easy to read more than is intended into the question.
I don’t know if Jesus ever gave quizzes to His disciples, but in our text, He is able to show them an illustration of true and false religion. Sometimes, what is true takes on greater resonance and meaning against the backdrop of what is not true.
The contrast between true and false religion is unavoidable in this text. It is the last week of Jesus’ life. There has been a long volley between the Pharisees and Sadducees to see who could gain the upper hand with Jesus. After the last controversy, Mark records that the crowd listened to Him with delight. Jesus warned His listeners to be careful for the teachers of the law. They love to get the important places in the synagogue and pray the most flowery prayers so that people will notice them. They devour widows’ houses. They think everyone ought to be impressed with their command of the language and their piety. Jesus reminds his disciples that such men will get their come-uppance one day.
It is easy for church leaders and Christians to be taken by the allure of some of the “perks” of ministry. (Indeed, there are some.) There is a certain level of deference and respect given to pastors. Clergy discounts are nice, when offered. It’s a nice ego stroke when someone says, “I don’t know how I would have made it without you being there.” In my days as a doctoral student, I would fantasize about being the beloved and revered Doctor Johnson, Pahstuh of the Fuhst Chuhch of Some Big Place.” Those perks are nice but if that’s your sole motivation for ministry, you’ve missed the boat. Jesus said the teachers of the law who make lengthy prayers for show and devour widows’ houses are missing the boat entirely.
Against the false picture, Jesus shows His disciples a picture of true devotion. Instead of a self-important, professional religionist who devours widows houses, Jesus uses a widow as a live illustration of true religion. The activity that shows her devotion is in her offering. In a society where she literally may not have known where her next meal was coming from, she trusted God enough and loved God enough to give all that she had to Him.
Jesus was a people watcher. Some people made ostentatious displays as they threw their offering into the coffers. This anonymous widow probably was ashamed of her meager little amount. She may have slipped up and hoped that nobody noticed her as she put her two small coins in the treasury. Jesus noticed her, though. He commended her act of faith and trust.
Jesus commended her because she gave her all and in so doing she said, “God, You have all of me.” The issue in stewardship is not how much I give, but how much do I keep for myself. It’s not in how much money do I have, it’s in how much of me does God have?
True religion is not interested in ostentatious displays nor in gaining recognition for oneself. Instead, it is in giving all that one has for the joy of committing oneself totally to God. (Mark A. Johnson)
Proper 28 (B)
November 16, 1997
Unfulfilled Longings
I Samuel 1:4-20
Have you ever noticed how many great figures have come to be born in extraordinary ways? Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah when they were well past child-bearing age. John the Baptist was born late in life to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Moses’ birth may have been normal and ordinary but his childhood certainly wasn’t — put in a basket and floated down the Nile to be raised as Pharaoh’s grandson. Jesus himself was born miraculously of a virgin. No barriers are too great when God wants to give a special person to this world!
No barrier was too great for God to cause Samuel to be born. Samuel, the last of the judges and the first of the prophets, came to the world in an unusual way. The story of his birth is full of irony and contradictions. Elkanah had two wives Hannah and Penninah. He loved Hannah but Penninah was fertile while Hannah wasn’t. Hannah longed desperately for a child, so much so that she promised to give him up if the Lord would bless her in this way. The urge to bear children is a strangely wonderful and powerful thing.
There were tensions in the home. Penninah must have been a cruel and jealous woman. After all, her husband obviously loved his other wife more than he loved her — he gave her a double portion to sacrifice. There were also ironies in that Elkanah though Penninah should be satisfied with her children and that Hannah should be satisfied with her love. When Hannah wept and didn’t eat, Elkanah said, “Isn’t my love for you better than that of 10 sons?” This is not a case of the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence. It is a case of some of life’s deepest longings going unfulfilled — Hannah’s desire for a child and Penninah’s desire to be loved, truly loved by her husband.
Isn’t it interesting how many of God’s finest servants come from home situations that we would label today as dysfunctional?
Hannah was unconsolable. She went to the temple and prayed. I’m struck by the phrase that she went in bitterness of soul and wept and prayed to the Lord. Many folks when they experience a deep unfulfilled longing refuse to go anywhere the church house. Maybe they’re so angry and disappointed with God that they cease praying. Hannah pressed on through the desert experience of her barrenness.
She prays with such intensity that her lips were moving and no sound came out. She was so intense in her prayer that she didn’t know who was around her and didn’t care. Eli, the priest, thought, “What’s this drunken woman doing in here?” When Hannah explained her dire predicament, Eli said, “Go in peace. God will give you what you have asked of him.
After receiving assurance and encouragement from God’s representative, Hannah’s spirits were lifted so she could eat something and her face brightened. After that, Hannah conceived and she bore a son. Here we have a wonderful testimony of God’s faithfulness.
Hannah experienced her share of heartache and disappointment. Those must have been lonely, desperate years of being resented by her husband’s other wife and experiencing the anguish and disapointment of not having any children. She may have been tempted to say, “God, if this what I get for trying to be faithful to you, who needs it?” But, even in bitterness of soul and through acid tears she knew He was her only hope.” In her vow to give her son to the Lord, some of a more Pharisaical bent may say, “When she finally got her heart right and promised to give the child to the Lord, God blessed her.”
We don’t understand the mystery of God’s providence and why some deep longings are apparently unfulfilled, in and through it all, though, we trust Him. In so doing, we experience blessings that come either from knowing “I asked the Lord for him,” or we say, “God didn’t give me what I asked. He gave me something far better.”
(Mark A. Johnson)
Christ the King (B)
November 23, 1997
In God We Trust
Revelation 1:4b-8
“In God We Trust.” That statement is printed or imprinted on the coinage and paper money of the United States of America. Although not officially added to all U.S. coins and currency until this century, the phrase sums up one of the crucial understandings of Western civilization and religion: there is a Supreme Being or Creator into Whose hands we ultimately place our trust and our futures.
But what do we know about this Creator God? Part of the answer to that question may be found in these verses of John’s Revelation. In particular, verse eight gives us several key insights into this God in Whom we place our trust.
First, this Creator God was present from the beginning, and will remain after time ends. This is the truth conveyed by the statement, “I am the Alpha and the Omega….” (vs. 8a). Alpha and Omega are, respectively, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Their use as symbols (see also Revelation 22:13) conveys a completeness and a finality in describing God. Those who use the English language say the same thing using the phrase “From A to Z.”
The symbolic use of letters of the alphabet was well-known in the ancient world. Martin Rist (Interpreter’s Bible, Revelation, page 372) tells us the “… seal of God was said to consist of the three Hebrew letters, Aleph, Mem, Taw, the first, the middle, and the last letters of the Hebrew alphabet (see Isaiah 44:6). William Barclay (Daily Study Bible, Revelation, Volume 1, page 38) tells us the “…. Rabbis would say that Adam transgressed the law and Abraham kept it from Aleph to Tau.” “… that God blessed Israel from Aleph to Tau. This indicates that God is absolutely complete….”
Secondly, the God in Whom we trust existed before all time, is present with us in this time, and will continue to exist beyond time. “… who is, and who was, and who is to come….” (vs. 8b, see parallel in Exodus 3:14) We recall that John is likely writing to the persecuted Christian communities who were in great personal and group peril. If nothing else, they needed encouragement and strength to face the dangers and hardships of claiming Christ as their Lord and Savior.
The middle phrase of verse eight reminds them of God’s eternal nature. They believed in the God Who could be trusted whatever came their way. It was this eternal God Who had a plan for their lives (Jeremiah 29:11); Who would be with them through even the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4); and Who would be with them beyond this life into eternity (Revelation 21:1-4).
Finally, John portrays God as “… the Almighty” (verse 8c). The 1929 edition of the Abingdon Bible Commentary (page 1370) notes the word “Almighty” might be better translated “All-ruler.” However translated, the meaning here is clear: the God in Whom we put our trust is all-powerful, unlimited in any way. Nothing, not even the most vicious of persecutions or the inevitable trials and travails of this life, can foil God’s plans or separate us from God (see Romans 8: 31-39) in this life or the next.
Dr. Robert Schuller, commenting in the introduction to Revelation in The New Possibility Thinker’s Bible (page 1500), notes:
John assures the believers that the outcome of history is in God’s hands…. John also forewarns the church that tough times are coming, but they must hold on to hope. God will gain victory over the negative forces and evil powers in the world. Tough times never last, but tough people do! Who are tough people? Tough people are those who believe in God and His ability to overcome negative, evil powers and establish a life giving world!” (Steven Fleming)
First Sunday of Advent (C)
Sunday, November 30, 1997
Why We Cannot Save Ourselves
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Many of us have come from celebrating Thanksgiving around festive holiday tables. We have counted our blessings, checked the bathroom scales, frowned at our waistlines, and placed hope in exercise equipment. We find comfort in possessions and security in technology. We place our faith in medical science and invest our future in the stock market. Why is it that ultimately none of this brings fulfillment to the hollow center of our lives?
I. Advent Is Meant to Disturb Our Routine.
Advent is about waiting. The waiting room is our least favorite place. We are not fond of waiting for the doctor or the dentist, the baby to be born or the surgery to be over. It brings no fond memories to wait before the door of the school principal or the chambers of the judge when we know that we have fallen short. Advent is a call to wait.
We want it now. We want a drive-through, fast-food scripture with answers. We want instant healing, divine intervention, God-in-the-flesh today. Then into our want-it-now, hurry-up, push-button, digital-fast life comes advent. This is not what we expected.
Perhaps that is why we need advent to disturb our routine. Advent calls us to expect something different, something better, something greater than our petty self-concerns. Advent calls us to expect Someone who can offer the hope for which we truly have been waiting.
II. Advent Reminds Us of What We Do Not Have.
Justice is missing. Righteousness is elusive. Peace is fleeting. The prophet tells us that God “will cause a righteous Branch to spring up” (vs. 15b). CNN and the daily paper tell us that life is not easy nor safe in Jerusalem or anywhere.
The deceptive calm of an affluent, small-town neighborhood can be shattered with a domestic disturbance that turns violent. “Husband Shoots Wife and Turns Gun on Self in New Year’s Eve Altercation,” reads the morning paper. On the same page, a color photo touts the fireworks of the new year while the weather graphic displays a smiling sun with warming temperatures. All of this makes the tragic and shocking seem less overwhelming.
Life is both tragedy and comedy, but life is not peace. Through the text of the prophet, we are reminded of what is not and what might be. The kingdom of God is ours to build. One has already come that it might be so. The Christ comes into our life when we recognize our need.
III. Advent Points to the One Who Is the Source of Our Salvation.
The prophet Jeremiah speaks it clear-ly. “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness” (vs. 16). Only Christ can save us. Only the reality of God’s love is greater than everything. God’s love is birthed into human flesh, heals by divine touch, makes whole by word and teaching. God’s love through the Christ offers eternal relationship and resurrection days despite our nailing him to a tree. Our sin puts him there. Our rejection of God each day makes the cross our own and the truth of sin and forgiveness real.
I have been a counselor and pastor for sixteen years, and I have never known a person who attempted or threatened suicide who did not want to be saved from despair. The desperate soul may express their desire to “end it all,” but in reality they are desiring an answer that they cannot see. They need someone who can show them hope, who can offer possibility, who can broaden the tunnel vision of their crisis. God did that for the world through the cross. The world was enlightened through Calvary and the empty tomb.
Our task is to recognize what we cannot accomplish on our own and discover the One who can. (Gary G. Kindley)
Second Sunday of Advent (C)
Sunday, December 7, 1997
Calls from the Wilderness
Luke 3:1-6
If you want to discover God at work in human experience, go to the wilderness places of life. God cries out to us from the wilderness, where power and prestige are absent. On that Bethlehem morning so long ago, it was in a grotto manger, not a grand mansion where the infant Jesus was born. God’s best work occurs where the need is greatest and hearts are open.
In the wilderness, Jacob wrestled with an angel and discovered his name. In the wilderness the people of Israel wandered before finding the Promised Land. In the wilderness, Jesus prepared for his earthly ministry following his baptism. Wilderness encounters can be a prelude to God doing great things.
I. God Calls to Us from the Wilderness.
God calls from the wilderness places of life. The wilderness places of our journey can be lonely and desperate. We all have encountered the wilderness at one time or another, in one way or another. Perhaps some of us are there right now.
God beckons from the bed of the AIDS patient in the endstage of disease. God hails us from the soup lines of an inner city street kitchen. God cries out from the cardboard shelters of the homeless and dispossessed. God invites us to the lonely halls of a nursing home. Come to the wilderness and experience God at work. Come to the wilderness and help prepare the Way!
The wilderness places cry out for justice, peace, and hope. Refugees and the dispossessed are in the wilderness, along with the uninsured and the casualties of war and politics. Victims of hatred and prejudice find themselves in the wilderness of life’s journey. Wherever there are lonely or forgotten, neglected or abused, the pushed down or the cast aside you will find wilderness places of life.
II. Our Task Is to Prepare the Way.
God constructs a highway through the wilderness places of life. God sends hope and help, and that at times means sending you and me. We are called from our own wilderness to enter into the wilderness of God’s work. We are called as messengers of hope.
This time of year, our wilderness may be the shopping mall or the Christmas rush. It is easy to forget the sacred when overwhelmed by the desolation of excess. Finding the “perfect gift” rings hollow when compared with affording food for survival or medicine for a child’s illness.
When an F-5 tornado obliterated a residential neighborhood in the Texas community of Jarrell, it left behind a most desperate wilderness. Asphalt was lifted off of roadways. A hundred automobiles were shredded, with only a few bumpers, one axle, and some tires remaining. Twenty-seven were dead, including whole families. People from far and wide responded to help. Volunteer labor, clothing, cash, food, and other resources poured into the little town. It was a flood of good will attempting to bring hope to a devastated community.
Such acts of compassion pave the way for hope. The people of God are called to prepare the way for God’s hope. We are to be doers of the Word and people of Christ’s Way.
III. God’s Call Brings Hope to Everyone.
“All flesh shall see the salvation of God!” The gospel is for everyone. It is God’s gift to a world that finds itself in the wilderness. There is no realm where God is not. There is no wilderness, no void, no desperate spot capable of keeping out God’s loving Spirit. There is always hope in God!
If the incarnation teaches us anything, it is that God is in the midst of human experience birthing hope into the most desperate places and circumstances. God’s hope is for everyone and every circumstance. Life does not always happen as we desire. The journey is not to our design, but God is at work for good (Romans 8:28) and we are partners in giving hope. Thomas a Kempis wrote in The Imitation of Christ: “Do what lies in your power and God will aid your good will.”
This advent, may our wilderness experiences sharpen our hearing to God’s call so that we might realize the hope that is ours. (Gary G. Kindley)
Third Sunday of Advent (C)
Sunday, December 14, 1997
The Sounds of a Contented Christmas
Luke 3:7-18
“I want a teenage, mutant Ninja Turtle,” yelled a rowdy seven year old. It was the children’s sermon but my mind was spinning.
“A what?”
Those in the congregation with grade school children laughed knowingly. I was a seminary student without children, out of touch with the world of Saturday morning cartoons.
“A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle!” the boy looked at me as if I were from another planet. “I want Michelangelo!”
“No way! I want Raphael!” another said. A ten year old girl spoke up: “I want a….” Then, the dam broke, with a chorus of small voices clamoring for this or that toy.
I want this and I want that. We notice it most in children at Christmas. Not that children are the only ones who think this way. They haven’t learned yet not to say what’s on their minds.
This time of year brings numerous sounds to our ears but, for most, the sounds of contentment are faint, if heard at all. John’s words are fitting for a consumer society built on material craving instead of contentment.
For many, the sound of craving is inescapable. Cash registers ring, mall traffic rushes, horns blare, voices swear. Many decry to pace of the season. The pace is merely a symptom. The disease is discontent.
When John was approached by those who sensed that Messiah was drawing near he was asked, “What should we do?” His reply can be summarized in his words to the soldiers: be content.
John’s words are hard to hear. They are as difficult to hear as the sound of contentment at Christmas. The clamor of craving is so loud that, if it weren’t for the high-pitched bell ringing outside the store, we might not even think of the less fortunate.
The craving leads many to the mall. It leads others to depression and even to suicide, their minds and hearts fixed intently on what is missing from their lives: family, money, purpose, love. John guides us wisely through this season. What can we do to hear the sounds of a contented Christmas?
1. Share generously with others. Most of us are so far beyond having only two coats or having enough to eat John’s advice sounds archaic. But a billion people still go hungry every day. John’s words speak truth. Go through your closet and clean out, no just those things that no longer fit but all the “extra” clothes you have. And give them away. And, instead of gorging yourself for several days this Christmas, cook the same amount of food but take half or more of it to a poor family in your community.
2. Be honest. Many, even in the church, are involved in dishonest business dealings, “padding” expense accounts, “hedging” on tax payment. John counsels us, in view of the shortness of time to be honest.
In June of 1997 a story broke about a Midwest couple who were charged with shoplifting. They weren’t poor or needy. He was a dentist with a prosperous practice. Yet they were indicted for shoplifting hundreds of thousands of dollars in china, jewelry, and art. Our cravings lead many to dishonesty. Be honest, John says.
3. Be satisfied with what you’re paid. Much trouble could be avoided in marriages, families, offices, and factories if we would be content with our pay as John advises. Instead, Christmas finds couples, singles, grandparents overextending themselves on credit cards. John has a word for us this Season: be content with your pay and what it will purchase.
This Christmas, instead of giving in to the discontent that commercialism produces, listen to the still, small voice of God speaking through his servant John: be content. (Blake Harwell)
Fourth Sunday of Advent (C)
Sunday, December 21, 1997
Rejoice Always?
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)
Mary could see what was going to happen to her in her pregnancy. Her father’s frustration: “Why did you go and get yourself in this condition and then blame it on God? It’s more than shameful!”
She awaited Joseph’s reaction.
When the people of Nazareth noticed, the end would come swiftly. For a woman to bear a child outside of marriage was an appalling display of her immorality.
Mary understood well why that favorite of Christmas carols wails forth its message in a minor key — O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
Even the chorus, as it shouts, “Rejoice! Rejoice!” does so with such woeful chords that we wonder at its source.
No one could ever sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in its moaning melody and mean it more than Mary. She felt absolutely alone.
And alone it’s difficult to rejoice.
Her heavy heart carries her on a journey to see Elizabeth, her cousin. And the words that spill out of Elizabeth’s mouth must seem almost silly to Mary.
“How happy you are!” she says?
Let me replay a piece of what has just occurred. When the angel brings the “good tidings of great joy” to Mary her response is, “May it happen to me as you have said.”
That doesn’t sound a lot like “Whoopee!! I’m going to have a baby!” does it?
No. “May it happen to me as you have said” sounds more like a resigned “Whatever you say.”
Why did Mary go to Elizabeth’s house? For the same reasons we go in search of an Elizabeth this time of year. Whether we need confirmation, encouragement, or just a level head with whom to discuss something we go in search of our Elizabeths at Christmas.
Yet, Mary was alone. When she comes to Elizabeth, Mary isn’t singing a song of joy! But when she leaves she is! What happened? What made the difference?
Many of you may recall from last week’s reading from the epistles the scripture verse that commands us to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). Always? That’s what it says. Always.
Elizabeth also knew about “always.” Mary goes to her a resigned, worried girl and leaves singing the Magnificat. What happened? What made the difference?
I think Elizabeth shared with Mary the secret of “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
Elizabeth knew about always. As a man or a woman in the 1990’s, with other avenues of fulfillment open, none of us can truly comprehend her pain in her barrenness.
Elizabeth would never have children. It’s too late. Her child-bearing years are over — or so she thought. The badge of honor granted to some of the most careless, unreliable folk dangled just out of reach until her old body was too tired to care.
But Elizabeth still knew how to rejoice in the Lord. She still found herself close to him. The Bible says she was “blameless” in God’s sight (v. 6). Even though the most desired thing in her life was denied her, she still served God. She knew what “always” meant.
Mary leaves rejoicing. What’s the secret? To rejoicing always?
1. It begins with faith. Elizabeth says to Mary “How happy you are to believe that the Lord’s message to you will come true!” If we want to uncover the treasure chest of joy that God has buried in each of our lives, the first instruction, written in all Capital Letters, across the top of our treasure map is believe.
Faith precedes joy. If we don’t have faith, we won’t have joy.
If Jesus Christ has not received an invitation to the dull party of your life, the laughter may come in spurts, but lasting joy never will. Without faith in Jesus Christ, the life of the party has been left off your guest list. And if you die without inviting Him in, you will have endured the party of life without the one for whom the party was thrown — the life of the party, Jesus Christ.
“How happy you are to believe” That’s the first, foundational guide to Rejoicing this Christmas.
“So, I believe, what’s next? I’m still not finding joy this Christmas.” What does it take?
2. A different perspective. Listen to what Mary sings. It’s there we’ll find some more clues to joy this Advent.
Her first words are “My heart praises the Lord; my soul is glad because of God my Savior, for he has remembered me, his lowly servant!
What does that tell us about finding joy this Advent?
Let me ask you something again. What has changed about Mary’s situation from the time she arrived at Elizabeth’s?
Nothing. She still has all the same problems as before. All that’s changed is Mary’s perspective.
As long as Mary was alone, focused on her life, she couldn’t rejoice. It’s difficult to rejoice when you’re focused on the ills of life. It’s impossible when your eyes are on your troubles.
But in her song she spotlights the blessings of God — My Savior. He remembers me. He’s done great things for me.
She goes on to say, “He has kept the promise he made to our ancestors, and has come tothe help of his servant Israel.” Mary’s no longer focused only on herself, her problems, or even her blessings!
3. A final clue runs throughout the song. It’s even in the very name of the song. Many of your Bibles probably have a name that headlines the verses 46-55. The name given this song 1,500 years ago is ‘the Magnificat.’ “Magnificat” is not a code-word for anything. The name comes from the first words of this song in the old Latin Bible. A word your Bible might translate as “magnify,” “proclaim” or “praise.”
Remember earlier I said “It’s difficult to rejoice when you’re alone”?
Something special happens when God’s people praise God. There’s a scripture verse that says, “The Lord inhabits the praises of His people.” When we sing God’s praises, He comes and is present in a unique and real way.
You see what that does? When you praise the Lord anyway, you’re not alone anymore!
You’ve called in the Lord of the universe as your drum major.
God knows it’s difficult to Rejoice when you’re alone. That’s why he says “Rejoice in the lord always.”
It’s difficult to rejoice when you’re alone. Many of us are alone even in this room full of people. When you declare the goodness of our God, singing, shouting, praying, playing, testifying, your God comes down and joins you.
And the misery of loneliness is over.
Naomi Whidden knew this last principle. Naomi was two years old when she wandered away from her folks on a hiking trip in the Smokey Mountains, disappearing for 25 hours! Two years old, all alone, subfreezing temperatures, and it’s dark. What’s she going to do? Who’s she thinking about? Where’s the answer to her need?
When the rescuers found Naomi she was breathing very poorly, and in their words, “very nearly dead,” suffering from hypothermia.
They carried her out to an access road where an ambulance and her Mom picked her up. Naomi and her Mom were riding in the back of the ambulance when those two-year old, chapped, swollen lips spoke her first words.
The Bible says, “For out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Mat. 12:34), I can’t help but know that’s true in this case.
Mary discovered that, in the loneliness of the roughest of life, God is present in a special way when we sing His praises. (H. Blake Harwell)
First Sunday after Christmas (C)
December 28, 1997
What Do You Know?
Luke 2:41-52
What do we really know about Jesus? If we look at the gospels, we know very little about his life before he turned 30. We are provided with precious few snap-shots. Our hearts are warmed as we read the accounts of Jesus’ birth. We know that Joseph, his earthly father was a handyman in Nazareth — the “sticks” of Galilee. We can imagine what it would have been like to be Jesus’ younger brothers and sisters and have our mother say, “Why can’t you be more like Jesus?” There is a lot that our idle curiosity would like to know about Jesus first years. There are some essential things that we do know.
I. Jesus was from a devout family
We know that Jesus’ parents were devout. Joseph was sensitive to the Lord and did not abandon Mary even though the child she was carrying was not his. He had the faith to believe that Mary’s child, Jesus, was indeed conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mary was the young woman whom God chose to be the mother of His Son. Her Magnificat showed her grasp of the scriptures and of the theological significance of Jesus’ birth.
We also know they were devout because they were faithful to the demands of their religion. Each Jewish person was required to make it to Jerusalem for three significant religious feasts — Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Travel to each of these may impose a financial hardship on those who were not affluent, but Jesus’ family was devout in their making it for the biggest of these feasts, the feast of the Passover.
It was after the Passover, as the caravan made their way back to the hills of the Galilee that Mary and Joseph finally noticed that Jesus was not with them. It would be easy for us to accuse them of being irresponsible but it’s not difficult to see how such a thing could happen.
Jesus was at one of those in-between ages. Not quite an adult but no longer a child. In the eyes of Judaism, He was a responsible “Son of the Law.” The men and women and children would be in different parts of the caravan so Joseph could easily assume that He would be with Mary and the children; Mary could just as easily assume that He was with the boys and men. Don’t ascribe any negligence to Mary and Joseph. Take note of the fact that they were pious and devout parents.
II. Jesus knew His real parentage.
Joseph and Mary were horror-stricken at the realization that Jesus wasn’t with them. Where do you begin to look for your 12 year old son in a strange city? Do you look for Him down by the creek bank? Would He be off climbing a tree somewhere? Would He be soaking in all of the sights and sounds of the marketplace in Jerusalem?
He’s found in the most unlikely of places — the temple courts where the teachers of the law engaged in their theological hair-splitting arguments. What makes this unusual is not that He was listening to them; they were attempting to answer His penetrating questions. The teachers were amazed at His depth of insight.
Upon finding Him, Mary chided her son. “How could you do this to us? Didn’t you know we’d be worried sick about You?” To which Jesus replied, “Why the fuss? Didn’t you know I’d be about My Father’s house?”
In this pericope about the life of Jesus, we see divinity and humanity fully intertwined, even at the age of 12. The question is often asked, “When did Jesus become aware of the cross?” Or about His divinity, “What did He know and when did He know it?” Luke, in his “complete and orderly account” shows that Jesus grew like any other human being — in wisdom, in stature, in favor with God, and in favor with man. Yet, even at the age of 12 He asserted His divinity, saying, “I must be in my Father’s house.”
There are things we don’t know, but we do know that Jesus is God come to us in human flesh. What else do we need to know? (Mark A. Johnson)
Sermon Briefs in this issue are written by: Mark A. Johnson, Managing Editor, Preaching, Jackson, TN; Steven Robert Fleming, First Presbyterian Church, Westminster, MD; Gary Kindley, Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Killeen, TX; Blake Harwell, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Adel, GA.

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