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TUESDAY OF ADVENT 4

December 20, 2016

1 Samuel 2:1-10

Genesis 21:1-21

Galatians 4:21-5:1

So [Sarah] said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”

[Genesis 21:10]

Here we are five days before Christmas and our Genesis reading presents us with a family squabble. Does that sound familiar?

This reading is a lot more serious and the implications are far too complex to explain in this short space. Too many people have twisted themselves into knots trying to simplistically summarize the relationship between Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, and poor Abraham stuck in the middle of it all. As our reading tells us, the matter was very distressing to him. For anyone who has studied family systems theory, this is a classic display of a dysfunctional family.

Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham, Matthias Stomer, (fl. 1615–1649)
Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham, Matthias Stomer, (fl. 1615–1649)

As we noted yesterday, God made a promise to Abraham that seemed preposterous – that he would be the father of a great nation that would outnumber the stars in the heavens. His wife Sarah, being impatient, decided to take matters into her own hands and ask Abraham to father a child with her servant, Hagar. From that union, Ishmael was born.

A few years later, Sarah miraculously gives birth to Isaac, which brings us to the problematic scene depicted in today’s narrative. Sarah is jealous and demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. So the dutiful husband Abraham does as he’s told. But the irony of this story is that God agrees.

Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, Luigi Alois Gillarduzzi 1851
Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, Luigi Alois Gillarduzzi 1851

In the wilderness, Hagar and Ismael run out of water. So she puts Ishmael under the bushes and prepares for his eventual death. But God heard the cries of the boy and opened Hagar’s eyes to a well of water. Ishmael then goes on to grow up in the wilderness and becomes the father of a great nation.

In Hebrew, the meaning of the name Ishmael is: God listens. Ishmael’s story tells us about God’s care and providence. We may think that God is absent from our lives, especially when things seem hopeless or don’t turn out the way we want. But, whether we realize it or not, God listens. God hears the cry of the abandoned. God hears the cry of the outcast. God hears the cry of the oppressed.

Listening is a quality that is in far too short supply, especially at this time of the year. We are challenged to resist the tendencies to cut ourselves off from those with whom we disagree.  And of all the many lessons to be learned in this story of the banishment of Hagar, perhaps listening is one well worth our time and attention. When we do our best to make time for those with whom we disagree, listening can open not only our ears, but our eyes to what is right in front of us.

Open our eyes, Lord. We want to see Jesus. To reach out and touch him, and say that we love him. Open our ears, Lord, and help us to listen. Open our eyes, Lord. We want to see Jesus. Amen 

[This Far by Faith, Hymn #98]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MONDAY OF ADVENT 4

December 19, 2016

1 Samuel 2:1-10

Genesis 17:15-22

Galatians 4:8-20

[God said], “Your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.”

[Genesis 17:19]

Camp Covenant Closing Ceremony 2014
Camp Covenant Closing Ceremony 2014

During my time in the parish we hosted a summer day camp for kids. One of the highlights of the day for me would take place in the afternoon when the kids sang.  I could hear them from my office and often I would come out to listen and to watch them because they would really get into the music.  One of their favorite songs, as well as mine, is titled “Father Abraham.”  I’m sure you’ve heard it and know it and have probably sang it a time or two.  It goes like this:

Father Abraham had many sons.

Many sons had Father Abraham.

I am one of them, and so are you.

So let’s just praise the Lord!

So it seemed only natural that the Genesis reading would be the focus of today’s reflection.  The LORD makes a promise to give Abraham a son, numerous descendants, and make him the father of many nations. 

This was not the first promise that God had made to Abraham.  Beginning in chapter 12, when we are first introduced to Abraham in the Bible, God tells him to leave his country and go to the land that God will show him.  God promises to make Abraham a great nation and will make his name great, so that he and those who are descended from his name will be known as a blessing to all nations.  In chapter 15, God repeats these promises and promises to give Abraham a son.

Now all this is well and good until you consider the fact that Abraham by this time is 99 years old, and Sara is 90. So on the surface these promises sound outrageous.

Verse 18 points out: Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

Is it any wonder Abraham would feel that way?

Sarah and Abraham (The Providence Lithograph Company)
Sarah and Abraham (The Providence Lithograph Company)

But there is one important element in this story.  Abraham may have laughed, he may have doubted, he may have felt foolish, but he listened to God. 

What does Abraham’s experience of God’s covenant mean for us in our day and time? How does Abraham offer a lens through which we can understand our relationship with the living God?

As we hear this story I’m sure there are many of us, if not all of us, who would have probably reacted the same way.  We would have laughed at God had we been in Abraham’s shoes (or sandals, as it were).

Yet we want our faith to be like Abraham’s faith. We don’t want our faith to be wavering and weak, we don’t want to doubt, we don’t want to question.  Down deep inside of all of us want to move beyond that. We want our faith to grow strong.  We want to have a genuine faith, a deep faith, a trusting faith, a committed faith.

It is important to note however, that while Abraham is being held up in Genesis, he was far from perfect.  Abraham had many flaws, as all of us humans do. But God did not enter into a covenant with Abraham because of Abraham’s merits.

In much the same way God makes a promise to us.  We are called in the waters of baptism to be a child of God. Having been called, we do as Abraham did. We obey. We follow God’s commands to love the Lord with all our heart, with all our mind and with all our soul. And we follow God’s command, also, to love those around us.

Will we always obey God?  That’s not humanly possible.  We are all sinful.  Even Abraham sinned. 

But, in those moments when we sin, we can be assured that we are living under the care and watchful eye of the Holy Spirit, we are able to ask and received forgiveness, then by God’s grace, we follow-through and go out and do what God has called us to do.  Not always, and never on our own, are we able to do God’s will in our lives.

God, our Creator, you call us to follow you.  Give us the courage and the strength to trust in your promises.  Fill us with your love, assure us of your presence and mold us into the creatures you would have us be. Amen

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FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

December 18, 2016

Isaiah 7:10-16

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Romans 1:1-7

Matthew 1:18-25

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.”

[Matthew 1:22-23]

As we read through these familiar birth narratives year after year, we hear the words but they no longer carry any impact.  We know the story, we know the prophecies and so we can easily put our brains into neutral and coast.

It is a challenge both for us as pastors and for our listeners.  How does something that happened 2000 years ago remain meaningful for us in 2010?  What do these words spoken by prophets and angels in some foreign land centuries before mean for us today?

Gaetano Gandolfi, Angel Appears to Joseph in a Dream, c. 1790.
Gaetano Gandolfi, Angel Appears to Joseph in a Dream, c. 1790.

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent we hear the story of the birth of Jesus from Joseph’s perspective, and in the Gospel text we hear a line that is repeated from the prophecy of Isaiah in our first reading (see above).

“God is with us.”

In Hebrew, “Emmanuel” is actually a phrase (`immanu el) which doesn’t contain a verb, so literally the phrase means, “God with us.” 

What do the words mean? 

We humans will always have some difficulty trying to put our experiences with God into mere words. Emmanuel is a name in which God commits himself to be our constant companion…forever; to be with us…always. 

Emmanuel—that name sums up the heart of the gospel.

We human beings are creatures—beautiful, complicated, and intricate creations fashioned by an all-powerful Creator who has revealed Himself to us as our God through Jesus.  Yet we have separated ourselves far away from God by our sin.  And we continue to fool ourselves as we hear in the first letter of John: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” [1 John 1:8]

“Immanuel” sums up everything there is to say about this baby known as Jesus. God is with us as our savior.

“God with us” were words of hope centuries ago when the Israelites were under siege.  They were words of hope in the Dark Ages when living conditions were almost unbearable.  And they are words of hope to our own fallen and broken world today, a world living in darkness and despair.

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of God, a time to pay attention to the clues that God is active, that God is with us, and we need to do anything we can, to remember that fact throughout Advent, throughout Christmas, and the rest of the year.

Lord, we thank you that you sent us your only Son and clothed him in human flesh that he might suffer with us, understand our sorrows and our trials and deliver us from sin.  As we celebrate His coming again, prepare us to hear that story once more, that we might hear it with fresh ears and open minds, that we might receive you in gladness and serve you with joy. Amen    

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SATURDAY OF ADVENT 3

December 17, 2016

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

2 Samuel 7:23-29

John 3:31-36

He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.

[John 3:34]

dec27th-shopshopshop1The closer we get to Christmas the more voices we are going to hear trying to get our attention. Although I get plenty of donation requests in the mail throughout the year, it seems that the mailbox is full of them as December approaches. I don’t need to tell anyone about the newspaper ads and the television commercials that take over the airwaves during this time.

And it’s not only the voices of merchants competing for your business. Friends and family need your ear.

It’s at times like this that we need to hear a different voice – a voice of…comfort.

The assigned Gospel reading from John tells us of a voice that speaks the words of God. That voice is the voice of Jesus. yet when he came the world, for the most part, ignored him. As our reading tells us, no one accepted his testimony.

In the barren wasteland of “busy-ness” and commercialism, we are invited to hear that voice that calls us to set aside those things that whither, and fade; to turn away from those temporary pleasures that leave us emptier than before. Let us hear that voice that calls us to prepare to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas. We need to hear that voice above all others; the only voice that can truly fill us with joy – the voice of the LORD.

From heav’n above to earth I come

          to bring good news to ev’ryone!

          Glad tidings of great joy I bring

          to all the world, and gladly sing

[From Heaven Above

Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Hymn #268]

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FRIDAY OF ADVENT 3

December 16, 2016

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

2 Samuel 7:18-22

Galatians 4:1-7

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

[Galatians 4:4-5]

christmas-1aWe will hear the reading from Galatians on January 1, when the Church celebrates “The Name of Jesus.”

The Advent and Christmas seasons highlight the significance of family and friends in our lives. There’s no doubt that the gift of family is one of God’s greatest gifts.

Our family gives us a sense of identity. If you’ve ever doubted this, speak to someone who’s been adopted. Invariably an adopted person at some point in his or her life takes upon themselves the quest of finding their biological family. It means everything to them to them to know their ancestry.

Likewise, a person who does live with their biological relatives has a desire to know their genealogy. There are websites available, such as ancestry.com, which are making a ton of money on people’s intense desire to know their past, to document their history.

One of the greatest gifts I ever received was given to me by a pillar of the last congregation I served. Genealogy was his passion. Soon after being called to the congregation, he located a copy of my father’s birth certificate, which he found for me after I had told him of my failed attempts to do so.

Why would something like this excite me so?  Because it creates for me a connection with my past.  It is a way that I can keep my father’s memory alive in a tangible fashion.  Yes, we have pictures, and those are also great memories.  But a birth certificate gives a life a certain measure of authenticity.  It is an official record.

For the Jewish people, their genealogy was very important. It told you who your people were, what tribe they came from, and most importantly, if you were 100% Jewish or not.

Though we are not 100% Jewish, we are adopted children of God by virtue of God’s grace. God sent Jesus, so that we might receive adoption as God’s children and become part of God’s family.

When God gave us Jesus, it was a demonstration of God’s love for humankind.  It reminds us how committed God is to us and to our existence.

luther-galatiansMartin Luther explains it in his Commentary on Galatians this way:

Train your conscience to believe that God approves of you. Fight it out with doubt. Gain assurance through the Word of God. Say: “I am all right with God. I have the Holy Ghost. Christ, in whom I do believe, makes me worthy. I gladly hear, read, sing, and write of Him. I would like nothing better than that Christ’s Gospel be known throughout the world and that many, many be brought to faith in Him.”

Our adoption as God’s children means that we are no longer slaves to sin and there is absolutely no reason to return to a life of slavery. In Christ we are children of God and full heirs with him to all that God has promised. And the news gets even better. God is not finished with us, and is still at work in our lives and in creation.

For all this we say, “Thanks be to God,” and share this good news with others.

Holy God, we pray not only for our biological families but also for our Christian family of faith. Guard us from all danger and harm; deliver us from anger that leads to division; empower us to forgive as we have been forgiven; and send us into the world to witness to your love and grace. Amen

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THURSDAY OF ADVENT 3

December 15, 2016

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

2 Samuel 7:1-17

Galatians 3:23-29

I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.

[2 Samuel 7:6]

Nativity Scene“Away in a Manger” is consistently ranked in the top two or three Christmas carols in both the United States and Great Britain. It has been set to over 40 different tunes. It’s a pretty song that suggests pretty images of children caroling and Hallmark cards.

We know very little about the actual physical circumstances of Christ’s birth. It is debated whether the “stable” was the courtyard of a house, the lower-level of a home, a separate stable-building or a cave. And, we have no idea what the physical manger looked like.

The word “manger”, comes from the French word meaning to eat. So more specifically, Jesus was born in a feeding trough for those animals. And yet this manger has become an icon that is almost synonymous with Christmas.

Compare this humble birthplace of our Savior with the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Temple was an impressive sight.  It took brilliant engineering and sheer effort to assemble the massive stones.  Think of the fact that many of those who worked on the structure didn’t live to see its completion.  Its construction took hundreds of years. 

The Temple was meant to be a symbol of God’s presence among the people. Yet the very beauty, the very immensity, the very profundity of the Temple served only to make it something ultimately dangerous. One can sense God’s apprehension in God’s warning to David in today’s reading from Samuel.

Like the Temple, our church facility is a tool for ministry, nothing more.  It has been provided to us by God and by the faithfulness of those who have gone before us, but if we do not learn and remember how to use it wisely and well, it can become a danger to us. Complacency and arrogance about a church building can be deadly.  No matter how secure the building, no matter how secure the institution, it can be overthrown.

I have often told congregations that the church is not the building.  It is not the walls that embrace you, but rather, it is God’s tender mercy.  We tend to base our identity in physical structures knowing full well that they will someday be torn down. If we base our identity in Christ, we’ll know that God’s love for us will never end nor can it be physically destroyed.

cropped-manger_scene_thumb.jpgPonder the humble birthplace of God’s son. Reflect on the fact that God’s presence cannot be contained in any physical dwelling, whether a stable or a temple. The things we humans build, no matter how grand, will perish; the things God builds, no matter how small, will endure, even to the end of the age.

The glory of God lives among us.

Loving God, may the gift of your child transform us in such a way that we are filled with your love and become a reflection of that love to others. Amen