Over the years I have spent a number of times celebrating the birth with a family. Every time it is interesting and new. But one common thread, if there is not a complication, is upon completion of the birth and the baby makes their first cry, the family and seemingly the world stops to stand still and just be in the moment. For a split second, no matter what the worry might have been or whatever may be going on outside, the room does not seem to exist; it is all about that moment and the new precious life breathing their first breath.
In a real way, it is a moment of letting go in order to just be present. For what is often too short of a time, the “what ifs” and “what’s next” stop and people take a needed Sabbath. Unfortunately, this is often too short. In fact, in much of our lives we do not take the time for Sabbath, to just be present.
Sabbath is one of the most important parts of a faithful life. God models this Sabbath in the very first creation story. Upon completion of the world, God took a break before he assumingly “went back to work.” When you look at the two Creation stories, the first one, lets call it the seven-day story, is very scientific and logical. Interestingly, the imagery of this creation story cannot be separated from the imagery of birth. The completion being the human, followed by the moment of letting things just be.
As we come to the week after Christmas, the church tends to be utter quiet. As much of the activities cease for a week and a usually hopping place is almost painfully quiet, we as a church take a break and just revel in being. This is why I usually take the week after Christmas off, to celebrate the Sabbath and find renewal and strength for the coming year.
Like a new parent of a child knows, finding moments of rest are crucial for the health and stability of the family. In our own lives, finding breaks allow us to have a clearer vision and understanding of the full glory of God. Think, there was a lot of time between when Christ was born and the moment he started his ministry. Though we can speculate that he did things before his formal ministry started, it is clear that there was a needed break between when he came to this world, and the start of his ministry, just as there was a time between when he left this world, to then come back on Easter morning, and then to leave again, only to come back as the Holy Spirit.
As we see, Sabbath is not about giving up or turning away, it is about giving us the space to relax and refocus. Interestingly, every time Christ challenged the Sabbath Laws, it was not on the notion of giving time for ourselves; he challenged the notion that the Sabbath was a penitential time of abstinence, which he showed us it is not. In Sabbath we take care of those we need to care for and ourselves, just as Christ did.
I encourage you to take some Sabbath before the New Year. If not a day, try a few hours to just be. You might find it interesting what develops, and how you find yourself thinking about the New Year.
Yours in Christ,
Joseph had a problem. He was hanging around a woman who got pregnant outside of marriage. Now the stigma of that situation is not as great now-a-days, but not too long ago we know that even in our society that would warrant communal scorn. In the time of Christ, the issue was even greater.
Ultimately, Mary really had no choice but to accept the baby that was growing inside her. She sought understanding; lamented the difficult life this child would have; and had the typical mother feelings. She could have abandoned the child, as was common practice, but obviously chose not to via the guidance from the angels, so you could say that she was the first to accept Christ. But Joseph really had every incentive to abandon Mary.
Though he is not even mentioned in two of the Gospels, his role is a crucial part in the Nativity story because he chooses to stay. Though it was through a dream, he accepts that what the angels are telling him to be from God. By accepting Christ to be the Son of God, and staying with Mary, even marrying her, he risks his life and livelihood. At that point, whatever aspirations Joseph might have had were forever changed. And though with initial reluctance, Joseph embraced his new wife and child to create the Holy family.
One of the hardest parts of the Christmas narrative is that because our society has changed so much from the time of Christ we miss the gravity of the situations that are presented. This disconnect often lessens the distress of what is going on and the importance of the choices that are made. One of the images that Matthew brings up over and over again is that the choice to accept Christ is not one of convenience or for a better life; rather, it is to give up your own life and live into something more.
When we celebrate the Hope, Peace, Joy and Love we do so fully understanding that those emotions all result from a difficult decision to live into a new reality in Christ. It is such a difficult decision we often find ourselves in need making it over and over again. This means that after we give up our former ways, we are often drawn back to the needs of this world. This means that we are constantly working towards the promise of a glorious life with Christ.
This choice is not easy and comes with great tension, living with one foot in the reality and judgments of this world and another with God. However, the choice that we make to follow God though Christ is to accept that as difficult as our decision is to make to follow Christ, the glory we will experience is far more powerful and complete in the end.
As we think about Joseph, and the choice he had to make to accept his son, we must always remember that though it would have been easy for him to choose another path, he did not. Just as it is easy for us to choose a direction that takes us away from Christ, we must remember that when we live for Christ we give ourselves over to a new Glory and new reality rooted in the Hope, Peace, Joy and Love of Christ.
I remember my favorite part of Christmas time was going to the airport to pick up my grandparents. I would fight to have the honor, and, though I do not remember, I probably would have thrown a tantrum if I had not! I remember there was a way that I could be close to my grandmother that I could not be with anyone else and for me that was what it was all about and I wanted every moment I could with them.
As I got older, circumstances what they were, I was able to see my grandparents often, up until I went into the ministry when my grandfather was both happy and sad, since he knew that this life was a great calling, but did not afford the luxury, as he put it, of visiting family. My Grandmother never really understood that, but she went along, relishing the moments we had together.
Saying that, it is hard for me to be too sad for her passing, since on one hand I know she is with the Lord and on the other I knew that her body was failing her to the extreme. However, still as we approach Christmas, I remember those journeys to the airport and that incredible excitement to receive that hug as they walked off the plane. It was an embrace of full love, so much so for the briefest moment, no matter what I was going through I would lose myself and just fell into the blissful state of love, not really caring about anything else.
I often think to myself about that embrace and wonder what it must have felt like for those who witnessed the coming of Christ. For better or worse, the Gospels are really devoid of emotional talk. Most of the emotions we ascribe to the nativity are embellishments on some simple descriptors. But I do not think that words, no matter how vivid, could ever come close to the real emotions that came in those situations, so we come back to our experiences and relate how we feel in similar times and presuppose them onto the stories we know.
This is not a bad thing! In fact it is a very good thing, and is at the heart of what it means to be a witness for God. The whole nativity story is merely a witness. In reality, it is not even that important of one; only two of the four gospels mention it and the letters don't even broach the birth. In fact, in the early church, Christmas was not even celebrated! Again, I do not say this to discount the holiday, but to lift up its importance of being about witnessing to the Birth of Christ, but more importantly, witnessing to the love God has for us.
This really becomes what the holiday of Christmas is about: how we witness to the Love of God. The catalyst and motivation is the remembrance that God so loved us that he gave us his son, but what we do with that is far more important in how we show grace and compassion. Moreover, how we witness and model God’s Love is the most powerful part of this holiday.
Last week, when I was pulling out my sweaters and found one that my Grandmother had given to me many years ago (someday it will fit again!) I started to think about the gifts that I had been given by that and realized that I could not recall more than a couple, but I will never forget that feeling of the embrace every time I saw them as a child, and I know that when my days here are ended too, I will once again feel that love in even a more powerful way.
I hope that you can join our many witnesses to the Love of God.
· The Traditional Service with a special Children’s Witness
· The Gathering for the O Antiphons
· The 7pm Christmas Eve Family Service
· The 11 pm Traditional Lessons and Carols.
This week we will explore the O Antiphons. The original Advent calendar was an ancient Latin hymn called the O Antiphons. Starting on December 17 and continuing through the day before Christmas Eve, this timeless observance of the advent season is fitting for the Sunday before Christmas as we are preparing with mixed emotions for that special day. It is important to note that in the early church Christmas was not the special day it is today. In fact, it took a few centuries for it to find its way into the calendar proper and even longer for it to be settled on a date. This means that Advent took even longer to be established.
The reasons for the development of the advent tradition are varied and contain a good amount of speculation, but what we see is that over time, Christmas seemed to become a holiday that began to absorb others. We see this most in how we include the wisemen (or kings) into the Nativity when their rightful place is at epiphany.
With Christmas beginning to become this grand holiday, monks and clergy recognized that the penitent nature of the holiday was lost. To regain that this time was created to help nurture and develop the community of faith. I guess you could say that Christmas without Advent is like having desert without dinner or celebrating the resurrection without understanding the pain of the crucifixion.
Advent brings a balance to Christmas, not to make us feel bad about ourselves or highlight our insecurities, but to ask the simple question of how we are prepared for Christ. I have always liked the O Antiphons, because in a very simple way they put our life with Christ into perspective. The Service of the O Antiphons was an evening prayer. Which makes sense as the darkness comes, praying for light.
The antiphons are:
O Sapientia Wisdom
O Adonai Lord
O Radix Jesse Root of Jesse
O Clavis David Key of David
O Oriens Sunrise
O Rex Gentium King of the Nations
O Emmanuel God with us
If you read the first letter (not counting the O) of each antiphon from bottom to top, the group of antiphons forms a backwards acrostic poem in Latin: ero cras, or “tomorrow I will [come].”
In many congregations, the O Antiphons are best known as the source for the popular Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
I hope that you can join us this Sunday as we prepare our hearts by celebrating this advent service in a way that only we can do in the Gathering Service!
Here is the prayer for Advent that our service will follow:
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, you order all things with strength and gentleness: Come now and teach us the way to salvation.
Come, Lord Jesus.
O Adonai, Ruler of the house of Israel, you appeared in the burning bush to Moses and gave him the law on Sinai: Come with outstretched arm to save us.
Come, Lord Jesus.
O Root of Jesse, rising as a sign for all the peoples, before you earthly rulers will keep silent, and nations give you honor: Come quickly to deliver us.
Come, Lord Jesus.
O Key of David, Scepter over the house of Israel, you open and no one can close, you close and no one can open: Come to set free the prisoners who live in darkness and the shadow of death.
Come, Lord Jesus.
O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, Sun of justice: Come, shine on those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death.
Come, Lord Jesus.
O Ruler of the nations, Monarch for whom the people long, you are the Cornerstone uniting all humanity: Come, save us all, whom you formed out of clay.
Come, Lord Jesus.
O Immanuel, our Sovereign and Lawgiver, desire of the nations and Savior of all: Come and save us, O Lord our God.
Come, Lord Jesus.
God of grace, ever faithful to your promises, the earth rejoices in hope of our Savior's coming and looks forward with longing to his return at the end of time. Prepare our hearts to receive him when he comes, for he is Lord forever and ever. Amen.
Going from Council Bluffs to the University of Nebraska Hospital was always a pretty quick and direct trip. Most days it took less then ten minutes. Coming home on the other hand, was interesting. Going, the roads were fairly logical and clearly marked, but coming home, you had to know your way. Not only did you have to do a u turn, you had to know the right entrance in a maze of roads, all of which looked more like driveways then onramps to the interstate! However, if you did not take this route it took you twice as long.
I often think about this when I encounter a text like the Isaiah text that we have this Sunday. The first time I had to make the trip and was cursing out the commute to a fellow pastor, he told me of the better way. The first time I tried to find it on my own I found myself horribly lost. The next time, he came with me, and until I moved away that was the way to go.
The thing is that the joy and path to Christ is in front of us; the problem is that as plain to see as it might be, it is hard to sort out. Often the highway to God is not clearly defined, and what makes it worse is that when we get off track it makes it harder to find our way. This is why faith can never be a totally individual expression. Often we need to have one another to help us to find our way, and point out where the path we are on might just be the wrong one.
When we get onto the right way, not only is it clear, but also it is obvious. One of the many problems of society that Isaiah is speaking to is that people have come to a place where they have lost their way. In fact, they have chosen to follow a pathway that leads away from God, like going south when you need to go north.
Again, though like last week, the prophecy that Isaiah gives is just as awesome and powerful, but it also has a requirement for you. You have to find the pathway and you have to choose to enter and you have to live into that choice.
It kind of makes me think of what happens with children and their parents from time to time. A friend of mine was frustrated one afternoon because he brought his pre-teen daughter to the amusement park that she had been asking to go to for months. It was going to be a fun father-daughter excursion. However, the girl was so determined to get on a specific ride she threw a tantrum when she found out that it was broken. Her foul mood hung over for the rest of the day until they finally just went home.
They had every possibility of having a great time, but the girl chose a different path, letting the disappointment cloud her ability to see the fun and joy she could have been having. Often when we wonder why God is not here and where God might be it is because we let ourselves get so distraught and overwhelmed with our current situations that we do not take the time to regroup and find our way back to the right path.
As we get ever closer to Christmas, we must think of how we are preparing our hearts and souls to experience God. We need to take stock of the path that we are on and ask if we are going in the right direction. We also have to sit back and see if our current state is clouding our ability to see God.
I for one am excited about Christmas, and often have a hard time waiting. For me, Christmas is something that I start to think about at the beginning of the summer. But, as a professional, Christmas is not as much about the excitement of the holiday as it is the anticipation and worry about how things will come together. However, when I was a child, I could not wait for Christmas. The excitement would course through my veins and (don’t tell my mother) I would scour the house trying to find my Christmas presents; I just could not wait to see what they were. One year I actually found them, and they were just what I wanted! However, when Christmas came, something felt wrong. I was happy to get my gifts, but the guilt of what I did just brought me down; instead of the excitement about what I got, the guilt of what I did took over.
Advent is this great time of preparation. But it is not really about the preparation for Christmas day as much as it is preparing for the apocalyptic second coming of Christ. Now it is important to remember that from the first known religious texts we can find, people have been predicting the end times; they were specifically preparing for them and living into that reality. From that time people, claiming to be prophets, claim to have deciphered codes in the bible or other scripts that signify that the day of the rapture is nigh! This held true even for the early Christians who were expecting Christ to come again within their lifetime, even though Christ never really alludes to when he would be coming back.
Our passage this week is preparing us for a time of waiting. Though there is still an understanding of the end times, James takes a different tact in that the focus that we are to take with regards to the end time is patience, but the more important teaching is that we show love, compassion and openness to one another.
James recognizes something within the early church. Living for personal salvation often causes us to focus our attention away from who God is calling us to be and onto ourselves. In other words, when we become impatient, our lives are about something other than God and we drift away.
Think about it in terms of my Christmas story. My impatience led to me finding the gifts, which brought a temporary excitement, but the guilt kept me from the full enjoyment of what I had been given. I realized that in finding the gifts and knowing what they were, I had made the gifts solely about me; thus, I took away the joy from my parents surprise and their part in the giving. Even though I acted the part, I remember my mother asking if I really had gotten what I wanted, even though it was the exact right thing.
As time passed further away from Christ, people in the early church began to question the legitimacy of the message of Christ because he had not come back. In fact, their faith was based on the idea that they would be raptured up, not that they would serve God. When the rapture did not come, they were lost and now in need of seeking a new way.
Granted, this is why the letter of James is dated to the later first century, but James was establishing that exclusively living for the end times was not core to the Christian experience; rather, right living and Christian community was core. This way, whether the end times came today, or many years later, we would be equally prepared because we were living how Christ called us to live.
Over the next two weeks we are going to be celebrating Advent in the Gathering Service. This Sunday, as usual, James will be playing. With the contemplative nature of James’ guitar I thought it would be appropriate to have a service of healing. I know what you might be thinking; “Boy, that sounds a bit depressing in the holiday season!” Actually, that was my first thought! But as I thought a little more, I really felt called to go this direction this week.
Healing in the modern church, as well as the historic church, has an unmistakable physical component. The historic nature was that through prayer and faith one would be able to overcome their physical limitations and be healed, as if nothing was ever wrong with them. This is an interesting proposition, but, unfortunately, myopic in its understanding of healing. In academic circles we would say that this approach would be isogetical, or taking the healing out of context to the rest of the story, making physical healing the focus, rather then what Christ is trying to get at, and that is preparing our hearts to be right with God, healing our eternal selves.
One time a few years back, I was on call for the local hospital. Two in the morning came and I was called in. It was a particularly late night for me, so I had just gone down for the night. Very tired, I made my way to the hospital and encountered a large family. The hospital was at full census, and really they needed me to act as crowd control for the family more than spiritual matters. That happened every once in a while.
As I worked to corral the family and get them to one of the family lounges, they asked if they could pray with me. So I was ready to pray, but before the first word left my mouth, the patient’s sister started, and everyone around the circle joined in. I listened and all were praying for healing and strength. However, the doctors had told me that there was no hope of recovery. The injury was too severe. Not being a doctor, it was not my place to tell the family, though in prayer, I said the simple line, “Lord, whatever may happen, you are our lord, and Jim (this was the patients name) is with you now and always, and whether you heal Jim for this life or the next, let this family never forget your love.”
Within minutes of the prayer the doctors came in the room with the two family members that were sitting with him. Jim had passed to the heavenly realm. The interesting part was that the family member who was with him said that just before he passed he got the goofiest smile. We realized that it was right about the time of our prayer.
I called the family’s pastor the next morning and told him the story. He said that though the family was faithful, Jim struggled. A vet, he had seen too much and fought God. The pastor said, “I wonder if somehow the smile was a true healing and a joy that in his final hours he gave himself over to God.”
I have thought about that a lot over the years, and honestly, I will never know the full answer. But I cannot help but think of the Joy that he felt as he was calmed by God’s love. Though he died, healing took place.
When Christ came into this world he wanted to heal us from our condition so that we could come to know, love, and serve him. But so often we get wrapped up in ourselves and lose sight of God’s love and desire. In my ministry, I am amazed at how many people wait until the end of their lives to experience God’s Joy and be healed. This is why I think it is good to take time this advent to pray for and seek the spiritual healing that we need to fully experience the love that goes so far beyond the physical.
For a Lion to lie down with the lamb, the Lion has to be self-restrained, and the lamb has to have the courage to trust that the lion will not bite! Think about that for a moment when we talk about peace, because at the heart of any discussion of peace we start at a place where both sides admit that they have to go against every instinct they have to pursue a greater good. As you might have guessed, this Sunday the theme of advent is peace. This is reflected in the scripture, which I talk about in the Sermon Prep article.
Peace is an interesting thing, because in many ways it is counterintuitive. We have to admit that it is better to get along than be right, and for peace to be fully realized both sides have to be fully committed to making the peace work. This means that we have to do something that goes against our very nature, and that is to be vulnerable.
Unfortunately, when we seek peace, often people can take advantage of us. Look at the political system and the “peace agreements” that are often made. Most of the time you can pick out a winner or loser in that one group chose to take advantage in some way over the other. This is often the problem in the current Middle-East peace negotiations. It is often not a peace that is being sought, but a means to survival. The problem is that this means to survival really has little to do with peace and has everything to do with power.
When power or money is involved the image of peace is often distorted to become one of comfort rather then one of mutual respect and love. Think about how peace is described by people by various groups and look how they used it. In Nazi Germany, the “peace” that they promised was one that allowed for them to create a culture that said we will attain peace when everyone is like us and subscribes to our ways. That is not peace, nor could it ever be, because that is about conformity and power, not Peace.
I think about when I was a kid; actually, I was reminded of it while watching the movie Bully back in September. Another boy in the playground hit a young boy and the principal was trying to have them make up. Neither boy wanted to, but the “bully” quickly threw his hand out to make the gesture and the kid who was being bullied did not want to. While he did not use the words, he recognizes that the peace that the principal was going for was empty, while the bullied kid might have been open, he realized that the bully really was not in that place. Peace could not be achieved because one or both sides were unwilling to truly be open to the other side.
What is true about peace is what is true about most of faith. It starts with us. If we want peace, we have to look inward and ask ourselves what we are doing to achieve it. Are we listening to others? Are we allowing others to come into our heart? Are we accepting that our way may not be the only way? These are serious things, because if we want to experience Christ, we have to first start with the most basic question of whether or not we are willing to accept his peace, opening ourselves up to each other, even when it is uncomfortable.
It is very interesting that the bible gives the image of peace being a Lion with a lamb because on the most primal level their instincts know it is un-natural, even wrong. But the image suggests that here is something more to peace then comfort, it takes mutual effort and sacrifice in order to achieve. It takes admitting that we are not always in control and to be able to trust in God that when we become vulnerable, God will be there and when we let others into our hearts, setting aside our stubborn ways, we stand a better change of finding the peace we so long for.
In the Old Testament there is a prophecy that there will be a savior that comes to deliver his people. In some circles, many saw that savior to be David, the great king. As we know from further prophesy that he was not the “savior” but an incredibly powerful and cunning ruler who lead the people for the briefest of times in one of the only peaceful moments in their existence. As the story goes, under David, the people of Israel got, though brief, a glimpse of the glory of God, but for reasons we all know that was brief.
In the lore people knew this, but they also knew that when the Messiah did come somehow, someway, they would need to be linked to David. Hence the prophesy that we see here. Jesse is the Father of David and, as tradition labels, the grandson of Ruth and Boaz. He was fairly well off in that he was able to send gifts to Saul and we also know that he was respected within his community (1 Sam 16:20 and 1 Sam 17:12).
Though as the Father of David we also knew that he did not think much of his son (1 Sam 16:1-13) as compared to the fine other boys he had. This is a important literary parallel in that just as Jesse did not see David’s potential and ability to be called, neither did the people of Israel see and understand Christ. This is important because in many ways to the people at the time when they are looking to a savior, the mindset is to find and follow someone like David, but also someone that is more than David.
This explains the militaristic overtones that are found within this passage. We often don't see them because of the peaceful interpretations, but the peace that is achieved comes from an understanding that when this savior arrives, people will be unable to resist peace anymore. Unfortunately, as we know, humanity can look right into a gift horse and turn our back on it.
The important aspect of Christ is that upon His arrival, while some chose to accept him, many rejected him, and in that rejection we continue to live in the reality of our separation from God and in a world that is bent to destroy one another.
Interestingly, this leads to a place where we can begin to understand why the prophesy of Christ did not bring the peace that we long for. The finger points back to this very basic tendency of humanity to like and revel within our sinful life and instead of participating in the life of Christ and trusting God, we turn to our own selfish motive.
So as you prepare for worship this week, I ask you to look for places where the wolf and the lamb lie down together in peace. Where do you see that peace in your relationships, in your family or circle of friends, in the neighborhood, the city, the nation, and the world? Even within yourself, where has peace been forged between previously warring factions?
This week we finish our journey through the Sermon on the Mount. For me this has been a fun excursion; it has been a very long time since I have dealt with the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. In the church of the twenty first century we often look to the church as we look to everything else within society as a consumer-based product. Often in discussions with churches that are flailing and struggling, their questions, beyond “what are we doing wrong”, are often consumer-based. In reality often churches ask “what product can we offer that will entice people to come.” That is often veiled within a new program or event. On one hand that is not bad, but on the other, if the reason is anything but glorifying God, then the purpose is lost.
When God calls us to be followers, God does so in a specific way, wanting us to be disciples of him. Interestingly, there is a very big difference from understanding yourself as a follower and understanding yourself as a disciple. The follower suggests a passive relationship. As a follower of Christ, we might see our role as sitting back and letting God guide. This is not the message Christ gives; in fact, it is quite the opposite. This call that Christ gives his followers is not to just follow but to be his disciple.
Being a disciple requires many things, but most of all it is to go out into the world with an understanding that we are God’s people and that our life is not bound to here and now but is part of something more. This kingdom mentality prepares us to see the world as a mission field where through the life we bestow and the examples we give, we can be the disciples God calls us to be. Thus, being a follower of Christ is not a passive thing; rather it is a very active thing to be a disciple.
As Christ finishes the Sermon on the Mount, he does so on one hand in an apocalyptic way. He says that the times will come where we will stand judgment, but our judgment will be done individually. And to be judged right we need to find the hard road that is there, but may cause us discomfort.
On the other, he calls us to be aware. There are many who call themselves prophets of God, but are often out for something else. We need to be able to discern in life what is of God and what is of this world and find which is which. Trusting that when we follow God and follow his Guide to discipleship, we will be on firm ground, but when we go forward and find ourselves faltering and falling, we can realize that we have not been on the foundation that we once were thought to be.
The year I started Seminary I went in with one of the largest classes the seminary had accepted in a long time. By the time I graduated we dwindled to less than half. Looking back on the stories that many of the students had, we saw that many were at seminary because there really was no other place for them to be. Many were recently divorced, or could never hold a job in the first place! They did not last long. It was interesting when a couple of us look back, because we saw this difference why did they not make it and we did, not to be arrogant, but because those of us who made it through were there under the premise of finding out what we could do for God, where the others were trying to figure out who they were. Seminary is a very bad place for that, but that is another article! What is important is that whether in professional ministry or personal discipleship, the critical aspect to the success is the strong foundation and trust that we build with God, knowing that we are ultimately kingdom people, and what we do today just helps us to understand what will come tomorrow!
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen