Through the years, I have often found myself in Nashville around this second weekend of Advent, celebrating an early Christmas with my sister and brother in law.  It is a highlight of my Christmas season.  My sister and I will go out and about shopping and doing all of those pre Christmas things that sisters do.  Then she will gather a group of friends for a special dinner.  We listen to all our favorite Christmas music and there is always a lot of laughing and fun times.  (We are celebrating together after Christmas this year…)  In the midst of all of the celebrations, it seems I am usually there when my sister’s church is hosting “Room in the Inn”,  a shelter service for the homeless that rotates among churches, much like the SOS program in the Detroit area.  We all help with dinner and my brother-in-law, Rob is one of those sturdy souls who takes an overnight shift.   The term  “room in the inn” has come to mean shelter for those who are homeless.  It comes, of course, from the part of the Christmas story where Mary and Joseph find “no room in the inn”.   This may come as a surprise to some of you (it was for me, when I first studied the text) that the Inn Keeper, the stable and even the animals are NOT referenced in the actual text.  (Say what? No Innkeeper?)  Those elements to the story have been added through the years and yes, they help bring the story to life.  Let’s focus for a moment on what the scripture actually says.   In both Matthew and Luke it simply says that the baby was “laid in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”   The manger is a trough for feeding animals and it is usually found in a stable with animals.  That is a reasonable assumption, but it is an assumption.  In the grinding of my feminist axe, I have often thought that it must have been a woman (not the traditional male, Innkeeper) who found Mary a place to stay where she could give birth.  Male or female, both scenarios with the innkeeper are conjecture, not from the text, not even from Luke, the story teller. 

When one of my children was born, I remember in those first days,  the baby bed in the next room seemed so far away.  I remember looking everywhere around the house for something that might make a good bed that could stay close to me.  (yes, I would at some point buy a cradle…)  A manger is just the right size and if I had seen a manger lying around back in the “baby days”….  well you know what I’m trying to say.    I am  letting my imagination go this morning… so think about this.  What if Mary and Joseph went to someone’s house because there was no room for them at the inn and what if they borrowed the manger for a place for the baby to sleep?   When the Wise Men make it to the baby in Matthew they enter a “house.”  Just sayin’

 I know, I know, I’ll stop messing with the beautiful Christmas story.  I’m writing for folks like myself who get hung up on  the male Inn Keeper and Amy-Jill Levin who bemoans that the Inn Keeper is sometimes cast as a “nasty Jew”….we can just let all that go, because none… one more time for emphasis, none of that is written in the Gospels.  

Baby Jesus was laid in a manger and the animal lover in me wants to go with the animals who would have come along with that.    The word manger comes from the Latin word “manducare” which means to eat.

“ Mary places her baby where food is found; how appropriate, for this baby will late take the bread …. saying, ‘This is by body which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’   By placing Jesus in a manger, Luke is anticipating the communion story.”  (Light of the World, Amy-Jill Levine.)

 From an Emperor’s decree for the whole world, to a small scene around a feeding trough.  From the manger to the communion table.  The story expands and contracts before it breaks wide open at the cross and the empty tomb. 

Grace and Peace at Advent

Myra

Luke 2:1-7 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.

“And in those days a decree went out Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”  Luke 2:1.  And with that we reach the familiar scripture that is read every Christmas Eve.  Strange words that have become a part of our familiar Christmas.   The birth of Jesus begins with the Emperor.  Amy-Jill Levine contends that the Emperor most likely would not have ordered such a census in a region where there was a local King, King Herod.   For me that doesn’t matter.  Luke is telling a story and he is making a big point in the first line.   What’s about to happen is bigger than the local story… a baby who is coming is for the world. 

We should also consider just what such a census meant in “those days”.    Today in our world, the United States Census Bureau has more than 4,000 employees who virtually (and sometimes literally) bring the survey to us.  I remember being surprised one day when a man showed up at my front door.  The census that came through the mail was still in a pile of old mail on my desk and long sense forgotten.   The man introduced himself,  told me that it was his job to visit the houses of those who had not returned the survey. He actually apologized for intruding on my Saturday.  Needless to say I was embarrassed that I was one of “those”  who had to be tracked down.   He came inside, showed me all of his credentials and then we just chatted while he filled out my census form.    That is a far cry from being asked to travel back to your home town to be counted.  Joseph and Mary had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, because Joseph was from the lineage of David.  It was about 90 miles and Mary was nine months pregnant.  

Beyond the convenience of our census today, the survey yields data used to determine social services and voting districts, areas that help citizens.   For Joseph and Mary the census was about taxes, establishing the tax base. Sometimes, it was about military conscription; men who were counted could be taken into military service for the Roman government.  That was how the Roman kingdom operated.

Luke has set the global stage and he is about to tell us what the antithesis of the Roman kingdom looks like.  Jesus will show the world a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God based on caring for the poor, inclusion of all and servant leadership.  

(Amy-Jill Levine, Light of the World) “ Luke’s readers (in the early church) know that Jesus is from Nazareth and they know that Jesus proclaimed ‘the kingdom of God’, which does sound political.  By setting Jesus’ birth in the context of a census,  Luke announces that Jesus and his followers are not part of a movement intent on military revolt. Instead of rebelling, Mary and Joseph obey the government command, no matter the personal hardship.” 

Grace and Peace at Advent

Myra

23 Days of Advent Day 11- Final Focus on Mary

For Advent our church has been doing a sermon series called “In Focus”.   Our Christmas season is often so cluttered and chaotic that the real story and the real miracle just passes us by.   For the past few days, here in the blog,  we have been bringing Mary into focus, taking a good look at the young girl chosen to be the mother of Jesus.  We will take one more day, one final focus on Mary.  We do that by looking at the Magnificat.  It is Mary’s response to Elizabeth; it is Mary’s response to God.   Elizabeth has blessed Mary and in this speech, Mary will accept that blessing and share it with the world. 

 It is beautiful and poetic verse filled with praise and acceptance and trust in God.   Still, when we focus on these verses, we see it is much more.  

With focus and a little digging those first two lines give us incredible insight into the miracle that is unfolding as God comes to earth.  The CEB translation says: “With all my heart, I glorify the Lord.”   That is easy enough to grasp.  It is the next line that resonates with a deeper message.  “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  Sounds simple enough until you look closely at different translations and at the original Greek.   “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” in the NRSV translation reads “In the depths of who I am, I rejoice in God…” in the CEB translation.    Focus on the words “spirit” and “the depths of who I am.”     While “depths of who I am”, correctly signals something heavier, or deeper,  the Greek word Luke uses is ”pnuema” which means spirit. Spirit is one of those words that has become so overused that it is difficult for us to grasp what might be doing on here as Luke uses the word “pnuema”.  “It’s the same Greek word used for the Holy Spirit, so the Holy Spirit and the human spirit unite.”  (Light of the World Amy-Jill Levine).   The divine spirit or Holy Spirit is uniting with human spirit in Mary.  Which is not hard to imagine because this very human being is carrying the divine, the son of God inside her.   Not hard to imagine, but radical.  

Later in the verse we see all kinds of references to the teachings of Jesus.  “brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly”, “filled the hungry… and sent the rich away.”  Sounds like Jesus to me.

In these beautiful verses from Mary, we get insight into what it will mean to have God on earth through Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit and the human spirit combine and a whole new perspective on life is coming.  Mary knows it; she feels it… as only a mother can.    

Tonight at Royal Oak First Methodist (where I serve) we had our first Advent by Candlelight.  This is an event for women both from the church and from the community.  Ladies of the church host tables and are encouraged to invite friends and neighbors.   Tables are decorated in High Holiday Fashion.  There is a beautiful program with music, scripture, the lighting of candles and women sharing their stores of hope and peace and joy and love.  It is peaceful and electric at the same time as the sanctuary fills with women. As the pastor and host of the program, I had the best seat in the house and I love looking at row after row of women, young and old and everything in between. There are women I recognize but lots of women I do not.  There are those I recognize simply through the family resemblance.   After the program we go to the decorated tables for dessert and fellowship.   It is a beautiful night; it is a powerful night.  (Sandy Davis, my friend, you rocked it tonight.)

Mary knew the power of sisterhood, which is why she went running to her relative Elizabeth when she learned of her pregnancy.   We believe Mary was a teenager and we know Elizabeth was much older, but both women were pregnant. 

“She (Mary) goes with haste to Elizabeth, since it is already Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy.  I also think she goes because she needs Elizabeth.  As we have seen, the Gospels tell us nothing about Mary’s parents.  Perhaps Mary, newly pregnant needs an older woman, a trusted relative with whom she can share her feelings both physical and spiritual.”  (Light of the World; Amy-Jill Levine)

The two women come together and something miraculous happens when pregnant Elizabeth see pregnant Mary.   

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 4and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 4And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 4And blessed is she who believed that there would be[e] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:41-45)

Did you catch that?  The child inside Elizabeth “leaps for joy” when meeting Mary who is carrying the baby Jesus.  Then Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit.” 

The miracle of Christmas is coming and it starts with the power of two women coming together. 

The sounds of women talking and laughing are still ringing in my ears tonight.  The Advent by Candlelight service was a reminder not only of the special bond among women but of the power that is unleashed when women get together. 

Grace and Peace at Advent

Myra

23 Days of Advent-Day 9 Mary Matters

Mary, the teenage virgin who becomes the mother of Jesus would find her own place in history and in the history of the church.   Around the world today she is known as Saint Mary, Virgin Mary, and Blessed Virgin Mary.  Even those of us who are not Catholic, recognize the special place that Mary had in the story of Jesus and the special place she has in the world today.  I read something this morning that Mary has been the subject of more paintings, statues, poems and writings that any human being in history.  I’m not about to question that.  I must say, as a woman, I appreciate that fact that while God chose to earth as a man, he came here through a woman.   And that woman was and is adored around the world. 

The name, Mary itself, has some interesting facts and questions circling around it.  Mary is of course an English translation for Maria or even Marian.   We sing Ave Maria at Christmas and in areas of the Catholic Church, Marianism refers to those devoted to Mary.   But here is something interesting from “Light of the World” (Amy-Jill Levin).    When Matthew refers to Mary in the original Greek, the word he uses is Μαρίας  which translates to Marias.  It is easy to see how Marias gets to Maria or to Marian then to our “Mary”.  

But Luke is a different story.   Luke uses the word Μαριάμ  and that is Mariam.  Don’t let this minor addition of the final “m” pass you by.  The name Mariam has history; it is a well-known name from the Old Testament.   Mariam (or Miriam) is the sister of Moses.  It was Mariam who “watched from a distance” as her brother Moses floated down the river in a basket.  She watched to make sure he was safe with the Pharaoh’s daughter then stood up and offer her mother as a nurse to care for Moses.   Mariam is a central figure in Exodus and gets top billing throughout the Old Testament.  In Micah 6:4, note the listing as God speaks to the Israelites:  “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”    That my friends, is top billing. 

Is Luke connecting the young virgin of the Christmas story to this important woman in the Old Testament?  Remember, Luke is writing to the Gentiles of the early church.  Is he trying to link them back to their “adopted” heritage of Israel?

Today, are we being drawn back to our roots in the Old Testament?    Luke is a great story teller.  I know from personal experience, that with a story teller, details matter and there are often small things placed in the story. These small things can have big implications.  

Mary is an important figure in the Christmas story.  She brings an important baby into the world; she brings God into the world.   Maybe the message of today is that she did not come to that point in her life in a vacuum.  Like all of us, she stands of the shoulders of those who came before her.  Mary stands on the shoulders of Mariam and all of the powerful women who were part of God’s story on earth. 

Grace and Peace at Advent

Myra

The contestants pose for a group photo, as seen on Food Network’s Holiday Baking Show Season 4

23 Days of Advent –Day 8 Sugar and Spice and don’t forget the Salt

I’m taking a break from the traditional Advent activities, and a real guilty pleasure for me is to binge watch the Holiday Baking Challenge on the Food Network.  It is fun to watch the bakers rush around the kitchen and turn out these amazing holiday treats.  The show is just fun.  There are crazy, silly challenges and lots of laughing.  In each contest it is not just how the bake good look, they must taste delicious.  Have you ever gotten a Christmas cake from a bakery or through a mail order that looked beautiful, but the taste was blaa ?  There is nothing more disappointing.  You cut into a beautiful pastry that no one will actually eat. 

As we prepare for Advent and start to “bake our cookies”, we need to (as they say in the Food Network kitchen) get a real depth of flavor. A blending of spices and flavors can bring us a new experience and take us to a memory from the past.  And a key to getting the most out of flavors is salt.  Salt is an essential element in cooking because it enhances the flavors around it.  The idea of salt in many recipes is not to taste the salt, but to bring out the spices and flavors around it.  Stay with me,   I’m slowing making my way to our spiritual thought for today.  I’ll let Jesus take it from here.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
Matthew 5:13

I love that idea of “depth of flavor”, going deep, not settling for “surface”.  We are the salt of the earth, essential, important.  And each of us can enhance and nurture those around us.  What a thought for Christmas.  Be the positive force in the world; be the one who encourages, who brings out the best in those around you; be the salt. 

Grace and Peace at Advent

MM

P. S.  We’ll pick back up on the Christmas story in Luke tomorrow.  But, on this second Sunday in Advent, I give you a blast from the past, from the Advent blog of 2016.   It bears repeating as we will continue to “dig in” to the scriptures of the Christmas story.  (and it is, to be honest, a relief for and exhausted preacher on Sunday night….)

And on the 7th day God sends us Mary.  Well, that’s a little dramatic.  It’s Day 7 of Advent and finally we come to a familiar name.  Mary, the mother of Jesus. Studying the text and following the book “Light of the World” (Amy-Jill Levine) I have begun to see what a radical entrance Mary makes.

  In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1: 26,27)

Mary, the young virgin is visited by the Angel and told that she will have a baby, a very special baby.  An interesting fact is that no where in the Gospels do we get any since of who Mary is… of her lineage.   The Gospel of Matthew gives us 17 verses on the bloodline of Joseph, but nothing about Mary.  From Luke we will see that she is a relative of Elizabeth.  Even Elizabeth gets billing as a “daughter of Aaron”… we’re talking Aaron, as in the brother of Moses, the founder of the priesthood… serious bloodline.  As Levine says ”Mary’s background, save for her connection to Elizabeth goes unremarked.”

For Jane Austen fans… I’m thinking of that line from Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) … talking about her sister Lydia. “she has no money, no connections…” 

Mary did not go the head of the class based on her bloodline.  So why does God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus?   Let’s hear it from the Angel.  “Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1:30b)

Let that sink in.   Mary is chosen to be the mother of Jesus, not because of her pedigree but because of her heart.  She has found favor not because of who her ancestors were, but for who she is. That is radical. 

God knew the kind of woman Mary would be, the kind of mother she would be.  Mary would worry about her son in his ministry and she would be at the cross, at the feet of her son.  It doesn’t end there; we see Mary in the book of Acts, still working for the ministry of her son, in the early church.  Acts 1:14 “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”

Yes, Mary is in it for the long haul.  She is strong, she is good.  She found favor with God. 

Grace and Peace at Advent

Myra

23 Days of Advent-Day 6 What’s In A Name?  Everything!

The birth of John the Baptist launches the Christmas story.  John is such a common name in our culture.  It is a familiar name in the New Testament, but for a Jewish boy “in the days of Herod”…not so much.   So how did this happen? How did this son of Zechariah the priest and Elizabeth from the lineage of Aaron, get a name like John? 

First let’s review: The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth:  let’s review.  We are in the time of Herod.  Zechariah is a priest; he and his wife Elizabeth are old and childless.  The Angel visits Zaehariah and tell him that Elizabeth will have a child, a son who will be “filled with the Holy Spirit” and pave the way for the Lord.  In the encounter with the Angel, Zechariah becomes mute, unable to speak (and stays that way until eight days after the  baby is born.)  

During Elizabeth’s pregnancy Mary, the mother of Jesus enters the story, but we’re sticking with the story of Elizabeth for today.  I am fascinated by the naming of John the Baptist.  This is really cool; take a look.

“ Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.”  They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.”  Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him.  He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.” Luke 1:57-64

Do you see what is going on here?   Of course they were going to name the baby Zechariah after his father, that was the custom of the day. But Elizabeth says no.  She has another name. What good Jewish family of their day, names a child John?   There is NO John in the Old Testament.  To this point there is No John in the lineage of anyone, any where.   And don’t forget, Zechariah is still mute so he can’t even argue.  When all of the neighbors are in an uproar, Zechariah gets a tablet and confirms that the name is John.  At that moment Zechariah can talk again.  Is it because Zechariah finally gets it?  God is doing something totally new here.  The story of God’s people is taking a radical turn and it begins with a baby, whose name is like nothing seen before among God’s people.  It begins with John.   John translates: “God has been gracious.”   Amen to that.  

Grace and Peace at Advent

Myra

We continue in the Gospel of Luke with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. They are old and they are childless.   Zechariah is a priest (not sure I mentioned that before)…and he has been chosen to offer the incense offering.   He is at the altar where he had for so many years prayed for a child when the Angel came to him.  The Angel told him that Elizabeth would bear a child, a child filled with the Holy Spirit, a child who would pave the way for Jesus.  Zechariah, a priest, standing in the Temple, at the altar, lost sight of the miracle in front of him.   He simply could not see it.  He doesn’t ask about the Holy Spirit… or about the “Lord” who is coming,  He’s still hung up on his own struggles.   He says to the Angel (you might not know, or in case you have forgotten) “My wife and I are old, so how is this possible?”.  The Angel gives a resounding “just-who-do-you-think-you’re-talking to” response. 

“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

In other words…. do you think for a moment that God doesn’t know that you’re old. Do you think this is impossible for God?   If what comes out of your mouth is not going to be helpful, why don’t you just be quiet for a while.    

Here is where the story gets comical.  Zechariah is now mute.  He hangs back at the altar for as long as he can, but all of these people are waiting for their priest to return.   He finally comes out and starts pantomiming what has happened.   It is this crazy game of Temple charades.   He finally gives up and goes home.  He remains mute until the John the Baptist is born.   

Back up for just a moment to the part where the Angel first comes to Zrchariah.   The NRSV translation says that Zachariah was “terrified.”  The Greek word there is tarasso.   In the book “Light of the World”, Levine says the connotation here is that Zachariah is startled or shaken up.  Luke uses this word when Jesus asked the two men on the road to Emmaus,  “Why are you “tarasso”?  (shaken up)  

“The sense of being shaken up is Advent good news.  Christmas should be more than putting up the tree and wrapping the presents.  It should give birth to something that shakes up the routine, something that gets us to see the world otherwise.  That shaking up is what it means to follow Jesus.  To love one’s enemy is scary; to take up one’s cross is terrifying.  Yet at the same time, Luke reminds us, there is a legacy that carries us forward and a promise that God will remember the covenant and bring about eternal justice.”   (Amy-Jill Levine, Light of the World.)

Grace and Peace at Advent

The doll in the swing, circa 1961.  One of my favorite Christmas memories.   Oddly enough, what I remember most about that moment is the smell.  The smell of that doll would stay with me.   I now realize that smell was the plastic of the doll. (Yes, most likely the non-biodegradable PVC plastic… and dolly is probably in some landfill waiting for Jesus to return…. but let’s not go there today.   It’s Advent)  To this day I equate the smell of that doll to new things, good things, happy times.     

Our memories, like our lives are not Norman Rockwell paintings, perfection frozen on canvas.  If we look closely enough, inside each treasured memory there is a nugget of reality, a reminder that crazy, complicated, beautiful and sacred can exist together in this life. 

We remember, and guess what; God remembers.  God remembers,  but  not in some score-keeping, “gotcha” kind of  way;  God remembers God’s promises, the covenants of love and grace.

Now here’s a twist:  “God remembers” is also the next character we meet in the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke, It is Zechariah (he comes just after Herod) and his name means “God remembers”.  

I know, I know.   I can hear some of you saying, “It’s day four of Advent … what happened to Mary? Where’s Joseph?   In Yoda-speak: “Patience you must have.”   The story of Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth is often “passed over”.  But it is part of the Christmas story and it is one of those zany, crazy stories, so “unreal” that it makes the big story very real.  

 In classic Abraham and Sarah fashion, Zechariah and Elizabeth are an older couple who do not have children. Luke 1:6  “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.”

 (Of course,  in the days before sperm counts and infertility clinics, the couple was childless so the woman had to be barren  just sayin…sorry.. feeling a little feminist and feisty this morning)

 Soooo… God sends an Angel to Zechariah to tell them that Elizabeth will have a child, not just a child, a very special son.   Their son would be filled with the Holy Spirit and he would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  We know that son as John the Baptist who did indeed prepare the way for Jesus. 

This is where the story gets a little wonky.  Zechariah dishes out some “back talk” and the Angel is having none of that.  The story gets juicy and  the Angel comeback is one of my favorite verses.   Stay tuned.  

Grace and Peace at Advent

Myra