It’s the story of a man, who comes from the finest lineage in the land.  He is engaged to a beautiful young girl when …bum, bum bum …. he learns that the girl is pregnant.  What will he do?  Will he dismiss her quietly?   Read for yourself.   The Christmas story in the Gospel of Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 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.”  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,  but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

And that’s all folks…No manger, no shepherds, no Angel coming to Mary, no Mary visit to Elizabeth in fact no real Mary story at all.  Matthew is Joseph’s story which to be honest, I find very strange.  Even the birth of Jesus, yes child birth, the birth of the son of God is relegated to a line about Joseph’s abstinence.  “he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son, and he named him Jesus…”

It’s good I suppose to see all of this from Joseph’s perspective, but can you imagine our Christmas celebration without the Gospel of Luke.   Do you remember those first verses in Luke where he says,  lots of people have told this story, but that he has investigated it and feels that it is important to tell his version.  Amen to that.   If I am ever critical of the Luke version of the Christmas story, I just read Matthew. After all these years and reading it hundreds of times,  I am still a little blown away by the …Joseph didn’t have sex with Mary (yeah Joseph)….until she had a baby who Joseph named Jesus.    

I know, I know.  It was a man’s world and Matthew is writing to the Jews of the day.  Still, I find comfort in the fact that the baby Joseph named Jesus, will turn all of those cultural norms upside down.  Jesus changes everything. 

We will give Matthew credit for the Wise Men… those kingly men from the east who came bearing gifts that are only found in this Gospel.   More on that tomorrow.

Grace and Peace at Advent

Myra

“Like Photographs, (at least before we all started snapping pictures on our phones,) the Gospel stories develop over time.  Each subsequent report in Luke, each reference to an angel, to a meal, to a promise, will give new meaning to the Christmas events.”  (Light of the World, Amy-Jill Levine).

We’ve all seen the photographic process in person or at least in a movie…. the paper that looks blank goes into one solution then another and gradually a picture emerges. I love this image and the connection to the Christmas story.   For a picture to emerge, the paper is transformed.   Look back at the lives of people that we have met in the Gospel of Luke, their lives are transformed.  God kicks off the transformation by sending in the first Angel and the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth are changed forever.  Another Angel enters the story with Mary, but her visit to Elizabeth makes it all real for both women.  Mary and Elizabeth are not experiencing normal pregnancies.  They start to really understand what that means when they are together.   The Angels come to the shepherds, but think about the impact of their visit to the manger.   Mary gives birth in a humble setting.  She finds herself with a new baby and a husband who is not really the father of that baby.   Did she start to wonder if all of this was a bad dream?  Did she just imagine that Angel?  Enter the Shepherds.

“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them., with the story of the Angels and the “good news”.     

Mary and Joseph have just had the amazing story confirmed.  Angels may be hard for your human brains to comprehend, but the shepherds.  Real people.  Real. hard working, no agenda people.    The shepherds link into the big story, in a big way.   They tell their experience with the Angels and the good news that is centered on a baby… Mary’s baby, in the manger.  Mary treasured these words in her heart.   Mary has truly been transformed; giving birth to the Savior of the world just got real. 

Back to image of the developing photograph.  Can you see the story coming together?   Stories like photographs take time.  Let’s time some time in the last week before Christmas to see how the full story develops for us today. 

Grace and Peace at Advent

Myra

Most of you know the story of the Living Nativities held in my yard, when the children were young.  I would build a very humble stable with a simple manger and a bale of hay.  I would send out the children in costume to musical cues as we blasted the neighborhood with Christmas songs.  The last group to come to the stable were the angels and before their entrance, my house would be in total chaos.  Through the years there was never a shortage of little girls who wanted to dress up like angels and parade around the yard.   On those cold, cold December nights, the neighbors and all of the children playing the various parts in the stable would be getting antsy in the freezing weather.  My girl friends and I would be dressing the Angels as quickly as possible… pulling the white costumes over their coats… putting on the furry earmuffs, giving each one a battery operated candle. One year,   I heard little Elizabeth’s voice in the crowd, “Mrs, Moreland… Mrs Moreland… I need….”   I was in such a frenzy I never let her finish… “Elizabeth, there is no time… the Angels are already moving ….”  With that I slapped the white costume over her coat and hurried her out the door.   A few minutes later her mother came through the back door looking for her.    “Where’s Elizabeth,  she came into the house , just to use the bathroom.”   Ba dum ching…  I had to confess, “Your daughter was conscripted into Angel service… I pointed toward the manger….”she went that a way ….”

At the end of the chaos, at that moment when all of the little girls with their white costumes and candles had marched out the front door, I would slip out the back door to catch the scene.  The sight of the angels as they paraded down the driveway, encircled the crowd and found their way to the manger, is a treasure that I hold in my heart.   In the dark moments of hospital rooms, and grave site farewells, I can, in my mind, march in the little angels and find comfort in their light. .

Angels played a big role in the Christmas story.  First the Angel appeared to Zechariah, then the angel appeared to Mary.   Now, in a field just outside Bethlehem, an entire heavenly host will come to the shepherds to announce the “Good News” of the birth of Jesus.   I have spent much of my life studying the who and the what of the Christmas story.  But this year it is the “where” that has captured my attention. 

“It is to the shepherds that an Angel again appears.  First to Zechariah in the Temple in Jerusalem, then to Mary in her home in Nazareth of Galilee, the back to Judea to the fields near Bethlehem.   The divine messenger can be anywhere, and so therefore can the message;  from religious institution, to home, to field.”  (“Light of the World”, Amy-Jill Levine)    

Yes, the “where” is an important part of the story.  The birth of Jesus is announced into the darkest night… in fields far away from the light of the city.   The glory of the Lord shines around them.  The darker the night; the brighter the light.  That line from a sermon has become my Advent theme this year.   The real brightness of the light and the “good news” is its universality.  The Angels bring good news for all people.

“The shepherds learn that a Savior has been born in the city of David. The universal is always anchored in the particular. “  (“Light of the World, Amy-Jill Levine.) 

I like that line… the universal is indeed anchored in the particular.  The universal good news that the love of God is for all people is anchored in you and in me.   When we fully understand that, we see each other as the children of God that we are. 

Grace and Peace at Advent

Myra

I interrupt this Advent blog for a moment of pure joy. This video will forever make me laugh. Enjoy. (We’ll head back to Bethlehem tomorrow) Click below

https://www.facebook.com/myra.moreland.3/videos/10208303346170551/UzpfSTE1MTA4MTE1ODQ6Vks6MTAyMDgzMDMzNDYxNzA1NTE/

Grace and Peace at Advent

Myra

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….)