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

For much of my life I would read Tolstoy’s War and Peace every year.   It is such a beautifully written novel, a wonderful story.   But every year, somewhere in the book I would stop and realize that something was missing.   Because I cannot read Russian, the novel’s original language, I must rely on someone else’s translation. Nuance is often lost in translation.   I would stop mid book and wonder, “what am I missing?”  

We are tracking the Christmas Story in the Book of Luke and this week I learned something interesting about this Gospel in its original language.  In her book “Light of the World”, Amy-Jill Levin explains the dramatic shift of the language in Luke.   The first five verses of Luke are an introduction, and explanation for what and why he is writing. 

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,  just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,  I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

Look at these verses carefully; it is very interesting, even in English.  (note…the shout out for Theophilus.  This has confused theologians throughout history.  No one knows just who Theophilus is.   He could have been a patron of Luke, or because the word translates “of God”… it might have been a general term for the early church.)  Here’s the kicker…. These first five verses were written in immaculate, formal and beautiful Greek, showing education and writing skill not seen in the other Gospels. 

Then in verse five, Luke begins the Christmas story… “In the days of Herod of Judea…”   There is a dramatic shift in the language. Luke shifts into what scholars call the Septuagint, the language of the Hebrews, the language of the Old Testament.   “The shift in the Greek is palpable, like going from modern English to Shakespearean language.  With the shift, Luke takes us to the past world of early Jewish history.  Luke thus insists: to understand Jesus requires understanding Jewish history and Jewish texts.”  (Amy Jill Levine “Light of the World”)

From perfect Greek to ancient Greek… who knew?   Levine continues:  “Luke is telling gentile converts (early Christians):  the history of Israel is now a part of your history as well.  It is a part of your story.  Read, remember and rejoice.”

So what does all of this mean for us, here, on the third day of Advent 2019?  It means that the story we are entering is sacred.  It is not the two dimensional Christmas card manger scene.  It is a story with deep roots. It is a story steeped in tradition.     Levine is right.  It is OUR story. 

Grace and Peace at Advent.

Myra

Ok, it’s Monday.   I’m still regretting that last meal of stuffing and French toast casserole… yes.. in the same meal… on the same plate.  (I’m carb loading…)     It’s a new day, a new week and Advent is swinging into high gear.   For a moment, help me stop obsessing about calories and carbs and let’s jump into the Christmas story. Let’s dive head first into the historical context of the story, because where and when matter.    We begin with the Gospel of Luke.  Luke gives us the most vivid picture of the manger scene and only in Luke do we find the Angels and the shepherds.   Most scholars believe that Luke was a companion of Paul, that he was probably a physician.  The skill and knowledge in his writing show that he was educated, but I like the Gospel of Luke because he is a story teller.   He knows how to tell a story and he has a deep sense of setting, context, and history.     

The Christmas story in Luke begins with these words…. “In the days of King Herod of Judea” .   Yes, Luke was putting the story of Jesus into a historical setting, but it is much more than that.   Luke was writing to the early church and the name Herod would have sent a shiver down the spine of every reader.   We got a sense of who Herod was, in the Gospel of Matthew.  Herod learns about the birth of Jesus from the Wise Men then orders the deaths of every male Jewish child under the age of 2.   As scholars are quick to point out, that mass killing has no historical verification.  ( It was not mentioned in any other historical documents of the day.)  But few would argue that it gives us an accurate picture of Herod.    What is documented among the historians is the fact that Herod murdered two of his own sons, one of his wives along with her mother, brother and grandfather.   This was not only Roman rule, this was Roman rule under a man who was dark and cruel, and this gets top billing the telling of the Christmas story.  Everything that happened, happened   “in the days of King Herod.”   There is a universal gasp as the story begins. 

God is showing up in the darkest of times with the brightest of lights.    God is not deterred by ugly politics or politicians, crazy or even cruelty.   In fact, the darker the night; the brighter the light.  God comes to earth as a vulnerable, helpless baby.  God knows how the story on earth will end, but he is not deterred.  Nothing stops the love of God.    In the words of the Apostle Paul:   “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  

As Advent unfolds, the days in this part of the world get shorter.  The hours of darkness grow each day.  And the world continues on a path of chaos, and sometimes cruelty.   Still God continues to show up.  The story that began “In the days of Herod” is God’s story; it is Jesus’ story; it is our story.  

Grace and Peace at Advent

Myra

And just like that, in the blink of an eye, it is December 1 and the beginning of the Advent season.  I mean seriously, I still have left over turkey and stuffing in my refrigerator.   Left overs or no… Advent is here.  Those of you who have followed the blog for years know that I love Advent.  Year after year I am blown away by the sacredness of the season, the hidden treasures in the beautiful stories of the birth of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Yes, the Christmas story is only recorded in two of the 4 Gospels and for the record, “Advent” is not found anywhere in the Bible.  I like to think of Advent as our human response to this overwhelming story of God coming to earth as a baby.    As human beings we need time to process, to plan and to find a true path to what is holy. 

Come along with me for the next 22 days as we explore the Christmas story in new ways.   I am reading Amy-Jill Levine’s book “Light of the Word” and it will no doubt find its way into the writings and stories of this year’s blog.   In my rush for the Hallmark Christmas moment, I often rush past the context and the complexity of the New Testament account of the birth of Christ.  Levine will always show me a fresh look at familiar Bible stories.  And year after year in the course of writing this blog, I find that if my heart and my mind are open, God will show me something new, something significant, something that helps me better understand God and myself. 

As an added Advent bonus… the picture below is my answer Pastor Jeff Nelson’s question regarding matching Christmas Pajamas…. “who does that?”    Who indeed! (Mimi with Josh, Laynie and Jayden Bryant- Christmas 2015)

Grace and Peace at Advent

Myra

“Beneath the cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand. The shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land…” These are the words from the old Hymn “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” (by the way, the word fain means “gladly” …I looked it up.) Beneath the cross of Jesus, I would gladly take my stand.
I have been going through songs about the cross today. I actually sang a part of “the Old Rugged Cross” during my sermon this afternoon, then talked about how the I do not see the cross as the “emblem of suffering and shame” …as the song goes. I am looking at how our images of the cross can influence how we see God in the world, how we hear his call into the world. Jesus suffered and died… that is fact. And the cross would indeed be a symbol of that suffering and death and shame… if the story ended there, but it didn’t. For us, 2000 years later, the cross is just the beginning. With Easter the cross becomes a symbol of power – Christ’s power over death. With Easter the cross becomes a symbol of resurrection and new lifnciliation of the world that is not limited to a tribe of people in the Middle East. With Easter the spirit of Jesus, the spirit of the living God is unleashed into the world.
Back to “Beneath the cross of Jesus” I actually like the image of the next part of the song. It is the image of a mighty rock in a weary land. In the shadow of this mighty rock, beneath the cross of Jesus… for what we will take a stand. Every day we are called to take a stand. Do we stand for love, for inclusion, for justice? Do we stand for compassion and mercy for those around us? There is another line in the song in a later verse… “content to let the world go by, to know no gain nor loss.” On this Saturday night in Lent, it is a good time to ask ourselves. Are we sitting back, content to let the world go by? Or are we taking a stand for good in the world.
Grace and Peace at Lent.

M

On Thursday February 15, we will begin our Lenten Journey, blogging our way toward Easter.

 

 

Advent Blog Day 2

Dec 4 Luke 1:30  “But the angel assured her, “Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you.”

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and I headed to the church to meet George Marck,( one of our worship leaders) to practice a couple of songs.  Ok, it was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and it was (as we say in the south) slim pickins for special music.  I had agreed to sing two songs during the service.  Now on a good day and in the right key, I can muddle through.  But on this Friday, neither of those applied.  It had been a week of coughing and hacking and I had literally gone through both the Baptist and the Methodist Hymnals looking for a song in the “croak” range.  I ended up with a Johnny Cash arrangement of an old gospel song.  Seriously, a key for Johnny Cash and there were still some questionable notes for me.

The more I sang, the less confident I got, so we called it a day.  Then George said, “I have a song I want to play for you.  It is my favorite Christmas song.  I have been working on this new arrangement.  Let me know what you think.”  He began to play this beautiful rendition of “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne.”    It was like the Angels popped out from behind the chairs and shouted “Surprise!”   This is one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs.  It brings back precious memories of choirs and Christmases  long ago.  And it has that chorus that is my Christmas mantra.  “O Come to my heart, Lord Jesus.  There is room in my heart for thee.”

When was the last time God surprised you?  There is a great devotion from Sara Young’s “Jesus Calling”  that says.  “Before you get out of bed, Jesus has already been working to prepare the path that will get you through this day.  There are hidden treasures strategically placed along the way.”

Some of the most precious surprises from God are simple and small, but they are just what we need when we need it.   Let’s go into this day with our eyes wide open to the hidden treasures, the surprises God has for us today.

Grace and Peace at Advent

MM