The First Candle

 A Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Advent: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

 

It happens every year. Still, it has been a long time coming. The fall equinox was Sept 22 and the nights started getting longer and longer. And then on November 5, we fell back, and the dark came even sooner. This past week I’ve been finishing spring choirs around the house; I worked until dark; when I got it was 5:30. The dark is here.

Last week a truck hit a power pole on Division St. right where W. Pecan intersects. Everyone was fine, but the power pole was not. We did not lose power; but, we did lose the street light; it is even darker. Now seems as if they are not going to replace that street light. That means I can’t see my driveway in the dark. The street light down the street works just fine; I can clearly see those driveways, but they aren’t my driveway.

So yes, it has been getting darker. And yes, it is really dark now. And I know there are months of darkness to come. Where do I find light?

Six or seven hundred years before Jesus’ day Israel was a Persian vassal. They were kind of independent, but they had to pledge allegiance to Persia to stay kind of independent. Life as a vassal state raises questions about who is really in charge? Who is in charge of political life, our economic life? Who is in charge of our religious life? It leaves you to wonder “Where is God?” It leaves you wondering about the peoples’ hopes and dreams. It is a stark reminder that Israel is not in control, which might lead us to ponder Are we in control (Carvalho)?

The self-reference to being like a “filthy rag” is a confession to being ritually unclean, which means Israel does not think of herself as worthy to come before God. And yet, they refer back to God’s self-revelation on Mount Sinai in a daring to hope that God will tear open the heavens and come down. Israel hopes the God they know (Seitz) will once again be the God of Judges and take the need course of action (Gaventa and Petersen).

We hear an echo of that plea in the Psalm, which repeatedly asks God to restore us. There are references to Israel’s past history. And those verses read like a request for a sign that God’s light will return, and Israel will, once again, be saved.

We hear another echo in Mark’s recounting of Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecy. At the beginning of this chapter, the disciples see the Temple and marvel at its sight. And it was stunning. It sits atop the highest the hill. The Temple soared some 164 feet high above the hill top and its sides plated in gold. It was a wonder of the world in its day (Gaventa and Petersen). It is helpful, probably even necessary, to know that by the time Mark wrote his Gospel account the Temple had been destroyed. The very center of Jewish life: political life, economic life, and religious life was gone (Jacobsen). Mark may well be using this particular story to give hope to a community whose life is now completely un-hitched.

Following the tradition of the prophets Jesus refers to celestial terrors in his apocalyptic imagery; the stars falling from the sky. Indeed, he makes references to Israel’s traditional apocalyptic prophecy (Keener and Walton; Gaventa and Petersen). Jesus’ use of ancient prophecies connects his ministry to God’s previous acts of salvation. Mark’s use of Jesus’ prophecy reminds his readers, including us, that Jesus’ death is not end of the story; that there is promise and power in the resurrection, that there is ancient truth in the promise of salvation (Perkins).

When Jesus finishes his apocalyptic, end of time, prophecy, the disciples also want to know when it will all happen. We get that, we are still waiting; we want to know when is all this going to happen. The depth of our curiosity is revealed in the commonness and popularity of end of time predictions (which popup every now and again) stories, and movies. Only Jesus won’t tell the disciples, or us, and he can’t, even if he wanted to because even he doesn’t know (Mark 13:32).

Jesus’ teaching continues with a common reference on how the servants of an estate should behave when the master is away. They cannot know when he will return. The only way to please their master is to get about their assigned responsibilities (Perkins). And so, it is with the return of God in Isaiah’s day, in Jesus teaching in Mark’s day, and today.

Today is the 1st Sunday in Advent. We are already looking to Christmas. I expect some of you are like us, we already have boxes piling up in closets. We may even be looking ahead to the celebration of Jesus birth. And that is a good thing, in a time of short days and long nights, when the darkness feels more and more prevalent, almost domineering. In the darkness Advent calls us to see beyond Christmas, to look at the world around us, to seek out the faint but strong light of Jesus (Tew). In the darkness we are called to be about continuing Jesus ministry of transforming the world and making the Kingdom of God known on earth right here, right now, where it is (Epperly).

When I was a kid coming home from my grand-parents’ house was a long all-day drive. There were twin water towers just outside Norcross, they were these big cylinder type towers, they had “Norcross” written across both of them. They are etched in my memory, because, they were reliable. When we saw them we always knew we had gotten almost home. They still are reliable, when I see them I know I am almost to my dad’s home. The path is a different, it certainly takes more time get there, none-the-less the sign is true, I am almost there.

Now days I am beginning to understand those towers to be a different kind of sign. They are not predictors of what is ahead, I know that. But, they are reminders, powerful, steadfast, firm reminders.

Today we lit the first Advent candle. It is a small light in the deep darkness; certainly, of the winter night, and perhaps the darkness of another source. It is the first reminder of the light that shines in the darkness (John 1:5). It is the first reminder that the world around us needs the revelation of the transforming gift of resurrection grace. It is the first reminder that the Kingdom of God on earth is right here, right now. It is the first reminder that the light will not be overcome (John 1:5).


References

Carvalho, Corrine. Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9. 3 12 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 12 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. Commentary on Mark 13:24-37. 3 12 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Seitz, Christopher R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Isaiah 40-66. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8. Vol. IV. Nashville: Abingdon Press (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8, 2015. XII vols. Olivetree App.

Tew, Anna. “Keep Awake!, Advent 1.” 3 12 2017. Sermons that Work.

 

 

 

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88 to 9

The psalm appointed for today’s Morning Prayer is 88. [i]  The psalmist starts off complaining about his life; how it’s full of trouble, close to Sheol, and there’s no one to help, in spite of prayers for help.  The psalm continues:

10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
  Do the shades rise up to praise you?
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
  or your faithfulness in Abaddon? [ii]
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
  or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

The implied answer is no; so the psalmist continues questioning God about the miseries of life.

However, the implied answer is incorrect. God does work wonders for the dead; the dead will/do praise God, God’s love is declared in the grave, in Abaddon, God’s wonders will be/is known in darkness, among those who have forgotten.  Were it not so, there would be no hope; however, by God’s incomprehensible love there is always mercy, therein there is always hope. The irony is the psalmist knows this, after all the psalm being addressing God of my salvation.

And now I find myself thinking of the man born blind in John 9. His accidental [iii] encounter with Jesus leads to him becoming a child of light.

I suppose 88+9 = 15 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [iv]

 


 

[i] http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Psalm+88
[ii] angel of the bottomless pit, parallel with Sheol and death, Holman Bible Dictionary.
[iii] accidental in that he does not ask Jesus for healing, the disciples see him, wonder about the source of his blindness, and the rest his biblical.
[iv] John 1:5

A sermon for Christmas

Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14(15-20), Psalm 96

  

The people who walked in darkness

       … those who lived in a land of deep darkness … 

It is no ordinary darkness Isaiah speaks of.  Isaiah’s prophecy emerges in the midst of all consuming political oppression. [i] Ahaz, King of Judah, the Southern Kingdom of the Jews, has formed a political alliance with Assyria because he is afraid of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and her allies. It is not a good deal, Judah is a vassal, under constant oppression, and frequent violence, that sets neighbor against neighbor. It is a dark, dark time. 

Judah’s / Israel’s relationship with Rome doesn’t begin with a willing invitation, they were simply conquered, and a Legion was garrisoned there, to keep the peace, ~ for Rome. Israel is again a vassal subject to constant oppression, and frequent violence that sets neighbor against neighbor. Augustus’ decree for a census is for the benefit of the Empire, not Israel, not Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Forcing everyone to return to their home town may be oppressive, it is certainly manipulative. It’s a demonstration of raw power; I speak: you and your entire family, town, tribe, are uprooted. Not sure how dark, but times are dark. 

Mary and Joseph get a double dose. They are going to Joseph’s home town, going to family, and in first century Palestine you expect hospitality, hospitality that is required. No Vacancy should never have been a problem. They should have been welcomed by someone, anyone in the extended family. And Mary’s pregnancy would make them, at least her, a priority. Think about your visiting family, uncle Bob might, but your pregnant Aunt would never draw the sleeping bag on the floor. [ii] Oppressed by Rome, rejected by family, Mary and Joseph are living in a deep darkness. 

Three stories over the last few weeks have sharpened, re-imaged, my tired view of Luke’s narrative. The first is a decades old memory. One cold winter night, as the last freight train of the night rolls out of town a hobo stays behind. The police soon pick him up. The hospital determines he is not sick enough to stay there. The local homeless shelter determines he is too sick to stay there. Everyone one else was, well you what it’s like this time of year. In any case, as an old gospel hymn says  “We Didn’t Know Who You Was;” 

                             … as you did to the least of these …

So, with no other place to go, the police took him to jail. And sometime night, when all who had responsibility dimmed the lights, alone, and in the deep darkness  he died. [iii] 

Elena Dorfman recently finished a stint for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to photograph refugees from the Syrian Civil War. Her task: to put a human face on unfathomable statistics; some two million refugees, of which seven to eight hundred thousand are in Lebanon. The photograph that grabbed my attention, is a discarded freight box, perhaps 3 feet high, and some 3 to 4 feet on each side. It is full of, who knows what; covered with worn, though clean quilt, and an infant boy with a sharp Mohawk hair cut plays inside. 

 

Image

 

Photo by: Elena Dorfman

It’s almost a quaint image, until you notice the bare concrete wall behind the box, and the dirt floor, with scattered pieces of broken rock. What you don’t see: is the working slaughter house, on the other side of the wall; what you don’t see is the pile of drying pelts, just around the corner. Though it is a bright photograph with vivid reds, and brilliant blues scattered throughout, it’s a scene of deep darkness. It’s of people displaced by local violence and oppression,  and foreign collaborators. There are no organized refugee efforts in Lebanon. Perhaps officials are counting on family, and tribal relationships to get the job done. [iv] For some it helps, nonetheless a baby plays in an abandoned crate, as deep darkness enshrouds the land. 

The Cones are Eastern Orthodox Christians, fostering a 5 and a 10 year old, who are brothers. They are gradually introducing them into their Advent and Christmas traditions for which the brothers have no context. Each night they share a couple of scripture verses, and a bit of candy. The night comes when the verses told of no room in the Inn, and baby Jesus’ birth in a barn with a manger for a bed. The 10 year old’s head bows, his face is drawn and serious. Ms. Cone asks what he thinks Mary and Joseph feel. Remembering the cold night on the streets, and sheltering in someone else’s car, as safe haven, ‘casue there was nowhere else to go; remembering his mother, ~~ abandoning them, he answers “Sad. Cold.” and quietly tears flow as the deep darkness is remembered. 

And then there are the answers to a continuous flow of questions: 

Is  the baby in the manger is the same Jesus they heard about at church. 

Yes.

Do Christians really believe that the Son of God was born in a manger, without a home to call his own. 

Yes. 

Did shepherds in that part of the world really sleep out in the cold while protecting their sheep from, among other threats, lions.

Yes. 

Did coming face to face with an army of angels freaked the shepherds out.

Yes.  [v]

Light begins to dawn, darkness begins to fade away as the glory, the presence of the Lord is revealed. 

For century upon century we have sanitized the Gospels’ birth narratives. Look at nativity scenes. All the characters are pristine and clean; but: 

  • Mary and Joseph have been on the road all day, there is no bath, 
  • the cave or barn is full of animals, ~ and animal stuff, 
  • the shepherds, are night shift shepherds, the bottom of the worthless working folk;
    and they’ve been working since when? and walking for who knows how long?
  • what about the angels? they left the shepherds in the field! there aren’t any at the barn! 

The birth scene writ large is the dominated by Assyrian and Roman oppression. Writ specific it’s context is familial rejection it’s setting is degrading, dirty and smelly. But, it is here where light of the world is born, not because of any human action, the powers of the day are as oppressive as ever, and family and friends are as capricious as ever, light is born into the world by the grace of God a gift of God to those who live in deep darkness. 

In ’67 we don’t know what powers pushed a man on to the lonely rails, we don’t know what standards were not met, nonetheless a lonely man who walked in the dark, dies, alone, in the dark. Today we know the powers at play in Syria. A baby refugee playing in an abandoned box is perhaps sign of parental ingenuity; certainly it’s a sign that we do not yet see the incarnate presence in front of us. Yes, Jesus is the incarnate presence of God. But incarnation touches every corner of the universe; it infuses every person with the presence of God, thus every person, every child is heir to the incarnation. In sharing Christmas with two foster sons the Cones are sharing light that can transform a young man’s dark experiences. But he too shares a deep truth that can transform us. Christ Jesus is born into darkness: the darkness of  the world the state, our community, our homes, and our selves. With the courage of a ten year old, when we face our darkness we will find:

a light shining brightly in our presence,

lives being transformed,

yokes being broken,

burdens being lifted;

we will find

peace, righteousness and justice;

we will hear,

no ~ we will sing ~ a new song:

Glory to God in the highest,and peace on earth,goodwill toward men!

 


[i] Ingrid Lilly, Working Preacher, Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7,  Christmas 2013 

[ii] Rev. Cano n Frank S. Logue , episcopaldigitalnetwork.com http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2013/12/09/christmas-eve-abc-2013/, December 24, 2013 

[iii] Paul Greenberg, m.arkansasonline.com http://m.arkansasonline.com/news/2013/dec/21/fo ur-mo re-days-20131221/ Four more days

 [iv] Qainat Khan, NPR hereandnow.wbur.org http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2013/12/03/photographer-syria-portraits  

[v] Terry Mattingly, m.arkansasonline.com http://m.arkansasonline.com/news/2013/dec/21/telling-nativity-story-help-foster-boys-20131221/ Telling Nativity story with help of foster boys Saturday, December 21, 2013

Light and hope

In the last few days soldiers from US Armed Forces have begun to arrive in preparation for Operation Healthy Delta (part of the reserve training program) which kicks off Monday at 9:00 am. The soldiers will be providing medical assessments and screenings, dental extractions and fillings, eye exams and glasses, and wellness screenings. It is a cooperative effort of the Department of Defense, The Delta Regional Commission, city government and police, the community college, the local hospital, the Charitable Clinic, local church’s and numerous volunteers. Similar cooperation is seen in the other 3 location of this operation. In nine days the soldiers goal is to provide services to 1,800 people from Mississippi county and nearby.

It is a pleasure to be a part of a collaborative effort of so many diverse organizations and people. It reveals just what can be done, when dedicated people come together to serve others. Before the first patient is seen it is already a source to hope and inspiration.

I suppose what I am getting at is in a culture full of instant news, which tends to be dark, dangerous and gloomy, there is light and hope. From families gathering in support of the marriage of two delightful ladies, to medical services provided to all who care to walk in the door. Look for, listen for it, join in, proclaim it; it will change the lives of those around you, it will change your life.