Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Hope of the Messiah: From Barren to Blessed

On this last Sunday of Advent, we move into the New Testament - the Gospel of Luke. Luke is of two books, Luke and Act, that are an attempt, as the gospel writer says at the very beginning, to set down an orderly account of the events for Theophilus, Translated “God-lover.” So that you may know the truth concerning the things that have been handed onto us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word.

And so, today, God-lovers, we read from the holy gospel according to Luke.

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. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And 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. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. 
--Luke 1:26-56 (NRSV)

"Barren. That’s what we both were, Mary and I. Barren. Mary, a teenager, having never known a man, a virgin, without child. Barren. And I, old. Having known a man, also without child. Barren. It is this that perhaps connected Mary and I most. Our barrenness. Our emptiness. Our disgrace - well, mostly my disgrace.

I had prayed for a child during all of my child-bearing years. Like Sarah. Like Rebecca. Like so many other women in our history, in the stories of our faith, who had prayed to God for a child as much as I prayed for a descendant for my husband, Zechariah, and I. We lived righteously before God. Followed and observed all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. Yet, unlike Sarah and Rebecca, I remained barren. My disgrace before others.

Yet, Mary and I would not remain barren. It was nothing that we did - everything that happened was from the Lord, announced by the angel, Gabriel. God’s messenger who came, first, to my husband, and then to Mary. Announcing these miraculous births. My child, who would be another messenger of God. Of the long-promised Messiah.

But, Mary. The announcement she received was different. The angel called her “favored one.” Favored one? Mary? First named in the story without a name, but only that she was engaged to Joseph. This was the status of women in my time, connected only to the men in our lives. And only important based on our ability to bear children. Especially, to bear sons. Mary, favored? Perhaps it was this title that perplexed her. Made her wonder. Made her ask the question how she might become pregnant without having known a man. Not that she doubted the possibility. But, that she was simply curious how this was to happen. Do you notice she never asked for a sign? Unlike my husband. Unlike so many prophets called throughout the history of our people, Mary never asked for a sign. 

But, then, the angel Gabriel gave her a sign. Me. Pregnant in my old age. I was to be her sign that God would descend on her womb in the way God had descended upon the tabernacle at Sinai. And how God had descended upon my womb. Because nothing is impossible with God.

And so she came to visit me. In my sixth month, with my pregnancy showing. When I saw her I felt my unborn baby leap within me. The Holy Spirit moved me, a woman, to prophesy what had already been spoken to her. That she would be the God-bearer. The Theotokos. The one who would bear the Messiah, the fulfilment of God’s promise to King David. And to us, from across the ages. 

No longer barren, either of us. But now blessed. Mary, the Alpha, and I, the Omega. From young to old, beginning to end, both of us, blessed. Not simply vessels to bear children, but Spirit-filled, prophetic, profound people, created by God. Blessed by God. How profound this was in our time! How profound this is for your time!

How could Mary do anything other than singLike Hannah, like Miriam, like Deborah of old, how could Mary do anything other than sing of the freedom and liberation that God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in our world, through her son, Jesus? The Anointed One. Son of the Most High. Emmanuel - God with us

May you, like Mary and I, know and believe the truth concerning the things that have been handed onto you by us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word. May you, like Mary and I, know and believe that God comes to set us free, to liberate us and our world from all that holds us captive. And may you, like Mary and I, know and believe that, even in the midst of our deepest darkness, God is doing a new thing. For nothing will be impossible with God. Amen."

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Hope of the Messiah: Freedom and Justice

Each month, in our council meeting, we spend time at the beginning of the meeting to dwell in God’s Word. To be centered in it before conducting any business or addressing any of the practical aspects of the ministry of our churches.

Over these months, I have to say that I’ve grown more and more impressed with the way in which the leaders of our congregations are becoming theological thinkers. Noticing things in the texts. Wondering and asking questions. Drawing the connections to other aspects of God’s Word or to our own Lutheran theology.

Today, we’re going to spend some time digging into this text from Isaiah in a similar way. Asking questions. Noticing things in the text. And making connections to help deepen our understanding of God, of God’s ways, and, particularly, of Jesus. The Messiah.

We read today from Isaiah, chapter 61 in three parts. Here is the first, beginning in verse 1. 

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
--Isaiah 61:1-4 (NRSV)

One of the first things we do when we read scripture is to consider who is speaking and what is the situation.

This reading comes from what is often considered Third Isaiah. Isaiah is believed to have been written in three different historical time periods. First Isaiah is generally considered written in the pre-exile period of Israel. The 8th century BCE. It brings harsh words to the people of Judah and Jerusalem - words of warning - to those who have become estranged from Yahweh. The prophet desperately and urgently calls out for the world to listen. To see their hypocrisy. To turn back to God. To seek the well-being of all.

We know that this call failed. Jerusalem fell. The people were captured by the Babylonians and spread far and wide across the empire. Separated from their families, the temple, their homeland. It is in this post-exile period where Second Isaiah was likely written. To give people hope. To convince them of God’s activity to free them from captivity. The efforts of this second writer, considered by some to have been a woman because of its many feminine images of God, do not convince many. It is hard to have hope when everything seems lost.

Then we come to Third Isaiah (56-66), the source of our text today. Written 2-3 generations later, after the ancestors of Judah’s exiles have begun to return home. And have found that the reality doesn’t live up to what they had hoped for. The reading begins with a dramatic self-introduction. Who the speaker is, we’re not sure. But, his or her identity is as important as the role to be played. To inform the community how it will survive and thrive. Words of consolation and encouragement in this new time of trial. 

This prophet or prophets will not preach punishment, but salvation. Salvation that is from God. God, who brings good news to the oppressed, binds up the broken-hearted, proclaims liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners. 

Do you notice that these words of consolation begin with the body? That salvation begins with the body? With the freeing and the healing of the body? 

It’s also hard to miss the direct reference to the Year of the Lord’s favor - the year of Jubilee as outlined in Leviticus 25. That was to occur every 50th year. When those in debt would be forgiven of their debt. When those who had lost their ancestral land would be returned to it and to ownership of it. The Year of the Jubilee was to be a reboot year. A year of reset. When the unequal distribution of resources was to be reversed. The Year of the Lord’s favor was about economic justice. And the restoration of community. Because God’s salvation is not solely about the individual, but about freedom for everyone and the restoration of dignity and justice for the whole community. 

God’s way is the way of reversal that is particularly captured in the next part of our reading, continuing with verse 5.

Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
    foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
    you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
    and in their riches you shall glory.
Because their shame was double,
    and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
    everlasting joy shall be theirs. --Isaiah 61:5-7 (NRSV)

God’s intent to reverse injustice begins with the enslavers themselves, who will serve Judah. Who will aid Judah’s restoration. Who will help them resettle, rebuild, and restore their land. 

It is a reminder for us that those with privilege need to be the laborers mentioned here, working to bring about justice for those who have been exiled and oppressed. Not because justice is the people’s idea, but because justice is God’s idea. Which is clear in the third part of the passage today, which continues with verse 8.

For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. --Isaiah 61:8-9 (NRSV)

This is God talking now. God speaking to the divisions in the community. God, who will ensure the fairness of the economic system. Who will restore a people formerly exiled, but a people who will now be known. And who, when others look at them, will see God’s covenant of justice with them. God’s glory and our relationship to God are seen in economic systems that are whole and just. Where everyone may live as full members of the community instead of just the few.

For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. --Isaiah 61:8-9 (NRSV)

This is God talking now. God speaking to the divisions in the community. God, who will ensure the fairness of the economic system. Who will restore a people formerly exiled, but a people who will now be known. And who, when others look at them, will see God’s covenant of justice with them. 

Do you notice who is the one doing this? “I will give…” “I will make…” God will be the one working to ensure that economic systems are just. Where everyone may live as full members of the community, instead of just the few. We are invited to come alongside God and to work for these just systems. In which God’s glory and our covenantal relationship - a one-directional relationship - will be seen.

And, then, once again, the tone and speaker changes, beginning with verse 10.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations. --Isaiah 61:10-11 (NRSV)

The passage is not clear on the speaker’s identity. Perhaps it is the prophet who has been called to preach that God’s Word will be fulfilled. Perhaps it is Judah herself, moving from mourning to joy, assured that the promise of restoration will be fulfilled. That just as the earth is trustworthy in bringing forth her fruits or the garden springs up its produce, so too the faithful can trust the God who makes these promises: of a body freed, of a community restored, of a creation regenerated.

What if this is our Jubilee year? A reset year. A time when, even in the midst of the rubble of our world and the rubble of the lives of many, God calls us to trust in God’s promise. To bind up our grief and move us to something else. Restoring dignity and justice for everyone. Bringing economic wholeness to all people. 

In fact, these are the fundamentals that are claimed within the ministry of Jesus himself. Our Messiah, who we heard in our first reading today from Luke. Who walks into the synagogue. Takes the scroll. Reads these very same words from Isaiah. And then turns to the people, saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus, the embodiment of God and of God’s promise. A promise of restoration. A promise of economic justice. A promise of freedom.

May we, in this time of Advent, recognize that we cannot be a follower of Jesus and avoid this understanding, this aspect of Jesus’ own ministry. May we recognize that our salvation is tied to the salvation of all people. And may God work in our hearts to accept God’s invitation to work for economic justice in our own world. In this time. In this place. 


Preached December 13, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Advent 3
Readings: Isaiah 61:1-11; Luke 4:16-21

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Hope of the Messiah - Return, Rend, Restoration

Our text this morning comes from the prophet Joel. As you hear the reading, it may seem odd to hear these words during the Advent season. We more typically hear the first part of our reading on Ash Wednesday. And the second part on Pentecost Sunday. 

Our reading this morning is from Joel, chapter 2.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
    return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
    rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
    and relents from punishing.
Then afterward
    I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
    in those days, I will pour out my spirit. --Joel 2:12-13, 28-29 (NRSV)

The first chapter of Joel, preceding today’s lesson, opens with a lament. It describes a country overrun by a horrible infestation of locusts. The swarm has completely devastated the countryside, leaving it in ruins. The situation is dire. Not only is there environmental calamity and devastation, but the people are experiencing famine and starvation. There is no food. Not even enough to offer a sacrifice to God. There is nothing with which to worship.

Then, in the second chapter, the prophet Joel switches the metaphor. To an invading army that in the same way as the locusts that preceded it. These images of invasion and destruction are a familiar story for the readers of Joel. The people of Israel have lived this story over and over again. It goes like this…

In Genesis, God promised Abraham and his descendants that they would inhabit this land called Canaan. Canaan is sandwiched between the vast Mediterranean Ocean to the west and the desolate desert to the East. After years of being enslaved by Egypt, God frees Israel and makes a covenant with them in Exodus. Here, God promises to be with them. And that they will become a holy nation. A royal priesthood.

God gives them instructions to build a tabernacle that will represent the Garden of Eden and God’s relationship with all humanity. King Solomon will eventually build a beautiful and magnificent temple to replace the Tabernacle and will establish it in the city of Jerusalem. This temple was to remind the people that the Spirit of God filled their covenant with God. That they planted like a vineyard so that the world could taste the love of God. Through them. 

This relationship with God was to be the source of the rivers of life for all nations, for all humanity.

Things went fairly well, at first. Under King David, the twelve tribes of Israel were united into one kingdom. But, then, King Solomon built the temple. And he did it by over-taxing the people and by using slave labor. The kingdom was torn apart. A civil war led to two separate nations: Israel in the north. And Judah in the south. 

Immediately, Israel repeated the story of the Golden Calf from Exodus and established two golden calves to replace the temple. Judah wasn’t much better. The majority of her kings led like tyrants: oppressing the people, driven by greed, gluttony, and violence. They brought the gods of Canaan into the very temple itself. 

Eventually a series of invading armies destroyed the nation. The people of Israel, in the north were completely destroyed by Assyria. The people of Judah, in the south, were carried into captivity by the Babylonians. Solomon’s beautiful temple lay in ruins.  The people lived in exile - torn apart from their land, their communities, from the temple - the center of their worship, and from everything they knew. 

Yes, the readers of Joel knew the story of the invading locusts all too well.

Things were bad. Devastated. Left in ruin. The people far away. And yet...

...even now…Even in the midst of all of the betrayal and corruption, God stands ready to receive them. Return to me with all your heart, God says through the prophet. Return to me with fasting, with weeping, with mourning. Rend your heart and not your clothing.

You see, the traditional symbol of mourning in Israel and even today was to tear one’s robe open or to rip one’s clothing. Like wearing black to a funeral or having ashes smeared on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. These outward symbols are good. But, they can become meaningless acts. What matters most to God is not the outward ritual - the ways or the places in which we worship. What matters most to God is our hearts. What God desires is hearts that are rendered. That are broken wide open in all honesty. In all of our anguish and grief. Hearts torn open, revealing the pain, the sorrow, the regret, the shame that each one of us carries deep inside. To rend our hearts is to break them wide open and pour everything out to God. 

To God. Who is gracious. Merciful. Slow to anger. Abounding in steadfast love. A god who relents from punishing. A God who is good. Who desires to be the center for us. To be the source of our well-being, our shalom.

This verse in Joel is a quote from Exodus 34. It’s one of the most repeated verses in the Bible. It’s the way in the Exodus story that God describes God’s very self to the people who have just betrayed the covenant at Sinai. God is not some cruel tyrant who wants oppressed servants to obey his every whim. God is a loving parent - father and mother - who longs to be in relationship with God’s children. Who longs to see God’s children thrive in God’s beautiful garden, created just for them.

When we allow our hearts to be opened by the Spirit and allow ourselves to be turned back to the grace, mercy, and loyal, never-ending love of God, our hearts, broken and hurt as they may be, connect with God’s heart. And, then, the love begins to flow...

...the Spirit of the LORD flows freely through our lives. Flowing through everybody, not just the elite or the chosen. But, through all flesh. Anyone who’s heart resonates with the heart of God - the heart of love - can flow in the spirit of God.

The readers of Joel longed for the day when the Messiah would come to restore the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. We, on this side of the Advent, know that this Messiah is Jesus. This is what Peter proclaimed in Acts 2. That Jesus was God in the flesh. That Jesus was the picture of what it looks like when humanity fully resonates with the heart of God. 

Jesus. Who spoke truth to power. Who called out corruption and the abuse of the weak. Who touched the poor, the sick, the exiled. And who reconciled all things with his own self-sacrifice and forgiveness. Who inaugurated God’s kingdom here on earth. Who promises restoration that begins with the rebuilding of the natural world, which is where the story of creation first began - restoration and re-creation. 

And then the outpouring of the spirit and the embracing of all nations. All humanity. Living in abundance and well-being, with silos full of grain and no worries for anyone about where their next meal will come from. This was what the people of Joel’s day dreamed of. This is the unfolding vision in which we live, in this post-Advent world even in the midst of what may seem to be the darkness of the present time. So, come, people of God. Turn back to God. Here. In this place. In this time. Break open your whole heart. Pour out all the anguish, all of the sorrow, all of the confusion, all of the anger that has characterized our world and our lives in this time. Your lament is welcome before God, who is waiting there for you with a promise of new things and new possibilities. That there will be a future. And a future future. And, when you do, know that the Spirit will not be withheld from your broken heart. She will bind up your wounds, replace your doom with visions of what can be, and help us hear each other into being and into continuing to do the work of God in building up the kingdom of God here on earth. This is God’s promise in Joel. A promise for you and me. A promise for everyone. Amen.

Preached online Sunday, December 6, 2020 with Grace & Glory/Third Lutheran churches.
Advent 2
Readings: Joel 2:12-13, 28-29; Luke 11:13