Category Archives: Theology & Culture

Slowing Down for the Spirit

Luke 4:14-21
Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

A star that guides the Magi from the East to the Christ child. 

A voice like Thunder that declares “You are my beloved Son”

Water turned into abundant flowing wine to gladden a wedding celebration. 

We have been witnesses to big, bold and exciting events the past few weeks. We have seen God pulling back the veil between heaven and earth to show us that Jesus, that God is flesh, is near. The grandness of these stories makes us certain of God’s presence in the world. 

And as we have witnessed the divine spectacle this season after Epiphany, we have become accustomed to these kinds of signs. We see God interjecting the divine into the lives of everyday people, and we anticipate that God will do the same with us. 

But today, there doesn’t seem to be any flashy sign or action to accompany Jesus. Today is different. Luke tells us a story in a more pedestrian style, a seemingly casual and low-key vignette of Jesus’ ministry. 

Today, Jesus does only what is expected of any Jewish man in the synagogue. No miracles or signs of power. Jesus simply reads from the scroll of the prophets and then provides explanation. It should feel almost normal, it should remind us of the same worship that is our custom as well.  

We return to Luke’s Gospel, after a detour in John’s Gospel last week for the wedding at Cana and the pace of the action slows. The story is one of subtle details. 

Jesus has been preaching and teaching in Galilee. Reports of him have spreading, he is coming to be regarded as a well known teacher, a traveling Rabbi. And with news spreading, Jesus arrives in his hometown of Nazareth. 

Jesus goes to the synagogue on the sabbath, as was his custom. Jesus is not only a regular worship attender, it is clear that in the synagogues is where he is getting his message out, where he is making his ministry known.

Yet still, it was possible for any Jewish man to be asked to read from the Tanahk, the Hebrew Bible. However, as a wondering preacher, the people likely expected this hometown son to now preach for the folks who knew him as a kid. Jesus stands to read and is given the scroll of the prophets. Jesus makes is way through the scroll and chooses a familiar passage, from what we now call Isaiah 61. 

Luke brings us right down to the moment by moment details. Compared to the drama of voices from heaven and surprising good tasting abundant wine, Luke adds tension in the slowness of motion. Once Jesus has concluded the reading, he rolls up the scroll… He hands the scroll to the attendant… Jesus sits down and prepares himself to teach… The whole synagogue is waiting for what Jesus is going to say… All eyes are trained on Jesus…. 

(Pause)

In these past weeks, our story has slowed down as well to moment by moment details. Our world had finally begun to expand from summer on last year, we began to imagine a bigger and brighter future. But then the pandemic found a way to squeeze us again. We have been scaled back and pared down, and yet we wait with bated breath for when this latest wave may end and there will be signs of life renewed. 

It is hard for even one day to go by and for us not to see how our world needs signs of hope. The poor need good news, the captives need releasing, the blind need sight, the oppressed need freedom. We cannot help but be bombarded by a world in desperate need wherever we look, whether it is here in Winnipeg or far away on the other side of the planet. 

As Jesus reads from Isaiah, the people that he was reading to longed for good news, for release, for healing and freedom. It is a longing that has lasted throughout all of human history. 

And as we long for change, we begin to load God with expectations. We hear Jesus speak of good news for the poor but we long for riches. We see the captives that need releasing but we long to be released from any and all obligations we might carry for our neighbour. We heard of sight for the blind but we want every ache and pain, every experience of discomfort to taken away from us. We imagine the oppressed being freed, but we desire being given control, being the ones who have the power to make decisions and be in charge. 

It is so very easy for our longing for justice to turn into an expectation for results. We want our prayers to be heard and answered, and we are disappointed with God when they are not. Our sinful, selfish nature makes us turn hope for justice and peace into a sense of entitlement. Entitlement to God’s acts of power, entitlement to control of God’s blessing.  

We hear Jesus declare this new and hopeful reality, and we cannot help but imagine what we are going to get out of it. We cannot help but put ourselves first and imagine the world according to our own vision and our own image. 

(Pause)

But today, it is in the details that Jesus is pointing us to something much bigger than our expectations and desires. Luke slows down the pace so that we can hear the details, so that we hear the words of God anew, stirring deep within creation, stirring deep within the Church, stirring deep within us. 

The very first words that Luke puts in our ears: Jesus, filled with the power of the spirit. 

Though this feels like a slowed down smaller story than the Magi following the star, the voice thundering over the baptismal waters, the blessing of the wedding with good wine… We are meant to connect this moment in the local synagogue with the building movement of the spirit that has brought us here through this season. 

And the Luke draws us back to the spirit again:

“The Spirit of the Lord has named me the Christ. 

The Christ who evangelizes and brings the gospel to the poor.

The apostle who releases the captives and heals the blind and sets the oppressed free. 

The preacher who declares the year of the Lord’s grace and mercy.”

In these simple words of scripture Jesus describes a new reality. Not a new reality based on our wants and desires. A new reality grounded in the incarnation, in the God who speaks these words out loud and in our hearing. A reality grounded in the God who brings these words to life in our midst. Who makes the words real right before our eyes. 

As the people of the Nazareth Synagogue sit waiting expectantly for Jesus to interpret the meaning the Prophets words for them, Jesus has only a brief and simple sermon. 

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. 

Today, these words from the prophet have come to realization. Today, the anointed one, the saviour, the Christ has become present in flesh. Today, the God of the poor, of captives, the blind, the oppressed is here. The work of God in the world is now. 

The same spirit that led the Magi, that spoke like thunder, that provided the abundance of wine… this same spirit in Nazareth, at the synagogue, announcing to all that Jesus is the Messiah. The anointed one. The saviour of Israel. Even in this small and slowed down and familiar moment, Jesus is subtly but surely making God’s presence known. God is not far away, but here. God is with us even in our smallness, with us even in our isolation, with us in our illness and struggling, with us even when we feel abandoned and alone. 

Jesus not only announces the work of God in the world, but lays a foundation for us. For the Church. The Body of Christ proclaiming the gospel and caring for the poor. The Apostles of Christ releasing the captives and giving them a home. The Church giving sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed. People of faith preaching God’s love for the world.

Today, Jesus simply and straight forwardly announces the mission of Christ. Of the Christ who is among us in Word, Water, Bread and Wine. The Christ who IS us, we who ARE the Christ in the world, washing and feeding and loving a world in need of hope. 

We arrived today having just heard and witnessed the bigness of God:

A star that guides the Magi from the East to the Christ child. 

A voice like Thunder that declares “You are my beloved Son”

Water turned into abundant flowing wine to gladden a wedding celebration.

And we add to that list today: 

A simple sermon, preached in a small synagogue to people of faith waiting for good news. 

These are all signs of God’s presence in a world in need. 

Yet today, fulfilled and realized in our hearing, 

with all eyes fixed upon Jesus, 

despite our desire to put ourselves first and get what we selfishly desire, 

The anointed one who is working for justice and peace among us, 

The Christ speaks God’s word and declares that God is at work here, 

working in us, 

right now. 

Amen. 

Sermon on the Wedding of Cana – Running Out on the 3rd Day

John 2:1-11
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

On the 3rd day of the wedding in Cana, they ran out of wine. It might seem strange to be talking about a party running out of wine today. Last week, we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism where God spoke to the crowds and to us. It was a big deal. And then between Sundays, our world continued on through our collision course with the Omicron variant. Some have called it a new pandemic. 

Parties and gatherings and running out of wine, seems trivial in the face of governments seemingly giving up on managing the pandemic and the feeling of being left to fend for ourselves. Forget thinking about parties and gathering as friends and family, daily life has become serious business, stress filled and difficult business. So talking about a miracle where Jesus turns some water into wine at a wedding sounds almost trivial. 

Yet, despite being a place known mostly for its poor party planning, Cana is also a place a place where life is serious, stress filled and difficult too. Cana knows the dangers of the world. They too worry if there will be enough on the table, worry about bills and taxes, work and family. Cana was a small town in the middle of nowhere. They lived under and paid taxes to the Romans, to Herod, to the Temple, to the Synagogue, to the local authorities and to soldiers. 

And here they were, trying to have a nice celebration for the community. To set a couple off right for the start of their marriage. A small celebration in an otherwise dark, serious, and difficult world. 

But on the 3rd day of the wedding they run out of wine. 

Mary and Jesus and the disciples are in Cana for a wedding. They are probably at the wedding of a distant relative, but for Cana this would have been a whole community affair. Like weddings today, the weddings of ancient Israel were big celebrations. It was expected that a fortune would be spent on the party. Wine and food was to flow for a week – literally 7 days. The Bridegroom was meant to be broke by the end of the party. The hospitality, celebration and the extravagance were meant to be sign of blessing. If it was a good party, it would be a blessed marriage. 

Except it is only day 3 in Cana, and they have no wine. 

Mary points this out to Jesus in only the way a mother could. And Jesus responds in only the way a son could, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come”. Jesus has different idea of timing than his mother. But, she doesn’t care. She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you”. 

Jesus seems to only to see a party that has been poorly planned. A party that has run out. But Mary sees something different. Mary knows that the wine has run out on day 3, not even half way through. If were only a matter of poor planning, the wine might run out on day 6, but not day 3. The family is probably too poor to throw a proper wedding. 

Maybe they didn’t know about Manitoba wedding socials in Cana. Maybe they didn’t come together as people have done here, knowing that if everyone contributes a little to everyone else, when the time comes to host your own, the burden won’t be so great. But the people of Cana almost certainly did know this, and probably had all already chipped in to the party. 

And Mary sees that this community is too poor, they don’t even have enough reserves to have one party for these newlyweds. 

Mary and Jesus embody the moments of scarcity that we face every day. We know what it is like to need for more, to fear running out, to know that the time isn’t right, to hope for something different and to long for change. We have been living small lives, the fullness and busyness of what we used to know having been curtailed dramatically. We know what it is like to have celebration plans come crashing down (just think back to Christmas Eve!).  We have experienced a kind of scarcity of living and relationship these past two years that seemed inconceivable before. 

And we know that we too are closer to running out than we like to admit. Running out of patience, and resolve, and resilience. 

Running out of hope. 

Running out is something we all fret about, and yet it is connected to a much deeper fear. At the core of our being is a fearful sense that there is not enough. That if we run out, we will suffer, we will lose, we will be alone, we will die. We fear not having enough so much that it can make us crazy. It is the fear of running out that makes fight with each other, that makes us stubborn and unable to see the needs of those people around us, that makes us hold on with all our might, even when holding on is what is killing us. 

So when Mary pushes Jesus to act and even though he resists… it is because she must see that it isn’t really about the wine or the party ending 4 days early. It is about a community without much else to hold on to, a people without hope. If there is not enough wine, then there is not enough to eat or drink. There isn’t enough to live on. The world will have overcome them. There is no future, no hope, only death. 

Mary sees this deep connection between running out of wine, and how Cana itself is not that far away from death. She sees a community that needs some hope, that needs a future. And she knowns the only person who can truly provide. 

And so Mary presses the issue, not with Jesus, but with us. 

“Do whatever he tells you.”

Easy instructions for the servants… but words that should take our breath away. 

As we face challenges and struggles of this most difficult moment of a long pandemic, of making ends meet and just keeping it together day to day…
As we wonder if there is any hope for us, if there is a future here…
If all we have to look forward to is death…
“Do whatever Jesus tells you.” is a word that demands faith from us. Faith that we really don’t know how to give. 

But God does. 

Even when it doesn’t seem like Jesus’ hour… Jesus steps into the void.

And it isn’t just an abundance of wine that Jesus provides. Instead, God breaks into the world. God comes to a small community that is forgotten by everyone else. And God blesses the wedding, blesses the whole community. 

It is not about the wine. It is about the blessing. About God’s presence in that moment. Mary seemed to know that with God present at that wedding in Cana, running out of wine was something that Jesus needed to do something about. 

And all of a sudden on the 3rd day of the wedding, when hope was lost, when there was no future… God breaks into the world and provided wine. God meets that community and gives them hope. God creates a new future. 

And if we haven’t recognized it yet, let us be clear. Our 3rd day moment of scarcity is upon us too. 

And here… today…  God is breaking into our world here and now.
God is here among us, here with us wherever we are are.
And God is offering hope.
God is offering us a future.

Even as things feel dire, God offering us life found in the gospel word. The word that finds us today wherever we are. God is meeting us friends and community that have practiced being there for each other, even over a distance, even in the midst of struggle. God is reminding us that we have been here before, and God has weathered the storm with us. God has already shown us the other side, that we do not go forward alone but together with God. 

Sp yes, the wine ran out on the 3rd of wedding at Cana.
Today, our wine, our hope, our self-propelled future is running out. 

But make no mistake. As we gather on the 3rd day, on this Sunday, the Lord’s day,  we  are meant to be reminded of that other 3rd day miracle. 

When life itself seemed to run out, when the life of God in Christ ran out on the cross, the 3rd revealed something new and something unexpected. When all hope was lost, God emerged from the empty tomb. And like the servants drawing the water turned into wine, New abundant life was revealed to us in the most surprising of ways. When we didn’t seem to have a future, God provided new life in the resurrection. 

Here on this 3rd day, here in our world, here in our community, it might feel like we are running out of wine. It might feel like there is no hope and no future. But God is revealing to us the Christ who brings delicious and abundant wine, who fill the jars of our hope, who makes sure that there is future – because Jesus has saved good wine until now, he has saved it for us. 

Christmas Sermon: Christmas Eve at the Lake House – a St. David’s Story

The Gospel according to Luke, the 2nd chapter (2:1-7)

It was December 23rd. Marlena stared out the window at the passing scenery, as the van made its way down the highway. Next to her was her husband Jim. In the back of the van her kids Lizzie, 13 and David, 11. They were watching movies or listening to music or playing video games on their devices. In the middle of that van were family friends Miriam and Jesse, between them was an infant car seat and behind them their 4 year old had nodded off in his carseat. 

There was also a mountain of luggage, groceries and Christmas presents in the cargo area of the van. 

As they zipped down the highway, Marlena spied a very familiar motel. 

“Look Jim! Miriam! Jesse! There it is!”

It was 5 years ago that Marlena and her family had met Jesse and Miriam at a roadside motel in  a Christmas snow storm. 4 year old Christopher had been born on Christmas Eve. Marlena had helped Miriam through the birth while they waited for the ambulance to arrive. The rest of the guests had put together an impromptu Christmas dinner. It was quite the experience. 

Still, they had lost contact after that extraordinary time. But last Christmas, they found each other again, when Jim and and Marlena wound up delivering a Christmas hamper to Jesse and Miriam. After the two families reconnect, Jim gave Jesse a job at his food supplier business and the two families had grown close over the past year. 

Jesse and Miriam weren’t going to have any relatives over the Holidays, so Marlena insisted that they come along for Christmas at the lake house. 

Unlike the blizzard 5 years ago, this year as they drove down the highway, the skies were bright and sunny, the highways clear of ice and snow.

When they pulled up to the lake house, Marlena’s parents met the van in the driveway. The house was more like a large rustic bed and breakfast than small summer cabin. There were rooms for everyone and great room big enough to spread out in, with spacious kitchen and dinning.

Marlena’s parents quickly welcomed Jesse and Miriam, and began fawning over 4 year old Christopher and 1 year old Lilly. The whole crew unpacked the van and settled in to their Christmas abode. 

The next day, the kids played out in the snow, and the adults puttered around the house baking and cooking, wrapping presents, chopping firewood and taking many coffee breaks. Soon they would be ready for Christmas Eve Dinner and church. Marlena’s dad kept the kids entertained with all kinds of grandfatherly antics. Everyone seemed to be settling in for a cozy evening. 

As the sun began to set, the group grazed over a Christmas Eve buffet supper. Jim set up the projector from work and connected his phone, so that they could stream the Christmas Eve Service from St. David’s. Everyone found comfy spots on couches and easy chairs, the kids in Christmas PJs and wrapped in blankets. Jesse lit a roaring fire in the fireplace, and everyone had their own candle (or glow stick depending on age), for the service. 

The procession began at St. David’s. The sanctuary glowed with candles and Christmas garland, with tree lights and gathered congregation. The processional party looked like Angels floating down the aisle, carrying torches and candles. They joined in singing O Come all Ye Faithful with the congregation. After all they had been through in the past 2 years, it finally seemed like a normal, peaceful moment. 

Then all of a sudden the screen and all the lights in the house went dark. There was loud sound outside followed by something that looked like fireworks going off outside. Baby Lily started crying, Christopher rushed to his dad, Marlena’s mom gasped. 

Jim rushed to the front door. 

“The power poll down the street is sparking.” 

Jim and Jesse put on their boots and coats to go out and get a closer look. As they hurried down the road, the air was crisp, the night sky was dark with no clouds, and the snow crunched under their feet. 

They came upon the flashing lights of a power company truck, and they could hear a loud electrical buzz and something that sounded like whip. 

When the truck came into view, they saw the bucket lift was halfway down the ground, and a severed electrical line was sparking and whipping the road. And right in the middle of all was a man in an orange reflective jumpsuit, laying on the ground. 

As Jim stepped closer, he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“That’s a live wire. You need to stay back. Phone 911.” Jesse said seriously.

Jim pulled out his phone and dialled. 

As Jim connected to the 911 operator ,he saw Jesse dart past him into the ditch. Jesse was collecting dead wood and rocks. He found the biggest logs or rock he could carry, and took them over to the far side of the live wire. Began throwing on the back side of the wire to see if could pin it down. He slowly made his way down the wire, until he had most of it trapped like an angry snow snake. 

Then Jesse rushed over to the man laying on the ground. Jim could hear the man moaning. Jesse quickly but carefully checked for broken bones and then hauled the man off the ground and over his shoulder. He carried the power company worker over to Jim. 

Jim and Jesse then carried the man in the orange jump suit between them back to the house, assuring him that an ambulance was on the way. 

Once back at the house, they wrapped him in a blanket and gave him a chair to sit on. 

Jim waited outside and before long the familiar red flashing lights of an ambulance arrived. A couple of burly EMTs knocked on the door. 

One went to check the power company worker, the other one checked in with Jim. 

“Whoever went and covered that power line with logs and rocks was really stupid.” He said. 

“But also brave, because you probably saved this guy’s life,” he said gesturing to the worker. 

Then the EMT furrowed his brow. “Hold on a second, do I know you?” 

Jim looked the name tag on the EMT’s coat – John Shepherd. 

John looked around the house. 

“You are the people from the motel 5 years ago!” 

“And you were the one who made it through the blizzard to take Jesse and Miriam and baby Christopher to the hospital!” Jim said. 

The group greeted and welcomed John Shepherd, reminiscing about the miracle birth in the blizzard 5 years ago, and they all shared where they now. Christopher stood proud and tall, showing how much he had grown. 

“I don’t know if you folks should be together on Christmas anymore “John Shepherd joked. “This is twice that it has brought me trouble.”

They all laughed. 

Soon the EMTs were gone with the worker, and another power company truck was out restoring power. 

Jim grabbed his portable power bank, hooked up the projector and got the Christmas Eve service running again. The fire place kept them more than warm. They picked up with the usual Christmas Eve readings. 

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

The listened to the Christmas story that began “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Caesar Augustus” 

Father Angelo, the priest at St. David’s, reminded them that despite all they had been through in the past two years, that God was still sending light and hope into the world. The same Light and hope that came into the world in the Messiah, the baby born in a manger. 

Finally, it came time to light the candles for Silent Night. As the lights were dimmed in the church, the small flames of candle light began to spread and glow across the sanctuary. The group at the lake house also lit their candles. 

The congregation began singing Silent Night. 

As the families joined in, Miriam helped Christopher hold his candle. Lizzie and David sat with their grandparents, singing intently. Jesse held a sleeping Lily in his arms. 

Marlena and Jim were snuggled next to one another. Marlena leaned back to her husband. 

“Our Christmas night hasn’t been that silent, has it?” She whispered. 

Jim shook his head and smiled. “Something tells me that the first Christmas wasn’t all that silent either, with the manger stalls, travellers in the city, Shepherd from the field, angels singing in the heavens.”

“Maybe the bright lights and drama under the starry night, the unexpected Shepherds and miracles are more like the first Christmas than we really know.” Marlena mused. 

As the service neared its conclusion, Father Angelo gave the blessing:

“May the Christmas Star illuminate your path and show you the light.

May the Miracle Messiah, born this night, reveal God’s grace and mercy given for you. 

May the the incarnate love of God found in the Christ, move us to see the divine in our neighbour. 

And may the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, bless you on this Holy and Joyous night of the Angel’s song and forever more. 

Pastor Thoughts – Christmas Eve and Pandemic Timing

As a kid, Christmas Eve was one of my favourite services of the church year. I can still hear the congregation and choir singing “Glo-o-o-o-ria, in excelsis deo” in 4 parts. I can close my eyes and easily picture the darkened sanctuary, with stained glass dimly glowing in the night. The crowded and full congregation often meaning that we didn’t get to sit in our familiar family pew, but instead a new spot that afforded a new view of proceedings. It was fun to go to church at night for some reason. 

Combine that special service with all the family traditions: our Norwegian menu for Christmas Eve dinner (thankfully Lutefisk was a rare sight), gathering with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, opening presents, singing carols and staying up late!

Christmas Eve was indeed a special night, filled with memories and nostalgia. I am sure many of you feel the same way. 

And then came my first Christmas Eve as a pastor. Things had already been a little dicey. The congregation was used to having a pageant on Christmas Eve, but didn’t have the kids or teachers to pull it off that year. So I was roped into coming up with something, and we decided on the Sunday school kids singing some Christmas carols and reading the nativity gospel. Let me assure you, conducting a kids choir is not a seminary class. Regardless, we practiced and prepared for the big night. 

Knowing that there would be a lot going on, I planned to arrived 15 minutes earlier than I usually did for most Sundays. On my first Christmas Eve, I walked into the church at 5:45 PM for a 7PM service expecting to have a few minutes to myself. Being an hour early most Sundays gave me that opportunity. 

But when I walked over to the church (across the field from the parsonage) the lights were already on, the doors open and several cars already in the parking lot. 

Inside and already sitting in the pews where about 15 people, none of whom I had seen before. This totally threw me. I wasn’t ready to be welcoming and greeting people for over an hour before the service started. We made it through, but it wasn’t my most enjoyable Christmas Eve. 

The next year I got to the church 2 hours early, which left me with 30 minutes to myself, but the night was still a challenge. 

I will confess that, since becoming a pastor, Christmas Eve has taken a sharp fall off my list of favourite services of the year. Most Sundays folks don’t arrive with a complete vision of what is going to happen in worship. And as a pastor it is hard to live up to all those expectations (let alone my own Christmas Eve memories) on the most highly attended service of the year. 

It is also hard to find something to preach that cuts through all that expectation. 

All this adds up to a night that usually fails to live up to my own Christmas Eve desires, and a lot of stress about trying to provide something that meets the desires of others. 

Now, you probably know where I am going with this. 

After last year, when no one’s hopes and dreams for Christmas were met, we find ourselves in a place that we did not expect to be this year. Even just last week, we were pretty sure we were going to get something a whole lot better than watching our computer screens or iPads. Today, as I write this, we are living under a cloud of uncertainty. We have decided to suspend our in-person services.

Once again, this Christmas Eve will not meet the expectations of our memories and nostalgia.  

But a secret that I learned after those first couple of challenging Christmas Eves as a pastor… unmet and unrealized expectations are, in fact, at the heart of the Christmas story. 

The first Christmas was nothing but things not going as folks expected. An unwed teenage mother, a fiancée who was not the father, no room at the inn, shepherds and sheep crashing a birth, and the Messiah born into this mess in the back corner of this supremely unimportant place in the world. 

Leaning into all the ways that this story of Messiah’s birth challenges our expectations and challenges our versions of what Christmas ought to be is sometimes precisely what we need. 

Sure, I would rather just be trying to meet all the regular expectations about Christmas Eve than having to deal with a relentless pandemic with bad timing. 

But I also know that the promised Messiah is born regardless. Born to a people walking in darkness. Born to be our new light in the world. 

If Messiah could be born in a stable in 1st Century Judea, Messiah can meet us wherever we are and how ever we worship on Christmas Eve. 

Advent 4 Sermon – The Messiness of Advent

Luke 1:39-45(46-55)
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.”

We have come to the end of Advent. Advent has been rough this year. We have endured talk of the end times and John the Baptist’s fiery preaching from the river banks.

Finally today, on this last Sunday of Advent things start to sound a little more Christmasy. Elizabeth, a woman thought to be too old to conceive and barren, is pregnant with John. Mary, a virgin still only engaged to be married, is pregnant with the Messiah. 

Today’s story sounds beautiful and picturesque. It is easy for us to imagine two delightfully pregnant women greeting one another lovingly; a scene that makes us smile.

But we forget to consider the struggles these two women are facing. Elizabeth is older than a pregnant woman should be. She and Zechariah will be raising a child in their old age, more like grandparents who have unexpectedly found themselves raising children again. While Mary is a young unmarried teen girl, and her fiancé is not the father of her child. Joseph could call off the marriage off at best… maybe forcing Mary to a life of begging on streets, with a child to care for. At worst, both she and her unborn child could be stoned for adultery. For both women in their day, child birth was dangerous and all too often women would not survive the birth experience without some luck. There is probably more relief than joy while the women greet one another, as Mary has gone with haste to see her cousin, to avoid the judgement of her hometown family and friends.

The story of Mary and Elizabeth is not one of those Christmas movies. Rather it is story full of fear and danger, one that stands in contrast to the Christmas image we generally try to present. Mary and Elizabeth challenge the notion that we usually hold about Christmas: shopping, baking, decorating and hosting. Mary and Elizabeth introduce things we don’t want to talk about this time of year. Fear, danger, shame and uncertainty. 

(Pause)

Marlena’s mind was wandering, thinking about Christmas things. Father Angelo’s voice snapped her back to attention, “These two reveal to us the ways in which the spirit is pregnant with possibilities among us.” Marlena was sitting in the pews at St. David’s, listening to the sermon on the last Sunday before Christmas. 

With her was her husband Jim and to two kids, Lizzie and David. The world had been slowly finding a new equilibrium. Even with masks in church, showing their vaccine passports, sitting one household to a pew… simply being at church with other people was such an improvement over the year before. 

As she began scanning the congregation scattered throughout the amphitheatre style seating, she caught the eyes of a good friend Miriam. Miriam and her family had become quite close to Marlena’s family this past year. Miriam was holding a bouncing one year old girl in her lap while keeping a precocious 4 year old busy in the pew below her. 

Marlena smiled, though she knew that smiling happened mostly with the eyes while wearing a mask. Miriam seemed to be smiling back, but she couldn’t help but look tired. Marlena was too. They all were. 

(Pause)

The real story of Mary discovering that she is pregnant unravels and upsets our vision of the Christmas story. We don’t want Christmas to be like real life, it supposed to something different, or least that is what we hope to create. The perfect and ideal vision of the perfect family preparing for a new baby. This was supposed to be the Christmas that we have been desperately hoping for after our zoom Christmas last year. Yet, once again our plans are disrupted and real life will not come close to matching our expectations, our hopes and dreams. We easily imagine calm and peaceful expectant mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, as if they this is the way the planned to have children all along. 

Just as we imagine our own family gatherings, Christmas parties, and holidays traditions that we used know. But that is our version of Christmas. NOT necessarily God’s. 

God is telling a different story at this time of year. God is telling a real story, about real people. About people who have big problems, and no easy way out. It is about poverty, about unmarried parents, about unwanted babies, about couples too old to raise a child, about judgment and the threat of death. It is about tiresome pandemics, exhausted poeple, a longing for our trials tribulations to be over. And it is about how God’s people respond to fear and danger. 

(Pause)

After church Marlena and Miriam met in the in parking lot. The kids were playing on the windrows that surrounded the cars. Jim and Miriams’ husband Jesse were chatting about work. Marlena looked to her friend. 

“Have you heard from your family yet?:” Marlena asked. 

“They aren’t going to make it.”

“What about Jesse’s family?

“They can’t either.” Said Miriam. 

The two friends looked at each other. 

“Well, then it is settled.” Marlena declared. “You all will come us to the lakehouse.”

“I feel like we are imposing on your family Christmas, we have done that enough already.” Responded Miriam. 

“Nonsense. You are family. Christmas without you would hardly be Christmas.”

(Pause)

Sometimes the real world can get in the way of Christmas. While we try to create perfect memories with seemingly perfect families, God is discarding the rules about pregnancy before marriage in order to send us a messiah. As we stress and worry and prepare for the perfect Christmas, God is sending divine messengers to an old woman and unwed teen mom living in poverty.

God does not wait for the everything to be perfect or to fall into place in order to begin the work of the incarnation. God does not come only when it is safe and there is nothing to fear. God’s activity of taking on our flesh and becoming like us starts now. God comes to us, whether we want God to or not. 

Mary’s and Elizabeth’s real life shoves aside our idyllic nativity scenes, visions of perfect Christmases. Mary and Elizabeth show us a real story about real people. A story about shame, and danger and betrayal. But also a story about mercy, and compassion and grace.

(pause)

Miriam looked at her friend Marlena. 

“Why do you keep taking care of us?” Miriam asked. “Aren’t you tired of us yet? Aren’t we more work than we are worth?”

Marlena laughed. “Ridiculous. We aren’t the ones stuck with you, you are the ones stuck with us. Ever since that roadside motel, when I got to hold newborn Christopher in my arms, when I see the way my kids and Jim come alive with you all. Your family is special to us. I see hope and joy and promise when we are together.”

Miriam sighed. “The spirit pregnant with possibilities, just like Father Angelo said, I guess.” 

The two friends smiled and laughed, and this time they could see each others’ faces. 

(pause)

For when Mary gets past the shame of pregnancy before marriage, when she get spast the fear of death for adultery, she with her husband to be Joseph, with her elderly cousins Elizabeth and Zechariah, they all become guardians of God’s promise, bearers of the Good News made flesh. 

And it is the same for us, when our fears and worries get out in the way, when we can’t see what God is up to. God comes anyways.  And God bears grace and mercy for the world in us. God makes us the messengers of the Good News of God’s love and compassion for all. God sends Messiah to frightened world.  

And because of what God is doing, with Mary, we can sing:

“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.”