Advent Thoughts

Its already the second Sunday of Advent, supposedly a time of waiting, but it seems sometimes more like the slide that sends us straight into Christmas, with more activities and events than any other time of year. Waiting should be long and maybe even a little uncomfortable, shouldn’t it?

I remember, as a teenager, waiting for rides to events at the church, at the end of our long drive-way. Being on time  (read: early) was bred into me, so I would usually be out at the highway well in advance of the expected arrival time. Being on time was not necessarily bred into the young man who picked me up in an aging Dodge pick-up truck. I would look with longing down the road to the corner he would come out of, scrutinizing every set of headlights, trying to identify his. He almost always came eventually, but I was more often than not wet, or completely snow covered, by the time he finally pulled to a stop in front of me.

I do wonder now, why it was that it was my responsibility to be at the end of that driveway, rather than his to come up and get me. None the less, I waited a lot (at least two nights a week). It was never comfortable and it was never quick. It was waiting which, from time to time, ended in a disappointed walk back up the drive-way with the nagging feeling I hadn’t started waiting soon enough.

If advent is really about waiting, maybe it shouldn’t be parked in front of the busyness of Christmas with its rush of activities, services, and obligations, overflowing it’s banks to totally erode the waiting of Advent. Maybe Advent should happen in the dog days of summer, when the kids are more than ready to go back to school and boredom has set up camp in the back yard.  Then, maybe, we could really appreciate and experience waiting.

Sermon 1st Sunday of Christmas 2014

Luke 2:29-32

We’re in an odd place today aren’t we? The excitement of Christmas is still fresh in our memories. The songs, the favorite carols have been sung. A few of you may still have celebrations planned, but on the whole Christmas is past and we sit in this no man’s land between that month long celebration and the coming of the New Year. Some of you may have thought seriously about staying home today, feeling like there had been enough gathering, enough singing, enough scripture to take you to the end of the year.

We might feel a little like that about Luke today as well. He, of all the gospels spends the most time in Jesus birth and childhood. It takes the Gospel of Mark only 250 words to introduce Jesus and get to his time of teaching. Luke takes ten times as many words.

If we were making the film of Jesus early life the scene we read this morning would likely be cut out, left on the cutting room floor. It doesn’t build excitement like a sky full of angels, it doesn’t tug at heartstrings like the thought of a young mom giving birth in a dark, cold stable, it doesn’t make good fodder for a Christmas pageant, who wants to play the really old people holding a baby. It doesn’t work well on a Christmas card either. It just seems, well, out of place, redundant.

And maybe that is the reason we would cut this piece. Sure the young mom is here, with her husband carrying a couple of dead doves. The baby is here too, and we all love babies, they exude love, we want to hold them, cuddle them. But old people? Old people don’t get to having starring roles very often, putting them here in this passage, lovingly preserving their interaction with this little family group, makes us wonder what Luke is up to, why bother with this story.

Now, it’s true that we really don’t know much about these two, we can’t even say for sure that Simeon was old; it seems he might be because of his words about death and dying, about being dismissed, in fact the NRSV makes it sound like he is going to be dismissed shortly.

Anna we do know something about, she is very old, eighty four years old, in Ancient Israel this is very, very, very old and she has been a widow for most of those years. Luke calls her a prophet, in an age when prophets have become extinct.  In this label he shows her to have a special link to God, a special gift but also a link to a past age.

Both of these folks represent the old guard, they represent the people of the Old Testament, the old covenant, and as such we don’t expect them to be the ones to usher in, to welcome a new era. We expect them to be at the forefront of standing up for tradition, likely from the quiet comfort of a chair at home. We expect Simeon and Anna to have found their groove, to be comfortable with the way things are, rather than looking for change in the future. We expect them to be the ones hoping for things to stay the same, because they have figured out how to live with the same. We would not have been at all surprised to have had Luke tell us the story of a group of students welcoming Jesus, maybe having a bit of a demonstration, some stone throwing at the Romans and at their own leaders, some slogan shouting, maybe a camp-out in front of the temple.  We expect the old guard to be safe, quietly disapproving at home, lobbying for the status quo.

We expect this, because we see it in ourselves and in those around us. I know it’s a huge, unfair generalization, but as we get older, we seem to be more and more attached to the status quo, more interested in stability than change. We are more likely to judge what will happen tomorrow by what happened today, and are more likely to hope that is true. I see it in myself as I move into, and somewhat beyond middle age. I’m less likely to get excited about issues, less likely to feel like changing the world either on my own or as part of a group. I feel more disposed to coasting, to letting sleeping dogs lie, to recognizing that this is just the way the world is and forming my life around it.

But, this isn’t the way it should be is it? The Bible gives no examples of retirement, no examples of backing off from the work of kingdom bringing, no examples of complacently accepting the status quo in a world where the status quo is a long way from the way things should be. It gives no examples of tenaciously holding on to the past.

No, in fact Jesus calls us to be salt and light in the world, calls us to be agents of change. What does he say about salt that loses it’s saltiness, loses its ability to change the food it’s added to? It is thrown out.  There is no place in the kingdom for those who stop being agents of change in the world

Simeon and Anna model this for us today.

Simeon had opened himself to the working of the Holy Spirit

Anna had spent years waiting in the temple, waiting to welcome the messiah, waiting to welcome a new age, an age of God with us.

I wonder what they expected to see. Did they expect this Messiah to come in an expensive carriage with an entourage of nurses, footmen, and guards. Did they expect his coming to be so filled with pomp and ceremony that an old man and an old woman would be little more than excited spectators held back from the child by an over protective security detail.

Did they expect a baby at all? I actually doubt that they did. They were more likely expecting to meet the messiah, fully formed, full grown, showing power, and majesty, with a large group of followers giving him honour, listening to his every word.

I think they were likely surprised when the Holy Spirit tickled them awake and pointed them at a poor family group, father, mother and child, coming into the temple alone, almost anonymously. I’m sure they looked past the couple as they they studied the doorway of the temple, looking for something more impressive, more Messiah like.  I’m sure there was a bit of incredulity in both their faces.

“Are you sure Spirit?” Simeon may have said, “Are you sure this is the one who is going to save us from our sins, the one who is going to set up a kingdom, God’s Kingdom, on earth” “He’s just a poor little baby, There is no power here” “I think I’ll just sit down again in my comfortable chair and wait for my picture of the Messiah to appear and while I wait, I’ll just stick with the old laws, the old ways, for a while longer They have worked for centuries now and this baby doesn’t look like he’ll be changing them any time soon, if ever.

And Anna, roused by the spirit from a short nap may have looked around in confusion, wondering why the spirit had poked her and seeing the little family group may have had to have an argument with herself about whether to get up or not, because getting up, recognizing this little one was going to change the rest of her life, going to the temple to watch would no longer be required. Her life’s routine was about to be ruined.

Of course, Luke doesn’t tell us anything about what they thought, or whether or not they argued with themselves, or with God, about approaching this unlikely couple carrying a month and a half old baby and speaking over the child, celebrating the child, celebrating God’s grace in the world.

What he does tell us is that the spirit nudged these two and they responded with gladness. They opened themselves to the change that was coming, the change they had been actively waiting for a long time. They may have been surprised, maybe even a little disappointed, that the Messiah was appearing as a baby but they accepted that God’s ways are not always our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. They understood that God’s grace doesn’t often come in the package we imagine. They were willing to let go of the past, the old covenant and look forward with hope toward the new one.

For Simeon it is the culminating experience of his life

“Lord, now you are letting your servant[d] depart in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31     that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

For him, peace didn’t mean finishing one more business deal, seeing one more grandchild, presiding over one more family celebration, no seeing God’s salvation in a little child was all he needed. It was all he needed to fully embrace the change which was coming to the world, to fully embrace the Christ Child and all that meant.

He predicts that the coming of this child will be difficult for many, he prophesies “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed.” This is not the easy path that we might expect the old guard to hang on to. No, Simeon predicts turmoil, and opposition in the wake of Gods grace coming into the world. He even, I’m sure with tenderness and a tear in his eye predicts the heartbreak Mary, this young mother, will suffer as she watches her wonderful son humiliated and finally crucified.

And Anna, she begins to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. She at her advanced age she becomes an evangelist sharing the good news of what God is doing in the world.

Both Simeon and Anna respond to the coming of the Messiah, the movement from the old covenant, to the new covenant, a new way of interacting with God, with gladness, with excitement, the testimony that this is the most exciting thing that has ever happened in their lives. In fact, for them nothing will be more exciting. They greet the messiah with open arms.

And we are called today to do the same. Today on this Sunday stranded between celebrations, this Sunday that seems mundane, we are called to look beyond our traditions, our comfort zones, and see the wonders God has done. Coming into the world as Emmanuel, God with us, continues to be the cause of the rising and falling of many, it continues to be a sign that is opposed, it continues to push us out of our comfort zones, continues to push us away from the old covenant where we thought we could do something to bring about our own salvation to a new covenant where our salvation is freely given.

This coming into the world is still not spectacular, it shows itself in unexpected, often surprising ways. We are called to watch, to wait, and to be ready to act.

All of us are called to this, not just those of us who are older who may be holding strongly to the past, for the sake of the past, wishing for things to revert to the way they were because we think they were better, making a god out of history, and tradition, but also those for whom change has become the god, who lobby for change for the sake of change. All of us are called to recognize that God has made, and continues to make a change in the world. That the kingdom of God is continuing to break into our world and into our lives.

The coming of God into the world as an unlikely weak baby, in the skin of a child, to save us from our sins is the greatest thing this world has ever seen. God continues to break into the world, even today, in quiet and even mundane ways. Like Simeon and Anna we are to be watching for these God moments, open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, ready to rejoice in each sighting, and prepared to alter the course of our lives to join the one who is bringing change to the world.

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There were Shepherds

I just submitted this to the local newspaper for their Christmas edition and thought I would share it here as well.

This late 15th-century Flemish miniature shows the annunciation to the shepherds.

This late 15th-century Flemish miniature shows the annunciation to the shepherds.

Sometime during this Christmas season, all of us will hear the familiar story of the angels and the shepherds.  The picture of the shepherds living in the fields with their flocks, and the visit of the angels to bring them the good news of the birth of the Christ child, brings with it a sense of romance, of excitement, of the unexpected.

We need to wonder though, why God decided to let the shepherds be the first to hear this good news. It might be because Jesus was born in the middle of the night, and they were the only ones awake. It might be because they wandered from place to place and would provide the best social network, since the internet had not yet been invented. It could be that the angels, like some of the angels we see in movies, got their directions mixed up, and ended up in the fields, rather than downtown Bethlehem, but, told their story anyway.  All of these things could be, but I don’t think they are.

God chose these shepherds to hear this news, this good news, very deliberately.  Shepherds were likely on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. They had the hopeless, dead end job, of watching sheep while the owners of those sheep slept soundly in their warm beds. They worked the midnight shift seven days a week, with little chance of ever actually owning a sheep themselves. They were out in all weather, and when they did get to town, they were not welcomed into the more prosperous homes; they had no place in the more upright, deserving parts of society.  Their lives were hard, they were looked down on, they had little hope and virtually no way to better themselves.

It is to these folks, on the edge of society, God sends his angelic messengers with words of hope. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” For centuries the people of Israel had waited for, longed for, the coming of the Messiah, and now, when he has finally come, God chooses to announce the news to undeserving poor shepherds, first. It happens this way to let everyone know that this good news really is for all people, and not just for those who seem to deserve it. God has come to earth as a child and is turning everything upside down, beginning with the announcement of his birth.

This good news first shared with the shepherds is good news for us today as well. We want to somehow bring our sense of deserving into the picture at Christmas time. We tell our children about Santa keeping lists of who has been naughty or nice and warn them that their place on those lists will affect how Santa rewards them on Christmas Day. Christ’s coming into the world, has nothing to do with our being entitled to anything. He comes as a free gift, the first Christmas gift, a gift of love to a world without hope.

The shepherds went to see if the wonderful news was true and they found a baby, wrapped in a few rags, lying in a feed bunk. This news of hope, of love, is as alive today as it was on that first Christmas.  Do not be afraid, there is good news, a Savior has been born to us, the Messiah has come!

December 1 2012

Today is December 1. Any of the readers of this blog, who also follow This Dusty House, already know about the long standing, Scrooge-like, tradition of refusing to acknowledge Christmas until December 1st at the earliest.

20121201_143011So, today we did the minimalist bit of decorating that we do. A garland with lights went onto the porch railing and a big wreath beside the front door. I took the tree bag off the fully decorated artificial tree in the fruit cellar, carried it upstairs, put it in the front window, and plugged it in. A smaller tree, made of barbed wire (sounds redneck, but it is really quite nice) came out from under a bag as well, and is now sitting in the living room beside the woodstove.20121201_143112

I think J might do a bit more with a garland on the upstairs railing and some decorations on the dining room chairs. She claims I don’t have the proper level of finesse to do those jobs. She’s likely right.

We’ve decorated enough to show we are not ignoring the season, enough to help cheer up the neighbourhood, but not so much that you would wonder if we have totally missed the point of, the reason for, the season.