Sermon by Justin Beatty, MPC Youth Director
Before we begin, I have one small, clerical matter to attend to:
As you may have noticed, the passage that was read this morning is different than the passage noted in your bulletins.
well, I was going to do a sermon on the angels coming and proclaiming Jesus’ birth to the shepherds,
and last week I had the whole thing written,
I was gonna talk about the shepherds being interrupted during their night watch,
and about how the shepherds’ socio-economic status was indicative of Jesus coming to save everyone,
and then last Sunday I came to church,
and I heard an excellent sermon about the angels coming and proclaiming Jesus’ birth to the shepherds,
about the shepherds being interrupted during their night watch,
and about how the shepherds’ socio-economic status was indicative of Jesus coming to save everyone.
My guess is that many of you heard that sermon as well.
So I went back into build mode,
and tried to cook up a little something that’d be a little less repetitive.
And to be honest,
I know what was in the other sermon, and Deb’s was better.
I didn’t have anything half as good as the thing with Linus and his blanket.
This sermon’s better than that one too, by the way,
so the whole thing was actually quite fortunate.
Anyway, we pick up the story with Jesus making his debut into Jewish religious society.
As part of the rituals of Levitical law,
a woman who had given birth was considered to be unclean,
as was her baby,
for religious purposes for a period of 40 days (80 if she had a girl, I don’t know why it’s different).
At the end of that period,
the woman and the baby present themselves in the temple to be declared ritually pure,
at which point they can be involved in religious ceremonies again.
As you might expect,
knowing what had happened in Jesus’ life so far,
a heavenly host of angels telling shepherds that the Son of God had been born,
this particular purification brought with it a lot more commotion than most did.
During their visit, the holy family comes across two prophets.
Now, I’ll pick up the story in a minute,
but first I have some news,
I have some good news, and some bad news.
I’ll give you the good news first and then the bad news because,
well because the whole thing here, it just really flows a lot better that way…
The good news is, we all made it.
We’ve made it through the hectic shopping season,
we’ve made it through all of the Christmas parties,
we’ve made it through all of the herding children and grandparents from far off places to spend the holidays together.
We’ve made it through all the baking,
we’ve made it through all the mailing of the Christmas cards,
we’ve made it through all the wrapping of the presents,
and through all of the cleaning up of the wrapping paper that gets left strewn out all over the floor.
We’ve made it through the holidays.
I turned 30 this year,
people tell me that makes me old,
and now that I’m a crotchety old man I’m starting to have a different perspective on various things.
When you’re a kid,
you never really think about the holidays as something to “get through”,
right, the last couple weeks of school is what you get through so you can get to the holidays,
but Christmas itself?
Nah man, that’s something you want to savor,
make it last forever.
But as an adult, the advent season has become so hectic for so many of us,
that a lot of the people that I talk to during this time, they just can’t wait until they can make it to Christmas evening, or even to Boxing Day, when they can celebrate all the craziness of the month of December coming to an end.
Now, there’s a lot of things about that that are problematic,
what with the birth of Christ getting overrun with rampant commercialism,
the original intent of remembering how the people were waiting for the birth of the Christ being drowned out by an all-encompassing countdown of “shopping days until Christmas”.
I mean really, how many of us even have time for waiting during advent season anymore, what with the business Christmas parties, the family Christmas parties, the friend Christmas parties, the pageants all the pageants, and I mean you have to go because your uncle’s college roommate’s cousin-twice-removed’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter has a solo, am I right?
It really is no wonder that we’re all just trying to make it through Christmas,
when all the madness ends.
And to be fair, Christmas does signify the end of something.
It is the end of Advent,
the end of the waiting.
And we can see this ending of the period of waiting within the stories of the two prophets who see Jesus.
Simeon has been living out his own personal Advent season,
and not just for four weeks, but for…
well… it doesn’t really say for how long, but the inflection in the print makes it feel like it’s been a long time,
don’t you agree?
He has been waiting for the coming of the salvation of the Lord,
something God has told him he will see before he dies,
and it kind of sounds like he’s ready to go.
she’s been waiting,
spending all her days in worship, praying, fasting, waiting, not leaving the temple,
waiting for the day when she would see the glory of the Lord present among us.
And for both these people,
their season of waiting has come to an end.
But it’s not the end of the story,
and here’s where I have to share that bad news I was telling you about earlier.
We tend to look forward to this time,
after Christmas, after Advent.
Because now all the hectic insanity that has become associated with Christmas is over,
and we think we can finally get some rest.
or not sadly what am I talking about?
Advent may be over, but in many ways Advent is really just the prologue, now is when the real story begins,
now is when the real adventures begin,
the real work.
This is the story of Jesus going to the temple of the first time,
through the purification ceremony he is beginning life within the context of Jewish religion and society in earnest,
this is the mark of the beginning of his real journey,
the journey that will see him baptized by John,
the journey of his three years of ministry in Galilee and Jerusalem,
and the journey that will eventually take him to the cross on Calvary,
and in this story, we get a little taste of what is to come.
Simeon prophesies for the holy family,
he tells them a little bit about what is ahead for the little baby Jesus.
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the thoughts of many will be revealed--
and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Now, prophecies can sometimes be a little opaque,
but that sure doesn’t sound like rest to me.
This story marks the beginning of the life and in some ways the ministry of Jesus,
and it can be seen as marking the beginning of our taking part with Jesus in that life in ministry.
We are called to live like Jesus right?
Well this is where that living starts.
We can see this in the reaction that the prophetess Anna has when she first comes in contact with Jesus.
She had spent all that time waiting,
in the temple all of her days,
but when the Savior came the waiting came to an end,
and she leaves the temple and goes out amongst the people,
praising God, and spreading the good news,
just as the angels in last week’s sermon did.
It is at this point,
that for the first time in many years,
Anna began to truly start living again.
The advent season is great,
I believe that,
waiting is all well and good,
but if we are not careful, then we will start to become consumed by that waiting.
It’s like Morgan Freeman says in The Shawshank Redemption,
you either get busy living, or get busy dying.
I’m not saying that Anna wasn’t a devout woman,
or that her intentions weren’t good,
or that her actions weren’t good,
fasting? i mean, i’ve never tried it, but good,
being in the temple, or church? good.
But it seems to me that she might have fallen into the trap,
that she’s become so consumed by waiting,
she spends all her time waiting,
that she has forgotten to really live until now.
Then the thing that she has been waiting for finally happens,
and she is finally free to live life to the fullest,
and she does live life fully.
She no longer has her eyes fixed on the future,
all the while life passing her by,
at long last she can start to live the life that God has intended her to live all along.
It’s like a great man…puppet…whatever…once said,
“long this one have I watched,
always his mind on the future,
never focused on where he was,
What he was doing.”
God doesn’t want us to spend so much time waiting on something that happens in the future that we miss all the wonderful things that are happening in the present.
A jedi craves not these things,
and neither should we.
And again, I truly appreciate the season of Advent,
I just wanna make that clear.
I believe in the value in taking some time to sit and wait for the coming of the Lord,
but at the same time,
I believe in and can sense the excitement of this season,
the season when the time for work,
the time for us to be a part of God’s kingdom,
whether that means getting in a Bible Study or a small group,
or volunteering for Operation Nightwatch or the Ballard Food Bank,
or something that you’re uniquely qualified to think of and put into action,
now’s the time for that,
for when we can start to focus on our lives in Christ again.
You know this Advent season has been particularly special for me.
Not only does it mark the period where we contemplating waiting for Jesus’ birth, and awaiting the day when he comes back again like every year,
but it also marks the end of another period of waiting for me,
a day that I have been waiting for,
with equal parts excitement and trepidation,
for a long long time.
Specifically since October 30, 2012.
I am speaking, of course, of the opening of Star Wars, Episode VII, The Force Awakens, in theaters across the country.
And I was so excited,
It just so happens I had never seen a real Star Wars movie in theaters before,
because, and let me be absolutely clear on this,
nothing that George Lucas has done since 1989 counts.
No, Greedo never shot first,
no, there was never a gungun named Jar-Jar Binks,
and no, no no, Indiana Jones never,
came into contact with aliens.
I digress, I’ve spent years hoping that J.J. Abrams was going to do the three, THAT’S THREE, canonical films justice,
I spent months avoiding spoilers,
I bought my tickets weeks ago,
and last weekend it was time.
I went to the theater, and sat in my little seat, with my big bucket of popcorn,
and sat through the little entertainment thing they play before the movies,
and the previews before the film,
see even then it was more waiting.
But then the lights went out,
and that little Lucasfilm studio card went up on the screen,
and then that majestic John Williams score, you know the one, filled the room,
and the waiting was over,
but the movie, the adventure, the excitement was just beginning.
And while I enjoyed the waiting, the anticipation, the build-up,
I am so glad, that now the experience has started.
Pray with me:
Thank you for giving us the Advent season to sit and wait on you,
but thank you as well that Advent is over,
and the season to take part in your work in this world has started.
I pray that you would be with all of us,
and guide us as we take part in the experience.
We’ve been looking at angel stories in the early chapters of Luke’s gospel this past month, beginning with Zechariah, a priest in the temple, and then moving to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Each one was visited by the angel Gabriel. To each one Gabriel announced the birth of a baby in extremely unusual circumstances – Zechariah and Elizabeth being quite advanced in years, and young Mary being a virgin. By the time we turn to today’s text, later on in Luke 2, both John (Zechariah and Elizabeth’s baby) and Jesus (Mary and Joseph’s baby) have been born. And now it’s time to spread the best news of all. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11) Perhaps we should expect, by this point in the story, that if there is important news to be delivered, God will send an angel for the job. And today’s text does not disappoint.
In fact, while the two stories of angelic pronouncements in Luke 1 feature an individual angel, Luke 2 pulls out all the stops with not just one angel appearing, but a great many – an entire heavenly host!
And I love the other narrative details Luke supplies here. There are the local shepherds, out in the fields just minding their own business, watching over their flock by night, in other words, doing their job. I wonder if a contemporary equivalent would be night watchmen, or one of those construction crews whose task it is to work on the freeway all night to minimize the impact of their work on daytime traffic? At any rate, picture those whose job it is to work outside in the middle of the night. And suddenly, “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” If you’ve been around for the last couple of sermons, you can guess what happened next. The angel said to them – what did the angel say? … Right: “Fear not” / “Do not be afraid.” In this case, “Do not be afraid; for see – I bring you good news of great joy to all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
Notice, too, that “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” A couple of weeks ago, I pulled out all of our favorite children’s Christmas books for the season, and one of them had a really striking illustration of this part of the story. Rather than a human looking angel, this one had a full page spread of bright white light, with just a hint of angel wings around the edges. “An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” The Old Testament Scriptures offer us all kinds of light imagery to accompany the glory of God. God’s radiance is pictured in a burning bush, in a pillar of fire, in Moses’ shining face when he talks to God at Sinai. So the shepherds are out there in the dark – perhaps huddled around a small fire to keep warm, and suddenly: BAM! Floodlights! No wonder they were terrified. But then those comforting words: Do not be afraid. This is God’s light you see, shining in the darkness. And here is good news of great joy.
Why does the news come first to shepherds, do you suppose? You’ve got to figure that whoever heard first would pretty quickly run and tell what they’ve just seen and heard. God’s heavenly messengers are essentially appointing earthly messengers, at this point in the story. So where would shepherds, in that day and age, be spreading their good news? They certainly didn’t have an all-access pass to the halls of power. They hardly hobnobbed among the rich and famous. In fact, shepherds weren’t even welcomed in regular people’s homes. They were considered dirty and disreputable. So if shepherds come running to Bethlehem, to spread the word about the birth of this incredible baby who was also the Son of God, who would they tell, while those who were better-off bolted their doors? I imagine it was other poor and vulnerable folks, perhaps even those living on the streets. Isn’t that a beautiful image? The last and the least already – in the very first hours of Jesus’ life – getting a chance to be first, for a change.
Of course, we are all included too. The best news of all, delivered by the angels, is that the Christ child is born for every last one of us, no matter our situation. Remember - the “good news of great joy” the angels bring is “for all people.”
And speaking of large audiences, I feel we’d be remiss today if we didn’t invoke that most eloquent interpreter of Luke 2, Linus van Pelt. If you’re a fan of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as I am, you may even know this part of the story nearly by heart, from the King James Version:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
I’m indebted to blogger Jason Soroski for a rather brilliant insight about that scene, where Linus walks onto the stage, and quotes those verses in the spotlight. Soroski talks about memorizing that same section of Luke’s gospel for a pageant of his own at school one year. “But,” he says, “while working so diligently to learn those lines, there is one important thing I didn’t notice then, and didn’t notice until now. Right in the middle of speaking, Linus drops the blanket.” He continues:
"Charlie Brown is best known for his uniquely striped shirt, and Linus is most associated with his ever-present security blanket. Throughout the story of Peanuts, Lucy, Snoopy, Sally and others all work to no avail to separate Linus from his blanket. And even though his security blanket remains a major source of ridicule for the otherwise mature and thoughtful Linus, he simply refuses to give it up.
Until this moment. When he simply drops it.
... Most telling is the specific moment he drops it: when he utters the words, “fear not.”
You’re not alone if you want to go back and watch it again now. I sure did. And he’s absolutely right. Linus walks onto that stage with his blanket held tightly, speaking his lines with great seriousness, but right in that instant when he gets to the angelic “fear not,” the blanket suddenly slips to the floor, and Linus’ face lights up. Soroski says:
"Looking at it now, it is pretty clear what Charles Schultz was saying through this, and it’s so simple it’s brilliant. The birth of Jesus separates us from our fears… The birth of Jesus allows us to … drop the false security we have been grasping so tightly, and learn to trust and cling to [God] instead.
The world of 2015 can be a scary place, and most of us find ourselves grasping something temporal for security, whatever that thing may be…2015 is a world in which it is very difficult for us to “fear not.”
But in the midst of fear and insecurity, this simple cartoon image from 1965 continues to live on as an inspiration for us to seek true peace and true security in the one place it has always been and can always still be found".
He makes a good point. “Sore afraid” we may well be, at this juncture in the history of our nation, of our world. Glance at the news on any given day and you can come away as terrified as those shepherds were. “Sore afraid” we may be from individual, personal troubles too. Anything from medical difficulties to financial challenges to family conflicts can leave us shaking in our shoes.
It’s easy to worry, to fear and fret, to channel our inner Charlie Brown – remember his pantaphobia? The fear of everything? But hard as the media may try, as hard as the politicians may try to keep you in fearful Charlie Brown mode, I challenge you to look instead to Linus this Christmas. To hear again his angelic “Fear Not!” No more pantaphobia, people of God. Enough.
Fear not, for here is good news of great joy for all people. Unto us all is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Fear not, for God has come to be with us, Emmanuel.
Frederick Buechner reminds us that the beautiful 23rd Psalm, the one that begins “The Lord is my shepherd,” also includes the powerful line “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” The psalmist “does not pretend that evil and death do not exist. Terrible things happen, and they happen to good people as well as bad people. Even the paths of righteousness lead to the valley of the shadow. Death lies ahead for all of us, saints and sinners alike, and for all the ones we love. The psalmist doesn’t try to explain evil. He doesn’t try to minimize evil. He simply says he will not fear evil. For all the power that evil has, it doesn’t have the power to make him afraid.”
The good news is that God’s messengers, God’s angels, can find us even in our darkest, most fearful moments. That is God’s light you see, shining in the darkness. So put down your blanket – even if only for a moment – and celebrate with us this good news of great joy.
Luke’s angels have been saying it to us all season long. So Linus must be right.
Fear not! God is here.
And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
 Jason Soroski, “Just Drop the Blanket,” blog entry for December 3, 2015
 from Secrets in the Dark.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Dates don’t always converge for us quite this beautifully, but what a great week to talk about Mary’s “here am I” to the angel Gabriel, when on ordination / installation Sunday we’ll soon be celebrating a group of new officers who’ve said “here am I” to the call to serve our church in the new year.
We’re focusing on angels this Advent, prompted by this beautiful new angel banner that was unveiled for the first time last week. Its design, visually tied in with the hills of Bethlehem over on the right hand banner, reminds us of the connection between angels’ pronouncements and really all of the important action in the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel.
We began last week with the story of the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah while he served as a priest in the temple. Gabriel comes bringing good news from God: Zechariah and his wife, who have for so many years longed for a child, shall have one. Advanced age is no problem for the God who works wonders and brings hope to hopeless places. Zechariah naturally has a bit of trouble believing the angel’s words. And he’s struck speechless for the duration of his wife’s pregnancy – a really odd piece of the story – but the angel’s promise comes true. Elizabeth and Zechariah become parents for the first time, late in life, and onto the scene comes baby John, who will later be known as John the Baptist.
Today we read of Mary’s encounter with the same angel. Once again Gabriel appears on the scene with big news, coupled with those familiar angelic words of comfort: “Do not be afraid.” The big news here is that young Mary, a virgin, will conceive a son, and his name will be called Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.
There are so many things that could be said, and have been said, about Mary’s angel story here in Luke. This particular time through it, I’ve been most struck by the three-part movement of her response to Gabriel.
First, “how can this be?” Young she might have been, but Mary’d clearly been told where babies come from. This was hardly the usual way! Her “how can this be?” in verse 34 seems to continue her confusion back in verse 29, where she is “much perplexed by [Gabriel’s] words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Sometimes God’s promises surprise and startle us. Sometimes God seems to work in our lives in really strange ways. Even if none of our particular surprises from God ever reach the level of magnitude of Mary’s, it’s natural to wonder sometimes, when we sense God at work: “how can this be?” Fair question, Mary.
Next, having received what we’d have to admit is rather minimal explanation of the particulars from the angel Gabriel – “the Holy Spirit will overshadow me? Um, ok…” – Mary moves on with impressive courage and resolve to her famous answer: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” While there is still much she does not understand, she does understand this is an important calling, a mission from God, and she responds with a willing faith. “Let’s do this, God. I’m in.”
Frederick Buechner captures the instant just before her response beautifully, in his description of the encounter between Mary and her angelic messenger:
"She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”
In the illustration that accompanies this entry in Buechner’s book, Peculiar Treasures, he shows Gabriel crossing his fingers, behind those great golden wings. An awful lot hinged on her answer! But Mary bravely said yes to this remarkable challenge. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Though as the story continues, she actually does far more than say yes, doesn’t she? She sings this beautiful song, recounted for us in verses 46-55, making clear she understands that the mission she’s just accepted isn’t just about her.
She’s honored to have been chosen to play such an important role in God’s story, and certainly that leads her to rejoice – a poor, young woman whom from now on all generations would call blessed! Zechariah and Elizabeth at least had impressive credentials, both being from priestly houses. Who was Mary, to be given such an important role to play? But young Mary somehow also knows that even this is only the beginning of the amazing good news to come.
And so she sings. She sings of tremendous role reversals coming one day, when the proud and powerful will be brought low, and the poor and lowly raised up. She sings of the hungry being filled with good things and of the rich being sent away empty-handed. A whole new world order is about to be brought into being, with the birth of her child, and it’s such good news for those who struggle and suffer, for those who can barely scrape a meal together, for those with whom polite society would never deign to share a table. I just love that no sooner has she celebrated her own good news, than Mary looks around her to see how many others can benefit from God’s promises.
I pray that our new officers – and all of us – will find inspiration in Mary’s example. In what sorts of situations might God be inviting us to move from a wondering “how can this be?” to a brave “here am I,” a willingness to serve God, questions and all? And where might we be called to move beyond even the “here am I” to noticing who else could benefit from God’s promises? Who around us is struggling, is hurting, and how might we play a part in God’s lifting them up?
Granted, Mary’s song can make us a little uncomfortable, we who are warm and cozy, we who have safe homes and plenty to eat. No need to upset the social balance on our account, God, thanks all the same. But it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to think of places where Mary’s words would be received as tremendously good news. In refugee camps in Africa and Europe and the Middle East, for instance. Among flood victims in India. Or in Tent City 5 just down the hill.
The lovely thing about being called to do God’s work in the world is that it doesn’t require us to have all the answers. “How can this be?” is something we’re all going to wonder at times. Questions come with the territory, in our life of faith. But to serve God all that’s really required is a willingness to say “here I am, Lord,” and to put ourselves to work. Looking around and asking: where is my story with God about more than just me? Where might there be an invitation to bring others in on God’s good news? Who else gets in on these promises?
With brave young Mary, let’s sing like people who know God cares for all God’s children. And let’s look around for ways to live out our songs. God’s kingdom is coming, after all. God’s work is already underway. It’s just a question of whether we want to be part of the excitement.
So, what do you say?
How about: Here are we, the servants of the Lord. Let’s do this, God! We’re in!
 Frederick Buechner, “Gabriel” in Peculiar Treasures, p. 39