“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
So starts the gospel of John
Tonight on this Christmas eve,
we gather to welcome the light into the world
in the form of a baby
born to people and in a place
that virtually assured this baby would not be noticed.
And yet thousands of years later
here we are,
because of that baby,
the light of the world.
Christians have long used the imagery of light
to represent God and all that is related to God.
It is no accident that the celebration of Jesus’ entry into the world
falls at the darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere
where Christianity had its beginnings,
at this time of year,
when light is absent
we are keenly aware
of just how much life depends on light
and we eagerly await the lengthening of days
because we know that with the passage of time t
he light will come back
just as we know that the sun will come up each morning.
In the same way we as Christians
trust that Jesus the light of the world
no matter how dark or hopeless the world seems,
though we’re not as sure of the timing
we set our hope on the return of the light.
Now before we go any farther
we need to pause and remember
that God created the night as well as the day,
no one image can fully capture the reality of God,
all images have their failings
and the failing of this one
is that if we take it too far
we start to imagine that everything light is good
and everything dark is bad.
This is not Star Wars
with a clearly defined light side and dark side
corresponding to good and evil,
God’s creation is far more complex and beautiful than that.
However, it is undeniable
that an absence of light
provides cover for those who do not wish their actions to be noticed
because those actions serve only themselves
rather than the good of God’s whole creation
and truth be told
sometimes these actions are made in broad daylight
but those who witness them either think that nothing is wrong
or they are afraid to tell others for any number of reasons.
Jesus the light of the world
promises that in the end,
everything will be revealed.
In the gospel of Matthew he tells his disciples
“nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (10:26)
We are in a time where things are being uncovered
and the light is spreading,
revealing that which has been hidden or protected by fear.
This is not always comfortable,
if we are used to being in the dark
and the light switch is flipped on suddenly
and we are unprepared
it hurts our eyes
but only for a moment
once they adjust
we can see things much clearer than before
and that momentary pain is worth the clarity the light brings.
God knew that it might be too much to handle
if everything was revealed all at once
so God started with a small spark of light.
It only takes a small spark
to turn into a flame
that has the power to reveal the way through a darkened room,
or as we’ll find later illumine words on a page,
if nurtured and fed
that flame will create more and more light
finding its way to places where light has long been absent,
revealing what has long been hidden
bringing warmth and life.
The small spark that began to reveal God
is the baby in the manger we celebrate tonight,
noticed at first only by his parents
and then some awestruck shepherds
who had angelic help to point the way.
But that light grew,
nurtured by his parents and community
until the time came to start spreading the light,
and even then it spread slowly,
first to fishermen and others to whom the world paid little attention
and then to more and more people,
often the ones without worldly power,
but worldly power is unnecessary for spreading the light.
The miracle of this night
so many years later
is that through Jesus
we have become carriers of the light of God
in baptism the light is shared with us
and we are then called to share the light with others
much in the same way
that we will pass the light down the pews later
(tilting the unlit candle)
it only takes a moment to share the light.
And if you think that you are insignificant,
that no one pays much attention to you,
remember, that’s how this all started,
in the most insignificant way possible.
So on this dark night
hear again the words of Jesus to his disciples
“You are the light of the world. A city build on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:15-16)
Because of the baby born this night
You are the light of the world,
within you lies the power to reveal what has long been hidden,
to bring warmth and life to those around you
and in your own way
add to the return of light to this weary world.
The light shines in the darkness
and the darkness did not overcome it. Amen
4th Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Luke 1:26-38, 46-55
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who gives us our true identity. Amen
Yes it is the morning of Christmas Eve,
and this is one of those odd calendar years
where the 4th Sunday of Advent falls on Christmas Eve,
which falls on a Sunday,
so we made the decision to pause this morning
before the traditional festival of this evening,
and observe Advent 4,
and in a way this is the true spirit of advent,
the spirit of active waiting,
the season that reminds us that there are things to do
before the great anticipated event.
And the thing we have left to do this morning
is to consider Mary.
In a sermon on Luke chapter one
the Rev. Dr. Rosalyn Nichols remarks that
“In our rush to get to the baby we overlook the momma”
If we rush right to the baby in the manger
we overlook the person
who made it all possible,
the one who received a visit from the angel
and accepted the task set before her
and in doing so finds her voice and her God given purpose.
Now this might seem like a different picture of Mary than we’re used to,
especially in the protestant tradition
where we have deemphasized Mary
unlike our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters
who have elevated her.
When we generally discuss Mary,
we remark on the fact
that she was a young girl,
not yet married, not significant, meek and mild,
and we make all the things that she is not
the significant characteristics of her role in the story
and we turn her into a passive vessel into which Jesus is poured.
But when we pause and take a closer look at Mary
on this 4th Sunday of Advent
before we head to the manger and the baby
we find that she is far from passive,
she carefully considers what the angel,
the messenger from God tells her,
she asks questions
and in the end she consents to participate in the plan God proposes
and in doing so she finds her voice and her true identity.
When we are first introduced to Mary
it seems like she considers herself the way we portray her,
of no significance,
Luke tells us that she is puzzled by the angel’s first words
“Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you”
and ponders what sort of greeting this might be.
The angel’s initial words recall to Mary who she is in God, favored.
God does not see her as the world sees her,
or even as she sees herself,
God sees her as a child of God
who is capable of whatever God has in store for her.
It is only after this reminder
that the angel moves on to those classic angelic words
‘do not be afraid’
It’s a little odd that these are not the first words out of the angel’s mouth.
In angelic appearances, ‘do not be afraid’
is usually said in response to the fear of the person
to whom the angel has appeared,
and receiving a messenger of the Lord is a fearful event.
In fact when Luke tells of the appearance of an angels
to Zechariah and to the Shepherds
the first thing we are told
is that they are terrified,
and the angel responds ‘do not be afraid’
And yet Mary doesn’t seem too thrown by the appearance of the angel,
she is quite matter of fact about the event
and her questions have to do with what the angel says
rather than the appearance of the angel.
Her capacity to accept the awesome and terrifying before her
is quite astounding,
and perhaps that’s just what God saw in her
because the rest of her life
will be spent taking in stride circumstances that would give others pause.
when the angel tells Mary who is not afraid
‘do not be afraid’
the angel invites her to boldly, without fear,
accept the awesome message and role that will change the future of the world,
and once again reminds her that she has found favor with God,
God has seen that she is the one for this,
then the angel lays out the fantastic plan
where Mary will conceive and bear a son
who she will name Jesus,
who will be the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to Israel
and who will have an everlasting kingdom.
Instead of rejecting this outright,
or laughing at the many absurdities of the plan
Mary goes straight to the technical details,
‘how is this going to work?’ she asks the angel,
spotting some biological obstacles,
the angel explains that the Holy Spirit will take care of things,
tells her about Elizabeth and her miraculous pregnancy
and reminds her that nothing is impossible with God.
And Mary consents to the plan
saying: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
She then goes to Elizabeth,
we didn’t read this part,
but she goes to Elizabeth who through her own miraculous pregnancy
affirms the even more miraculous nature of Mary’s situation
and the transformation of Mary’s view of herself is complete,
she has gone from being puzzled by the greeting of the angel naming her favored
to bursting out into song,
“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for you lord have looked with favor on your lowly 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.’
And now, having found her voice Mary goes on,
spelling out, or singing out rather
the implications of what God has done in her for the rest of the world.
“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.”
There’s that Christmas song out there that asks
‘Mary did you know?’
Yes, Mary knew.
She knew that God was about to transform the world,
because God had just transformed her.
Mary knew that because God used her,
that power and privilege, age, training even self understanding
doesn’t matter to God,
what matters is how God sees us,
and what makes a difference
is our ability to see ourselves as God sees us.
When we do that, t
he world will turn toward God
instead of away from God,
and then yes, the powerful will be brought down,
the hungry will be fed
and money won’t matter
because we will see ourselves and others as God sees us.
Oh yes, Mary knew.
In our rush to get to the baby
we’ve often overlooked the momma.
I know I’m not going to make that mistake again.
May we have the courage and capacity of Mary
to accept the awesome and bold invitation of God
to find our voices and God given true identity. Amen
Here is the link to the fantastic sermon by Rev. Dr. Rosalyn Nichols
2nd Sunday of Advent
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who meets us in the wilderness. Amen
Mark begins in the desert.
In telling the story of Jesus
he announces the good news of Jesus Christ,
the Son of God
and then jumps right to the wilderness,
actually quoting in part
our first reading from Isaiah,
who is also in the wilderness with the Israelites.
He puts these words into the mouth of John the Baptist,
a man of the wilderness
whose preaching oddly enough draws people out to him,
out into the desert along the banks of the Jordan river
where at the urging of John
they confess their sins
and take a ritual bath
to signify their new found way of life.
Why does Mark begin in the wilderness?
Matthew starts off with a long Genealogy
tracing Jesus back to David and Abraham.
Luke starts off with the story of John the Baptist’s remarkable birth
before heading into the story of Jesus’ remarkable birth.
John starts with a poem mirroring the beginning of genesis
and establishing Jesus as the Word made flesh
through whom the world was created.
But Mark starts in the wilderness.
Throughout the Bible,
the wilderness shows up again and again,
Abraham wanders around for quite awhile
before God’s promise is fulfilled in the birth of Isaac.
Moses escapes to the wilderness
after killing the Egyptian overseer
and it is while tending sheep out on his own
that he encounters a strange bush
that burns but is not consumed
and when he steps aside to look meets God, I am who I am.
The people of Israel
wander in the desert for forty years
before they enter the promised land,
God uses that time to teach them to depend on God
and to live as a free community.
Mark starts in the wilderness
because the wilderness is where God shows up,
the wilderness is where God meets those for whom God has a job and a promise,
the wilderness is where God prepares the servants of God to fulfill the will of God.
Now before we romanticize the wilderness
as the place of preparation,
thinking of it like a training sequence in a sports movie
where all the hard work is condensed into a montage of clips
set to inspirational music
we need to recognize the difficulty of life in the wilderness
It is a lonely place,
where those who wander are stripped down to their essentials,
where they discover what is important
and just what it means to live relying on God.
We all have wilderness times,
times when it seems we’re wandering
without much direction or even sustenance
where it seems like we will always be in the wilderness
the wilderness is our place of greatest need,
and it is where God shows up most vividly
and it is those burning bush moments,
full of terror and wonder
that shape the rest of our lives.
Mark starts in the wilderness
because that is where stories of encountering God start,
in places of desolation where all hope seems lost,
and Mark has the biggest story of encountering God to tell,
one where the good news is so good that it’s hard to describe
so Mark starts by referencing another wilderness time of good news
he recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah,
speaking to the Israelites in the wilderness of exile,
overthrown by the Babylonians
and removed from their homes
the Israelites despaired of ever returning,
and into that despair Isaiah cries
‘Comfort O Comfort my people’
and continues with the message
that the time of exile is over,
they get to go home,
and the journey will be easy,
on a straight and level path,
no wandering for forty years this time,
just a walk across a level highway
while the people sinned
God stayed true to the covenant promise
and now is bringing them back home,
like a shepherd leading a flock to safety,
the picture Isaiah paints
is that of a mighty warrior turned shepherd,
who instead of waging war
uses his mighty arm to gather the lambs close,
cuddling them while leading their mothers.
And just as we have wilderness moments,
we also have comfort comfort moments,
the times when we are lambs
swept up out of the path of danger into strong safe arms,
into the presence of God.
For me the moment that is most vividly one of these moments
is connected to red wine and roasted chicken.
Most of you know that I was married right before going to seminary
and that following summer
my then husband left the marriage.
The first few days after he declared his intentions
were kind of a blur, definitely a wilderness time
but it was the middle of the week
and I had responsibilities to help me take my mind off things.
Then the weekend came
and as I was still sharing a living space with my ex
two of my friends who shared an apartment
invited me to stay with them for the weekend.
That first night a group of friends gathered around me,
the one who had gone to culinary school before seminary roasted a chicken,
I’m sure there were other good things to eat too but I don’t remember them,
and we ate chicken and drank red wine
and talked and cried and laughed,
and then full of food and sleepy from the wine
they tucked me into bed for the first good night of sleep I’d had in awhile.
I was a lamb held safely in the arms of my shepherd who knew the way.
There was still going to be a long journey ahead of me
But I knew that I would not be making it alone
And that there was hope for the future
‘It’s this kind of good news that I’m about to tell’
hints Mark at the beginning of his gospel,
coming home from exile good,
being protected in strong arms good,
even chicken and red wine good,
in fact even better than all those things good,
the best news,
but before we get there
we have to start in the wilderness with John,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
saying ‘Prepare the way,
the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me’
and so we go out and join John in the desert
by the Jordan river
comforted by hope in the promised future. Amen
1st Sunday of Advent
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who molds us into the image of God. Amen
What time is it?
Are we at the beginning? The middle? The end?
We have so many ways of organizing time
that when they overlap
it starts to get confusing.
According to the secular calendar
we are at the end of the year,
one more month
before the clock ticks over
to read a year later at the end of our dates.
According to the sacred calendar
we are at the beginning of the year,
the circular journey through the life, death and resurrection of Christ
is at the start again,
anticipating God’s entry into the world
but not just the observance of the birth of the baby Jesus
but anticipation of God’s final return
to make the world complete.
At the heart of our confusion
is the reality that while we try to control time
by organizing it in as many ways as possible,
managing the seasons,
looking for signs to anticipate what is coming next
the truth of it is
that it’s out of our hands,
God is on God’s own schedule
of which we are not privy to
nor can we anticipate.
We know the what,
we do not know the when,
but we are called to be watchful,
to be ready for God,
whenever God happens to come.
Sometimes when the imperfections of the world
become too much
we get impatient and cry in the words of Isaiah
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”
we long for God to come mix things up,
to show those people that are messing up the world
who is really in charge,
whose side God is really on,
the ones who remember and follow God’s ways
And then in the next instant
the next breath
we realize the we’re not ready for God to come,
that we’re the ones who have forgotten God,
that our relationship needs healing,
that we need more time to get things on our end in order.
Isaiah realizes this as well
and after lamenting the many ways the people have failed
in their relationship with God
still says this:
“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. “
God is the creator and we are the creation
In the end,
ready or not God will arrive on God’s own time
regardless of what our calendars read.
there will never be a perfect time for us for God to come,
we will always be a work in progress,
and God the potter is the one working.
God has claimed us as sacred clay
and is constantly working to mold us
into the image of the divine,
I don’t know too much about the art of pottery
but I do know that it takes a lot of skill
to work the clay into the desired form
and even then it may not look exactly like what the potter intends
because the clay participates in how the object is formed.
As sacred clay
we participate in how God is forming us,
we let ourselves be molded into a receptive vessel
or we resist the gentle or sometimes not so gentle nudges
that are intended to smooth out a rough patch
on our exterior or interior
and how we are molded matters
because we are how God has chosen to work in the world at this time,
how we respond to God’s molding work in our lives
makes a difference in the life of the world around us.
So when Jesus in Mark tells us to stay awake
for the coming of God
to watch for signs like the fig tree about to blossom,
it is a call to pay attention to how God is working in us right now,
molding and shaping us
in preparation for God’s final arrival
often the signs are subtle,
the growing feeling that we are being called to do something
about the injustice of some having a great deal while others have very little
Or perhaps it’s discomfort at something that once seemed normal
but when examined is shown to be harmful to others.
Or maybe it’s a renewed sense of joy
in your relationship with God
and the fellowship of those who come together to worship, pray and serve.
Taking part in a community that has faith when we find it difficult
All these signs and more
point to the coming of God
who will end injustice,
loneliness and hurt,
who will make all joyful, fed and free.
But in the meantime
we do the best we can to prepare,
and God knows exactly what we’re going through
because God is with us,
at this time of ending and beginning,
beginning and ending
God starts by molding the divine self
into the form of an infant,
joining creation to work from the inside out. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.