Sunday, December 27, 2015

Luke 2:22-40

If ever there was a holiday that was surrounded by and tied up in rituals it is Christmas.
From the cutting and decorating of the tree, to the lessons, carols, and candles of Christmas Eve, to the opening of gifts, to the seating at the family dinner, to the taking down of decorations, ritual or tradition enters in at almost every step. In the home where I grew up we couldn’t even discuss Christmas until the Thanksgiving dishes were washed and put away, (a tradition I tried without much success to instill in my children.) The midnight Christmas Eve service was a requirement, and then, on Christmas morning, we lined up outside the living room, in order from youngest to oldest, and waited for my mother to finish her coffee before we could enter and see what Santa had left us. There was a particular order in which the Christmas dinner passed from one family of cousins to the next. The menu was always turkey and the trimmings, but certain side dishes and deserts varied from home to home--at our house there was always plum pudding with hard sauce.

What are the rituals in your house? Do you open gifts Christmas Eve, or wait for Christmas morning? Is your tree already down? Or do you leave it up until Epiphany? Who opens the first gift? Who passes them out? We all have our Christmas traditions or rituals.

The church is also a place of rituals. We have an order to how we worship…entrance and praise, prayer and proclamation, response and thanksgiving. The year unfolds in a cycle of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and the season after. There are rituals for the sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. We have the ritual of Holy Matrimony, the Ash Wednesday Imposition of Ashes, and even rituals that have nothing to do with worship--regular pot lucks, annual bazaars or rummage sales, Shrove Tuesday pancakes, church cleaning days, Lord have mercy on the poor new pastor who doesn’t know about the way we always do Mother’s Day!
Rituals are important to us. They give us a sense of continuity and security. (Yes, there are times when the rituals get in the way, but that’s another sermon.) without rituals the important events in life would go unmarked, unnoticed, and unremembered.

Rituals were also important for Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. In today’s gospel reading Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph perform two religious rituals required by their faith tradition. When the boy was just 8 days old he was brought to the temple to be circumcised and given the name the angel had given him before he was even conceived: Jesus. Then, when he was forty days old, after Mary’s purification from giving birth, Jesus was again brought to the temple: this time for presentation, consecration, and redemption.  “ you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the LORD's. 13 …Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem.” These ceremonies, small though they may be, were important as ways in which God was praised and honored in all aspects of first century Jewish life. For Mary and Joseph, this was one more way to show their praise and gratitude for the blessings God had given them.

Picture the scene, if you will. Here are Mary and Joseph, carrying their baby into the temple where he will be presented to God. They stop at a merchant to purchase the sacrifice that will redeem their son in accordance with the law. A lamb would have been the preferred offering, but, because the long, hard trip to Jerusalem had exhausted them both physically and financially, the acceptable alternative of two turtledoves would have to suffice.
As they continue into the temple with Joseph holding the doves in a cage and Mary holding Jesus close in her arms, they are accosted by an old man who reaches for the child. Mary tightens her grip and steps behind her husband to shield her child. Kind of like when But then the stranger explains that for years he has watched parents bring their firstborn sons to the temple while he waited for this, particular child. God had promised him that he would see the promised one, the Messiah, before his death, and here he was.

Gently taking the baby in his arms, Simeon praises God with the prayer we have come to know as the nunc dimitus.
29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: 30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
[Luke 2:29-32 (KJV)}

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. {Luke 2:39-40 (NRSV)}Like babies before and since, Jesus grew up. The baby in a manger became a wandering rabbi who was ultimately crucified as the redemption price for all people--the light that lightened the gentiles and the glory of Israel. But think about this, the Lamb of God, the one who would redeem us from slavery to sin and death, was redeemed at the minimum acceptable price! The one who paid the highest price for us was purchased for the cost of two doves.

Two doves and a death on the cross stand between us and sin. Two doves and a death on the cross have lifted us from the ways of he world to the ways of the Kingdom. Two doves and a death on the cross have given us the right to become “children of God!” Two doves and a death on the cross have made us truly free.
You have been redeemed at the highest cost. The one who was redeemed for two doves has paid for you with his life blood. You ARE forgiven. You are offered the honored position as a child of God. Claim the promise, claim the honor as we rise and sing together...

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Advent Angels, Part 2,

It's a day I will remember as long as I live. My division, the descendents of Abijah, was on duty in the temple. That morning they drew two names to burn the incense in the inner temple. Because there are so many of us priests, they have to do it this way, and most of us die without ever having served In the inner temple. When they drew my name I just stood there in awe. Incense was burned before and after the daily sacrifices to purify the temple. My name was drawn for the morning burning.

I entered the inner temple, and stood before the altar for a few minutes, just taking it all in. Then, here, in the holiest place in all of the land God had given us, I prayed again for my wife. She was heartbroken and hurting because, in all our years of marriage she had never borne an child; and now, even though the two of us were far beyond the years of childbearing, she still grieved her barreness. I asked God simply to give her comfort and inner peace.

I turned around, lit the incense, and uttered the prayer: May the God of mercy enter the temple and be pleased to accept the sacrifice of his people.” Then it happened.
The incense seemed to almost explode, as a huge ball of the aromatic smoke appeard at the right side of the altar. and then, out of it he came. I don't know how to describe him. He was the most intimidating being I have ever seen. He was huge and had a face that seemed almost, but not quite human. I froze, and fell to the floor in fear. Had I just looked at the face of God? Was I about to die? I was so scared, I couldn't even tremble!

Then the thing spoke: “Don't be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayers. Your wife Elizabeth will have a son, and you must name him John. His birth will make you very happy, and many people will be glad. Your son will be a great servant of the Lord. He must never drink wine or beer, and the power of the Holy Spirit will be with him from the time he is born. John will lead many people in Israel to turn back to the Lord their God. He will go ahead of the Lord with the same power and spirit that Elijah had. And because of John, parents will be more thoughtful of their children. And people who now disobey God will begin to think as they ought to. That is how John will get people ready for the Lord.”

In spite of the thing's instruction to not fear, now I was not only afraid, I was stunned,
what was this thing saying? Elizabeth can't have children, she's way beyond that part of her life, and so am I. Was this a vision from the Satan? Was I being tempted? I didn't know what to do, or say. I asked the thing how this could be. How could my wife and I have a child at our age?

Then the thing identified himself. “"I am Gabriel, God's servant, and I was sent to tell you this good news. But you have not believed my message, which will come true at the right time. Because you have not believed, you will be unable to speak; you will remain silent until the day my promise to you comes true." And at that very moment I was struck mute. Try as I might, I could not speak. The words my brain so carefully formed, would not come out of my mouth.

When I finally came out of the temple, people were asking me what happened? Why had I taked so long to burn the incense? Had I seen a vision? The more they asked, the more I couldn't speak, even if I could have described what happened.

When I got home, Elizabeth could tell something had happened. Again I tried to speak, to tell her about the visit from the angel, but, again, all that came out of my mouth was silence. But that angel was right. A couple of months later Elizabeth, almost in a state of shock, told me: “I know you won't believe me, but I think I am with child. Although I smiled, hugged her and kissed her, I could not speak to tell her: “Yes! I believe you! It's what the angel told me!

About 5 or 6 months later, we had a visit from Elizabeth's cousin, Mary. Mary told us that she, too, had been visited by the angel Gabriel; that she had been chosen by God; and that she was going to have a baby boy who would be the Messiah, the new David, the one whose birth all Israel awaited. Elizabeth leaped up and said in a loud voice, "You are the most blessed of all women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” and Mary, took exalted and praised God. Later my wife told me that the child in her jumped for joy when Mary said she, too, was going to have a child from God. Mary stayed with us about three monhs, and then returned to her home, and her fiance', Joseph.

Shortly after Mary left, Elizabeth gave birth to a fine baby boy. The whole village rejoiced with us. And on the eighth day, when he was to be circumcised, they were ready to name him Zechariah, after me when Elizabeth insisted: “NO, his name is John.”
“But there is no John in your family.”
“His name is JOHN!” my wife repeated.
When they made signgs trying to ask me, I still couldn't speak, so I asked for a tablet and wrote on it: “The child's name is John.” At that minute, my speech returned, and I, of course, began praising God.

But from that same time, our neighbors treated us differently. They were always cautious around us, speaking and acting very carefully, as though they were afraid of us, or our son. As old as we were, parenting was not easy, but John grew up in body, mind, and spirit until the day he left us to go live in the desert. And no one heard from him until he came out of the desert preaching repentance and baptizing for the forgivness of sins. He even baptized Mary's son, Jesus, who invites you to the feast he has prepared. Come, celbrate, and give thanks. AMEN.