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Monday, December 23, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148:1-14, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 2:13-23

Christmas has finally come in the liturgical calendar.  We celebrate for two Sundays before moving on to the season of Epiphany.  A central message of Christmas is found in one of the names given to Jesus, Emmanuel.  The giving of that name is not part of any of the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday, but its meaning suggests a lens (or a question) for reflecting on those readings.

Emmanuel means “God With Us.”  Christmas is a season which reminds us to pay attention to the presence of Jesus and God’s Love in the midst of all of life’s circumstances.  I grew up in a tradition which talked a lot about having Jesus in our hearts.  If taken literally, it can be an outlandish image.  More than one child has wondered how Jesus can fit in there.  I have heard Tony Campolo (on more than one occasion) reflecting on his childhood faith---as some of you may have.  He remembers his mother always saying, as he went out the door, “Take your little brother with you.”  Tony grew to resent his little brother.  I don’t remember the details of the transition, but somewhere along the way, he remembers his mother started telling him, “Take Jesus with you.”  Some of Tony’s earlier resentment rubbed off on Jesus.  He felt like Jesus was someone else to be dragged along behind him wherever he went.

Many of us growing up in that tradition struggled with how one experienced the “presence” of God within.  Was it a feeling in the pit of one’s stomach?  That sometimes seemed to be the implication.  I certainly convinced myself of that feeling most of the time in those days.  Feelings, however, are not always trustworthy.  They can come and go.  How do I distinguish the presence of Jesus from gas left over from the last meal?  What about the days when God seems to be more absent than present?

All kinds of “disciplines” have been developed to promote the experience of Jesus within---prayer, Bible reading, meditation, silence, etc.  Brother Lawrence, a lay brother who worked in the kitchen in a Carmelite monastery in Paris in the 17th century, is remembered for his thoughts compiled, after his death, under the title, The Practice of the Presence of God.  Here are a few of his comments about experiencing God With Us.

"Men invent means and methods of coming at God's love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God's presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him? . . . Nor is it needful that we should have great things to do. . . We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, . . . It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God."

Brother Lawrence felt that he cooked meals, ran errands, scrubbed pots, and endured the scorn of the world alongside God. One of his most famous sayings refers to his kitchen:  "The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees before the Blessed Sacrament.”

It sounds a bit pious and idealistic and I’m not sure Brother Lawrence answers the question “How?”  After nearly 74 years of living, at times very self-consciously struggling with the question of how we really know the presence of God, I don’t have a nice neat answer.  Some claim to, but those I respect most, those in whom I’ve been most likely to notice God at work, don’t offer a method all wrapped up in shiny Christmas wrapping decorated with bows.

This week’s readings offer some perspectives on the question.

The reading from Isaiah sets the stage.  It is a small portion of a longer passage that vacillates between judgment and mercy and moves on to a prayer of penitence.  Throughout the ages, men and women have had trouble discerning God’s presence as they have suffered the ups and downs of life, as they’ve known personal hardship and the heavy hand of invading oppressors, or injustice in the affairs of their own nation.

In the midst of such uncertainty, the prophet remembers.  “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of God, because of all that the Lord has done for us, . . .  according to the abundance of his steadfast love.”  (Isaiah 63:7)  Perhaps when we are seeking the presence of God we should remember all that we have been through, remember the times when we have unexpectedly experienced the presence of love, when we’ve felt we were not alone in the struggle to survive and find meaning.  Our reading credits this message of mercy not to a “messenger or angel” but to God’s “presence.”  “In his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”  (vs. 9)

The Psalm suggests that we might find the presence of God in the wonders of nature around us.  It is a Psalm that rings out with praise.  Even the sun and moon and shining stars join in.  (Psalm 148:1-3)  We see God expressed in “fire and hail, snow and frost . . . mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!  Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!"  And people as well.  They all come together to express praise to God.  (vss. 7-13)  Sometimes if we want to experience the presence of God With Us, we need to notice the world around us and the people in our lives.  Can we see God at work in them?  Then God is with us.  Maybe when we are seeking the presence of God we need to fill our throats with songs of praise---as we did, along with our fantastic choir, this past Sunday.

The epistle reading offers us a God who is like those people who walk beside us, sharing the burdens and joys of life with us.  It offers a reason for the birth we celebrate during the Christmas season.  Without getting into all the complexities of interpretation, it speaks of Jesus having “to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful priest in the service of God.”  (Hebrews 2:17)  It goes a step further, though, than the image of a friend walking beside us.  The writer of Hebrews depicts one who is willing to suffer for others, to stand against all that would destroy even when the cost is great in order to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”  (vs. 15---See also vss. 10-11 & 18)  It is very down to earth.  “ . . . he did not come to help angels,” but human beings, us.  Whenever we see those who dedicate their lives to justice and peace, to standing up for the “little” people, maybe we need to take that as a sign that God is with us.

Some of those same themes are present in the Gospel lesson from Matthew.  It is the story of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape the slaughter undertaken by Herod.  (Matthew 2:13-14)  It is another story of abusive power and innocents on the run.  We are told that Herod, tricked by the wise men, “was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.”  (vs. 16)  There is much “wailing and loud lamentation” recalling Rachel who wept for children and “refused to be consoled.”  (vs. 18)  This birth, this thumbing of the nose in Herod’s face, is a time of suffering and sorrow as well as a time of promise.  It is precisely in such times that one may see and feel and experience the presence of God with us, if one is paying attention.

So---as we seek this Christmas to know the presence of Jesus (God With Us) let us gaze not only upon a baby in a manger.  Let us notice more than the glorious angels in the sky.  Let us lift our eyes to the hills and look down at the dandelion growing in a crack in the pavement.  Let us notice the people around us, friend and foe, seen and unseen---the ones who pick up the garbage as well as the ones who sit in oval offices, the ones who provide shelter for those whose homes would otherwise be on the street, as well as those who have accumulated enough wealth to fund worldwide educational and health care initiatives.  Let us remember that wherever love is experienced as stronger than injustice and evil, God is with us!  It’s time to celebrate!

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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