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As Protestants, we tend not to spend too much time talking about Mary. Sure, she gets a spot in the nativity play, but she usually doesn’t say much. The focus is always on the new born baby and those who have come to praise him.


Yet Mary is a remarkable person in her own right. She shows a faith and courage that few other people in the Bible manage.


We have to remember that, she was likely between the ages of ten and fourteen at the time that the angel comes to her. Women married as soon as they could have children in those days and she was already betrothed. So when we talk about Mary in these Christmas stories, we have to remember that we are talking about a likely thirteen year old girl making this decisions and taking these risk.

Thirteen. Do you remember what you were like at thirteen? Do you remember the kinds of decisions you made at 13? Would you have been able to say yes so easily to this great responsibility that God asks of her? I’m thirty-four and I don’t think I would be ready now, let alone when I was a teen.


And we can’t forget what saying yes to God meant for Mary.  She is not yet married, and so there was no legitimate reason for her to be with child, for this community. “God gave me a child” will seem like an excuse, not an explanation.  Now, in our day this might be a small scandal, but in Mary’s day it would have been earth shattering.


Part of the problem is that Jewish law took engagement seriously. The Jewish law said that if Joseph died, Mary would be a widow. If he died, she would be a widower. If they separated, it was called a divorce.A pregnancy outside of marriage could result in a charge for adultery and the penalty for adultery is death by stoning.  Saying yes, could very well have been a death sentence for Mary.


This is largely because at that time law protected male interests.  Conversely, a husband’s infidelity is punished only if he takes another man’s wife.  But a wife who commits adultery commits a “great sin”. She would be severely punished.   Her husband could forgive her, but he could then divorce her leaving her penniless and disgraced.


Now in Luke’s version of the nativity story, the angel never tells Joseph what is going on so he doesn’t know about the divine purpose his future bride has been given.   Joseph doesn’t come onto the scene until later.  In Luke’s version, Mary is alone after she says yes, knowing that if Joseph doesn’t like it, it could very well be her life on the line.


And yet she still said yes to God. Without hesitation. Without questioning. I can only imagine the kind of courage that would have taken this young girl.


Her pregnancy would be a disappointment to everyone in her hometown. Most of all, her parents, her betrothed, her rabbi. Even if Joseph forgave her when she told him, she still would likely to have been shamed in the community.


Given that, it isn’t surprising that she left shortly after agreeing to God’s request. She leaves and travels to her cousin Elizabeth. That would have taken great courage too, as she travels quite some distance as a lone young girl through some dangerous countryside. But she leaves to go to Elizabeth.


Because Elizabeth would have known what it would have been like to be shunned by the community.  In her culture a woman’s primary purpose in life was to bear children, so as an elderly infertile wife she had endured a lifetime of being treated as a failure. Elizabeth’s response to her own miraculous pregnancy emphasizes that God’s grace has reversed her social status: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” At long last, in her old age, she is an honorable married woman, pregnant with her husband’s son.


By greeting Mary with honor, Elizabeth overturns social expectations. Mary is an unmarried pregnant woman. She might expect social judgment, shame, even ostracism from her older kinswoman. Yet Elizabeth knows from her own experience the cost of being shamed and excluded, and God reversed that in her own life.


Elizabeth continues the pattern of social reversal by opening her arms and her home to a relative whom her neighbors would expect her to reject. Instead of shaming Mary, she welcomes, blesses, and celebrates her, treating her as more honorable than herself. Because of Elizabeth, the pregnancy that might have brought Mary shame brings joy and honor instead. When Elizabeth welcomes Mary, she practices the same kind of inclusive love that Jesus will show to sinners and tax collectors. She sees beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work even among those whom society rejects and excludes.


But there is more going on here. Because John leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth is also  filled with the Holy Spirit knows who is coming. She tells Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Mary, you have been given a great honor, to bear the Savior of the world.


Elizabeth even uses her own life to contrast Mary’s. When she says, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” she implicitly contrasts Mary’s trust in God’s power and promise with her own husband Zechariah’s skeptical questioning when they were told they would have a baby in their old age. Zechariah asked for proof that the angel’s word was true. Mary asked for an explanation of what was going to happen to her, and then gave her willing consent.


Zechariah, a priest,  the religious professional doubted God, but Mary the peasant girl believed, and her trust in God’s word opened the door for God to bless her and to bless the whole world through her. Elizabeth celebrates Mary’s willingness to say “yes” to God.


And then, despite everything she is facing, Mary sings this song of celebration to God. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings despite an unknown future. She sings of the changes God will make and of a world turned upside down. It is not the most reassuring song perhaps for a soon-to-be mother, but it is a song that glorifies God. And that is how Mary lives, for God first and then herself.


This week we are given two extraordinary women who set these incredible examples for us. First we have Mary’s amazing willingness to say yes to God, regardless of the potential consequences to her own life.  How many of us say yes to God first without hesitating? Without questioning the details and the consequences to our own lives? At the end of the day, we often find ourselves looking a lot more like Zechariah and asking for proof than we do Mary in her complete trust.


Then we have Elizabeth who shows us what welcome can really be. She welcomes her cousin who she could have by all rights disgraced with open arms and loving words.  Her position as the wife of the priest meant that her welcoming and affirming Mary could have very well saved her life. How many of us practice that sort of inclusive love with others?  Who do we welcome with open arms?


Today’s scripture uses these women to show how powerful faith can be, in a time when women were still little more than property. None of us is asked to do something as momentous as Mary was, and yet God still calls us to bear Christ into the world in our own ways. We are called to say yes.  We are called to welcome the stranger and the outcast. And most of all, we are called to love.


After all,  it is love that motivates these women. Mary’s love of God and her future child. Elizabeth’s love of her kinswoman and her God. As we look towards Christmas, can you think of a better motivation than love?


Let us pray:

Holy and most gracious God, help us to say yes when you call us. Help us to welcome the outcasts.  Help us to sing your praises even when it is hard to do so. Help us to be like Mary and Elizabeth were, your true and faithful servants. In your name we pray, Amen.

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Luke 3: 7-16


Years ago it was a great joy for some people, when a prophet appeared to proclaim that God’s Kingdom was at hand; it was a great joy—at first. Then the call to repentance made some people take offense; they’d say to themselves: “He’s not talking to me!” There are people today who believe that sin has little hold on their lives; I’ve even spoken to one man who said he did not sin, so why did we insist that he confess sinfulness? Sin, we learn from Genesis, entered the world when human beings appeared. And even today, we see how choices that are destructive are vastly different from those that are constructive. Still, John the Baptist appeared as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Life for a prophet is a lonely task of moving stubborn people into action. Prophets meddled in people’s lives and they offended people by their words and the way they looked. John, for example, was mangy looking. Long untamed hair; a rough coat of camel’s hair, a loin cloth around his waist, and his diet was bugs: locusts, and honey that he pulls from beehives. Other prophets dressed in similar ways; in fact some thought John was Elijah back from the dead because he wore garments like Elijah’s. Elijah, Israel’s prophet, was once called a “troubler of Israel” by Israel’s own King Ahab! Prophets didn’t dress like that to be offensive. Rather, in being the herald of God and delivering his message, they denied themselves and the world. They only had enough to exist. And they preached. They preached repentance to people who saw no need to repent, people who were sure that they were already in God’s favor. A cartoon once showed a modern-day prophet with long hair and all the rest walking down a small town sidewalk. He was wearing a signboard. On the front of the signboard the message said in bold letters “Repent and be saved!” As the man passed people by, some people turned around and chuckled. In small letters the back of his sign said: “If you have already repented, please disregard this notice.”


The prophets did more than preach; they pointed. They pointed to a time, an event in the future, perhaps in the immediate future, when God would bring radical change.  Isaiah is one prophet who did that.  He proclaimed that a shoot would come from the stump of Jesse. Jesse was David’s father; God had promised that the Messiah would come out of David’s lineage. The people immediately thought that David, their anointed king, might be Messiah. But David was not the Messiah! That was a shortsighted conclusion. Isaiah was pointing to a king beyond David; way in the future. God was planning for the people to see the King of kings. Isaiah pointed to and announced “the triumphal march of God through the wilderness to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah.” When Isaiah prophesied that, it was describing a march home for God’s people after being exiled in Babylon. Zephaniah was another prophet of hope who proclaimed that “The Lord your God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you with his love; he will exalt over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” So sometimes prophets brought good news; other times, they brought warning. John the Baptist was the first prophet to come along in centuries, yet his message was like that of many earlier prophets. Prophets are as relevant today as they were then. People still think they are saved just because they grew up in a family of faith. But John says that alone will not save them.


There are a string of words that begin with “R” that are inexorably tied together when someone decides to repent. But there is one destructive word. The destructive “R” word we hear a lot about today and through the ages is “Retaliation.” It happens when something bad happens to one person, or one nation; and someone decides to respond in an immeasurably more destructive way. That’s retaliation and there is no part of it that is God’s will. Retaliation alone would make our world be at war eternally. The prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Zephaniah, John the Baptist, and later Jesus, had a better way. It is the way that brings life, and God’s love, to any situation. Listen to these life-giving “R” words. They have been part of the Jewish tradition since Jesus’ days and earlier. This was what Rabbis would have taught John, Jesus, and others. Christians embrace these words too.


First, exhibit Remorse, or regret over a situation when you have sinned against God and someone else, exhibiting true sorrow to both God and the person who has been hurt. Jesus affirmed this practice.


Second, repent, or return. It is turning around, away from sin, and getting back on the right path. The Bible calls it “righteousness.” The Hebrew word is shub.


The third life-giving “r” word is restitution. This is squaring the account; paying the price to fix what was broken. That is always a step necessary for for forgiveness. That’s why the only complete version of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew uses “debts and debtors” instead of “trespasses,” because paying for what is broken is an important step on the way to forgiveness. Christians believe that Jesus paid the price for our sins, but to complete the transaction, we are still sent to the person we have hurt to make amends. Jesus put it this way: “If you are offering your gift at the altar [of God,] and there is still something your brother or sister has against you, leave your gift at the altar of God and go to your brother or sister and be reconciled to them, then come back to God and offer your gift.” [Matthew 5: 23-24.]


Fourth, when people follow this procedure, they start down a new path; one  result is reconciliation. It re-establishes a connection with God and with the one once offended or hurt. Reconciliation is the ministry of Christians. The Apostle Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 5: “Any people who are in Christ become new creations! The past is finished and gone! Everything becomes fresh and new!” Would you like to give a relationship a chance to be restored? This is the path to follow; it reconnects estranged people.


That leads to the fifth result, renewal. It’s when you and the one you hurt become new creations; he or she begins to build a bridge back to you again.


Finally, there can be, can hopefully be, reunion. This is a reconnection with God and with one another. God created us to live in community, not to make choices that leave us in isolation. How can John’s words, if taken to heart, lead you away from a dead-end path, or a destructive path, or a path toward retaliation, to a path that brings life and love again? Let John the Baptist preach to you today, not because you are bad, but because you and I are broken. We need times when can push a reset button. This is such a time. A new life can be yours this season. And it begins with one word: repent.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                December 13, 2015

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Malachi 3: 1-4; Luke 3: 1-6


I wonder if the people in Malachi’s day, and the people in the days of John the Baptist, were as tired of hearing people telling them to “Prepare!” as we are?  There are so many things in life for which we are supposed to prepare. Back in April of 2012, seven people were killed and three wounded when a 43-year-old former student opened fire on his university campus in Oakland, California. “Prepare!” people said, to universities. And many did. Then in July of 2012, a 27-year-old man killed 12 people and wounded 70 in an Aurora, Colorado movie theatre. “Prepare!” people said to movie theatres. And many did. In August of 2012 in Oak Creek, Wisconsin a 40-year-old man killed six worshippers at a Sikh Temple- people who practiced peaceful living. “Prepare” people said to other Temples. And many did. In September of 2012 Minnesota’s deadliest workplace killing spree occurred by a disgruntled former employee. He shot 6 people. “Prepare!” people said to small businesses. And many did. Finally, to complete one year’s tragedies among many, in December of 2012 a 20 year old entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, killing 26 people, 20 of them first graders. “Prepare!” people said to elementary schools. And some did. But as is clear, vigilance in just one venue, in one area, or in one state is not sufficient to prepare for the unexpected. On the other hand, in 1992 Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida with a ferocity few will forget. The effect was not just in Dade County, but all over Florida. Building codes got better. When our house was hit with hurricanes Charley, Francis, and Jeanne in 2004, it stood up much better because of the 1992 codes that mandated roof tie downs. There are times when preparation really matters.  Last January Mary Ann and I went to our first retirement seminar. We won’t retire for a number of years, but people who had already stepped over the retirement threshold shouted back to us “Prepare!” People are most wise if they prepare for their retirement; if they prepare for their college expenses; or if they prepare for a marathon. Some things go much better if you prepare.  But there are enough stories around of successful people who don’t prepare—like wealthy people who got that way by winning a lottery; sick people who got their bills paid by “Go Fund me” websites, or renters with no insurance who lost all their belongings and have a community help them find a new place to live—that some people don’t prepare; they just “let the chips fall where they may.” The old saying goes: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Mostly, not preparing leads to failure or disaster. Some have heartbreaking, or lesson-learning experiences because they failed to prepare.


We prepare meals; preachers prepare sermons; teachers prepare lesson plans; and wise parents prepare a room for their newborn child. To prepare is to do the wise thing. But when the demands to prepare seem overwhelming, how do we triage what to prepare for and what to let go? How do we prioritize what to tackle and what to ignore? If ever there were two people of the Bible who were filled with fire and urgency, it was the two men we hear about in today’s passages: Malachi and John the Baptist. They too had to prepare for things, but one day, they stopped their regularly scheduled programming and preached; they exhorted; they warned people that the “Day of the Lord” was coming. It had a most ominous tone for those who were not spiritually and morally ready. In our world that constantly nags us to “prepare,” why should we follow their warnings above all others?


First, there was Malachi. He has the distinction of having his words recorded in the last book of the Old Testament. Israel had had plenty of warnings about the direction their choices were taking them. The Northern Kingdom had fallen to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. in part because the people had grown lax with their devotion to God and God’s laws. Then in 587 B.C.E. the Babylonians defeated the Southern Kingdom and the Jews were exiled—deported one might say—to Babylon for 50 years. Finally a new generation, one that perhaps had not learned the valuable lessons needed taught by parents and grandparents, returned to a ruined Jerusalem and a destroyed Temple. It was after that time, surprisingly, during the reign of King Darius, that Malachi brought his powerful words to his king and the people of Judah. Here’s what he preached, perhaps from the southern steps of the Temple: [God has told me] “Behold! [Listen!] I send my messenger to prepare the way before me.” Then Malachi stoped quoting God and says what will happen: “The Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his Temple; the messenger of the covenant, … he is coming says the Lord of Hosts.”  People had a home for God in their Temple; but, it seemed, God had abandoned them, returning to Heaven because of their waywardness and lack of devotion. Malachi says, “You need to hear this! He is coming back, but if it will be with joy or with zeal is up to you! … For who can endure the day when he appears … for he is like a refiner’s fire!” Goodness; refiners have the hottest of flames to separate the gold from the “dross,” the unwanted material that’s removed to make the gold purer.  God, Malachi says, wants to purify not only the sons of Levi because of their corruption, but also any who are corrupt! That is his word of preparation.


Second, about 480 years other people hear from God; Elizabeth and Zechariah hear that they will have a special son, and, according to God, he will be named “John.” He grows up under the watchful eye of his parents. One day he stands on the banks of the Jordan River and begins to preach. What does he preach? He preaches essentially the same message that Malachi did. In 30 C.E., Pilate was governor of Judea; Herod Antipas was King over Galilee. John roared to them and to their people. He claimed he was “The voice of one crying in the wilderness (a wilderness, I suspect, of both nature and of culture) ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” If a king were to come, preparations were made in the roadways, to fill in the ruts and the potholes, so they king’s entourage might not stumble. The Lord was coming to his people like a king! How would he find them: in a moral state of reverent waiting and clean living; or in a state of complacency, compromise, and selling out to their culture? John was giving fair warning to prepare; the Lord was coming again. He still is.


The Lord is coming again; not just on December 25th, but into the hearts of people, and into our world. We do not know when; there is no Biblical clue that tells us that. He will come “at an unexpected hour.” So our job is not to figure out the place, the venue, or the circumstance. It is to prepare. I know, you’ve heard that a lot! But you decide: when it comes to your soul, and your eternal home, isn’t this warning, this reminder, worth heeding?

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                December 6, 2015

 Dear Lord Jesus: today we are reminded that as you came into our world as a baby, you will also return to our world as the risen and powerful Christ: King of kings and Lord of lords! Your prophets urge us to be ready! So, in your own good time, come, Lord Jesus. Come and welcome your faithful children home. With gratitude we pray. Amen.