12-27-20 THE HOLY FAMILY TRAVELS AGAIN


Matthew 2: 13-23

This year the United States had a Census taken. By many standards it was not totally accurate—no census really is—because in our day, some people live in the woods, some wouldn’t answer their door to a stranger, and some just refused to cooperate because they don’t trust our government. Up until this census, it was estimated that 330 million people lived in this country [Census, July 23, 2020]
Out of that number, in September of this year there were reports of 200,000 deaths due to Covid-19 in some form. That number has grown now to over 323,000. The Tampa Bay Times, in their December 14th issue, posted the following statistics:
The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 caused the deaths of 8,000 people: a staggering number. Next, there were 2,977 deaths attributed to the 9/11 attacks. And then we come to Thursday, December 10th—according to the report. 2,937 people died due to contracting Covid-19. By contrast, there were 2,403 persons who died from the Pearl Harbor attack. Losing any lives are tragic. But losing this many lives is catastrophic. When we passed 300,000 deaths last week, the Washington National Cathedral tolled their bell 300 times once for every thousand lives lost. It is one significant event as many national leaders seemed to ignore or not address this growing list of deaths. But frontline workers know all about them, as refrigerator trucks back up to hospital loading docks to address the growing number of deaths. We pray for those with Covid-19, exhausted frontline workers, and those effected with Covid every Wednesday night in our prayer group. Still, the numbers rise. But who wants to talk about such things in this week after Christmas? You’re right; but if the church does not prophetically point out the catastrophe that has engulfed us, who will? Doctors and nurses have pleaded with the public: wear a mask, keep social distance, and wash hands. Our government leaders have endorsed vaccines, but some have been quite silent about the outrage of these deaths. So let’s turn to the Bible for our comfort, our guidance, and our information. Why not go to one of the Gospels, where we get the good news about Jesus Christ? Yes, let’s step away from the misery and even the punitive ways of some in our day. Let’s go to two of the Gospels- the only ones that talk about the birth of Jesus.
First, we turn to Luke. Luke lets us know in chapter one that angels were busy! An angel had spoken to Zechariah about the birth of John, later known as the Baptist, and an angel had spoken to Mary about the birth of Jesus. Angels were speaking, and angels were watching! They still are. We found a girl agreeing to the unprecedented news described by the Angel Gabriel, and Mary stayed by Joseph’s side. Next, we learned in Matthew’s Gospel that an angel also came to Joseph in a dream, encouraging him to take Mary as his wife because she was carrying a child to be called Son of God. Astoundingly, when Joseph awoke from his dream, the Bible says Joseph decided he would stay with Mary. Going back to Luke’s gospel, we read that the Emperor Caesar Augustus called for a census, just as we had a census. But there was a hitch: The Romans were not going to houses in every district to count taxpayers; natives of districts needed to return to their hometown to be counted, and to bring any members of his family. Mary was betrothed to Joseph, so Mary needed to come on his travel, even though she was clearly, “great with child.” They made their difficult journey to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. It is assumed that Mary made the trip on an animal and Joseph walked along with her, though we don’t know that for sure. I only tell you because traveling in Mary’s condition was both inconvenient and uncomfortable. Once in Bethlehem, they might have liked to stay and rest.

But, as I described two weeks ago, Herod was a paranoid and maniacal king. He was always afraid that one of his wives, or one of his sons, would try to overthrow him. So he had them killed. Really. That’s the kind of man he was. When Herod heard from the wisemen that they had traveled far and brought gifts for the newborn king of the Jews, Herod’s paranoia bristled. So with sinister intentions in Matthew 2:2, he told the officials in his court: “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” But he had no intention of really doing that. Our text today picks up that story. Herod, believing that he might have been betrayed by the wisemen, took matters into his own hands. In his headquarters, he was, as the Bible puts it, “In a furious rage.” Psychologists have told me that people in a furious rage become clinically insane. Clinically insane. They do things that are very destructive and almost always regretful. We have seen that in our own day and in history. And it is recorded in our Bibles. According to Matthew chapter 2, here is what this furious King did: “He killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or younger.” It was a dreadful decree. Historians and artists have depicted it as “the slaughter of the Innocents.” And indeed it was. How many children were killed by Herod? It is hard to say exactly. Bethlehem was a little town, but his orders were to be carried out through the region. There could have been around 20 children killed by some estimates. 20 children! One child is too many to die, right? But through September of this year, 100 children died of the Coronavirus in the U.S. And we never hear about it. I had to research that number. Yet historians and artists have kept alive the atrocity of the Slaughter of the innocents for 2000 years. Hospital workers cherish lives. Are other humans cherishing lives too? 20 children. 100 children. 300,000 individuals. And a bell tolled to remember them. Have we become numb to the travesty of so many deaths?

God had a plan for salvation that included yet another special angel. Just as Herod was planning his killing spree, an angel again appeared to Joseph in a dream—I am so glad Joseph listened to his dreams—and this angel gave a warning that would save the human race from their sins: “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until the death of Herod.” God saved the Son and his family, the Son destined to save the world, even though I imagine God weeping over the deaths of all people, then and now. Matthew described the sorrow in a lament from earlier Scripture, from Jeremiah, known as the “weeping prophet:” “Wailing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be consoled.” [2:18] In war; in pandemic; in rage, any deaths are too many. God, who gave human beings freewill so we would not be holy marionettes, may have regretted that decision since the Garden of Eden. But we are stewards of God’s world, not just of creation, but of the created ones too. God wants us to care for one another, not ignore the world or ignore the plights of people, or pets, or even plants. As the hymn written by Cecil Frances Alexander puts it: “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small; all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” Let’s do angel’s work as we end this year and start the next: tell the good news that Jesus Christ is born! Give thanks that, when it was safe, Jesus and his family traveled back to their home country and settled in Nazareth. Keep a good heart for all creatures great and small, seeking to protect them, and when they die, remembering them. We remember our dead in locations like Arlington National Cemetery, and a New York City Memorial. Because of God’s plan, Jesus the child was saved so that he could save the souls of the ages. But mourning each death? Well, that’s on us. Let’s continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus—the Savior—and also remember all who have gone before us.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 27, 2020

12-20-20 THE WORD TO SUBMIT


Luke 1:26-38

Beginning in the fourth century and moving through the ages, Emperor Constantine, with assistance from his mother Helena, began to mark and venerate traditional sites where holy things took place in the areas we know of Palestine and Israel. They started with a grotto where all Christian faiths believe that Jesus was born. Over it, they built what they called the Church of the Nativity. It is now a Basilica (which means the seat of a Bishop in the Roman Catholic Church) and it’s the oldest major church in the Holy Land. Christianity through the ages loved to use Latin and big words to identify special events and locations consider to be holy. So it is the Church of the Nativity. Over other such sites the church erected imposing buildings to keep the land from used for commercial reasons or claimed by other religions. So some buildings in the Holy Land are imposing, even though the events they commemorate are sometimes simple: There was a simple birth in a stable, and a huge church of the Nativity is over it. There was a gruesome death outside a city wall that the church has called the site of the Crucifixion, another big word. The church over that site is massive, and it is called the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Nearby is a site not claimed by the church, but by the British government called “The Garden Tomb.” When that government bought the land, it had a tomb on it, surrounded by a garden, and next to a stone quarry on a hillside displaying a face like a skull. Could it be Golgotha? It feels like it. But the claimed true spot is engulfed by the huge Church of the Holy Sepulcher. On the other side of Jerusalem is the Church of All Nations, also known as the Basilica of the Agony that stands over a large boulder said to be the place, next to the Garden of Gethsamane, where Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake while he went off to pray. The garden, filled with olive trees, is impressive. There is also the Church of the Transfiguration—another big church word—on the top of Mount Tabor, where tradition says Jesus invited Peter, James, and John to join him as he shone like the sun, where a voice from the clouds said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” All of those places are significant. But off the track, in the dusty town of Nazareth, there is a modern and large “Basilica of the Annunciation.” Annunciation is another big church word that just means “The announcement.” That is the Roman Catholic site said to have been built over the home of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and where the angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to her. It put Nazareth on the map. But a few blocks away is a much smaller Orthodox Church, said to have been built over a well and a home from as early as 6 B.C.E. Here, the Orthodox Christians say, is the simply home in which the angel Gabriel brought his amazing announcement to Mary. Which is the true place? That’s up for debate. What is not up for debate is how an extraordinary meeting between an angel named Gabriel, and a young innocent girl named Mary, changed the world. Today we are going to look at the events around the announcement, that the church calls, “The Annunciation.”
Author of The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris wrote this:
Annunciation means “the announcement.” It would not be a scary word at all, except that as one of the Christian mysteries, it is part of a language of story, poetry, image, and symbol that the Christian tradition has employed for centuries to convey the central tenets of the faith. The Annunciation, Incarnation, Transfiguration, Resurrection. A Dominican friend defines the mysteries simply as “Events in the life of Christ celebrated as stories in the gospels and meant to be lived by believers.” But modern believers tend to trust in therapy more than in mystery [creating calls to worship that say something like] “Use this hour, Lord, to get our perspectives straight again” rather than express awe …fear, and trembling, as we come into the presence of God, crying “Holy, Holy, Holy.” [Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, Farmington, PA, Plough Publishing House 2001, p. 44-45.]
Today, we visit mystery. We visit the simple home of a girl who had been chosen by the Creator of the World, selected; set apart. How do we know she was set apart? Because God’s messenger, upon seeing her, gave her a new name. Do you remember it? First, he said a word like “Greetings,” or “Hail;” then he bestowed on her this title: “O Favored One.” It takes my breath away to hear that again. A girl, going about her daily chores, got “a visit.” The church might call that “The Visitation.” And in that visit, there is something of a naming ceremony: “Favored one.” Later at the Jordan River and on top of a mountain, Jesus himself heard such an announcement, shared in front of trusted disciples: A voice from the clouds declared: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” How long must a son wait to hear words like that from his father? I spoke to a man who was over eighty years old last year, whose father had died ages ago. He teared up as I offered my own words of affirmation to him. Then he said: “All my life I waited to hear words like that from my father. They never came.” What a blessing we can offer others if we can lift them up with special words! Mary got a new name and, an extraordinary visit! Those words sound like poetry in our Bibles, but they are powerfully descriptive: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man who name was Joseph, of the House of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” And so, Heaven’s holy plan unfolded. A named angel—Gabriel—is sent not just to earth; not just to Galilee of all the backwater regions, but to the most backwater village of them all—Nazareth. And there, the angel had to find a certain girl, who was already engaged to a man named Joseph. In such a small town, she would not have been hard to find, especially since God had his eye on her as his chosen handmaiden. Joel B. Green, a Dean from Asbury Theological Seminary enlightens us: “Betrothal (NRSV engaged) was a legal promise that served as a precursor to marriage. In Roman law, minimum age of marriage for girls was 10, and Jewish practices were similar. Marriage generally took place before a girl reached 12 and a half. As a virgin, Mary would have been a young girl of marriageable age (i.e. about 12 or 13) ….” [New Interpreter’s Bible Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003. P.1853.] It took the eyes of God to find a girl with the heart that Mary had, just as God passed over all the other sons of Jesse in First Samuel 16. Instead, God chose David, the youngest, because God knew his heart. God knows the heart of those who are chosen. Here, Gabriel continued with the message he was giving. He could see, according to verse 29, that Mary was anxious about what was happening. He tried to soothe her, as angels would also do for shepherds in Bethlehem. “Fear not” Gabriel said or in plain English, “Do not be afraid.” Then he continued: “You have found favor with God.” “What an announcement!” Mary must have been taken aback! “Is there more for me to hear than that?” perhaps she thought. Indeed, there was. She was told she would conceive (even though she’d had no physical relations with anyone) and bear a Son (even the gender was already announced before conception!) and she was instructed to call his name “Jesus.” (Normally the name would have been chosen by the parents after the birth of their child. Sons were often named for their fathers. This was most unusual!) Then, to add to the extraordinary event, she was told about the qualities that her baby would have. Gabriel said: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” Mary, of course, wonders how this could take place. The angel tells her the extraordinary way that the child she will carry will be connected with her by the Holy Spirit, and he will therefore be called “Son of God.” That’s really all Mary needed to hear from the angel. No more questions. So she said these words:
“Let it be with me according to your word.”

Kimberly Bracken Long when she was on the faculty of Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, made this observation:
In Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting The Annunciation, (1898) there is no mistaking that this messenger who Luke identifies as Gabriel is a holy being. The angel is represented as a bright column of light appearing before Mary as she sits on her pallet. This is no being that she—or we—have seen before, but a radiance beyond human experience or understanding. The holy being bursts into the earthy realm, into a particular time and place (vs.26) sent by God to a particular person in a particular community. Already we see that we cannot anticipate the ways that God will break into human history—into our history! Even this announcement of the long-awaited birth, of the Messiah, makes clear that we do not create our own salvation, nor do we have the capacity to imagine the ways of God. [Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008, p. 93]

     The message of Mary this week is not revolutionary as we named it last week. Last week we were encouraged to stand up for those who are downtrodden, and the work for justice. This week, this encounter makes us feel the divine mystery—the Divinum Mysterium to use the Latin church language. Who could have guessed who God had chosen? How could the divine will of the Lord be anticipated, or figured out?  The Bible points again today to  the surprising will and surprising choices God makes. We love that God chose Moses who felt inadequate; that God chose David who seemed too young; and that God chose Mary, who seemed too innocent to become what some would call her, “The Queen of the Universe.”  God did not go to the households of priests in Jerusalem to find the right handmaiden. He went to Nazareth, where no giant Basilica of the Annunciation stood. Over the years we have venerated Mary, and appropriately so. But God chooses whom God chooses, because God’s name is “I AM WHO I AM.” Imagine; who might God be calling this week to do an extraordinary task? You? A family member? A friend? 

Being a family of Florida Gators, I’ve heard the story of one of Florida’s finest quarterbacks: Tim Tebow. His father was a Christian missionary to the Philippines and he and his wife Pam had four children. When Pam found she was expected a fifth child, a son, the doctors in the remote village where they were ministering believed her placenta had dried up and that it could become a source of infection, risking her life.  They didn’t think the baby would survive, and they recommended terminating the pregnancy. But Bob Tebow, the father, prayed to God saying (and I'm paraphrasing) "If you want me to have another Christian witness in this family, Lord, then let this son, who we are naming Timothy, be born safely and grow strong." The result: the excellent athlete, and the excellent Christian witness we have today: Tim Tebow. Tim's Facebook page this week had this message: "I'm grateful for my highs because they've given me a platform.... But I'm genuinely grateful for the lows as I learned so much through them and they gave me a testimony." This year, as many of us are dragging through darkness, perhaps we will have a low experience from which we can draw strength and testimony too? Who might God be calling to do something extraordinary in the bleak midwinter we are facing?

Sometimes God does not send a messenger in a beam of light. Sometimes God speaks to us in a still, small voice as he did with Elijah. And what was God’s surprise location for the birth of the Son of God? In a fine hospital with the best of care like our elected officials in Washington D.C.? No. Jesus did not ever get a proper bed. No one expected the Messiah to be born in a place “rude and bare” as the Christmas song described it. And yet he was the greatest gift of all. Our unexpected God. What might the Lord be planning now to change the malaise of this world? Who now might feel the brush of angel’s wings? Our unexpected God still choses humans and angels to work heaven’s holy purpose out.
Let us pray:
Holy God: who will you choose to carry out your purpose in this year and the next? Help us to be aware that you choose ordinary people who have extraordinary hearts, ones who have already prepare him room. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 20, 2020

12-13-20 THE WORD TO MAGNIFY


Luke 1: 46-55
This year in our gospel readings we turn to the words that made Mary, the Mother of Jesus, a revolutionary. Next week, as we get closer to the blessed event, we will visit Mary, the innocent young woman visited by an angel. In an issue of Christianity Today, a man named Scot McKnight offers these insights on Mary:
There are two Marys. One wears a Carolina blue robe, exudes piety from a somber face, often holds her baby son in her arms, and barely makes eye contact with us. This is the familiar Blessed Virgin Mary, and she leads us to a Christmas celebration of quiet reflection.
Another Mary—the Blessed Valorous Mary—wears ordinary clothing and exudes hope from a confident face. This Mary utters poetry fit for a political rally, goes toe-to-toe with Herod the Great, musters her motherliness to reprimand her Messiah-son for dallying at the temple, followers her faith to ask him to address a flagging wine supply at a wedding, and finds the feistiness to take her children to Capernaum to rescue Jesus from death threats. This Mary followed Jesus all the way to the Cross—not just a mother, but as a disciple, even after his closest followers deserted him. She leads us to a Christmas marked by a yearning for justice and the courage to fight for it. Like other women of her time, she may have worn a robe and a veil, but I suspect her sleaves were rolled up and her veil askew more often than not. [Christianity Today, November 28, 2006]
So we have the next-week Mary—remembered in statuary, in stained glass, in hushed tones; and we have the this week Mary—whose words were revolutionary when they were proclaimed, and they are revolutionary now. Many people revere Mother Teresa, but she was not a quiet, reverent woman working in Calcutta, India. She, like today’s revolutionary Mary, had her sleeves rolled up and her veil a little askew. And though she was less than 5 feet tall, she spoke like a sergeant in God’s army. When my friend, the Rev Susan McCaffrey, went to Calcutta when Mother Teresa was there, “Mother Teresa asked gruffly: “What do you want?” O Mother,” Susan said, “I so admire you.” “I don’t need admirers” Mother Teresa replied, “I need workers! Roll up your sleeves!” She called for workers, not for admirers. She condemned the rich who did nothing to help. She personally helped the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick in Calcutta, a city wracked with disease, and stench, and death. This is where she brought her heart for Christ, and this is where Mary, the mother of Jesus, the one who offered words of revolution, would likely have worked with her, sleeves rolled up. What good are powerful words if they remain in stained glass? Today mother Mary is also calling for workers, not admirers.
Revolutions start from cauldrons of anger and social injustice. 1968 was such a year in America. Years from now, might we look back on 2020 and name it as revolutionary too? Mary spoke her revolutionary words around 5 BCE. The Romans were crushing the life and the money out of the Jews, and they had a paranoid and insecure tyrant—self named Herod the Great—who was carrying out the Romans’ orders. If the Jews wanted freedom, he would oppress them, while he lived in a Royal Palace in Jerusalem, a hillside home in the Judean wilderness that he named the Herodian, and a summer getaway at the top of a majestic mountain called Masada. Herod had it all—everything except trust in those around him, even his family members. He decreed that cruel actions should be carried out regularly, so Jews—his own people—both feared him and hated him. At one point in the gospel of Matthew, the paranoid man ordered what both the storied pictures and the Scripture text paint as horrific. Known as the Slaughter of the Innocents, Herod ordered the murder of all children in and around the little town of Bethlehem, hoping that no child could grow up to become King. That is the kind of event that Mary saw in her vision and that she announced in what we call the Magnificat. She took a magnifying glass to history and zeroed in on the events that took people’s lives, or took people’s dignity, or both. Although to this day the world has told and retold the sorrow of the slaughter of the innocents, in actuality many more deaths than that have been carried out under the command of Presidents and Kings and Dictators over the years against children, against women, against people of poverty, against people of color and more. There have been slaughters of innocents even in 2020. And Mary, taking a magnifying glass to a timeline of earth, has helped shine a light on all of their darknesses. Is that overstating the power of the revolutionary words of Mary? Part of the world enshrines her in Cathedrals, while another part is inspired by her fire. The Mary we hear in these timeless words of proclamation might have had the nerve, and the voice, and the passion of Greta Thunberg, a young Swedish environmental activist who gained notice for her youth (she is now just 17) and her straightforward manner of speaking in public and in assemblies. Some admire her; some scorn her; but she brings a revolutionary spirit that the Mary we are visiting today proclaimed. Just for context, most scholars would say when an angel visited Mary, she was even younger than Greta! What an amazing girl Mary was, filled with God’s Holy Spirit! You’ve heard people filled with the Spirit, haven’t you? They surprise listeners with their incisive comments, and they motivate bystanders to become activists, or at least to be involved. Mary was changed after the angel Gabriel visited her. We’ll hear about that visit next week. But today, as we have young Mary, now expecting a child in a most extraordinary way, she was sent away from her hometown, perhaps to protect her from criticism. She was sent to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was also expecting a child, though she believed she was beyond child-bearing years. They rejoiced in each other’s company, and, in fact, their babies in their wombs leapt at the sound of their voices!
Today Mary’s powerful words are first meant to comfort and bring hope to those having trouble finding enough food; or enough money; or enough PPE to protect themselves. Hers is a call to action to help them! Women and men who have heard Mary’s cry today are addressing care inadequacies. They are pointing to people of means who have sequestered themselves in halls of power and in their residences behind walls and fences. Mary calls for social walls to come down! The divide of wealth in the first century Judah is still evident in 21st century America. In Judah, Mary found her backbone and her voice, and her words became the platform on which social justice changes could be made then and now. We can hear again the roaring cries of prophets who warned that going down the path of denial would never make our world become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. Mary is not just to be adored by the faithful; she is the one who is calling for revolution; for action; for better laws and better working conditions; for people with means and power to bring hope to those with neither. Read her words in Luke chapter 1 again. That is what our Lord Jesus would call us to do! Jesus had a mission with his Heavenly Father, but he also had a mission inspired by his mother! This is what prophets and many preachers through the ages have called us to do: to work for social justice. That is what people like Mother Teresa did with her life. This; this is mother Mary; the mama bear Mary, caring for the human race; taking on the work of the special child she was carrying. We can honor her best by not just adoring her, but by joining the movement she announced that fateful day. We can roll up our sleeves, speak up against injustice, and work to change what we can change. The 21st century and the first century. In terms of the rich and the poor, our ages are sadly similar.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 13, 2020

12-06-20 THE WORD TO PREPARE

Isaiah 40: 1-5; Mark 1: 1-8

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens began his famous book A Tale of Two Cities with those words. They could have described Jerusalem in Isaiah’s day or Washington D.C. in our day. Since the election, some are relieved, and some are riled up. We still live in a time of unrest. Ages ago there were also activities of unrest. Best and worst of times.

Somewhere between 700 and 500 BCE, many scholars believe that the first 39 chapters of Isaiah were written. They include countless words of warning before the Babylonian exile for the people of Israel. People had turned from God and weakened God’s trust in them. Corruption and disruption were apparent. Chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah offered a new deal, or if you will, a new covenant. It was prophesied that the best of times was to come. Thus, we begin to hear the prophesies about Christ in the Advent season. Many of this month’s themes come from Isaiah.

Dr. E. John Hamlin was a Presbyterian missionary to Thailand who I met. He wrote a commentary on Isaiah 40-66 called Comfort My People. In it he wrote what it must have been like to be
Israelites in Babylon:
The tiny Israelite minority in Babylonia faced temptations to despair, idolatry, and narrow nationalism in a world which held no security for them. They had to reconstruct their faith for a changed world. That had to think anew about who they were, who God was, and what they should do. God sent prophets to help them.” (Hmm- despair; nationalism? These words could speak to us in our day too.) Hamlin continues to say: “Christians today also live in a time of crisis, and of deep changes which are taking place every day in society, political life, village life, and personal life. Many are suffering great hardship. All face temptations as the Israelite exiles did in Babylonia. A reconstruction of traditional faith is necessary now, as it was then. We need to ask who we are, who God is, and what we must do. Isaiah 40-66 can help us if we listen carefully to the message….” [Hamlin, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980, p.2)

The message of Isaiah 40 in verses one through five is so timeless and so relevant, that its message is still offered in word and song across America and the world. It was a message for Israel. But it is also a message for us today. It breaks into two imperatives and one promise.

First, comfort my people. That was the proclamation—the imperative—heard from our first lesson today! We are told not to judge; we are told not to harass; we are told not to question. We are told to “comfort.” In Isaiah’s day the message was to comfort the Jews who were held captive in Babylon, not to comfort the Babylonians, or the Assyrians, or anyone else. Today that message is for Christians and for the mission of the church. For example, are our words to homeless families comforting, or confronting? Are our words to an unwed pregnant girl, not unlike Mary, comforting or confronting? Are words to people with Covid-19 comforting, or confronting? “In your head do you ask, “Were they wearing a mask? Did they avoid crowds? Were they socially distanced?” Our God’s imperative is to comfort those who are distressed; perhaps no year has been as distressing as this one. I am amazed that hospital personnel treat patients regardless of their situations in life. They just see a person who needs healing. We can join them by saying to those who feel judged or burdened that we also want them to feel whole again. Comfort one another.

Second, “prepare the way of the Lord,” John the Baptist said in Mark’s gospel. John Hamlin said in Thailand, “preparation” basically means: “When the water is high, fill your jars!”
The flood waters of life seem to rise for many of us. The way must be made clear for the coming of the King: one who will save his people. But there’s an impediment. Sins become the potholes of our souls. The rough places must be made smooth with continual repentance from sins, and reconciliation with those with whom you have nursed a grudge. This is not the time for old angers to fester; God was, and is, doing a new thing! No highways will be made straight in your life by wishful thinking, and no uneven ground will be made level by blaming others for sins that have stained your soul. It takes work to iron out differences or ask forgiveness as necessary. That makes the way clear for God! Prepare the way! Let every heart prepare him room! How are you doing with that?

Finally, if and only if the two conditions of comfort and preparation are met, all flesh—meaning meaning all people—shall see the glory of the Lord. That’s what Isaiah proclaimed, and it was captured by Handel in his magnificent work called “Messiah.” In Roger Quillen’s book Meeting Christ in Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ he wrote: “There is a wonderful legend about something that happened while Handel was composing his Messiah. In August and September of 1741, he isolated himself in one room of his London home, and in just 24 days, stopping only occasionally to eat and sleep, he wrote the entire oratorio. Once his servant came with a meal and pushed open the door, and Handel looked up, with tears streaming down his face, and confessed, ‘I did think I did see all of Heaven open before me, and the great God himself!’ The words of Scripture and the music he had written to express them merged in a rare moment of truth and beauty, and Handel was given a glimpse of something we wish we all could see: the glory of the Lord.” [Quillen, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984, p.61]
Isaiah declared what we already know: “The grass withers, and the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.” I started this message with a Charles Dickens quote, and I want to end with another one, from A Christmas Carol.
“Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner….Marley was dead as a doornail.”
A man named Michael Hoy wrote this concluding reflection on those words: “ ‘Old Marley’ was dead. His ‘old’ -ness is not simply a sign of his age, but the way he lived. He did not care for sisters and brothers in need. He did not seek to challenge the very systems that oppressed them (and us.) And now he is ‘dead as a doornail.’-and those present were only there to certify his death. We might see a lot of our own ‘oldness’ in his story. Yet in Advent, we prepare for a ‘new’ and promising story that comes to us in the child Jesus-a story where what is ‘old’ gives way to what is ‘new’ in the gifts of his life, hope, joy, and compassion. The story of his life and death and resurrection becomes our story. Even when the door of death shuts us in, the risen Jesus comes.” [God Bless us, Every One: Encountering Christ is Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” Creative Communications for the Parish, Fencorp: Fenton, Missouri, 2019, p. 4]
Before the grass fades; before we ourselves fade in this life: comfort one another, and prepare ye the way of the Lord, by repairing the potholes in your soul.
Let us pray: Stand with us O Spirit of the Living God, as we repair the holes in our souls, created by anger, or resentment, or sins. Help teach us how to forgive. We will do the work, with your help, so that one day, when like grass, we whither, we will not fly away forgotten, but will join Jesus having made this world more like the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 6, 2020