Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Eve Proclamation

Christmas Eve Proclamation
December 24, 2009
Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder

For years I stood before congregations on Christmas Eve, and spoke of subjects like giving and receiving — the sorts of topics that often characterize the words preachers want to say at services like this — until one time twenty years ago, when I found myself in the position of needy receiver during a month-long period. I remember clearly the day I awoke with feet so sore I could barely stand on them. I thought I must have pulled a tendon or something, so I hobbled around for a few days. Ultimately, things did not get better with my regimen of benign neglect, they got progressively worse. My ankles began to swell, all my joints ached. At first my doctor was as puzzled as I was until he referred me to a specialist who began looking into my problem and eventually solved it. In the meantime, I degenerated rather quickly from a racquetball-playing, slightly overweight, but otherwise healthy specimen, to a pathetic, hobbling creature on crutches whose doctor told him to keep his feet elevated at least 20 hours a day.

How do you keep your feet in the air 20 hours a day when you have work to do, hospital calls to make, meetings to attend, a session and committees to lead? It was difficult to ask for help, even humiliating for me, I confess. But when I got tired of limping my way around, I relented and began to ask. And lo and behold, from family, the church staff, and the wonderful members of that church, much like this wonderful church I discovered that people were eager to help, wanted to help, but before they could offer this gift to me, I had to be ready to ask for it and especially to receive it.

I think the occasion we celebrate tonight is something like that on a much grander scale. The child born in a stable in Bethlehem is the greatest gift God has ever sent the world. Isaiah refers to us as “the people who walked in darkness,” because that’s what we are without the light of Christ. But to leave the darkness, there is the necessity to recognize that there is more to this Christmas business than a sort of national gift day. Isaiah went on to say, “On them has light shined.” And we can make one of two responses to this gift of light. We can hold up our hands, like some night creature suddenly brought into daylight, we can shield ourselves from this gift of God, we can perpetually limit Jesus in our imaginations to a helpless baby in a feedbox in a pretty crĂȘche scene, we can refuse to let him grow into a savior. In our pride we can assure ourselves that we are good enough, that there is nothing in our lives that particularly needs saving. We would not be alone. Some people have been making this decision concerning Jesus for two thousand years.

But if there lives in us even a distant awareness that not everything in our lives is just the way it ought to be, if there exists even in the remotest stretches of our self-awareness the recognition that we need help, that not all is well with our souls, that we stand in need, that we are powerless in the face of some things to be the good people we try to be, then we become people who are ready to receive the child in the way God has intended. We become the people who finally admit to ourselves our desire to know him not only as a baby in a manger...or as I heard one person say last week, a flashlight in a blanket in a children’s play...but as a man who lived, who gathered disciples, who taught, who died, and who was raised again from death, all in order to help us. All we have to do is receive that help. It is there already. When we open ourselves to it, the people who walked in darkness, upon us a light will shine. The saving light of Christ. No other gift so characterizes Christmas. I pray for this gift for you this joyous season. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Before We Go

Before We Go

Third of Three Sermons
on the “Christmas Carols” of the Early Church

© copyright 2009 Robert J. Elder
Sunday, December 20, 2009

Luke 2:25-35

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word.

Two weeks ago we started a series of three Advent sermons by remembering the first song in a trilogy of songs from the gospel of Luke. The first of those was probably the best-known, the much loved song of Mary, the Magnificat.

The second song, which we shared last week, was the less well-known Song of Zechariah, the Benedictus, or “blessing.”

The third song we share today is the song of Simeon, which also carries a traditional Latin title from the first words of the passage in the Latin translation, Nunc Dimittis. As the infant Jesus was presented at the Temple, old Simeon, who had been waiting his whole life to see the Messiah, realized the promise of God had been kept and he burst into song.


Several years ago, the New York Times reported that a local music teacher came to the Brooklyn Public Library and borrowed a copy of the full orchestral score of Handel’s Messiah. For some reason, the distracted librarian failed to make a record of the loan. Several other requests came for the score, and the library staff spent a good deal of time looking for it. When the day came that the music teacher returned to the library with the score, he placed it on the circulation desk, and was “astonished to hear the librarian spontaneously, joyously, and loudly shouting, ‘The Messiah is here! The Messiah is back!’... Alas, as the Times reported, ‘A few minutes later everyone went back to work.’”[1]

Garrison Keillor once wrote in one of his classic Lake Wobegon, Minnesota stories about his imaginary childhood in that imaginary town.[2] I recall that story when I think of the story of Simeon, like those librarians waiting for the Messiah to come. Keillor wrote that the principal in his elementary school had come up with the idea of “storm homes” for all the children: pre-arranged homes in the town where children from the country could go in the event of a Minnesota blizzard:

[My storm home] was the Kloeckls’, an old couple who lived in a little green cottage by the lake ... it looked like the home of the kindly old couple that the children lost in the forest suddenly come upon in a clearing and know they are lucky to be in a story with a happy ending. That was how I felt about the Kloeckls, after I got their name on a slip of paper and walked by their house and inspected it ... I imagined the Kloeckls had personally chosen me as their storm child because they liked me. “Him!” they had told Mr. Detman. “In the event of a blizzard, we want that boy! The skinny one with the thick glasses!”

No blizzard came during school hours that year, all the snowstorms were convenient evening or weekend ones, and I never got to stay with the Kloeckls, but they were often in my thoughts and they grew large in my imagination. My Storm Home. Blizzards aren’t the only storms and not the worst by any means. I could imagine worse things. If the worst should come, I could go to the Kloeckls and knock on their door. “Hello,” I’d say. “I’m your storm child.”

“Oh, I know,” she’d say. “I was wondering when you’d come. Oh, it’s good to see you. How would you like a hot chocolate and an oatmeal cookie?”

We’d sit at the table. “Looks like this storm is going to last awhile.”


“Terrible storm. They say it’s going to get worse before it stops. I just pray for anyone who’s out in this.”


“But we’re so glad to have you. I can’t tell you. Carl! Come down and see who’s here!”

“Is it the storm child?”

“Yes! Himself, in the flesh!”

Simeon is perhaps the least well-known of the three singers of songs surrounding Jesus’ birth. You may recall that Zechariah, on hearing the instructions of the angel in the temple, did not believe. Luke tells us that Simeon, whose name means “hears and obeys,” had a more appropriate reaction to a promise. He received a promise of God through the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah, the anointed one of God who would come to save his people. So Simeon was a waiter. Not like the person who serves tables at the restaurant, but one whose calling was to wait and watch until God made his move. It’s never easy to be one who waits. And the most difficult waiting of all may well be the waiting we do when we wait upon God.

So this is a bittersweet story in two ways. First, Simeon received the joyful news for which he had waited his whole life, but that meant that he would now, of course, be prepared to die, which we may assume probably took place not too much later. And second, the child Jesus, now but a few days old, was celebrated in song, and returned to his mother with the words, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

One commentator on this passage said, Simeon “speaks poetically of the terrible price both [Mary] and her son must pay,” reminding us that we would never have had Christmas had it not been for Good Friday and Easter. “In that reversal of nature, which carries with it a pain unlike any other, the parent will bury the child.”[3] Christmas celebrates the birth only because it led to a death by which all the world was able to aspire once again to life.

In the Song of Simeon, the shortest of the three songs in the birth stories from Luke, Simeon begins in celebration that he can now go to his reward “in peace.” Peace is a word Luke uses at least 12 times in his gospel. It is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Shalom,” which means peace, but which means much more than that. It means wholeness, completeness.

Simeon was not just singing that he was free now to go to his death with an absence of conflict, not that kind of peace. No, he meant that something that had lacked completion was now finished, that his life had a beginning, middle, and now a satisfactory end, he was whole, and knew that his eyes had seen the next step in God’s plan for the saving of the world.

And Simeon sang at the beginning of the gospel about a salvation which was both a glory to God’s chosen people, the people Israel, but also — and this is the part that seems able to read the future — a salvation that would be a light to the nations. Simeon knew the prophecy of Isaiah, and he wasn’t shy about referring to it here in his song, long before Jesus had begun to teach, long before the parables, the walk on water, the healing ministry, the teaching in the temple, the last supper of Maundy Thursday, the cross of Good Friday, the resurrection of Easter Sunday. It was long before the first tentative steps the apostles would one day take into the gentile world to proclaim Christ crucified and risen again. Long before any of this, an old man – singing a song at the end of his long waiting life as he held the Christ child in his trembling arms – could see it all, the salvation of the whole world lay in potential in the shape of this child.

No wonder he could depart in shalom, in peace. The whole of the gospel rested there in plausible form in that very moment of recognition and celebration.

While we are in darkness, there are no distinctions, no good no bad, no beautiful or ugly, just darkness. But once light comes, distinctions emerge. “Anyone who turns on the light creates shadows.”[4] We would like to think in this season of what is pleasant, the warm glow of the stable, the mothering of Mary, the protective staff of Joseph, the kindly admiration of passing shepherds that we don’t much need preachers or prophets coming along to remind us of crucifixion. Yet here it is, in only the second chapter of Luke, as Simeon speaks to Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” Even in the season for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, Simeon’s song is there to keep us mindful of his death. No wonder we rarely hear this song, it spoils all the fun.

But the fact is, to celebrate his birth, as Simeon knew and announced, is to be drawn into his mission, and his mission always involves conflict with those who would resist it. It is the price of the redemption, the salvation for which Simeon and all Israel had been praying for the previous 5 or 6 hundred years.

Simeon reminds us of something we forget only at our peril, that there are some causes, some things worth dying for. I am sure that on September 11, 2001, there were police officers and fire fighters who entered the World Trade Towers, knowing they would almost certainly not come out alive. They went in anyway. Whether they made the decision to go in an instant, or over a lifetime of commitment to the safety of others, they had made it and judged it worth dying for.

It has been said that those who find nothing in the world worth the price of their dying will be condemned one day to die for nothing, for we all die. What better time to be made aware of this truth then at the observation of a birth. We see nothing but potential stretched out in front of a new baby, but in the end, that child, like all children, will commit himself or herself to something, and their life will be spent, whether for good or ill, it will be spent.

We join Simeon in his prayer as we contemplate the birth of Jesus. “Let your servant depart in peace,” we say: shalom, in wholeness, complete, having given the gift of this life we have received for something worth our having been given it. Lord make me whole, we say, because we know we are not. Give me shalom, peace, wholeness, a sense of being at one with your purpose.

Think of this song of Simeon and his words to Mary.

“Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace...and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Someone once said, “Here is a sure way to spoil a perfectly good Christmas party. Call your friends to a moment of reflection and ask them whether there is anything they would be willing to die for. In the stunned silence of the moment the partygoers may move closer to the true meaning of Christmas than they will in the joyous singing of carols and the exchanging of gifts.”[5]

There is so much in the Christmas story that speaks especially to a willingness to go where God is leading even when there is no clear human capacity for understanding that things will come out all right if we do. The angel speaks to Mary, and she says, “Let it be to me according to your word...” The angel speaks also to Zechariah, and when he can finally see that the promise of God means blessing for him and for his people, he bursts out in songs of praise to God. The Holy Spirit moves in the life of Simeon to bear witness to the most important event of his long life, and he is able to sing about the wholeness, the shalom of the people that will result from the birth of this child. There is an old poem by George MacLeod, called “Not Just for a Time,” captures this so well:

Jesus saves in the measure that we let him rule
always and not just for a time.
In the measure that we are enslaved to him
always and not just for a time.
You just try it in these coming days – I am not pleading
because you have already, in fact, made up your mind to do so –
just try being a wise man (or woman) this Christmas.
Bring the gold to him. Offer him the material world
in which you move, and run it on human lines.
Bring the incense to him. Offer him your spiritual life,
your instincts and desires, lay them at his feet.
It is easy at Christmas
when the spirit of Give is everywhere about.
And, if you want his way to rule,
and his love to save,
not just for a time,
then offer him myrrh, the symbol of burying.
Kill your old self. Keep the world turned upside down
just for his sake, and you will find that Jesus comes to save -
not just for a time.[6]

There is so much more possibility in our world than we can ever see or guess, there is so much that God can accomplish. Come, thou long-expected Jesus. We are doing the best we can.

And we are waiting…

[1] Tom Long, “They Also Serve Who Wait,” in Shepherds and Bathrobes, CSS Press, p. 47.

[2] Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days, Viking Press, 1985, pp. 248-249.

[3] Fred Craddock, Luke, John Knox Press, 1990, p. 39.

[4] Ibid., p. 39.

[5] “God as Santa, Santa as God,” by Miroslav Volf, Christian Century, December 19-26, 2002.

[6] “Not Just for a Time,” Advent Talk, December, 1958, Daily Readings with George MacLeod, Ron Ferguson, ed., HarperCollins, 1991.

Sunday, December 13, 2009



Second of Three Sermons on

the “Christmas Carols” of the Early Church

© copyright 2009 Robert J. Elder

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Luke 1:5-25, 57-80

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

Last week we started a series of Advent sermons by remembering the first song in a trilogy of songs from the gospel of Luke. The first of those was the well-known song of Mary, often referred to by the first word of the passage in the Latin version, Magnificat, which means “magnify.” Luke places the Magnificat during Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, who carries in her womb John, who will become the Baptizer.

The second song, which we share today, is the less well-known Song of Zechariah, also referred to by a Latin word that appears as the first word of that passage, Benedictus, or “blessing.” Zechariah sang this song at his son’s traditional naming ceremony, this after months of disbelieving muteness surrounding the late pregnancy of his wife Elizabeth – Mary’s cousin – and the birth of John.

The third song we will share next week will be the song of Simeon, which also carries a traditional Latin title from the first words of the passage in the Latin translation, Nunc Dimittis, which mean something like “Now you are dismissing.” The infant Jesus was presented at the Temple, as John had been, and old Simeon realized a promise of God had been kept and he burst into song.


I’ve always had a problem with the angelic appearances in the Bible. Maybe you have too. I come from a long tradition of folks who subscribed more or less to the Scottish Common Sense school of philosophy. We are comfortable with things we can see to be real, things that make logical sense. There is so much that doesn’t seem to make logical sense in this story from the first chapter of Luke:

• There is the modern-day problem with angels just appearing willy nilly all over these stories, and especially nearly giving an old man a heart attack by just showing up at the altar without any warning. There are angels all over the Advent/Christmas stories, popping out of every closet and desk drawer, it seems.

• There is the matter of reproductive biology, that Zechariah and Elizabeth were clearly beyond their childbearing years – “My wife is getting on in years,” Zechariah said, in a total failure of spousal diplomacy – when the news came to get the nursery back in shape, that they would be needing the crib after all.

• There is the medical matter of Zechariah’s sudden and inexplicable muteness after Zechariah expressed what any of us would probably consider completely reasonable questions to the angel. Then followed the equally sudden recovery of his speech, all this quite beyond anything we normally see, outside of the flu season.

There is no point in trying to make a full response to every modern quibble over the biblical witness except perhaps to say, just because many of us may not have seen angels doesn’t mean there aren’t any. The New Testament is full of them, uniformly assigned to duty as messengers of God. Just because Elizabeth was “getting on in years,” doesn’t mean that the God who created the world out of chaos and nothingness could not make a way clear for an older woman to bear a son. Just because we don’t see people struck speechless all that often doesn’t mean that it might not be an awfully good idea in lots of cases, I have a handful of nominations myself. Maybe you do too, present company excepted, of course.

Zechariah, nervous as a cat over his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve as priest in the Temple, had been going about his duty behind the curtain, shielded from the worshiping congregation, preparing to make an offering of incense, probably checking his crib sheet to make sure he wasn’t making any mistakes, hands shaking, he was ready to light the incense when he looked up and big as life – maybe bigger – an angel of God was standing beside the altar telling him to throw away the crib sheet, now he’d be needing a real crib.

Only members of certain tribes could serve as priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth came from a line of priestly people, so theirs was a sort of double-priestly family. By the first century, there were quite a few of them, so often it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to enter the sacred space of the sanctuary and make offering to God, as the passage says, “...he was chosen by lot,” meaning, there were many priests waiting, hoping for the opportunity to serve.

For his failure immediately to take the angel at his word, he was made suddenly speechless until the day he saw the angel’s words come to pass. Given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to offer the prayers in the Temple on behalf of the people, before he even lights the incense, he is given the answer to all the most heartfelt prayers, but because he does not believe, he is left, literally, with nothing to say on behalf of the people. He had already denied the promise for which he had been prepared to pray. Odd, this thing about our prayers being sometimes answered before we can conceive that they would be, perhaps our many prayers are in the process of being answered months, years before we even utter them.

Of course, Elizabeth conceived, and when her son was born and taken to the Temple to be named, everyone thought he would be named for his father or grandfather, as was the custom. But Zechariah fulfilled the command of the angel from nine months before and named him John, which means “The Lord has been gracious.”

Once the command was fulfilled, Zechariah’s voice returned, and, as if from a scene in a Broadway musical, he burst into song: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel...”

I want to pause there for a moment and just consider what a line that is. If you are like I am, probably your prayers often run along this sort of track: “Lord, bless me, bless Uncle Joe, bless my brothers and sisters, bring your blessing to...” and so on. In this song, Zechariah, mute for 9 months, childless until now, bursts into a song blessing God.

Someone once wrote that God’s purpose in freeing and saving his people is so that we may be about our main business, which is worshiping God. So many stories of salvation in the Bible are only secondarily about deliverance from the enemy, they speak of deliverance from the enemy primarily in order that God’s people will be free to worship God. It is God’s primary desire from us, and it is so fitting that the very first words from Zechariah’s lips after months of silence were words of blessing to God.

It had probably not occurred to Zechariah that there was the possibility of a gift for him for which he had long since ceased to pray. Six years ago, in Salem, our Christmas Eve service was videotaped a month ahead of time in order that the denomination could have it broadcast it on Christmas Eve on CBS television. The theme was, appropriately enough to our story today, “Receive the Gift.” Zechariah was like us, inasmuch as we seldom appreciate gifts that meet no obvious needs or satisfy no identifiable desires. The gifts that God longs to give us are often gifts that we do not have the wisdom to request. They may strike us as of little value in our filled-up and too-full lives.

But when the angel stands before us and we begin to see our lives as empty because of a failed purpose we once thought was so central, when the accomplishments of life turn to dust before our eyes, when we recognize that the very thing we most needed was that which we had most neglected, and we realize there is no hope in us, when we become mute in the face of the terrifying discovery that we have devoted our lives to so little and missed so much, that is when the God of Israel, looking favorably upon us and redeeming us, is our only hope.

John the Baptist came by way of ther people in this story, and lived his purpose-filled life well in order to prepare us for the One who would live perfectly, the One who redeemed his people, and redeems us still. He is the gift that gives light to those in darkness and in the shadow of death, the One who places our feet upon pathways of peace.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Sunday, December 6, 2009



First of Three Sermons on the “Christmas Carols” of the Early Church

© copyright 2009 Robert J. Elder

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Luke 1:39-56

My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Last week we started the Advent season of expectation by remembering the beginning of the story of Jesus’ mother Mary, as she received the word from the angel Gabriel about her pregnancy and its result. We shared Psalm 25 as the scriptural song for the day to get the Advent singing underway, because now, today and the next two Sundays, we will be reading and seeking understanding from three New Testaments songs in Luke that surround the story of Mary’s expectation and Jesus’ birth.

The first song, the one we read today, is the well-known Song of Mary, often referred to by the first word of the passage in the Latin version, Magnificat, which means magnifies, or in my literal way of thinking, enlarges. Luke places the Magnificat during Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, who carries in her womb John, who will grow to become the Baptizer. It is no accident that it bears a striking resemblance to the Song Hannah sang a thousand years before Jesus, recorded in I Samuel. [1]

The second song, which we will share next week is the less-well-known Song of Zechariah, also referred to by a Latin word that appears as the first word of that passage, Benedictus, or blessing. Zechariah sang this song when his son, John was presented for circumcision and the traditional naming ceremony.

The third song we will share on the Sunday before Christmas will be the song of Simeon, which also carries a traditional Latin title from the first words of the passage in the Latin translation, Nunc Dimittis, which means something like, Now you are dismissing. The infant Jesus was presented at the Temple, as John had been, and old Simeon realized a promise of God had been kept and he burst into song.


I’ve been thinking large this week, because of our lesson for today, the Magnificat of Mary. The more I have thought about it, everywhere I look, I have found things that remind me of our lesson, such as these reading glasses which I used to wear mostly to read the footnotes in my Bible but which I now use to read almost anything. (By the way, it seems that printers are using tinier fonts as the years go by — I wonder who comes in here every so often and replaces my old easy-to-read Bible with these smaller print versions...). From those glasses to the pocket binoculars I carry to football games, wherever I look I see reminders of the opening words of Mary’s song.

Magnification, it turns out, is everywhere we look, from the Hubble telescope in outer space to the tiny contact lenses some folks wear to enhance their vision. When Mary went to see Elizabeth and commiserate with her about her own pregnancy, she ultimately burst into song, a song that has come to be known over the centuries by that first word of the passage as it occurs in the Latin translation: “Magnificat.”

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” said Mary. And during the season of Advent, with the culture all around us screaming about Christmas, most of us are in such a hurry to run by these little stories on our way to get to the manger and the shepherds and the before-Christmas sales and the singing choruses of angels, that we hardly stop to take notice of such a word. Magnify. How is it that Mary came to believe that she could magnify God? Isn’t God already as magnified as God is going to be? Here, the merest teenage girl from a backwater town in ancient Palestine had the temerity to declare that she would magnify the Lord. Is this only hubris? How did she come into possession of such confidence?

The original language of the Gospel is Greek, and the Greek word for “magnify” is much like our English word, with much the same meaning. Its prefix is mega, and as we might suspect from English words that begin with those four letters, it means to make great, to enlarge, to magnify, to extol. Think of the ways we use words with that prefix today: megastar, megahit, megabyte, megalomania, megalopolis, megaphone, megaton, megadose. In each case, we communicate the idea that something very big is involved. In its Latin root, the prefix transforms from mega- to magni-, which adds another whole list of concepts for bigness to our English language: magnanimous, magnificent, magnitude, and — of course — magnify and magnification.

I remember when I was a young boy, we used to use a magnifying glass sometimes to burn a hole through a piece of paper. In fact, as a Boy Scout growing up in the midwest — where there was plenty of sun — many of us carried a small magnifying glass in our bag of essential gear, since it could come in handy for lighting a fire when matches were not available. Think about that magnifying glass for a minute, now. Though it doesn’t really make the light source — the sun— bigger, what it does do is focus the sun’s essence, bring the brightness of the sun to bear in a tiny spot so that its essence can have an even more powerful effect than our normal everyday experience would allow. A piece of paper, left in even a bright sun all day will still not burst into flames. But in just a few seconds, the rays of the sun, focused by a magnifying glass into a tiny area, will bring terrific heat onto a small spot to the degree that it will begin to burn.

The magnifying glass does not make the sun bigger or more effective, it just increases the effect of the greatness that was there all along. Something that magnifies, like a magnifying glass, is not magnificent in itself, in fact it can be quite humble. But the thing magnified is brought to our attention in many cases in such a way that we wonder how we could have missed its presence and its impact before.

“I will magnify the Lord,” Mary said. What does it mean? I think it means at least this: Mary’s magnification of God does not increase God’s size, does not expand God’s care. Mary’s magnification works like a little magnifying glass that costs less than $5. Little, humble, limited as it is, it has the capacity to bring the greatness of the sun to bear, to magnify it, so that it can have tremendous impact where before its impact was unknown. Mary’s willingness to be the bearer of the Messiah meant that a humble, peasant girl from the backwaters of rural Palestine could serve to help make God’s magnificence known across the world. God’s desire to save, to love, to bring us into relationship was made more visible because of this humble girl.

We need to ask what there is in our own lives just now that needs magnification? Are there any ways in which our witness needs to be expanded? Could we magnify our hearts, expand our decision to care beyond where we are today? It is not just Mary who is capable of bearing the Christ. We carry Christ with us wherever we are. It is a scary thought to recognize in the humility of Mary the power of God to reach right down into even our own small part of society’s pecking order and use us wherever we are. God may want to use you, may be hoping and working his will so that you will be in a position to magnify him in places where his work and will have not been seen. In fact, I am confident that he is doing just that this very day.

Here is one last story about magnification. A couple of years ago a friend came to me to ask about gifting a portion of his life’s accumulation of assets to the church. Now, there are ways to make this happen so that my friend could continue to receive income from those assets during his lifetime, and his heirs will be able to do the same, then after that, a portion would go to support the ministries of the church. I remember saying I sincerely hoped that the final bequest to the church of these funds would not be for a long long time, long after I have retired and other hands had taken hold of the rudder of that church. But some time, some day, another magnification would be set to happen, hidden in the fabric of one individual’s decision to be a magnifier, to help provide a way for more people to know how gracious our God is. The fact is, there are many things in the church in which we sit which are here because of the anonymous generosity of others who wanted to magnify God — from the table around which we gather every Sunday and on some Sundaysn for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper; as a thanks to the church for the social ministries to them that had improved the conditions of their lives in this country, to the baptismal font, to the piano, you all could identify many more.

There are many ways, large and small, to magnify the Lord. The most important way is the giving over of ourselves to the work that God needs done in this time and place.

As with the spectacular case of humble Mary, God is in search of souls who will magnify the Lord this Christmas and beyond Christmas. What a privilege it is to be one through whom another person can see a little more of the greatness of God. We might take a moment in this coming week to ask ourselves, who has been God’s magnifier for you? Can you name names in your own mind? I know I can. I think of my youth pastor, Bill, my seminary mentor, George, my High School English teachers who taught me to love words and the power of words, Mrs. Lanier and Mrs. Ball. Once we have known someone who has magnified the Lord’s presence for us, we rarely forget them. And moreover, we are led to ask for whom could we be a magnifier? Can you name a name in your mind? If we resolve to begin to be that magnifier for another, the truth will be as Mary experienced it, that our spirits will rejoice, and we will know in a deep and secure way that we have been touched by the blessing of our Magnificent God.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] I Samuel 2:1-10.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

God, Remember Me

God Remember Me
(But only the Good Parts!)

© copyright 2009 Robert J. Elder
Sunday, November 28, 2009

Psalm 25:1-10
Luke 1:26-38

Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!

Do not remember me for that, Lord. Please remember me for this. Don’t recall my youthful indiscretions, instead, remember me for your goodness sake, for the way in which I have reflected your goodness and love. I have a friend who read this psalm once and remarked, “Would that the sins of our youth were the only sins that were remembered.”

Maybe that is why God chose a youth named Mary to carry forward the promise of God in human form in the person of her son, Jesus.

If we could be the author of our own remembrances in the minds of others, and especially in the mind of God, how would those remembrances look? The psalmist prays to be remembered for the ways that his life was a reflection of the perfect goodness of God. Implicit is his recognition that we cannot be the author of goodness, but that God creates a standard for goodness in the world that we can hope to reveal in our own living.

The sins of our youth, of our middle and old age, the collected memories of things that make us wake in the night, in the middle of the hour of the wolf, these things the psalmist — all of us — hope that God will overlook somehow.

I remember an old college acquaintance — a fraternity brother — that I ran into at a reunion a number of years ago. When I saw him he recognized me and his face turned a bit ashen. He held by then an important judicial position, but he knew I remembered him as an underclassman whose hair was grown to his shoulders and who was very much into the late 1960s experimentation with marijuana. Today he is a silver-haired prominent political figure. I bet he wishes to God every night that people have forgotten the sins of his youth. I don’t judge him today for what went on 40 years ago, but I wonder if he has been relieved of his own self-judging memories. I wonder if any of us have.

Almost any time I have the opportunity to connect with friends from my college fraternity days, there is a comment that I just wait for along the lines of, “Rob, when I remember all our college times, I still for the life of me just can’t believe you are a pastor.” Oh that God, and everyone else, would forget the sins of my youth.

When I was a graduate student, it seemed always to be the case that the people in the classroom or in the coffee conversation at the coffee shop who ranted and raved about this or that fundamentalist were themselves former fundamentalists, trying to outdistance themselves from their own past, and not succeeding well because they protested too much. The ranting was against themselves, chasing at ghosts of the sins of youth.

We may have awards, medals, certificates honoring us for this or that good work, prizes, pictures to recall the good memories we like to bring to mind. But what wakes us in a blur of apprehension the middle of the night are memories we would just as soon forget, anxieties, relationships with people long dead, insoluble problems that we can keep at a distance in our waking hours, but which can creep closer to our consciousness when we sleep, when our guard is down.

Oh it would be good if we could recall only the good things in our lives, and we hope God will do the same. We join the psalmist in his chorus: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions.”

Never mind asking God not to remember the sins of our youth, would to God that we could forget them. But we can’t. And so we can turn to them and use them as the teacher they can be for us.

Henri Nouwen once declared that to try to bury our past is to turn our backs on our best teacher. Our past is never finished with us, not fully. Go to a therapist, often one of the first questions that will come along will be, “Tell me about your relationship with your mother...or father.” Some things buried deep within us continue to shape us even if it is no longer in a healthy way, until we can bring them to the surface and decide to live in a new way.

Tony Campolo is a preacher I admire. “He’s a liberal Italian Baptist evangelical, a combination that defies all the odds,” as one of my ministry friends once said.[1] In a sermon he preached at Duke Chapel a few years ago, he told this story.

“I went to Eastern College as an undergraduate,’ he writes, “and I had an English teacher and I came into class late. I had just settled down when the professor, Dr. Ingles, called on me to pray – it’s a church-related college and we do that. He said, ‘Mr. Campolo, would you lead us in prayer?’ And so I started praying. And I said, ‘Good God, we thank you for this day and all Thy blessings to us. I thank you that You love us all. I’m grateful that You love me in spite of the fact that I am so worthless.’” At that, Campolo said Dr. Ingles interrupted him, “’Just a minute, just a minute… Mr. Campolo, you are not worthless. You are so precious that if you were the only person who ever lived, Jesus would have died just for you. That’s how precious you are. The word you should have used was unworthy…’”

One bright day when, as tradition declares, young Mary was reading quietly at her desk, the angel Gabriel came to inform her that she had been chosen by God to bear the Messiah. “How can this be?” wondered Mary.

One way to approach an answer to Mary’s question to the angel — and a good many of the deeper questions of our own lives — is to remember who the story is about. Did you ever think about the fact that the story of our own lives, with all the experiences we have collected over time, that in each and every circumstance including this one as we gather here today, the story is really not about you or me? Our purpose for being, our birth, our lives, our traumas, our memories, all are only secondarily about us. I believe that in this story from the Bible, as in the sweep of the stories of our lives, the story is about God and what God is doing or working through us to do.

In the end, the prayer of the psalm and the story of Mary are not about our remembered sins or angels who visit in the night, they are about God and the purposes of God. The reason we remember Mary’s story so well is her spectacular response. I heard someone ask once, “I wonder how many other stops Gabriel made that day before he found a young girl who would say yes.” We’ll never know if there is an answer to that question, because the Bible is only interested in the question of Mary, and her answer.

Next week we will approach the table of our Lord, the second Sunday in this season called Advent, a season which very much looks ahead and might seem not to be too concerned with what lies in the past. But then we take a good hard look and see that Jesus came to people who were trapped by their past, who could only think of the world in ways they had thought of it before. When we come to the table of grace, we discover that the host we may expect to find at the table is some long dead teacher from the first century, but every now and then, we eat the bread, we drink the cup and we have the insight to see that the Savior who lives is suddenly among us and within us. The supper of the Lord is not about us, it is about the coming reign and rule of Christ. The Savior whose blood was shed is no longer bleeding but lives so that the sins of our youth, middle and old age are not erased but are seen not to matter any more at all.

No wonder Mary was able to say, “Let it be to me according to your word.” By the power of the same God, we can say it too.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Michael Lindvall, in his sermon “In Spite of Ourselves,” Preached at Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, 12-8-2005.