a moment of love

Photo by Burkay Canatar

We have been waiting; we have been watching; we have been preparing, and hope has come. Emmanuel, God with us. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. A promise is fulfilled! A promise of love that began before time as we know it.

For a second, I imagined what may have followed the scene in the humble stable. First, I imagine all the excitement and joy of those who traveled to bear witness to the splendor of the birth of the Messiah. Then I imagine Joseph and Mary, socially saturated, needing rest, and baby Jesus needing to be fed. Finally, everyone tired after the visitation will turn and head home.

I think about the conversations on the way out. “That was so awesome! Good to see mother and baby looking so well. I hope the gifts we brought are what they needed.

And maybe there are questions like…What does this mean? What do we do now? Do you feel different? What should we do tomorrow?

Would those who traveled to this momentous occasion go back to their everyday lives? Would they be transformed? Do we feel transformed? What do we do now? How do we hold onto the joy that we felt just moments ago?

Happiness is a condition of circumstance, but joy is a condition of the heart. Joy comes not from achieving what we long for—-but from moving toward it. Transformation takes place not from our willpower and action but from allowing grace and love to fill the places of our hearts that feel most unlovable. And joy comes when we accept that we are part of a whole that began at creation—God – us – community.

In John’s Gospel, we hear that Jesus has always been. “In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was at the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and not one thing came into being without him. Life has come into being in him, and life was the light of all people.”

Jesus has always been with us. Yet this baby, vulnerable and small, born into the risky business of being human, changes everything. The moment in the modest stable was a happy one, but the joy that lasts beyond this moment comes from the continual movement toward that which we long for. God is always moving toward us. So we, longing for unconditional, vulnerable love, must also move into this risky business of being human, vulnerable, and loving.

David Benner, in his book “Surrender to Love,” says
“Regardless of what you have come to believe about God based on your life experience, the truth is that when God thinks of you, love swells in his heart, and a smile comes to his face. God bursts with love for humans. He is far from being emotionally uninvolved with his creation. God’s bias toward us is strong, persistent and positive. The Christian God chooses to be known as love, and that love pervades every aspect of God’s relationship with us.”

Jesus comes as a child with a heart wide open, loving, and forgiving. This child carries transformational love.

Receiving love while trying to earn it is not transformational. We often act as if we have some control over how much we are loved. But God’s Love for us has everything to do with who he is, not who we are. He loves us not because of who we are; —–we are because he loves us. And he pursues us with great desire and hope that we will surrender to His Love.

We will make mistakes, and those mistakes can make us feel unlovable. Those places where we feel most unlovable cause us pain. But pain is not the enemy.
It leads to self-discovery.
It leads to a deep need for God.
It leads to a need for others.

Mistakes are made, and we will continue to make them. However, the transformation that began at the birth of our savior was the transformation of the heart and what motivates us to move about in the world the way we do.

In Galatians, we hear that God sent the spirit of his son into our hearts. “Crying, Abba, Father!” We are no longer slaves but children of God. Jesus transforms our motivation from fear of discipline to the pursuit of love and surrendering to it. Surrendering to love begins in the heart and expresses itself in our behavior.

A child, this child, teaches us how to love. Love opens our hearts to joy.

We are no longer under disciplinary law. We are no longer slaves. Our actions are no longer centered on avoiding sin, no longer motivated by self-protection, fear, and seeking approval.

WE are children of God. We are heirs. We are created in love, by love, for love. When we live into this love, our motivation for action becomes love. Our actions become a movement toward God and each other.

Jesus didn’t come into the world afraid he didn’t come into the world self-protecting. He came in vulnerable and small and his parents, motivated by love, set out to provide for this child, who will give his whole life to provide for us an example of what love as a motivator looks like.

Surrender in safety, abandon fear, control, and unworthiness.
Practice gratitude, compassion, courage.
Intimacy is vulnerable. Love and allow the joy that comes–to shine into the dark places of your heart and mind. Then, like the child wrapped in his parents’ embrace, trust everything will be okay.

Love is the light that shines in the darkness. Jesus is the light of the world. With him, and all things came into being, and not one thing came into being without him. In the presence of light, darkness cannot exist.

Joy comes from knowing that love is present in all things. Therefore, we must be in pursuit, and whatever else happens, love will prevail.

In verse 4 of Psalm 147, we hear just how detailed God’s Love is; “He counts the number of the stars and calls them all by their names.” No matter how many people have walked this earth, we each have value and purpose. We each can bring light by loving.

The star in being a star brings light into the world. We being children of light, bring light into the world. As we return to day-to-day routines, we may continue to do the same activities. However, our actions are no longer acts of will; they are a response to love.

What has been concealed in the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament. We have moved from hope to joy! We are transformed!

Like Mary and Joseph, we are asked to respond to love with love.
Love has come. Emanuel God with us, vulnerable and open.
Will you cherish, nurture and help him grow?
Will you surrender to love and let love transform you?
Will you allow the joy that fills your heart to penetrate deeply?
Will you go out into the world as light?

When the risky business of being human seems too much, love holds you, protects you, strengthens you, and cherishes you just as you are.

a moment of thanks

Photo by lilartsy

I am encouraged by your presence, and I pray today you will have a rich encounter with Jesus, that you will be encouraged and strengthened in your faith.

There are many turning points in our lives and people who walked with us through them. Those moments and people are part of the story of how we ended up here in this place at this time.

As I reflect on the turning points in my life, my grandmother comes to mind. I called her grandmommie shortened to Gramma as I got older. In Highschool like most teenagers, I was in the midst of an identity crisis, and I had very little sense of direction. I also struggled with dyslexia which made the academic aspect of high school extremely challenging. I was embarrassed that I didn’t read as fast as others, and being called on in class was particularly stressful. Finally, I decided I wasn’t smart enough and pretty much gave up. I got lazy and neglected school.

Gramma, a retired teacher, saw something in me I didn’t see. She saw potential; she saw a future I couldn’t. She knew things I didn’t know. She had skills to teach me to help me cope with the learning disability that educators didn’t understand well at the time. She didn’t let me be lazy. She helped me see where my efforts and commitment were lacking. Gramma was my tutor, my encourager, and my guide. With her encouragement, I made a deeper commitment to my life. I went to college because she helped me see the person she saw in me and taught me how to live into it. Who I was; evolved into who I would become. I was the same, but then again, I wasn’t the same at all. Her love transformed me. She was my bridge.

The book of Malachi forms a bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Malachi could see both the past and the future. He saw the priest’s laziness and lack of commitment to God and worship. He saw the people of God as disillusioned, prideful, and disobedient. But he also saw the promise of the coming of the Messiah and how he would heal and mend those who came to Him. The breach was not irreparable, and God’s first message through Malachi was, “I have loved you. I am coming. Prepare the way. Commit to me as I have committed to you.

There are times in our lives that bridge where we have been and where we are going. It can be challenging to see these bridges. Sometimes, we can see them but are unwilling to cross. When we lose our commitment to God and ourselves, we cannot see what we cannot see. I believe God puts people in our path to help us. He gives us moments that refine us into his vision for us if we don’t shy away. In Genesis, he creates all things and declares them good. As we move through the Old Testament, goodness never leaves, but it is tarnished by laziness and lack of effort to live into being the people God wants us to be.

“In the reading we hear the question who can endure the day of his coming who can stand?” Jesus will be like a fuller’s soap. The fullers job is to clean and whiten cloth. It is soaked in soap and beaten to remove impurities, and the end product is beautiful and valuable. But the fabric must submit to the process.

There were many frustrating moments as I learned new ways to study and process information. But I knew my Gramma loved me, and I trusted her. So I met her commitment and made an effort to change and learn what she was teaching me.

As I read Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I hear a great deal of love in his words. Paul is grateful for the relationships he has; he feels held. He recognizes the goodness of the people yet understands the continual need to show them how to live successful mature Christian lives. He was committed to them and prayed that they would have more love, knowledge, and insight.
This love and encouragement will help them become the people God created them to be. He had confidence that the future would be promising because he recognized commitment in them.

Love is the first ingredient in this recipe for success. Love dissolves bitterness; love breaks barriers; love inspires. With love, we feel safe to go into those problematic places to push ourselves harder to do the work needed to become the people we are called to be. He didn’t teach them what to do and what not to do. Instead, he taught them about the love of Jesus, the power of that love, and how to let it work in us to develop our character. As our character is strengthened, we are more willing to be disciplined, be obedient and make good decisions. When loved, we feel safe enough to see the things about ourselves that we cannot see and strong enough to make the changes we need to make.

Who you are and who you will become is dependent on letting others teach you and help you while allowing the process of refining moments to do the work of transformation.

In the gospel lesson, we are given a gift of Old Testament scripture within New testament scripture, another bridge.

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Mark 1:3-5 NRSV

God commits to you, loving you perfectly and completely, guarding, guiding, and giving through others. Allow God’s love to restore you, refine you, and bring you to the place of repentance and preparation so that all you offer is as beautiful as you are.

In Creation, you were made, precious, and good. In the love of Jesus, you are made complete and beautiful.

What is your commitment to living into this beauty?
What is your commitment to loving others into theirs?

We are in a transitional time of our lives. We are being refined and called to prepare. You all are an integral part of the bridge between who I am and who I am to become. In these last two years of deacon school, you have been my guard, my guide, and you have given me much encouragement and strength in my commitment. You have been Jesus to me. I thank my God every time I remember you.
Amen

The Scripture Readings

https://www.lectionarypage.net/YearC_RCL/Advent/CAdv2_RCL.html

A moment of hunger

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https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+14&version=NRSV

Psalm 14:4 reads, “Have they no knowledge, all those evildoers who eat up my people like bread and do not call upon the Lord?”
And I wonder.
Who are these evildoers? I am inclined to say they are other people, not myself or people that I know.
But verse three tells us, “there is none who does good; no, not one.” So maybe it is me, at those times when I forget to seek God or when He seems out of my reach.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Samuel+11%3A1-15&version=NRSV

In the Old Testament story, there is no doubt that the evildoer is David as we enter into a dark moment in the life of a great leader.

Instead of going into battle against the Ammonites himself, David stays back and sends Joab to do a job that was meant for him. Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t tell us why he made this choice. Perhaps David was tired and needing some respite, this poet shepherd/king. Whatever the reason, David wasn’t where he belonged, which put him in a situation he wasn’t supposed to be in, which exposed him to temptation he would not have had, which led him to some awful decisions.

I believe there is a longing or hunger that runs through the scripture readings this morning. David, who has lost sight of God and forgotten himself, experiences a hunger. He is hungry and not sure how to have his hunger satisfied.

Hunger plus temptation is a dangerous combination and today’s reading tells a disturbing tale. David has reached a low point where God seems very distant from him. This David is “the David” who, in the service of the Lord, is a musician, a shepherd, a giant slayer, a conqueror, and a King. This is the David who God called “a man after my own heart.”

And David, being where he wasn’t supposed to be, with a feeling of emptiness, sees Bathsheba, another man’s attractive wife, and attempting to satisfy this emptiness takes her for himself. Bathsheba becomes pregnant. Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah, one of David’s loyal and steadfast top commanders. David, in his guilt, is desperate to cover up his terrible choice and sends Uriah home to his wife. When Uriah refuses to leave his men, David sends him to the front ranks of a planned assault to die. Uriah was a good and loyal man who, though he was not born into them, embraced the values of the people of God. Unfortunately, Uriah, a good man, was devoured like bread.

David was hungry but not hungry in the physical sense. Instead, he was spiritually hungry and couldn’t see what he needed, so as soon as temptation presented itself in his weakness, he sought to fill the longing with a woman that did not belong to him.

Think for a minute about the last time you were hungry, so hungry that you could feel it in the pit of your stomach.

Hunger, in the physical sense, is a signal that the body needs fuel. When we eat, we have more energy and more stamina to carry on the activities the day requires.

What David was experiencing here is another type of hunger. A spiritual hunger that sometimes we can also feel in our gut. It is an unsettling indicator that something is missing, but it is less clear what that might be.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+6%3A1-21&version=NRSV


In the Gospel reading, five thousand plus people gathered around Jesus to fill this type of hunger. This large crowd had been and continued to follow Jesus, hungry for knowledge and understanding. But, as time passed, Jesus recognized that physical hunger would also need to be addressed.
He chose this opportunity to teach Phillip how when looking to God and trusting, what you need to be satisfied in hunger, will be provided.

Remember David as a boy, too small to wear armor, defeats Goliath with five smooth stones. So we look now at a small boy with five loaves of bread and some fish and whose contribution feeds five thousand in the hands of Jesus. It says that the crowd was satisfied, but this satisfaction did not last long. They were fed spiritually and physically, but now they wanted to make Jesus king.

Wanting is another form of hunger. This hunger is similar to a longing for food and spiritual nourishment. But unlike spiritual and physical hunger, it is not true hunger and cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of what we want.

We, in our weakness, are easily moved by temptations and can find ourselves making poor choices to satisfy these pangs of hunger, especially when we lose sight of who God is and who we are in Christ.

What are you hungry for?
Peace, love, nourishment, understanding?
What are you wanting?

Something to think about, When was the last time you took something that you wanted but did not necessarily belong to you? This question is tricky because we can often justify the taking by convincing ourselves of our need for a particular thing. Understanding the difference between want and need can come from clues that our body gives us. When you have acquired the thing you wanted, did you feel satisfied, are you still uncomfortable, or did your discomfort increase?

I imagine David’s discomfort increased as long as he continued to pursue his wants instead of looking to God for his needs. We all experience wilderness times where our pursuit of God seems unnoticed by him; however, we must remember God is with us and remains with us. Jesus takes the weight of our hunger, reveals to us where our strength comes from, and carries the burden when we give in to our weaknesses and act as an evildoer.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=ephesians+3%3A14-21&version=NRSV

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians tells us that our hunger will be satisfied when we remain in the presence of Jesus. When we know the fullness of God’s love, and we act from a place of abundance. We are enough, and we have enough when we allow Christ to fill our hearts.

And in the words of Paul,
“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Amen.

A moment to dance

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David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. 

As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart. 

They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

King Herod heard of Jesus and his disciples, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Mark 6:14-29

I recently came across an old movie, Signs.  In the movie, the main character is a priest who loses his wife in a bizarre accident.  

Her last words to him seem to be gibberish as she breathes her last breath.

In one of the scenes following her death, the priest is at the dinner table with his brother, son, and daughter. When the brother requests a prayer before dinner. The father, in his brokenness, has lost his faith and says no. He will not pray. The son, who must be around 9 or 10, is afraid of the impending threat of aliens arriving and, in his distress, yells, “I hate you” to his dad.  

The aliens do arrive and wreak havoc on the town and the world. 

In a later scene the father, brother, and the two children are hiding in the basement when the son has an asthma attack threatening his life. The father, in his distressed fear, yells to God, “I hate you.”

Both of these characters felt abandoned, uncared for, and afraid.

In today’s Old Testament scripture, we witness a grand celebration filled with joy. But we are also given a glimpse into the suffering of Michal, who is Davids’s wife. While David is dancing and celebrating during the relocation of the ark, we hear that Michal is watching David dance and despising him in her heart. 

 We only get a small piece of the story in the reading today, so I would like to fill you in on a few details. Saul, Michal’s father, marries Michal to David to protect himself from a possible rebellion. He then sends David into battle, hoping he is killed. David marries Michal to get ahead in life. She was then taken from David and married to another man, who actually loved her, only to be stolen back by David, found to be barren, and basically dismissed. 

David, in this scripture, as he carries the ark of God to its new location, is dancing with pure joy and reckless abandon at the presence of the Lord He shows no regard for his wife’s unhappiness. I imagine Michal was not only embarrassed by David’s display of bizarre dancing but also must have had a great deal of anger at being tossed around like a possession, and taken from the only person who made her feel cherished. Michal’s unhappiness is entirely understandable. But, I wonder, should she resent David’s happiness in the presence of the Lord or his joy at being the chosen king. 

In the reading from Mark, we witness another unhappiness amid dancing and celebration. Herod is consumed with a deadly combination of political fear, family pressure, and public saving face. All this leads him to imprison and kill John the Baptist. He kills the man who is likely the one person in his life who could help him find true happiness.

When I read these readings, I can honestly place myself in both Michal and Herod’s positions. Bitterness and fearfulness have on occasion been the motivational factor in my actions. 

“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” Mary Wollstonecraft

Deep down, we all desire happiness. And happiness is good. But this is not something to be achieved. Happiness is not something we can pursue or manipulate. 

There is a powerful belief that controlling our environment or ourselves will bring happiness. But often, it is simply the acceptance of what is that makes us happy. Not to say we should never take action or pursue a thing, but that we should not place our happiness at the mercy of our environment. 

My friend Allyson, who some of you know, is a retreat leader in Louisiana.  

She said something to me years ago that I have never forgotten. 

“Never let anyone steal your joy.” Not meaning to protect your happiness at all costs, but I heard in these words that I should never let anyone’s actions steer my heart away from God.

Someone can steal my parking space, the spotlight, my time, or my money. But no one can steal my joy.  

There is a Buddhist philosophy that, It is the patterns of aversions, cravings, and fear that steal our joy.  

By acting in aversion to something, we don’t understand or like, about life circumstances, we imagine we can avoid suffering. But it is the aversion itself that causes the suffering.  

We also think we can avoid suffering by acquiring what we want or protecting that which we have. But, it is not the lack of a thing that makes us unhappy. On the contrary, it is the craving for it and the fear of losing it that causes suffering.

To reduce our suffering, we need to resist trying to acquire and control things while focusing on the goodness and blessings of God. All that appears threatening in life fades into the backdrop when we recognize the presence of God.

In Paul’s letter to the saints in Ephesus, we hear a blessing that, as faithful believers in Christ, should send us out dancing like David. In the Greek text, verses 3-14 are a single sentence. It is the longest and most complex sentence in the bible. I was tempted to add an abbreviated version of it to this teaching. However, I read in a biblical commentary that the complexity of this passage tells us a great deal about the value of our redemption. And I want you to hear it again.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”

Ephesians 1:3-14 NRSV

We are chosen by God not to carry the dwelling place of God, like David. Instead, we are chosen to be the dwelling place of God. We will never be abandoned. We are cherished. We can shout our hatred out to God until we have reached the end of ourselves. And then, I pray, in our exhaustion, we can return to the knowledge of the love of God and dance for joy as we live in his presence.

They shall receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God of their salvation. Psalm 24:4-5