Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why were you searching for me?

Luke 2: 41-52, NT page 59 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. Sermon It has been said that the first person enlisted in every war, regardless of nation or era, is God. We all, especially in times of great need, call on God to support our cause, which makes the words of Abraham Lincoln especially noteworthy: "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.” Many are not as wise as Lincoln, but assume that God goes along to love those whom they love, hate those whom they hate, pay attention to the sins that they pay attention to, and look over the sins that they are guilty of. This kind of person deals with scripture in the same way, reading the Bible not to be challenged but to be congratulated, focusing on those passages that justify their way of life, validate their self-righteousness, while ignoring those passages that call them to question what they already believe. And Christ - well, they assume that Christ is right there with them, as though he were something that they could slip into their pocket and take along for the ride, not realizing that they've been traveling in one direction for some time while having left Jesus behind back in Jerusalem. "Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey." A day's journey feels like a very long time to go without realizing that your child is gone, but I'm reluctant to be judgmental, just because I haven't done it yet doesn't mean I won't. And the greater point of this story is not that his parents left him behind, assuming he was with the other children or with an aunt or uncle whom they were traveling with, but that his parents assumed he would be going along with them and following their travel agenda – after all, they are the adults here, while Christ clearly is exercising a mind and a will all his own, not following close behind but deciding to stay at the Temple independently. Certainly, when it comes to Mary and Joseph’s frustration with Jesus’ independence I can relate. Already I've noticed myself not letting my daughters become their own people, make their own choices, but wanting them to like the same things that I like and enjoy doing the same things that I enjoy doing. At bedtime they get to pick their bedtime stories, and I won't attempt to manipulate their decision - if I don't want to read Pinkalicious and the Pink Drink for the 500th time I won't steer Lily into choosing a different book, I'll just throw Pinkalicious under the bed and when she looks for it I'll pretend I don't know where it is. Eventually they'll figure my little trick out. I'll no longer be able to hide the books I don't want them to read under the bed. More and more they'll make decisions on their own, more and more they'll become their own people with their own wills, and this is how it’s supposed to be. Our first pediatrician told us that as soon as the umbilical cord is cut it’s a parent’s job to help her children be functioning and independent adults - but what if that child starts doing things his parent doesn't like - what if he grows up and becomes his own man before his parents are ready to let him go? After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. "When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." In one way it seems strange to think of Jesus' parents searching for him. Hasn't Jesus always been beyond their control? Surely his parents must have known that this child would be no typical 12-year-old after his immaculate conception and everything else the angels told them, but none of that has kept any of us from making the same assumptions. Still too many Christians believe they are the ones setting Christ’s agenda. Several years ago a seminary classmate of mine told our class about a mission team waiting for their flight to Haiti in the Atlanta airport. To keep track of each other they all wore bright orange T-Shirts with the slogan, "Bringing the light of Christ to Haiti." Now I don't doubt that they did bring the light of Christ to Haiti through their benevolent actions. I just hope that they weren't surprised when they got off the plane and found that the light of Christ had beaten them there. He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" We should have known, but so often, rather than accept the reality that Christ will go where he wants to go and will be present with those whom he wants to be present to, we believe that he is ours and that we carry him along for the ride. He rides with our caravan – after all, we’re his parents. He supports our causes – after all, we’re his people. He votes with us – after all, we’re the Christians in this race. And maybe that’s true, but we must never be so bold as to assume that we set Christ’s agenda, for Christ, even as a 12 year old boy had a mind of his own: He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" Still they were surprised to find him there, some place he went on his own, without their permission. But this is the case – he goes where he will – and if you want to know him, don’t ask him to ride along with you on your way. Do everything in your power to instead follow where he leads. Rather than assume that he’ll rubber stamp our bad habits, we must be bold to listen when he calls us to change. We ask him to preserve our way of life while ignoring his call to a completely new way of life. And we hope he is with us where we are, not realizing we left him behind. If you’ve realized this to be the case, don’t keep going. Turn around – for he’s waiting for you back at the temple. Amen.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Mary was expecting a child

Luke 2: 1-14, NT page 58 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Sermon Many aspects of this birth story are not ideal: for one thing, engaged to be married and married are two different things. Mary is also not safe at home preparing the nursery, but on the road, forced to travel for the sake of an emperor’s whim. And, while hospitals were rare in those days, midwives were not, nor were clean sheets and hot water, but Mary finds herself without any of these things – alone, without the guidance of an experienced obstetrician or even a sister or mother she gives birth to this child in a barn in the presence of livestock, not on a bed of sterilized sheets but a nest of hay. However, none of these less than ideal circumstances threaten the only aspect of this birth that really mattered: Mary was expecting a child, and regardless of marital status, geographic location, or sanitary condition, this child would be born and he would be Mary’s, and when you get down to it, that is all that really matters to a parent. James Fleming left a pregnant wife at home while he was stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis. That was in the time before ultrasounds, so as James says he didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl or a whole litter. An ocean separated him from his expectant wife and he was in the dark until the Red Cross delivered a telegram from his mother that said, “Congratulations, I’m so happy for you, please don’t swim ashore.” Regardless of where the father was he was the father and the child was his. Still, it must be hard for a father to know that he has a child, and to not lay his eyes on him or her until he returns home. James would not see any of his children until they were months old, and this is still the case for men and women who serve their country in far off places, but today a father need not have to wait until his child is born to see his face. Thanks to advances in medical technology, mothers and fathers can see their son or daughter while he or she develops in the womb – as James Fleming would say, “It’s not Pot Luck anymore”. Dr. Sam Kuyrkendal, the man who helped deliver half of Maury County, brought a cartoon to my office that depicted a new sonogram machine that can not only give expectant parents a picture of their growing child still in-utero, but can load that image directly to their Facebook and twitter accounts. As many well know, this was not always the case. There was a time when young fathers had no idea that their children started life out looking like aliens with cone heads and off color skin. I recently heard a story about a newborn daughter, handed to her young father who had been waiting in the waiting room before the days when fathers were invited in to witness what some romanticists call the miracle of child birth. After a good bit of waiting and pacing back and forth, a nurse handed him a baby girl. He took a good long look and then handed the bundle of pink blankets back declaring, “She’s not mine – she can’t be mine.” I’m proud to announce that this daughter, despite her father’s initial rejection, grew up to become a healthy and fully functional woman, and thankfully, today her father not only claims her but is sitting next to her in this very sanctuary. The child was his – and Mary was expecting a child as well. Joseph “went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.” Take away the guidance and experience of one who might have held her hand through this process and leave this first time mother alone to deliver; take away the comfort of being at or near her home and send her to a foreign town; take away the clean sheets and hot water and put her in a manger; but do not take away her right to this child. Regardless of with whom, when, or where, the time came for Mary to deliver her child and that’s all that really mattered to her. But the child was not to be hers alone. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” To you is born – not just to Mary – to you. To some degree or another this is always the case. Children never belong just to their parents, but become gifts to us all. Last Wednesday night groups from this church went to sing Christmas Carols to various members of our church, particularly those unable to attend Christmas services for whatever reason. The group I was with went to Life Care, a nursing home on James Campbell Boulevard, and 10 or 12 of us were given the clearance to enter the Alzheimer’s unit where Mrs. Nancy Thomas, our former Director of Christian Education now lives. I know that she knew none of our names. I know that she recognized none of our faces, but she did know the words to the familiar carols that we sang, and I also know that when little Annie Scott and little Grayson Hayes hugged her neck and kissed her on the cheek it was the greatest Christmas present she could have received. These little girls are not her grandchildren, but for a moment they were hers. To you is born – not just to Mary – to you. And for this moment, on this night, let him be yours. For like many today and many before us, we are left sleeping in the cold of night, confused and alone, lost in the world, wondering who it is that God favors. But hear these words, let them be like a kiss upon your cheek - “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” To you is born this day – to you – and his life is the greatest gift that humanity has ever received for the birth of Christ is the great sign that to you he was born for it is you whom God favors. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Zechariah spoke

Luke 1: 57-80, NT pages 57-58 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for the he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. The Lord has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as the Lord spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus the Lord has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us, that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before the Lord all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. Sermon Many times in my life, words have failed me. There are occasions when I should have said something, but couldn't seem to say anything, other times when I said something but should have said nothing, and then there have been innumerable occasions when I said exactly the wrong thing. It is a momentous occasion, to be handed a newborn baby. I remember exactly what I said when the nurse picked up our first child Lily, handed her to her mother, and then turned to walk out of the room. “You’re leaving,” I said. “What are we supposed to do?” This occasion deserved, certainly something more confident, more celebratory, more articulate. In fact, I think even saying nothing at all would have been better than, “What are we supposed to do” to a nurse after she hands you your new baby. I not only remember what I said in this moment. I remember how she looked at me too. Maybe she was expecting something different, but we can’t all be Zechariah. Zechariah is a new father in our second scripture lesson for this morning, and while words failed me they did not fail him, as to celebrate the birth of his new born son he bursts into beautiful prophecy: “Blessed by the Lord God of Israel – for the Lord has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them…And you child will be called the prophet of the Most High; and he will give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.” It’s a beautiful song is what it is – even more beautiful when compared to my, “What are we supposed to do?” But Zechariah is different and he knows exactly what to do and how to say it, so he is able to declare what God will do through his son. The entire time Elizabeth was pregnant he was unable to speak, punished by the Angel Gabriel for his lack of faith, so he did have a good bit of time to think this song up, but even still, compare this optimistic statement of faith to my “what are we supposed to do,” and you have the difference between night and day. And then, at the time of John the Baptist’s birth, the preacher who would prepare the way for Jesus Christ, it was night all around. The Roman Empire ruled the people through force. There was violence in the street, armed soldiers standing on the corner – not to defend Zechariah and his people but to keep them in their place with the shield, the spear, and the sword. Life was valued; so much as that life benefited the Empire. People were free to do what they wanted, so long as they only wanted to do what the empire allowed. And the future – was sure to be worse than the past because no one could imagine a day when Jerusalem would not be covered by the shroud of Roman rule. You bring a newborn son into that kind of environment and you are wise not to hope for too much. Maybe just that the Roman taxes won’t get so high that he’ll have to miss too many meals. Maybe that he’ll stay away from the young men who terrorize the Roman legions, burning their bridges and vandalizing their property. Maybe he’ll be able to go to school without having to fear for his life. I read in the paper last Thursday that the sale of a bullet resistant shield that can be inserted into a child’s backpack, has spiked in recent days. This shield turns what holds my daughter’s little pink lunch box and her folder that holds her art work into something that she can kneel behind should the unthinkable ever happen. Now that is not what I want to be shopping for this Christmas. I do not want my children to have to live in a world where such a product even exists. In times such as these words may fail us all, so we lean instead on a man who had time to think about what a faithful person who knew firsthand the might power of God should say: “And you child, will go before the Lord to prepare his ways… By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” This Christmas all is not right with the world. Some presents will go unopened because the child who was to open them is gone. We sing of peace on earth while fathers and mothers are away fighting other fathers and mothers in faraway lands. And we are all tempted to expect a little bit less of the future, we worry for our children, and we wonder, “What am I supposed to do now?” We imagine that Christmas shouldn't be this way, but it always has been. It is not the time when all is right with the world. Christmas is instead the time to celebrate that it will be, for “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” He is coming. The Prince of Peace is coming, and he declares: “Let the little children come unto me.” Amen.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mary Visits Elizabeth

Luke 1: 39-56, NT page 57 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God's servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God's name. God's mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation. God has shown strength with God's arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped God's servant Israel, in remembrance of God's mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. Sermon Last Monday I was proud to be invited to attend a meeting of the Monday morning Presbyterian Women's Circle who met at Carolyn Fisher's home, beautifully decorated for the Christmas season. Carol Turner was leading the discussion, and invited everyone to share a story about one thing that they inherited, which seemed appropriate as Christmas is a time where family gets together, and important memories and traditions are inherited by new generations. For some, an intangible inheritance has become most important, and it was the faith of her parents and grandparents that Nancy Wells shared with the group last Monday. For others it was tangible, inheriting a treasured ring or bracelet, and that’s how it is with my grandmother too. Once she retired from nursing after 50 years she was able to focus on her true passion, shopping, which left more than enough for everyone to inherit. I don't say that jokingly. Shopping was honestly her hobby, and while he complained about it like any husband would, the way she decorated her home is still a source of pride for my grandfather. In her spare time she filled every open space on a shelf with a knickknack, every square foot of wall space with a picture, and her closets were full of what had either lost its place to something more perfect or purchases bought without a place to go. Some people fear death, others fear public speaking, but my grandmother - she would often say to my mother, "Cathy, when I die, if I hear about you carting my furniture outside for a yard sale, you better know that I will haunt you for the rest of your life." She knew what many do – that what is valued today may not be valued by the next generation, and what was a treasure to her might not be valued by her family when she’s gone. Mrs. Jean Lock has a rocking chair, and according to Miss Jean it’s not very comfortable and it probably needs to be reupholstered. This rocking chair is not obviously precious, but when Miss Jean was 4 years old she remembers sitting in that rocking chair in the days following her father’s death. Her grandfather rocked with her there in his lap, back and forth, and today Miss Jean looks at that chair and is thankful that as a four year old girl she was able to provide for her mourning grandfather some sense of comfort in the wake of his son's death. "I don't know where it will go next" Miss Jean said, but in a world where so many people need comforting I have no doubt that a chair like that one will find a good home. Ours is not always a culture of grateful inheritance; what is offered by the old to the young is not always accepted graciously, so it’s a rare scene in our second scripture lesson for this morning. "Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth." Mary, not old enough, and Elizabeth, a little too old; they both are in need and they both are able to provide something for the other that no one else would have. When everyone else was wondering if Elizabeth had lost her mind, having a baby at her age, Mary knew it wasn’t a scandal but something holy. When everyone else was looking down their noses at Mary, this unwed mother to be, Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." It’s after these words from the only person who would understand that Mary sings out: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God's servant." You've heard these words before - when sung this section of the Gospel of Luke that our pew Bible titles "Mary's Song of Praise" is known as the Magnificat, and while beautiful all on its own, the words to this song take on particular meaning when you consider that Mary doesn't sing in the presence of the angel who tells her that she will give birth to the Son of God, but when she is in the home of her cousin Elizabeth, when she is safe with the only other person on earth who could relate to what she was feeling. It’s the common bond between women united by their miraculous pregnancy that makes Mary sing. Just as it’s only in the safety of the common bond between mothers and mothers to be that the truth comes out and the real questions the weigh heavy on worried hearts are ever asked. The same is true for recovering alcoholics, who, in AA that find that the struggle to sobriety has been done before and may be done again. The same is true of the common bond of war that forges friendships between veterans that will never be broken. These two women, Mary and Elizabeth, understand each other despite the years that separate them, in a world where no one else would. But this song that Mary sings here is not just a bond between Mary and Elizabeth. Mary's song had been sung long before Mary's birth, long before the birth of the Roman Empire, before even the great Kings of Israel. In the early days of the Temple, when the people were new inhabitants of the Promised Land after generations of slavery in Egypt and wandering through the wilderness, there was a woman named Hannah who dreamed of a son. She made a deal with God, promising that if God would give her a son she would dedicate that son to serve the Lord at the Temple. After his birth, on the day she left him there at the Temple, she sang this same song to her son Samuel, the boy who would grow up to become a great prophet, ushering in the monarchy, even choosing David who became the greatest of Israel's kings. This song passed from one generation to the next - from mother to son, son to kings, kings to their children, from one generation to another until it streams forth from the lips of a young woman, a would be bride, who carried God's very son in her womb. It was an inheritance. And no matter how old, how in need of being reupholstered it was, this song filled a young mother with hope and joy, and she is joined in singing it with that ancient mother Hannah who felt Mary’s same feelings before. The best kind of inheritance speaks this way, saying, “You are not alone.” And in your fear and anxiety here Elizabeth and Mary have something to offer you – because they know how you feel. They have felt it before. To have children is to be simultaneously joyful and terrified, and so they offer you a song that passed through the generations from one woman to the next, to give you the strength to face the same heartache and the words to express the same miracle of life by borrowing the same song that express a feeling that they felt and now you feel. Isn’t that what you’ve been looking for – someone who understands? Children know that Santa Clause can bring them the perfect gift, knowing them so well as to deliver the joy of their desire on Christmas morning, but through the years more and more you wonder if anyone really knows you that well, if anyone can really understand. Last Friday after 20 children and 8 more adults were murdered in that Connecticut elementary school President Obama addressed the nation. He could not reverse the events of the day, he could not fix it, but in wiping away his own tears he showed our nation something else – that the parents of those lost children are not alone in their grief. What is Christ if not the sign from God, that in our sadness, in our desperation, in times of tragedy, God does not turn and walk away but is born unto us. Unto our lives, unto our imperfection, Christ is born to know our pain and sorrow, and in him we know that God knows what it means to love and lose a child. This Christmas mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, will fight through lines, navigate through malls, surf through websites, to find the perfect gift for the ones they love. To achieve the intended result on Christmas morning, credit cards will be swiped, the bottom of the barrel will be scraped, and budgets will dip into the red, but remember this - the best gifts that will be given this year may cost much less though they are infinitely more valuable. Love one another, seek to understand one another, for all anyone is looking for is to know that they are not alone. Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

He took away the disgrace

Luke 1: 5-24, NT page 56 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Zechariah said to the angel, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years." The angel replied, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you now. Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur." Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, "This is what the Lord has done for me when the Lord looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people." Sermon Last Friday I was surprised to read that, "When Columbia Central won the Class 5A state football championship in 2010 it was the second title in school history, but the first in 58 years" (Justin Lamb, "Lions set sights on title," The Daily Herald, Friday, November 30, 2012 1A). Having only followed the Central Lions since 2010 I na├»vely assumed that Columbia was used to winning high school football games. I wonder what changed, and how hard it was to change, as I imagine that going from 58 years without a title to reaching the state finals three out of the last four years even though running back Jaylen Herd single-handedly beat them last Friday night, demanded a dramatic change of expectations. Expectations can be powerful things, and there’s a big difference between the expectations that we’ll have for the Central High School Lions for the next several years and the expectations we had for them before 2010. Still there is a problem, as getting used to success and developing high expectations after 58 years of low expectations means that now we risk being disappointed - Tennessee football fans might say that even mediocre expectations mean that you risk being disappointed. However, expectations that are too low are dangerous as well and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy - for those who expect to lose probably will. I think it’s also true that children who don't have someone to believe in them stand at a true disadvantage to those who do, for those who aren't expected to make anything of themselves probably won't. But then I also feel sorry for the kids who have parents that tell them everything they do is amazing regardless of whether it really is or not - every soccer season deserves a trophy, every scribble on paper deserves to be framed, and every miniscule milestone is deserving of photo documentation. You know these people. I might be one of them. They show you the video of Billy's first step, which is significant, but it’s followed by Billy's second step, and then the video of his third. Then you have to watch his first experience with a stair case, the time he pointed to a squirrel - it’s all amazing - and if this attitude continues into high school Billy will subconsciously chose between two doomed scenarios: either he is going to think that he really is as amazing as his parents say he is and will wind up surprised that no one else seems to agree, or he will stop trusting his parent's praise and their words will become empty. Both scenarios are sad, the young man who suffers from high-selfesteem and the young man who stops trusting his parent’s praise, but it’s that distrust of praise, those empty words that lose their meaning that I think religious people like us can relate to the most. Every Sunday, after we pray the prayer of confession together, I stand up here and tell you all that "your sins are forgiven," but do you really believe it? Every Sunday at the end of the service I look you in the eye to tell you with all the conviction that I can muster that "you are God's own," but have you heard it so often that its becoming too commonplace to mean anything? And once a month we gather around the communion table to "take and eat" the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us so much as to give us his body and blood, but does communion strike you that way every time or has it been done so often that now it's not much more than a piece of bread and a tiny cup of juice? When words become empty it’s easy to participate in rituals without believing that they mean much of anything. Our second scripture lesson from Luke tells that story in a way. The two main human characters, Elizabeth and Zechariah were good and righteous people, our lesson goes so far as to say that they were, "Both of them... righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord." Not only that, Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron, the original priest of Israel. There can be no doubt that both of them knew right from wrong, went to the Temple, not just when they had to but as often as possible. We should all assume that they knew how to pray, and when they had trouble conceiving they knew who to ask for a miracle, but at some point or another they must have stopped believing that it would actually happen. Month by month the disappointment became too much to take, and rather than be the victim of their high expectations, they lowered their sights and settled into the reality that children would just not be in the cards. After all, "both were getting on in years". Their disappointment wasn't going to stand in the way or their faith, and Zechariah continued on as a priest, wearing his priestly garments, saying his priestly prayers, and was surely honored when he was chosen to go offer incense in the holiest place on earth, the sanctuary of the temple, the place where all good Jews knew God was must truly present. Surely he was honored, but did he really expect to meet God there? He had been a priest long enough to get used to the idea that God was at work in the world. He had been a priest long enough to know that God is watching, and that God's law is a gift and should be respected and obeyed. Surely he had been a priest long enough to know the significance of being chosen, what he was supposed to do once he got in there, and what all the pomp and circumstance represented, but what did he expect to really happen - what did he expect to see? When words become empty it’s easy to participate in rituals without believing that they mean much of anything. I think this is true of Zechariah, this man who must have known all the stories of scripture by heart, all the accounts of God speaking - to Abraham and Sarah and Rehab and Jacob and Moses, all the times angels appeared, all the miraculous events that changed the course of history, still this man was terrified when an angel of the Lord was there, exactly in the place that an angle of the Lord is supposed to be. I can't say that I blame him. I talk about God all the time, and I believe that God is present with us here, but after an evening meeting and I am left to turn out the lights in this room late at night I flip the switch and run the other way for fear that the God I confess to believe in might actually show up. And Christmas is about this God being born – really being born and walking around on the earth, but do you really believe he’s coming, are you really ready for his birth? Zechariah wasn’t a faithless person – he was a priest after all – but when an angel really showed up and told him that his prayer for a child would be answered – he was terrified. His wife on the other hand, you might be thinking, “and you thought Zechariah was afraid,” but our lesson tells us that “after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, "This is what the Lord has done for me when the Lord looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people." There is so much ritual to our celebration of Christmas – but do not forget that there is something terrifyingly real beneath all the wrapping paper. He is coming – the one who will take away your disgrace is born. Amen.