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“BeLoved”

Isaiah 43:1-7
Acts 8:14-17

 

Isaiah 43:1-7

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

Acts 8:14-17

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.


 

In college I had the joy of studying the Bible and learning about God through various Christian perspectives.  And one of the most impactful teachings I remember from that time was to read God’s words to the people of Israel, as if they were to you and me.  Why?  Because we too are now God’s chosen people.  As believers, we have been adopted into the family of God.

This made Isaiah 43 one of my favorite passages.  Favorite because it tells of God’s utter love for and commitment to us.  God claims us:  “You are mine.”  And God speaks tenderly to us, “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

I loved these verses.  They helped me understand God in a more personal way.  You see, in my final years of high school, my home church had hired a youth director who we all adored.  She was funny and spunky and fun.  The Bible was alive for her, and she was opening it up to us, for the first time in our lives.  She used to always say, “Christianity is not a religion.  It’s a relationship.”  Of all the things she taught us, this was most profound.  For the first time, we were beginning to realize that the juicy goodness of faith was lived out in relationship with God.  And the way we best got to know God was by studying the Bible and growing in fellowship with one another.

And so this life-giving new path was opening to me.  So then when I learned in college that we could read God’s words to the people of Israel, as if they were written to us, so much more of the Bible opened up to me.  It meant that the Bible was overflowing with God’s words of love and promise.  And I was coming to adore this God who was everything needed, respected, trusted and yearned for.

Listen to these verses from Isaiah again, and whenever you hear Israel or Jacob, instead hear your own name.

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
hen you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia[a] and Seba in exchange for you.
because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;

 

This is utterly beautiful.  This is the commitment we may seek from one another our whole lives.  This is the commitment shown us by our Beautiful Lord.

 

But what I didn’t delve into at the time were the words about God exchanging others for my life.

After college and while in seminary at Union, I became friends with an Egyptian family.  The husband was also a seminary student, and our families became good friends.  They explained that the Bible is hard to read for them because it makes such negative mention of Egypt, time after time.  And yet these Egyptian friends of mine were also believers, and their families had been for many generations.

I had never before thought about those countries and people who are labeled negatively in these stories.  And here, right in the middle of one of my favorite passages, is a section about God exchanging others for us, for God’s chosen people.

And this was hard to digest.

 

First we have the trouble of being God’s chosen.  If some are chosen, does that mean others are not?  And why?  Other parts of scripture made it clear that God’s heart is for the whole world and that God came so that ALL might know God’s saving love.  And yet, there is this element of choosing.  What does it mean?

On the one hand, I love this idea of choosing.  Choice means that God’s involvement in our lives is voluntary.  It shows us that GOD WANTS US.  And that is part of what’s so beautiful about these words of God, shared through the prophet Isaiah.

At the same time, choice seems to imply that others are not chosen.  And these verses about exchanging whole other people groups for the chosen ones, seems to support that idea.

I was torn.

 

And yet, in the very chapter just preceding this one, Isaiah writes of the Lord,

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations

A light to the nations.  God called the nation of Israel, took it by the hand, and kept it IN ORDER TO give them as a covenant to the people, a LIGHT to the nations.

So again, there is this idea that God chose the people SO THAT they might shed God’s light on the nations, everyone!

 

To this people who has been taught for so many years to avoid other nations, these hints throughout the prophets that Israel would be a gift FOR the nations come as a great surprise.  The people had internalized this notion that God’s choosing them somehow meant they were better than others.  But here, we see that God’s choosing them is part of God’s whole plan to save everyone.  God was keeping them, taking them by the hand, that they themselves might be the fulfillment of God’s promise, God’s covenant, to all creation.

The chosen people were the means by which God’s light would come!  Through them, a tiny baby would be born, of a virgin, in a backyard stable barn.  And through him, God’s Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, spilling out beyond the boundaries of the people of Israel and spreading to people far and wide.

We are here today because of how God spoke through and came through the people of Israel.  Through them, Jesus came into this world, and we have come to believe!

 

Perhaps this is what helped my Egyptian friends.  Perhaps they could hear God’s love for them and their nation, amidst all the negative press their nation gets in the Bible.  Perhaps they too had learned to read God’s words to the Israelites, as also being God’s words to them.  Perhaps their identities as Children of God had become the main identity with which they read God’s Word.

 

 

There is much in the Bible to digest.  There are mysteries that may remain mysteries our whole life long.  There is Mystery and there always will be, as long as we are seeking the one true God, the One whom we cannot ever fully know or understand.  And so our relationship with God will never be one of full knowing.  This God who we serve is far above and beyond all our understanding.  If we think we fully know God, then we must question whether we know GOD at all.  Our God is above all.  Our God is beyond our understanding.  God’s ways are not our ways.

And so we walk by faith.  We place our trust in the One who is above all and in all and through all.  We decide that this One who loves us with a never-stopping, never-giving-up love is worthy of all our praise.  We choose back this One who has claimed us in the waters of baptism and chosen us as God’s own.  We bind our lives to the One who came that we might have life and have it to the full!

“You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” says the Lord.

This is the One whom I have placed my trust.  With Timothy, I proclaim,

“I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.”

 

With our faith and our doubts,

With our fears and our hopes,

In understanding and in awe,

In mystery and in knowing,

We come

Before the One who knows us

And chooses us

And loves us

Just as we are.

 

You are precious in God’s sight.  Honored.  And beloved.

 

Believe it.

And be loved.

“Make Us Wise”

Isaiah 60:1-6
Romans 1:20
Matthew 2:1-12

Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Romans 1:20

Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

 


 

In this story, we learn of a great power scare.  The ruler Herod feels threatened by this prophecy about a promised ruler coming to shepherd the people.  As many around him, he thinks this ruler will be a challenge to his Kingdom.  He does not know that Christ is the King of all the world and not another political challenger for the nation of Israel.

And so, feigning interest and reverence, he asks the council of the wise men from the East – to gather information about where he might find the child.  And covering all his bases, he asks that the wise men check back in with him, after they’ve found the child, “that I may also go and pay him homage,” he says.  But the wise men, who are apparently wise both in name and in character, are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they return to their homes by another road.

In a birth story with so many twists and turns, Christ comes to live among us, born as a little baby, just like us.  And God is moving heaven and earth that we might this heavenly love letter, this little child, our Savior.

 

I am struck by the wise men.  We are told they are from the East.  Beyond that, we can only speculate who they might have been.  But what we know for sure is that they are not Israelites.  They are not the chosen people of Israel, and yet they are in tune with the greatest revelation of God!  And how did they hear?  How did they know?  How did they see?

They saw in the stars.  They were students of the stars.  They watched creation.  They knew something spectacular was happening, and they were not going to miss it.  And so these star gazers from the East find themselves prostrate before a tiny baby, King of the World.

 

I love how God’s heart for humanity is not bound by race or family, religion or creed.  When God shows up, God makes it known in the stars, for any and all to see.  After all, the whole point of choosing a people at all was they would themselves become a beacon, a city on a hill, a light for the nations.  This gift is for the whole world!

God’s heart has always been for all people.  It has just taken us a long time to believe it.

In fact, it’s still something we struggle to believe today.

It’s far too easy to revert to thinking God loves some and not others.

It’s far too tempting to think our blessings are for ourselves alone.

But in fact, we are blessed – in order to be a blessing!

We are called for a purpose, and not simply for privilege.

 

I am glad these men from the East are known today as “wise men” for indeed they were wise men.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul explains that everyone is without excuse when they sin – because, he reasons, God has made Godself known through everything created.  ALL AROUND US, God is visible.  In every created thing, God’s fingerprints can be seen.  God can be known simply by paying attention to the created world.

And here we see the wise men, studying what God has made, following where it leads them, and coming face to face with God-made-flesh.

 

Friends, we are not called by God in order to feel safe and good and privileged.  We are called because we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good!  We are called because so many need to know that God is good.  So many need to know that God is for them.  So many need to know that they are loved by the King of Heaven and Earth, just as they are.  So many need to know that their lives matter.

You and I are called to be light.

The Psalmist writes:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Indeed thick darkness covers this world.  We create such darkness in our world.  But in God’s great mercy and steadfast love, God has come.  God comes into our cycles of death and darkness, breaking in with unquenchable light.

And this light has broken upon us, piercing our darkness, in the unthreatening brightness of a little baby, laid in a manger.

And in this light, we shine.

Not because we are the light ourselves, but because our Light has come!  Christ has come!

And we who are witnesses to God’s in-breaking Light,

We are called to arise.

We are called to shine.

In the presence of God-with-us, we radiate the love and light of our Lord,

When we are present to,

Alert to,

Waiting and watching,

Witnessing God’s present in-breaking into our day to day lives,

We reflect God’s life-giving light.   

And scripture tells us

“Kings and nations will come to the brightness of our dawn.”

 

So friends, keep alert.

Our God is visible in EVERYTHING God has made.

And our God is here.

 

May we too be wise children of God.

May we SEE and be radiant!

So that many more may know

the boundless,

Life-changing

Love of God.

 

 

 

“The In-Breaking of God”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 1:5-20, 24-25
Luke 1:39-45
Luke 1:57-79

Luke 1:5-20, 24-25

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 and to bring you this good news. But 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.”

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 he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

Luke 1:39-45

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 he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:57-79

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 he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he 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 he 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 him 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.”


 

Luke’s portrayal of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth and the words she spoke by the Holy Spirit are rare.  Of all the names mentioned in the Bible, only between 5.5 – 8% are thought to have been female, and of those, only half have their words recorded.

This means that at most, less than 5% of individuals spoken of in the Bible are women whose words are remembered.  This is significant, because it makes these words of Mary, very special.

 

What possessed Luke to include these details in his story?  Of all the Gospel writers, Luke alone includes these details of the story.  Luke alone gives us insight into Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s journey and Mary’s journey alongside them.   And as if recording Mary’s words was not enough to make his readers sit up and listen with surprise, Zechariah, the only male in this section of story, is made mute because of his unbelief when the angel told him that his aging and barren wife would bear a son.

So we have the entire first chapter of Luke unfolding very unusual dialogue.  First we have Zechariah being met by an angel, and then we have Mary met by an angel.  Zechariah disbelieves and so is made mute.  Mary believes and is filled with words by the Holy Spirit.  And so the very first long string of spoken word is that of Mary.  Mary’s words.  Mary’s song.  And it is not until John is born and Zechariah names him according to the angel’s instruction that Zechariah’s tongue is freed and he too begins to speak by the Holy Spirit.  Zechariah’s prophecy.

 

Luke opens his entire gospel story with the words of a woman and a muted man.

 

THIS is not going to be your usual story.

THIS is the kind of story where everything is topsy turvy.

THIS is the kind of story where God’s Kingdom crashes into our reality, making things right.

 

Those who are too high and lifted up shall be made low.

Those who are too low and wrongfully despised are lifted up.

Those who are hungry shall be filled.

The meek and virgin bears God’s child.

The barren woman bears a son.

 

God is flipping the world as we know it on its head.  God is making wrong things right.  God gives the young, unmarried, virgin, pregnant girl a voice.  God takes voice from one in power when he does not believe.

 

And so, in every possible way, this story starts out gripping, unusual, radical, and unbelievable.  The reader in Luke’s day KNOWS that this is not your ordinary story.  The reader is Luke’s day is jarred out of the lull of the ordinary and into the extraordinary, in-breaking of God.

The virgin is pregnant.

The barren will bear a son.

The man of the house is mute.

A girl is filled with the Holy Spirit.

GOD is breaking in.  

 

And Luke sees this extraordinary breaking with the-way-that-things-are-done,

these curious coincidences,

these miracles,

and he lays before us each remarkable nugget

so that we too might see

take note,

sit up,

and be amazed!

“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.”

These words of Zechariah and those of Mary speak to the dawning of a new age.  The old rules will not apply.  The old script is out the window.  It is NOT same-ole, same-ole.  GOD is doing something new.  GOD is breaking in.  GOD is keeping God’s promise to the people of Israel and the whole world.

“Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.” Isaiah writes,
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

 

Christ is coming, and for those who see it, nothing will be the same. 

 

Our Lord comes.

It springs forth,

Shining a light on all who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death…

 

Do you perceive it?