Thursday, December 29, 2011

Simeon's Song

Our texts for this New Year's Day/First Sunday in Christmas are Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 148, and Luke 2:22-40. You may read them here.

However, the key text for this week--Luke 2:22-40--is best not read, but heard, for it is a song! So, rather than writing about Simeon's song, sung in the Temple in response to meeting the Baby Jesus, I want to encourage you this week to listen to it. The text, from scripture, is sung in many liturgical traditions after communion, at funerals, or as part of Evening Prayers before bedtime. It is a song that has remained fresh in Christian imagination and worship for 2000 years. What makes Simeon's words so potent?

I encourage you to read Simeon's song lyrics below, then click the "play" button on the two links below to listen to two very different musical interpretations of them: One, by the ecumenical community in Taize, France, which offers Simeon's words repetitively in Latin; the other, by a contemporary songwriter who imagines the scene and the song that unfolded in the Temple and weaves them together with the words of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" that we have been singing expectantly throughout this season.

"Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."

Listen and reflect: what do you hear in Simeon's song?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Two Sides of the Story

Our texts for this Christmas Eve are Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-16, while our texts for Christmas Day are Isaiah 52:7-10 and John 1:1-5, 10-18.

It only happens once every 6 years or so: Christmas Eve falls on a Saturday. On these rare years, those of us in traditions that do not typically worship on Christmas morning (such as we Baptists!) get to pull a double-header, gathering to hear the story, sing the carols, and worship together not just on the candlelit eve of Jesus' birth, but also in the beautiful light of Christmas day.

"Why do we need church on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?" I heard someone ask this week. "Wouldn't once cover it?" shot at the story of Jesus coming to earth, one means of celebrating this event and this work of God is definitely not enough if our Gospel texts for these two holy days are any indication. Luke and John cast two very different lights upon the story of Jesus coming to earth. Honestly, if you read them totally out of context, never having heard them before, would you even know they were accounts of the same tale?

Luke speaks of an event bound to history, taking place in a specific time and moment. It tells of the journey of an ordinary couple through the Judean countryside, birthing a son about whom we are told only three things: he was his mother's firstborn, he was wrapped in rags, and his cradle was a feeding trough. Very earthy stuff. Then, remarkably, angels do announce this child's birth--but still it's just to shepherds, a few guys lurking in nearby fields--more ordinary, lowly people. Interestingly, never is the child given a name in this passage--he is given titles, but never a name.

John's account, on the other hand, hearkens back not to a moment of local history, but to the beginning of all history--his opening words of "In the beginning" exactly mirror the words that began Genesis 1's creation account. Here we learn not about the origins and journey of any ordinary person, but of the Word--the logos--the very wisdom of God, which is now taking on flesh and dwelling among God's people. This Word-made-flesh is not just any human; this Word-made-flesh is showing us the fullness of God, and inviting all who encounter him into fullness of life as God's children. This One who created all is breaking into creation is creating the world--and us--all over again. It's as cosmic as a vision can get, one of a scope beyond our imagination--yet John does take a moment to get direct. This one about whom we are speaking, this Word made flesh? His name is Jesus.

Luke tells the story in prose, in a story that can be acted out by children in costumes; John offers us poetry, words that create space for imagination but paint few concrete pictures. Both inspire awe, imagination, and wonder at a God who seems to do everything except the predictable--yet from totally different sides of the story. So come join us this Christmas Eve (worship at 5 PM!) AND Christmas Day (worship at 10 AM!) as we get the gift of viewing Jesus from both of these perspectives--above us and beside us, among us and all around us, through stories and songs of grace that we can never tell and sing enough. We need both sides of the Jesus story, and this year we actually get to spend time sitting amongst the beauty of both!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Getting the Good News Through

Our scriptures for this fourth Sunday of Advent are 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 and Luke 1:26-38. But I want to begin our reflection for this Sunday when we consider, in our season of waiting, how we are waiting for love by looking back at what we talked about this past Sunday: how we are waiting for the joy of good news. There was an incredibly powerful quote I meant to include in our conversation around this in the sermon this past Sunday, so since I neglected to do that I will post it here:

"We all long to hear a good word: a word that brings good news, a word that can sustain us, a word that can give us the vision and courage to make it through another day, a word that tells us God is with us. Precisely what that 'good word' is, what it says, will vary from context to context. A person who is drowning doesn't want to hear about food any more than a person who is starving wants to be thrown a life preserver. We each long to hear a word that speaks to where we are, in our own particular place and time." (Professor Holly Hearon,

I think it's true--we are each waiting for good news--but good news is not uniform for everyone. It will not be received in the same way by everyone. We hear every piece of news colored by our histories, our needs, the ways we have been burned or blessed in the past, the way we imagine the future is "supposed" to be.

Think about the good news that unfolded in Luke 1. When Mary's cousin Elizabeth got word she was pregnant--a miracle in her old age after years of barrenness!--this was good news indeed--almost too good to be true for one who had been waiting for this news for decades. But for Mary? At the age of maybe 13 or 14, this was the last news Mary was looking for--it was, in many ways, like being thrown a life preserver when water was nowhere in sight. No wonder, at the angel's appearance and words to her, she found herself not immediately filled with joy deeply troubled, disturbed, confused, rattled. Why would God seek to bring good news to the world in this way--a way that, it seemed, would almost certainly mean bad news for young, unwed Mary? Why would God choose this route to reach us?

I've been captured this Christmas season by a beautiful song co-written and recorded by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Andy Gullahorn. "I Will Find a Way" dares to imagine God trying to figure out how to bring God's love to a world that God was not sure would be able to receive God's love. What creative ways would God have to find to get this good news, this good Word that is Jesus, across in the context of our broken, suspicious world? The song speaks of a broken, abused young woman—a woman maybe Mary’s age—and speaks from God’s perspective in considering how to get the good news of love across to her. I strongly encourage you to listen to the song here and consider how God had to be creative--unconventional--unexpected--if good news that would completely blow anything else we have ever experienced out of the water was to be received by a world that, in Gullahorn's words, "gave up on love waiting for a change."

We wait…but how ready are we actually to receive such overwhelmingly good news? Are our hearts ready to make room for Christ’s presence? If not, what is keeping that love out? What must God break through to come to us once again?

And once we receive God’s love…to what lengths are we willing to go to see that love carried into the world, to ensure God’s good word can be heard by those who long for it most desperately? What can we learn from God’s choice to become incarnate in us about how we, then, can make Christ’s love intimately present to the world?

Friday, December 9, 2011

When Everyone Does Their Part

Our scripture texts this week are Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-55; and John 1:6-8, 19-28. Give them a read through here.

Maybe I'm just on a strange grammar kick right now, or in a stretch of being particularly attentive to words, but reading through our passages for this week--particularly Isaiah and Luke--made me think, again, about the power of verbs and how they are used in different ways. This time, it was not verb tenses that struck me so much as they did last week, but rather who is called upon to carry out the various actions named by these prophetic songs.

Consider the verbs invoked by Isaiah. In this vision, actions are attributed to three different subjects. If we were to sort them out, we would find that this passage tells us that

The servant(s) of God will...
  • bring good news
  • bind up (or heal/mend)
  • proclaim
  • comfort
  • provide
  • give
  • greatly rejoice!

God will...
  • love justice
  • hate thievery and crime
  • faithfully give
  • make a covenant
  • bless
  • cause righteousness and praise to spring up

And all the people (in response to these actions of the servant(s) and God) will...
  • be called
  • build up
  • raise up
  • repair
  • acknowledge God's blessing
Usually, you need nouns and pronouns and participial phrases and crazy things like that to make a picture complete...but this picture of verbs is a pretty remarkable one in and of itself, a picture of sheer activity. Just sit with these verbs for a down the three lists, slowly, consecutively. Imagine...if each of us did what God had called us to--the servants of God in community, the world around them witnessing the work of these communities, and God faithfully carrying out God's promises...what vision of a new heaven and earth might we receive? Would it be one very much like the song of a world turned upside-down that Mary sang--a world turned upside down in all the right ways?

How might the wholeness God desires for creation come to pass if we all, as faithfully as we knew how, chose to do our part--to bring vision of a world embraced by joy to life? To what action are you being called in this season of waiting, preparation, and transformation--and what action do you most long for from our God, and from our world?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Waiting for Resolution

Our scripture texts for this second Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:8-13, and Mark 1:1-8. Read them in advance of Sunday here.

As a writer, one of my weaknesses is picking a verb tense to use throughout a piece. My editors are always telling me, "Abby, just pick one and stick with it!"--but still I find myself shifting back and forth, not quite sure whether the story I am telling is one past, one present, or one future.

In our Lectionary Bible Study this month, we noticed that the writer of Isaiah seems to struggle similarly to resolve his verb tenses--in the same passage, an event can be spoken of as past, present, and future; an action can be now and not yet; a reality can be complete and yet unseen. Such tension is typical of prophetic literature which connects God's past actions to what God is doing in the present and what God has promised yet to do.

Take, for example, our passage this week from Isaiah 40--a passage which helps this book make the turn from the impending threat of exile to living in exile and looking beyond it. Listen to the things that are said to be past, present, and future actions of God or God's people in this text:

In the past: Jerusalem "has served" and "has received"; the Lord "has spoken"

In the present: God's comfort, tender speech; we are to cry, prepare, make straight; we wither, fade; we must get up, lift up, not fear, say, see; God comes, rules.

In the future: The landscape shall be lifted up, shall be made low, shall become level; God shall be revealed, the people shall see and shall cry; God will stand forever, will feed, will gather, will carry and gently lead.

This week's Advent theme is that of peace, and peace--past, present, future--is an idea that this passage invites us to consider in all of its manifestations. How are we waiting for the resolution of tenses and tension in our own world--for peace to prevail? What has our experience of peace--or lack there of--been in the past? What is our present experience of peace? What is the future peace we envision and move towards? What is our role in all of this, and God's role, and the role of all the earth?

Big questions not easily resolved--but may we resolve to wait and wrestle with them in this season where we draw near to both what is now and what is not yet, even as we feel the continued impact of all that has been.