Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Light of the World: A Sermon on Matthew 5:1-20

The Mount of the Beatitudes, Galilee

Scripture can be found here....

This morning’s New York Times Sunday Review has a column by Nicholas Kristof. He writes about human rights, women’s rights, health, and global affairs. Today’s column sports a picture of two teenagers, both wearing their cross country jerseys. He writes,

[Dateline: YAMHILL, Ore.] — THE funeral for my high school buddy Kevin Green is Saturday, near this town where we both grew up.

The doctors say he died at age 54 of multiple organ failure, but in a deeper sense he died of inequality and a lack of good jobs….

Kristof tells Kevin’s story. He grew up on a small farm, where his family lived with, “if not the American dream, at least solid upward mobility.” The farm was not the main source of their income: Kevin’s dad had a good union job; it paid him well above the minimum wage. An ethic of hard work was the family standard. Kristof describes Kevin as “sunny, cheerful, and astonishingly helpful: Any hint that something needed fixing, and he was there with a wrench. But then,” he writes, “the dream began to disintegrate.”

The local glove manufacturer closed up shop, and so did the feed store. Blue-collar jobs vanished. For a while, Kevin worked nonunion in construction for low pay. Then that company went under. He worked as shift manager making trailer homes.

Then, about 15 years ago, Kevin hurt his back and was laid off. A cycle of disability and debt spiraled out of control, and the state took his driver’s license because he was behind on child-support payments. That, his younger brother said, is what “knocked him to the dirt.”

Kristof closes the piece: “So, Kevin Green, R.I.P. You were a good man — hardworking and always on the lookout for someone to help — yet you were overturned by riptides of inequality. Those who would judge you don’t have a clue. They could use a dose of your own empathy.”[i]

As we come to our passage in Matthew’s gospel, which we call, “The Sermon on the Mount,” it might be good to be reminded of something. If we’re crowded in with all the others on the side of the mountain, listening to Jesus preach, it’s good to know who’s in the crowd with us. At the end of chapter 4 Matthew writes,

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.     
~ Matthew 4:23-25

Kevin Green is standing in the crowd, too, as Jesus opens his mouth and says,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
~Matt. 5:3-6

I remember fairly vividly the first time I ever heard these words. I was in the fourth grade, in my Catholic elementary school. My first response was confusion. I certainly didn’t relate to anything that was being said. I knew I couldn't claim to be poor, in spirit or otherwise. I certainly wasn’t meek. I had lost my Aunt when I was four, but really, it was my mother who mourned, not me. Pure in heart? I didn’t think so. Peacemaker? Spend an hour observing my brother and me at play. So, no to peacemaking. I couldn’t relate to these words. It was that simple.

Thank God that my teacher, a remarkable and talented woman who, like Kevin, died far too young, was persistent. These words, she persuaded me, were at the heart of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

Yet, when you read these “blessings,” they almost give offense. Blessed are the poor, or poor in spirit? Blessed are those who are grieving? Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for fairness? No, thank you, got any other blessings today?

Some years back I was going through a tough time, and I talked with a friend whom I not only liked, but also admired. She had been through the same kind of difficulty. She said, “Well, all I can tell you is, it made me a more compassionate person.” And I thought, “Well, I would like to learn that lesson in some other way, thank you very much!”

But, oh my, she was on to something there. Jesus looks out at the crowd, and he sees the Kevins, all those who have been knocked to the dirt by life. The least and the lost, the poor and pathetic and possessed, the sick and the heartsick. And he says, “Well, all I can tell you is, there will be a blessing in this for you, even if you can’t see it right now.”

Around the same time my friend gave me her words of wisdom, I was attending West Presbyterian Church in Binghamton, and the troubles I was going through affected the whole family. One day after church, I learned that the pastor had asked if we were all right. He had said to my then husband, “You both look so incredibly sad.” I tell you, when I heard what he had said, my eyes filled with tears. I was so grateful. It is a powerful thing to be seen, really seen, and to have your suffering spoken aloud, to have it named. It is the beginning, I would say, of healing.

Jesus looks out at the people crowded on the mountainside, and he says, not only, “I see you,” but also, “God sees you. And God will bring a blessing to you.” And I wonder whether part of that blessing is what my wise friend said. I wonder whether part of the blessing of undergoing a period of suffering is the way in which it cracks our hearts open, and allows us to know that others are in pain, too. I suspect my friend was right.

“God sees you, and will bless you in this and through this,” Jesus says. And then, in a curious turn of the tables, he tells all these crushed and crying people that, in fact, there are ways they can bring a blessing to the world around them.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
~ Matt. 5:7-10

In God’s paradoxical way, it is the bruised and broken who can, in fact, become powerful—not in the under-my-thumb, I’ll-have-my-revenge, action-movie definition of powerful. Not “powerful” in its most common understanding. Powerful in spirit. Powerful of heart.

To show mercy, to forgive, is powerful. To be single-hearted—to pursue the calling of your heart—is powerful. To make peace (O, my eight-year-old self, listen up!) is powerful. To stand firm even when the people who seem to have all the power rain their wrath down upon you, is powerful beyond expression, almost beyond our comprehension.

Because, of course, Jesus is talking to us, but like lots of preachers, he is also talking about himself. I read somewhere this week, “The beatitudes are Jesus’ self-portrait, the most personal description we have of him in the gospels. They are the timeless image of Christ… Would we today recognize him if we saw him?”[ii]

Jesus is talking to himself, but of course, he is talking to the people before him, humanity in all its beauty and brokenness. And he goes yet another step further. “You,” he tells them, “are the salt of the earth… and you,” he says, “are the light of the world.”

Just imagine. There you are. Knocked to the dirt by the loss of your job, or the spouse who left, taking the kids. There you are, groping around for some way to cope with the grim diagnosis or the loss of mobility. There you are, still swooning in your grief. And Jesus tells you, “God sees you. And here are the ways in which you are blessed. And here are the ways in which you are powerful. In fact, you are the light of the world.”

You, just as you are, can shine the powerful light of Christ as you reach out in forgiveness. You, just as you are, are the light of the world when your heart shines with purity of purpose.  You, just as you are, are a beacon of God’s hope when you choose peaceful and nonviolent ways of being in the world. You are the light of the world, when you allow your heart to be cracked open, when you allow yourself to feel empathy, to comprehend the pain of, to give one example, the Kevin Greens of this world, and vow to use whatever power you have to make a difference in their lives.

Jesus is talking to us, but, of course, he is also talking about himself. Jesus is the light of the world, a light no darkness can extinguish. And we are an essential part of his light-the-world project. Would we recognize him if we saw him today? Here is his self-portrait. Look for him where forgiveness, and peace, and empathy are healing hearts and changing minds. And don’t forget to shine. Shine for all you’re worth. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Nicholas Kristof, “Where’s the Empathy?” in the New York Times, Sunday January 25, 2015, p. SR13. See also, re: “Reagan, Obama, and inequality,” from the New York Times, Thursday January 22, 2015, p. A27.
[ii] Edward Farrell, Surprised by the Spirit (Dimension Books, 1973), as quoted in Disciplines for the Inner Life by Bob Benson and Michael W. Benson (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989).

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The First Temptation of Christ: Sermon on Matthew 4:1-17

Scripture can be found here...

The wings of the Spirit-dove are still beating the air, and the words of the Almighty still hang there, when the action of our passage begins: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1).

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that there really is such a creature as a devil.

Actually, let’s go back to basics. Biblical Devils 101.

First: There are no “devils” in the Hebrew Scriptures. None.

Second: There is, however, a character called “Ha-Satan,” or “The Satan.”

Third: “Satan” is a Hebrew word, meaning “tempter.”

Fourth: And the Tempter in the Hebrew Scriptures is actually a part of God’s heavenly court. He functions to prod the Almighty, to test the divine worldview. As an example, see Satan pushing God to question the righteousness of his servant Job.

Fifth: Once we get to the New Testament, something changes, radically. Instead of the Satan being one skeptical lawyer on God’s team, he abruptly appears to be on the other team, the anti-God team. And…

Sixth: In the New Testament, the devil’s job is no longer to help God to see things clearly. Now his job is mess up the vision of people—to tempt, seduce, and ensnare them to join his team. This is the traditional understanding of the devil that appears today, in our reading from the gospel of Matthew.

And now, Jesus is face to face with one who is called “devil” or the “tempter” or “Satan.” The function of the devil in this particular passage seems to be to test Jesus’ sense of self. This follows that extraordinary peeling back of the heavens to reveal God’s sense of Jesus at the end of the preceding chapter. “My Son. Beloved. Well-pleased.”

And Satan jumps right in: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (v. 3). The devil seems to be tempting Jesus to use his identity or power as the Son of God to exempt himself from the human experience of hunger. But Jesus refuses, quoting Deuteronomy (8:3): “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (v. 4). Jesus’ connection with God, his identity as “beloved child,” is a precious gift. Jesus refuses to use this connection as a convenience, as a “get-out-of-hunger-free” card. Jesus lives with his physical hunger while reminding himself of his spiritual hunger for God. Jesus deals with his hunger in a very human way.

The devil’s second temptation incorporates another quote from scripture, as if to say to Jesus, “I see what you did there. Two can play at that game.”  “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

The devil seems to have come up with a strategy of matching Jesus, quote for scripture quote. Here he’s quoting Psalm 91. However, Jesus seems to have a particular view as to how we should quote scripture. I think it goes something like this: to quote scripture with the goal of causing harm is a violation and a perversion. Jesus quotes scripture to tell the truth. “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (v. 7).  If Jesus was not inclined to use his connection with God to fill up on miracle bread, he is even less inclined to use it to try to bend the laws of nature, turning falling into flying. Jesus is committed to his humanity.

The devil tries a third time, offering Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” in return for his bowing down to him in worship. Jesus’ response is decisive: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (v. 10).

The tempter does indeed give up and go away…only to be replaced by angels, ministering to Jesus. I think it is fascinating that the angels appear just now. Jesus has not performed any miracles. Jesus has not shown the fearsome power of God by calming a storm at sea. The angels appear after Jesus has essentially given up all claim to divine power and authority. Jesus has been described so far in this gospel as “Messiah,” “God-with-us,” and “Son of God.” And yet Jesus’ power seems (ironically? paradoxically?) to rest in his absolutely, and tenaciously, clinging to his humanity.

The test completed, Jesus begins his ministry. Upon hearing that John the Baptist has been arrested, Jesus “withdraws” to Capernaum, in Galilee, safely out of the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, the equally bloody son of Herod the Great. This means that Jesus is intentionally avoiding conflict with potentially hostile authorities. He does this on several other occasions in this gospel. He is not looking for a confrontation—not yet, anyway. This also means that Jesus’ ministry begins in Gentile territory. And so Jesus begins his ministry much as be began his life: on the run from a king named Herod, and unexpectedly welcome in Gentile territory. By the last verse of our passage, Jesus has picked up John’s mantle, preaching in the same key: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (v. 17).

So… let’s assume this creature is for real. This tempter, this Satan. We could ask, what, exactly, has the tempter accomplished? How devil-like does he feel to you?

A friend in ministry wrote this week,

Because of years of traditions we tend to see the "devil" as someone who is trying to lead Jesus astray, as the demonic face of evil trying to stop the good from triumphing.  I suspect such an image would be foreign to Matthew as he wrote this story down.  It appears that this is more a story of being tested than being tempted.  Not being led astray but refining from a variety of options who he will be, how will he live out the calling of Messiah.

Who will Jesus be?  Will he feed the hungry?  Will he overturn the laws of nature? Will he come in power to rule?

OR will he be something totally different?

Jesus is in the wilderness, forty days and forty nights, just as Moses was in the wilderness with God’s people for forty years. But there is something completely new going on here. Jesus is not just a throwback, he is not Moses reincarnated. Is it possible that Jesus is doing something that has been called a “vision quest”? I read this week that a traditional vision quest consists of a person spending an extended period of time, at least one to four days and nights, in nature or the wilderness. During that time, the person enters a deep communion with whatever they understand to be God—they might call it spiritual energy, or the forces of nature. And it is hoped that this intense experience will result in a spiritual aha—dare I call it an “epiphany”?—in which the person receives a profound insight into themselves and the world, a dream or a vision, telling them about their identity, their purpose, and their destiny.[ii]

What if the role of the tempter was not to turn Jesus away from God, or from his true mission or ministry, but to actually help him to refine, and clarify, and discern exactly what his true mission or ministry was?  What if the time in the wilderness was Jesus’ vision quest?

It seems to me that Jesus’ fundamental realization in his wilderness sojourn is this: the Son of God, the Messiah, is not someone who will accomplish his work by separating himself from humanity. The deepest truth of Jesus’ mission and ministry flow from embracing his humanity. And Jesus does just that: in the face of each test, he does the human thing, wholeheartedly. And then the tempter’s work is done. Jesus’ path is clear.

For those of us watching with interest, this is good news. Very good news. If we are called to follow Jesus, it’s to follow him by fully embracing our own humanity.

We are human beings—formed from the earth, and made in God’s image, at once grounded and exalted.

We are human beings—created for community, for belonging, for relationship.

We are human beings—called “beloved,” and tested by all that life throws at us, to be sure. But God is our open book for that test—God is with us in all of it.

In the end, God doesn’t ask us to be anything other than we are. Which is, after all, what God created us to be.

So, about that devil… that tempter. Is it possible that the Hebrew Scriptures had it right? That the role of temptation is to help us to gain clearer vision? That in being drawn to certain things or situations or people we learn who we are, and who we are not; what we treasure above all, and what we are willing to let go of? Is it possible that what we perceive as the “tests” of this life can, if we allow them, help us to understand what our true path is? And if Jesus gives us any clue, our path has to do with being fully human—grounded and glorious, individuals in connection and communion with one another, and beloved children of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Rev. Gordon Waldie, “Looking Forward to January 18—Jesus Tested in the Wilderness,” Ministerial Mutterings Blog.
[ii] “Vision quest,”,

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Dangers of Baptism: Sermon on Matthew 3:1-17

St. John the Baptist by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)
Scripture can be found here...

Christmas is over. Jesus is all grown up now. The shepherds and astrologers have all gone home, the starlight has dimmed, and the sounds of the angel-song have faded away. In today’s gospel passage Jesus the man encounters John the Baptist, who, honestly, seems like a pretty scary guy. Let us be frank: John sounds little unhinged. But Jesus is going to see him anyway, and that feels dangerous. Stand with me now, at the Jordan. And, here, in this space, and with apologies to David Letterman, let us discuss the Top Ten Dangers of Baptism.

10.  Obviously, in choosing to be baptized (or to bring a family member to be baptized) there would seem to be a chance we might be directed towards some guy in a camel hair vest with locust-breath calling us nasty names. In our reading, John the Baptist calls out the religious professionals of the day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. This seems to indicate that people like me should be very nervous about baptism, because it means we are to be subjected to a level of truth-telling we don’t always relish.

9.      That same locust-breath guy also appears to come armed with an axe and a winnowing hook, making the whole thing feel vaguely like the beginning of a slasher film.

8.      In choosing baptism—or even, in renewing our own baptismal vows—we might need to repent. The Greek word for “repentance,” the word used in this passage, is “metanoia,” and what it really means is to turn around, to change direction. If I repent, what direction will I have to go in? What path will I have to take? What if I am directed somewhere I’ve never been before? What if I’m unsure of the way?

7.      As a result of repentance, we might need to learn humility. Oh, what an unpopular word this is. Humility means rootedness, groundedness. We think it means volunteering to let people walk all over us. It doesn’t. It means to recognize that though we are all different, we are all the same, too. It means that we are no better (and no worse) than anyone else, though we have our own individual strengths and weaknesses, and quirks and twists and ways of being in the world. Humility means being able to say, as John says to Jesus, “I am not worthy” in a completely non-ironic way. It also means being able to say, “I can do that,” or “I can learn that,” or maybe even, “I was wrong.”

6.      We might also need to learn when it is, and when it is not, about us. Here’s a clue: Mostly, it’s not about us.  John looks like the ultimate successful new-church-startup pastor. There he is, out by the Jordan, sleeves rolled up, baptizing person after person—and the people are streaming to him, the people of Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the region along the Jordan. John is the guy all of us pastors would be discussing over coffee, or in a corner at the Presbytery meeting. How does he do it? What’s his secret? But when the rubber hits the road, which is to say, when Jesus shows up, John completely gets that it’s not about him. A famous painting of John shows him pointing a finger over his shoulder. The message is, “Not me. Him.”

5.      And then there’s the water. If we present ourselves for baptism, we’re going to have to deal with the water. With the prospect of getting wet, wading in, plunging in. There’s also an unnerving element of needing to let go, needing to place ourselves and our trust fully in the arms of the one dunking us. Baptism is a frightening and dangerous act of trust.

4.      And the waters of baptism can do all kinds of things. They can wash us clean, but what if I liked my makeup or my hairdo or my carefully constructed mask??

3.      The waters of baptism also place us in a pool—a pool with all kinds of other people, and we don’t get to carefully curate our companions. In choosing to be baptized, Jesus jumped into the pool with all humanity, and, in a certain sense, we do too. And you know how dangerous humans are, with their ability to change one another’s hearts. All the beauty and brokenness, all the sin and glory of messy humanity is in that pool, and so are we, clinging with all our might to God’s grace to stay afloat…. until we realize we can stop clinging. We are floating, and it has nothing to do with our own abilities or might. It’s God who is holding us. That’s the definition of grace.

2.      And then there is the aftermath. After Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened and he saw the Holy Spirit descending to rest upon him. What was that like? What does it mean, to be saturated or covered or anointed with the Holy Spirit? Ask a baptized person. You will get a variety of answers. The letter to the Ephesians tells us that, in baptism, the Spirit equips us for ministry—not all the ministries, but the one or ones to which we are called. What does that feel like? Being called to ministry? Do we get a phone call? (Answer: Sometimes.) Do we get a sense that something might give us joy or energy? (Answer: Sometimes.) Do we get a sinking feeling, a “I can’t say no to this even though it’s going to be hard” feeling? (Answer: Sorry, but, sometimes.) If we present ourselves for baptism, we have to be ready for the perilous aftermath.

1.      And finally: the voice. In baptism we are claimed by one who calls us beloved. After the heavens open and the Spirit comes down, the voice of God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” says God. Imagine. How would it change your life to know that God calls you beloved? You. Not the movie star, 25 lbs. thinner, several years younger, more hair and muscles, less baggage you. You. Now. As you are. Now, don’t imagine it. Know it. You are God’s beloved, and so am I, and so are those people who are driving by the church right this minute, and so are all the football players on the team you can’t stand. God calls us all beloved. Beloved. How would it change your life to know that? How will it change your life? What possibilities will you dare? What risks will you take?

Baptism seems dangerous to me. It is the first step into a life that is out of our control—but most assuredly in God’s keeping. It’s the first step to discovering things about ourselves we could not have otherwise imagined. And it’s the first step in accomplishing what Howard Thurman calls the real work of Christmas:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers [and sisters],
To make music in the heart.

Christmas is over. The work of our baptism, the dangerous, joyful work of following Christ has begun. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Weeping, Wandering God: Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23

"Rest on the Flight Into Egypt" by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1880

Scripture can be found here...

Well, it’s finally happened: The much-loved TV show “Friends” is now streaming on Netflix, and millions of fans are wondering: will we ever leave the house again? Does anyone remember “The One Where Old Yeller Dies”? For those of you uninitiated into this show, the episode centered on the character of Phoebe, who is at once incredibly wise and naïve, street-smart and oblivious, a truly delightful collection of personality quirks and warmth and beauty. In this episode Phoebe learns, to her horror, the real ending of Old Yeller, in which it is discovered that he has rabies, and his owner is forced to euthanize him. Phoebe’s worldview is shattered, because she never heard or saw the end of the story before.

We are nearly two weeks on from Christmas, and today, we hear the end of the story of his birth and infancy. Today’s gospel passage is only in the lectionary every three or four years, and no wonder. Who wants to hear about the murder of children by a vicious king while the lights are still sparkling on the tree? Who wants to hear that the Holy Family is forced to run for the life of their child, across the border to another country? But that is the piece of the story we have today.

We start with Herod. He is the consummate villain. What can you say about a king who gained the throne by conquest, and who held onto it by means of secret police, with a personal bodyguard of 2000 soldiers, a policy of violently putting down protests and demonstrations, and a habit of murdering family members—including his wife and two sons? Herod is a very, very bad guy. And when the traveling astrologers (also known as the Magi) tell him that a king has been born, he does what he usually does in these situations. He sends out someone to kill off his rival. In this case, thoroughness dictates that his henchmen target all children in and around Bethlehem, under the age of 2 years.

A quote from Jeremiah (31:15) underscores the horror of the tragedy: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” And in the midst of a story of political power turned deadly, we are asked to take a moment to recognize that mothers are weeping. People are heartsick and sorrowful, because children have been lost.

I don’t think I need to enumerate for you all the stories of loved ones lost to violence that splash across our newspapers and computer screens on a daily basis: from a school in Newtown, Connecticut, to one in Peshawar, Pakistan; from a refugee camp in Syria to a police cruiser in Brooklyn; or from a crosswalk in Missouri to a Walmart in Idaho.  And because so many incidences of violence are connected to loud national arguments about things like public policy, and personal safety, and issues around race, and guns, and the nature of policing, we sometimes forget the simplest, the most basic fact at the heart of each tragedy. Someone is weeping. Someone cannot be consoled, because the one they love has been lost.

A friend preached on Christmas Eve, “Christmas comes into the world just as it is; Jesus is born, not into a perfect world, but into the world as it is.”[i] And that means that Jesus comes into a world where, every day, children of God are lost and other children of God are crying rivers of tears over it. I have a hard time imagining that God isn’t weeping right along with us, over all these losses, every face that will never smile again, every voice that will never again be heard, every pair of arms that will never again give a hug. I believe in a God whose love and compassion for us mean that God weeps right along with us.

God travels with us, too. Joseph is warned about Herod’s murderous plans, and is able to escape with his wife and child to Egypt. Our Christmas stories tell us of a Jesus who is displaced, who is a refugee to a country not his own. A Texas professor of the New Testament reminds us of this “sobering fact: if Joseph had received the dream to leave his endangered village and take refuge in a foreign country with his family in global-political circumstances similar to our own, he would likely have been turned back at the border, told to wait it out and hope for the best in Bethlehem.”[ii] When we read of displaced people—when we hear the stories of the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, or in Chad, or in Jordan… it’s good for us to remember that Jesus was a refugee, and one who found welcome in an unexpected place.

I said on Christmas Eve that the story of Jesus’ birth is the whole gospel in miniature. All the big themes. All the important ideas. And that holds true here as well. Jesus comes into a world in which powerful forces are afraid of (and lash out at) people and ideas that threaten their power. And Jesus comes into a world where there is tragedy and loss and conflict and grieving.

But that is not the end of the story—it’s not even the end of the story of Jesus’ birth. There’s more to that passage in Jeremiah. God continues to speak:

Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country. 
~ Jeremiah 30:16-17

Jesus returns to the place that will be his home, to Nazareth. And isn’t that the marvelous work of the Savior on our behalf as well? Jesus comes to bring us home, too. In Advent we sing a melancholy song of exile—

O come o come, Emmanuel
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

The deepest longing of the one in exile is simple: home. Just as Jesus and his family find a home in the land of Israel, Jesus-followers find a home in him. He is our home, because he knows what it is to weep and grieve, and keeps vigil with us in our grief. He is our home, because he knows what it is to be a wanderer, and he walks the road with us while we wander. He is our home because he invites us in, again and again, to gather around a table, and to find an unexpected welcome, balm for our soul, light for our eyes, and food for the journey. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] The Rev. Gord Waldie, Pastor of Saint Paul’s United Church, Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada, and blogger at “Following Frodo.”
[ii] Matthews, Shelly, “Commentary on Matthew 2:13-23,” Narrative Lectionary Commentary,