Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Music of Advent - O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Week 3, Tuesday—Isaiah 7:10-15
O Come, O Come Emmanuel original Latin 9th century; other authors are Henry Sloan Coffin (st. 2), 1916 and Laurence Hull Stookey (st 4, 5, 6, and 7), 1986

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

Have you ever waited for something to happen and held out hope in spite of not seeing that hope realized?  I was not a very patient youth or young adult.  I would often get agitated if I felt things were not coming together in a timely fashion.  After agitation, then came worry, and then doubt, and then second-guessing myself.  If it continued, it could turn into a full-blown crisis and I may become completely confused over how I could have possibly missed it. There was one such occurrence when I was in my twenties.  I felt God leading in a direction that I thought I followed, but things didn’t seem to be going well.  Then they went from not well to worse.  Was I wrong?  Was I doing something wrong?  Maybe I understood it wrong?  Wait...what?

After having this type of situation happen a time or two in my life, I became more patient.  Okay, to be perfectly honest, I got older.  I simply didn’t have the energy to twist around like that anymore.  So patience often looked more like resignation. 

I cannot imagine a multi-generational holding pattern.  That is something to think about as we are in the middle of Advent and the waiting.  We can barely wait the four weeks of Advent to rush to Christmas.  And once we get to Christmas, often we do not take the appropriate twelve days to appreciate the gifts of the season.  We rush to take down the decorations and move on with our New Year’s plans.  Humans in general can be terrible at waiting.  If it came naturally, you wouldn’t see self-help gurus trying to teach patience.  But our waiting is nothing in comparison to the years of waiting the Israelites endured. 

However, as Christians, we also wait.  We wait for the return of the Christ.  This is a multi-generational hope that Christians have held onto through the centuries.  Only it varies from group to group.  There are the groups who make elaborate claims, take out billboards, speak on radio and television about the exact date that they have come up with based on this calendar or that sign.  We have seen at least three in the past 5 years.  Then there are those who have given up this hope and figure we understood wrong, and try to find other meaning in the passages of scripture foretelling return of the Lord.  Some of these theories may have some validity, but I  think in our effort to have a literal interpretation, we have forgotten to try to figure out the initial meaning in the first place, which is God came to live among us and in us.  The Kingdom of God is not a someday when we die location, it is a here and now place we live into as Christians. 

One time I heard a story about Martin Luther that has been my answer should anyone ask me about what I felt about the ‘second coming.’  Martin Luther, is the German monk who tried to reform the Catholic Church only to have to flee for his life.  He was asked if he felt Christ would return in his lifetime, to which he indicated he did feel the return would be during his time.  He was then asked what he would do if he knew Christ was returning tomorrow.  “Plant a tree today,” he replied.  Meaning, he would continue to live, making plans for the future. 

We do not know when Christ may return, or if the return will be during our lifetimes.  However, we have a job to do, and we cannot cut out early—we make disciples, we bring heaven to earth, we look for the good in the world, we speak truth, and above all else, we love one another.  We sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel with new understanding. 

O come, thou Wisdom from on high
and order all things far and nigh
To us the path of knowledge show
and cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel 

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. 
Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, 
and shall name him Immanuel. Isaiah 7:14

Monday, December 12, 2016

Music of Advent - Blessed be the God of Israel

Week 3, Monday—Luke 1:68-79

Blessed be the God of Israel by Michael Perry, 1973

My father was 47 years old when I was born.  I can only imagine the conversation between he and my mother.  “We are going to have a baby, I’m pregnant.”  “You’re what!”  Of course, ‘how did that happen’ is an in appropriate question, but often a thought.  I can’t imagine my coming was expected.  There was probably a bit of “we’re past all that now.  We have teenagers for Pete’s sake!”  In spite of my parents age or how much of a surprise I must have been, I never doubted my parents love for me.  While not expected, I was nevertheless a joy.

I would imagine that Zechariah had similar thoughts at the pronouncement of the angel that left him literally speechless.  The billion and one reasons why the thought is madness, the worries, the fears, the feelings of inadequacy that go through the mind in a split second.  Then at the end of the second of scrolling worries, comes a flash of shining thought—pure joy!  

Zechariah waited silently through the term of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.  At the moment of the birth of John, and his writing down the name of the child, he was delivered from his silence and began to speak.  What did he say first?  He praised God, then he began to sing “Blessed be the God of Israel!” 

May we all sing for joy at the good news of the Christ child.  Praise God of all people, because he has come and has brought salvation to the people of God.  We are saved from darkness and death, and God will guide our feet to peace.

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 1:78-79

Music of Advent - Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates

Third Week of Advent—Psalm 24

Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates by Georg Weissel, 1855

Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates;
behold, the King of glory waits;
the King of kings is drawing near;
the Savior of the world is here!

I have been known to go a bit overboard on decorating the house for Christmas.  In recent years I have scaled it back a bit, not really because I find it prudent to do so, but because my children are grown and are no longer around to help me decorate.  Most years of my ministry I hold an open house at Christmas.  I do this so I can invite the church to come and see the parsonage that they lovingly provide.  I also do this because I like decorating for Christmas and I want others to see it. 

Right before the open house there is what can only be called a cleaning frenzy.  It’s part of the tradition of Christmas now.  Some people have spring cleaning, we have advent cleaning.  We prepare the house to receive honored guest and treasured friends.  I try to do this in plenty of time that I can de-frazzle before the guests arrive.  It wouldn’t do for the house to be perfect and my attitude to be poor.

This hymn echoes the words of Psalm 24, “Lift up your heads, O gates!  It is a call to prepare to receive the King, at his arrival.  Part of the preparation told about in the Psalm is the preparation of the people of the city to greet the coming King.  They should prepare themselves by having clean hands and pure hearts, to be loyal to what is true and to be trustworthy and true themselves.  I think this is a great message for Advent.  Prepare yourself to receive the coming King. 

Have clean hands, meaning do that which can be considered clean.  It is what we do, more than what we think.  Do you treat others honestly?  Do you steal?  Do you harm?  Have clean hands with which to receive the Lord.

You should have hearts that are pure, that does not think about all the bad, but think the thoughts of Philippians 4:8.  Dwell on the positive, rather than the negative.  See good in people and in yourself.

To receive the King well, we should focus on what is true, and not give loyalty (or attention) to what is false.  And we should not be false ourselves, meaning we do not gossip or pass along bad information.    I think this is an important part of preparing our hearts in our day and age of satire in the media and the perpetuation of false stories. 

Go to the extent to receive the Lord as you would to receive honored guests.  I find that once my guests arrive, I look at the house through the eyes of my guests.  I notice all those things I had not noticed before.  I forgot to dust the cobwebs from the corners.  That window blind has a slat that is askew.  The tile on the floor seems to be coming up just a little in that area over there.  I find this as much part of the process as anything.  Noticing what they notice.

How does that relate to preparing for the coming of Christ?  What would you start to see in your life that in the light of the Light of the World, and through the eyes of Jesus comes starkly into view.  What cobwebby corners have you neglected?  What in your life is askew and not in line with the teachings of the Christ child?  What areas need repair, need cleaning, need clearing out?

Lift up your heads, O Gates!  Give us clean hands and pure hearts!  Let us prepare for the coming of the Lord!

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
   who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
   and do not swear deceitfully. 
Psalm 24:4

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Music of Advent - Emmanuel, Emmanuel

Week 2, Saturday—Matthew 1:18-24

Emmanuel, Emmanuel by Bob McGee, 1976

Emmanuel, Emmanuel
His name is called, Emmanuel
God with us, revealed in us
His name is called, Emmanuel

When we think about the God of the universe, we often think of a deity with supreme power, larger than life, invincible.  Then Advent rolls around year after year and tells us of a child born that shall be called “God with us.”  Suddenly our perspective changes and we ooh and coo like we would with any infant entering our world.

When I was fifteen, my niece was born—the first grandchild loved by one and all.  Even though I was old enough to babysit, I was given all the typical instructions on how to hold her.  “Keep her head up,” “Support her neck.” “Don’t drop her!”  I chuckle to think about how we fuss over the littlest of us.  This is how it should be; babies are vulnerable and fragile.  They are not capable of walking or feeding themselves.  They must be supported and hand fed for most of their first year.  They cannot defend themselves.

How can the God of the universe come as one so fragile?  How can the supreme deity, invincible and powerful, subject Godself to the whims of humanity?  What if the parents God chose to bear this child fail to keep the baby safe?  What about other children, who can be cruel?  What about powerful, evil rulers who enact decrees that can harm children and their families?  Why would God come in human flesh at all?

From the very beginning, God sought to be in relationship with creation and with humans instilled with the very image of the divine.  So much potential we have for good!  So much power we have for evil!  The God who desires relationship couldn’t let a little thing like flesh distance humanity from God.  No, God continues to seek out relationship with all of humanity.

The song, Emmanuel, Emmanuel, reflects the words of the angel in Matthew 1.  We sing “Emmanuel, God with us.”  The phrase after that is the line to which we do not give significant weight—”revealed in us.”  God is revealed in us!

God desires relationship with humanity and comes in the form of a fragile baby.  As we ooh and coo, we might remember the God who loves us so much, that God stepped into flesh to struggle, hunger, sweat, and tire along with us, and in the end, to die as well. 

Perhaps this child brings out the divine in all of us.  How are you revealing God remembering the child of the manger?

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 
Matt 1:23

Friday, December 9, 2016

Music of Advent - What Child is This

Week 2, Friday—Luke 1:51-53

What Child is This by William C. Dix, 1865

What child is this who , laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
while shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
whom shepherds guard and angels sing.
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe the son of Mary.

This beautiful hymn of the babe of Bethlehem helps us keep things in perspective.  This child is not born in a palace, where boy kings might be found.  It was not in the home of the wealthy, where children of status might be found.  This child was found in hay, next to cows and donkeys.  This child was born to homeless, immigrant parents; his mother was most likely seen as a woman of questionable character.

This child was heralded by the angelic choir, but the angels missed a turn, because they ended up giving their Hallelujah Chorus concert to dirty, nomadic sheepherders, who slept with their livestock, something they had in common with the child of the stable.  And then this child’s royal guards were those same shepherds who left their flocks—their livelihood—and went to see what the angels had been singing about. 

This story is so upside down it is right-side up.  As Mary sang, “God has brought the lofty down and raised the lowly up.”  It is something we forget to notice when we talk about Jesus, King of Kings, Savior of the World, Majesty, Lord.  We like these titles because they make us feel like we are part of the in crowd.  There are even t-shirts for children that say “I am a child of a King,” which I think gives them entirely the wrong idea, unfortunately. 

In proper perspectives we are servants who follow an unemployed, drifter going from town to town proclaiming a radical message of rebellion.  He hung out with the poor, the unclean, the shady characters of his time.  You know, something we would frown upon from our lofty positions. 

This Christmas, let us remember the places once again.  The powerful are brought down, and the lowly shall be lifted.  Which place are you going to be?  This question is an important one that only you can answer for yourself.  Who do you side with when social justice issues arise?  When there are marginalized or oppressed peoples, where are you to be found?  While others are standing against injustice, what are you doing? 

What child is this that we follow?  May we prepare our hearts to receive the lowly child of the manger this Christmas.

He has brought down the powerful from
their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.
Luke 1:52