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

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Music of Advent - Tell Out My Soul

Week 2, Thursday—Luke 46b-55
Tell Out My Soul  by Timothy Dudley-Smith, 1961

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!
Unnumbered blessings give my spirit voice;
Tender to me the promise of  God’s Word;
In God, my Savior, shall my heart rejoice.

I cannot tell how many times I have extolled the greatness of God. I’m also ashamed to say I cannot tell how many times I have whined to God about the circumstances in my life.  I would suspect we all do that.  Praises when we are happy; complaints when we are not. 

Yet, here is Mary singing the greatness of God.  In this hymn I imagine her singing at the top of her lungs—much like Julie Andrews singing “...the hills are alive….with the sound of music.”  Only Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord...and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  Oh, what would it be like for us to sing God’s praise with such reckless abandon, regardless of our circumstances. 

One time at a youth summer camp we were all gathered in the tabernacle with the camp band playing and the whole building was singing at the top of our lungs.  One young preacher that was working the camp also, came up beside me and with a big, beautiful grin on his face said, “I imagine this is what heaven will be like.”  I had to agree.  Singing praise with reckless abandon. 

This is a long way from some of the more uptight ways we worship.  I’m not talking about worship style, I’m talking about the spirit of the worship service.  Are we worshiping God? Or are we more concerned with the social aspect of a congregation?  I find that those who are worried about what others think tend to not worship with that uninhibited spirit that I believe Mary showed. 

This time of year we look at welcoming the child Jesus; God in human flesh.  This God living among humanity gives us cause to sing and praise and celebrate with wild joy the coming of the Lord.  Our souls cry out about how great our God is and we rejoice.  Let us celebrate the season only concerned with praising God, and not worry about what others think. 

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. 
Luke 1:46-49

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Music of Advent - My Soul Gives Glory to My God

Week 2, Wednesday—Luke 1:26-38

My Soul Gives Glory to My God by Miriam Therese Winter, 1987

My soul gives glory to my God, my heart pours out its praise.
God lifted up my lowliness in many marvelous ways.
Praise God whose loving covenant supports those in distress,
Remembering past promises with present faithfulness.

This hymn is the sweet song of Mary, the young unsuspecting girl who God chose to be the bearer of light and life—the very divine.  How her life would change!  While her immediate thought could have been of her reputation, she risked herself.  She could have been afraid of being shunned by her village, the pain of childbirth, or being alone, but she showed courage.  Of all of the many ways she could have responded to such a vision, she chose to respond in faith, and not only in faith, but in praise!

Mary is the point of pure innocence coming together with the divine in the best way possible.  I do not mean innocence in the sense of naïve, immature, and ignorant.  What I mean is the heart that is good seeing the good in others—the wisdom and gentleness Jesus spoke of in Matthew 10:16

At this point, in the story of God’s redemption, Mary is the sacrifice.  The hope for humanity rests with her.  Her obedience to God should not be understated.  Even after giving birth, her heart would be broken by the cruelty of the humanity her son would save, and her obedience would be rewarded by deep sorrow.  This does not seem fair. 

Then I think of all the other souls who have sacrificed for the sake of God’s redemption in the world.  We read stories of these people who willingly risk life, status, and reputation, and we applaud them all the while knowing we would never make that same sacrifice.  Today let’s remember Mary’s faithfulness that brought redemption to the humanity that would wound her very soul which gives glory to God eternally.

Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
Luke 1:38

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Music of Advent - To a Maid Engaged to Joseph

Week 2, Tuesday—Luke 1:26-38

To a Maid Engaged to Joseph by Gracia Grindal

To a maid engaged to Joseph, the angel Gabriel came. 
“Fear not the angel told her, “I come to bring good news.”
“Fear not for God is with you, and you shall bear a child.
His name shall be called Jesus, God’s off-spring from on high.
And he shall reign forever, forever reign on high.”

Angels are crucial to the story of Advent.  Angels appearing to Mary and Joseph, to the shepherds and the magi, and to Zechariah herald the message: “fear not” and “good news!”
I find their initial statements of “fear not” to be both comforting and discomforting.  Comforting in that we are told we should not be afraid. Discomforting because it is likely we will be afraid of what they say.  This is like your child calling you and saying, “I’m alright,” before they break into the terrifying story of the accident they were just in. 

Messages of “good news” are kind of backhanded blessings found throughout the scriptures.  God’s favor tends to be coupled with something other mortals would hate to have to go through.  Mary’s predicament of being an unwed mother in ancient Jewish culture is one example.  This favor and promise of God’s presence do not eliminate the very real consequences of Mary’s situation.  But God’s favor and comfort probably got her through the tough times, at least with a little comfort and encouragement. 

What tough times are you facing?  Perhaps it is social or cultural, and you are ostracized by your peers or family.  Maybe it is simply having to endure unpleasant or downright awful circumstances.  Or you may have other forms of a backhanded blessing—a medical condition that reveals something more serious in the nick of time.  Know that there is a messenger from God telling you to fear not, no matter the circumstances.
And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. 'But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

Luke 1:28-30

Monday, December 5, 2016

Music of Advent - Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

Week 2, Monday—Isaiah 35:1-2

Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming 15th century German, trans. Theodore Baker

Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse's lineage coming as men of old have sung.
It came, a flower bright, amid the cold of winter
When half-gone was the night.

This particular Advent hymn is not usually a favorite with the congregations I have served.  I think maybe it is because it has no time signature.  Knowing little about the technicalities of music, what I do know is that the tune can be a little awkward.  Nevertheless, I like it and it has become one of my favorite Advent tunes, not in spite of the timing, but because of it.  It is haunting, and a bit nostalgic.  You can almost see the sepia tones coming up around your memories as you sing this hymn. 

Of course the rose to which this hymn is referring is Mary, mother of Jesus.  There is no end to tunes about Mary at Advent and Christmas.  But this one does not directly reference Mary of Nazareth, but a Rose of Sharon.  In the Isaiah passage, it tells of a crocus, but biblical scholars have attributed to the “crocus growing as a lily among the brambles” as the Rose of Sharon.  There are other ideas of this, but I think the lily among the brambles is a good image for this particular hymn. 

In Isaiah, without knowledge of Mary of Nazareth, the writer tells of a crocus that “shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.”  Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55 rejoices, singing of God’s glory and majesty.  In her expectant condition, Mary is a flower “in bloom” with the glory of God. 

As we prepare for the birth of the incarnate God, let us remember Mary who was the lily among the brambles of troubled Nazareth and Ceasar’s reign.  In spite of her circumstances, she rejoiced with song and pondered in her heart the things of God.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
   the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
   and rejoice with joy and singing.

Isaiah 35:1

Music of Advent - Hail to the Lord's Anointed

Sunday, Second Week of Advent—Psalm 72

Hail to the Lord’s Anointed by James Montgomery, 1821
  Hail to the Lord’s anointed, great David’s greater Son!
Hail in the time appointed, his reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression, to set the captive free;
To take away transgression, and rule in equity. 

The prayer of confession came up during the service.  Since I had not been to a church with a liturgical style of worship before, this was foreign to me.  People of the congregation—even the pastor—were all confessing with one voice that we were less than perfect, that we were repentant and were seeking reconciliation with God and one another.  No one was claiming to be a better Christian than the other.  This was a radical and progressive thought for me. 

I was brought up in a church that seemed to have a congregation of the holier-than-thou folk and the poor degenerates.  I fell in the later category.  Of course, this was my perspective at the time and was perhaps a bit skewed by my age. I found in later years that various congregations regardless of denomination can have those divisions, but during my teen years I felt this acutely.  I could never be “saved” enough.  My rebelliousness in my late teens sealed the deal.  At the tender age of 19, I believed I was doomed to hell.  Yet, in spite of my damnation, here I was in a church that not only conveyed God’s grace in my life, they all said they needed it too.

This is my understanding of breaking oppression and taking away transgression—the unison prayer of confession.  The captivity to the constant reminder of my past failures no longer held me.  I was free, and although I had been raised in church and had attended my whole life, it was probably the first time I felt that freedom in Christ.  This is the kind of relief you feel when you do not know how heavy the burden on you is until it is lifted.  Then you feel awkward by the lightness of your spirit.  Of course, you want to shout “Hail!” and “Blessed be!”  It seems natural at that point. 

If you are one of those who feel that others have put you in the “poor degenerate” category, do not despair.  God doesn’t see you there.  God desires relationship with you and for you to know the pure freedom of forgiveness and the unburdening of your soul. 

After a bit, assured of my life in Christ, the relationship with God (as many relationships go) became stale.  Shouting God’s praises seemed rehearsed and trite.  I looked around at others who seemed to be going through the motions as well.  I realized then this is how “holier-than-thou” starts.  Rather than being authentic about the ups and downs of our faith, we fake it.  If you are in this demographic, I just want to let you know you are not fooling anyone, and no one can fool God.   

It was in an intentional act on my part to remember the joy felt at that first act of radical belief that God’s grace was in my life regardless of what others may think about me.  I found this re-connection once again in the unison prayer of confession.  Only this time I was the pastor leading the congregation.  At this time, it was the words of the assurance of pardon that I get to say, knowing without question that the God I fell in love with, was the God that was in love with me and my congregation.  I fell renewed once again. 

I would invite us all to pray a Prayer of Confession this Advent, recognizing that we often fail God, but God never fails us. 

Lord we confess that we suffer today because of sin, both the sins we have chosen and the sins committed against us. We have done things we should not have done, and we have neglected to do those things we should have done. Save us from ourselves; save us from the forces of Evil in this world.

We do not have the power to undo what has already been done, so grant us grace to bear present burdens and courage to change things that can be changed. Teach us how to live as those prepared to die and dwell eternally with you and your Boy Child, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

SILENT CONFESSION (offer personal prayers of confession)

Jesus has, indeed, come to save us and show us the way to experience God's love. Jesus will strengthen us to the end, so we may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Hear the good news: you are forgiven!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Music of Advent - Toda la Tierra (All Earth is Waiting)

Week 1, Saturday Isaiah 40:3-5

All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
And the open furrows, the sowing of the Lord.
All the world, bound and struggling seeks true liberty
It cries out for justices and searches for the truth.

It hadn’t rained.  The earth was parched and cracked.  Most wheat didn’t make it to the ground.  Much of what did dried up and blew away.  It was pretty bleak. 

I look around today and see a world bound and struggling.  Listen carefully, and you will hear the cries for justice and truth, which is growing louder every day.  How do we proclaim “Joy to the World” at such a time in human history?  How do we explain peace on earth good will to all humankind to our children?

It hadn’t rained.  The earth was parched and cracked.  Most wheat didn’t make it to the ground.  Much of what did dried up and blew away.  It was pretty bleak.  Then came the glorious summer rain blessing the earth, kissing the ground.  It was warm and sweet and lasted for hours.  Children were dancing in it.  Birds were bathing in puddles.  Farmers, with hats off, lifted their faces to it, their tears mingling with the drops hitting their faces.  The dried furrows were filled with life-giving water from heaven.

All the earth is waiting.  How are you giving hope and courage?  How are you like the rain that blesses the earth?  Do you fill up the low places with life-giving speech?  Or do you dig the trenches deeper and drier?  Do you bless and give life?  Or do you crush and oppress?  There cannot be a somewhere in the middle in this current climate.

All the earth is waiting to see the Promised One.  The world, bound and struggling, desire freedom, justice and truth.  Do you bear the child of promise?  Or do you bear the curse of Herod on the world?  We are waiting.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain. 
Isaiah 40:4

Music of Advent - View the Present Through the Promise

 Week 1, Friday--Isaiah 40:3-5
View the Present Through the Promise by Thomas Troeger, 1994

View the present through the promise,
Christ will come again.
Trust despite the deepening darkness
Christ will come again.
Lift the world above its grieving
through your watching and believing
In the hope past hope’s conceiving
Christ will come again.

There was a time when the religious powers-that-be thought the best course of action was a “scared straight” approach to the divine.  That same idea has repeated over time with faith being the beautiful beginning to relationship with God devolving into religion (in the worst sense of the word) being the ultimate ending of that faith.  I do not mean to say that I believe that churches or denominations are bad, I don’t.  I think ecumenical cooperation among denominations is important to being able to see how vast and diverse God truly is.  I just mean when suddenly those that follow the Christ begin to look like the Pharisees and the empire that crucified Jesus, we have gone astray. 

In this passage of Isaiah, we are told of a solitary voice crying out.  We have often skipped the punctuation though.  It does not say that a voice in the wilderness is crying out, it reads that the message of that voice is that the way of the Lord should be prepared in the wilderness.  This gives us a whole new meaning.  The divine is coming not in the bustling city or the fertile farmlands, but in the desert wilderness.  Barrenness.  Of course!  Where else should God come first, but to the barren places.  

Our faith begins with waiting, hoping, and watching for an appearance of the divine in our world.   We often lose sight of this faith as our waiting is not realized.  Then we turn to law and penalty as opposed to the grace with which we first began.  Holding on to the waiting without becoming discouraged is important, so we must be renewed.  Where do we look for the Lord?  We look in the desert places of our lives and in our world.  Where do we see God at work, while we watch and wait?

This hymn allows us to lift up our voices with confidence proclaiming Christ will come again!  It is in the very darkness that the light shines brightest.  Let us renew our faith, trusting that we are here in this place for such a time as this watching and waiting.  Watching for God’s work in our world.  Waiting for the revelation of the divine in our lives.  Even if we never see what we believe to be a triumphal return, if we watch for the smallest things in the barren places we will not miss the Advent of the divine. 

A voice cries out:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 

Isaiah 40:3

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Music of Advent - Prepare the Way of the Lord

(Because I originally prepared this for print, I have forgotten the brilliance of the internet for information at our finger tips!  I have put in links to the scripture and other information in this one and will go back later to put them in previous posts.)

(For the beginning of this series of readings go here.)

Week 1, Thursday—Isaiah 40:1-5; 52:10
Prepare the Way of the Lord by Jacques Berthier

Prepare the way of the Lord.
Prepare the way of the Lord,
And all people will see the salvation of our God.

On a trip to Israel and Palestine, our group of fairly sedentary Americans, were struggling with walking the streets of the villages and towns in which we stayed.  Every step was either uphill or downhill and rocky, so much so that to step into a flat surface was quite a relief.  One particular literal uphill struggle we had stopped to rest halfway up, and as we were resting we see a little boy running and kicking a soccer ball up the hill, seemingly without effort!  The ease with which he moved was quite the cause of conversation among our little group.  One of us remarked that she wished nothing more at that moment than the valleys had been lifted up and the mountains brought low in preparation for the Lord, so that we who visited the area later might enjoy it.    

The prophet Isaiah speaks of preparing the way of the Lord so that all people will see the redemptive glory of the Lord.  After experiencing the terrain of the land, I appreciated more fully the “valleys and mountains of the scripture.  I thought not only of the ease of movement, but also the ability to see for a distance, which only happened at mountaintop moments. What if we could see clearly without any obstruction all the time the salvation of God?  

This hymn from the Taizé community is a repeated chant, and after singing it a couple of times through becomes so deeply rooted in our hearts and minds that we recognize that we are to prepare the way of the Lord so that all people see the salvation of our God.  What can we do this season while we watch and wait for the Advent of the Christ to prepare the way for God’s salvation for all people?  How have we either with or without intention caused those places that people struggle and stumble, and we block the way of the Lord, rather than prepare the way for God’s salvation to be known?  Wherever we have caused hardship for others, we have caused it for ourselves and have kept ourselves from fully seeing God’s salvation as well.  How can you remove obstacles so that you too may experience God’s salvation?

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’  Isaiah 40:5

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Music of Advent - I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light

(For the beginning of this series of readings go here.)

Week 1, Wednesday—John 1:9-18

I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light by Kathleen Thomerson, 1966

I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus.
God set the stars to give light to the world. 
The star of my life is Jesus. 
In him there is no darkness at all. 
The night and the day are both alike. 
The Lamb is the light of the City of God. 
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.

One time, to explain to youth the biblical truth about light and darkness, I took the opportunity to turn off the lights in a completely windowless room.  It was pitch black and you could not see your hand in front of you.  Of course, there was the ruckus you might imagine from the kids, but then I lit a candle.  This one candle changed the complete darkness of the room to one of light and shadows.  I explained that the light is Christ coming into the world.  The shadows in the corners of the room were those places where the light had not yet reached.  Then I gave them all candles and we lit them.  With the glow of the additional candles, almost the entire room was lighted.  They each bore the light of Christ wherever they went, and so do we.

This simple illustration helps us to see what it means to be disciples.  Each follower of Christ takes this light into the world and illuminates the darkness wherever we go.  The youth and I then listened the song “Go Light Your World” made popular again by Chris Rice in 2004. 

We who follow Christ all have this light burning within us, but sometimes we do not shine; sometimes we do not light other’s candles; sometimes we allow our candles to be snuffed out by situations and then we feel overcome by the darkness around us.  We need to tend this flame and keep it burning within us that we may walk as children of the Light carrying this light to everyone around us.  We do this by being continually in the light of the Christ—the light of Christ found in true relationship with the Light of the World, through the flames of other children of the Light around us, and through our desire to be light-bearers to the world. 

This Advent as we look at the coming of the Light of the World into the darkness of human lives, let us sing this Advent hymn as a prayer.  “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus...Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”  And then let us go light our world.

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God . John 1:12

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Music of Advent - Send Your Word

(For the beginning of this series of readings go here.)

Week 1, Tuesday—John 1:3b-5
Send Your Word by Yasushige Imakoma, 1965
Send your Word, O God, like rain falling down upon the earth.
Send your Word.  We seek your endless grace,
with souls that hunger and thirst, sorrow and agonize. 
We would all be lost in dark without your guiding light.

This Japanese song is slow and somber—set in a mood more like Lent than Advent.  Its tune is contrary to the unwritten score for the song of John playing around in my head.  The prologue to the gospel of John has trumpets and fanfare, or maybe flowing, earthy, harp music with a babbling brook behind it.  Never in my mind has
In the beginning was the Word, been a dirge.  Now that I think about it though, perhaps it should be.

This beginning to the gospel sets the stage for a tragic drama.  The hero, an ill-fated figure who the audience knows dies at the end, is foretold.  This cannot be the triumphant fanfare or the soothing meditation music that I first thought.  It is too important to be taken lightly.

Jesus, the child of Bethlehem, of Egypt, and of Nazareth is the promised Messiah in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  This is the Jesus that sweats and cries, sleeps and eats, and has a need for companionship.  Jesus in the Gospel of John, however, is the very divine, light, God, the Word spoken in creation.  This gospel’s  Jesus shows us God incarnate (in flesh), light in a world of darkness.   The Jesus of John is the divine who touches earth and brings all of creation to a single point—the Word, the Light of the World, the Christ.

This Advent let us look for those like us who need such a hero.  Those whose lives are in darkness and those whose lives are in shadow.  The light shines in the darkness, and the light triumphs. This is good news.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1:5