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[Right after his baptism] Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.”
Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”Matthew 4:1-4, The Message
Ash Wednesday is March 5th. It is the beginning of the forty days of Lent. Lent is an introspective journey Christians observe in order to prepare for Easter. Traditionally, Christians have observed Lent as a period of fasting, repentance, and spiritual disciplines. It remembers the fast Jesus observed prior to his temptation. It has also been a time to prepare new Christians for baptism into faith.
To mark the beginning of Lent, we will have a traditional Ash Wednesday service at 6 pm, with the imposition of ashes and Holy Communion. During the next six Sundays that precede Easter, we will talk about a variety of spiritual disciplines. (I did not call them “Sundays in Lent,” because officially Sundays are not considered days in Lent: all Sundays are considered “little Easters”, as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection.) Some of the disciplines are intended to help people give things up, and others help people go deeper in faith through adding something, like a gift of service. We were blessed to have a guest speaker in last Sunday’s 10:30 service who gave us opportunities to be in service in community, but there are many more. I look forward to sharing some ideas with you and hearing from you ways to go deeper in faith during this holy period.
I hope we all meet God in new ways and are able to surrender just a little more of ourselves and our strength to God’s love and power.
In other news, we have a thriving and energetic (if small) confirmation class. Three mentors are working with three of our youth to help them feel beloved by the church as they go deeper in faith. I ask each of you to pray daily for this wonderful class, both students and their mentors as they learn together.
Did you ever have a really strange dream you couldn’t explain or understand? I don’t usually remember my dreams very well. But I did have one that stuck with me for a very long time. I have told it so often that I can no longer tell whether I really remember the dream, or if I merely remember the telling of the dream. But in that particular dream, I felt God’s presence and thought He was calling me.
Joseph had four vivid and prophetic dreams. In each dream, an angel told him what to do. First he was told to accept Mary as his wife. Later he was warned to escape with his family to Egypt. Later he was told Herod had died and the family could return to Israel, and later still he was told to settle in Galilee rather than his ancestral home. Today we hear the first of the four, which echoed Isaiah’s prophesy: A virgin would bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel—“God-with-us.”
For non-believers, one of the stumbling blocks to Christian faith is the idea of virgin birth. Many non-Christians just cannot get their logical minds around that. Even some devout Christians explain it away. Personally, I have no trouble believing that Jesus, who transformed the world, was conceived by the Holy Spirit. I have experienced enough miracles in my life to know with certainty that all things are possible with God. But if I met someone for whom this concept is a stumbling block, I would not argue one way or another about the necessity of believing in virgin birth in order to have true Christian faith. For me, it’s not a make-or-break issue.
But it must have been a make-or-break issue for Joseph. Imagine, if you will, the scene. Joseph is a righteous and practical man who is ready to settle down and have a family, so he prayerfully asks God’s guidance. He has no doubt heard of the poor but pious family in town with a beautiful young daughter of marriageable age. He asks for and is granted Mary’s hand in marriage, and he knows for sure that God will bless their union. Joseph is falling in love and is very happy—until Mary comes and tells him she is with child.
My guess is that his first instinct was to roar and cast blame and make accusations. “You’re telling me you have never been unfaithful and were visited by an angel who just declared you pregnant? And you want me to believe that! You have got to be kidding me!”
But perhaps he didn’t say a word. Perhaps he merely sat there listening to her strange, unbelievable tale, a hot tear running down his cheek as his heart ached for all his broken plans. He didn’t know who fathered this child of Mary’s; he only knew he had not. He needed to figure a way out of this mess with the least damage possible. If he publicly accused her, he would be expected to participate in the punishment, and, though he was angry and disappointed, he surely didn’t want to throw stones at her. After all, stoning seemed like a pretty harsh sentence for a young girl, and wasn’t there enough violence in the world without that? And, like it or not, he still loved her. He just had to get away, find a place to be by himself, and spend some time in prayer.
After spending hours in prayer, his shock dissipated, but he remained confused. “What should I do, God?” he cried. The only thing he could think of was to send her away quietly so she could run away somewhere and hopefully make a life for herself. Certainly she would never be welcomed in her hometown any longer. Neighbor’s tongues would begin to wag as soon as they figured out the wedding had been called off. She certainly could not show her growing belly after that. But is sending her away any more merciful than stoning? At least stoning is over relatively quickly, while starving to death might take weeks. “Oh, God, help me!” Joseph despaired. And God did.
Joseph wearily succumbed to a fitful sleep. It was in his sleep that he came upon the one solution to deal with all the uncertainties he couldn’t resolve with a day full of worry. It was something he never even could have considered without the angel’s help. Mary was telling the truth! As improbable as it sounded, Mary was expecting a child even more special than all the other children he had met throughout his life. The angel in his dream told him to marry Mary, to accept this coming child and to name him Emmanuel, God with Us. This child will be the fulfillment of ancient divine prophesies, and Mary was going to need help raising him.
God sent the angel to Joseph. The angel assured Joseph by whispering in a dream as he slept, “Don’t be afraid, Joseph. Believe Mary. Love her, marry her, become a father to her son. You will become the father to God’s child. You will teach him to take risks even greater than the one you’re about to take. Raise him, love him and give him a name. You give him your human legacy, and God will give him a divine legacy.”
In our culture, we do not ascribe truth to our dreams, which we discount as the working of our own minds. If you or I had a dream like that, we might wonder about what it all meant for a moment or two and then go about our business as usual, first dismissing it and then forgetting about it. But Joseph knew God had touched quite profoundly in that dream. Joseph knew his dream was a gift of God’s revelation. Something of great importance was about to come.
To quote a United Methodist understanding of grace, Joseph “became a steward of sanctifying grace.” By believing Mary and the angel, Joseph became the agent for God’s connection to the lineage of David. Joseph did what he did because he listened to a dream. Joseph allowed God to guide him into an act of radical hospitality, receiving a pregnant woman and her child as his own. God is busy changing this world and asks us to be transformed by those changes. The birth of Christ is not one event that happened in one time and one place, never to be repeated. The reason we celebrate Christmas is that we expect to become like Joseph and like Mary: to play a profound role in God’s kingdom. So look for angels. Listen for voices that are saying, “Fear not.” Do not be afraid, for God is with us, here in this time, here in this place.
Thanks be to God.
McKenzie, Alyce. “The Fear of Betrayal”
The third Sunday of Advent is often called “Joy Sunday,” or “Gaudete Sunday.” In ancient times Advent was considered a quiet time of introspection and penitence as new believers prepared for baptism. Today our focus has changed. We focus on preparation, anticipation and joy rather than penitence, and today’s texts especially point to that joyful anticipation for which we are to prepare. We are deep into our journey toward the manger now, on this third Sunday of Advent. Can you wait with anticipation? Or are you overwhelmed with what is as yet undone? Is your heart bursting with joy, or is it broken in grief? Do you anticipate something new and unexpected, or are you in panic mode for what lies ahead?
There is so much pressure on us these days for making Christmas day perfect for our friends and family. Advertisers tell us the day will be perfect if we buy what they are selling. Television and movies tell us we will find love under a branch of mistletoe. Families will gather together and all will be joyful. And our culture tells us the onus is on us to make it that way. Of course, we know better. Our culture doesn’t understand the true magic of Christmas.
Isaiah says we are rejoicing with all of nature. Not only will the people be glad and sing praises to God, but even the wilderness and the desert shall rejoice and blossom. Springs appear in dry land. Impassable places are made into straight highways leading to God. Creation itself is changed by God’s closeness. Let the whole world rejoice!
Today we are also rejoicing with Mary. Mary, who risked the criticism of her betrothed, her family, and the society around her for saying, “YES!” to God. Mary said yes, knowing God would change her life dramatically and permanently. Her world is turned upside down. Not only that, but once she said yes, earthly powers were reversed. Oppression ceased, the hungry were fed, and the fat and comfortable were sent away hungry and longing for more. God raised His lowliest servant to be blessed eternally.
We are waiting with John, imprisoned for his faithfulness to God’s law. John waits with expectant anticipation for the coming of the redeemer who will usher in God’s reign, ending the world as we know it. But he is not sure Jesus is the One. “Is another coming? Why are things not working out the way I have expected?” John asks. Like John, we need to know what it is for which we are waiting. We are awaiting not a holiday with trees and presents; we are awaiting the fullness of God’s promised kingdom. Everything will be changed!
And then the focus is all summed up in the scripture from James. Be patient, just as a farmer is patient. The earth produces in its own time. We anticipate the coming as a farmer anticipates a crop, tasting the summer ripeness of the fruit as the seed is placed in the ground, knowing that what is coming is good. The day of the Lord is coming. Be patient.
But patience is hard, especially in the presence of suffering. What we are waiting for is the coming of God’s kingdom, when the hungry are fed and all oppression is undone. We anticipate the reversals of powerful when the meek inherit and the grieving are soothed. As one commentator put it, “In all of these things, we’re not actually waiting for Christmas, as important as the Feast of the Incarnation is for us as disciples of Jesus. We’re waiting, instead, for the fullness of God’s reign to be realized in our midst.
And even that idea can be a bit scary. What will the reign of God be like? We live in an affluent society. According to experts, it would take about $200 billion a year to end world hunger. Americans spend approximately $500 billion per year on Christmas. What does that say about our priorities? How will this affect the way we are called to celebrate the incarnation?
One of my favorite Christmas hymns, Mary, Did You Know? asks if Mary knew how very special her baby boy was. Of course, every mother knows her child is special, yet Mary knew her child was different than any other ever born. Her Magnificat speaks of how much God blessed her. She knew God was making all things new. She cried out against oppression and fear and selfishness, knowing the Herods of this world will not ultimately win. But how much did she really know? That he would walk on water? Did she know how difficult it would be to raise this special child? Did she have an inkling about what the Son of God/Son of Man would have to suffer in his lifetime?
We do not really know what Mary knew, but she must have been fearful, even before she heard of Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents. Still, Mary invites us to see God is creating a world where there is an end to oppression, to see God’s presence in the faces of the “least of these.” She sings of the reality of how the selfishly rich and powerful have unknowingly created for themselves lives of emptiness and grief.
The promise of Advent is that, although we do not ultimately know what exactly the coming of God’s kingdom will look like, we do know God will come among us in a revolutionary, life-changing way. The birth of Christ transforms us—not only individually, but transforms our whole society as well. Advent invites us to ponder that mystery we call incarnation: God’s real presence among us in human flesh, incarnated as a peasant child born in poverty to a refugee family fleeing violence. If we truly believe that, we begin to overcome our fear. We need not crouch in fear of the unknown. God is already among us and yet still to come.
Jesus told John’s disciples to return to John to let him know what was happening in the world. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt. 11.5). It is happening still today. We are the blind who cannot see that God is here among us. We are the lame who have forgotten how to dance and praise, even as the desert and wilderness praise God’s presence. We are the rich and powerful who have not yet realized that our blessing is in powerlessness, in letting go and recognizing God’s power.
God is here today, and the Good News is that God is coming still to reverse the way of the world.
I would like to close today, reading a prayer from Ted Loder’s book of prayers, Guerillas of Grace:
O God of all seasons and senses, grant us the sense of your timing
to submit gracefully and rejoice quietly in the turn of the seasons.
In this season of short days and long nights, of grey and white and cold,
teach us the lessons of endings;
children growing, friends leaving, loved ones dying,
O God, grant us a sense of your timing.
In this season of short days and long nights, of grey and white and cold,
teach us the lessons of beginnings; that such waitings and endings may be the starting place, a planting of seeds which bring to birth what is ready to be born—something right and just and different, a new song, a deeper relationship, a fuller love—in the fullness of your time. O God, grant us the sense of your timing.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.
We are so pleased to be appointed to serve the United Methodist churches in Valley Springs and Linden. Although Denise has been in ministry for nearly 21 years and Scott for 28, this past year was the first time we served as a team. It has been an exciting transition for us and we believe our complementary gifts will serve you better than either of us alone might.
Having served the Riverbank, Oakdale and Farmington cooperative parish this year, We have developed some wisdom in honoring, pastoring, and adapting to the unique gifts and graces of each congregation. We have more to learn during this our next season of ministry and the church will be learning along with us. You are the church in Valley Springs. We are looking forward to learning from you about those special people, places, passions and ministries.
We know that grace will be most important as we listen and learn from one another. This summer, we will focus on visiting each member and friend of the churches by the end of August. We welcome your stories of living here, your faith journey, about your families and interests, and especially, how you sense God is at work through your church.
Let us share a bit about ourselves:
Denise is a spiritual director and retreat leader with a ministry of companioning individuals and groups as they seek the Holy leading in all aspects of life’s journey. She served Hillside Church of Marin in Madera, California as “Pastor of Life Development” for 12 years during which she developed seaspnal contemplative retreats for women.
She is ordained in the American Baptist Churches USA and holds degrees from Linfield College and American Baptist Seminary of the West. Prior to seminary she ran the gourmet foods and restaurant division for two Pacific Northwest department store chains and is still a “foodie”. She enjoys gardening, reading mystery novels, and any excuse to spend time at the ocean.
Scott is an Illinois native who grew up in American Baptist churches pastored by his father. He earned degrees in economics from University of Illinois, Urbana and a Master of Management from Northwestern University in Chicago. He became a United Methodist in San Antonio, Texas because he liked their choir. In San Antonio, Scott worked in the computer industry before answering the call to pastoral ministry. He graduated from seminary in 1986 and has served United Methodist churches ever since. In 2011, Scott had lived in California longer than in Illinois. Since 1994, Scott has studied and practiced the ancient Christian art of Spiritual Direction. In his free time he strums guitar, plays electric bass, occasionally the violin and works out. In winter he likes to ski cross country.
We have two grown daughters. Rachael lives in Chicago with husband David Weasley. David is a pastor in the American Baptist Church and Rachael recently graduated from Chicago Theological Seminary in May. Sarah works in New York City, where she is engaged to be married. She and her fiancé are both competitive ballroom dancers. To keep us company at the parsonage, we have the world’s cutest dog, an eighteen pound cairn terrier named Shiloh, still spritely at age twelve.