New Names

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This sermon was preached on the First Sunday of Christmas, December 31, 2017, at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Bangor, PA.

One of the things I appreciate about Christian faith is its honesty and its hopefulness. Take the Twelve Days of Christmas, for example. During this time, we hear stories and readings that are both honest about the world’s pain, and hopeful that suffering will be overcome.

Among the stories of pain are the martyrdom of Stephen, the slaughter of the young boys of Bethlehem, and Simeon’s word to Mary that a sword will pierce her heart. Life is not always good: our faith is honest about that.

And with the honesty hope. Christ is born as good news for all the world, Stephen dies trusting in Jesus, the Holy Family escapes the rage of Herod, and God is at work, says the evangelist John, to show us grace upon grace.

Christian faith speaks honestly about hurt and hope. This honesty is an inheritance we receive from the Jewish Scriptures. Today we heard the prophet Isaiah speak God’s Word to the people of Jerusalem. The people had known great sadness; indeed, more than sadness, catastrophe. Their city had been overrun and destroyed by foreign invasion. And so they were now called ‟Rejected,” and their land called ‟Ruined.” These are fitting names, given what has happened to them.

In using such names, Isaiah is honest about their condition. And he also speaks a word of hope. He says,

‟You’ll get a brand new name straight from the mouth of God.
No more will anyone call you Rejected,
and your country will no longer be called Ruined.
You’ll be called My Delight,
and your land Married,
Because God delights in you
and your land will become like a wedding celebration.”

With new names being handed out, we might call Isaiah 62 ‟God’s New Name” chapter.”

Speaking of ‟New Name” chapters, add Revelation 2 and 3. In these chapters, Jesus encourages his people to remain loyal to him in troubling times. He says, ‟To everyone who conquers (that is, remains faithful to me) I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”

That’s a mysterious promise, and we’re not exactly sure what it’s all about. But to receive a new name means at least this: You will be changed. You will be transformed with blessing you can only now begin to imagine.

Jesus also says, ‟If you conquer I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, and my own new name.”

Wow!
Written on us–God’s name!
Written on us–the name of God’s city!
Written on us–the new name of Jesus!

All those names upon us make this claim: we belong to the wonder and the mercy of God. And by that wonder and mercy we will be changed.

New names will be given.

Are we called, ‟Left out?” Jesus says, ‟I name you ‘Included.’”

Are we called, ‟Put Down?” Jesus says, ‟I name you ‘Lifted Up.’”

Are we called, ‟Count for Nothing?” Jesus says, ‟I name you ‘Count for Eternity.’”

Are we called, ‟Alone?” Jesus says, ‟I name you ‘Together with Others.’”

Are we called, ‟Dead?” Jesus says, ‟I name you ‘Alive.’”

As Jesus changed water into wine, so he will change us and the names by which we are called. What a promise! What a wondrous future is coming!

And listen: the change is already beginning. Because when we assemble as God’s people, we are met by the Holy Spirit, and renewed in the name of Jesus. The promises we hear in Scripture are coming alive in the community of faith. Through worship, the promises of Jesus are changing us.

Fred Pratt Green, writing about those assembled for worship, says:
‟Here are symbols to remind us of our life-long need of grace;
here are table, font, and pulpit; here the cross has central place.
Here in honesty of preaching, here in silence as in speech,
here in newness and renewal, God the Spirit comes to each.

Through the gathering of God’s people, the Spirit comes. The name ‟Jesus” is placed upon us.  And when Jesus’ name is spoken, we are called Included, Lifted Up, Count for Eternity, Together with Others, Alive.

This good news is offered not only in Sunday worship, but in our daily lives. Martin  Luther encourages us to be placed under the name of God every day. In his Small Catechism, he says, ‟In the morning, when you get out of bed, you are to make the sign of the cross and say, ‘In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  Then after a few words of devotion, ‟you are to go about your work joyfully.”

Luther gives similar advice for the end of the day. He writes, ‟In the evening, when you go to bed, you are to make the sign of the holy cross and say, ‘In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Then after a few words of devotion, ‟you are to go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.

God’s name is placed upon us. Because that is so, we give thanks for blessings received. These may include good health, a secure job, trusted friends, plenty to eat and drink, clothes to wear, and a host of other good things.

But we don’t have everything we might want. We even go through times when it seems our whole world is falling apart.

Yet even then, we are under God’s care. Listen to the apostle Paul: ‟I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Paul’s secret of contentment was that he lived in the name of Jesus.

Hymn composer Marty Haugen writes about the significance of gathering for worship in the name of Jesus. He says:
“Here in this place new light is streaming,
now is the darkness vanished away;
see in this space our fears and our dreamings
brought here to you for the light of this day.
Gather us in, the lost and forsaken,
gather us in the blind and the lame;
call to us now, and we shall awaken,
we shall arise at the sound of our name.”

Jesus calls us, and we are given many names: Included, Lifted Up, Count for Eternity, Together with Others, Alive.

For such blessing, thanks be to God. Amen.

Two Mornings, An Advent Story of Mary: Part Fourteen

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The angel said to Mary, “I invite you to join in God’s work.  I cannot force you to accept it; the choice is yours.”

Mary, with both dread and excitement, heard herself saying, “I accept; I will do as you say.”

And in that instant, the angel was gone. Mary blinked, and thought, “Did that really happen?” It had seemed like a dream, and yet it was very real. Mary quickly decided that she would visit her aunt Elizabeth. She would leave the next day. But for now, there was work to be done. And she plunged herself into the daily activities of cooking, gathering fuel, getting water, mending clothes, tending the garden, and sweeping the floors.

Nine months later, after journeying to visit Elizabeth and traveling to Bethlehem, she gave birth to the Messiah of Israel, the Son of God, in whose name we are called to trust God, love neighbor, and care for creation.

Heavenly Father, thank you for Mary’s trust in you. Help us to follow her example, and be led to share the abundant riches of your world with all people. Amen

Note: The image of Mary going to her daily tasks after the angel’s visit is drawn from Roland Bainton’s “Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther.” Describing Luther’s thinking on Mary, Bainton writes: “The Virgin Mary worked, and the most amazing example of her humility is that after receiving the astonishing news that she was to be the mother of the redeemer, she did not vaunt herself but went back and milked the cows, scoured the kettles, and swept the house like any housemaid.”

Second Note: This concludes the 2017 Advent devotion series. May this Advent, and the Christmas season which follows, draw you more deeply into the grace of God.

Two Mornings, An Advent Story of Mary: Part Thirteen

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Sensing that Mary was overwhelmed, the angel stopped speaking, giving her time to process all she was hearing.

Mary came out of her daze, and broke the silence. “But how is all this possible? I am a virgin, and have never been with a man. How can I be pregnant?”

Gabriel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.”

Mary gasped. “My great-aunt, the oldest living member of our family: pregnant? How can that be?”

The angel said, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

The angel continued, “I don’t know how all this works. I don’t why the Lord has chosen you. But you are being called to God’s work of lifting the lowly, feeding the hungry, uniting the separated, and giving hope to the forgotten. In the name of the Lord God, I invite you to accept this mission. I cannot compel you to accept it; the choice is yours.”

Lord, make us part of your work of raising up the poor, healing divisions, being attentive to the powerless, and providing the necessities of life to all your children. Amen.

Two Mornings, An Advent Story of Mary: Part Twelve

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While Mary was thinking about all she had heard, Gabriel said, “Do you know the story of God speaking to Moses in the land of Midian?”

“Yes,” replied Mary, “God spoke through a burning bush.”

The angel said, “I was the one who set the bush afire, Mary. I kept it burning to catch Moses’ attention, and stood listening as the Lord spoke. God told Moses he was to return to Egypt, speak to Pharaoh, and lead the Israelites out of their oppression. Moses fervently objected to God’s plan. I will admit that I wasn’t too fond of it, either. I didn’t see how Moses could possibly succeed. He had a mixed background: born an Israelite, but raised as an Egyptian. And so it seemed to me that neither Israelite nor Egyptian would trust him. The Egyptians would reject him because his blood was not ‘pure.’ The Israelites would see him as one who could not fully appreciate their suffering. I thought Moses was the wrong choice. But God saw more in Moses than I did. And it turned out that God was right.”

Mary continued to listen. Her thoughts were in a swirl. The angel’s words were overwhelming. It was almost too much to take in. While part of her mind heard what the angel was saying, another part was thinking, “Abraham. Sarah. Moses. And me? Me? I’m to play a role in God’s story something like theirs?” It was almost too much to take in. She began to tremble, and feel light-headed, and were it not for the angel’s eyes which held her attention, she would have fainted.

Thank you, God, for your grace which holds us together when life is overpowering. Amen.

A Golden Christmas

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December 19, 2015, brought me one my most memorable hawk watching sightings: a golden eagle flying through snow flurries and patches of sun. This poem is an attempt to share the moment, and is dedicated to the staff and volunteers of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. (Note: the phrase “under three” refers to a landmark used at the Sanctuary’s North Lookout.)

‘Twas six days before Christmas, and up on the mount,
three hearty birders were keeping the count.
We were wrapped in clothes layered a-plenty,
for temps were freezing and wind was at twenty.
The skies were cloudy with bursts of sun;
and we were saying, “This is great fun!
But are there yet birds coming our way?
Perhaps it is time to call it a day.”

When what to our wondering eyes should appear,
but a bird under three that was drawing near.
We watched through optics as snow flurries flew,
and it wasn’t long till we realized and knew,
that this marvelous bird was a full grown golden:
what a wonderful sight to enjoy and beholden!

Closer and closer it came flying low,
drifting along on the windy flow.
Its color and streaking were easily seen;
it sparkled and glittered with golden sheen.
Feeling awe and majesty all around,
we stood in silence, not making a sound.
Then when it sailed to sun’s westering light,
we broke into applause for the glorious sight!

***************

Now it is the birds that draw us together,
in heat, in cold, in all sorts of weather.
But what’s most golden about Hawk Mountain place
is the smile seen in each person’s face.
So thank you staff, and volunteers, too,
thanks and gratitude I give to you.
To all whom I enjoy seeing each fall:
Merry Christmas to each, Merry Christmas to all!

(Written 2015, in appreciation of the birds and people of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.)

Two Mornings, An Advent Story of Mary: Part Eleven

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Mary had asked the angel Gabriel, “Why would God choose me”

Gabriel replied, “I am only the messenger. I simply go where I am sent, and tell the message I have been given. I cannot read the mind of the Holy One; I do not know the reasons you are chosen. But over the ages, I have noticed that God’s choices are often unexpected. For example, do you know the story of Abraham, Sarah, and God at the oaks of Mamre?”

Mary replied, “Yes. Three strangers approached the tent of Abraham. Abraham offered them food and drink, not realizing that he was hosting the Lord and two angels.”

“I was one of those angels,” said Gabriel. “I watched as the Lord renewed the promise of a child to Abraham. I heard the Lord say the child would be born the next year. And from inside the tent, I heard an eavesdropping Sarah let out a cynical laugh. When confronted, she denied that she had laughed. But she had; and who can blame her? This news from God seemed preposterous. It hardly seemed possible that this old couple, who had wandered around for so many years, would be graced with a son. By human measures, their time had passed. But God chose them to be parents of Isaac, and in Isaac’s birth, the people of Israel were born.”

Mary listened attentively and carefully to everything that Gabriel was saying. She thought back to yesterday’s conversation in the synagogue. And she began thinking, “Is it true, then, that I am to give birth to the Messiah of Israel?”

Lord, help us to hear your promises. Amen.

Two Mornings, An Advent Story of Mary: Part Ten

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On her morning walk, Mary suddenly stood face-to-face with a stranger. She wasn’t sure what to do or say.

Sensing her uncertainty, the stranger gently said, “Mary, do not be afraid.”

“I’ll try not to be,” Mary replied. “But who are you, and how do you know my name?”

“I am Gabriel, a messenger from the Lord God of Israel, who knows the names of all Israel’s children.”

A wave of fear swept over Mary, and she stuttered, “An-an-angel of the Lord? Wh-wh-why are you here?”

“To see you,” Gabriel replied.

“Me?” answered a wide-eyed Mary. “Why do you want to see me?”

“To tell you news of great joy: You have found favor with God. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there will be no end.”

Mary stared at the angel for a moment, and then replied: “You can’t be talking about me! You have it wrong! I’m just an ordinary person in an out-of-the-way town. Few people know Nazareth exists, and those that do laugh and say, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ And no one outside of our village knows me; I’m a nobody. Why would God choose me?”

Thank you, Lord, for patiently listening to our questions. Amen.