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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

A Messenger's Response To Immanuel - 01/03/2016

It is part of the nature of seasons like Advent and Christmas that create the space for us to truly get carried away in the story of the birth of Jesus.

Each year we dive into these stories. The scenes from them take shape in our minds. We wonder what it must have been like to be down at the Jordan River with John and hear him talk about his baptism of water for the forgiveness of sins and the more powerful baptism in fire to come at the hand of the Messiah who was now in the world.

We listen to the story of Mary being visited by the messenger Gabriel with the news that – against all reason – she would conceive and carry and birth a baby boy – and he would be the son of God.

We feel ourselves celebrate with Mary and Elizabeth as they visit with each other, each with their own impossible and good news, each singing out their faith and love for their ever-creative and ever-abundant God.

And each year we listen with awe and tremble at the vulnerability we perceive in the story of how Joseph and Mary were forced to leave their home, and while seeking refuge, the time came for the baby to be delivered

… how the baby was born in a stable, wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a manger

… how shepherds nearby came from the fields to find the family and the Messiah they had learned about from the heavenly messenger sent to greet them. It's a story so familiar to so many, that it's almost like we were there.

And that is a tribute to the power of these sacred stories. Just think about it, the story of God come among us not only holds our own attention over the course of our single lifetimes – but it has done so over the course of the lifetimes of people from generation to generation for more than 2,000 years. Outside of the scriptures, I truly cannot think of another story that has legs like that.

But that is the power of our holy scriptures. They transport us into the lives and human conditions of the people and places contained within their pages.

Another strength of these stories we and so many other children of Abraham gather around year after year, is their agility. These stories not only transport us, they speak to us through our own situations and experiences, through our own worries and triumphs, our own passions and frustrations, our own experiences of God's abundance and our own experiences of evil in this world.

This agility is perhaps more astounding than the ability of the texts to transport us to another time and place. I mean, how is it possible that stories that were told and passed down through the generations beginning thousands of years ago could still be relevant to us today?

But they are – God continues to speak to us through these texts. They draw our attention to our own heartbreak, our own moments of thanksgiving … they name our tendency to wander away from God and then remind us of the grace we experience when we are always welcomed back into the presence of God, particularly at the Lord's table and in the waters of baptism.

For generations, God has spoken to us through these texts. Perhaps this is one reason we are so confident that these texts, written by human hand as they are, are truly the inspired Word of God. We can testify how through them, the Holy Spirit has moved us, stirred us to action, energized us to live life in response to this bold truth to which we hold ... that our eternal lives with God are shining and secure in what we've learned from this man named Jesus … and in his lynching and rising from the tomb.

Even if we're not sure we've experienced the Holy Spirit working like this through ourselves, we've seen it happen in others … It's why I was reading about the lives of St. Brigid and other saints when I was in elementary school. We recognize that God-activity in the stories of people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., … Martin Luther … Jesus! And it doesn't have to be on scales that big … we can see it in Internet videos of that kooky and lovable guy who stands in a busy place and offers free hugs to passers by. We can hear it in the comments “I just felt like I should stop by” … or “give you a call” … or running into someone and saying “I was just thinking of you!”

I can testify to you that the Holy Spirit moves among us with the aid of these texts and so can many others here.

And … it seems to me that there are a couple of places in our readings today where it feels like God is really using the scriptures to speak the Word to us northerners, doesn't it? There are verses in Jeremiah and the Psalm that really tweak the ears of those of us who live above the 45th parallel north … and, I suppose, those who live below the 45th parallel south too.

Just listen to these passages again. First from the psalm. “He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly./ He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. / He hurls down hail like crumbs— who can stand before his cold?” And then the psalmist assures and comforts us. “He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow.” (147:15-18).

And from Jeremiah: “See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.” (31:8) And there we are, gathered into the safety of the Lord's shelter, like a mother hen gathering her chicks.

It's beautiful. It speaks to our familiars … the place we live and the love of our God that we come to know in the course of our lives. And it is meant to move us … to inspire us to be open that God-activity working through us in this world.

So then, I suggest, the reasonable question is: To what are we being moved? What is our response to the wondrous and powerful activity of God in the the birth of Jesus?

Truth be told, there are probably as many answers to that question as there are people in creation. But I think our texts today give us some insight into the foundation of one thing at the heart of the answer to that question for each of us. It calls us to be witnesses.

Having just experienced the liturgy and the ritual of the story of the birth of Jesus – the story that illustrates God's deep and abiding love for creation more than any other – the story of God among us, today's reading of the familiar epilogue to the Gospel of John deepens our understanding of this event. And it gives us a human example to guide us in how we respond.

This beautiful beginning of the Gospel of John is actually a hymn. The other gospels also include hymns and poetry, but only John sets the stage with a hymn … brings us into the story of Christ with the movement of music and liturgy.

Hymns elicit memory in a different way. They are layered with experiences and voices. The first hearers of the Gospel of John’s story of Jesus would have recalled the familiar voice of Wisdom from Proverbs when they heard this hymn of God’s activity in creation. “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work …,” they heard her saying. “… then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” (Prov. 8: 22, 30-31).

Like us, those first hearers would not only hear, but feel how this hymn begins with a song of creation – large, complex, rich, balanced, full of God's salvation for us. It's like watching and hearing a storm come in off the lake and wondering how much it will change the landscape while it runs its course. It catches our attention and then  – our guide enters the story. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” It runs alongside of the main melody of the hymn, responding, harmonizing, praising, hoping. 

Like John, who has the quirkiness and tenacity of a northerner and attracted many, many people to the Jordan River when the Holy Spirit became active through him, we are here too, sent by God, as witnesses “to testify to the light, so that all might believe” through us. 

In a world that exists because of the Word, but cannot always recognize the Word that has now come among us, John invites us, like him, to be witnesses to this amazing story of Jesus that we've just remembered. He invites us to let our lives become what it means to exclaim “Behold!” and then share with others in our own words and actions how this story has become central to our own lives. To live as counterpoints to messages of fear and hate with our own story of the hope and promise of the light that has come into the world – a light that cannot be extinguished by any darkness. To encourage people to repent and turn their hearts and minds and lives to God. To invite people to be baptized and cleansed in living waters in preparation for the new eternal life the Messiah has ushered into the world.


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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