Dream

We have heard the directives to Watch, Turn, and See over the last three weeks.  Today we are called to Dream.

There are dreams which are mini-movies in our sleep, sometimes waking us with a jolt as we struggle to figure out if they are real.  Dreams so vivid we might go check on the children in the other room or make a phone call to a friend just to make sure everything is Okay.  There are dreams in which we have the pointed discussions with others or with God which we have been avoiding.  Dreams in which we see what could be if only …   I expect most of us dismiss our “while sleeping” dreams as just our brain bringing bits and pieces of our experiences together in strange configurations while we sleep.

Experience has taught me that sometimes the truth in those dreams is something we need to hear.

There are dreams which come while we are awake.  These dreams surface scenarios of how we want things for this to be a wonderful Christmas, how we see the ideal high school experience, what it will be like when we can drive, the perfect family situation, how our children will thrive, the perfect job or retirement.

Those dreams sometimes seem unattainable, but can create a series of goal oriented decisions which shape who we become.  These dreams often need to change as the circumstances of life reveal necessary modifications.

Both kinds of dreams have the potential for profound changes in how we look at things.

Joseph has a dream.  No tangible in your face, while you are awake, message from an angel.  A while you are sleeping, appearance of a messenger of the Lord telling you everything will be okay and you are going to parent the Son of God.  An easy to dismiss “I wish this was the case,” message.

His somewhat surprising response is belief and obedience to the dreamed message from God.

Just as in last week’s Christmas play, Joseph says “Oh, OK!”

There is nothing simple about that response, it can only come from a deep relationship with God and work of the Holy Spirit in Joseph’s life.

In the time that Joseph and Mary lived, when two people became engaged to be married, at the point of their engagement, they entered into a legal contract that, for all practical purposes, was no different from the contract they would hold once they were actually married. There were three steps to marriage.

  1. First came the engagement, which was transacted between the fathers of the bride and the groom. This transaction often took place while the couple were still children. It was an arranged marriage.
  2. The second stage was betrothal. This took place when the couple were older and getting closer to the actual time for marriage. Once they were betrothed, they were legally bound to each other, and the relationship could be ended only by legal divorce. Betrothal lasted for about a year. During this time of betrothal, the couple lived separately, and they did not consummate the relationship.
  3. The final stage was the marriage itself, when there was a huge festival and the groom took his new wife to come and live with him in his home.[1]

With such a long period of knowing it was Mary with whom he would build a life, Joseph must have had many of the “while awake” dreams in which he thought about their life together, working together to create a home to raise a family.  As they were in the time of betrothal they may have had some time to get to know one another, learn each other’s favorite food, share stories of growing up and hopes for the future, even if there was never alone with one another.  Joseph’s consideration of how to handle the situation of Mary’s expecting indicated they had developed a level of concern for one another, even though they lived separately.

As Joseph tries to sleep that night we can only imagine his emotions: any trust he has in Mary now shaken if not shattered, the future he planned impossible, the social stigma set to follow him for years if he stays in his small hometown.  There is also the letter of the Law which allows him to have Mary stoned to death.  He knows he isn’t responsible for the baby she carries, none of this makes sense, but he believes he has developed the best plan possible for all concerned as he falls asleep.

We don’t know as much about Joseph’s family faith background, as we do for Mary, yet we are told he is a righteous man indicating he studied the Law, worshiped, and loved God.  We also see a glimpse of someone who was open to God moving his people into directions of grace, following the intent of the Law rather than the letter of the Law as we learn that he was unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  In the midst of his private and anticipated public pain, he is prepared to extend love.

Then the dream, an angel telling him go ahead and build a life with Mary, the child is of God, there isn’t any betrayal.  You are called to parent the Son of God with Mary, his mother.  There isn’t any reason to be afraid.  The Holy Spirit is with you.  You are part of God’s plan to bring salvation to the world.

This is definitely a radical way to look at the situation.  It would be easy to dismiss it as just a dream and stick with his plan.  Yet, Joseph hears God’s dream for the world in the words and plan outlined by the angel in his dream.  He is open to God’s change of direction for his life, accepts the dream, and acts.

He grasps God’s vision shared by the angel and takes Mary into his home, knowing they will not truly be together as husband and wife until this Holy child is born.  He takes the risk, empowered by a dream which connects what he knows of God through the prophets to what he knows of Mary and their covenant relationship.

As we prepare to welcome the Christ-child anew this week, we have an opportunity to enter God’s dream of a world in relationship with God and each other through this baby – fully human, fully divine.  It is a dream which forces us to move from what the world expects of us to what God expects.  It is a dream which calls us to action.  It is a call to Love.

It is not a cautious dream.  It requires us to consider how we are: responding to God’s call on our lives to be more and more Christ-like, of actively participating in the faith community, building up one another in love, giving more of our resources and time than what is convenient, of trying to offer grace more than judgment, of living joy-filled lives in the midst of difficult situations.

It is a risky dream God offers us.  A dream of loving God with all our heart, not following the expectations of those who have forgotten how to dream.  It is a dream where jealousy and cynicism are abandoned and we only offer words of kindness to one another.  It is a dream of a church family which always has room and welcomes more to the table.  It is a dream of a church filled with diversity, with saints and sinners gathered to thank God for the amazing gift of Jesus.

It is a dream of a world where people take chances to help others and discover that God is not only our hope, but that God has placed that hope within us.  It is a Dream of God waiting for us to take one step in the direction of grace and discover the love that’s always with us.[2]

Some of the circumstances of our lives may have us wondering what dreams warrant our action, our change in direction, our response of “Oh, Ok.”  There may be feelings of hopelessness, betrayal, hurt, abandonment, personal dreams of “what should be” crushed under our reality.

Yet as we move toward Christmas Eve, God calls us to a Dream of a Kingdom where God’s will is done on earth.   We respond to the dream as we change from looking for solutions that evolve from our human perspective, to acting on the Angel calling us to not be afraid to embrace God’s perspective, to center our lives in the truth that “God is with us.”  To dream how we as a faith community are called to Love God and our neighbors in new ways in our church, our neighborhood, and the world.

I encourage you to listen to God’s Dream, and then, just as Joseph, to act as we serve the Lord together in the coming weeks and months.

[1] Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser [Douglas E. Wingeier, Keeping Holy Time: Year A. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001, page 33.]

[2] Brett Younger, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/440/josephrsquos-dreams

See

Luke 1:39-56

In the Children’s Play “Just a little Christmas” shared by the Sunday School this morning,  Mary and Joseph both respond to the news God has chosen them to parent the Son of God with the exclamation, “Oh, OK!”

The simplicity of that response pushed me to think about what it was that made them SEE and accept this “never experienced before” reality.  To consider how they were able to perceive past their personal circumstances to embrace and act on God’s call on their lives with enthusiasm.

Mary’s song in this morning’s scripture reading is more than the play’s “Oh, OK!” response but in essence, it reflects Mary’s consideration of the message she received in light of how it impacts the bigger picture, and that thought process leads her to an “Oh” moment, and then a “Ok” response, almost a, “I get it Lord, I’m with you on this all the way.”

Her response indicates she had a deep relationship with God, as well as an understanding of God’s promises through the prophets.  She doesn’t raise any questions about her son’s being the Son of God, only lifts a question relative to the technicalities of how.

We know from these verses in Luke, that her relative Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were faithful to God.  Luke tells us that both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.  Even with that knowledge and understanding, Zachariah questions the angel who appears to him in the temple about how he and his barren wife could possibly become parents.  As a result he is unable to speak until after John’s birth.  Elizabeth acknowledges with gratitude God’s gift to her, which is her son.

With knowledge of that family dynamic and the words of the angel to Mary, “you have found favor with God,” as well as Mary’s haste to go share the message she received with Elizabeth, we have evidence this was an extended family with deep faith which was reflected in the way they lived every aspect of their lives.

Elizabeth and Mary knew a Messiah was to come.  With an angel telling them of the sons they would bare and the ministry those sons would have, it was clear that the birth of salvation was in sight.  The joy they express as they come into one another’s presence is more than the joy of two women who by all standards of the day should not be expecting babies, it is the joy of hope, possibility, and real change in their world.

They are expecting their sons, with God’s direction, to end the Roman rule which threatened their farms and livelihood, which determined who received food and how much.  They were hopeful that the birth of their sons would end the threats to the Temple which came as Herod allowed the Greek culture to mix with Jewish tradition, negatively impacting their faith.  They were filled with joy that their sons would restore power to those who followed God and rid them of Herod, one of the most wicked rulers a people could have.

Age, a seemingly impossible pregnancy, social expectation and position, all provided many reasons to question the angel’s proclamation, to give into fear instead of into God vision.  But Mary sees beyond the problems and focuses on trusting the promise:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

She was watching for all the places God was visible in her life, where it reflected God and the power of salvation.  She recognized with humility that she needed God and that it was through God’s work in her life that generations would come to called her blessed.

Her song shares a message of a God who is merciful, strong, aware of the thoughts and focus of all whom he created, one who is Holy and who does great things.

Her song reminds us that power does not come from earthly thrones but in lifting up those dismissed by our world, those who are hungry and those in need of forgiveness and kindness.

Her faith is in her Saving God who is faithful to the promises made throughout the generations.

She SEES because she has prepared to see God, she looks for God, she hangs out with people looking for God, she recognizes God’s directions and paths which are Holy.  We know that she will need that preparation to help her navigate throughout her life, as she discovers God keeps promises, but not always in the ways she envisioned they would be kept.

Her son does save His people, but not by overthrowing an earthly government in one particular time in history.  His saving work continuing to transform lives throughout the ages.

Like Mary we can SEE God’s path for us when we prepare:  When our hearts and minds are immersed in God’s Word and in sharing our experiences with others also living faithfully.   When we are willing to look for God in every area of our lives; when we humble ourselves in recognition that we often need to seek forgiveness; when we let go of how we think things should go, marvel at how God is working, and join God in the work.

Throughout this passage we hear of the Holy Spirit’s presence – in Elizabeth, in John even before he is born, with Mary – The Spirit enabling their understanding, giving them strength, opening their eyes to God’s call on their lives

The Holy Spirit is available to open our understanding, to give us vision as well.

As we WATCH and TURN this Advent season, we have the model of Mary helping us to discover how to SEE power, people, plans, and paths with God’s perspective and peace.  We have the joy of promises kept, justice rendered, wholeness experienced, and residency in God’s kingdom.  When we live fully with that JOY, our lives witnessing to its power, others will come to SEE Emmanuel, God with us, through us.

Turn

Isaiah 11:1-10

Matthew 3:1-12

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!

Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!

Difficult words to hear, to process, to apply to our lives.

They are calls to action that may seem misplaced in the preparations for Christmas and the birth of a grace-filled Savior.  Calls which can feel abrasive as we work to create experiences of hope, peace, and joy for our families and friends.

Yet, front and center on this Second Sunday of Advent is John the Baptizer: unconventionally dressed, counter-cultural nutritionist, living and preaching in the wilderness shouting these calls to “TURN toward God” loud enough to be heard by all who come out from the populated areas.  Baptizing all who seek to live a new life.  A life that follows a path which welcomes the Kingdom of God and acknowledges the “One to come” above all else.

The call to Repent, to Turn from ways that don’t put God in the center of their lives, is not filled with flowery words and world based incentives.  There is no “Free Get out of Jail” card or “Buy one get the second one for only shipping and handling” offer.  It is abrupt, direct, and urgent.  The Kingdom is near, don’t wait to change your ways.

Some of us remember vividly the evangelists who came to our churches when we were younger.  These evangelists had dramatic stories of being addicted to drugs and of involvements in other illegal activities, which negatively impacted their lives and the lives of people around them.  Their stories climaxed with their finding Jesus, accepting Him as Savior, and the dramatic change in their lives.  Then came their plea for all those who hadn’t accepted Christ as their personal Savior to come forward, to kneel at the altar and repeat the prayer they provided in order to begin a new life.

As a teen, those altar calls weighed heavy on my heart.  I loved God, had followed all the prescribed “Steps to Salvation,” became physically ill if I even thought I had misrepresented the truth or was doing something wrong.  I was in Sunday School and Church every Sunday unless too sick to get out of bed.  I didn’t have that kind of turn-a-round, that 180 degree experience of a dramatic change in how I lived my life.  Altar calls made me question my faith because I just couldn’t figure out what I was repenting from and changing to.

One night the heaviness of one of those Altar call meetings kept me awake and I ended up wrestling with what it meant through much of the night.  I ended up sitting outside of my parents’ bedroom talking about my concern that somehow I wasn’t truly saved because I hadn’t experienced a completely turned around life.

Two things came out of that middle of the night conversation.

First I realized that corrections in how we live are always necessary, whether they are considered to be ten degree turns or 180 degree turns.  We have all sinned and all do sin whenever we let our choices move us from loving God with all our hearts, fail to love our neighbors as ourselves, and when we allow other priorities to emerge.

In addition that night, I had what John Wesley described as a heart-warming experience and came to the assurance it is Christ alone who saved me, not anything I did or didn’t do.

The Pharisees and Sadducees coming to John knew the Law and, through rules and regulations, worked to follow it.  But the set of laws became the focus for their faith, and not the God they said they followed.  John knew that to be true, and as they came to be baptized, he challenged them on their motives.  The Message paraphrase shares that challenge with these words:

“When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”[1]

John didn’t have any worldly distractions or alliances.  He dressed and ate simply and in a manner that kept him visibly dependent on God.  People may have been drawn to hear his message because it came with no personal agenda, no request for favors or privileges, and with the clear understanding he wasn’t God and the One who would issue in the Kingdom of God was far greater than he would ever be.  The way he lived and his message were authentic.

Later, when John was jailed and sent messengers to Jesus to double check his understanding that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus said this about John:   “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”[2]  Affirming the message John had shared.

Jesus also affirmed John’s call to repent as we find in Matthew 11.

“16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;  we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

20 Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.

Repentance is often difficult.  Recognizing that we have let our priorities take us off of a Kingdom course, finding ways to say we are sorry, not really knowing how to repent, can keep us from answering John’s call this Advent season.

We may recognize there are things we say, judgments we make, activities in which we participate, financial decisions we make, allocations of our time, and other things that do not reflect a changed life.  They may only require 10 degree adjustments, but they require repentance.  If we fail to make those changes we will drift further and further from God’s will and being a part of God’s Kingdom.

Some of you are actively and prayerfully doing that depth of self-evaluation.  Looking to scripture, prayer, and conversation with others seeking to do better at living a life of faith in order to make God directed adjustments.  You are asking yourselves tough questions.  Others of you may not have considered it is necessary.

In a BOOMING VOICE John calls us to repent as we prepare to welcome Christ into our lives in new ways.  Calls us to check out our motivations.  Calls us to recognize the decisions we make and the priorities we set which crowd out God’s priorities in our lives, and then consciously set them aside and do things differently.

Most of us are not called to wear camel skin, or to eat locusts and honey.  Few of us are called to live in the wilderness.  But I believe all of us are called to live in such a way that our actions, words, and priorities are as counter to our culture as John’s apparel and eating habits.

Many in our community will make an extra effort to take food to the food pantry, bring gifts for children who have few resources, stop in to visit someone at the nursing home, donate to worthy causes as we approach Christmas.  They will be extra careful to be nice to one another, open doors, leave adequate tips, make visits and phone calls, say “Please and Thank You,” catch at least one worship service.  While good things to do, they are part of the cultural norm during December.

Once December 25 has come and gone, the decorations removed, and the day to day responsibilities of a new year greet us, the fruit of true repentance will emerge as increasingly our actions reflect the work of the Kingdom of God.   It is an ongoing process, just as we continually adjust the steering wheel as conditions of the road warrant.  We need to keep changing our direction to continually turn toward the ways of God’s kingdom.  It will mean our actions are motivated by love, mercy, justice, and peace and that they reflect the Christ-child we welcome, to all with whom we come in contact and with all who are impacted by our choices in our homes and around the world.

As we were called to “Watch for God” breaking into all areas of our lives last week, we are called to also “Turn toward God,” in all areas of our lives, this week

John the Baptister offered baptism as preparation for the kingdom of God drawing near, an outward sign of an inward change in direction.   This morning, as you come to share in Holy Communion, the baptismal font is filled and open to any who would like to pause and remember your baptism and the vows made by you, or for you, to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin; to accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves;  To confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, you’re your promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.

If you have never been baptized you are invited to pause to pray at the font and let me know if you are interested in being baptized in the future.

Let us pray

Gracious God you call us to turn toward you but we feel powerless to affect any changes. So we withdraw into ourselves, quick to criticize and slow to change our own behavior. You remind us that your son is the one who will bring messages of peace. He will help us to become faithful disciples and servants. But we have much work to do. Our preparation needs to focus on our own attitudes and actions. We need to clean our spiritual houses of the cobwebs of hate, greed, apathy, suspicion. We need to focus more on your absolute love and forgiveness. As we turn our lives to you, enable us to be strong and confident workers for you in this world. AMEN[3]

[1] The Message

[2] Matthew 11 (NRSV)

[3] Board of Discipleship Advent 2