Rejoice: Sing a new song

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Art by Jessie Houff

A sermon starter by Nathan Hosler, director of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, for the 2020 Advent Offering

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for the Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. -Luke 1:46-48

Mary’s song begins with rejoicing in the work of God. This work was a significant calling on her life. Her world was imbued with the action of God but also turned upside down by a call to participate in this work. And this was not passive participation and observing, but a co-creating and forming of the Christ Child. Not only did this radically change her life but would turn the world upside down—scattering the proud, bringing down rulers, lifting the humble, filling the hungry, and sending the rich away empty.

The song of Mary echoes in Acts 17 as the Good News is being proclaimed. The accusation brought against the disciples is, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also.” The disciples were rejoicing and abiding in the presence and work of God while proclaiming and working for a world where well-being, justice, wholeness, and peace flourish.

As we seek to share the Good News in this season, may we, too, rejoice in the work of God, singing a new song for the world to hear.

This year’s Advent Offering is December 13. Find worship resources or learn more at www.brethren.org/adventoffering.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Joy: Giving thanks to God

A scriptural exegesis of Isaiah 12 written by Emmett Witkovsky-Eldred, youth and young adult ministry assistant, for the 2018 Advent Offering

We’ve all been told “patience is a virtue.” And we’ve all heard that “good things come to those who wait.” Waiting isn’t always pleasant, but we often regard waiting as the price we pay for some ultimate payoff. We wait those excruciating 90 minutes in line at the amusement park for those magical sixty seconds on the rollercoaster. We wait those exhausting nine months to meet the newest member of our family. It’s easy to find joy in the things that are “worth the wait.” It’s much harder to savor the wait itself, to find joy in the very act of anticipation.

Isaiah spoke to a people in waiting. His prophetic ministry spanned an age of anticipation, transition, and anxiety for the people of Judah. He came into ministry during shallow prosperity—speaking above the noise of false peace and security to expose the deeper rot of corruption and injustice beneath the surface and a looming foreign threat beyond the horizon. The bubble was about to burst. Isaiah bore witness to the gathering cloud of the Assyrian empire’s raiding army—once distant, now on the doorstep, now ransacking the kitchen and rifling through the drawers. At last, the book of Isaiah tells the story of Babylon’s deliverance of the Judeans from Assyria. But trusting in political deliverance only gave way to new subjugation and oppression. The people of Judah were left to wonder who will deliver us from Babylon? They waited.

Waiting can be unbearable enough when we know that what comes next is worth waiting for. It’s much harder still when the future is uncertain: Waiting for the Hail Mary pass to come down, the lost dog to come home, the medical test to come in. This was the sort of wait that plagued Judah. How are we to know that deliverance will every truly come? When it does come, how are we to know if it’s truly better than what came before?

It’s not difficult to see how seeds of bitterness and fear can be scattered, especially when we’re powerless and afraid, and we have nothing to do but wait. But Isaiah invites those who wait to respond with the hymn of thanksgiving and praise found in Chapter 12. It’s not just a litany of what to say when deliverance finally comes. It’s a liturgy for how to wait for God: with joy, with faith, and with praise.

Isaiah’s poem recalls the resplendent joy that God’s people have experienced in the past when God comes through for them. Isaiah 12:2 quotes from the hymn that Moses and the Israelites sang after crossing the Red Sea, “The Lord God is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation” (Exodus 15:2, NRSV), a verse that echoes again in Psalms 118:14, a song of victory. The imperatives in Isaiah 12:4 recall psalms of promise (Psalm 105:1), wonder (Psalm 148:13), and above all praise. These are songs that echo across scripture and that resound in our hearts. We shouldn’t just sing them anew when the next glorious day arrives. They never faded away; we can—we should—sing them while we wait.

If only it were that easy. While Isaiah directly quoted the soaring praise found in the beginning of Exodus 15, the end of that chapter describes how we really tend to relate to God. No sooner have the sounds of the Israelites’ praise and thanksgiving faded when their grumbling and complaining sets in (Exodus 15:22-27). Facing exile in the desert, their trust in God waned. Their gratitude for God’s deliverance subsided to anxiety about what would lie ahead.

Isaiah sang of a better way to live with God. His hymn admonishes us to joyfully “draw water from the wells of salvation” (12:3) to beat back the scorching fear found in the desert. Centuries later, Jesus employed the same metaphor while speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob (John 4: 1-42). He offers life-giving water that forever quenches our thirst and never runs dry.  He doesn’t deliver us only to subjugate us. He delivers us to set us free.

We may not be under the thumb of Assyria or Babylon. We may not be wandering in the desert. But we face the same temptation to turn to temporary solutions that will crumble beneath our feet. We have that same urge to drink of worldly water that will only leave us thirsty again (John 4:13). We think that the next election, the next fad product, the next airstrike or sanction, the next stock market boom will scratch the itch, though it never does. We’re waiting for God, and we’re getting antsy.

Isaiah reminds us that we won’t be waiting forever. We will be awake once again to God in our midst (Isaiah 12:6). And in that day, we will “give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted” (Isaiah 12:4). Better to sing joyfully now than to be rusty, out of practice, and out of pitch when the wait is finally over.

Learn more and find worship resources for this year’s Advent Offering at www.brethren.org/adventoffering.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

What to preach

Find worship resources at www.brethren.org/adventoffering
Photo by Matt DeBall

A sermon starter written for the 2017 Advent Offering by Thomas Dowdy, pastor of Imperial Heights Church of the Brethren in Los Angeles, Calif.

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.’… The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”(Luke 4:16-18, 20-22)

Preaching in your hometown can be very challenging. For some people, it will be difficult to see who you are today because they can only see who you used to be. Some have high expectations, while others remain very critical.

Recently, I received an invitation to attend my high school class reunion. Most class reunions involve people rehashing old stories and checking up on your current status in life. As such, I was very reluctant to attend because I always prefer looking forward rather than backward. I even shared with a friend that I didn’t want to go. He felt it was important for me to attend. He said, “You are a different person now.” I realized he had a point, recognizing that I am in ministry now. He went on to say, “I’m sure someone there will need to hear from you.”

I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’s options when he visited the temple in his hometown of Nazareth. He could have not gone, or he could have only said something that made the people feel good about themselves, but he did the opposite. Jesus had a mission to fulfill the promise of God. He knew it was going to upset the status quo, and yet he did it anyway.

Coming home to share good news is exciting to both the giver and receiver; however, sharing words of perceived condemnation is altogether another matter. The people in the temple felt good hearing Jesus read the words of Isaiah because they were words of perceived hope and fulfillment to those that believed they were of the chosen ones. However, the purpose of Jesus was to share God’s message of inclusion not exclusion. When Jesus read from the scroll, people felt good about the encouraging words because they believed it was only meant for them. But when Jesus continued to expound on the text, the people became angry as it exposed their inner, self-seeking purposes.

The Spirit continues to expose us today. Does it make you angry to include others in “your ministry”? Do you feel upset when others outside your church or group benefit from the work of your (perceived chosen) group? If so, your thinking about God’s Kingdom needs to grow. Your purpose and our purpose is to spread good news to the poor. Heal the broken hearted and free the captives. Provide wide open spaces to those who are imprisoned. Comfort the grieving. And so much more.

This greater mission should make you feel good. God’s word is fulfilled as you share the good news of inclusion. This is what must be preached in your hometown and everywhere you go.

The suggested date for the Advent Offering is December 17. Find worship resources at www.brethren.org/adventoffering or give today at www.brethren.org/give .

(Read this issue of eBrethren)

You can’t rush perfection

Find worship resources at www.brethren.org/adventoffering

Find worship resources at www.brethren.org/adventoffering

 

A sermon starter for the 2016 Advent Offering written by Eric Landram, pastor of Lititz (Pa.) Church of the Brethren.

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:1-2).

“You can’t rush perfection!” My dad uses that line every single time he is grilling for a cookout. When he is hard at work, our family constantly hovers around him and the pleasant aromas from his cooking device of choice. “How much longer? We can’t stand waiting much longer,” we wail. “Can’t rush perfection, sorry,” he replies. He’s right. You shouldn’t rush a good thing.

Now that Halloween is over, our society has rushed right to Christmas. In a mad dash for your consumer dollar, businesses and corporations anticipate your holiday spending with joyful glee. We rush, blazing right past the Thanksgiving turkey and straight to the Christmas tree. We want the perfect Christmas and we want it now.

In the church, we can have a tendency to fall into this same pattern. We are quick to begin singing Christmas carols that proclaim the Messiah’s birth. Our sermons, scripture readings, and youth pageants put us on the theological fast-track to the manger, complete with wise men. We would do well to remember to slow down.

This is Isaiah’s new vision of hope. The stump has sprouted and the branch is growing, but it will take time. There is a sense of “good things come to those who wait” and “trust in the Lord” going on here. Isaiah is speaking to a people that are so desperate, so hopeless, and so defeated by the state of their world. Isaiah’s words are a comfort. Good news! There is someone coming who will bring about a new vision of hope and a new sense of belonging. The best part? This someone will usher in a new era of righteousness.

This new world looks radically different. Wolves and lambs, leopards and kids, the fiercest hunters in nature will live at peace with those whom they have consumed in the past. Isaiah says, “For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” The words of Jesus, and his life, from manger to cross and tomb have given us the knowledge of God’s plan for all people. Isaiah’s words are relevant and serve as a reminder for us even today. The Kingdom of God is growing. The branch of righteousness has sprung! We, as the church, are to tend the garden, to assist the branch in springing forth.

Our Advent sermons should take some time to acknowledge the difficulty in waiting for the birth of the Messiah while at the same time lifting up the significance of anticipating and waiting for this promised savior. If Advent is anything for us as followers of Jesus, it is the reminder to slow down in the midst of the clanging and gonging of our modern world, and listen for that still small voice that reminds us each year that “Christ is coming soon.” You can’t rush perfection.

The suggested date for the Advent Offering is December 4. Find worship resources at www.brethren.org/adventoffering or give today at www.brethren.org/give .

(Read this issue of eBrethren)

Rejoice: the Lord has done great things

Find worship resources for this year's Advent Offering at www.brethren.org/adventoffering .

Find worship resources for this year’s Advent Offering at www.brethren.org/adventoffering .

An excerpt from a biblical exegesis for Luke 1:46-49 written by Josh Brockway for the 2015 Advent Offering on December 13.

At such a young age, Mary was mature beyond her years. Preparing to be married, Mary was approached by an angel. And like most heavenly messengers, the greeting was simple: “Don’t be afraid.” Whenever those words are spoken, there is plenty to fear. Yet, the young girl listened. She would bear a son, and not just any son, but the Son of God.

Two aspects of this announcement were cause for fear. First, Mary was only engaged. To be pregnant before marriage would be cause for social punishment. Second, this baby would be the son of the Most High—the awaited Messiah of Israel. For generations, Israel had been as strangers in their own land and were ruled by other nations. The coming of the Messiah would mean the releasing of captives, which included the salvation of Israel (Isaiah 61:1-2). What a privilege and responsibility to be called to be the mother of the promised savior. It doesn’t take much to imagine the tone of her voice, concern woven through her words, “How can this be!”

The angel assured Mary how this miracle would come to pass. Whether she was resigned to the events or comforted by the angel’s words, she accepted the news. “Here I am the servant of the Lord.” We don’t know how Mary lived into the realities of the angel’s news. Surely she endured sleepless nights, confrontations with her family and future husband, and whispers of people as she grew more visibly pregnant. Anguish must have flooded over Mary as she lived into the implications of her words of acceptance.

That makes her song, uttered in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth whose own words of prophecy confirmed the message of the angel, all the more profound. Reminded of the miracle growing in her womb, Mary began with words that echo throughout the history of Christianity. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Rather than living in the social shame of being an unwed mother, Mary trusted in the great promises of God at work literally within her.

Mary’s song echoed the words and confidence of Hannah, whose song proclaimed the great work of God after the birth of her son Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Mary identified with Hannah, whose own lowly state was raised up in the birth of another promised son, across the centuries. What God started long ago was continuing, and would stretch into the future. A close reading of Mary’s song reveals that actions were recounted in the past tense. God “has shown strength” and “has scattered the proud.” God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted the lowly.” Mary’s confident proclamation was as much foretelling of Jesus’ ministry as it was an accounting of God’s previous actions. The Lord has done, and continues to do, great things.

Find this and other worship resources for the 2015 Advent Offering at www.brethren.org/adventoffering . Support the ministries of the Church of the Brethren today at www.brethren.org/give.

(Read this issue of eBrethren)

Hope: See the unexpected

Participate in the Advent Offering today at brethren.org/adventoffering . Photo by Mandy Garcia

Participate in the Advent Offering today at brethren.org/adventoffering .
Photo by Mandy Garcia

A reflection by Tim Harvey

“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord”(Luke 1:39-45).

As a pastor, it is tempting to stay on the well-worn path of Jesus’ birth through the season of Advent. But in Luke 1, the author shows us a new perspective. He pulls back the curtain to reveal what people were doing “when no one was looking.” How did the ordinary people who encountered God respond to the invitation to serve? This is an important question because if people like Mary and Elizabeth can say “yes” to God, so can you and I.

Because we’re accustomed to the story, it is easy to miss the magnificent risks Mary took by becoming pregnant out of wedlock, or how uncommon it was for people to take trips in that time. Yet Mary, an unwed, pregnant teenager, took a several-days-long trip by herself.

Consider Mary’s risks and motivations for visiting Elizabeth. Why did she leave so quickly? Did she need a trusted friend? Had her father kicked her out? Were the judgmental stares of her neighbors too much to bear? There were so many possible answers to Elizabeth’s question, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

One lesson from this story is to notice that saying yes to whatever God calls us to do may take us places we never imagined. Relationships may need to be reexamined, and the place where we live might even change as we respond to God in ways that deemed socially unacceptable.

A challenge of this tradition-rich time of year is to stop long enough to notice what God is doing around us. Fortunately, Luke gives us a snapshot to help us see what God can do in the midst of ordinary people. How might God break in to our lives this Advent season? What do we need to do differently that would make room for a fresh infusion of God’s grace? Where do we need to go, to whom do we need to speak, that our eyes might be opened to how God is bringing hope in unexpected places?

Tim Harvey is the pastor at Central Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He wrote this and several other worship resources for this year’s Advent Offering. Read them all, order bulletin inserts, or give now at www.brethren.org/adventoffering .

(Read this issue of eBrethren)