11th Day of Christmas: 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 and Ecclesiastes 3:1-13

Things don’t just happen in a vacuum. The Magi don’t come to Jesus without causing a stir, and Samuel doesn’t become, well, Samuel without a mother.

Of course Samuel’s mother is keeping her promise at all costs. A son she sees growing up but once a year, not the joy of many mothers I know, but she made a promise, and she will keep it.

Of course the Magi also agreed (implicitly if not explicitly) to tell Herod about where they found the baby. And they justifiably didn’t.

For everything there is a season, even a time to do the “wrong” thing. Samuel grows up well because of the care of others. Jesus grows up because of the watchful protection like that given by the Magi. It is not WHAT people do in either of these stories, but why they do it. They do what they discern is right regardless of the expectations of others.

The idea that there is one way to live this life is one of the biggest fictions in our lives. The faithful life we are called to is one of constant discernment–one where we cannot know what is coming or how what has come truly affects us or the world.

When the writer of Ecclesiastes says to enjoy and take pleasure in all of our living, there is the underlying theme of not trying to be perfect, not trying to not do things exactly according to the rules, but rather to do things as faithfully as possible, realizing that sometimes the hard decisions don’t have right answers and sometimes things just aren’t going to make sense.

But when we follow the star, when we follow our deepest desires and seek that which God has placed within us, we will do what we can to find the Kingdom on earth. And that is something always in season.

A reflection by Adj Williams.

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Adj is the Director of Educational Ministries at Harbor View Presbyterian Church. Adj tweets at @keepsetting and blogs at http://keepsetting.blogspot.com

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9th Day of Christmas: Unfolding – Luke 2:21-33

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Simeon opened his eyes and all he saw was darkness. He woke up every morning at the same time for as long as he could remember. He unfolded his blanket away from his frail body and slowly made his way out of bed. Every morning, it took him longer to get to his feet than the one before. He wondered how many more mornings he had in left him. Simeon was now an old man who long ago made peace with God and with death. He had lived a long and full life, and now he was ready for it to come to an end.

Simeon was a patient man; faithful too. God’s Spirit had come to him and told him that he would not see death until he had seen the Messiah. God had told Simeon that the one who would come to redeem Israel was on the way. God would send a savior to the world who would deliver the people from their hardship and comfort their restlessness.

But God had told him this a while ago. Simeon had been waiting years.

Simeon wondered, just like he did every day, whether today would be the day. God’s window of opportunity was, frankly, getting smaller. Simeon was somewhere in his eighties, and his body never let him forget that. He slipped on his robes and stepped outside.  It was morning in Jerusalem, but the sun’s rays had not yet stretched over the hills.

Simeon breathed in deeply. Mornings were his favorite part of the day. He wrapped the scarf around his head just a little tighter, and he began his daily journey to the Temple. There was a chill in the air that Simeon loved. The cool air invigorated him and helped him forget his own weariness—this day-after-day vigilance. God had blessed Simeon with a great promise, one he was humbled to receive, but, to be honest, waiting this long for God to deliver on this promise was stressful for him. Plus, he wondered how he would know what to look for. Simeon had no idea what a messiah looked like. He had a hard time trusting that one day he would just stumble upon a messiah unwittingly. How would this unfold? What if he missed it? What if he already had?

Simeon had decided that God uses us in ways that surpass even our own understanding, but still God needs us to pay attention. “Simeon” was an old name that means “he who hears”. He was a vigilant man. His eyes and ears were wide open, so that he was better able to see and hear what God was doing right in front of him.

Simeon listened closely, he looked around.

A reflection by Pat Ryan.

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Pat is a candidate for ministry in the PC(USA) and is ready for a call. He tweets at @writingpat. You can see where Pat blogs at his about.me page.

7th Day of Christmas: Show-Down – Matthew 25:31-46

I have heard of Messianic Jews who helped sneak supplies into Bethlehem during the second-Intifada siege. The only Messianic Jew I met was a shell-games tour-guide who was recruited as ‘balance’ for my boss’s speech in West Jerusalem. He kept insisting that my boss go first, who in-turn insisted that he go first until Zoughbi finally agreed to go first.

Z told my favorite story, about his daughter confronting the soldiers during the siege and how her older cousin yelled at her to stand-down and go inside. Later, as he apologized to the tearful little girl, she was heard to have said, “sorry is not enough: I need chocolate!” Z was making a point about gestures of restitution as part of the reconciliation process.

This gentleman began to talk about how his father came to be a Messianic Jew but gradually outlined an identity completely composed of persecutions, of being defined ‘other’, and claiming a salvation made of injuries. Our ‘balance’ decided to make a point of saying that life is about persevering through “suffering, not about chocolate”. Z glanced at me and smirked. I was sorry that I had doubted his suspicions earlier, when I wanted to believe this ‘balance’ would be gracious.

Like many, I have been so naive as to expect graciousness rather than being gratefully amazed when I do (at times) see it from these characters. “They usually want to go first,” said Z, “so that they can leave before they have to listen to me.” What our ‘counterpart’ got from Christ’s ministry was part of a greater narrative of masochism. If it isn’t about how much one can succeed it is about how much they can suffer: me, myself, I.

His Messiah was made of suffering, with the promise of redemption in proportion. There is the fore-taste of substitutional atonement but even that quickly fades to older notions, after-tastes, of particularism in suffering as much as in being chosen, so that I felt sorry for this man because it seems as if his belief in Christ was based on his ability to reject any grace or blessing. Even less, to give graces or blessings. Suffering is one part of The Way but it is not the end-goal of The Way.

During the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience mentioned that they had visited a school and an orphanage earlier in the day and wondered what he thought they could do to benefit the children. Looking back, this was a perfect set-up. Our ‘balance’ offered that there was nothing to do but prepare them for the realities of a second-coming. I tapped Z on the elbow and asked him to let me rebut. I quoted the passage from Matthew, reminding them that they could
invest in ‘the least of these’, both financially and relationally, and continue their visits. For anyone who knows Christ as a teacher, not just a body bleeding on a piece of wood, it was obvious. If you have chocolate to give, share the chocolate together. Find Jesus in the way we heal and are healed.

“I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” Paraphrased: I was pouty and you gave me chocolate. Grace.

If we look for our Messiah on a cross or in a manger, we will find only places he has been. He told us himself he would be in ‘the least of these’ whenever they were in need. As for those Jews who smuggled in supplies when my Palestinian friends needed them, I think they might find the same Lord I do. I wish the best chocolates upon them.

A reflection by John Daniel Gore

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JD is a Methodist missionary living in Bethlehem and serving in Palestine. JD tweets from @Xavier_Phoenix and blogs from xavierphoenix.wordpress.com

4th Day of Christmas: Childermas

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” — Matthew 2:16-18shoes

Today is Childermas. You might not have heard of it. My spellcheck hasn’t. The story goes like this: There were rumors that a king had been born that was a threat to those in power. So, Herod sent and slew all the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old or under. He had intended to include the Son of God among the murdered babies. In Roman Catholic mass today, on this 4th day of Christmas, no Gloria in Excelsis or Alleluias are spoken.

Like an anniversary of The Holocaust, 9/11, or an elementary school slaughtering, today is a somber day of remembrance of a genocide. A day we remember the wailings of mothers and fathers whose toddlers were murdered by Herod, out of fear of a baby named Jesus. These same mothers and fathers remembered the wailings of mothers and fathers before them whose toddlers were murdered by Pharaoh, out of fear of a baby named Moses.

Mass killings of innocent children are nothing new, and yet it doesn’t hurt any less. In the week following Sandy Hook we paused to remember, but collectively we seem to stop mourning after a week, for fear of becoming numb.

We must find ways to remember.

Every hour there is another Sandy Hook in the world. Every hour 30 innocent children die of AIDS—deaths preventable by medication. Our news cycle doesn’t spend much time covering this epidemic, out of fear of a drop in ratings.

We must find ways to remember.

Since 2001, it is estimated by different studies that more than 60,000 innocent children have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Countless other countries can tally up even higher numbers of children that were killed with weapons bought with our tax dollars or who have simply disappeared under the watch of regimes the United States put in power.

We must find ways to remember.

It is estimated that 40% of lesbian, gay, bi, transgender and queer youth have attempted suicide, making suicide one of the main causes of death among LGBTQ 15 to 24 year olds. The complacency of our government, our churches, and our own fear about sexuality is killing our children.

We must find ways to remember.

There is a mass for that—Merry Childrermas.

One: Enraged, Herod put to death many male children

Many: In Bethlehem of Judea, the city of David.

One: Let us pray. O God, whose praise the martyred Innocents this day proclaimed not by speaking but by dying, put to death all vices within us, that Thy faith which our tongues profess, our lives also by their actions may declare.

Many: Amen.

A reflection by Andy Oliver.

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Andy is the Communicatons and Technology Coordinator serving Reconciling Ministries Network. Andy tweets at @HeyAndyOliver and blogs at http://about.me/andyoliver

1st Day of Christmas: A New Pledge of Allegiance – Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased their joy; they rejoice before you as with the joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the trampling warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his Kingdom.

After more than a month of rushing around like crazy people, buying gifts for our loved ones, our colleagues, our pets–after our marathon run to shopping centers, continuously investing ourselves in the world’s version of Christmas, sometimes we get to the end and wonder how we lost ourselves once again.

After the frenzy of the shopping season and the hustle and bustle of all the ways we celebrate Christmas, after opening our gifts on Christmas Day, we sometimes sit in silence and wonder why we worked ourselves up into a frenzy for something that ends so quickly.

At some point each year we realize all of the ways we got tricked once again by letting our culture tell us how to celebrate our Holy Days.

These words from Isaiah stun us into silence and make us feel a bit foolish.

This is no “Jesus is the reason for the season” message I’m bringing to you. I think that phrase is just as tired as the over-consumerism of Christmas. And dare I say, just as empty. These words from Isaiah teach us something different about our faith than any bullshit rhyming bumper sticker phrase out there.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

These words from the prophet Isaiah tell us about a new order among the people. They are a desperate shout through the ages, and they tell us about the real meaning of Christmas, that light will one day chase out darkness—that meaning will one day replace meaninglessness.

Christmas according to Isaiah is about the ever-present hope for a Messiah to come and invade the world with new purpose and direction—to come and occupy this world with the divine peace and justice it so desperately needs.

Isaiah hoped for a new order for our world, and his hope is one that echoes through the ages and still has the power to cut through the gift wrapping paper-thin veneer of an over-commercialized Christmas.

These words from the prophet Isaiah urge us to shift our perspective and to open our eyes. They are words that tell of a coming light—a light that chases out the dark, that show us the way out of our meaninglessness, that reveals to us the One who has come to teach us allegiance to a new order for our lives.

This Christmas, the coming of our King means that we are invited to turn away from the noisy promises and promise-makers that have invaded both our Christmas celebrations and the world in which we live, and instead pledge our allegiance to the One who offers us our greatest promise.

Merry Christmas to all!

A reflection by Pat Ryan

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Pat is a candidate for ministry in the PC(USA) and is ready for a call. He tweets at @writingpat. You can see where Pat blogs at his about.me page.

Christmas Eve: Christmas is funny

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When I was a kid, my parents had an illuminated, blow-mold, plastic plug-in nativity set. Perhaps you recognize Mary’s shell-shocked expression (which I always though apt for a virgin who had just given birth), or Joseph’s daringly pink sash, or the baby Jesus’ odd, mid-ab-workout posture from the 90’s neighborhood you called home. They are truly a testament to the indescribable love of God showing up in our midst, don’t you think?

We would tuck ours in the rose garden, where they were visible from the street, but also capable of being secured by chains lest anyone consider stealing our joy. After a streak of vandalism in the neighborhood, my parents decided the best place to display the glory of the electric Emmanuel was on the roof, well beyond the reach of any who would cause harm to the Holy Family.

(That’s right – we had an electric nativity on the roof. Because we’re classy.)

My father had a system: he would tie a rope around a figurine’s waist, then take the end with him up the ladder to the roof, and raise them up, hand-over-hand. This worked okay for Mary and Joseph, but the unfortunate thing about the baby Jesus was that there weren’t a lot of places to tie the rope. One year, having gained a reprieve from dusting glass ornaments inside with my mother, I walked out of the house to help my father.

Unfortunately, my timing was poor, and I came face to face with Jesus’ somewhat bemused expression as he was hung by the neck from the eves of our home! I was so shocked I gasped, accidentally startling my father, who dropped Jesus’ noose. The precious infant crashed to the ground amid the bellows from the roof and my helpless laughter. We were relieved when we plugged him in and found his light had not been damaged in his tumble…

Christmas is funny.

Think about it: it involves all of the most colorful characters in your life gathering together, sometimes bellowing and sometimes laughing. If we could step back, it might make a good sitcom, but when you’re in the middle of it, it can range from painful to perfect and back again in a blink. You put out the decorations, you string the lights, you clean up and dress up and cook up a feast, but it’s still just people. We, the people God loves: loving and lovable, and also flawed, insulting, intolerant, cranky, anal retentive, lazy, passive, aggressive, passive aggressive, ignorant, idealistic, neurotic, superior, meddlesome, stubborn, self-righteous, and simply stressed. The ones who lock him into whatever box seems safest, and those who string him up in the process of their well-meaning worship.

Us.

This is the world Jesus was born into, and we are the people for whom God showed up. This Christmas we may be tempted to prettify that message and dress it up in all the best trappings we can think of, but I hope we are willing to simply tell the story and let Christ speak for himself. I would hate it if we locked down or strung up Jesus in the process of sharing the good news, like my well-meaning family with their synthetic stable scene.

The good news is that, as many times as we mess up Christmas, Jesus keeps showing up. As many times as we drop the ball (or baby, in this case), that light still keeps shining. Maybe he is still hoping we’ll get a glimpse of the kin-dom in the middle of the chaos, despite the chains we put around it to hold it down, or the ropes we use to heave it to whatever height we think it deserves. Maybe he is still hoping that just maybe, we’ll give him what he actually cares about for his birthday. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll love the world in all its messy brokenness, too. Maybe we’ll forgive the someone who knows all the right buttons to push to get a rise out of us, and maybe we’ll care more for someone else’s need than our own wants, and maybe we’ll find a way to speak a word of truth and grace to someone who desperately needs it. Because the irony of Christmas is that you have the opportunity to be the very presence of Christ we have been waiting for so long. The way you love may be how someone else experiences this beloved baby’s birth.

Christmas is funny like that.

A reflection by Kris Marshall

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Kris is the Associate Pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Rosa, California. Kris tweets at @revkris. You can also subscribe to her weekly sermon podcast.

21st Day of Advent: Messiah II – Zephaniah 3:14-20

Ah, soiled, oppressing city! It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God.

The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.

The Lord within it is righteous; he does no wrong. Every morning he renders his judgment, each dawn without fail; but the unjust knows no shame. – Zephaniah 3:1-5

Zephaniah understands 21st century Jerusalem perfectly. Verse 2 hits with a special resonance. Cast against the backdrop of Advent, I cannot help but think about what Israel, past and present, wanted from a Messiah. That Messiah is the consummation of the power-cycle, where Israel dominates as it has been dominated. Do you feel me yet? That Messiah is the leather belt in the hand of the abused, becoming the abuser. Sometimes, I fear that those who speak triumphantly of the second-coming are tapping into the same perverse hope, bringing Christianity into the cycle: illusions of grandeur, by any means necessary. Christian Zionism, the self-fulfilling prophesy-effects, the inevitable fall.

I visited the Mount of Temptation this week and remembered Luke chapter 4. As much as I think the Messiah concept was a show of human perverseness, God’s prevenient grace was at work from the cave in Bethlehem to the one in Jericho where our teacher, Jesus, was raised to take over that prophesy and use it for God’s perfect purposes. The Adversary came from the depths of, perhaps, Christ’s own mind, and tempted him to be the Messiah that was wanted instead of the Messiah that was needed. Jesus refused to consummate the cycle: He broke the cycle! God redeemed our hopes with a better vision. He is immaculate.

3:18-19 remain a beautiful possibility to this day.

I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all of your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

God promises to deal harshly with the oppressors and to save the weak and helpless ones–I think we can lend a hand. Are not our oppressors, on some level, also weak and helpless? Here are promises to gather those who are chased away, giving glory and fame to the exiles, restoring the name of these people. It’s easy to fall into the trite interpretation that the nation of Israel is permanently in exile, in need of restoration, but what if Israel’s name could be restored by breaking free from the drunkenness of perpetual victimhood? What if Israel regained its honor not by expecting to be restored but by restoring those they have exiled?

Whether oppressed or oppressor, we do find a metaphor for ‘self’ in Israel. How can we free ourselves by freeing others? I know one Jew who dared to take collective responsibility and refused to continue the cycle–even under the condition of Roman occupation.

Jesus’s vision was not a campaign to end his oppressor but a ministry against oppression itself. When so many in his audience wanted their problems to be manifest in foreign armies who could be slain, Jesus was able to see beyond those misconceptions of ‘other’ and understand that the true adversary was within, to be defeated by self-death.

A reflection by John Daniel Gore

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JD is a Methodist missionary living in Bethlehem and serving in Palestine. JD tweets from @Xavier_Phoenix and blogs from xavierphoenix.wordpress.com