Salvation Has Come
A few years ago, a former student of mine asked me to perform their wedding ceremony. This was a student that I had known since they were in middle school and I had spent a lot of time with her and her family. The wedding was out of state, but I agreed, and was excited to participate. One of the unique things about performing a wedding is the law varies state by state and each county is slightly different. As the time drew closer for the wedding. I called the county in which the wedding was going to take place. A woman answered the phone and I explained I would be performing a wedding a few months from now and that I wanted to check with them about any local requirements. She kind of paused and said, “are you ordained?” I, of course, said, “Yes, I am an ordained Presbyterian Pastor.” She said, “do you have a church?” I said, “Yes.” She then said, “are their actual people at your church?” Being that this was pre-COVID-19, I of course said “Yes.” Then finally she asked me to “mail a bulletin or order of worship to the court house.” Then I would be invited to come to the courthouse, and I would need to bring a copy of ordination certificate and then they would make the decision on if I could perform the wedding. At this point in the conversation I was a little annoyed with her, but I managed to ask her very politely “what this was all about”. I will never forget her two-word response, “the internet”. She went on to explain that they have a lot of weddings in the county and the county has decided that only judges and religious leaders can perform weddings and they didn’t want someone who got ordained online performing the ceremony.
Our text offers us a beautiful vision of a young family, a family following the religious customs of their day. We see Mary and Joseph traveling to Jerusalem to the temple. His family makes the sacrifices that are required. This would have been done about 40 days after the birth of Jesus. The law required a sacrifice of either a lamb, turtledoves, or pigeons. The offering of pigeons is a clear indication of the socioeconomic status of Mary and Joseph. But they honor God’s law and make a sacrifice. This account parallels the dedication of Samuel, from 1 Samuel chapter 1, with Eli offering a blessing and a song of praise offered to God by Hannah. Samuel brought great change to Israel and helped fix a corrupt system.
Jesus’ presence in the temple causes quite a stir. The Holy spirit is speaking to two prophets. As this family enters the Temple Simeon picks up the young baby and praises God for him. Simeon describes Jesus as the “salvation which God has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” We see again God’s concern for all peoples. That God has a special relationship with Israel but salvation has been brought to all people through Jesus Christ. After Simeon shares these words, Anna, a woman of great faith, speaks about this child redeeming Jerusalem. Anna’s words are not recorded but it is understood that she blessed the baby in a similar vein as Simeon. Both Anna and Simeon recognized that salvation had come to the world and to the people of God that day. This small family followed the law of their day. The Mishnah, or the oral law of the Rabbis, teaches that wherever the Torah or scriptures are studied or spoken, God’s presence rests among the people. Jesus modified this saying and said “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”.  Both Anna and Simeon recognized that salvation had come to the world and to the people of God that day. It makes you wonder how many other people spotted the infant that day, and sensed the presence of God? The family then returned to Nazareth. Jesus continued to grow in wisdom and favor with God.
The modern church is facing many challenges. Our influence in the culture has changed, our influence in family has changed. The pressure on modern families is great. Parents in general are struggling to keep up with careers and activities. Until the pandemic many families ate fewer meals together and fewer prayed together before those meals or conducted any sort of at home bible study. Families have begun to approach religious participation, like music and sports, as an extracurricular activity: a good, well-rounded thing to do, but unnecessary for an integrated life.  The result is that the markings of special religious ritual and the acknowledge presence of God is gone from the daily life of many families. In the minds of many it has become associated either with superstitions and cultic practices of the past or the peculiar excesses of religious fanatics. God has receded from the awareness and experience of everyday life. Many then naturally assume that God is found only in certain places, in sacred buildings, in holy books, or in observances led by holy persons. Their lives, on the other hand, move in a secular realm devoid of the presence of the holy. Little room for mystery remains in the everyday. What have we lost by removing ritual observances from our daily experience?
In the Washington Post Article, I used to love playing violin. But mastering it broke my heart by Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch. Arianna shares her own personal journey with the violin. She writes how she fell in love with the instrument at the age of 6. At the age of 11 she switched to a new violin teacher, that had connections to pre-college conservatory. She immediately took Arianna off any real pieces of music and had her practice finger exercises after a year she was allowed to return to music, but her perception of that music had changed, the mystery had receded in its place were technical challenges for her body to overcome. She kept advancing but grew unhappy. She kept feeling as though eventually the music would mean something. She finished her time at Juilliard eventually going on tour with a rock band. But she felt like a fake. She felt the need for a change and moved to Berlin she put down her violin and just lived, she started turning down opportunities to play and eventually stopped playing altogether. Months past and violin collected dust. A friend convinced her to play a private party and after several weeks of preparation it was time for her to play. She writes as we began to play, I felt something shift inside me. Suddenly, the months of estrangement and resentment and sadness and confusion, and the uncertainty about my future as a violinist, became part of a new story. It wasn’t the same kind of story I’d have invented when I was young. It was darker and more complicated than anything I could have conjured back then — almost elegiac. The music sounded different to me now. More bittersweet, more profound and more beautiful
The challenge to the modern church is to help family find ritual, is to celebrate God in the in the ordinary. We need to learn to greet each moment, each morning with gratitude; to celebrate the goodness in our lives, to recognize mystery and holy and give families and parents the tools to make this happen. To help individuals and families connect to God and see themselves as part of a larger story and help them see the ministry of faith.
 Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (p. 6). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
2 Samuel 7:1-11
A Divine Visitor
She is perhaps the most recognizable woman in human history. Her image stands as a guardian on thousands of dashboards and she is the subject of much of Western art. Last week we gathered and heard her song in response to this angelic visit. This week we focus on the visit and the person of Mary. As protestants we don’t often focus on Mary the Mother of Jesus, but our lectionary leads us to her today. We only catch glimpses of her within Scripture. But who is Mary, and who is she for us?
From scripture we know that Mary is young and vulnerable, she is likely in an arranged marriage to a man she barely knows. An angel of the lord named Gabriel is dispatched by God to visit her. He greets her by telling her that she is favored by God, and says that the Lord is with her. Mary is puzzled at this greeting, wondering why she is favored; she is just ordinary woman. She is not favored in terms of privilege or power or money. She like all of us is sinful, she wasn’t any more pure or worthy, but God chose her and gifted her. Many of us would do well to hear these words. Grace and favor is not about you, but it is about God. Voices in our culture perpetually tell us we are not good enough. Children and teens are teased for their appearance or clothing, and we all constantly hear advertising that you are not fit enough, attractive enough, or successful enough and it is having a massive effect on our culture. A wall street journal article from 2019 called the “The Lonely Burden of Today’s Teenage Girls” described this problem. The author tells us the story of Jordan. She says, “ I have friends with debilitating problems like cutting and OCD,” “It’s frustrating because I can’t help them. I mean, I’m only 14 myself.” The author goes on to write that Young Americans have become unwitting guinea pigs in today’s huge, unplanned experiment with social media, and teenage girls like Jordan are bearing much of the brunt. In conversation after conversation, adolescent girls describe themselves as particularly vulnerable, with many of them struggling to manage the constant connectedness of social media. Many are experiencing rising levels of anxiety and the intense emotions that have always been central to adolescence. But on top of this many are experiencing high levels of depression and loneliness. A 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 36% of girls report being extremely anxious every day. They are particularly worried about school shootings, climate change, and their ability to afford college and I would imagine the pandemic .  With the culture screaming in our ears it can be particularly difficult to hear the voice of God saying you are enough. You are loved and you are favored.
The angel goes on to tell Mary that she will be a mother and she will bring Jesus into the world. Mary immediately asks how can this be because she is a virgin? So, if you ask this same question you are in good company, right alongside Mary. This is an aspect of the birth narrative I have never fully understood or grasped, it defies logic and biology. The way I have come to look at it is that God is doing something new. Miracle births are all over scripture, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah and Elizabeth all conceived when God intervened. In this case God is doing something radical new. The angel responds to her question by telling that Holy Spirit will over shadow her. This reminiscent of Genesis 1:2 where God dwells over the waters and creates something from nothing. In Samuel God is dwelling in a tent but now God chooses to dwell in the body of woman. God becomes human.
Over the years some have depicted Mary almost as a tool, or as a lesson in submission as if she had no choice about bringing Jesus into this world. I would suggest this is a misunderstanding of Mary and a great misunderstanding of God. What we see in this text though is that Mary ponders the words of the Angel, she wonders how such a thing could happen and, in the end, she says yes to God. Obedience to God does trample our agency, our self-determination saying yes to God helps us to become more fully ourselves. In that light Mary is an example, God chose this modest young woman to work through.
Mary is a reminder that God cares deeply about the human condition and that we should expect God to show up in the most surprising and unexpected places. It is often easy to see God working and moving through inspired worship, beautiful art, but God is working in the forgotten places among forgotten people, vulnerable people. This story is a reminder of the profound compassion of God.
Several years ago, I took a group of youth on a service trip. This was a group of high schoolers and over the course of the week we were going to visit several different volunteer sites. One of the students on that trip was having a really difficult year. It was most of the usual teen stuff, difficulty at home, trouble in school etc. I was working with the family to help navigate what felt like mini crisis after mini crisis, but then the parents through a series of events realized this was more than teenage angst. Their child was struggling with a major addiction. The student went to rehab and after a few months came home. The parents were deeply concerned about their child falling into old patterns with old friends so they signed him up for the service trip. The parents and I discussed it and hoped it would be an opportunity for this student to make new friends and maybe redefine the last few years of high school. Over the course of the week myself and the youth leaders tried connecting with this student but it never really felt like we were getting through. Toward the end of trip, we were going to a ministry site to serve a meal at local shelter. This ministry site was huge. It had a health care wing, a mail room, a clothing cupboard, and the sanctuary of this massive church was converted into a dining hall, seating a couple hundred. The guests were all seated at tables with white tablecloths. Everyone was served at a table and had options and choice. Most of the students were acting as servers, taking drink and food orders, then running everything out to the table. When dining hours started to wind down, the sanctuary started to clear out and people began cleaning up. I took a quick look around the room and in the center of the room I could see a small group in a circle sitting together talking and noticed this student is sitting with the group. I walk over and decide to stand in the background and just listen. My student was on the verge of tears sharing all that has happened over the last year, sharing about recovery, and trying to stay sober. The men and women in the group and patiently listening and sharing their own stories of their own struggles. One of the men asked to pray for the student, the group quickly agreed and they surrounded him laid a hand on his shoulder and prayed. Years later this student, now a young adult, still points to this experience as one of the key moments that kept him clean and on the right path.
God shows up in the most profoundly surprising places, God works through the most ordinary of circumstances to share compassion. As we continue our advent march toward Christmas look for these moments of surprise, where God moves in your life. Amen
 Andrews, Dale P.; Ronald J. Allen and Dawn Ottoni-W. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice (p. 30). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 The Lonely Burden of Today’s Teenage Girls
 Andrews, Dale P.; Ronald J. Allen and Dawn Ottoni-W. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice (p. 31). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Preparing the Way
Ben Connor, professor of practical Theology at Western Theological Seminary, in his book Practicing Witness tells the following story:
He writes: Years ago, at a camp designed to accommodate adolescents with physical and intellectual disabilities, I was facing a crisis. James, a young man with Down syndrome, was inconsolably homesick. He had been crying on and off for two days, this was the third day of a five-day day camp, at that moment he was sitting on the floor of our cabin with his arms wrapped around his legs hugging them and weeping. It was my first year on staff with this ministry…. The ministry creates community, they recruit and train leaders to be involved in lives of students, they hold regular meetings during the school year, and they team up with a local therapeutic riding center for a competition and excursions in the fall, and all year we had been working towards this five-day summer camp. I was a seasoned youth minister with twenty years of experience working with kids. I had a master of divinity hanging on my wall that suggested I had been prepared theologically to interpret and address the situation – in fact, at the time I was a defense away from a PH.D. Beyond these credentials, I had had the practical experience of raising my own four children to draw upon. Still, with James that day I had nothing to offer. Rather, I had nothing to offer James that in any way provided him comfort or perspective, and the entire cabin of campers knew it.
One camper who particularly noticed my helplessness was named Greg. As the consequence of a car accident just prior to his birth, Greg had cerebral palsy, an auditory processing disorder, and was learning disabled. He had seven major surgeries by the age of eight years old. Greg did not analyze the situation using the methods and techniques I had learned in school. Instead as James was rocking and crying he took the initiative to sit calmly beside James, Greg put his arm around him, and spoke words of comfort and peace to him….. Greg in this moment was preparing the way; he was becoming an entry point for James, he lifted the valley, he lowered the mountain, a simple act of presence prepared the way for God’s love to flood into James’ life. 
Mark begins by telling us that he is writing the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God. When this gospel was written many claimed to have the good news. This in fact was a slogan of the Roman Empire and we continue to live in an age when there are many gospels. The gospel of material wealth, the gospel of consumption that is seeking fulfillment through the accumulation of things, the gospel of wholeness that latches on to the latest health trends, the gospel of status that seeks only achievement. But in the midst of this noise Mark tells us that there is a voice crying out. A voice crying to us, even this day.
He shares a quote that is attributed to Isaiah, but is actually a beautiful combination of three passages, one from Exodus, one from Malachi, and one from Isaiah. From Exodus we read “look, I am sending my messenger in front of you in order to guard you on the way in order to bring you into the land that I prepared for you.”, from Malachi we read “Behold, I am sending my messenger, and he will oversee the way before me.”, and from Isaiah we read “A voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord: make straight the paths of our God.” The combination of these texts would have been a reminder to the original hearers, they would have heard these words and known the reference. The Exodus reference would have reminded the people of their exile and enslavement in Egypt and the parting waters of the Red Sea. The references to Malachi and Isaiah would have reminded the people of the Babylonian Exile and a path God created through wilderness back to home. The original hearing would have known that the messenger Malachi is referring to is Elijah the prophet. Elijah who comes to prepare the way for the messiah. One of the Jewish traditions that is still practiced is to leave an empty seat at the Passover Table for Elijah, waiting for Elijah to prepare the way.
John is cast as this new Elijah. John even begins his ministry by ministering in the general area of Elijah’s final acts. This location would have been symbolic for the people it would have served as another reminder of God’s ministry through Elijah. Elijah who once struck this same river, it parted and while on the other side of the Jordan, Elijah was whisked away to be with God. John strikes these waters with the people. People who come to see him, instead of the waters parting, the people are submerged in the waters, moving from repentance to the new life found in the forgiveness of sins. His splitting of the river is with a renewed commitment to help people follow God’s way. John’s ministry is an entry point an invitation into the Grace and Love of God. Often our own entry point into God’s love is at baptism. At baptism God claims us God’s own. It is also a deeply important moment for the community of God. The people of God promise to nurture and care for the person who is baptized, and help them grow in their faith. Creating and entry point and symbol.
Entry points and symbols help us connect to God. As we endure another season of being away from the sanctuary, of missing in-person worship and a season that likely continue for a while, Presbytery on Thursday made the recommendation that congregations continue online worship for at least the next few months. For some of us we may experience a little heartache, heartache at missing the physical space in which we connect to God on a weekly basis, a space in which we have said good bye to loved ones, a space in which we have experience the ups and downs of life, a space in which we may have made our marriage vows, a space in which we have watched officers being ordained, confirmation classes take steps of faith, and watched as babies begin their own journey of faith. Have you given any thought to the space in your home you as we connect to God on this broadcast? Many of are watching this on a Tv, or a computer, or even a phone. Those same devices that we might watch the news, or binge the latest show, or do some online shopping. How do you remind yourself that this moment is different than those other moments? Presbyterians have always known symbols are important, that is why you always see the Bible, the baptismal font, and the communion table in a Presbyterian church. These are visual reminder of our connections to God. As you watch and participate in this worship service have you placed reminders for yourself of the ways in which God has impacted your life through EPC. This could be something as simple lighting a candle before you watch, or removing distracting clutter from your space, or placing a picture of the church, or an image of church friends, reminders of God’s grace. Or it could be much more tangible, making a commitment to call your pewmates after worship and pray with them.
John voice is crying out to us, his cry is an entry point so people can connect to God, so that we could have a deeper connection to God. How will you seek to deepen your connection to God during this season of Advent? How will you be an entry point for others, inviting them in to deepen their own faith?
 Benjamin T. Conner. Practicing Witness: A Missional Vision of Christian Practices (Kindle Locations 20-25). Kindle Edition.
 Exodus 23:20
 Mal. 3:1
 Isaiah 40:3