The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
“Now every year, his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents didn’t know it.”
They grow-up so fast, don’t they?
Many of you have Christmas traditions and they are much like the tradition of Jesus family traveling in this story today. They help us mark the passing of time, they are filled with song, and they remind us how short life is and how important it is to love those around us. Christmas stands out among the holidays, for Christians and for secular celebrants alike, because its music, its colors, its symbols remind us of our loved ones, brings us back to our childhoods, and connects us with milestones in life more than any other holiday—for better and for worse.
Today, since we are focused on song and tradition of Christmas singing, in lieu of a long sermon, I am simply going to offer a simple reflection on this idea: There is a great importance to traditions like Christmas Carols and songs across different cultures as a way to take care of each other and to create milestones in life that remind us to slow down and to cherish our loved ones. Christmas music, like what we are singing today from around the world, is a deep connection to a sense of time and place.
These songs, the hymns of Christmas, serve as important reminders about life, love, and family—because, friends, life is so short!
Just a couple of days ago, after all, Jesus was born in a manger in Jerusalem. Just a couple of days ago the angels sang. Just a couple of days ago the Shepherds left their sheep unattended in the fields and went to worship Jesus. Christmas… Christmas Eve, Santa, the commotion, the presents, the tree, the lights, the family visiting. It all feels like it was just yesterday, doesn’t it!?
Today’s Scripture passage comes only verses after the Christmas Story, and yet time has accelerated to the point where Jesus has already started to teach, he has already claimed a sense of independence escaping from his parents, and as Scripture says, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Jesus is growing-up, and we can almost feel the subtext of the anxiety, the hope, the pride, and the many mixed emotions his parents must have had. How many of you are parents and relate to this? Our passage today is, in many ways, one of the human moments in the Jesus story—it is a moment when the Baby starts to turn into the man. It is the moment when all of Mary and Joseph’s joy starts to turn into fear, alarm, and change—fear for the future.
The irony or foreshadowing here is that Jesus gets lost teaching in the temple as a 12-year-old in Jerusalem—the very city and place where he will eventually be put to death for doing the very same thing as an adult.
Parenting, in my case gay uncling, or even watching your parents get older year after year… frailer perhaps… is part of life, but it is scary. Most of all, it means that we need to hold onto the sacred moments and the milestones in life like Christmas memories.
Christmas is different from Halloween, Easter, 4th of July, or even birthdays because it comes so close to the new year and is highly ritualized both by society and the church. Christmas, for better or worse, is how we measure our year and our memories of our loved ones. It is also how we measure our own adulting success. Are my cookies anything like grandma’s? Is my tree as beautiful as the one I remember growing-up?
Watching your kids open their Christmas presents, decorating your first tree with your spouse after getting married, baking cookies with grandma, food, song, culture, family time around the fire are all milestones to help us know the distances traveled in life.
There is a great scene in the classical musical Fiddler on the Roof when one of the daughters is getting married and the parents sit and sing softly to themselves a very deep song. The lyrics go like this:
Is this the little girl I carried,
Is this the little boy at play?
I don't remember growing older,
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty,
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn't it yesterday when they were small?
Sunrise, sunset (x2),
Swiftly flow the days.
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers,
Blossoming even as we gaze.
Sunrise, sunset (x2),
Swiftly fly the years,
One season following another,
Laden with happiness and tears.
Growing-up, growing old, growing wise, growing tall (in my case short), growing in faith, growing in hope, growing in love… all of the ways in which we grow can be measured from Christmas to Christmas. Whether we love this holiday or resist it, for all of us, Christmas is a time of making, maintaining, and renewing memories.
The hymns we sing today, some familiar to us and others new, are for different cultures and people their memory-makers and milestone reminders.
By singing together, like the people did at the Passover Festivals in Jerusalem in Jesus’ time from our story today, we create milestones that maintain our memories and help us to cherish our loves ones even more and even better.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
46 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
It was the fourth Sunday in Advent, 1990. The sanctuary of Central Congregational, UCC, in Atlanta, GA was decorated with greens, just like ours. It is a beautiful sanctuary the slopes down to the chancel area in ancient Greek amphitheater style. The entire front and side walls are glass looking into the wonder of the North Georgia woods. The Advent candles were lit, just like ours. The scripture text for the day was Luke 1, Mary’s visit with Elizabeth and her song of joy, The Magnificat, like we have just heard. We had a three month old in the nursery and our four year old was safely ensconced with dear friends of our in the pews. We – my former husband and I – had been invited to deliver a version of the scripture in the form of a song. As he accompanied us on guitar, I began:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; and my spirit exults in God, my Savior. For God has looked upon my lowliness and my name shall be forever exalted.”
There was a slight, disturbing rustle in the pew where the four year old was sitting. But we concentrated on the song. I continued.
“For the Mighty One has done great things for me. God’s mercy exceeds from age to age....”
The rustle grew louder. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw the four year old escape from the pew...OMG....just keep singing, just keep singing....and as we sang the refrain:
“Holy, Holy, Holy is God’s name....”
And then we saw him.....he was lying down horizontally across the middle of the middle aisle....which sloped down to the front of the church and slowly rolling down toward us – just as children roll down a grassy hill – only in slow motion - rolling in time to our music.
What do you do? You keep singing, you try to “un-see” what you have just seen your child doing and you keep singing...and I must tell you, our harmony was never so focused, so in tune, so precise.
After the service I said to our four year old wonder child...”Can you tell me why you did that? Did you want some attention? Are you feeling neglected because you now have to share Mommy and Daddy with your baby brother?” “No, Mommy! I just liked your song!”
“I just liked your song!” He liked the song so he responded to it with his whole being! His whole body and heart and soul. In uninhibited four year old fashion.
Oh, that we who are way past four years old could remember how to respond to the songs of God with our whole beings, body, heart, mind and soul! Oh, that we could remember how to say “Yes!” to God with our whole selves like the peasant girl, Mary, like the unfettered, freely giving four year old!
Do you think we can?
The late New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, wrote that all the canticles, the songs we hear sung in the gospel of Luke, including our song of Mary, were songs of a group of first century Jewish Christians who staked their lives on God’s abundance as evident throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Throughout the stories, psalms, history and prophecy of the Hebrew scriptures God calls God’s people to move out of the myth of scarcity and into a lyric of abundance. In God’s providence there is enough for all! If we live in this lyric, we will share all the abundance given to creation and humanity. There is enough for all!
These early Jewish Christians were called the “Anawim,” “the Poor Ones.” While this group may have been physically poor, Brown tells us that their name also came to be associated with “those who could not trust their own strength, but had to rely in utter confidence upon God.” Living in stark contrast to the Anawim were the literal rich as well as those who showed no need for God through pride and self-sufficiency even if they were not financially wealthy.
Mary’s song is a lyric of abundance, a song of the Anawim, the Poor Ones. Those who rely fully on God. Who respond to God with faith in God’s lyric of abundance with a resounding “Yes!”. Who respond with their whole being like a four year old rolling down the aisle of a church because music stirs his whole being.
"With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am, I rejoice in God my savior. Because “God has scattered [and is scattering] those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. God has pulled [and is pulling] the powerful down from their thrones. God has lifted up [and is lifting up] the lowly. God has filled [and is filling] the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty-handed.” And God shows this mercy from one generation to the next.....all this has happened, is happening and will continue to happen. My friends, given Mary’s song, we have good reason to say “Yes!” to God with our whole selves.
We have good reason AND it is through our saying “Yes!” that God works in our world. I believe God’s lyric of abundance persists in spite of us, in spite of the our being stuck as a people, as a culture, as the whole of humanity in the myth of scarcity. However.... God’s lyric of abundance multiplies, spreads like wind through the trees, like sun on the water, like the fertility of the earth in spring when we say “Yes!” to it with our whole beings! Then we are co-creating with God.
Poet and musician, Leonard Cohen, God rest his soul, echoes the voices of the Poor Ones and of Mary in his book of contemporary psalms, The Book of Mercy:
“Take heart, you who were born in the captivity of a fixed predicament; and tremble, you kings of certainty: your iron has become like glass, and the word has been uttered that will shatter it.” (Leonard Cohen, The Book of Mercy)
Listen my friends to Leonard Cohen, to Mary, to the Spirit of the Living God! “Take Heart,” my friends of God here at Plymouth, “Take Heart! We are so often stuck in our world views of not being, not having enough. We get stuck in our insecurities, our inadequacies, our sense of futility in resisting the darkness of the world’s greed and its myth of scarcity. We unconsciously live in the certainty that the world is ONLY as we see it on CNN or MSNBC, etc, etc, etc. But that is not the whole of reality, even the tip of the iceberg of reality. God’s lyric of abundance for ALL IS the reality!
It is the reality our world craves. And it is within our power to say “Yes!” with abandon and joy and love to God’s abundance in the world. For our own souls and also for the sake of those who are truly poor, homeless, in refugee and immigration detention centers, in war zones. Like the first century “Poor Ones” who did not “trust their own strength but relied in full confidence on the strength of God”, like Mary, we can say “Yes!”
Each time we say “yes” with our whole selves to a ministry opportunity here at Plymouth, to a volunteer position, no matter how small, to a work of advocacy for the marginalized, to the work we are called to do in the world, to the call of parenting and grand-parenting, to friendship and intimate relationships we are tapping into God’s Big Ultimate Yes to the world! Is it always easy? No, it is not. It was not easy for Mary in any way, I imagine. Childbirth, parenting, the unjust death of your son by the government....these are not easy. It has not always been easy for that 4 year old who rolled down the aisle of Central Congregational in Atlanta. At 32 this has not been an easy year for him. You all know that it is not easy to say “Yes” to God. However, because despite the tears and struggle that life brings, saying “Yes” brings Joy in the deepest sense for it is participating in Love which is God which is Source and which makes all things possible. Even the impossible possible.
As we finish this Advent season today and look toward Christmas Eve tomorrow...let us take a risk and say “Yes!” in ways we have not yet imagined. Who knows what opportunity will knock that can open up our lives to deep Joy and Love? May we let our wildest imaginations pray for, intend, plan for our full participation as individuals and as a community of faith in God’s lyrically abundant justice-making Love in the new year. Remember the joy and wild abandon of saying yes to life with your whole being as you rolled down a grassy or snowy hill fully trusting the commitment? That’s it! Say “Yes!" to God! Amen. And Amen!
© The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2018 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
 Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1993), 351.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
There is a part of me that wonders why the Senior Minister always has to wear the black hat…why I always seem to get the tough passages…Last week, Jake gets the song of Zechariah, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people.” And next week, Jane Anne gets the Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit doth rejoice in God my savior.” So nice. And what do I get this week? [cue theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly] “You brood of vipers!” I actually realize that part of my call at Plymouth sometimes is to tell you things you would rather not hear…it just goes with the territory, even though I don’t always get to use the theme from the Clint Eastwood’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
So, when you hear about this fella, John the Baptizer (unlike Jane Anne’s family, he wasn’t Baptist; he was Jewish), he often gets to wear the black hat. He is out there in the wilderness, subsisting on a diet of locusts and wild honey, clothed in a rough garment of camel’s hair (very scratchy in all the wrong places), and probably smelling a lot like a camel as well. Perhaps that’s why he was so into ritual bathing in the Jordan…it wasn’t just sin that he was trying to wash away.
John gets to challenge those who have followed him out into the wilderness -– a place of danger and testing, as we know from the biblical narratives –- to move out of their comfort zones and not simply to rely on their Abrahamic ancestry, but to “bear fruit worthy of changed hearts,” changed minds, and changed lives. John is out on the margins, living a physically and mentally difficult, rigorous, ascetic life, which strips away the less important aspects of life to get down to the basics: to live a fruit-bearing life.
He challenges those who are there who have two coats to give one to the poor…this does not mean just bringing an extra coat in the back of your front hall closet and donate it to Homeward Alliance like I did two weeks ago. It means if you have two houses, give one to somebody who hasn’t got one. [Cue The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly theme.]
John’s message and ministry were distinct from that of Jesus, and as you learned last week from Jake’s sermon, John was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Mary’s cousin), so Jesus and John were first cousins once removed. And Jesus was initially a follower in the John movement, but after John lost his head and Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days, Jesus started a new movement that was focused on healing and proclaiming the kingdom of God.
I had never been a big fan of John the Baptizer. He was rough around the edges and seemed obsessed with purging people of their sins by washing them away ritually. And I have seen Jesus’ primary message as different. But in reading this text, the three examples of repentance that John spells out all involve economic justice. Giving your coat to someone without one. Tax collectors should only take the amount prescribed by the government (which was not the general practice). Roman soldiers should not extort money but be satisfied with their wages.
Sometimes, you have to look harder to see how figures of the past might emerge. About six years ago, I was with Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg on a pilgrimage in Italy, and one of my favorite places that we visited is far off the beaten tourist path outside the town of Nola near Naples. After wandering through the tiny village of Cimitile and attracting surprised stares from the local residents, we arrived at a Paleo-Christian church. (Paleo-Christian is not a diet plan…it just means that it’s very early…from the 4th century.) Going through the complex we saw ancient frescoes of early Christians, who seemed to look out at us postmoderns from a different millennium. Even through the disrepair of these ancient frescoes, their eyes of our Christian brothers and sisters seem to convey a longing to connect. And as we moved to a different part of the room we saw a few remaining representations of different saints and biblical figures, including this one of John.
You cannot see his eyes or his facial expression, but you can see the coarseness of his hair, and that fits in with the impression we have of John: the wild man who lives on the fringe of society who has a message to proclaim in the wilderness. And you can also see the Latin inscription, “Johannes Precursor,” literally John the forerunner.
I’ve noticed that there is something of a visual trope...
...in paintings of John, as the bearded guy with tousled hair and a doleful expression on his face. And one of the things this does is to project an image of John as a real, full-blooded human being (and unlike some beatific images of Jesus, looking fully divine, but not-quite-human). John looks like he’s carrying an emotional burden, as if the cares of the world are on his shoulders. For me that makes him more than a guy who wears the black hat and more of a real person who sees what is wrong with the world he lives in and tries to do something about it. John is the challenger, the confronter, the voice crying out in the wilderness.
This John is perhaps a little more like us, one who understands God’s justice and sees the disconnect between that vision and the world-as-it-is. Jesus was part of his cousin John’s movement. And though it is only in Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts, the death of John the Baptizer comes after he called out Herod, saying that the king’s marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, isn’t legitimate. And the wife and daughter of Herod literally request John’s head on a platter, and Herod delivers.
Criticizing the empire and its petty kings is dangerous business. John is the precursor, the forerunner, the messenger who proclaims that the messiah is coming. John’s demise led Jesus to reframe John’s message and to recast it into a proclamation of an alternative vision for the world: the kingdom of God. And as we know, the demand for economic justice is at the center of that realm that Jesus proclaimed, the kingdom that he said is within us and among us.
The call to a change of heart is central to message of both John and Jesus. It is a call away from the narrowness of self-interest and into something far greater than our own lives. It is a call to give of oneself and to become part of a world order that is grounded in faith, in hope, and in self-giving love.
John offers each of us a challenge this Advent, in terms of how we can help live out economic justice, which is especially important in our current political reality. It is a challenge to ask ourselves how we can contribute to the realm of God, rather than simply to ask, “What’s in it for me?”
As we walk through these final days of Advent, I leave you to consider the question that the crowd around John asked him: “What then should we do?” What can you do to help as a cocreator of God’s realm today?
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. All photos by the author. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.