Tag Archives: Christmas

What IS it about Mary? [OR God-Bearing and the Courage of Belonging] Luke 1:39-56

**sermon art: The Visitation by Jesus Mafa

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 19, 2021

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 1:39-56 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
46And Mary said,
 “My soul magnifies the Lord,
 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
 Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
 and holy is his name.
 50His mercy is for those who fear him
 from generation to generation.
 51He has shown strength with his arm;
 he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
 and lifted up the lowly;
 53he has filled the hungry with good things,
 and sent the rich away empty.
 54He has helped his servant Israel,
 in remembrance of his mercy,
 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
 to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

[sermon begins]

What IS it about Mary? As Jesus’ mother, and a key figure during Advent and Christmas every year, most of us have some opinion about her. She is divinized by some and romanticized by others. She is prayed to, sung to, questioned, underestimated, elevated, and celebrated.  We know nothing about her before her visit from the angel Gabriel. There are no character references or list of qualities that support her being chosen as Jesus’ mother. We simply get the announcement of being chosen, of Mary’s consent to God’s will, and then her dash to the hill country to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for three months.

Mary is newly pregnant. Elizabeth is six months along. Mary is pregnant too soon – not yet married. Elizabeth is pregnant too late – no longer young and had no other children.[1] What a pair they made in the first century when women’s sexuality was closely guarded and honor-bound. Both of their pregnancies were taboo, disrupting social norms with pregnancies that bore shame and humiliation. Earlier in the story we are told that Elizabeth remained in seclusion for five months after she conceived.[2] It was in the sixth month that the angel Gabriel announced God’s plans to Mary. Mary knew the lowliness she sang about in verse 48 because her consent to God’s will, to bear a holy child, shamed her honor and risked her life.

Mary and Elizabeth show us what courage looks like in the face of shame. It looks like connecting with someone else who knows a similar shame and humiliation. Hanging out with them. Belonging with them. Mary and Elizabeth show us what the church is. Not what it should be. What it IS. Yesterday our family attended the funeral of one of our longtime family friends. His name is Paul. His son gave one of the eulogies and talked about Paul’s ability to love unconditionally and how that was connected to his faith. It wasn’t that Paul was okay with whatever. It’s that he knew that people, including his children, were more valuable and vastly more important than whatever they had done. Facing the consequences for whatever happens, forgiving where forgiveness is needed, and staying connected through it all are the main things because people are the main thing. Mary and Elizabeth give us a first century example of what this looks like. Our friend Paul gave us a 21st century example of what this looks like. There are other examples too.

In the last few weeks, a number of people have talked with me about their worship experiences.  A couple of folks feel certain that communion has been key for them in overcoming deeply personal challenges. Others have mentioned that worship connects with their grief in ways that defy easy explanations. I’m sure that each of us would express our worship experiences quite differently – from the mundane to the mysterious and everything in between. The impression made by the Bible story and by people’s worship stories is one belonging. No matter how imperfect each of us are or how imperfect our life situations may be, we have a place to belong because we first belong to God and, because of God’s promises, we belong to each other. In belonging we are comforted in our humiliations but we also find courage for whatever comes next.

Courage in belonging is one of Mary’s gifts to us through the example of her and Elizabeth, and through the example of being called by God without character references. Our Welcome Connection ministry here at church focuses on belonging. The ministry team started meeting a few months before Covid was even a thing. Naming the group became of part of figuring out what we were up to. I’ve learned over time to step back and watch as group names form from the group members themselves. Ta-da! Welcome Connection evolved out of those conversations – the name of the ministry also named part of our goal. Welcome Connection reaches out and invites folks to belong as well as welcome and connect folks with each other. Because it’s one thing to worship together and it’s another to be church with each other.

When Welcome Connection regrouped a few months ago and started meeting again, the first priority was reaching out to congregation members and re-connecting with them. Phone calls were made to let people know we were back in person for worship. Deepening our sense of belonging after being disconnected was a top priority. After all, reaching out and inviting goes better if there are connecting points in place. Welcome Connection’s urgency also grows from the awareness that 53 new continuing visitors in 31 households have begun worshipping more recently.[3] Some of you who are continuing visitors started worshipping via livestream and now are in person. Others of you found worship in person with the awareness of hoping for a place and people of connection, faith, and meaning. Whatever the reason, Welcome Connection’s ministry is finding ways to help folks connect with each other.

Obviously, everyone can’t know everyone in a congregation like ours. But there are ways to belong to groups and ministries that help us get to know each other and have a place to belong. Some ways of belonging are established, like Sunday lunches after 10:30 worship, and other ways are just beginning like Men’s Bible Study which is starting because someone suggested the idea and there’s a willing leader for it. Thanks Erin and Brian! Everyone’s creative ideas and experiments are invited by the Welcome Connection ministry. Feel free to brainstorm with each other and bring ideas to the team along with who can lead it. In a disconnected world, Elizabeth and Mary’s example of belonging is one worth pondering for our congregation.

Additionally, there’s a special name for Mary that comes from the Greek Orthodox Church – Theotokos (Θεοτόκος).  Theotokos means God-bearer. Mary became a God-bearer when she consented to God’s plan for her to conceive a child and name him Jesus. When Mary calls herself “his servant” in verse 46, she echoes verse 38 when she called herself “a servant of the Lord” in her consent. Missing in the English is the closer translation from the Greek for δούλη[doule] which means slave to the full expression, “slave of the Lord.” “Slave of the Lord” aligns with the Jewish use of the honorary title “slave of God” used to describe Moses, Joshua, Abraham, David, Isaac, the prophets, Jacob, and one woman – Hannah.[4]

Mary singing about lowliness describes her humiliation, while in the same breath singing about being a “slave of God” places her within a long line of ancestors who were called by God. She is simultaneously elevated by her connection with the ancestors, even as she’s humiliated by her God-bearing body outside of the accepted social norms. Quite differently, but along similar lines, we become God-bearers when we are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – bearing God’s love into the world through labors of love for our neighbors. As God-bearers, we are given opportunities to consent to God’s will, to gain courage from belonging to each other, and to take risks that may humiliate us on behalf of each other and our neighbors.

In the Hymn of the Day after the sermon, we’ll sing the Magnificat, Mary’s song of justice and deliverance in verses 46 to 55 from the Luke reading today. Singing the Magnificat gives us time to think about how we bear God to each other and to the wider world. Would you use words like Mary’s? Or would you use other words to describe what bearing God’s will into the world would look like for you? Regardless, you ARE God-bearers. Blessed are YOU among people as you’re blessed by the power of the Holy Spirit for your own sake and the sake of the world. Amen.

________________________________________________

[1] Luke 1:7

[2] Luke 1:24

[3] Discover Augustana classes are scheduled on Sundays January 9, 16, 23, and 30 between worship services for folks who would like to learn more about Augustana or are thinking about becoming members.

[4] Jane Schaberg, Professor of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies, University of Detroit Mercy, Detroit, MI. Women’s Bible Commentary: Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 372-373.

Christmas *Time* – A Sermon for “Bless the Years” Worship and Holy Communion Luke 2:1-20 and Isaiah 9:2-7

“Bless the Years” worship is a mid-week Advent and Christmas service for our home-centered folks, their family, and friends to experience a calm, peaceful, and intimate time to welcome the Christ Child and celebrate the holidays

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Thursday, December 9, 2021, 11 a.m.

[sermon begins after the Luke reading; Isaiah reading is at the end of the sermon.}

Luke 2:1-20  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[sermon begins]

My Grandma Ruth was one of my favorite people. I loved spending time with her. At 13 years old, she was taken by her parents to live at an orphanage. She met my grandfather when they were both college students. She was very tall and gentle and cozy. Being the town librarian, she was also very wise. When I was little, I thought Grandma Ruth knew everything. She certainly knew the importance of books and reading. She taught us to love being at the library, passing time in the smell of the books, the quiet, the endless stories and information. Looking back, Grandma Ruth taught me so many things. She taught me was what patience and perspective looked like when time seemed like the enemy. I don’t remember how old I was when I broke one of her special porcelain angles from Heidelberg, Germany. I also don’t remember how it all happened. Knocked over, the angel was suddenly armless. I don’t even remember Grandma Ruth’s reaction. I only ever remember being loved by her. After both she and Granddad died, my older brother and sister went back to help my aunt work on the house. My sister called to ask me if I wanted anything from the house and my only request was for her two Heidelberg angels. Unwrapping the angels and seeing the one with her arms glued back on sent me back in time. Something so long ago seemed like yesterday. Time is funny that way.

Our gospel writer this morning knew a thing or two about telling time. Luke’s “orderly account” of the good news often includes time markers like the one we heard today:[1]

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.[2]

Luke then tells us about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem to be registered just in the nick of time to have the baby Jesus. In our mind’s eye, we can see the story unfolding into the night with angels shining bright over shepherds who wasted no time racing to the manger-side to see the baby for themselves. Time is of the essence. This is “good news of great joy for ALL the people” so the story needs as many people to tell it as are willing to tell it through the generations.[3] Because this story is a person-to-person story – from the angel to the shepherds and so on. In fact, it was a person-to-person story from way before Jesus’ birth too. From imperfect person to imperfect person, the story was passed. Both the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew include genealogies that go waaaaay back in time, linking Jesus through his adoptive father Joseph to sinful and repentant King David, and then even further back to flawed and faithful Father Abraham.

You see, this good news didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s good news that expands the circle of God’s promises each time to include even more imperfect people across time. God’s promise never shrank to exclude. God’s promise grew outward to include. As the angel said, “Good news of great joy for all the people.” The generations that led to Jesus carried God’s promise across time and finally into time for everyone. In Luke, the time of Jesus’ birth was marked and celebrated.

Christmas time makes me wonder about the ways we mark and celebrate time…and even grieve time. I can’t count the number of people who have lived many decades and who’ve said to me, “I feel the like the same person on the inside as I’ve always been,” while the mirror tells them a different story about time. Our bodies certainly mark time for us even when we may not be paying attention to time passing. But while that transformation is happening, things happen in real time that must be grieved and others that must be celebrated. In fact, the time we spend in grief often makes the times of celebration even more precious. Advent and Christmas are often bittersweet because grief and celebration intertwine, becoming rich, complicated emotions with the gift of perspective. Grandma Ruth wasn’t the only one to have that gift. Even so, each of us remain a work in progress. Flawed and imperfect and in need of a Savior, we’ve become tellers of the good news of great joy for all the people passed down from the angel through the generations.

We are tellers of the good news because we were first receivers of the good news.

Good news of the Wonderful Counselor who calms the troubled mind.

Good news of the Prince of Peace who brings peace through non-violence in our troubled world.

Good news of the Mighty God who challenges the status quo promising liberation.

Good news of the Everlasting Father whose promises are so inclusive and radical, that this tiny Messiah in a manger will grow up to hang from a cross, reassuring us that God suffers with us when we suffer grief and pain.

Good news of a Savior who promises new life out of the hot mess you’ve made of yours.

Good news of a God who empties tombs, welcomes all to eternal life, and holds your fragile moments of faith and doubt, reassuring you that there is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less.

In real time and in unexpected places like the manger of communion bread and wine, Jesus’ presence is promised to you as a gift of grace today. You are receivers of the good news, and you have first been loved by the One who is Good News. It’s always a good time to celebrate Christmas. Thanks be to God and amen.

________________________________

[1] Luke 1:3

[2] Luke 2:1-2

[3] Luke 2:10

_________________________________

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.
3You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For 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.
5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For 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.
7His 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.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Christmas Day: Defiant Hope at the Speed of Light – John 1:1-14

**sermon art: Barbara Barnes, Untitled

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 25, 2019

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 1:1-14  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[sermon begins]

Today, at the manger-side, we’re drawn in a quieter way into the company of other people and the promises of God. Whether by temperament or circumstance we find ourselves in a reflective moment at a worship service. Christmas is a funny thing.  It’s religious.  It’s cultural.  It’s festive.  And it comes at just about the shortest day of the year.  There’s some history in those developments.  The church long ago tried to figure out how to exist alongside non-Christian celebrations that were rowdy and a lot of fun.  So time of year and some of the trimmings were combined from those celebrations and remain today.  I’m cool with that.  Christian faith has always lived in people’s lives while being translated by people’s lives.  This means that all kinds of things make their way into the mix.

There is also the story told in scripture.  At Christmas, we celebrate a birth.  Not just any birth…but a birth that shines light in the darkness, a birth that changes the world.  God was active in history long before the birth of Jesus. Connecting the moment of this birth to all of God’s history, the gospel writer of John uses those powerful words, “In the beginning…”[1]  These words that John uses to introduce the Word can also be heard in the very first verse of Genesis at the very beginning of the Bible.[2] This connection draws a huge arc through time, space, and place, between the birth of creation to the birth of Jesus.

So while Luke spends time on the human details of shepherds and a manger, John spends time on the cosmic ones.  Where Luke’s words are a quiet story of a holy family, John’s words elevate us into poetic mystery.  We could leave it there, in those mysterious heights.  We could keep at a distance this mysterious poetry that many discard as heady and inaccessible.  Except…except…John doesn’t leave it dangling out in the mystery of the cosmos, untouchable or inaccessible.

John brings the Word straight to the ground.  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  This God who created…who made promises through Abraham, who brought freedom through Moses, who instigated challenge through the prophets, who gave guidance through kings…this God became flesh – vulnerable, tiny newborn flesh.  A mysterious, inaccessible, cosmic God becomes a God that is part of our common humanity, through common flesh.  God taking on flesh to join us in our humanity is the birth.  Or, as John likes to put it, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”[3]

God living among us in Jesus is cause for reflection. Not simply because God showed up but because God entered human fragility.  As John writes, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Light moving in the dark; day against night.  This language may be poetic but we understand it, in part, by way of our experience.

The darkness of someone we love living with a mental illness that is difficult to treat.

The darkness of grief and the confusion it brings to daily life.

The darkness of disease, acute or chronic, that seems to take up more space than anything else.

The darkness of unrest in the world that is a matter of life and death.

If we could sit and talk about the darkness, each one of us could name a way that it affects our lives or the life of someone we love.  Into these real struggles, this darkness, Jesus is born.  Jesus who continues to bring light that reveals God in the midst of the worst that life brings – a light that shines a defiant hope.

My mother gave me permission to tell a bit of her story.  Many years ago, she married my first father in a romantic whirlwind. They honeymooned in Germany. While there, they picked up a set of Dresden angels – a few inches tall, fragile white porcelain, graceful, and beautiful. Life was good and fun and quickly grew to include five children.  Those angels were set out in a bed of pine boughs at Christmastime every year to protect their wing tips in case they were knocked over. They surrounded a small porcelain baby Jesus who finally joined the angels on Christmas Eve.

Then my father got sick.  Schizophrenia.  Life wasn’t so good and we had to leave. As a single mother, mom kept putting those angels out. She remarried and every year those angels would go out. My stepfather died and the angels still stood, surrounding and celebrating the baby Jesus. A few years ago, my mother and her third husband Larry gave the angels to me.  I think about those angels and my family’s story – the good, bad, and ugly.  I think about people and their stories, about light in the darkness, about how we struggle personally in families and collectively in world-wide crises. I also think about God slipping on skin and how that makes all the difference in my own life and faith – in bright times and broken times.

We don’t have to go very far to find what’s broken.  But think about how fast the speed of light travels to us, whether from the next room or from a star a million miles away.  We don’t move a muscle and light comes. Just so, God comes down to us in a flash of light, fleshy and fragile, right to the heart of things in the good, bad, and ugly.  We don’t move a muscle and God shows up. In the company of other people today, we remind each other that this is God’s promise to us and to world.  Some days that promise feels as fragile as porcelain. Today, Christmas Day, the glimmer of light from the manger feels like a defiant hope. No matter our feelings on any given day, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, [can not, never will] overcome it.” Amen and Merry Christmas!

_____________________________________________________

[1] John 1:1

[2] Genesis is the first book of the Bible’s 66 books. Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”

[3] John 1:14

Praise the Sweet Baby Jesus! Luke 2:1-20 and Isaiah 9:2-7

**sermon art: John Giuliani, Guatemalan Nativity, 1990s

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 24, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4 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. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 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. 7 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. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Luke 2:1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[sermon begins]

Praise the Sweet Baby Jesus! I’ve been known to blurt this out in a mix of people and places. Most of the time, it’s because someone has shared some good news. Praise-the-sweet-baby-Jesus is not a phrase my family used, nor was it ever said even one time during my ten years away from church. But somewhere along the way, someone said it and it wove into my praise and prayer. I don’t remember when it started happening that people would respond with raised eyebrows and outright laughter to praise-the-sweet-baby-Jesus, and then mention a movie they saw and assume that’s where I picked it up. It wasn’t. But as this Christmas Eve sermon started percolating and the phrase came to mind, it made sense to check out that movie scene before preaching it.[1] Turns out, it’s NOT the exact same phrase. The scene is a family argument that erupts over the table prayers during Christmas dinner. As the dad prays repeatedly to the baby Jesus, the mom stops the prayer and they argue about whether or not it’s okay for him to be praying to the baby Jesus. To this, the dad replies that she’s welcome to pray to whichever Jesus she likes – grown-up, teen-aged, or bearded Jesus – but that he likes “the Christmas Jesus best.”  The scene is waaay over the top but it gets something right theologically when it comes to this evening’s Bible readings.

The Luke reading announces the birth among farm animals as the child is wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in the manger that feeds those animals. Angels herald the baby as Savior, Messiah, and Lord, while sending the shepherds to the manger-side praising God. Bible verses before our reading announce the child as “Son of the Most High” and “Son of God.”[2] The Bible verse that follows our reading announces that the baby’s name is Jesus.[3] In the Isaiah reading, there are other names given to “a child born for us, a son given to us” – Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.[4]  One tiny newborn, so many names; and so many more names to come as he grows up and out of that manger – prophet, teacher, friend, and king.  We can ponder in our hearts why there are so many names for one divine human being.  Perhaps it’s possible to treasure ALL these names as we ponder and wonder and wander through the 12 days of Christmas. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s one name for Jesus that you like best.

When the many names for Jesus come up, disagreement CAN happen about which name is more applicable, or which name is the right name, or which name we should use when we’re being the most faithful, or which name gets at the authentic Jesus the best.  Seems like a moot argument.  All the names listed in the scripture have value in the fullness of Jesus.  Here’s one way to think about it.  I’m a wife, mother, friend, sister, daughter, weightlifter, community organizer, preacher, pastor, and more.  Am I any one of those things in negation of the other? No.

You may be a peacemaker, student, activist, friend, athlete, gamer, employee, reader, dancer, singer, and more.  Are you any one of those things in negation of the other? No. Are you sometimes more of one of those things than another?  Most likely, depending on the moment.  Are you still ALL YOU in any given moment?  Of course.  Who we are in any one of our roles adds to the breadth of our human experience and the depth of our humanity.  Similarly, so goes the divine humanity of Jesus.

The beauty of specifically celebrating the baby Jesus at Christmas is that we’re reminded just how much God loves us first.  Meaning that before we ever had an inkling that there might even be a God, God arrived physically in the world to be present with us in the most vulnerable way possible – as a squishy, squeaky newborn. For some of us, that’s more than enough because maybe you need the sweet baby Jesus as the Christmas gift, meeting you beyond the overfull inn where everyone inside seems cozy and snug while you’re on the outside looking in.

But others may be in a different space this evening.

Maybe you need the Wonderful Counselor Jesus who calms the troubled mind.

Or maybe Prince of Peace Jesus who calms a troubled world.

Maybe you need the prophet Jesus who challenges the status quo promising liberation.

Maybe you need the suffering Jesus on a cross who reassures you that God suffers with us in the darkest moments of life.

Or maybe you need the Savior Jesus who promises new life out of the hot mess you’ve made of yours.

Maybe you need the Easter Jesus, shining and shimmering with life eternal, sharing your moment of joy as you shout “Hallelujah.”

Or perhaps you need that other Easter Jesus who holds your fragile moment of faith and doubt, reassuring you that there is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less.

Regardless of which name for Jesus calls to you, the fullness of Jesus is present with you even if you’re holding onto Jesus by the barest thread with only your fingernails. Because the reality is that Jesus holds onto YOU. In fragile, unexpected places like tonight in the manger of communion bread and wine, Jesus’ presence is promised to you as a gift of grace this Christmas. We imperfectly cradle his presence with our hands as we receive communion and inside ourselves as we eat. However, the perfect presence of Jesus remains despite our flaws or, just maybe, because of them. For this and for all that God is doing right now and right here, we can say Merry Christmas and praise the sweet baby Jesus!

_________________________________________________________

[1] Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Scene: Dear Lord Baby Jesus. (Columbia Pictures, 2006: PG-13).

[2] Luke 1:32 and 35

[3] Luke 2:21

[4] Isaiah 9:6

A Manger – Flawed and Real Luke 2:1-20 [Advent/Christmas Worship with our Home-Centered Folks]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 12, 2019

Advent/Christmas Worship with our Home-Centered Folks: Today’s worship is the first of its kind for our congregation. Recently retired folks and people who work from home are hosting our home-centered folks by bringing them to a brief worship and communion service followed by lunch and then returning them home.

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Luke 2:1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[sermon begins]

Put us all together and, between us, we know A LOT of Christmas music.  We could hear a medley of carols and know most of them.  At the very least, we know the music enough to be comfortable with it, to play with it, to give voice to it. In the kitchen or humming as we tuck in for the night, our caroling is as imperfect as it is joyous. Our spontaneous carols likely have a few flaws but they’re real. And these carols tell a story. A story that gathers us together here today.  A story that had its first tellers long ago.  Storytellers for whom the story is personal and real.

The first storytellers were the shepherds in the field. These men who heard the angels sing were shady characters. The closest example of these men in the 21st century would be people who camp under bridges and call it home. THESE are the people for whom the angels sing. They are given first dibs on the story by the angel who tells them – “to you is born this day…a Savior…a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”[1]  They head out fast to go see this baby, this Savior.  After all, THEY clearly need one.  When they get to the manger, they talk about what’s been told to them.  Imagine for a moment the way they tell the story.  At best, they tell it in a way that’s personal and real; at best, they tell the story because it’s first and foremost for them.  The shepherds need a Savior; it’s obvious that they need one – a Savior on their side, a Savior for them.

So, because the Savior is for them, the shepherds tell Mary and Joseph the story, and apparently anyone else who will listen, because, “…all who heard it were amazed.”[2]  What amazes them?  The story itself?  That the shepherds are the ones telling it?  That a Savior is born?  That angels came, spoke, AND sang?  It’s pretty much all amazing! The truly amazing part is that Mary heard the shepherds out. The scripture makes a distinction in verse 19: “All who heard it were amazed but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”[3]  She’s just had a baby in a barn, laid that squishy, squeaky baby in a manger used for animal food, and she’s treasuring the words of these wild, shady shepherds in her heart.

Who does that?!  For Mary, this story told by the shepherds somehow made sense.  At best, perhaps because she heard it in a way that’s personal and real; at best, because…just maybe…it’s a story for her too.  Perhaps Mary needs a Savior, a Savior on her side, a Savior for her.

The Bible tells story after story about deeply flawed people whose lives are oh so real. People who regularly hurt other people or hurt themselves.  But it doesn’t take a 2,000-year-old look back in time to see this play out.  Our lives reveal a truth that we don’t often share with ourselves and try to avoid sharing with anyone else.  Despite our best intentions to “do better next time,” despite the reassurances that we give ourselves about being “good people,” the truth remains: anywhere people show up, so do flaws…real and personal.

Into the mix of flawed people, God shows up.  God shows up, of all places, in a manger.  A manger that has a splinter here and a cracked peg there – a manger that is flawed and real; a manger that cradles and reveals God showing up in Jesus.  The manger that reveals the Savior who came under a star in skin and solidarity, into a fragile humanity, to show up personally into our very real lives.

On the first Christmas, God showed up as a baby, a living and breathing hope.  “…hope [that] rests not in what we have done, nor can do, but in all that God is,” has done and is doing.[4]  That’s the hope we cling to by faith, even if sometimes it’s by the barest thread with the tips of our fingernails. Regardless of how tightly you cling, the reality is that Jesus holds on to YOU. In fragile, unexpected places like today in the manger of communion bread and wine, Jesus’ presence is promised to you as a gift of grace this Christmas. We imperfectly cradle his presence with our hands as we receive communion and inside ourselves as we eat. However, the perfect presence of Jesus remains despite our flaws or, just maybe, because of them. For this and for all that God is doing right now and right here, we can say Merry Christmas and amen!

______________________________________________________

[1] Luke 2:11-12

[2] Luke 2:18

[3] Luke 2:19

[4] W. Dennis Tucher Jr., “Lectionary for November 27, 2011: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19.”  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx

Christmas: The Hope, History, and Mystery of God With Us – Luke 2:1-20 and John 1:1-14

**sermon art: The Nativity by Julius Gari Melchers, 20th century

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 25, 2018

[sermon begins after the Bible reading from the Gospel of John. The reading from the Gospel of Luke may be found at the end of the sermon]

John 1:1-14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[sermon begins]

In those hope-filled moments and hours before a baby arrives, time slows down. One breath, then the next, and then the next.  Breath – hope – breath – hope… Breathing paced around a woman’s body doing the work of labor.  Beyond breath, muscles that aren’t doing the work of birthing can be rested in between contractions that run on their own timing with increasing urgency.  People around the birthing mother can make all the difference in mood and tricky delivery moments with umbilical cords and pushing at the right times, but the bottom line is that the baby arrives in its own time, refocusing our attention from mother to child.  Taking its first breath. Crying its first cry.  Swaddled in its first cloths.  Held in its first arms.

Here we are, Christmas Day, remembering when Jesus was born in time, focusing our attention on one small, holy, hope-filled family.  Mary who labored and birthed as a new mother.  Joseph who stood by as an earthly father.  Jesus who arrived, breathed, cried, and was cradled in a manger and his mother’s arms.  This is the story we sing about at Christmas. The story in the Gospel of Luke that has all the memorable characters including angles, shepherds, and sheep.  The story where God shows up in time in what we call the incarnation – God taking human form to be the long-promised Emmanuel, God with us.  Christmastime is about God showing up at a particular moment in time.  It’s about the God of history.  The God of history that made promises through Abraham and Moses and then expanded those promises to all people with the birth of Jesus who is hope cradled in history.

History is something we like to know and investigate.  History is time-bound.  History makes us hope for Johnny-on-the-spot reporting so we can know things for certain.  This hope turns into things like the song, “Mary Did You Know?”  We want to know what Mary knew and when she knew it, the story behind the history.  Truly, though, we know so little even as we hope for so much.  Even the four gospel writers are somewhat contradictory in their stories.[1]   Which brings us to the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John opens with the same words as Genesis, the first book in the Bible.  “In the beginning…”  To paraphrase Genesis, in the beginning all was formless void in deep darkness until there was also light.[2]  John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.…and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth.”[3]   If Luke gives us hope and history, John gives us hope and mystery with his cosmic poetry.  Talk of Word made flesh is full of hope. John’s “Word made flesh” language catches our attention because, well, who talks like that?! High stakes apparently call for attention grabbing poetry.

The stakes are high because we’re talking about God keeping God’s promise to be present in and for the world through the act and sustenance of creation.  Our life, our breath, our hope rest in these promises which are revealed from the grace of creation through the grace of God’s new creation in Jesus through the grace of his unconditional love for all people regardless of class, gender, or race through the grace of his death on the cross to the ultimate grace of new life together in the great cloud of witnesses from all times and places.  This litany of grace is hope.  As I wrote it, and as I speak it now, I inhale it like air that gives life.  We are not left to our own devices and the messes we make of things.  We are called into the grace of God who makes new life possible.  From cradle to cross to new life, there is the hope and mystery of God’s presence in the midst of our pain, hope and mystery of God infusing our day-to-day moments so that our joy may be complete, and hope and mystery of being with our loved ones again one day.

Today, we spend time together with all the baggage we brought into the sanctuary with us as we sing the familiar and well-loved songs of Christmas.  As we sing, pray, and share communion, we are filled with breath and hope by the God of history who was cradled in a manger and his mother’s arms; and we are filled with breath and hope by the God of mystery who breathed life into being and is here with us now.  As people who receive this good news of history and mystery, we live as people of hope by the grace of God.  Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.[4]

__________________________________________________________

[1] Christian scripture, known in the Bible as the New Testament, contains four books called the Gospels meaning “good news.”  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

[2] Genesis 1:1-5

[3] John 1:1, 4-5, and part of v14.

[4] 2 Corinthians 9:15

___________________________________________________________

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

[15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.]

 

Are You Ready?  [Hang With Me Here – It’s a Personality Test, Not a Scorecard]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 9, 2018 for the second Sunday of Advent

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”

Luke 1:68-79  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

[sermon begins]

“Are you ready?” This question sends our dog Sunny into whirls of delight – 50 pounds of puppy love wrapped in black and brown fur bounding to and fro; warm brown eyes lit up with excitement; mouth hanging open in a big smile.  She doesn’t know what she’s ready to do but she knows that her moment is about to change into something good.  Usually, “are you ready” means a walk is in her immediate future.  If Rob is home, the question sends her racing back and forth between him and me.  Sunny’s looking for signs of preparation to be sure that the right shoes go on and, this time of year, for coats and hats and gloves. Just a glimpse of the fanny pack that holds the special bags for said walk confirms her hopes and solidifies her dreams. “Are you ready?” Such a simple question leading to the delight of watching her joy.  “Are you ready?” Our reaction to that question depends entirely on the circumstances. At this time of year we often hear it as, “Are you ready for Christmas?”

Some of you, I know, are all over it.  Halls decked. Presents wrapped. Cards sent.  Menus planned.  You name it and you’re on it.  You’re like my dog Sunny who delights in readiness.  Some of you, I may have lost altogether when I asked the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” But I’m going to ask you to stay with me. I promise, there’s no scorecard here. That’s just a personality quiz.  What I want to highlight, though, is something one of my young colleagues talks about and that is one kind of experience of the lights, decorations, and songs of the season.  For my colleague, those experiences are moments of peace, glimmering reminders of God, that give our internal Judgy McJudgersons the boot and shift our Advent waiting and preparation.  I know it did mine when it was everything I could do to hang stockings with care since losing my mother-in-law a week and a half ago.  My colleague’s suggestion to see these cultural symbols of Christmas as reminders of God with us shifted my experience of preparation.

In the Luke reading, John the Baptist calls on people to prepare for the Lord, using the words of the prophet Isaiah. John says:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

We Coloradans may not like the sound of lowering the mountains or filling valleys.  We may like our trails crooked and rough, thank you very much.  Or we may see the magnitude of the metaphor and think preparing is futile. But John is talking about open access for everyone.  All flesh.  All people seeing what God has done – the saving that God is doing in our transformation before and by God through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The first three chapters of Luke’s Gospel are full of people who are full of the Holy Spirit.

Our psalm today in worship is actually from Luke’s first chapter.  Psalms are a form of song and poetry in the Bible. They aren’t necessarily a location in one book of the Bible.  In our psalm today, Zechariah prophecies by the power of the Holy Spirit. The opening verse to the psalm, verse 67, goes like this, “Then [John’s] father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy…” Zechariah then speaks the psalm chanted in worship today.  Zechariah prophecies while filled with the Holy Spirit.

On the fourth Sunday in Advent, we’ll hear about John’s mother, Elizabeth, verse 41 – “And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry [to Mary], ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’” On that same Sunday, verses 35 and 38 talk about Mary’s obedience to God’s will by the power the Holy Spirit. Then there’s John the Baptist himself, verse 15, “…even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Two of my favorite Bible characters are Simeon and Anna – both elderly prophets in the Jerusalem Temple.  In Luke chapter 2, verses 25 and 27, the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon and he was guided by the Spirit to prophecy as Anna praised God and talked about Jesus to everyone in earshot.

The Holy Spirit is more than a theme in the Gospel of Luke.  The Holy Spirit is a major actor in the story.  The Holy Spirit was filling people up and they had a lot to say about what God was doing for an oblivious world.  One could argue that the Holy Spirit prepared each one of those people and then they said something about God.  It wasn’t always tidy or easy though.  Zechariah, our psalmist and John the Baptist’s father, had a tough time on the way to his prophecy by the power of the Holy Spirit.  He didn’t believe that he and Elizabeth would have the baby John at their advanced age.  The angel Gabriel pushed the mute button on him and Zechariah couldn’t make a peep until John was born.  His first worlds after John’s birth are found in his psalm.

Why does any of this matter?  Because this is the selfsame Spirit that empowers and refines us through the water of baptism.  The selfsame Spirit who feeds us holiness through bread and wine.  The selfsame Spirit who open our eyes to God’s action on our behalf so that we see, talk, and act in the world differently.  The selfsame Spirit who prepares us, who fills valleys, flattens mountains, and who straightens and levels the way – the way of God to us through Jesus.

Preparation by the Spirit who also opens our eyes to see as Zechariah saw as he described it like this:

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah prophesied in the temple about God’s promises that fill us, transforming our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. The promises of God’s mercy, redemption, holiness, and peace in Jesus.  Zechariah reminds us that as the world gets loud and busy, time together in sacred space allows us to pause together and be prepared by the One for whom we wait.  We are prepared to see light in the darkness and in the shadow of death as our feet are guided into the way of peace.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are given eyes to see and ears to listen to Jesus who prepares us by his Spirit whether we’re old and faithful like Simeon and Anna, young and obedient like Mary, joyful and diligent like Elizabeth, dubious and dunderheaded like Zechariah, or wild and outspoken like John.  Jesus prepares us during this time with the power of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God.  And amen.

 

Darkness is Not Dark to God [Longest Night reflection] – John 1:1-5, 14 and Psalm 139:1-12

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 21, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading; Psalm 139 is at the end of sermon]

John 1:1-5, 14  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[sermon begins]

 

Today, we’re drawn into the company of other people and the promises of God in a quieter way.  Whether by temperament or circumstance we find a need for a reflective moment in the midst of this Christmas season.  Christmas is a funny thing.  It’s religious.  It’s cultural.  It’s festive.  And it comes at the darkest time of the year.  There’s some history in those developments.  The church long ago tried to figure out how to exist alongside non-Christian celebrations that were rowdy and a lot of fun.  So time of year and some of the trimmings were co-opted from those celebrations and remain today.  I’m cool with that.  Christianity has always lived in people’s lives while being translated by people’s lives.  This means that all kinds of things make their way into the mix.  It’s one of the things that I like about it.

There is also the story told in scripture.  At Christmas, we celebrate a birth.  Not just any birth…but a birth that shines light in the darkness, a birth that changes the world.  God was active in history long before the birth of Jesus. Connecting the moment of this birth to all of God’s history, the gospel writer of John uses those powerful words, “In the beginning…”[1]  These words that John uses to introduce the Word can also be heard in the very first verse of Genesis. [2] This connection draws a huge arc through time, space, and place, between the birth of creation to the birth of Jesus.

So while Luke spends time on the human details of shepherds and a manger, John spends time on the cosmic ones.  Where Luke’s words are a simple story, John’s words elevate us into poetic mystery.  We could leave it there, in those mysterious heights.  We could keep at a distance this mysterious poetry that many discard as too heady or inaccessible.  Except…except…John doesn’t leave it dangling out in the mystery of the cosmos, untouchable or inaccessible.

John brings the Word straight to the ground.  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  This God who created…who made promises through Abraham, who brought freedom through Moses, who instigated challenge through the prophets, who gave guidance through kings…this God became flesh.  A mysterious, inaccessible, cosmic God becomes a God that is part of our common humanity, through common flesh.  God taking on flesh to join us in our humanity is the birth.  Or, as John likes to put it, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”[3]

God living among us in Jesus is cause for reflection. Not simply because God showed up but because God entered human fragility.  As John writes, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Light moving in the dark; day against night.  This language may be poetic but we get it.

The darkness of someone we love living with a mental illness that is difficult to treat.

The darkness of grief and the confusion it brings to daily life.

The darkness of disease, acute or chronic, that seems to take up more space than anything else.

The darkness of unrest in the world that is a matter of life and death.

If we could sit and talk about the darkness, each one of us could name a way that it affects our lives or the life of someone we love.  It is into this real struggle, this darkness, that Jesus is born.  Jesus who continues to bring light that reveals God in the midst of the worst that life brings – a light that shines a defiant hope.

My mother gave me permission to tell a bit of her story.  Many years ago, she married my first father in a romantic whirlwind.  They honeymooned in Germany.  While there, they picked up a set of Dresden angels.  A few inches tall, white porcelain, graceful, and beautiful.  Life was good and fun and grew to include five children.  Those angels were set out in a bed of pine boughs at Christmastime every year to protect their wing tips in case they were knocked over.  They surrounded a small porcelain baby Jesus.

Then my father got sick.  Schizophrenia.  A late psychotic break.  Life wasn’t so good and we had to leave.  As a single mother, mom kept putting those angels out.  She remarried and every year those angels would go out.  My stepfather died and the angels still stood, surrounding the baby Jesus.  On Saturday, my mother and her third husband Larry took the angels to UPS.  The angels are heading to my home, yet to arrive.  Talking with her later in the day, she told me that she “burst into tears” when she got in the car after the UPS stop.  She talked about how the angels were from a happy time and she was happy that I will have them.  I’ve been thinking about the angels, my mom, first dad, siblings, and me – the good, bad, and ugly. I’ve also been thinking about this Longest Night worship.  I’ve been thinking about people and their stories, about light in the darkness, about how we struggle with personal family struggles and with world-wide crises. I’ve also been thinking about God slipping on skin and how that makes all the difference in my own life and faith – bright times and broken times.

We don’t have to go very far to find what’s broken.  But I’ve been thinking about how the speed of light travels to us whether from the next room or from a star a million miles away.  We don’t move a muscle and light comes. God comes down to us, fleshy and fragile, right to the heart of things.  We don’t move a muscle and God comes down to us.  In the company of other people today, we remind each other that this is God’s promise to you, to me, and to world.  Some days that promise feels like a fragile thread and other days it feels like a defiant hope.  No matter our feelings on any given day, “darkness is not dark to [God]; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to [God].”[4]  Amen.

_________________________________________

[1] John 1:1

[2] Genesis is the first book of the Bible’s 66 books. Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”

[3] John 1:14

[4] Psalm 139:12

__________________________________________

Psalm 139:1-12

 

 

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

9If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

11If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”

12even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

 

 

For: You, From: A Fleshy Word – John 1:1-14 and Hebrews 1:1-12

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Christmas Day, December 25, 2015

[sermon begins after the Bible reading, Hebrews reading is at end of post]

John 1:1-14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[sermon begins]

Way back in Genesis, in the beginning of the Bible, the ancient writers describe a time before Earth-time. [1]  There is a dark, formless void that no one is quite sure about. Creation stories form out of that void as God speaks and God creates, “In the beginning…”  In the Bible reading this Christmas Day, the gospel writer of John takes us way back to that beginning. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Word and God, before time and in the beginning of time.

In the beginning, something happened that broke the relationship God created.   After plenty of millennia in which the world has struggled and continues to struggle through today, I’ve grown comfortable with calling whatever is broken “sin.”  Sin helps me name the struggle within myself.  You might use the language of flaw or weakness or challenge.  I’m pretty good with the language of sin.  It’s a word that digs deep and reveals much that is true in my own life.  Sin separates, hurts, and blocks me from seeing the good in me or anyone else, including God.  Sin has me justifying my actions and thoughts over and against anyone else, including God.

What does God to do restore the broken relationship with humankind that came through sin so soon after creation?  What does God do to free us from our sin that divides and destroys?  God needs to communicate with us on our own terms.  Communicating in a way that is suited to the human condition.[2] Thankfully, over and against my sin, is a Word from God.  A Word that brings life into being.  A Word that communicates and gives life.  A Word that forms, reforms and restores relationships.[3]  A Word made flesh.  A fleshy Word that the Gospel of Luke tells us is a baby in a manger announced by angels and surrounded by his young parents, shepherds, and animals.  A baby whom Mary is told will be called Son of God.[4]  A baby named Jesus.[5]

A baby named Jesus, a fleshy Word through whom all things were made and in whom is life – the life that is the light of all people, a light that darkness cannot overcome.[6]  And with these words of light and darkness we arc back through the creation story in Genesis one more time, sent sling-shot through darkness and light.  “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light…and God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”[7]

A baby named Jesus, Son of God, a fleshy Word who is the light of all people.  Listening to the many layers of the Christmas story, and the Gospel of John’s prologue in particular, is like hearing many notes all at once in a musical chord.[8]  Like a complex chord, the effect moves through head and heart at the same time as we are moved through Genesis and John, through time and space, through light and dark, through Word and flesh, through God and Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Incarnation of the Word into flesh becomes God’s way of communicating with us in a manner suited to our human condition.[9]  Incarnation is the length to which God will go to get through to us.  We are sensate creatures – we see, we touch, we hear.  So God calls through the cry from a manger and the groans from a cross.  In the story of Jesus that follows his birth, God communicates in Jesus’ actions and also in his words.  Jesus enacts life-giving power. God’s radical, subversive action in terms we can grasp.

Christmas is the beginning of God coming to all people[10] – expanding the eternal covenant made long ago through an ancient people.  In that time, God spoke to the ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.[11]  Now God is speaking to us through the Word made flesh, Jesus the Son of God.

Through Jesus, the Son of God, the Holy Spirit makes us children of God.[12]  The adoption process of God’s wayward, sinful creatures begins in the beginning and arcs through the incarnation, the Word made flesh. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection frees us from sin.  Set free from the business of justifying our actions and thoughts over and against anyone else, or against God.

This Christmas, for you is the gift of Jesus, Son of God, a fleshy Word who is the light of all people.  You are “children of God born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”[13]   Merry Christmas!

__________________________________________________________

In response to the sermon, the people sing a song called the Hymn of the Day.   Today we sing, “What Child is This”

Listen here: http://www.spiritandsong.com/compositions/399

1. What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

Refrain
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

2. Why lies he in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

3. So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come peasant, king, to own him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone him.

______________________________________

Sermon footnotes

[1] Genesis 1:1-2 “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

[2] Craig R. Koester. Narrative Lectionary 106: Word Made Flesh. Podcast for “I Love to Tell the Story” at WorkingPreacher.org on December 15, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=450

[3] Ibid.

[4] Luke 1:35  The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

[5] Luke 1:30-31 The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

[6] John 1:4-5

[7] Genesis 1:3-4

[8] Koester.

[9] Ibid.

[10] John 1:4

[11] Hebrews 1:1-2 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

[12] John 1:12

[13] John 1:13

___________________________________

Hebrews reading

Hebrews 1:1-12 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? 6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” 7 Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.” 8 But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. 9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” 10 And, “In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands; 11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing; 12 like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.”

 

John 1:1-14 – Word Creates, Words Create [Or: A Christmas Conversation]

John 1:1-14 – Word Creates, Words Create [Or: A Christmas Conversation]

Caitlin Trussell on December 25, 2014 with Augustana Lutheran Church


John 1:1-14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

 

 

A friend of mine recently preached that the fourth Sunday in Advent is like the last trimester of pregnancy.  If that’s the case, then today we are in the first day postpartum – the gift of the baby Jesus has arrived and we’re all a little giddy in our fatigue.  And yet the baby is noticeably absent in our gospel reading today.

John begins in the beginning… “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  The Greek logos, translated as “Word”, can also be translated as “conversation”.[1]  “In the beginning was the Conversation, and the Conversation was with God and the Conversation was God.”  It’s right here in the sermon that I wish that I had a cup of tea and a chair and an hour with you all.  And we could just sit and talk about the relationship between God, Jesus and Spirit as The Conversation.

We could challenge ourselves with what God as The Conversation means about God as Trinity and what it means for us as creatures of this Divine Being who are in conversation with each other.  If I believe that God’s holy Conversation within God’s Self  birthed all that has come into being (v. 2) then how do I understand myself as both created by God’s Conversation as well as a participant in what God is creating in the world today.  And how might you?

I invite you to consider Christmas in the light of The Conversation that creates…that brings things into being…that changes us as we engage with the story and with each other.  Even the Christmas story itself can be thought of as a conversation taking place between the four gospels.  Matthew covers genealogy, conception by the Holy Spirit and the magi on the move with the star; Mark begins with John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus and the urgency of Jesus’ ministry; and Luke gives us no-room-at-the-inn, singing angels, shepherds on the job and a manger maternity ward complete with the baby Jesus.  The four gospels each have a voice in the Christmas story.

The Christmas story assures us that words matter.  The words that tell us about a manger, a star, a young couple and a baby are a creation story of sorts for us.  This baby was born and then grew up to embark on a three year ministry that shows us how to love, care and serve so that the hope born in the manger really can mean joy to the world.

The power of The Conversation written about in John’s gospel creates life.  The new life of Jesus is The Conversation made flesh.  John’s gospel spends its precious space telling us about Jesus engaged in all kinds of conversations with all kinds of people.  If I as a Jesus follower take The Conversation seriously and believe that Jesus is working in me and through me then what kind of care do I take with myself and what kind of care do I take with you – what kind of manger am I that is able to reveal Christ?  If I believe that The Conversation created the universe with words and I am a person of the Word then I also believe that words create real stuff – that the words I use are important.  Words create friends, enemies, victims, wars, peace – words create!

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to visit a woman in the hospital – I’ll call her Rose.  I had never met Rose and her husband before.  We visited for a short time and then Rose told me that she had a feeling that she was not going to get well this time and she would never go home.  She then leaned toward me and asked if I had brought communion.  And, “no”, I had not brought communion.  We spent a few minutes talking about how that might happen and finally we decided that I would come back later that afternoon.

I headed back out there at the designated time with communion, using paper towels to create space for the meal on the bedside stand.  Rose and her husband shared a hymnal as they sat next to each other.  I read from Romans 8 where we are assured that “neither death, nor life… nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”; we reminded ourselves of Jesus words in Matthew 26 “given and shed for you”; and together we prayed the Lord’s prayer.  We shared in the meal of bread and wine.

After the final prayer, I knelt in front of them, held their joined hands with one of my own while I raised the other one in blessing.  Rose and I looked into each others eyes as I said, “The Lord Bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you, the Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.”  The next day, when I received the phone call that Rose had died, I realized that hope was birthed by The Conversation being present in communion just as hope is birthed by Jesus in the manger.

In a few minutes we will say the words of the Nicene Creed together.[2]  This Creed uses some language that sinks us into God as The Conversation.  We will speak the words of “begotten, not made” and “proceeds from”.   This language reveals God as The Conversation between Father, Son and Spirit.  And, we will also sing “What Child is This?”[3]  Reminding us about both the baby and The Conversation made flesh and the ways that the Bible places the gospel writers themselves in conversation with each other.

God is The Conversation – The Conversation who creates the universe; The Conversation who lives as baby in the manger for the sake of the whole world.  And as people of The Conversation, as Christmas people, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit for the sake of the world.

As Christmas people we are born of The Conversation to serve the world as mangers who reveal Christ; even as we are saved by Christ in the comfort and fearlessness of his grace.

And, as Christmas people, we are like Rose when she held out her hand to receive the bread. We hold Jesus in our hands; while at the same time, in a wild cosmic reversal, we are held in the hands of Jesus.

Merry Christmas indeed!


[1] Richard Valantasis, Douglas K. Bleyle, and Dennis C. Haugh.  The Gospels and Christian Life in History and Practice.  (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 253-255.

[2] The Nicene Creed full text: http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Nicene_Creed_Evangelical_Lutheran_Worship_.pdf

[3] Lyrics “What Child is This?” http://www.metrolyrics.com/what-child-is-this-lyrics-christmas-carols.html