>An Advent Sonnet — A Great Poem by Waldo Beach

>Professor Beach was a Professor Emeritus at Duke Divinity School when I was there.  He wrote this poem that I will forever remember as Christmas approaches, and, now, as I look back at it.  The poem is “Advent Sonnet” and is found in his book Christmas Praise.

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On coming to Christmas, misled, we forget
That the birth of God’s son was not lovely at all.
A stench filled the gloom of the bleak manger stall.
There was blood on the straw and a halo of sweat
Around Mary’s head.  Soon, warned they should flee
To escape Herod’s sword, by stealth in the night
The family of God was driven to flight,
As from Bethlehem’s inn outcast, refugee.
But as birth of new life is sprung out of pain,
And faith out of fear, so now once again,
If we come to the stable by way of the cross
And dismantle our spirits of tinsel and dross,
We can join with glad hearts and exuberant voice
To sing with the heavenly choir, “Rejoice!”

>"JOY…To Get Me Through the Tough Days" (Sermon for 12 December 2010)


Text: Luke 1:39-56
Title: “JOY…to Get Me Through the Tough Days”

Let me start off by reading a different scripture passage to you. In order to enter into Mary’s words, it helps to hear Isaiah’s words, some seven centuries earlier, to see her expectations wrapped up in the expectations of the Hebrew people.

This is Isaiah 35:1-10, from Peterson’s The Message translation:

Wilderness and desert will sing joyously, the badlands will celebrate and flower—Like the crocus in spring, bursting into blossom, a symphony of song and color. Mountain glories of Lebanon—a gift. Awesome Carmel, stunning Sharon—gifts. God’s resplendent glory, fully on display. God awesome, God majestic.

Energize the limp hands, strengthen the rubbery knees. Tell fearful souls, “Courage! Take heart! God is here, right here, on his way to put things right And redress all wrongs. He’s on his way! He’ll save you!”

Blind eyes will be opened, deaf ears unstopped, Lame men and women will leap like deer, the voiceless break into song. Springs of water will burst out in the wilderness, streams flow in the desert. Hot sands will become a cool oasis, thirsty ground a splashing fountain. Even lowly jackals will have water to drink, and barren grasslands flourish richly.

There will be a highway called the Holy Road. No one rude or rebellious is permitted on this road. It’s for God’s people exclusively— impossible to get lost on this road. Not even fools can get lost on it. No lions on this road, no dangerous wild animals—Nothing and no one dangerous or threatening. Only the redeemed will walk on it. The people God has ransomed will come back on this road. They’ll sing as they make their way home to Zion, unfading halos of joy encircling their heads, Welcomed home with gifts of joy and gladness as all sorrows and sighs scurry into the night.

Isaiah is chock full of reference to the Advent of our God, the coming of our Lord to save the Hebrew people. It’s great stuff. Now, for Isaiah, God’s coming means the return of the redeemed to Zion. God is coming with great power and he’s going to overcome disease, and wickedness and disorder. He’s coming to wipe away all that stands in the way of God’s new age.

Too often, among Christians, we downplay what salvation means. We don’t give it enough meat. We make it into something that just pertains to individual souls. “Are you saved?” But our God’s coming is not just to save our souls but to totally transform humanity and creation and unite us together in eternal joy.

Our God does things big.

This is the Advent that Isaiah’s talking about. This is a God of great power and might who will claim all of creation and all of creation will trade in their sorrows for the joy of the Lord. Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord. Yes, yes, Lord. Amen.

And this is the Advent, or coming, of God that Mary sings about in her MAGNIFICAT. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Why? Well for all of the reason that Isaiah talks about.

Mary is a poor, pregnant, young girl, who knows she’s going to have a hard time convincing everyone that an angel of the Lord told her she would bear God’s son. She’s from a small, and mostly insignificant, people. She’s under Roman rule. Her people have experienced bondage and exile. But she has this hope, deep down inside of her that her God would come. And he would come and save her and her people. That they would be “saved.”

And so, she sings with joy:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Salvation is coming. Mercy is coming. The hungry will be fed. The rich will be sent away. This has always been God’s promise. And now it is getting fulfilled. And so…she is joyful. Her soul magnifies the Lord.

This time of year, there is sort of a forced expectation of joyfulness. Without a jolly “ho ho ho” one may be accused of being a Scrooge. We talk about being joyful, even though we don’t have much. We point out those who are joyful with so much less. We may note how our serving at the soup kitchen for one night or our Operation Christmas Child box will bring joy to some little boy or girl somewhere in the world.

That’s not a bad thing. But it is incomplete. There is a difference between joy and happiness. There is a lot about this season that can make us happy. Getting that gift you want…or giving the gift that someone else wanted. Singing “The Little Drummer Boy” or looking at a the Christmas lights on houses in Anchorage (some people have far too much time on their hands!) Christmas break. Skiing. Eggnog lattes.

I don’t think any of those things mentioned, at least for me, go much beyond surface-level happiness. They sure bring a smile to my face. All of them. But, as quickly as the smile appears the feeling fades as more stuff starts happening around me.

Joy isn’t on the surface and, unlike happiness, isn’t dependent upon outside circumstances. Joy springs from a hope in a God that will provide for us and a sure and certain belief that it is true. Joy is an attitude of the heart…and can be with us when the candles are no longer lit, when the carols are no longer sung, when the presents have all been opened and the eggnog lattes will wait for another year.

Joy, can be present in midst of pain…recognizing that there is something better in store for us…and holding onto that.

Both for Isaiah and Mary, we hear that God’s coming never makes light of the present problems that both faced. They never claim that they are not in exile. They are not in bondage. They have no need for salvation…a real, earthly salvation. They never say that. But they do say that in opposition to brokenness, wrongs, sorrows and sighs…that Isaiah and Mary AND us experience…in opposition to this, God is going to break on through and he will prevail and all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well (as was said in last week’s sermon).

That’s why Isaiah says to be joyful.

That’s why Mary rejoices.

It’s not because things are peachy keen. They’re not. And for those of us who know the whole story of Mary we know they are really never going to be peachy keen for her.

  • They run away to Egypt after Jesus’ birth
  • Jesus is confusing when he grows up, saying strange words, leaving to go be with disciples.
  • He is arrested.
  • He is tried.
  • He is killed.

It’s not peachy keen…or hunky dory. At times, I’m sure, it’s downright unhappy.

And yet, the joy is for her.

And it is for us…even if this year, this Christmas, this economic environment, our family situation…even if it’s not good…the joy of knowing that our Savior comes, is for us.

Now, we won’t pretend that everything is wrong and “there is no joy in Mudville” or Girdwood, or Anchorage, or your house. There’s joy.

There must be someone…who is a presence of God in your midst.

There must be something in this life where you see the hungry getting fed and the naked getting clothed, the lowly lifted up and your soul magnifies the Lord.

Nehemiah says that the Joy of the Lord is our Strength (8:10). There must be someone or something that brings you joy, deep-rooted, non-circumstantial, not fleeting but enduring. That gives you the strength of God to carry on through any bad days, any unhappy days, that come.

We’ve had an opportunity each week to write a prayer on an ornament each week and have it be put on our Christmas tree. We wrote a prayer offering to God our inmost hope. We wrote a prayer offering to God a prayer of peace for a person or a family or a nation. Today, I ask you to consider who it is that brings you joy, that fills your soul, that lets you know that God, in God’s time and in God’s way, will make it better.

And, after we close with prayer, I’ll ask you to write down that one name or a whole bunch of names. Who are those persons who, if you were to sing out like Mary, would be the ones who magnify your soul and cause you to rejoice?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

>"PEACE…Strength to Hold On" — Sermon from 5 December 2010

>PEACE!Image by Snapies via FlickrText:  Isaiah 11:1-10 & Matthew 3:1-6
Title:  “PEACE…Strength to Hold On”

On Christmas Eve, 1914, British and German soldiers faced each other across the muddy fields of Flanders, Belgum. They had been at this for about five months now.  And they were tired of the fighting already.  It was cold.  It was muddy.  Trench warfare took a toll. That night, perhaps, they were oblivious to the fact that this war would go on for another four years, ultimately claiming the lives of 8 million persons.

Even though it was war, the soldiers on both side had received presents of food and tobacco.  And a few small Christmas trees and candles had been shipped to the front lines to lift the spirits of the boys in uniform.  And something that night happened.

Author Stanley Weintraub, author of “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce” put it this way:

[T]he Germans set trees on trench parapets and lit the candles. Then, they began singing carols, and though their language was unfamiliar to their enemies, the tunes were not. After a few trees were shot at, the British became more curious than belligerent and crawled forward to watch and listen. And after a while, they began to sing.

By Christmas morning, the “no man’s land” between the trenches was filled with fraternizing soldiers, sharing rations and gifts, singing and (more solemnly) burying their dead between the lines. Soon they were even playing soccer, mostly with improvised balls.

According to the official war diary of the 133rd Saxon Regiment, “Tommy and Fritz” kicked about a real football supplied by a Scot. “This developed into a regulation football match with caps casually laid out as goals. The frozen ground was no great matter … The game ended 3-2 for Fritz.”

This spontaneous truce lasted almost a week but was pretty much over by New Year’s Day.  The commanders on both sides were unhappy that the two sides weren’t killing each other and, under threat of court martial, ordered their troops to pick up their guns again. 

On November 1918 finally ended the shooting for good.  Perhaps nothing was learned that night. Perhaps something was.  Perhaps we can learn by just recounting the story.

As Stanley Weintraub noted at the close of his book on the 1914 Christmas truce:

A celebration of the human spirit, the Christmas Truce remains a moving manifestation of the absurdities of war. A very minor Scottish poet of Great War vintage, Frederick Niven, may have got it right in his “A Carol from Flanders,” which closed,

    O ye who read this truthful rime
        From Flanders, kneel and say:
    God speed the time when every day
        Shall be as Christmas Day.

We are now about three weeks from Christmas morning.  We’re about three weeks from looking into the cradle and seeing that sweet, little Jesus boy…sweet little boy who is true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.  In him the fullness of God chose to dwell.  And in him comes the Kingdom of God.

Remember what Matthew writes in our opening reading:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,  Repent, for the KINGDOM OF HEAVEN has come near. This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

Oooh.  The Kingdom of heaven has come near…  That is a phrase that would have resonated with the listeners as it resonates with us.  The rule of God is coming.  The reign of God is coming.  The Kingdom of Heaven, of God, is in our midst.  It is coming to where we are. 

For John the Baptist, this means repentance.  It means turning to God from the things that have been keeping us from God, it means a new day is to begin.  And for Isaiah, in his passage, it means righteousness.  It means equity.  It mean doing no harm.  It means a unity under the rule of God.  And it’s here that we have some of the famous words from the Bible:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Many persons know that whole “the wolf shall live with the lamb” but few know that, just after it, Isaiah tells us that the coming of God will mean “the cow and the bear shall graze.”

But it is this “peaceable kingdom” which our Lord brings.  After all, remember the words of the multitude of the heavenly host in Luke 2: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Our God, when he comes, it to usher in this new day of peace and, maybe we have to go to the battlefield at Flanders, almost 100 years ago, to remember that lions and lambs can lie down together…or at least not kill each other…for a while.

The peace of God is a real one and we look for places in the world where we pray it would come.  We pray for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  We pray for North and South Korea.  We pray for the violence on the streets of Mexico and for the violence that takes place on streets closer to home.  For we know that, when we worship a Prince of Peace…who comes to us as a helpless infant, who dies for us a criminal’s death, and who rises again and says, “Peace be to you” that our violence against one another is met with a different reality in our Gospel. 

It is right to pray that peace would come to the troubled areas of our world.

But peace is not just something “out there.”  It’s not just something in other countries or in other places.  The need for peace hits close to home.  In fact, it hits pretty hard in most of our homes. 

For not only is PEACE the absence of war or hostility against one another.  PEACE is something that implies being able to rest in the arms of our God, sure of our purpose, our place in his kingdom, and in knowing that we are taken care of, that we are loved.

Yesterday at the Christmas bazaar I ran into K_____  C______ and we made some small talk.  She asked how I was doing and I said to her.  I’m doing well.  We’re just very busy…very busy.  I’m just trying to find some breathing holes in the ice.  And, over the last couple months, there haven’t been many holes.

I’ve often compared life to running on a treadmill.  Last week I compared the onslaught of the Christmas season to a train.  But I like the notion of a season of life looking like a sea lion or whatever creature trying to find a place to breathe.  Sometimes it just doesn’t seem like there’s any place to catch my breath.  No rest.

We believe that this coming Savior makes possible peace on the troubled battlefields of the Flanders of the world, but we also believe that peace is possible to the troubled places in our own lives…in our own hearts…where something rages, not with guns and ammo but with broken dream or harried lives or soured relationships or loss.  We believe, as Kingdom People, that this PEACE of God is here for us…today.  And it’s this peace that gives us strength to hold on…to keep on…to soldier on…to carry on.

It was A.J. Muste who said, “There is no way to peace.  Peace is the way.”  Just so, there is not a way to the coming peace that Christ will bring when he comes again, but we are to live in peace here and now.  We can find peace in God and peace in our families and peace in the business of this life that tries to shape us in unhealthy, unholy ways.  And it does so as it pulls us farther and farther away from our King, farther and farther away from the Prince of Peace.

The main character or our kingdom story needs to be the main character in our lives…not some bit player in the background.  So, it’s completely natural for us, as the celebration of his birth draws nearer, for us to refocus our lives on him, and as the whirlwind of the holidays batters us we remind ourselves why these holidays are HOLY DAYS. 

Living into that PEACE requires a refocusing of ourselves on the message of love and salvation of Jesus Christ. It means setting up our lives in a way that Jesus can be received into it.  It means allowing Christ to enter into our lives and claim it…the good, the bad, the ugly and offer it all to him.  Only then can we really receive God’s peace.  Only then can we really offer it to others.

Unrest is around us.  Unrest is within us.  Wars rage.  Spiritual battles fight on.  But our God is in control here.  The kingdom of peace is upon us.

I’d like you to think of one area of unrest.  It may be for an internal issue that’s going on.  It could be a struggle with sin.  It could be a struggle with a family member.  It could be the seasonal rat race.  It could be your job.  It could be that you, too, just can’t seem to find breathing holes.

It could be someplace in the world…maybe one of the countries we’ve lifted up. Maybe someplace you were reading about in today’s paper or watching on the news. 

But I’d like to you think of one area in need of peace.  And I’d like you to lay your hands out upon your knees like this and I’d like to you close your eyes and breathe in and breathe out and picture the peace of God, which passes all understanding, coming upon that situation and calming the storms, laying down the weapons, turning the unrest into rest. What would that look like…feel like?

But I don’t want to stop there.  I’d like you, after we close with prayer, to write it on one of the ornaments which will be handed to you.  And, again, these will be placed on our tree here as a prayer for peace to our God.  I do know your prayers for HOPE were prayed for this week and we’ll continue to do so throughout this Advent season.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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>Lighting the Candle of "Love" — Poem 3 (of 3)

>Advent WreathImage by ckpicker via FlickrOK.  This is the last one.  We’re lighting the LOVE candle on our Advent wreath this Sunday and the sermon is going to focus on how that LOVE which came down at Christmas is to be shared with the world.  Bishop Robert Schnase, on his website FivePractices.org has a poetry theme up, with some very nice poems for this season.  The following poem was found in the comments.  It’s a poem by Ted Loder in his book Guerillas of Grace:  Prayers for the Battle

It’s not a big poem but it packs a punch.  Check out that last few lines.   Asking the coming Christ, the very gift the world needs, to make the reader into the gift needed by others in the world.  Gives me goosebumps.

“I am silent…
and Expectant
How silently
how silently
the wondrous gift is given.
I would be silent now,
and expectant…
that I may receive
the gift I need, so I may become
the gift others need.”

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>Lighting the Candle of "Love" — Poem 2 (of 3)

>Advent wreath completeImage by Rae Whitlock via FlickrThis is another poem about the LOVE of Christ coming down at Christmas.   This one is called “From Heaven’s Porch” and is written by John Thornburg.  


Infants don’t pretend.
They want to recreate
the warmth and comfort of the womb.
They cry to say, “I’m really cold.”
They coo to say, “Thank God I’m warm,”
or words to that effect.

When all grown up,
we put on a veneer
to hide the fear
that we cannot be loved as-is;
to cover up the righteousness
that we pretend to feel
when ‘someone’ doesn’t do
the things that make for peace.
Our words too often hide the truth.
We say, “I’ll do it,” then we don’t.
We say, “I love you,” then we won’t
confirm our love in what we do.
Pretending is a practiced art;
and practice makes imperfect.

There was a baby once
whose birth was trumpeted
from heaven’s porch.
But unlike us,
When he grew up
he did not hide the truth.
He loved us as we are,
and called us to abundant life.
In what he spoke,
in who he touched,
in what where he walked,
in how he bled,
he showed us why a star
had pointed out the place and time
that truth came down
and donned our uniform.

No wonder angles sang of him.
And they still sing…

I love the following line:  Our words too often hide the truth.  We say, “I’ll do it,” then we don’t.
We say, “I love you,” then we won’t confirm our love in what we do.  Pretending is a practiced art;
and practice makes imperfect. 
How do I “pretend” to love others during this Advent/Christmas season?  I spend so much time talking about love but how do I actually show that love to others by what I DO and not only but what I SAY?  At Christmas, LOVE gets a lot of lip service.

I found this over at Bishop Robert Schnase’s site, FivePractices.org.

You can see more from from John Thornburg at his site, www.congregationalsinging.com.

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>Lighting the Candle of "Love" — Poem 1 (of 3)

>Advent wreath,mixed thuja occ., taxus, juniper...                                                  Image via WikipediaThis Sunday we’ll light the candle of “LOVE” on our Advent wreath at church. And, as we’ve focused on the themes of HOPE and PEACE and JOY so far, we’ve kind of been inward-focused.  We came into Advent with a lot of communal pain over the tragic deaths of two persons in our church family.  It was rough.  I lived some of that out here on this blog.  But, now as we get closer, we’re going to hear how when LOVE came down at Christmas, this LOVE was for us to offer to the world.  We are wounded, yes.  But we offer ourselves to others as Christ offers himself to us…in love.

I came across three poems today on Bishop Robert Schnase’s website, FivePractices.org.  They have helped move my thought and prayer along this morning.  I’ll give each one a separate post.  Each one is beautiful.

A CHRISTMAS POEM — By Esther Schnase (Robert’s wife)

A star
a stable
a sense of wonder.
The cry
the promise fulfilled
Emmanuel-God is with us again.
And ours are the hands
that help Him grow
until He fills the whole
world with Love.

How ’bout that last line there?  “Ours are the hands that help Him grow until He fills the whole world with Love.”  It connects Christ’s coming with our doing in the world.  Beautiful.

You’ll find lots of good stuff at Bishop Schnase’s site.

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