The Pastor’s Pen – November 24, 2019

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‘giving thanks in the shadow of the cross…’

November 24, 2019

Scriptures: Luke 1:68-79, Luke 23:33-43

            The lectionary readings for today are curious in that they include two gospel readings from the gospel of Luke, one of which recounts the very beginning of Jesus’ life and the other that looks at the very end.  And as I read through them, I decided to try and gain a sense of why these scriptures might have been put together on this the final Sunday before the start of the Advent season next Sunday.

          I was intrigued that the gospel readings started with the announcement of Jesus’ coming, heralded by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and then ended with the cross on Calvary.  And I was intrigued because I have always thought that the whole of our faith understanding from the gospels and the events of Jesus’ life even from the very beginning, needs to be seen as one extended and yet complete story.  For indeed we know the ending and the outcome of the story, whereas the characters throughout the gospel narrative did not have that insight or awareness until the events actually occurred.

I also feel that it is important to remember the complete story of our faith within each season…that in the promise and hope of Advent and in the unbridled joy of Christmas there remains in the background a shadow…maybe not that visible or noticeable, maybe dismissed as the rays of light from that famous star…but nonetheless, the shadow of a cross.  I sometimes wonder though, if Mary in all her deep pondering upon the announcement of God’s choice of her to be the mother of Jesus, may have felt the news was simply amazing…as well as somehow, for reasons yet unknown, deeply troubling.

It is also Thanksgiving Sunday today, that time each year when we intentionally remember and give thanks for the goodness of God in community and family as we gather in this the season of the harvest gathered in.  In our first reading from Luke we hear from the beginning of our Christian faith story as Zechariah foretells of the birth of Jesus…Luke 1:68-79:  “Let us praise the Lord, the God of Israel! He has come to the help of his people and has set them free. He has provided for us a mighty Savior, a descendant of his servant David. He promised through his holy prophets long ago that he would save us from our enemies, from the power of all those who hate us.
He said he would show mercy to our ancestors and remember his sacred covenant. With a solemn oath to our ancestor Abraham he promised to rescue us from our enemies and allow us to serve him without fear, so that we might be holy and righteous before him all the days of our life. “You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High God. You will go ahead of the Lord to prepare his road for him, to tell his people that they will be saved by having their sins forgiven. Our God is merciful and tender. He will cause the bright dawn of salvation to rise on us and to shine from heaven on all those who live in the dark shadow of death, to guide our steps into the path of peace.”

          John the Baptist’s father spoke these words after the birth of his son.  It was a blessing which not only spoke of the coming of Jesus, but of the role John was to play in preparing the way before him.  In doing so he picks up on the age old prophetic promises of Jeremiah and Isaiah that a Savior was to come from the lineage and house of David, a Savior who would deliver the Jews from the tyranny of oppression by occupying forces which had so long plagued them…a prophecy which even then was dangerous and bold in its revolutionary assertion, made as it was within the Kingdom of Caesar’s Rome and within the territory of the Vassal Jewish Kingship of Herod.  God’s promise of deliverance was not about to be thwarted by any interference…God’s love for humankind was just too strong and too insistent for that to happen.

          Our second reading from Luke’s gospel is found at the very end…or perhaps the ‘second beginning’ of our faith story.  Luke 23:33-43 reads: ‘When they came to the place called “The Skull,” they crucified Jesus there, and the two criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing.”  They divided his clothes among themselves by throwing dice. The people stood there watching while the Jewish leaders made fun of him: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah whom God has chosen!”

The soldiers also made fun of him: they came up to him and offered him cheap wine, and said, “Save yourself if you are the king of the Jews!” Above him were written these words: “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals hanging there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The other one, however, rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you fear God? You received the same sentence he did. Ours, however, is only right, because we are getting what we deserve for what we did; but he has done no wrong.” And he said to Jesus, “Remember me, Jesus, when you come as King!”

Jesus said to him, “I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me.’

          Did you see it? There is that shadow we spoke of…even in the wonder and joy of Advent we must not lose sight of the response humankind first offered to the introduction of radical and uncompromising love offered up in freedom.  The shadow of darkness and the refusal to let go of old ways and selfish actions rested even upon the manger…and yet God, who knew this might happen, sent Jesus on ahead…determined that our Lord’s will towards the fulfillment of love’s call to blessed community might be fulfilled. 

As I have shared so often before, righteousness and justice are from the same Hebrew root word…for indeed, righteousness and justice are one and the same to God.  Zechariah says, “He is our righteousness” …He is also our justice…the same One who calls us through the prophet Micah to “Do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God”.

Let us hear Luke tell us the rest of Zechariah’s blessing upon his son and upon our Savior Jesus…a blessing that we might be saved for the purpose of serving one another and our God in freedom unrestrained… Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 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.’

          And in Paul’s letter to the Colossians we hear… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’  In Jesus, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  Not just a part, but all of God was in Jesus…all of our Lord went forth willingly to the cross on Calvary’s hill as we hear Luke recount once more… It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.’

Our readings from Luke’s gospel cover a span of approximately 33 years, including the birth, life, and crucifixion of our Lord.  From a divine promise of newness and life, to the birth of that promised Savior, and then on to his brutal killing on a shameful cross…how did we get here? What does it all mean?  How can these verses speak new life into our faith understanding?

After hearing all this, of God’s promise, of humanity’s failed response, to God’s doubling down on stubbornly loving us back into the shepherd’s fold on Easter morn…how, on this Thanksgiving Sunday do we find our way to a place of profound gratitude, to a deep giving of thanks for all the right reasons?  How can we find our way back to the love that is felt and demonstrated when families gather together, rejoicing over the harvest of plenty and the goodness of a God who watches over us so carefully? 

The shadowed story that comes from our two readings today can seem so discouraging, can seem as an unfair or unnecessary way to prepare for the season of Advent and the joy and anticipation of Christmas just a month away.  Somehow it just does not feel right to mix up the images, to color the season of hope and promise with that shadow of a cross falling upon that little feed trough in a stable in Bethlehem…and then, and then to find a way to give thanks?

I think perhaps these passages are juxtaposed this way to cause us to reflect deeply on how it is we interact with each other and on how we view our relationship with God…and with what that relationship may be asking of us.  Because somehow reflecting on the goodness and promises of God and on the death of Jesus is all part of the same story…the story of our faith.  It is one and the same narrative that seems to have a wondrous beginning, an extremely difficult middle, and now, an ending that awaits only our writing of it.

Yes, I feel that we, as the human family, are the ones called to respond to God’s reaching out towards us…in promise, in unconditional love, and in divine mercy.  And, the way we respond is on our shoulders alone.  Each one of us is in some way capable of making a difference, either for the advancement of God’s purposes, or for the disruption of them.  We each have the right, as well as the option to accept or to reject this message Jesus came to share, and in fact did share.  That message that our God is one of unconditional and unfailing love, a love that will not, and cannot be set aside nor discouraged by anything in all of creation.

Jesus was sent…Jesus came…to free us from such bondage to all evil…that from within or without, as well as from that which finds its roots in persistent and underlying systemic evil.  The love Jesus showed, taught, lived, and died for, as well as his plan for the prosperity and goodness of humanity is so often vastly different than our practice of it.  We all know that there is a deep need to reconcile, to repair, and to be about renewing the original purpose of creation, to get back to the pronouncement that ‘all was very good’ that was uttered by God at the creative climax on the sixth day, when all was in beauty of balance and relationship.  That blessed moment when we knew that we loved God and God loved us…when we gave thanks out of reflex and not out of obligation, when we walked in the garden unashamed and fully content, enjoying together all the fruits of God’s goodness.

In truth, we left that first ‘garden’ all on our own, we lost our trust in God, we stopped giving thanks out of honest habit and instead set times and places aside in order to remember our God, content to give God one day a week if he would allow us to do our own thing on the other six.  Our self-centered habit was not only addictive, it was extremely seductive in its ability to convince us that we so needed to hold on tightly to all that we have…in order to make it through lean times that were sure to come.

And even unto today our ‘self’ stubbornly holds on…even though God put the fix in place…even though we were sure God could not possibly care for us any longer, God still sent Jesus to show us the way home, still sent Jesus to teach us that living for others, within the provision and goodness of God, was better than going it alone, better than non-relationship.

In the shadow of the manger where the newborn lay sleeping, our selfishness still lingered…

…but God pressed on anyway…

…in the shadow of the manger the shadow of a cross fell across the sleeping child…

…but God pressed on anyway.

…in the shadow of that manger God insisted on telling and retelling the promises of old…

…insisted that his will would somehow find us and would somehow, someday still be fulfilled…

…insisted that love, his love, was so much stronger than our own selfishness, so much stronger than our own hatred and greed…

…insisted on coming to meet us…there in a Bethlehem stable, vulnerable and unprotected…in order to show that love would endure, that ultimately love was unstoppable, that love would outlast all our stubbornness, that love was capable of, and will one day bring us back again to the giving of thanks…

…because we can do nothing else…

Our God has always been greater than our refusal to acknowledge him, his love, even in the face of our worst, is undaunted…

…because somewhere God can still envision the wonder of human love lived out in gracious community…

…because somewhere God can still see the joy of human fellowship that is found in striving for the good together…

…because somewhere God still refuses to give up on any single one of us…

…and for that…

…we simply must give thanks.

Yes, that shadow fell across the manger…and yes that shadow is ours…but it need not remain there…

…for there is a baby…a most beautiful baby waiting to be born …waiting to be born anew in our hearts…

…and there is a promise that lingers on and on…

…let us make room in our hearts for this most precious of miracles…and let us always and everywhere give thanks…

…amen

Image by bstad from Pixabay

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