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December 2018

Rejoicing in the Gift

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Rejoicing in the Gift”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 30, 2018

 

Galatians 4:4-7

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Luke 2:25-39

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

 

We had our Ritter Christmas gathering in Belding, MI last Friday night.  As such family gatherings go, we engaged in the sharing of memories and in the sharing of stories which may or may not be true.  My sister brought up something about my mother’s sister, an aunt who passed away around ten years ago.  She was something of a legend in the family, perhaps not always for good reason.  My aunt always saw herself as a voice of wisdom within the family, the source of much practical knowledge.  The rest of us however viewed her more as a know-it-all and a party pooper!  Let me give you some examples.

Many years ago at my sister’s wedding, my aunt waited to be the last person in the receiving line so she could speak privately with my sister and her new husband.  I asked my sister what she said.  Laurie told me that my aunt reminded her that weddings can be beautiful but sometime marriage isn’t.  She talked about how hard it is living with an imperfect person.  Nice advice maybe, but not the kind of thing you want to hear in your wedding receiving line.

A few years later my sister gave birth to a baby daughter.  My aunt was one of the first people to come to the house and greet the baby.  She brought a beautiful quilt that was handmade and treasured still to this day.  But she also brought her world famous advice.  “Do you realize that giving birth was the easy part?  Now you have to care for this baby, and raise this child.  And parenting is so hard these days.  There are so many obstacles and temptations out there!”  You sort of get the feeling that my aunt is like Debbie Downer of Saturday Night Live fame.

Then came the day that my niece, now all grown up, graduated from Olivet College.  Of course my aunt had some advice for her then also.  “I know your parents are proud of you but you aren’t done yet.  What kind of job are you going to get?  There are plenty of others like you just getting out of school and looking for work.  You’ve got to make yourself special.  You just can’t expect to get any job you apply for.”

I think as we got older, we just came to the conclusion that my aunt was showing love by her advice.  But we also came to the conclusion that if you wanted a good party, you didn’t invite her.  She would just bring you down with a good hard dose of reality.  And you should hear what she said at funerals!

Regardless of whether or not you appreciate my aunt’s practical advice, it seems as if some situations in life don’t always give us much time and space to celebrate and rejoice.  Even our most fulfilling times are often tempered with a hearty portion of realism that keeps our emotions in check.  We have all experienced the disappointment of a promise unfulfilled.  We have all reveled in the good news only to find a different side to the picture days later.  We have all been encouraged before, only to have the rug of hope pulled out from under our feet.  We might allow ourselves a smile and a cup of eggnog on Christmas Eve, but late on Christmas evening when we start picking up all of the old wrapping paper, we are quick to bring ourselves back to hard reality.

I recall a few years ago that Laura received a digital camera from her employer as a holiday bonus.  We were thrilled because back then digital cameras were unique.  We were looking forward to the wonderful pictures we would have of Maren and Amelia opening their presents around the Christmas tree.  But then I began to read the operator’s manual.  It seemed so complicated.  Trying to get that camera to work was more of a hassle than I wanted to have on Christmas morning. I have a feeling that one or two of us have received presents like that on Christmas.  They looked good on the store shelf or in someone else’s hands but when we take them out of the box, we can’t even begin to figure out how they work!  Anyway, I finally got the camera to work but then tried to download the software on my home computer to store the lovely photos I had taken.  The computer crashed.  It took two weeks and hundreds of dollars to fix it.  Joy turned quickly to anger and frustration.

I heard a few people talking about how hard it is getting to celebrate Christmas.  The economic picture is still uncertain.  Jobs and paychecks are no guarantee.  The stock market tumble right before Christmas brought no joy.  The political situation of government shutdown, angry words, and lack of compromise paints a dismal picture.  The New Year is about to arrive with possibilities but also with concern.  Once all of our holiday events are over, we are still faced with the coldest days of the winter, with the credit card bills in the mail, and with the uncertainty of our world.  Perhaps many of us thought about these things even as we shopped, ate, and sang our favorite Christmas carols.

How is it then that we can really celebrate the gift of Christmas?  How is it that we can be glad in the birth of Jesus the Christ?  The ancient story itself calls for us to rejoice.  After centuries of waiting, the time was fulfilled.  God came in the flesh.  A baby was born in Bethlehem.  Angels sang of glad tidings.  Wise men brought gifts and worshipped the babe.  We read in Scripture of a promise kept, of hope renewed, of unbridled joy for all of creation.  And yet just five days later reality has moved back in.  Christmas joy is put away like a box of tree ornaments.  Any sense of Christmas joy is overwhelmed by real world sobriety.

But on this Sunday after Christmas, we need to reflect on how we can celebrate the birth of Christ after Christmas.  We are to remember that joy- pure joy- is still what the season is supposed to be about.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul speaks of us being “slaves to the ruling spirits of the universe.”  Paul’s words seem to describe what we may see as fate, controlled by things much bigger than us and beyond our control.  Then in the words of today’s lesson he writes, “When the right time had come, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his own Son.”  Time before Jesus was a time of yearning, waiting, and wishing.  For Paul, the crucial event that would change humanity was the birth of Jesus.  From that moment on, human beings were no longer slaves to sin, to the fates, and to inevitable death.  Because of Christ we are free to live life in all of its fullness.  There is still struggle and there is still strife but we are no longer slaves to it.  God promises something better and brighter.

The gospel lesson this morning is the story of the infant Jesus being presented in the Temple.  At the Temple there were many who had been praying and waiting for God’s deliverance for many years.  Simeon, an old man held Jesus in his arms and suddenly sang with joy because he saw salvation in the eyes of that little child.  Anna, an old woman who had been fasting in grief and disappointment, saw Jesus and began to sing and to praise God.  These joyless people without hope suddenly recognized the power of God to act in the reality of human life.  All that they had waited for had finally come to be.  Expectations were over.  The gift had arrived.  It was time to celebrate living with the gift.

I remember when living in Utah and then returning to Michigan to visit my Dad.  My visits always required a stop at the tavern in McBrides, Michigan.  They made the world’s greatest cheeseburger.  I would anticipate the taste even on the plane ride to Michigan and after one bite there was always the joy of fulfillment.  I remember as a young boy, making the long drive to Detroit to see the Tigers play. There was great anticipation once I saw the light towers and knew that the magical scene was only moments away.     Simeon and Anna must have felt such joy of the fullness of time completed, and recognizing what they had been waiting for was now in their midst. We might allow ourselves a smile and a cup of eggnog on Christmas Eve, but late on Christmas evening when we start picking up all of the old wrapping paper, we are quick to bring ourselves back to hard reality.

Joy.  That is what this first Sunday of Christmas is all about.  It is about the joy that comes when we have waited so long, when we have discovered the time has arrived, when our deepest longings are fulfilled and when our earnest prayers are answered.  It is about the feeling we get when we suddenly are aware that we have received something not of our own making, but as a gift of grace.  We have received a gift, a gift unexpected and special that can change our lives.  It is joy that can only come as a gift from God.  No matter what our situation is today, this is a day to rejoice in that which God has done for us.  God has set us free from the inevitable and opened for us the door of great possibility.

Garrison Keillor once put it this way, “Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted, but in getting what you have, which once you have it you may be smart enough to see it is what you would have wanted had you known.”  This may be a rather convoluted way of saying something bit I think it speaks the message of Christmas joy that Paul and the gospel refer to.  We have received a gift this Christmas, a gift that can change our lives and our world if we are willing to understand the possibilities.  It is a gift of joy if we are wise enough to understand what it truly means.  Jesus has come in the fullness of time.  Because of his coming, we can see that what we have and know that with God what we now have is enough.   Because of Christmas, the world is full of possibilities and signs of hope.

 

 

One of Peace

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“One of Peace”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 23, 2018

Micah 5:2-5a

 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.

            Terry A. Bowland tells a story of a patient who went in for a physical exam.  He had been feeling very troubled-with an upset stomach, headaches, and an elevated heart rate.  He wasn’t sleeping at night and was finding it hard to stay awake during the day.  After the exam the doctor gave him the results.  “I can’t find anything organically wrong with you,” the doctor said.  “You probably have some business or social problem that is bothering you.  Perhaps you should talk it over with a good counselor.  As you know, many illnesses come from worry.  Why, just a few weeks ago a case very similar to yours came my way.  I discovered that the man had a large financial obligation that he couldn’t pay.  Because of his money problem he had worried himself into a state of nervous exhaustion.”  “And did you cure him?” asked the patient.  “As a matter of fact, I did,” said the doctor.  “I told him to just stop worrying, that life was too short to make himself sick over a bill, a scrap of paper.  I told him to forget about this debt for a while.  Now he’s back to normal.  He has stopped worrying entirely.”  “I know,” the patient said sadly.  “I’m the one to whom the man owes the money!”

             Such is the power of worry.  It consumes us and overwhelms us.  It snowballs to affect every part of our life.  It takes away our peace.  From a lack of inner peace comes a lack of harmony in homes and neighborhoods and nations.  In the liturgy that accompanied our lighting of the Advent Wreath’s Candle of Peace a few years ago, I quoted an ancient proverb.  “There will be peace in the world, if there is order in the nation.  There will be order in the nation, when there is harmony in the home.  There is harmony in the home, when there is righteousness in the hearts of those who live there.”  Indeed many a wise person has said that peace between nations is created only when the people who reside within those nations can live with peaceful hearts and minds.

Mark Twain once said, “From his cradle to his grave, a man never does a single thing which has any first and foremost object save one-to secure peace of mind for himself.”  While proclaiming the need for peace of mind, Twain was not optimistic about peace on earth between humans.  He wrote, “Peace by persuasion has a pleasant sound, but I think we should not be able to work it.  We should have to tame the human race first, and history seems to show that cannot be done.”  Twain’s solution to the problem of universal peace was through science.  He advocated getting “a chemist, a real genius, to extract all of the oxygen out of the atmosphere for eight minutes.  Then we would have real peace, and it would be permanent.” In regard to peace, Twain was a pessimist even if he understood its necessity.

Peace is certainly something we dream of at Christmas.  Yet perhaps this time of year is anything but peaceful for you.  I avoid the shopping malls and box stores.  For me, they are not serene places.  Our schedules of frantic December activity tend to ratchet up the stress level.  The problem of how we will pay for our generous Christmas shopping might concern us.   The thought of spending time with extended family might unnerve us.  Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration.  But when we fall short of those expectations we become disappointed with ourselves, feeling even less at peace.  While we chase those sugarplum fairies that dance in our head we live in a sense of general uneasiness about our ability to create a perfect Christmas.  And we live perhaps questioning the authenticity of our search in the first place.

Into our lives of worry and anxiety come promises of peace.  Advertisers tell us that we can purchase peace of mind if we buy their product.  Writers and social scientists tell us that we can create a peaceful heart by adhering to their plan.  Political candidates tell us that if we vote for them they will introduce plans that bring peace in our neighborhoods and yes, peace on earth.  While it is better to hear of the possibilities of peace and prosperity than it is threats of chaos and famine, we tend to have low expectations of these promises.  Like Mark Twain we might come to believe that real peace cannot just be done.

Today we conclude our tour of the prophets this Advent season.  Although we lit the Candle of Peace two weeks ago, our focus of thought today is peace as described by the prophet Micah.  Like Malachi, and like Zephaniah, Micah was not your typical Christmas personality.  One commentator calls him “the angriest of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.”  Considering what we heard from Malachi two weeks ago and from Zephaniah last week that is quite a statement.  Micah was probably a farmer who wasn’t fond of Jerusalem city slickers.  He offered his prophecy in the late eighth or early seventh century BCE.  The Assyrians had invaded the area and captured the northern kingdom of Israel.  The southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem was located and where Micah lived, was under siege from enemies.  There was a sense of uneasiness and anxiety.  Certainly there was no peace.  Some leaders advocated for bigger armies and military alliances.  Most of the people looked for a strong king, someone in the line of David who would rule from a mighty palace in Jerusalem.  According to Micah, corruption was everywhere. Judges offered justice, but for a price.  Priests would pray and twist the religious law, but for a price.  Micah spoke out against the greed and the abuse of the poor.  Micah believed that everyone in Judah was on edge because they were looking for God provide a great leader who would support them without asking them to change.  They cried “Peace, peace.  Yet surely no harm shall come to us.  The Lord is on our side.”  The people of Judah believed that God was on their side yet they ignored the intention of God, hoping to find their own peace in plans and schemes that create wealth and pleasure. 

Micah said that God’s promise was coming- but in a surprising way.  There will be a new king in the line of David, but this new king will not rule with military authority.  This king will not come from powerful Jerusalem but from lowly Bethlehem.  The power of this ruler will not be on the world stage but in lives and in hearts.  He will be one of peace who will care for his people as a shepherd.  Micah prophesied that God would remain faithful and intervene in the situation but not in the ways that the people expected.   

As Christians, we quickly see the parallel between Micah’s prophetic king and the birth of Jesus.  Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  He was defined as the Prince of Peace.  He sought justice and righteousness, siding with the poor and the widowed and the orphaned against those with power and authority.  Jesus served God’s end in all things.  While there is no direct historical connection, what Micah prophesied for Judah is exactly what we Christians believe that the coming of Christ meant for the world.  He is one of peace and brings the peace of God.  The peace he brings will not come because of the security our wealth and knowledge and power assures.  The peace he brings comes when we understand that we are loved and cared for by God who has become one of us, who looks us in the face and stands with us, and asks that we live in that love.  That is all we need and all we need to know.  And when one of peace rules the world, the world changes.  We are transformed.

Michael Brown of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, tells of a man in his church who had undergone an experimental surgery designed to save his life.  Sadly, there was some post-surgical complications.  Later he reported laying in his bed in ICU, fearing that his life was about to end, reflecting on what had been and what could have been, thinking about the pain he had suffered and the pain he had caused.  He said he lay there measuring his life’s accomplishments and feeling that he was lacking just one thing.  That one thing was peace.  The next morning a chaplain visited his room, staying only a brief moment and conversing in a light fashion.  But prior to leaving he said, “Let me read a brief passage from the Bible and say a prayer.”  The chaplain almost randomly read these words of Jesus, “Peace I leave with you.  My peace I give unto you.  Not as the world gives, do I give it to you.”  The man said the word struck him like a spiritual hammer.  He suddenly realized that his peace couldn’t be planned and ordered.  The peace of mind and life he wanted was there when he understood God’s presence and shared of the presence in word and deed.

In his book We Make the Road by Walking, Brian McLaren writes, “Politicians compete for highest offices.  Business tycoons scramble for a bigger and bigger piece of the pie.  Armies march and scientists study and philosophers philosophize and preachers preach and laborers sweat.  But in that silent baby, lying in that humble manger, there pulses more potential power and wisdom and grace and aliveness than all the rest of us can imagine.” 

The promise to which Micah points is what Christmas is all about.  God comes into the world, not in palaces and temples of Jerusalem, but in the quiet hearts and lives of Bethlehem.  God comes not in might and power.  God comes in a peace that passes understanding, and in a yearning to pass that peace on until little by little the entire world changes.  This Christmas, the Prince of Peace will not be born on a world stage but in your life, your living room, this church, your heart.  Open yourself to the reality of God’s love.  One of peace is coming.

Pure Joy

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Pure Joy”

Rev. Art Ritter
December 16, 2018

 

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,

Author Kent Crockett writes of his wife Cindy, refueling their car at a gas station in a small Texas town. Instead of driving up to a self-service pump, Cindy accidently pulled up to a full service pump. She didn’t realize that the luxury of having someone else pump her gas cost her an extra fifty cents per gallon until she had to pay for the fill up. Later she told her husband about the how the station had hiked the price on full service. Kent says that he was irate about the situation. He thought that the gas station probably had violated some federal or state law. He considered calling a lawyer. He calculated that the extra fifty cents per gallon his wife spent would have taken their vehicle over 128 miles down the road if she had bought self-service gasoline. He fumed for hours. But as he fumed, something came over him. As he fumed he discovered that he was missing out on everything else that was happening around him. He says he suddenly realized that he had sold his joy for a mere seven dollars. He confessed that joy should not be given up so easily.

On the final night of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches’ Annual Meeting and Conference last summer, we were treated to a wonderful banquet with entertainment provided by the San Diego Concert Band. The band played their so-called Fourth of July lineup, full of patriotic marches and American folk music. I remember that it was very impressive when the divider doors of the ballroom opened and the Concert Band was sitting there ready to entertain. During the third piece of the concert, my eyes were drawn to a young man who was playing the clarinet. He seemed to possess a great amount of energy. It was as if he were playing the music with his facial expressions and directing the entire band with the exaggerated movement of his body. While everyone else in the band was doing their job producing beautiful music without much fanfare, this clarinet player was the only one in the concert band who made it obvious that he was having a good time doing his job. I wasn’t alone in noticing this young man. When the third song ended, two
others at my table shouted out, “Look at the clarinet player on the far right!” For the rest of the concert, it was nearly impossible for me to take my eyes off him. He was that entertaining. He was having that much fun.

Following the concert, the band packed up their instruments and those of us who attended the conference said our goodbyes to one another. But a colleague and I moved forward to seek out the clarinet player. We shook his hand and told him how much we enjoyed watching his enjoyment. He offered a simple explanation, “It is my joy. Whatever else is going on in my life flows through me when I play my instrument.” I asked him if he always played that way. He said, “I can’t play any other way. I have to put everything into music. Even when things aren’t going well, music is my abundant joy.” I left the ballroom feeling that I needed to be more like that young man who played the clarinet. I needed to find a source of joy and to let it show.

This is the Third Sunday in Advent, the season of waiting and preparing for the birth of God’s love which we celebrate at Christmas. This Sunday we recognize joy in our Advent preparation. It is easy to equate joy with happiness. Yet happiness is generally defined as a feeling of contentment or well-being that is predicated on something good happening to us. Happiness is an emotion that comes from contentment, satisfaction, bliss, or pleasure. Joy is a little more complex. Joy involves a deeper connection to a greater good, a bond with others, to a purpose or to a higher power. For Christians, joy is a peace that keeps our hearts with Christ in all circumstance. It is in knowing God’s purpose will be realized in all things in spite of apparent worldly contradiction, in spite of our apparent failure and strife. Perhaps simply put: joy is living with faith and hope.

The reading for this Sunday of Joy is from the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah. In almost thirty-four years of preaching, I can’t recall ever having preached from the book of Zephaniah. Zephaniah’s prophecy is limited to just three short chapter, 55 verses in total. But this Advent I decided to focus on the words of the prophets: two weeks ago Jeremiah, last week Malachi, next week Micah, and this week Zephaniah.

Zephaniah delivered the word of God in about 640 BC, around two hundred years before the words of Malachi that we considered last week. The political and religious situations of Zephaniah’s day were quite tenuous. He was speaking to the kings and kingdom of Judah. Their northern neighbor of Israel had already been conquered two generations before by the Assyrians. Now there were barbarian armies from southern Russia sweeping down from the north, threatening Egypt and all of the area. The Babylonian empire was gaining strength to the east. People lived in fear of what might happen next. Many within the kingdom of Judah advocated for alliances. Others spoke out for military preparation. Still others believed that the future was without hope so that pleasure and wealth and happiness were the more important concerns of the day.

Into this situation, Zephaniah spoke the word of God. The day of the Lord would come soon, bringing judgement. The kings and kingdom of Judah would pay for their sins of falling away from God. God had noticed the apathy and indifference of the people. God had seen their failure to care for the poor and oppressed and their selfish greed which took advantage of the powerless. God knew of their desire to follow whatever false god was comfortable and appealing. God was saddened over leaders who were corrupt in speech and action. For two and a half chapters of his book Zephaniah’s words spoke of the day of the Lord in not so pleasant terms. That day would bring judgement. God would “gather the nations and pour out his wrath upon them- my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger….The day of the Lord will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom.” Merry Christmas from Zephaniah!

Here are what some commentators have written about the prophet Zephaniah. “He is a beloved, cantankerous, malcontent.” “Zephaniah’s default position was one of gloom and doom.” “If we put a face on Zephaniah, it would probably be the Grinch who stole Christmas rather than a prophet who promised it.” His words aren’t the kind of stuff people want to hear two weeks before Christmas. The world is dark enough today without hearing about this ancient man who preached even more darkness.

But then, suddenly Zephaniah’s writing changed. In the words we heard this morning, he still spoke of God’s coming to humanity, but in a different way. The world may still be dark, but God was in now in their very midst. The prophet called for God’s people to be glad and shout and sing for joy. God was about to change things. God had come as a pardoning judge, offering forgiveness for those who honestly repent. God had come as shepherd, dealing with the wolves and terror of the night that oppress the flock. God had come as Prince of Peace who will defeat the principalities and powers who threaten life. God had come as Creator, restoring the wonder of earth and sea and sky so that all can glorify God through our place in creation. Even God will burst into song, a song of jubilation because the proper relationship with humanity will be restored. The divine heart will overflow with joy! Imagine that- a day in which God delights in the human condition!

Joy! The situation hadn’t changed but the perspective had. The God who threatened to come to the world with judgement and wrath had come in a very different way. Zephaniah sought to reassure the people that God was present with them and that they could live in the confidence of that promise. The words of the cantankerous, dark, negative prophet changed. Instead of looking at the situation through a dark filter, he began to speak of God’s presence through the perspective of joy. There was a transformation. Words of fear and vulnerability were replaced by words of hope and promise.

Author Leo Buscaglia tells the story about his mother making something she called their “misery dinner.” It was the night after his father came home and said it looked as if he would have to go into bankruptcy because his partner had absconded with their firm’s funds. His mother went out and sold some jewelry to buy food for a sumptuous feast. Other members of the family scolded her for it. But she told them that “the time for joy is now, when we need it most, not next week. Her courageous act rallied the family.

Teilhard de Chardin once said, “The infallible proof of the presence of God is joy.” Long ago in a world marked by fear and injustice and exile, even the dark and gloomy Zephaniah spoke good news, “The Lord your God is in your midst. Rejoice and exult with all of your heart.” Joy isn’t the absence of the darkness. Joy is the celebration of God’s promise and God’s faithfulness with words and action despite the darkness. In our world where God may seem absent and inactive, we are reminded that appearances are deceiving. Even earthly life can give us no assurance of release from trouble, we can count on God’s deliverance of forgiveness and redemption. Because God came in Jesus the Christ, we know that God will come to us again. “Do not fear, O Zion, do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God is in your midst and he will rejoice over you with gladness.” As God finds joy in us, so we celebrate our lives in pure joy.

Spit and Polish

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Spit and Polish”

Rev. Art Ritter
December 9, 2018

 

Malachi 3:1-4
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

As visitors to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford museum know, Henry Ford had Thomas Edison’s electrical laboratory moved from Menlo Park, NJ to Dearborn. The reassembled building was opened on October 29, 1929 – a day famous for a certain stock market crash. After the ceremony, Henry Ford asked Edison what he thought of the new laboratory. Edison replied, “It is ninety-nine and a half percent perfect.” Ford, who prided himself on the accuracy of the reconstruction, was a bit put-off. He asked his friend, “What could possibly be wrong?” Edison answered, “Well, we never used to keep the place so clean.”

Laura and I are empty nesters again. In June, Amelia moved into an apartment in Lansing and Max and Maren moved to Louisville, KY to begin their new life adventure. Unlike our previous empty nest experience, Laura moved quickly to change things. She immediately emptied one upstairs bedroom of stuff – with some things going to the church rummage sale and some going directly to the curb. Two bedroom sets and some cabinets found a new home. Once Max and Maren left the confines of our basement, Laura made arrangements for our exercise equipment to exit the other spare upstairs bedroom and return to a more convenient spot in the basement. We now have two bedrooms almost entirely free of furniture and clutter. I know that when it got done, Laura felt really good about things. It was a lot of work and a lot of organizing, but upon completion of the cleanup, it was a job well done. I think there is some kind of special feeling that you get when you have completed such a project. You notice the difference between what was and what is. Cleaning adds brightness and energy to things. You can look upon it and say, “This is good!”

A colleague of mine wrote about a unique Christmas gift that he received every year. One of his parishioners, a woman in her late eighties and early nineties, would proudly give him a bar of homemade lye soap. Just reading about it brought to my mind images of Granny on the old television show The Beverly Hillbillies. I could just picture her stirring the big pot by the cement pond, with almost lethal smoke rising from the mixture of household chemicals that would produce such a strong soap. My colleague wrote that he never had the courage to use the soap in the shower or for regular bathing. Perhaps he too had seen The Beverly Hillbillies! But he did find a use for it. He kept the soap in his basement workshop. He said it was fantastic in taking off tough grease and grime on old mechanical parts, along with a layer of his skin. He added that whenever he used the soap he could feel its sting upon his fingers. His hands not only looked clean but they felt clean.

Today we observe the Second Sunday of Advent, that period of preparation for the gift of God’s presence to us that is celebrated at Christmas. Today we reflect upon the words of the Hebrew prophet Malachi. Malachi, whose name can be translated “my messenger” lived about 450-500 years before the birth of Jesus. The book itself is the last book in the Christian Old Testament but was probably not the last book written in the Hebrew Scripture. Certainly the book of Daniel was written much later. But because it is the last book in the Old Testament, directly proceeding the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Christians might be guilty of too easily using Malachi’s words about a messenger and about the one who is coming, to point directly at John the Baptist and Jesus without considering the historical circumstance in which they were delivered.

Malachi probably was written following the return of the Hebrew people from years of exile in Babylon. At first things had gone rather well. The walls of the city of Jerusalem had been rebuilt. The Temple had been rebuilt. But the promise of a greater restoration of Israel seemed unfulfilled. There was no king on the throne to continue the line of David. Jerusalem was still rather small and insignificant in comparison with its neighbors. The Temple, while rebuilt, was nothing like Solomon had built it. There was a certain apathy and lack of spirit in worship. There was a profound sense of despair born of life that seemingly fallen short of divine promise.

The people of Israel felt that they had already paid deeply for their sins. They had been conquered and taken away from their homeland. Yes, now they had returned and had done their best to return everything to the way it was. But as years passed they grew tired of waiting for God to do something great again for them. They were beginning to wonder if God really blessed them or if that blessing had been given to the apparently less faithful around them.

In their despair they lost all enthusiasm for the worship of God. Tithes were ignored. The Sabbath was broken. Even the priests had become lax in their behavior. They lost sight of what was sacred and holy. They had fallen into corruption. Israel’s priorities were out of whack. Obedience to God’s intention was a poor second to actions that were more pleasurable and self-satisfying. The people had forgotten their call to serve the poor and needy and sought way that lined their own pockets with wealth and raised their own importance at the expense of others.

For these people in despair, Malachi had some good news. God was coming. God was going to act. “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” But then Malachi message got a bit more puzzling and certainly a lot more serious. “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap, he will sit as a refiner and purifier….”

Ouch. As one commentator wrote, “Currier and Ives, Malachi is not!” The coming of God will be like a refiner who heats things up in a roaring furnace so that the waste products can be separated from the precious good stuff. The coming of God will be like a good scrubbing in the backyard with Granny’s lye soap, leaving your body technically clean but sore and red and terribly blistered.

These images remind us that Advent is not so much about preparing for a “Merry Little Christmas” as it is about judgment and repentance, refining and a good scrub brush. We are apt to spend our December days planning our wish lists and social calendars, doing our baking and decorating, and frantically completing all of our shopping. Yet Malachi seems to be saying that the way to prepare for Christmas is through honest confession, a re-ordering of priorities, and a serious examination of how our practices of faith line up with God’s intention. While we want to focus on the picture of a choir of angels surrounding a newborn baby, Jesus’ birth does not mean that we are supposed be left unchanged. The birth of Jesus challenges as well as comforts. We must be refined and cleaned before we can truly experience the joy and good news.

In an Advent sermon preached in 1928 Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God…. We have become so accustomed to the idea of the divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”

Tolstoy once said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves.” The God who comes to us at Christmas comes not just as feel good story of a little baby born in a tiny village, but as the very presence of God that cares enough about us that even in the face of overwhelming darkness and wickedness, speaks to us the truth. Our gracious God loves us so much that it is God’s desire for us to be freed from the grease and grime of wrongdoing and bad intentions. In the birth of Jesus, God calls us to be honest about ourselves, to change, to clean up our act, to rid ourselves of those things which separate us from God’s love and God’s intention; all those things we must do to truly experience the joy that awaits us at Christmas. As Dr. Scott Johnson prays in his words about this text, “O God, as we prepare for this Christmas give to us clean hands to hold the baby Jesus.”

Days Are Coming

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Days Are Coming”

Rev. Art Ritter
December 2, 2018

 

Jeremiah 33:14-16
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

In May of 1966, the musical Mame opened on Broadway starring Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. The story was about the title character Mame, a high flying member of New York society in the 1920’s. Mame’s lifestyle was rather eccentric, bohemian, and intellectual, always frolicking in the company of her rich friends. Then one day, upon the death of her brother, Mame’s ten year old nephew Patrick arrived and she had to care for him. Mame tried to keep up her lavish lifestyle, even including the boy in the banquets and parties. But then October 1929 came along and Mame lost much of her wealth in the stock market crash and resulting Great Depression.

There is a scene in the musical where Mame and her nephew mourned their loss of brother, father, and fortune. There was a certain sadness in the loss of the security and joy of the past and a deep hopelessness in the fear and worry in the uncertainty of the future. In this difficult situation, Mame decided to do something to make herself happy. She choose to throw a party, decorating for the most festive holiday that she could think of. She began to sing what we now think of as the contemporary Christmas song, “We All Need a Little Christmas.” I would sing it for you but I don’t sound anything like Johnny Mathis. “For we need a little music, need a little laughter, need a little singing-ringing through the rafter. And we need a little snappy, ‘Happy Ever After.’ Need a little Christmas now.”

As we begin the season of Advent, our lives are confronted by times and situations that rival that gloomy hopelessness. While any age might be labeled a period of darkness, there is much in our current day that fuels a sense of despair. Mass shootings. Layoffs. Fire and flood and earthquake. Refugees and immigration policy. Dictators with nuclear arsenals. Politicians whose words seek to divide rather than unify, whose actions seem to fan our fears not assuage them. It is an uneasy feeling just turning on the world and national news at night or checking your social media during the day. It seems as if more people are angry and unkind and bold in their hatred. We know that many close at hand suffer from a lack of adequate food, medicine, clothing, and shelter. We know that many live in grief, worry, loneliness, and depression. How do we find hope in such a time? How do we live in hope in such a time? Certainly we need a little Christmas, the kind of Christmas that is more than decorations and presents and lights. We need a Christmas that really changes our world.

Today we hear the words of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived in a time in which his nation, the southern kingdom of Judah, was threatened by the neighboring superpower Babylon. Jeremiah reminded the king and his advisors that faithfulness to God was not found in actions of patriotism and military might. Faithfulness was listening deeply for God’s intention and then seeking it in service and sacrificial ways. For this commentary, Jeremiah was thrown in jail. The Babylonians conquered Judah and led many away into exile away from their homeland. The people lived in deep despair, longing for a return to the security and comfort of the past but realizing that their world and lives were out of their control.

Kathryn Matthews writes, “We sense that same longing today, in people who feel pushed down and pushed out, even crushed beneath the heel of modern empires of greed, materialism, militarism, and nationalism.” Joanna Adams added in 2006, words that to me seem perfectly appropriate twelve years later, “This Advent I feel an urgent need for the light that comes from God, and I do not think I am the only one…the clouds of anxiety about the future are hovering so low and close that you can barely see you hand in front of your face.”
But Jeremiah wasn’t through speaking the word of God. He prophesied again. “The days are surely coming,” says the Lord, “when I will fulfill the promise I made to Judah. In those days I will cause a righteous branch to spring up, and he shall execute righteousness and justice in the land.” Jeremiah’s words seemed to contradict reality. There was no king and no heir to David on the throne. The temple was empty and abandoned. Yet the prophet was convinced that some good day was surely coming. His prophecy pointed out the promise of God precisely in that moment when God was most missed, most absent. And Jeremiah’s words said that God’s presence was not just in some longed-for future, but in a close at hand day that makes a claim on present deeds. Lives should be oriented toward expectation, but not in simply waiting around for God to act. Righteous actions by the faithful would be the very thing that would inaugurate God’s new day.
Jeremiah’s vision of hope was an opposite approach from that which Mame used in the Broadway musical. Deep down inside we know that the magic wand of tinsel and presents and twinkling lights will not change things for us either. Jeremiah’s vision of hope was rooted in the core reality that we see in our God and in the presence of the Christ whose birth we await at Christmas. It is the power of creation, redemption, and resurrection- bringing a green bud of possibility after a long winter, new life in a stump that was cut off, peace and good will in the presence of a baby born into a situation of political and personal turmoil.

Days are coming. Advent is that tricky time of living between the “already” and the “not yet.” We have to hear this word from the prophet as if he is speaking to us today. Christmas comes when we believe God’s promise is real and is being fulfilled around us. Christmas comes when we make it alive in our world. If we want to celebrate a future hope we have to recognize that the future hope has a claim on how we live in the present. We have to love and act with compassion and goodwill, seeking righteousness and justice, confident that what we do matters and believing that in what we do, the coming new day of God is one minute closer to being.