Monday, September 14, 2020

Invitational Christians


John 1:29-42

                29The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

           35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”  37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?”

           They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).


           Epiphany is not a season.  Technically.

           What we sometimes call the “season of Epiphany” is actually part of Ordinary Time.  Don’t worry about using too many brain cells to remember that, because it is mostly important to the people who draw those church year calendars with all the colors on them, and to altar guilds, which in our church means Valorie Bratcher, who have to decide what color paraments to put out.


           Ordinary Time.  The time between Epiphany and Lent is ordinary.

           Except that it is not.  The lessons for this “ordinary” time are quite clearly meant to expound upon a set of themes that are clearly tied to Epiphany.  Both the event and the word.

           What’s an epiphany?

           It’s a revelation.  A realization.  A manifestation.  The prayer of the day for Epiphany begins, “O God, on this day you revealed your Son to the nations by the leading of a star.”

           This season that isn’t a season is all about how Jesus is revealed, and what we are called to do with that revelation. 

           Which means we are going to have some John.  John’s gospel is the Gospel of Signs.  The Gospel of Revelations.  The book called “Revelation” is patterned after this gospel. 

           And John lets us know from Chapter One.  “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

           Hint:  “Word” is a sign for Jesus.

           “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.  John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”’”

           John testified.  If you read Chapter One carefully, and we’ve got a pretty good chunk of it this morning, if you read the narrative part of Chapter One—the part after the lengthy prologue about Jesus the Word--you will notice a couple of things:

1.  John does almost all of the talking.

2.  All of his talking is about Jesus.  When he speaks of himself, it is to differentiate between him and Jesus.  John baptized with water.  Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

           John was born first, but Jesus “was before” him, so he ranks first.

           John saw the Spirit descend, and it landed on Jesus.

           John is called Baptizer or Baptist in the other Gospels, but not in the one which shares his name.  In this gospel he might more rightly be known as John the Witness, or John the Revealer.  Because he is there to testify to Jesus, in a Gospel which is all about Jesus being revealed.

           So it’s good that we have this gospel, and good that it creeps into the lectionary every so often, even to my chagrin, because as I have told many of you, it is not the easiest to preach, because it’s full of statements like “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”

           We need the witness of this John the Witness.  We need the reminder that the task of the disciple, the task of the one lucky enough to know Jesus, is to testify to who he is and what he has done.

           Each of us who is not Jesus is called to testify to Jesus.  John made that the centerpoint of his testimony:  “Hey, I’m not Jesus.  But let me tell you about him.” 

           Testimony seems so scary, because we have learned to make it about us.  So then we are afraid to tell, because we make it all about us.  My mentor and coach Dave Daubert wrote a nice little book in which he suggests that we would all be more invitational if we just got over three fears:

           --Fear of rejection

           --Fear of being perceived a fanatic

           --Fear of harming the relationship we have with the person we’re inviting

           --Fear of appearing foolish or ignorant

Who are all those fears about?  Us.  None of those fears is about Jesus.  We aren’t afraid of testimony because we think the story is bad, are we?  The story is good.  Good news!  The story is amazing. 

           God so loved the world that God came in the flesh to be with us.  Gospel according to John.  Chapter Three.

           That’s an awesome story.  We should be telling it more.  We should be testifying to God’s love and to the teachings of Jesus Christ, which could turn this world around.

           What if we tried to make testimony part of the conversations we have every day?

           What if we really believed that telling the story of Jesus and what he has meant to our lives…what if we truly believed that it would make a difference?  That it could change the world.

           John believed that.  John believed it and he spent his life pointing to Jesus and connecting people to Jesus, and changing their lives.  Changing the world around him through the story of Jesus.

           He is a good role model for people who aren’t Jesus.  Like us.

           Those role models are important.  It’s important to find them and to observe how their testimony changes lives and changes the world.

           The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  There’s one.  Dr. King’s work was grounded in his testimony to Jesus Christ, and what Jesus meant to him.  Dr. King dreamed dreams for all of us, dreams about a world that lived by the teachings of Jesus.  He inspired thousands, millions, to put away violence and live the way of Jesus, not a timid way, but a way that demanded justice.  Because God demands justice and Jesus carried justice to the cross and on out of the tomb.

           On April 3,1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis, to support striking sanitation workers.  He wasn’t feeling very well—had a sore throat and a fever, so he sent his friend Ralph Abernathy to speak for him at Bishop Charles Mason Temple.  Rev. Abernathy looked out at the crowd and realized that they were disappointed at not seeing Dr. King.  So he went down to the office and he called his friend Martin and said, “You need to come down here.”  So his friend Martin did.  And he spoke with no notes, for forty-three minutes—so if you think this sermon is long, think on that.

           And he finished with these words:

            Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop… Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.  And [God has] allowed me to go up to the mountaintop. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.  And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

           The next day, Dr. King was shot and killed, while standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. 

           And for a moment, the Civil Rights Movement, and America, were torn asunder.  This city was torn asunder, as were cities across this nation.  But slowly people came together, and they vowed to continue the work of Dr. King.  Because they had heard and absorbed and followed the testimony of a man who was first a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  A follower of the Word of God’s love for all people and God’s demand that we all live in and contribute to justice.

           Right now, in this very country, so wounded in the sixties…and for that matter in every decade since…with violence and bloodshed, right now people are rising up, standing on the testimony of Dr. King, who stood on the testimony of Amos and Isaiah and Jesus, we are standing up and crying out and bringing forth the testimony that is within us. 

           Right now, in these dangerous and depressing and demoralizing times, Rev. Dr. William Barber, a black man, and Rev. Liz Theoharris, a white woman, are leading a new Poor People’s Campaign, continuing the work Dr. King started over fifty years ago.  And right now in this very building, people are gathering to work toward the end of the evils that Dr. King described—the triple evils of militarism, economic inequity, and racism.  Plus a fourth evil that Dr. Barber and Rev. Theoharris have brought to the forefront:  environmental destruction.

           Right now in this very building, people are being sent out, armed only with the echoes of the testimony of Dr. King and with their own stories of yearning for a better way, the way which Jesus taught, people are venturing forth to testify that we can find a new way.

           And we find it first by knowing our own stories.  Our own stories about Jesus—what he did and what he is doing in our lives.

           There is a testimony in you…a story of how God has worked in your life to make a difference—to change your life or the lives of the people around you. 

           There is a testimony in you about justice, about mercy, about acceptance.  I don’t know what your story is, but you do.  And the world could know it…if you just tell it.

Just Water?

 Matthew 3:13-17

                13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

           16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.

           17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”


           In March of 2018, I was in a bus with sixteen new friends, driving from the Golan Heights to Jerusalem.  As someone who had spent my adult life reading, studying, and then preaching the Gospels, it was a little surreal.  We had spent a couple of nights at a kibbutz right on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  We had been to Capernaum and to the Mount of the Beatitudes, where Jesus preached his most famous sermon.

           So we’re on the road, chatting, and our guide, Chaim, gets on the microphone up front and says, okay, look out the left windows, and you’re going to get a view of the Jordan River.

           I excitedly moved over to the left side and we went around a corner, and here’s what we saw [Slide].  We drove alongside the river, and the view remained pretty similar.  [Slide]

           I don’t know what I was expecting.  I’ve seen a few Jesus movies—being a pastor and all—and the “River Jordan” is always pretty impressive.

           [Slide]  Here’s one artist’s recreation.  It is not at all accurate.  Even the wider place with the gift shop where we stopped was, well, kinda muddy and looked a lot like the marshes I used to muck around in as a kid in Savannah, Georgia.

           [Slide]  That didn’t stop me from getting in.  Really should have worn shorts that day.

           As we wound our way down the river, driving alongside it much of the way south, I realized that my mental image of the place where Jesus found his cousin John and was baptized is not particularly accurate.  That, in fact, it is closer to the image held by Naaman the Aramean than by countless painters of pretty portraits of John the Baptizer and Jesus.

           Remember Naaman?  Second book of Kings, chapter five?    General in the Aramean (Syrian) army, with leprosy.  He goes to ask Elisha the prophet for help, and Elisha tells him to wash seven times in the Jordan.  And Naaman says, “Ew!  Have you seen that river?!  We have way better rivers in Damascus!”

           But he does it and he’s cured and Yay River Jordan!  She may not be much to look at, but she gets the job done.

           And that’s the thing about baptism.  It gets the job done.  Sure, Jesus could have found a more impressive place to be baptized.  He could have found a more impressive way to signal that he’s about to begin his public work.  We could have a more impressive initiation rite. 

           Even John the Baptist doesn’t think the baptism he’s offering is good enough for Jesus.  According to Matthew, when Jesus came to be baptized, “14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”

           Jesus stopped him right there, though.  “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

           This is good.  And right.  It gets the job done.

           I’m going to tell you a little secret about religion that you might not know.  You can decide whether to share it with anyone else, because it might blow their minds.

           Sometimes, we religious people…we Christians in particular…sometimes…we overthink things.

           Do you need a minute to sit with that?

           We overthink things.  Always have.  The Council of Nicea—from which we got the Nicene Creed?  Went from May to July of the year 325.  Over two months.  Hope they brough spare robes.

           And that’s nothing.  The council of Trent, held in the 16th Century to discuss “the Protestant heresies,” lasted eighteen years.

           Eighteen years to talk about whether the Bible really says we are justified by God’s grace as a free gift and not by the works we do or the activity of the church.

           Hint:  it does.  And in the last five hundred years, Catholics and Lutherans have come to largely the same understanding about justification thanks to lots, and lots, of ecumenical discussion.

           We sometimes overthink things.  And there are times when that overthinking results in clarity and needed changes.  There have only been two Ecumenical Councils since the council of Trent almost five hundred years ago.  The first was cut short by war, but the second, affectionately known as Vatican II, finally made good on the promise of Trent, that the people should worship and study the Bible in their own language.

           Sometimes it is good to think deeply, and sometimes it is just a way of avoiding decisions and preserving power.  Our United Methodist siblings are getting ready to split their church because they can’t figure out how to think their way around welcome to LGBTQ people.

           In a culture in which the church has lost its place at the center, overthinking can be pretty dangerous.  We lost a lot of Lutherans when we spent a decade “studying” sexuality.  And we lost a bunch more when all those reams of reports and testimony didn’t say what they wanted them to say.

           Jesus never commissioned a single study.  When an issue presented itself, he dealt with it.  Well, there was that time he was sleeping during a terrible storm, but when they woke him he dealt with it.

           John wanted Jesus to step back and think about his baptism.  Maybe Jesus should be doing the baptism.  Maybe somewhere else.  Maybe we should have a study…or a council.

           Jesus looked at the water—that muddy, altogether pretty ordinary river water—and said “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

           We need to do this, John.  Righteousness can’t wait.  Grace can’t wait.  My people can’t wait.

           This water is good.  This simple ritual is good.  Because in this water, in that river, in that font over there and in bowls of water and tanks of water and dainty shells full of water in sanctuaries across the world—in that water is the power to fulfill all righteousness. 

           In our baptism, we have received the opportunity [Slide + 3 clicks]

·       To walk proudly in God’s righteousness

·       To witness to the kingdom of God in our midst

·       And to know that God’s grace has saved us and claimed us through our baptismal promises, and thus to reflect that grace to everyone we meet.


           That’s what’s in that simple water.  No matter where we got it—a muddy river, a pretty font, a borrowed horse trough [Slide]—don’t laugh—it happens more than you think.

           It’s just water, wherever you got it.  But as Luther reminds us in his Small Catechism, “it is water “comprehended in God's command and connected with God's Word.”

           In that simple water is the power to live through God’s Word.  To know that you are justified by God’s grace.  To reflect that grace to the people in your life.

           We can overthink it, like John the Baptist seems to, and like centuries of church elders have done.  Or we can just let that power wash over us like water, and use it to change lives.

           Someone in your life needs a little grace.  Someone in your life needs a little benefit of the doubt. 

           You have the power.  You got it in the water.  If you haven’t yet been baptized, you can still connect with God’s grace and be a reflection, and I invite you right now into the power of the water.


           I invite you right now to turn to page 234 in your hymnal.  Together we are going to affirm our baptisms, to receive the simple water and remember its power.  I invite you to think as we do this, as the water hits you—think about who in your life is hungry for a little grace, and how will you get out of your head and into your heart to give it to them.


Affirmation of Baptism.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Let It Go, Sermon for Christmas Eve 2020

Christmas Eve 2019, SMHP
First Reading:  Isaiah 9:2-3a
2The 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,
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.
Gospel Reading:            (Please stand as you are able)            Luke 2:1-14
          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.”

          There is no other night like this one.  No other night with as much meaning, as much tradition, as much superstition. 
          In Finland, they leave out a sheaf of wheat for the birds to eat, then wait inside for the visit of the Christmas Goat.
          In Norway—land of Anna and Elsa and Olaf the Snowman, they light a candle each night from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day.  They also hide their brooms, due to an ancient superstition that spirits come looking for brooms to ride on Christmas Eve.
          In Brazil, they leave socks by the window.  If Papai Noel finds them, he exchanges them for a present.  In Estonia, they follow the same tradition, but put the socks out on the first day of Advent, then settle in for a long wait. 
          In Poland, no one can eat or open presents until the first star shines in the night sky.
          In Sweden, they start Christmas Eve with a noontime Julbord filled with cold fish, meatballs, sausages, potatoes, and red cabbage, along with other delicacies like pickled pigs’ feet and lutefisk. Sounded good until then, didn’t it?
          Then on Christmas Eve afternoon, Swedes settle down in the living room…to watch Donald Duck.  At 3 pm every Christmas Eve since 1959, one of the Swedish national stations has broadcast "Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul,” Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas.”  An estimated 40-50% of the country stops to watch.
          You probably have your own Christmas Eve traditions.  Family traditions, new traditions, old ones, silly ones, important ones like going to church on Christmas Eve.  And you probably remember what this night was like when you were putting out your socks and waiting for Papa Noel, or Santa…or the Christmas Goat (!).
          There is nothing like being a child on Christmas Eve.  The joy, the innocence, the hope!
          It’s great being an adult on Christmas Eve too…right?  But while we adults enjoy Christmas Eve, we often enjoy it in the midst of things still undone, worries about whether we’ve bought the right presents and all the right food, whether the house looks okay…or we’re dressed okay…
          When I was a kid, I thought it would be so cool to be a grownup and be able to do anything I wanted.  To buy whatever I wanted and be in charge of stuff.
          Anybody else think it was going to be cool to be in charge of stuff?  To buy whatever you want, whenever you want?  Yeah, it doesn’t quite work out that way, does it?
          Adulting isn’t all it seems, is it?  Sometimes being in charge, having all that autonomy and some authority, it’s just kind of exhausting.  Anybody else feel that way?
          Well good news for you!  This night is all about you.  There is, on this night, heaps and heaps of good news for you!
          Tonight we stand on a hillside with people who had very little power, and not much authority.
          But God chose them, as God has chosen us, to hear the most amazing story ever.  “Good news of great joy for all people.”
          Unto us has been born this day in the City a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
          “A child has been born, for us,” Isaiah declares.  “A son has been given to us.”
          “And”…listen carefully, because this is the really important part.  “Authority rests on his shoulders.”
          He may look innocent and helpless, lying in that feeding trough…but no he has power none of you can imagine.  And because of him, you don’t need to imagine it.  You don’t need to possess it.
          The best news of this night is that we don’t have to be in charge.  We can let go.  Try it.  Just clear your mind of anything lurking there and stressing you out.  Here it again:
          “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.”
          Here’s a new tradition we can all try out tonight, and maybe every year at this time.  Let’s just spend a few minutes realizing that the one called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace has all the authority any of us will ever need resting on his shoulders. 
          And that is a big weight off of our shoulders.  Walk with the child born this night, and you needn’t worry about your own authority.  His is sufficient.  Lay all of your cares on him.  He can carry them.


Be Not Afraid, Year A, Fourth Sunday of Advent

Year A, Advent IV, Dec. 22, 2019
Isaiah 7:1-4, 7-17
          In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem, but could not mount an attack against it. 2When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. 
          3Then the Lord said to Isaiah, Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field, 4and say to him, Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah.
          7Therefore thus says the Lord God:  It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.8 For the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. (Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered, no longer a people.) 9The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah.  If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.
               10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.
          12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.
          13Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
Matthew 1:18-25
            18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

          How many have seen my house?
          If you have, you know it sits up on a hill.  [Slide]  There are two sets of stairs to climb: from the street to the yard and the yard to the front porch.
          So last Monday, when we were home with Dominic enjoying a Snow Day, we were all out in the yard…trying—unsuccessfully—to build a snowman.  And Colleen, my lovely wife, looks down at the very steep hill and says, “I think he could ride his sled down the hill.”
          I don’t remember what I said, but it was basically some version of “Have you lost your mind?!”
          This is a dynamic which plays out occasionally in our life together as, now, a family of three.  She suggests something…and I point out that it is dangerous and crazy. 
          Exhibit B:  Colleen likes fireworks.  The kind you buy in a box and shoot off illegally in the vacant lot across the street.  I think incendiary devices belong in the hands of professionals. 
          For someone who takes some risks in public life, I am kind of a chicken in other parts of life, especially when it comes to Dominic.
          I like to think I am keeping our son safe from things like, you know, smashing into the cars parked at the curb on a sled.  [Slide]
          But the truth is that it is good that he has both of us.  Because while some fears keep us safe, living in fear is actually dangerous.  When we are operating out of fear, of, just to pick an example, immigrants…people of color…gay people…reading…
          …we make poor decisions.
          The examples from history are manifold.  As big as the Holocaust and as small as New Coke.  (Look it up.)
          As people of faith, we need look no further than our Bibles, which are full of exhortations to “Fear not!”  It is a phrase first spoken to Abram, even before God renames him and makes a covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their children.
          [Slides] Genesis 15:  Fear not, Abram.  I am your shield; your reward will be great.”
          Exodus 14:  "And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD.’”
          First Kings 17:  “And Eli'jah said to the widow, ‘Fear not; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make for yourself and your son.’”  If you know that story, you know that the widow was preparing a last meal for herself and her son and she then expected them to starve to death.  Elijah asks her to have faith in God and in him, and God provides food for them all until the famine is over.
          “Fear not” is usually a marker for divine intervention in human lives.  An angel, a midwife, a prophet—someone with knowledge of God’s power—declares to a person or a people that when they set their aside their fear and trust in God…peace and goodwill will follow.
          Some form of the exhortation “fear not” occurs over two dozen times in the book of Isaiah, including in the expanded lesson before us this morning.  I added some verses to the lectionary text, because the lesson actually doesn’t make as much sense if you start at verse 10, as the lectionary suggests.
          In the complete form of the lesson before us, God summons the prophet, Isaiah, to go and collect King Ahaz of Judah, the antihero for all of our lessons this Advent, and speak a word of prophecy to him.
          “Say to that Ahaz guy,” God demands, “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands.”
          [Slide]  Quick review: the “smoldering stumps of firebrands” are the kings of Israel and Aram, who are gearing up to attack Ahaz’s kingdom, Judah.  The two of them together make a formidable opponent, so despite God’s reassurances that Judah will be protected, Ahaz is considering ill-advised alliances with nations like Egypt.  Those alliances will weaken, rather than strengthen, Judah, and leave it vulnerable to the Babylonian Empire which is, at this point, just a whisper in the wind.
          So the prophet goes to Ahaz and says what messengers from God say:
          Be Not Afraid. 
          If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.”
          See, because fear—not doubt…this is important:  Fear is the opposite of faith.  We can be faithful, or we can be fearful.  It’s almost impossible to be both.  When I refuse to let my wife take our child down the hill in front of our house on a sled, I am displaying clear lack of faith in her judgment of hill angles and stopping distances.
          Now I have a lot of faith in her generally, so this is not a huge barrier in our relationship.
          The conversation Ahaz and Isaiah are having is a bit different.  Because the fear Ahaz is showing has leaked all over his relationship with God.
          Maybe you’ve been there.
          Ahaz is so fearful about the future that he has ceased to trust God at all.  Isaiah offers him the opportunity to trust in God, to ask God for a sign—anything.  And Ahaz declines. 
          If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.
          Ahaz is firm in fear, and weak in faith, and that is a problem for him…and an even bigger problem for Judah.  Leaders whose primary motivator is fear are dangerous creatures.
          Because fear strips us of reason.
          Fear strips us of logic.
          Fear strips us of love.
          And that is where I want to finish up, as we consider prophecy about miraculous women and babies, which is what’s at the bottom of this particular exegetical sledding hill.
          This is, after all, the week of love. [Slide]
          Ahaz declines the sign which Isaiah offers, but the prophet gives it to him anyway.  “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.”
          Scholars have long debated what this particular prophecy means, with not a lot of clarity.  But Matthew inserted it into his telling of the nativity of Jesus, so it is forever connected to that miraculous birth for us.
          And that miraculous birth is all about…love.
          This miraculous week is all about…love.
          In the midst of all of the political intrigue, the interfering foreign powers, the neighbors who used to be our friends but now seem threatening…
          …in the midst of it all is this story, this sign.  “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” 
          And the second time the prophecy is offered, when an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, telling him that his betrothed is to bear a miraculous child, and imploring him to “be not afraid,” … this second story has a different ending, doesn’t it?
          Because Joseph is a righteous man, and when presented with a choice between love and fear, he chooses…
          And as this story of miraculous birth, of God’s inbreaking into the world, as this Immanuel Tale comes to us anew again this year, in a world that looks a little too much like Ahaz’s Judah, we too have a choice:  fear or love?
          Will we go careening down the hill toward all of that innocence and light without a care?  Will we pick up that child and carry him within us everywhere we go, living his way, forgiving his way, loving his way?
          Can we carry hope, peace, joy, and love past Advent, into Christmas, and into the new year?
          Of course we can.  We are not afraid, are we?  God is with us.