Order of Service
|Prelude||We Three Kings||Chris Johansen, piano|
|Confession & Forgiveness||Pastor Linda|
|Gathering Song||As With Gladness, Men of Old|
Chris Johansen, piano
Prayer of the Day
|Psalm 145||vs. 1-10||Harry Johansen|
Chris Johansen, piano
|Scripture||Luke 3||Pastor Linda|
|Hymn||Come, Beloved of the Maker|
Chris Johansen, piano
|Prayers of Intercession||Nikki Strandskov|
|Closing Hymn||O Day Full of Grace|
Chris Johansen, piano
|Postlude||by Mozart||Chris Johansen|
“We too have a star to guide us, which forever will provide us with the light to find our Lord. And this star as bright as day, which will never lead astray with its message so appealing, is the Word of God, revealing Christ to us as Lord and King, Christ to us as Lord and King.”
~ from Splendid are the Heavens High, v 6 and 7
Confession & Forgiveness
P: God of goodness and mercy, help us as we open our hearts and confess our sin.
Silence for reflection and self-examination.
God of grace and truth,
C: in Christ Jesus you come among us as light shining in the darkness. Standing in this new year, we are offered possibilities, yet continue to carry the fears and doubts that have held us captive. We celebrate the gift of Jesus, but forget that he was a gift of love to all the world, every tribe and tongue; at times, in our selfishness, we cannot hear God’s call and become quiet when our voices are most needed. Help us to do what’s right in the days to come. Surround us and renew us by your grace so that we may live in the fullness of your love, trusting in the compassion of the Lord of life.
P: In the mercy of almighty God, in the Word made flesh among us, in the child of Mary born to set us free, – in him, our sin is forgiven. Amen
Gathering Song – As With Gladness, Men of Old
As with gladness men of old
did the guiding star behold;
as with joy they hailed its light,
leading onward, beaming bright;
so, most gracious Lord, may we
evermore be led by thee.
As with joyful steps they sped,
Savior, to thy lowly bed,
there to bend the knee before
thee, whom heav’n and earth adore;
so may we with willing feet
ever seek thy mercy seat.
3. As they offered gifts most rare
at thy cradle, rude and bare,
so may we with holy joy,
pure and free from sin’s alloy,
all our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to thee, our heavenly King.
4. Holy Jesus, ev’ry day
keep us in the narrow way;
and when earthly things are past,
bring our ransomed souls at last
where they need no star to guide,
where no clouds thy glory hide.
In the heav’nly county bright
need they no created light;
thou its light, its joy, its crown,
thou its sun which goes not down;
there forever may we sing
alleluias to our king.
The grace and loving-kindness of our Savior Jesus Christ be with you all.
And also with you.
Prayer of the Day
Eternal God and Father,
we thirst for your love, we long for your presence, we yearn for your peace. Come, Lord, restore us that we may live in your mercy. Amen.
Psalm 145: 1-10
1 I will exalt you, my | God and king,
and bless your name forev-|er and ever.
2 Every day | will I bless you
and praise your name forev-|er and ever.
3 Great is the Lord and greatly | to be praised!
There is no end | to your greatness.
4 One generation shall praise your works | to another
and shall de-|clare your power.
5 I will speak of the glorious splendor | of your majesty
and all your | marvelous works.
6 They shall tell of the might of your | wondrous acts,
and I will re-|count your greatness.
7 They shall publish the remembrance of | your great goodness;
they shall sing joyfully | of your righteousness.
8 The Lord is gracious and full | of compassion,
slow to anger and abounding in | steadfast love.
9 Lord, you are | good to all,
and your compassion is over | all your works.
10 All your works shall praise | you, O Lord,
and your faithful | ones shall bless you.
Scripture Reading – Luke 3
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’ 23 Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, 24son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi … [this goes on for quite a while, then] … son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.
The first two chapters of Luke provide us with a colorful, gilded Renaissance-era Illumination of God’s entry into our lives, of God taking up residence in the world. The Nativity is what it would look like. ‘Heaven cannot hold him’ and the angels and heavenly hosts of the first two chapters portray that celebration, the in-breaking glory of the kingdom of God in earthly life – a visitation of Joy, with a capital J. Chapter 2 ends with these words: “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”
We turn the page and it suddenly becomes a very grown up world. We are brought up to date with the political realities of the day – in this case, the reality of Roman occupation. Luke begins with a roll call of the important and powerful, naming the hierarchy of rule. The Roman Emperor Tiberias, who sits over all; Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea; then the regional rulers – sons of Herod the Great – Herod Antipas and Philip who are Jewish, aristocratic, collaborators with Rome: feared, powerful, not well loved.
From there, Luke goes on to name the religious power-structure: the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas. They might be on the list because the high-priesthood was subject to annual re-appointment by the Roman authority (and so Annas and Caiaphas are just another cog of the political wheel). Or it might be that Luke sees them as a religious parallel to the political hierarchy and hegemony: Annas was high priest for nine years, followed by his five sons and then his son-in-law, Joseph Caiaphas. They represent one more form of control and oppression, and another layer in the conflict that is to come.
During the reign of these formidable rulers, “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.” The redemptive work of which Mary sang in the Magnificat is underway; the claims to authority that Tiberius or Herod or the high priests make are not ultimate. God “is bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly.” John has been commissioned to prepare the way not for Caesar or any earthly lord, but for the one who turns the world upside down – the one who brings peace, justice, and pardon. The one whose upside-down power is love.
We should not miss how peculiar this is. We know the story, and because of that might miss how unexpected it is. The word of God doesn’t find voice among those with power or influence. That would seem to be a much more efficient way to spread and activate this good news, wouldn’t it? Let Gabriel have a private word with Herod. Turn his heart. Start this revelation with one who is positioned to bring others along, in the manner of Constantine 300 years later. The conversion of kings is how much of Europe came to Christianity.
But, no, instead, the word of God comes to the son of Zechariah, in the wilderness – someone no one has any reason to know. The word of God comes to John sloshing along the banks of the Jordan river as it cuts a path through the desert.
Very odd… but in keeping with this God whose ways are not our ways. God chooses the mustard seed approach. Because as loud and blustery as John may have been, lacking more effective social media, the attraction was by word of mouth. You still had to take yourself out to the wilderness and within shouting range to hear him. A small start, indeed.
John commands repentance to escape the wrath to come. He uses imagery of an ax laid at the root of a tree, a winnowing fork and a fire ready to burn the chaff and those felled trees that did not produce good fruit in unquenchable flames. John’s teaching is not user friendly – but neither is it revolutionary. He was preaching nothing more than what the law required – if you see someone naked, clothe them; hungry, feed them. You shall not slander or covet, steal or kill. These laws concerning kind and just treatment of the neighbor were well known.
But, knowing isn’t doing.
We know that aligning our behaviors with our values and beliefs is not as easy as one might think it should be. There are always other factors to consider, costs involved, inconvenience, options.
Repentance of the kind John is talking about, metanoia, means a change of mind and heart, an inner transformation – a change that bears visible fruit – actual change – not spiritualization, approval of the concept, or accounting methods that make the command more manageable and compensatory. There’s no sliding scale in John’s message. His baptism is understood as an assault on the status quo, a call to embrace the behaviors of God’s purpose.
John’s rhetoric and the fire and judgment motifs gets the people wondering and worrying and asking, “What then should we do?”
I have watched the events in Washington this week with John the Baptist in mind. Large crowds following a charismatic preacher, a counter-cultural message of warnings and judgement and fear. And the people asked, “What then should we do?” The similarities seem striking.
I don’t know what it is about us as humans, but I do think we are all susceptible to this dynamic: we are all credulous, exploitable, willing to narrow our perspective, apply filters so that we are exposed only to experiences or news that supports our world view. We begin to trust the filters more than the breadth of information. From the book of Acts onward, Christians have struggled with filters. How much of the world, it’s richness and pluralisms are we to let in or are we to limit our perspectives? In the world, but not of the world? The danger in filters, of course, is when we assign them God, as well.
Physiologically, we are wired for this. We can only attend meaningfully to so much information. Our brains help us focus on essential things by numbing us to the background noise. You probably are not noticing the presence of your clothing at this moment. Yet every hair follicle is sending information about it to your brain. So maybe it’s in our wiring to attend to the disrupter of our status quo. And when there is a convergence of need and disruption we become ready to act.
That seems to be what John the Baptist is hoping for; to incite these crowds to act on their fears of judgment with genuine repentance, with real change that will align their behavior with service to God’s kingdom embodying mercy, justice, humility.
He compares them to a brood of vipers – if you spend a moment picturing a writhing nest of snakes you can probably feel visceral effects of John’s criticism. To be born of poisonous snakes is to share in their character or nature. The crowds who found their way into the wilderness to hear John didn’t see themselves that way any more than we do. But we have begun to see the poisonous, hostile environment we inhabit and support and create. Those who are privileged and empowered can’t continue indefinitely along pathways of racial, economic and environmental exploitation without consequences. For Luke, those consequences are introduced in Mary’s magnificat. John echoes them in the wilderness, Jesus will take up the song in his sermon in Nazareth next week. The big difference between John the Baptist’s throng and most of history’s cult-like movements is that he was calling them to radical change away from what they already believed; radical change out of their comfort zones and away from self-service or self-gratification – away from ‘self’ as the primary focus of concern. He wanted them to be transformed to alignment with God in preparation for the coming of Christ. He wanted them to help turn the tables.
We want the world to turn, if it favors us; we think that it should turn for the sake of the poor and oppressed, for innocent victims of war, abuse, violence, intolerance… but we tend to want change without repercussions requiring change from us. The poor and dispossessed, the hungry, the lowly ones can find sustenance and comfort somewhere if they are deserving. We don’t need to suffer for their sake. Right? We make these rationalizations because change is hard, and we like being comfortable, and what’s wrong with being comfortable, and surely there are others who need to change more than we do, so we’ll let it begin with them first, and see how it goes.
There’s a reason both the word of God and Jesus are sent out into the wilderness. It is a place of stark contrasts and starker conditions. It is a place of desolation and testing, but also a place of God, of vision quests and theophanies; an unexpected place of hope and new beginnings. The gospel begins in a desert landscape, because the wilderness clears the air of expectations and business as usual; it equalizes all who would survive. The wilderness brings all of life to immediacy and urgency – and that is where God would have us dwell.
The wilderness landscape is vast, expansive, open – always changing and yet changeless, familiar to the people who know it, yet feared and held in awe even by those who know it. One needs guidance – stars, or cairns, or altars set up to mark the way. John is a voice in the wilderness, “Prepare the way – like the people of ancient Israel in Egypt, join an exodus out of slavery; like the Babylonian exiles, leave that which holds you captive, and head home into the wilderness. Come into the wilderness and meet your maker. Come into the wilderness and be changed; come into the wilderness free and freed from your burdens; loosen the cords of security, declutter your priorities, clarify your vision; face your demons in open space.
Come into the wilderness and come to rely – not only on God, but on our common humanity and the essential connections between us…leave your places of position and religion and control and predictability and self assurance. Come into the wilderness … do not take life for granted, come into the wilderness… for in its disorienting and dangerous terrain we are more likely to discover what it is we seek… Come into the wilderness … for that is where you are called to Be.
Hymn – Come, Beloved of the Maker
Come, beloved of the Maker,
come, behold the Firstborn One;
see revealed creation’s splendor
crowned in glory like the sun.
See the Morningstar now beckon
to those bound to doubt and night;
“Follow me,” Christ calls in welcome,
“come from darkness into light.”
Follow to the birth of newness;
follow to the life of peace;
follow to the hill of anguish;
follow to the garden bliss.
There we too will burn and brighten,
God’s resplendent work begun;
glory will ascend and heighten,
crowning us with glorious sun.
Christ, bright image of the Maker,
God, whose glory none may pass,
Spirit, sun of love and splendor,
bear us into light at last.
Prayers of Intercession
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen
Hymn – O Day Full of Grace
O day, full of grace, which we behold,
Now gently to view ascending;
Thou over the earth thy reign unfold,
Good cheer to all mortals lending,
That children of light in every clime
May prove that the night is ending.
How blest was that gracious midnight hour,
When God in our flesh was given;
Then flushed the dawn with light and power,
That spread o’er the darkened heaven;
Then rose o’er the world that Sun divine
Which gloom from our hearts hath driven.
Yea, were every tree endowed with speech,
And every leaflet singing,
They never with praise His worth could reach,
Though earth with their praise were ringing.
Who fully could praise the Light of life,
Who light to our souls is bringing?
As birds in the morning sing God’s praise,
His fatherly love we cherish,
For giving to us this day of grace,
For life that shall never perish.
His Church He hath kept these thousand years
And hungering souls did nourish.
With joy we depart for our fatherland,
Where God our Father is dwelling,
Where ready for us His mansions stand,
Where heaven with praise is swelling;
And there we shall walk in endless light,
With blest ones His praise forth telling.
Go with the strength you have.
Go simply, lightly, gently
Go in search of Love.
And may the Spirit of God go with you. Amen