Sunday, December 20, 2020

Mary Sings -- a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Mary Sings

Luke 1.46-56 NRSV

20 December 2020, NL3-16b, Advent 4 (blessings of an impossible Christmas)

Today we pick up right where we left off last week, with Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth. They're both pregnant and Elizabeth has blessed Mary for her trust in God's word to her. I'm reading from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 1, beginning at verse 46, from the New Revised Standard Version.

And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 

  and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 

for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

   and holy is his name. 

His mercy is for those who fear him

   from generation to generation. 

He has shown strength with his arm;

   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

   and lifted up the lowly; 

he has filled the hungry with good things,

   and sent the rich away empty. 

He has helped his servant Israel,

   in remembrance of his mercy, 

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

This week I read a startling news article. Did you know that 2020 is the year that human-made things literally outweighed nature? This is the year that all the stuff we have created — our built environment of concrete and metal and glass, machinery, waste, everything we own — all of that now weighs more than all the entire biomass of the earth. Plastic alone weighs more than all the animals on land and sea! And the vast majority of that mass has been created since the second World War.

Reading about this definitely gave me pause when I was shopping for Christmas gifts. How can we celebrate the Christ who turns everything upside down and at the same time not add to this heavy footprint on God’s beloved creation?

I also had Mary’s song at the front of my mind as I was reading about the study titled “poverty linked to higher risk of Covid death” showing that those living in poorer health board areas of Scotland were more likely to have severe cases of Covid requiring intensive care, and because fewer critical care beds were available in those areas, people in economically deprived areas are more likely to die. We’ve seen the effects of that in Inverclyde through this pandemic, and the statistics nationwide bear out that more poor and disadvantaged people are dying—both from Covid and from other things going untreated as the health service tries to cope.

And again, the news this week is full of the epidemic of drug misuse in Scotland, and here in Inverclyde a rising rate of drug use and deaths. Of course we know that drugs and deprivation go hand in hand, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to us. 

Into the middle of this reality, where hope seems impossible, Mary sings.

Like all of us, she begins from her own personal experience. Though she was not a person of power or status or wealth, just a poor teenager in an out-of-the-way town in an occupied land, God noticed her. God loved her. God called her. And she sang of her gratitude, her awe and wonder, her praise. This thing that God had done — called her to be a prophet and the mother of the Messiah — would not be easy, yet she said that God had done great things for her! She may have been scared, as anyone in her position would be, but her confidence in God’s goodness was enough to raise her voice.

And then, halfway through, Mary recognises that her own personal experience, her own little life that has been unremarkable, is also part of something bigger. Something that God has been doing for a long time, and will continue to do through her and her son, and on into the future: upend the systems of this world and make them look more like the kingdom of God.

From generation to generation, God works with power and mercy, through the lowliest and the marginalised, to fulfil the promise that changes everything: scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, and sends the rich away empty, while lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things. 

This is the Word that becomes flesh in Jesus. This is the promise that Mary is bearing in her body, the fruit of her faithfulness. This is who God is and what God does — from the earliest days of scripture to the very end of the book and beyond.

I wonder how many of us would join Mary in praising God for these things … given that we are far more likely to be the proud, powerful, and rich in this scenario? We are, globally speaking, at the top of this system that God is turning upside down. We are the ones whose lifestyles have created a situation where our stuff weighs down God’s creation. We are the ones who stand at arms length from the realities of deprivation and wring our hands and make a donation here and there and pray for something to change.

We should be careful what we pray for, because the song Mary sings is definitely about change. It’s about an upending of a system that is, frankly, immoral and against the values of God’s kingdom. Which is not to say that those of us who benefit from the system are bad, but rather that the entire system is. We can't even claim that it’s broken, because the reality is that it’s working exactly as it’s been designed — to privilege the few at the expense of the many, to lift up some on the backs of others. And that system is exactly what God in the flesh will challenge, insisting on valuing every person as a beloved child of God, deserving of enough to eat and inclusion in the community and compassionate care…and that challenge is what will get him killed by the powers that do not want to be scattered or sent away empty. But the Mighty One who looks with favour on Mary will not be thwarted. Not this time, not ever. This is a promise that cannot be broken, and God will find a way to fulfil it, even if it means breaking the power of death to do it.

If this is what God is doing in Christ, then we who are called the Body of Christ had better be ready to be a part of it. If we celebrate Christmas and then nothing is different afterwards, we haven’t celebrated the Messiah that Mary is singing about today. Her words echo through the generations calling us to the kind of impossible Christmas that changes the world. What does the Word of God Incarnate have to say to those who live in such dire poverty that drugs seem the only comfort? Or to those who get richer while the poor get poorer? What does the community of those who love Mary’s son have to say to those who care more about their ability to shelter money in tax havens than about the lack of critical care beds in our hospital? How does the magnificat sound to the earth that groans under the weight of our economy’s need for constant consumption?

I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing Christmas was just about celebrating a birth and then getting back to normal life, just like any other birthday party. But what God is doing in Christ is saving the earth and all that is in it, even if that means saving us from ourselves. This is an act of love so monumental that it turns everything upside down. Who are we to wish that God would…what, love us a little less so we could go on as before? It’s impossible for God to do anything but love, and to fulfil promises, and this is the promise that makes Mary rejoice and that hopefully brings us the same kind of joyful commitment to God’s call that we, too, will be willing to bear God’s word in our bodies—and into the world that is desperate for the good news to be more than just pretty words or songs or cards or presents.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Three Wise Women -- a sermon for Advent 3

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Three Wise Women

Luke 1.26-45

13 December 2020, Advent 3 (Blessings of an impossible Christmas)

(NL3-16, first half)

Today we transition from a season of reading from the Old Testament to the New, beginning the gospel according to Luke, which we will read from now until Easter.

The first two chapters of Luke’s gospel are like an overture, setting the scene for the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Luke’s primary themes are all present in the overture, so we have a hint of what is to come.

Luke begins with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are elderly and childless. Zechariah is a priest who receives a visit from the angel Gabriel, telling him that Elizabeth will bear a son and they are to name him John. Zechariah is doubtful, and Gabriel takes away his ability to speak until John is born. Today’s reading from Luke chapter 1 begins at verse 26, six months after Elizabeth became pregnant. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her. 

 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ 

Every single time I read this story, I think about how much Gabriel sounds like an alien when he greets Mary. Instead of “hello” he says “greetings favoured one” — and she was much perplexed. Of course she was perplexed — who talks like that? Even in ancient Palestine, I’m fairly certain people did not go around saying “greetings favoured one” to each other.

Aside from the strange stilted alien phrase, though, there’s more to be perplexed about. Why does the angel address her as “favoured”? She must have wondered what he was talking about, or if he had picked the wrong girl. After all, she was betrothed but not yet married, likely a young teenager. In Nazareth the tradition says that Gabriel met Mary at the well — a tradition which connects Mary to a long line of women in the Old Testament whose marriages were made at the well, including Rebekah who became the wife of Isaac, Rachel and Jacob, and Moses’ wife Zipporah. While Mary would know those stories, she would never have expected to be part of one! She was a poor teenager from a nondescript family in a town far from the centres of power, in an occupied land. For an angel to address her as “favoured” would be confusing indeed — favoured by whom? In what sense? Not in any of the usual ways. 

While she was still pondering this strange word, Gabriel explained that actually, he meant favoured by God. He doesn’t say why, though. What was it about Mary that drew God’s attention? She wasn’t anybody important, just a girl at the well. But she barely had time to think that thought before Gabriel said she was going to be a mother!

So often our pictures of Mary are of a quiet, shy girl who keeps her eyes down and submits to whatever she’s told. But Mary’s first out-loud question proves her to be a bit more practical than we usually give her credit for. She wants to know how this is going to work — the mechanics of the situation. She doesn’t yet live with her husband-to-be, so…what’s the next step? 

Gabriel’s answer that she’s going to be filled with the cloud of God’s presence, like the cloud that filled the Temple when it was built, or like the cloud that covered Mount Sinai, may or may not have been very comforting. But as Gabriel insisted that nothing is impossible with God, Mary spoke up again: Here am I, the servant of the Lord.

A lot of prophets have answered God with this same phrase — in Hebrew it’s “hineini”. Here am I. Moses says it, and Samuel, and Isaiah — and all of them said it before God actually told them what he was calling them to do. This is the answer of someone who trusts their relationship with God enough to say yes, even though the fullness of the task is not yet clear to them. 

Mary is the first woman to ever be recorded saying “hineini” in response to God’s call. She agrees to carry God’s Son, without yet knowing the full picture of what that will mean — including the risks to her own physical health, to her safety in her family and community, or the challenges of parenting, let alone parenting the son of God! Like the prophets before her, she trusts God, and that will have to be enough even though she doesn’t have a map.

Gabriel did give her a hint, though, when he mentioned Elizabeth. Mary headed straight there, apparently by herself, to get some advice from her older relative. It was a fair distance from Nazareth into the hill country, which is the area that includes Jerusalem and Bethlehem and other surrounding villages. When she arrived, Elizabeth too joined the ranks of the prophets, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking truths neither she nor Mary understand yet. Over the next three months they will have many such conversations, passing knowledge from generation to generation, sharing the experience of growing a world-changing child in their bodies, blessing each other with the companionship of women while the men of the story are silent on the sidelines. 

I originally titled this sermon “Three Wise Women” as a balance to the wise men of Epiphany. Those travellers came from afar and symbolise the whole world recognising the Messiah who has been born…but before those wise men can set out on their journey, before the star shines in the sky, before any of the Christmas story can take place, we need the three wise women of this story first! And I can hear you wondering, because there are only two women named in the story. Of course Mary was wise enough to trust God’s impossible word. And Elizabeth wise enough to recognise God at work in and through Mary’s life. And the third….is the Holy Spirit! In the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Aramaic which Mary and Elizabeth spoke, the word for Spirit is a feminine noun, ruach, so would usually use the pronoun “she” or “her”—and even better, in the Old Testament the Spirit is sometimes personified as God’s wisdom, and so the third wise one appears in the story! God’s Spirit fills Elizabeth and she speaks God’s wisdom.

I particularly love Elizabeth’s last Spirit-filled line: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

How often we need this encouragement! From one generation to another, to be reminded of the blessing that is born of trust, even in something that seems impossible. It’s a blessing that only asks we take the next step, even if we aren’t sure what the one after will be. Mary says “here I am” and then visits Elizabeth, and slowly the path begins to unfold before her, one step at a time. And it turns out that what seemed impossible before isn’t really, because with God, nothing is impossible.

Perhaps in this season where so much normality feels out of reach, we too can trust God enough to take just the next step and see what God unfolds after that. Or perhaps this is a season when we are the ones who are called to speak with the Spirit’s voice and encourage those who are struggling with what the next step might be. Whether that’s across the generations or across other divides, can we reach out to one another and find the blessing together?

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Yet Even Now -- a sermon on Joel, for Advent

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Yet Even Now

Joel 2.12-16, 26-29

29 November 2020, Advent 1 (blessings of an impossible Christmas)

(Text: Advent 2, NL3-13)

The prophet Joel was a learned interpreter of sacred text—he quotes the Torah and other prophets many times in his short book. He spoke to people in Jerusalem, warning them of the consequences of not following God’s way, and painting beautiful word pictures of God’s promise and faithfulness. Today’s reading from chapter 2 begins with the words “Yet even now” which signal a big change, a complete turnaround, that needs immediate attention. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.

Yet even now, says the Lord,

   return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 

   rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Return to the Lord, your God,

   for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,

   and relents from punishing. 

Blow the trumpet in Zion;

   sanctify a fast;

call a solemn assembly; 

gather the people.

Sanctify the congregation;

   assemble the aged;

gather the children,

   even infants at the breast.

Let the bridegroom leave his room,

   and the bride her canopy. 

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,

   and praise the name of the Lord your God,

   who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 

You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,

   and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.

And my people shall never again

   be put to shame. 

Then afterwards

   I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;

your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

   your old men shall dream dreams,

   and your young men shall see visions. 

Even on the male and female slaves,

   in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

This may seem like a strange reading to start the season of Advent. We don’t read from Joel very often, though bits and pieces might sound familiar from other times of year — sometimes at the beginning of Lent we hear the call to “rend your hearts and not your clothing” and of course Peter’s sermon on the first Pentecost quoted this bit about “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” Maybe Advent was feeling left out, and didn’t want to be the only season with nothing from the prophet Joel! 

The first chapter of the book of Joel describes a nation losing hope — he talks about a plague of locusts, which could be about ecological destruction or a metaphor for an invading army, which brings its own kind of environmental damage. The first chapter of Joel is all about a land that has been ravaged and has nothing left to offer, and a people who don’t see their own part in bringing the story to this point or how they can play a role in the unfolding of God’s future story either. The world was turned upside down and everything was uncertain.

And that is when Joel says: Yet even now.

Even now, when you’re anxious and worried.

Even now, when it feels like you have nothing to offer.

Even now, as you try to figure out how to manage everything going on.

Even now, with this situation and these rules and restrictions and under these circumstances.

Even now, when it feels impossible.

Yet even now, says the Lord…return to me with all your heart.

Your heart that has been broken again and again in this season — as we have had loss upon loss, of life, of livelihood, of relationship, of security, of celebrations, of hope, of time. Bring it all.

And then…though it feels like our hearts can’t take anymore, God invites us to be broken open one more time. But this time it’s just that, a breaking open— a chance for all that is in us to be revealed, and for all that God offers us to be received. 

In that open space, God will leave a blessing, even if we aren’t sure what that means just yet. 

But isn’t that just what Advent is about? An opening, a making space, a preparation for God to come into the world and do a new thing. An impossible new thing, the divine becoming human, taking on flesh and living among us…even now.

The prophet called the people to come and worship, in the midst of all the devastations of the year — and remember, worship involved bringing offerings of the land to the Temple. But there was nothing to offer, the land was ruined, the crops and animals gone. They were empty-handed. They could not worship the way they were used to…but still all of them, even the people usually left out, were to bring what they had: their hearts, their minds, their strength, all broken open. God would take care of the rest, though maybe not in quite the way they expected.

Perhaps this is not such a strange reading for Advent after all. 

This year when so much we are used to feels impossible, God is still calling us to break open and make space…to turn to God with all our heart, and find that there is a blessing we never expected, poured out. 

Into all those open hearts, God was pouring out the Spirit — not just on church people, not just on leaders, not just men, not just adults, not just on those who were ready or worthy — on all flesh. God coming to earth wasn’t just for some, but for all. We might hear the word from strangers or outsiders, we might hear it coming from our own mouths, we might hear God speaking through the people on the lowest rung of society, in a different accent or a completely different way of communicating. Joel calls us to be ready, to open our hearts to receive the truth that God is in our midst — even if God comes in a peasant baby born to an unwed teenage mother in a borrowed stable in an occupied foreign territory. 

This Advent season, can we stand to break open our hearts one more time? To listen for the voice of the Spirit coming from unexpected quarters, in the midst of a devastated land? 

Perhaps we might listen for the Spirit speaking through those who show us our complicity in that devastation — something the people of Joel’s time couldn’t see, and something we too often turn away from. When we recognise our part in the destruction of the land we can also recognise our part in its healing — the visions poured out on the young and the old can show us a way forward for living in harmony with creation. 

Perhaps we might listen for the Spirit speaking through those who are imagining a way of worship that meets the challenges of a new day and a new generation — in Joel’s time they were forced to change because they physically could not do what they use to do. How familiar that feels today! Will the visions and prophesies poured out on young and old show us a path toward encountering God anew?

Yet even now, says the Lord: return to me with all your heart. 

Yet even now, says the Lord: you shall know that I am in your midst.

Yet even now, says the Lord: I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.

This may be an Advent and Christmas like no other…but in the most important way, it’s the same as ever: in the disruption, in the darkness, in the wondering and the waiting, Emmanuel, God is with us.

May it be so. Amen.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Blessings of an (im)possible Christmas -- Advent Candle Liturgies for 2020

This year I am adapting the Narrative Lectionary slightly for Advent, so the readings/themes are:

29 November, Advent 1: Mercy & Gift (Joel 2.12-29)

6 December, Advent 2: Living Hope (Isaiah 61)

13 December, Advent 3: Possible (Luke 1.26-45)

20 December, Advent 4: Promise Fulfilled (Luke 1.46-56)

You are welcome to use the candle liturgy, or to adapt it if you need to! I have made it sort of minimally-responsive...for pre-recorded worship, it will be read by one voice of course. For in-person worship, it will include some actions (covering eyes, reaching out hands, and a posture of blessing).

The numbered section is the bit that changes each week, the rest will remain the same.

In the darkest times we cannot see to make our way…

our eyes adjust, but still everything is shadowed and grey.

We reach out, desperate  

for comfort

for balance

for the familiar

for hope

In the darkest times,

even a faltering light can be just enough:

the flame flickers, twinkles, dances—and it is dazzling!

For in its light, we see light: God in our midst.

~Candle is lit~

1. However impossible it seems, 

God’s mercy is from everlasting to everlasting,

and blessed is the one gifted with God’s vision.

Come, O come, Emmanuel, God with us, and we will rejoice.

2. However impossible it seems, 

hope is alive, even in the midst of this world,

and blessed is the one whose living hope reveals God’s good news.

3. However impossible it seems,

here we are, the servants of the Lord, both perplexed and joyful —

and blessed is the one who trusts that with God all things are possible.

4. However impossible it seems,

God’s promise will be fulfilled —

and blessed is the one who sees the truth of God’s kingdom in our midst.

Monday, November 16, 2020

a new call for a new time -- a sermon on Isaiah 6

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

A new call for a new time

Isaiah 6.1-8 (NRSV)

15 November 2020, NL3-10, Becoming God’s People 9

The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th century BCE, when the Assyrian empire was expanding, conquering the northern kingdom of Israel and destroying much of the southern kingdom of Judah. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem, the only city relatively unharmed in this war, and he spoke primarily to the kings, priests, and their wealthy advisors. Isaiah insisted that being God’s people involved not only worshipping the One God, but also behaving in ways consistent with God’s plans—and that God’s concern was primarily for those outside the halls of power, without wealth or connections. Much of the first section of Isaiah is about God’s vision of justice and righteousness, and how the leaders of the nation fall short of that vision, and therefore both oppress their people and lead them astray. In today’s reading from Isaiah chapter 6, the king has died and the nation is in turmoil. We hear about Isaiah’s vision of a visit to the throne room of God, where heavenly beings worship and where Isaiah receives the difficult grace of confession and call. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory.’ 

4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

I love the prophet Isaiah. It’s my favourite book in the entire Bible, in part because of the beautiful language. Isaiah paints pictures with words. He’s the one who gives us the peaceable kingdom, where the wolf will dwell with the lamb, the calf and the lion, the little child shall lead them. He shows us God’s vision of the mountain where all people from every nation come and feast together and hear God’s word throughout the world, where swords will turn into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Isaiah writes about every valley lifted up and mountain brought low, about the desert springing into life, and about God’s justice breaking yokes of oppression. And even when he is writing about the consequences of the people’s sinfulness, he does so with such lovely poetic language!

Today we get one of his famously beautiful word-paintings about an encounter with God in the Temple. He saw, with his own eyes, a God so overwhelming that only the skirts of his robe filled the whole temple, and the heavenly worship literally rocked the house. In a flash, Isaiah realised he was in over his head — and he said so. He didn’t pretend that he was worthy, or that he understood, or that he was certain he was in the right place. He didn’t assume that he was seeing this vision because of his great faithfulness or as a sign of favour. Just as we offer a prayer of confession near the beginning of a worship service, the first thing Isaiah did on entering this heavenly worship experience was admit his failings. He knew that a face to face encounter between humans and God could be dangerous, because close proximity to such holiness burns — as it did for Moses, and as it did for the disciples on the Emmaus Road, and for many others throughout scripture and history. 

I love that the response of the seraphim, the heavenly attendants who are flying about and singing, is to say “we can solve this problem.” God doesn’t kick Isaiah out, instead they reach out and make Isaiah ready. A burning coal to the lips sounds like a nightmare to me, but remember that fire cleanses but also heals. It can be used to purify…and it can be used to cauterise and close up a wound. Isaiah is strangely made whole, made clean, made ready to stand in God’s presence, and he lives to tell the tale. 

This encounter with God was both an experience of overwhelming majesty — of smoke and singing and painful beauty — and also an intimate experience, being noticed, and touched, and spoken to. It’s that experience that was still tingling in Isaiah’s mind and heart when he heard God ask the heavenly court “who will go” and it’s that burning desire to serve this overwhelming God that caused Isaiah to speak up and say “here I am, send me” even though he had no idea what he was saying yes to. God didn’t say “I need someone to go to this place, do this thing, and say these words” — Isaiah answered a call based only on his relationship with God, not based on whether he thought he could do the task. He had already experienced God making him ready to stand in the holy presence, so surely God would also be able to equip him for the work ahead.

At this point, I think we need to know that Isaiah began his life as a prophet in the last year or so of King Uzziah’s 40 years on the throne. Even though things around the kingdom were changing and disintegrating and while other empires were rising and encroaching, this had been a long period of relative political stability with the same leader…but now it was over, and it wasn’t really clear who would succeed Uzziah or what sort of king they would be. The world must have felt upended and uncertain, as many periods of political transition feel. The people he would speak to were not following God’s ways, the society was unjust and people were suffering. A prophet’s job is to tell the king things he often doesn’t want to hear, so Isaiah must have wondered what sort of relationship he might have with the next ruler, and whether he would be more or less receptive to seeing things God’s way. 

I love that we get this story of Isaiah’s encounter with God a few chapters in to his book. Usually call stories are right at the beginning, but the way this book is written, it feels as if the prophet was already following, already faithful, already working, and in the midst of that life and work came this moment of awe and wonder and confession and compassion and a renewed sense of purpose.

I wonder if we who are in the middle of our own faith journeys, who are experienced Christians and church-goers, still expect to encounter God when we come to worship, the way those who are new to the faith do? And if we did, would we be focused on explaining the ways we think we’ve gotten it right, or on admitting we need God’s help to make us holy, or just soaking up the beauty and wonder? Are we open to a mid-life correction, to a new call from God that might take us in a different direction than we’d been going before…and that might burn a little bit? And would we answer that call before we even knew for sure what it would entail?

So often I think we are prone to simply doing what we’ve always done, believing what we’ve always believed, praying how we’ve always prayed. We forget to notice beautiful things, and even when we do, we don’t let them soak in and transform us, which makes it harder then to put that beauty back out into the world. We think that if it hurts to let go of something, that must be a sign that we’re supposed to hold onto it — forgetting that sometimes the old has to be burned away. We forget that learning and growing and changing is a part of life, and we chastise politicians who change their positions over time, or mock people who adjust their behaviours as they learn new information. But from the simple things, like how we have learned the value of face coverings over the past eight months when initially they weren’t thought to be important, to big things like shifting our views and actions of colonialism or white supremacy or sexism, we all learn and grow and change. 

How much more, then when it comes to God? We know that the love of God is never changing, but we also know that God’s call to us is for particular times and places…and that can change as the context we live in changes, even if that means we need a burning coal to the lips to make us ready for the new thing. 

In Isaiah’s time, the political leader was changing, the world stage was in some disarray and it wasn’t clear how it would shake out, and the prophet needed to both be reminded of God’s unchanging power and majesty and also hear a new call for a new time. 

Honestly, that sounds a bit like it could have been written today, doesn’t it?

So perhaps we ought to be ready for an encounter with the Holy…to soak up God’s glory and to listen carefully for what new thing God might be calling us to do in this new time. Like Isaiah, we may be overwhelmed by God’s greatness in the face of all the uncertainty around us, or we may cry out when we realise we can’t keep going on the same path. But also like Isaiah, we can trust that God will equip us with whatever we need for the days ahead, and our relationship with God will carry us, even into the unknown — and so we say, Here I am, send me.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Just Enough -- a sermon on Elijah and the widow of Zarephath

 Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Just enough 

1 Kings 17:1-24, NIV

1 November 2020, All Saints Day, NL3-8, Becoming God’s People 8

David’s kingship involved a lot of ups and downs, including some pretty serious mistakes, yet God continued to work through him. After David, his son Solomon became king. Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem that his father had not been called to build. That and other building projects were completed via forced and conscripted labour, fulfilling the warnings that Samuel had given the people so many years before. Solomon famously made political alliances via marriages with women from other nations, and they brought their religious practices with them…and eventually, the nation’s faithfulness to the One God was corrupted. It wasn’t just that the people worshipped false gods, but they also laid aside the way of life commanded by God, including the care of the vulnerable. After Solomon, there were a number of difficulties in the monarchy and ultimately the kingdom was divided. Both the northern and southern kingdoms had a series of kings who were unfaithful to God, and led the people down a dangerous path. When we pick up the story today, King Ahab had just married a foreign princess who came with her religious, economic, and social practices that were contrary to God’s way, and the prophet Elijah tried to warn the king about his poor choice. I am reading from the 1st book of Kings, chapter 17, verses 1-24, in the New International Version.

17 Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.’

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: ‘Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have instructed the ravens to supply you with food there.’

So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there.The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.

Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him:‘Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have instructed a widow there to supply you with food.’ 10 So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, ‘Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?’ 11 As she was going to get it, he called, ‘And bring me, please, a piece of bread.’

12 ‘As surely as the Lord your God lives,’ she replied, ‘I don’t have any bread – only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it – and die.’

13 Elijah said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. 14 For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.”’

15 She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. 16 For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.

17 Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. 18 She said to Elijah, ‘What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?’

19 ‘Give me your son,’ Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. 20 Then he cried out to the Lord, ‘Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?’ 21 Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, ‘Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!’

22 The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. 23 Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, ‘Look, your son is alive!’

24 Then the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.’

It seems a harsh decree, for Elijah the prophet to declare there will be no dew or rain — no water at all — until he said so. The situation must be dire for him to call down that kind of punishment, not just on the Israelites but on the surrounding areas as well. This entire story takes place outside of Israelite territory — meaning that Elijah was in territory belonging not just to other nations, but to other gods! And yet his God was proved more powerful than even Baal, the storm god who was thought to control the rain. 

The dispute between Elijah and Ahab was indeed dire. Ahab and his new wife were corrupt, and their poor leadership was trickling down to the people, who were turning aside from God and God’s ways, picking up all sorts of practices, behaviours, economic patterns, social norms, and religious rituals that were forming them into a selfish, stratified, violent, and divided society. The problem started at the top, as the nation followed the example of their king instead of the call of God. Elijah wanted the leaders to lead on faithfulness and goodness and justice, and of course Ahab wanted none of that as it wasn’t pleasurable or profitable for him and his infamous wife. 

So Elijah declared there would be a drought. The whole world dried up, little by little. And yet God sustained Elijah, caring for him by sending him out to the desert, to a stream where the ravens brought him two square meals every day, and he was able to drink the fresh water running down from the mountains. It wasn’t comfortable, but he had plenty. 

Eventually, though, as the drought wore on and there was no rain to refill the stream, it too dried up. While Ahab did not repent, Elijah did not give in, and God did not forget. Elijah’s next instruction was to travel for a few days, around 60 miles, to a town in the home country of the offending Queen, in the territory of Baal. There was no rain there either, despite all the prophets of Baal doing their best to call on their god. There, in Zarephath, Elijah met the widow — a woman among the most vulnerable in society, who would always be on the lookout for those men who wanted to take advantage of her unprotected position on the edge of society. 

At first he asked only for water. In the middle of a drought, that was already a sacrifice, to give her water away to a stranger! But she understood her duty to offer hospitality, so she turned to her water jar.

Then came the impossible request. Could she feed him? 

Of all the people for a stranger to encounter in a foreign land, seeking hospitality, he encountered a widow, vulnerable and stretched to her limit.

Her answer is so heartbreaking: I am going to try to find some sticks — even firewood is hard to come by — and turn the last handful of flour and oil into a roll to share with my son, and that’s the end for us. So no, I can’t give you a meal.

Elijah was undeterred. He insisted on God’s faithfulness, even to this woman who was not an Israelite and did not worship his same God. Her god, in fact, was the one who was unable to undo the drought that had brought her to this cliff edge…a drought caused by Elijah’s word! Of course she did not know that her imminent death was a side effect of the dispute between this prophet and the king. At this point, she didn’t even know he was a prophet. All she knew was that he told her not to be afraid.

Elijah asked her to go ahead and make her final meal….but to give it to him instead. And then, after she had given that away, she would find that there was enough for her and her son as well, and there would be every day.

In many ways, I think the miracle here is that she did as he said…and secondarily, that things turned out as he promised. I think many of us would have hesitated to give our last meal away, especially to a foreign stranger!

Elijah proceeded to stay with her and enjoy her generous hospitality, within these limited means, for a long time. And every day, there was just enough at the bottom of the flour jar and just enough in the jug of oil. It doesn’t say that the jars were suddenly full and never seemed to diminish — it says they did not run out. Every day there was that last scoop, the last drop. 

It must have felt like a bit of a change for Elijah, to go from being fed two meals of meat and bread every day with no effort on his part, to sharing a home with two other people and constantly living on the edge of their resources as the world continued to dry up around them. Elijah had promised the woman daily bread, not an overabundance of bread…and God delivered. God kept that promise, just as both Elijah and the widow trusted him to do.

I think it is fascinating that twice God says to Elijah that he has “instructed” someone to take care of him. First it’s the ravens — “I have instructed the ravens to supply you with food.” God uses the creation to help care for Elijah during the first part of his journey in the wilderness, and they seem to do so without complaint, even though as scavengers it was not in their nature to hand off meat to someone else! 

The second time it’s the widow — “I have instructed a widow there to supply you with food.” The same sentence, but this time about a person. Yet when Elijah arrives, it seems that she has not heard this instruction herself. It’s only when he calls out to her, asking for the impossible, that she hears. 

How often is that the case! God may be calling us, but it’s only when we hear it in the voice of another person that we actually understand the instructions God is giving. Especially when it comes to giving of our resources, we often hear God best in the cries for help that come from our neighbours. Unfortunately, it is also far too easy to ignore those voices, or to talk ourselves out of hearing the Holy Spirit through them.

Ultimately, the woman trusted that nudge from God. Even though she was an outsider, she heard the word of God in the voice of Elijah, asking for her last bread…and she gave it. And it turned out not to be the last, every single day.

Could we give like that? Could we offer to God a little bit more than we think we can, and see how God’s faithfulness sustains us in turn? Could we take something from our own cupboard and offer it to those in need? Not just what’s leftover, or things we think they ought to have, but something we personally enjoy, that we bought for ourselves — give it to the food bank or to a neighbour who is hungry or to a family that’s struggling to provide a celebration, as the world has dried up around us?

The widow does not offer Elijah her leftovers. She gives him the meal she was planning to eat, and then there is enough for them all. Too often I think we are prone to offering our leftovers, the nearly-out-of-date tins from the back of the cupboard, or shopping for the food bank from the reduced-to-clear shelf, keeping back the things we don’t think “they” should have. But we are in the process of Becoming God’s People — being formed in Christ’s likeness, learning to live as a community according to God’s way. So in these days when so many are on the edge of poverty, so many more are vulnerable to mental health difficulties, so many are desperate and worried, watching the options fade away and the children ask for things they can’t have: can we, God’s People, hear God calling us through their voices, to give a little more generously? Whether that’s by a gift of both treats and essentials to the foodbank, cooking for a neighbour, or increasing our offering to the church’s ministry, perhaps God is instructing us to care for others in tangible ways, right here and right now. Sometimes we don’t hear God instructing us until someone else asks, so I’ll be the one to ask, on behalf of all those whose voices we can’t hear: can you, the people of God, give a little bit more? 

The woman’s trust and generosity did not lead to a windfall that changed her circumstances forever. It just kept them going, day by day by day. And it was enough. That’s what God promises: morning by morning, new mercies we see. God works for life — day by day, sometimes hour by hour; even at the edges of society, even beyond the borders of our understanding, even through despair and heartbreak and grief, even when the world dries up, even through the cries of our neighbours and the generosity of strangers…and even through us, for others. 

May it be so. Amen.