This week our Advent journey continues with hard questions from John the Baptist and the song of a young Hebrew girl - named Mary, and the journey hasn't been the same since!
Follow this link for Advent Worship Resources written by Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball.
Rev. Lisa Fox
Dallas & Sand Hill UMC Charge
John the Baptist asks life’s greatest question: Who is Jesus? – “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
John is wanting to know if Jesus is really the good news of God. While in Israel, we visited Shepherd’s Field, an area east of Bethlehem.
It is this field which many claim is the traditional site where the angels first announced the good news of God – ““Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2: 10 – 11). The angels proclaimed that the Coming One was bringing a joy into the world that the world had never experienced, had never seen, it was great joy! And that’s the first thing we learn about the Coming One, that this Christmas joy is for everyone.
John the Baptist asks – “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?” John’s question reveals his need of reassurance. John had been sitting in a prison cell for over a year, he’s discouraged, confused, needing to know if Jesus really is the good news of God. At this point in John’s life his expectations of Jesus didn’t align with his experiences.
We all have expectations. A definition of the word expectations means: “a belief that someone will or should achieve something.” What happens when our expectations of God are not met? Jesus didn’t meet the expectations of many people. The religious leaders expected the Messiah would not hang around sinners or reach out and touch the lepers clean. Jesus didn’t meet the expectations of his own disciples, as well as the folks from his hometown. And when Jesus first appeared on the scene, the angel brought the good news to people not expected to receive the good news first. The world did not expect a God to love human flesh enough to inhabit it. And yet God broke all expectations with the Coming One.
While in Israel, Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball asked the question: “What are your expectations of this trip?” It was a similar question the customs officer asked me when I arrived in Israel: “What is your purpose here?” A rabbi once said to me “It’s hard to find what you don’t know what you’re looking for.”
In the Holy Land, I learned that when you enter into sacred places, questions are welcome. John was asking life’s greatest question, “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?” Jesus always answers the sacred questions of the heart. Jesus responds with: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” And when John heard those words, despite his suffering, he was filled with great joy, because that’s the thing about the joy brought by knowing Jesus, it has absolutely nothing to do with your circumstances.
Christmas joy gave John the ability to look past his circumstances, and take his sufferings up to the purposes of God. When we understand that Christian joy is not based on circumstances or even if our expectations are not met, we will be able to see God’s work being done, not only in our lives, but in the lives of the people around us, and that brings joy.
This Christmas, let the joy of knowing Jesus be shown to those who don’t know. Let us share this Christmas joy in the most unexpected ways, especially to those who might least expect it.
Who among us needs to be reassured that joy is out there? Can we experience Christmas joy like never before?
One might ask: How do we get this joy? Jesus answered this question while walking to the Garden of Gethsemane, he told the disciples two things: remain in my love and obey my commandments, and this part is key: “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” (John 15: 1 – 11).
This Christmas let us stay in love with Jesus so we can love others, because joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved.
Rev. Amy Shanholtzer
I had a picture in my mind of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I pictured her as a quiet, patient, faithful woman. The early gospel narratives of the annunciation and her instructions to Jesus at the wedding in Cana were a few insights from scripture into who she was and how she understood her role in our salvation story. Words that we sing at Advent and Christmas helped to form my view of her as well – “Mary did you know?’ and “Gentle, Mary meek and mild.” With her alabaster skin and blue head scarf, that completed the picture that came to my mind when I thought of Mary during Advent.
As we traveled to Mary’s hometown of Nazareth and stopped at the Basilica of the Annunciation, my ideas of Mary began to change. The Basilica itself is a modern structure, built in the 1960s, based on a 4th century Byzantine structure, sort of. It’s a massive building, the interior reminding me of my seminary days spent in Cannon Chapel at Emory. Both worship spaces are made of formed concrete that took on the shape of the wooden forms that held it as it dried.
I could have spent the entire day here, as the Basilica and the courtyard were filled with artistic renderings of Mary from many countries. Each one seemed to represent both the artists cultural context but also an interpretation of Mary. Each one gave me a different perspective of Mary, challenging my renaissance painting, Advent singing viewpoint.
The tone of voice of the Magnifcat, today’s reading from Luke, is forever changed for me. What I once read as meek and submissive, sounds stronger to me. As Mary proclaims that the Lord has looked on her with favor, I hear the strong voice of a woman who has been called of God to transformative work. As she proclaims that the lowly have been lifted by God, I see a young Mary feeling powerful and confident, even as she lives into this new reality that she will give birth to the Savior of the world. In these verses, Mary proclaims to the world that her calling will indeed bring about the possibility of transformation then and now.
Mary sings a song of praise to God in these verses. She also shares her call – her calling to make future salvation and transformation possible for all people.She knows better than most that God’s plan for salvation does not include human conceptions of power and prestige. God works through those that are often discarded and discounted. As Mary sings this countercultural song, King Herod is building massive desert fortresses and seaside palaces, symbols of power and influence constructed with extorted tax dollars.
The image I see of Mary most often now, rather than a young, meek and mildly embarrassed pregnant teenager, is the one gifted to the Basilica by an American artist from Pennsylvania. I wanted to not like it when I first viewed it. But it’s stuck with me. This is an image of Mary that is strong and empowered by her own sense of calling and vocation, with a sense of what her contribution will mean for the future of the world. I see in her what I see in each person I meet who has a growing sense of their own calling and vocation – an authentic sense of who they are and how God will use them in the world. I hope you can see it too.