Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The True Light Cometh -- Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 2A

John 1:1-18 (New Revised Standard Version)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 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. 15 (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.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,[e] who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.


                The prologue of John’s gospel is theologically rich.  It offers us a sense of where John will be going in his story of Jesus.  It is fitting that the Gospel of John begins in this fashion, as John’s Gospel tells the story in very different tones and colors from the Synoptics.  This is a theological statement, but that fact shouldn’t keep us from recognizing that John has a story, perhaps even a historical story,[i] to tell us.  But first things first – the one we meet in this Gospel is understood to be Word, Light, and Truth.

“In the Beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God,” and this Word that was God became flesh and dwelt among us.  That is the assumption that the Gospel begins with.  This idea that the Christ is the Word of God has proven fruitful for theological discourse down through the ages, from Origen to Karl Barth.  Because of this passage John’s Gospel is seen as presenting a very high Christology, one that lifts Jesus up into divinity, something that is much less visible in the Synoptic Gospels.  Thus, it’s not surprising that in our day, in our quests for the historical Jesus that we have a tendency to set John’s story of Jesus to the side.  Even the Lectionary itself simply uses John as filler, basing its three year cycle on the Synoptic Gospels.  But, this prologue is not simply a theological statement; it is also an invitation to see the presence of God in the one John says was Word made flesh.  As Karl Barth has so helpfully reminded us – the Word made flesh is the Revelation of God.   He writes:  “Theology responds to the Word which God has spoken, still speaks, and will speak again in the history of Jesus Christ which fulfills the history of Israel.”[ii]  In these eighteen verses, John pulls back the veil so we can have a glimpse at how God.

The lectionary gives the preacher/congregation the option of beginning the reading at verse 9, wherein the focus is on the “True Light, which enlightens everyone.”  This light, we’re told, is coming into the world.  That there is light coming into the world presupposes that the world itself is living in some form of darkness.  Such is the message we hear in verse 5, where John writes that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”     Later in the Gospel, in a debate with the religio-political leaders, Jesus boldly proclaims:  “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Being that this Second Sunday of Christmas stands on the cusp of the day of Epiphany, a day in which we celebrate the “manifestation of God,” it is appropriate to lift up the idea of enlightenment.  In the story of the Magi, which is found in Matthew’s Gospel and not here, we’re told of a light shining in the darkness that leads Magi from the east to the Jesus.  They come bearing gifts, but also seeking enlightenment (Matthew 2:1-12).  We too come seeking light in our times of darkness, and each of us experiences darkness at different moments of our lives.

To be in the dark is to experience lostness.  When the lights go out and no light enters the place in which we exist – think of a cave – we don’t know where to go (John 12:35).  We can feel our way out, perhaps, but darkness brings with it fear, for we don’t know if we’re going in the right direction or if danger lurks nearby.  The world in which live has its own form of darkness.  Much of this darkness is systemic in nature.  It is the domain of the powers and principalities of this world.  John is concerned about such things.  But there is good news – there is light shining in the darkness.  The pathway is lit.  Our hearts and minds are enlightened.  And when the light is cast upon the land covered in darkness, we see these powers and principalities for what they are, not what they pretend to be.  To find this pathway out of darkness, this pathway that is lit by Christ, requires that we trust our lives to him (John 12:46) – that’s what the word believe means in John.

The word that goes with light in this prologue is the word Truth.  John 1:14 offers us an important summary statement:  “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. “  The glory of God is light and this light is full of grace and truth.  Pilate asks Jesus – what is truth? (John 18:37-38).  But Jesus simply presents himself as the representation of truth – he is, as John offers us in the prologue, the Word that is present in the Flesh, revealing the Glory that is God, together with God’s grace and truth.  This is the light we seek. 

That there is darkness in the world is not a secret.  That Christ is the Light of God who is present in our midst is Good News (Gospel).  For us, in this moment, who entrust our lives to Christ, we receive that light into our lives.  We become light bearers.  We have the opportunity and calling to shine the light of God’s Glory, revealed in Christ, into the darkness that is present in this world, uncovering that which is opposed to the grace and the truth that is God.  May we walk in this light, as we begin a new year as followers of the Word made Flesh, the one close to God's heart, the one who is made known in this one we follow.  Yes, we are called to bear witness to the Light that has come into the world, a light that cannot be overcome by the darkness.        

[i] On the question of the nature of this gospel see Richard Horsley and Tom Thatcher, John, Jesus, and the Renewal of Israel, (Eerdmans, 2013).
[ii] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction(Eerdmans, 1979), p. 20.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Generations -- A Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas

Matthew 1:1-17

On Christmas Eve we watched as four generations of one family gathered to light the Christ candle. What a wonderful sight it was, because it doesn’t happen all that often.  In fact, largely due to the mobility of our society, our opportunities to gather across the generations has become increasingly difficult.  One of the few places where multiple generations do gather on a regular basis is at church, even if these multiple generations aren’t part of one specific family.
This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is known for its “begats,” because that’s the word the King James Version uses to count off the forty-two generations of Jesus ancestry, stretching from Abraham to David, from David to the Exile, and finally from the exile to the Christ child.  While some of the persons named in this passage are familiar, most are not.

When we read a passage of scripture like this one, our eyes can begin to glaze over and our minds begin to wander.  There are a few names in this list that are familiar, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon, but many will seem strange and foreign.  You might even find one name rather intriguing, since it looks as if a fish made it on to the list!  That would be Salmon, the father of Boaz, but this isn’t a fish it’s a person.  While the name looks like that of a fish, it’s probably pronounced Sall-mon not sa -mon.

These names can easily merge into a long meaningless repetition of words, but each of these names has a story, even if some have never been told.  Some of these persons were faithful to God, while others were not.  But such is the nature of a genealogy – as anyone who has traced their family tree knows, there are always a few skeletons in the closet.

Tracing family trees has become a rather popular pastime.  There are many reasons why we do this, but one of the reasons has to do with our identity.  We want to know who we are and where we come from.  Maybe it’s because our society is becoming so mobile that we feel the need for a sense of rootedness, even if it’s in the form of a genealogy.  Some people are going so far as to trace their DNA to get definitive proof about their ancestry. But, if you do go this route, just be forewarned, you might even discover that besides the typical skeletons in the closet, you may even have a few Neanderthals in the family tree.

I haven’t gone so far as to trace my DNA, but due in part to the efforts of my father, I’ve been able to trace the Cornwall family tree back about fourteen generations.  That takes me back to late medieval England.  Like many, my ancestors served in the American Revolution, and the first Cornwall (or Cornwell, depending on the spelling), came to Boston in the 1630s and eventually helped found the town of Milford, Connecticut.  While it’s difficult to prove, I’ve been led to believe that I might even have some noble blood coursing through my veins.  Of course, since records become sketchy the farther back you go, much of the “evidence” is speculation. That speculation includes the possibility that we Cornwalls are descendants of a certain Wampanoag princess named Mary Hyanno.  That first Cornwall in America, William, is said to have married a woman named Mary in about 1640.  For some in the Cornwall family, this Mary has been linked to an Indian princess.  Of course, we’re not the only family that claims Mary Hyanno as an ancestor!  But, even if these claims to nobility or Native American ancestry are more legend than reality, they make for a good story.  I expect that you might have interesting stories to tell about your family tree!

Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogical statement because he wants to answer the question:  Who is Jesus?  Matthew offers us “a record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.”  That means, whoever Jesus is, Abraham and David are important figures in his family tree.  But, not only is he son of Abraham and son of David, he is also the product of the Babylonian exile.  

Matthew begins by naming fourteen generations from Abraham to David.  Abraham is, of course, the one with whom God covenants and commissions to be a blessing to the nations.  David is the one whom God commissions to be Israel’s king.  There are fourteen generations linking David to the time of the exile, when the monarchy comes to an end.  Finally, there are fourteen generations between the transformative time of exile and the coming of the Christ. There is one specific claim that emerges from this reading, and that is Jesus is Israel’s messiah.  He is the anointed one, who, as the angel tells Joseph, will save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).

While there is a beginning to this gospel, there is also an ending, and the two are related.  The gospel closes with Jesus gathering his followers together for one last word, and he gives them a commission, saying:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matt. 28:19-20 NRSV).      
In this commission, Jesus brings his disciples, and us, into a story that extends back to the covenant that God made with Abraham and with Sarah.

These genealogies, as Timothy Sensing notes, “highlight Israel’s greatest moments and expose her darkest days” (Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentaryp. 5). But even the darkest of days cannot keep God from being faithful to God’s promises, which Matthew suggests have come into their fullness in Jesus.

And so we return to the stories behind the names to see how God has been active in the larger story of redemption.

There is much speculation as to the reason why Matthew chose to highlight the four women who figure prominently in Jesus’ ancestry.  One thing we know from the biblical story is that all four were foreigners.  Among the men the stories are also intriguing.  There is Isaac, the one whom God commanded Abraham to sacrifice, and Isaac’s son, Jacob the trickster.  Then there’s Jacob’s son Judah, who has a son by his daughter-in-law, Tamar.  Among the many kings mentioned, some are considered pretty good – Hezekiah and Josiah for instance, but the majority didn’t measure up, and some, like Manasseh, were absolutely evil.  But, in linking Jesus to the royal line, Matthew lifts up Jesus’ royal claims.  Reference to the exile is a reminder that God is faithful to God’s people – for they not only survived the exile but became a new people.  In the end, even if we find  the good, the bad, and the ugly in Jesus’ family tree, we have been given assurance that God’s promise to Abraham remains in force, so that through his descendants the nations will be blessed.

In the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel, in the Great Commission passage, Jesus includes us, his disciples, his followers, in this family tree.  That is, by faith we are grafted into his family tree, so that in him, we become children of Abraham.  Because we are sons of Abraham through Jesus our brother, we receive the commission, the promise, that the descendants of Abraham will be agents of blessing to the world.

Although Matthew starts out his gospel answering the question – who is Jesus – the gospel concludes with a word as to our own identity.  We are the ones who are called to make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Since the Christ Candle remains lit this morning, we can take from it a reminder that in Christ, the Son of Abraham and the Son of David, we carry the light of Christ into the world so that it might know the loving presence of God who frees the nations from their exile in the wilderness of Babylon.  

Preached by::
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
December 29, 2013
1st Sunday after Christmas

Note:  This text is taken from Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionary, created by David Ackerman.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Parental Guidance Advised: Adult Preaching from the Old Testament (Review)

PARENTAL GUIDANCE ADVISED: Adult Preaching from the Old Testament Edited by Alyce M. McKenzie and Charles L. Aaron Jr.  St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2013.  Xi +147 pages.

The biblical story, especially the section of it Christians most often refer to as the Old Testament, is not G rated.  For the preacher to take up the Biblical text and discern a message for today requires a great deal of wisdom and recognition that not all parts are appropriate for children.  The Old Testament has stories of rape, adultery, divinely commanded infanticide (Abraham and Isaac), and more.  There is violence and there is even the erotic.  It is no wonder that many preachers shy away from the Old Testament in their preaching, because it can easily push buttons we're not ready to handle.

It is helpful for the preacher to have, if not parental guidance, expert guidance in ways of handling these texts.  Such a word from those wise in communicating the message embedded in the Old Testament comes to us packaged in a book whose cover features a picture of Abraham about to slay Isaac, with an angel intervening.  The eyes of each character are covered with a thick black line, and stamped across the picture is the word uncensored in red.  The cover itself reminds us that the task at hand is a dangerous one, but it is a necessary one.    

The book is brief and readable.  The essays written by teachers of homiletics and preachers of sermons, with a concluding essay by Walter Brueggemann, honor John C. Holbert on his retirement as Lois Craddock Perkins Chair of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology (Southern Methodist University).  Holbert is a scholar of the Old Testament and a teacher of preachers, and his colleagues and students have chosen to honor him not with a collection of unrelated essays, but with a primer on preaching difficult or challenging biblical texts.  The editors note in their introduction that in taking up this topic they seek to confront the heresy of Marcion that continues to plague the church.  They write:  “Far too many Christians consider the Old Testament as at best ‘background’ material to the New Testament; far too many preachers ignore it when choosing sermon texts” (p. 1).  Holbert, as a teacher, invited his students of preaching to enter the texts of the Old Testament and let them free to speak to congregations.    

The essays cover topics such as like divine wrath, the character flaws of biblical figures, the presence of the erotic, as well as the use of film and literature in preaching.  Each takes up themes from the Old Testament, usually offering guidelines for preaching -- including creating sermons series that wrestle with texts that are truly adult in their focus.  Since this is a book of individual essays, readers may find some essays more intriguing and helpful than others.  I was particularly attracted to the opening essay written by Stephen Tuell that suggests we preach Jonah as comedy.  Tuell, who teaches preaching at Pittsburg Theological Seminary, suggests that the very premise that Jonah thinks he can flee from God sets the text up as comedy.  Besides, everything in the story is larger than life – including the city of Nineveh. As a comedy, Jonah lifts up the theme of God’s surprising grace.  Seeing Jonah in this fashion allows us to see the Christian confession focusing on life being a comedy – “a celebration of joy and possibility” (p. 16).  Mary Donovan Turner’s essay on sexuality and the erotic will also prove challenging, especially since the church tends to shy away from anything sexual.  But, there are important discussions of sexuality present in the Old Testament, especially in Song of Songs.   Then there’s Brueggemann, bringing the book to a close by inviting us to consider the prophetic word.     

  According to the editors, “the golden thread is that each topic connects the biblical text with the concerns of contemporary people” (p. 1).  Such is the task of the preacher and the focus of the book.  Each essay addresses in some way the task of preaching the text.  Because the lectionary doesn’t always offer an extended look at these texts, in many cases the preacher will need to diverge from the lectionary.  Thus, in relationship to the book of Jonah – there are only two readings from this book.  To fully catch the comedic message a series of sermons that move from beginning to end is likely necessary.  The same would be true of treatments of the character flaws of biblical characters or the erotic.  For the preacher willing to leave the tried and true, there will be fruitful journeys ahead. 

It should go without saying that any book that concludes with an essay authored by Walter Brueggemann is probably worth reading. Having read widely in the work of Ron Allen, I can say the same of a book that includes an essay by him as well.  Therefore, I commend this book to all my colleagues who take up the task of preaching. Although many of us have been tempted by the heresy of Marcion, we should resist.  Most likely our fears are misplaced.  The idea that the God of the Old Testament is a wrathful divinity is without foundation.  It’s not that one will not find divine anger expressed, but that this does not define the God we meet in the pages of the Old Testament.  As Ron Allen’s essay reminds us, the God of the Old Testament is not the feared high school principal who is “hard, unbending, gruff, and punitive” (p. 17).  The God we meet in the Old Testament is not different from the God we meet in Jesus.  In our preaching we have the opportunity to address these misconceptions and introduce congregations to a much fuller understanding of the biblical story.  

As one who enjoys preaching from the Old Testament, in part because it is full of possibilities, I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to read this primer on “adult preaching.”  So, be not afraid -- much wisdom can be found in texts that we are tempted to avoid due to their perceived dangers.  The adventure could prove dangerous, but it will be one that will accrue blessings to both preacher and congregation. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Muslim Perspectives on "Remembering God" at Christmas -- Sightings

Over the past few days my Muslim friends have shared Christmas greetings.  That might seem odd to some, but its important to remember that Islam honors Jesus as a founding prophet and affirms the doctrine of the Virgin Birth.  In this piece written for Sightings, Scott Alexander helps provide helpful insight into ways in which Muslims remember God at Christmas.  Take a read and perhaps offer your thoughts.

Muslim Perspectives on "Remembering God" at Christmas
Thursday | Dec 26 2013
                                                                                                                          Photo: Scott C. Alexander

The Christmas tree, and minaret of the Mosque of 'Umar b. al-Khatab in Manger Square, Bethlehem
To get some sense of what Muslims think about Christmas, I decided to poll a cross-section of my Muslim friends and colleagues.

A Muslim from India alluded to the stories of the angel's visit to Mary and the birth of Jesus which appear in both the Qur'an and the New Testament. "The story, the characters, and the spirit they evoke serve as a reminder of God's miracles and messages." This Indian Muslim also expressed deep respect for the season as "a time of festivities which include beautiful ways of prayer, music, lights, food, and lots of happy faces" and which invites us to "celebrate our unity in the face of all our differences."

Another Muslim, a Palestinian American, also spoke of Christmas as a time which shouldremind all people of "the blessings and miracles that God bestowed on Jesus...as well as the common love of God and love of humanity which our beliefs teach us regarding his ministry and message."

A Muslim professor, who regularly preaches at some of the largest mosques in the Greater Chicago Area, underscored the imperative in the Qur’an for the faithful to take every opportunity to "remember God, especially by remembering God's chosen people, such as Abraham, Moses, Job, Jesus, and Mary." Therefore remembrance of Jesus and Mary at Christmas time, he went on to say, "can be a meritorious act [for Muslims]—if it remains within the boundaries of Islam"—meaning that it doesn’t incorporate Christian beliefs and practices incompatible with Islamic norms.

And finally, an African American Muslim colleague of national and international renown simply said: "When I think of Christmas, I think of a combination of some who increase their good works, and others who just spend on themselves."

A theme runs through many of the responses I received: remembrance.

For those who know something about Islam, this will come as no surprise since the Qur'an teaches quite plainly that the lynchpin of a life of taqwa or "God-consciousness" is dhikr Allah or the "remembrance of God."

To be a person of faith is to live life as one seamless act of “remembrance”—in other words, as one seamless act of prayer and thanksgiving to the one God.

A life lived as prayer must be, like the Muslim salat (obligatory prayer), radically holistic, encompassing one’s mind, heart, and body—one’s thoughts, feelings and actions.

And as my African American colleague underscored: one cannot propose to remember God at Christmas—or any other time—if one forgets and does not act upon God's unqualified demand for the justice due the poor and oppressed.

In December 2000, just before the turn of the millennium, Christianity's observance of the revelation of God's Word to the world in the person of Jesus Christ on December 25—namely, Christmas—converged with Islam's observance of the revelation of God's Word in the Holy Qur'an to the Prophet Muhammad on the 'Night of Destiny'—namely, Laylat al-Qadr.

Some took note. A few talked about the rarity of this once-in-three-decades convergence. Others wondered whether this rare coming together of dates could lead us into deeper reflection about the spiritual interdependence of the meaning of our respective religious observances.

But what might such a spiritual interdependence look like?

Christianity and Islam agree that the coming of God's Word in Christ and the Qur'an, respectively, are not mere mythic events to be commemorated, but rather constitute a challenge to be embraced and lived into.

The challenge is to heed God's Word which calls us to work tirelessly, and in radical love, for the realization of justice and the integrated wholeness of all creation known in the Bible asshalom and in the Qur'an as salam.

Embracing this challenge means a jihad or struggle to live righteously for Muslims, and a decision to embrace God's will even if it entails great sacrifice—a Gethsemane—for Christians.

Because Ramadan's once-yearly, month-long dawn-to-sunset fast is designed to remind Muslims of God's challenge to live righteously, Muslims might consider viewing Ramadan as a Gethsemane moment for renewing their commitment to sacrifice for the sake of Allah.

And because, as Professor Irfan Omar of Marquette University has pointed out, the standard Arabic New Testament translates the Greek word, agonia, in the Gethsemane scene in Luke 22 such that Jesus is in the depths of his personal "jihad," Christians could begin thinking of Christmas as a time for renewing their commitment to the jihad for justice and peace.

Consider visiting MyJihad.org or tweeting to #MyJihad some of the specifics of what your Christmas jihad will be.

Just a thought.

References and Further Reading:

Irfan, Omar. "Keeping Shari'a and Reclaiming Jihad." Political Theology 12:5 (2011), 706-712. Cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25 where kullu man yujahidu ("everyone who struggles"—often translated as "athletes") is used as the Arabic translation of the Greek agonizomenos.

Cragg, Kenneth. Jesus and the Muslim: an Exploration. London: Oneworld, 1999 (1985).

Hussein, M. Kamel. City of Wrong: a Friday in Jerusalem. Kenneth Cragg, tr. London: Oneworld, 1995 (1959).

Khalidi, Tarif. The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Lawson, Todd. The Crucifixion and the Qur’ana Study in the History of Muslim Thought. London: Oneworld, 2009.

Woodbury, J. Dudley. “The Muslim Understanding of Jesus.” Word and World 16:2 (Spring 1996) 173-178.   http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/16-2_Islam/16-2_Woodberry.pdf.

Photo Credit: Scott C. Alexander
Author, Scott Alexander, (Ph.D. Columbia University) is Associate Professor of Islam and Director of the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His latest book project is The Race to Goodness: An End to Triumphalism in Christian-Muslim Relations. He serves on the Board of Trustees of the Marty Center.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the Divinity School (mainly funded by the Marty Center, free to the public). For more information, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/god-theological-accounts-and-ethical-possibilities.
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Thursday, December 26, 2013

God Includes All -- Alternate Lections for Epiphany (David Ackerman)

A new year is at hand.  We find ourselves thinking about the future -- what will 2014 be like.  What is required of us?  In this set of lections, David Ackerman, in Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionary, offers us an opportunity to trust in the Lord, consider the boundaries of the community, and discern the center.  Each text in its own way invites us to consider God's gracious offer of inclusion.  May the New Year be one in which we both experience and share in a new way that welcome God has shown us in Christ.


Epiphany/New Year’s Day

“God Includes All”

Note:  If desired, these texts may be used in place of the readings for Christmas 2.

Call to Worship:  Isaiah 56:3-5 NRSV

One:  Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”

Many:  For thus says the Lord:  To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

Gathering Prayer:  God, we thank you for showing yourself to the world in the person of Jesus.  As we come together to worship you this day, may we see you for who you are.

Confession:  Though you reveal yourself to us time and time again, God, we look away from you and fail to trust you.  We build up walls of exclusion to give us the illusion of comfort and safety, and all the while we wall you out of our lives.  Have mercy on us, and forgive us.  Change us, so that we may come to know you as you are, not as we want you to be.

Assurance:  God breaks through every barrier to inclusion and offers us grace and love in abundance.  Let us live, then, as faithful people who are genuinely thankful for all that God has done for us.

Scriptures:      Proverbs 3:5-8 – “Trust in God”
Acts 15:1-21 – “The Jerusalem Council”
John 7:25-31 – “Is Jesus the Messiah?”

Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.

Reflection Questions:

·         As a new calendar year dawns, how hard is it to resolve to “trust in God with all your heart,” as advised in Proverbs 3?  What keeps you from trusting God?

·         How does Isaiah 56 offer a word of hope to people who were once excluded from fellowship?  What groups of people today might be in the same social position as the eunuchs of Isaiah 56?

·         What is the primary issue at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15?  Who are the main figures and what do they think about the issue?  How did they resolve the controversy?  How might their process of coming to a resolution be a model for Christian churches today?

·         In what ways do you think the Jerusalem Council’s decision applies to issues of inclusivity today?  Who are the “Gentiles” in today’s church and how, as a church, might we welcome them in?  What might it cost us to do so?  Is it worth it?

·         In John 7, there is great debate about who Jesus is.  Are there similar debates in Christian churches today?  Who is Jesus for you?

·         How do you handle controversies in your church and life?  Do you see conflict primarily as a source of pain or growth (or both)?  Is it worth it to stand up and risk ridicule for the sake of the inclusion of “outsiders” in the church (and in our society)?

Prayer of Thanksgiving:  God, you have shown yourself to us this day, and for the gift of this revelation, we offer you thanks and praise.

Benediction:  We are witnesses of the good news that God has welcomed us into the family of faith.  Let us go out into the world and share that same message of welcome and love with others.  Amen.

Build Each Other Up -- Alternative Lections for Christmas 2 (David Ackerman)

Although it seems as if Christmas should be over, such is not the case.  There are two Sundays that follow upon Christmas this year.  With these passages we have the opportunity to continue the conversation as to what Christmas means for us.  The idea that the call of Christ involves building up one another may not always be at the top of our minds, but may this be an opportunity to share that very message.  If you're a preacher considering what to share this coming Second Sunday of Christmas, I invite you to consider these passages and supporting matierals that David Ackerman has provided us with his Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionary. .

Merry Christmas!


Christmas 2

“Build Each Other Up”

Note: Another option for this day is to use the readings for Epiphany.

Call to Worship:  Psalm 106:47-48 NRSV

One:  Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.

Many:  Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting.  And let all the people say, “Amen.”  Praise the Lord!

Gathering Prayer:  As a new year dawns upon us, we thank you that we can be together.  Help us to use our energies to build each other up, just as you build us up in strength.

Confession:  We have strayed away from your truth, God.  Instead of embracing your healing touch in our lives, we have preferred to remain broken.  We have not been people of love, and we have not trusted in you.  Forgive us, God.  Give us a sense of direction and purpose, so that we might live anew, as you call us to do.

Assurance:  God has given us grace in overflowing abundance.  As a people who have been forgiven, let us strive to love as God has loved us.  We pray in the name of Jesus, who has come to us and given us new hope this day.

Scriptures:      Isaiah 57:14-19 – “I Will Heal Them”
1 John3:11-14a; 4:1-6 – “Love One Another”
Luke 1:1-4– “That You May Know the Truth”

Commentaries and sermon ideas may be found in Beyond the Lectionary.

Reflection Questions:

·         How do you think the exiled Israelites would have heard Isaiah 57?  Have you ever been in a “place of exile” or somewhere far from home against your will?  What was that like for you?  How do you find hope in that kind of a situation?

·         Today’s reading from 1 John reminds us that it’s hard to know who to trust when it comes to matters of faith.  Do you use any “tests” to determine who to trust in spiritual matters?

·         A person may have many gifts, but if they lack love they miss that which is at the heart of Christian life.  What does love mean to you?  Do we really know it when we see it?

·         Today’s reading from Luke marks the beginning of what is probably the “best written” Gospel.  Does it cheapen this book in your eyes to know that it was written for a benefactor?  Are there other great works of art that were made at the commissioning of others?

·         In this busy time of year when many changes happen, how are we holding up under the stress?  Do we have the strength to build each other up, or are our nerves so frayed that we tear each other down?

Prayer of Thanksgiving:  For all the beauty and wonder of this Christmas season, God, we give you thanks and praise.

Benediction:  God commissions us as agents of healing in a broken world.  Let us do this work in love, trusting in the promise of the One who gives us life and sends us out this day.  Amen.