Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. By your grace empower us to reflect your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
First Reading: Jeremiah 31: 7-14
7Thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” 8See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. 9With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn. 10Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.” 11For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. 12They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. 13Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the Lord.
Psalm: Psalm 147: 12-20
12Worship the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion,
3who has strengthened the bars of your gates and has blessed your children within you.
14God has established peace on your borders and satisfies you with the finest wheat.
15God sends out a command to the earth, a word that runs very swiftly.
16God gives snow like wool, scattering frost like ashes.
17God scatters hail like bread crumbs. Who can stand against God’s cold?
18The Lord sends forth the word and melts them; the wind blows, and the waters flow.
19God declares the word to Jacob, statutes and judgments to Israel.
20The Lord has not done so to any other nation; they do not know God’s judgments. Hallelujah!
Second Reading: Epheisans 1: 3-14
3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.[b]
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,[a] 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,[b] 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,[c] who is close to the Father’s heart,[d] who has made him known.
Sermon – Pastor Meggan Manlove
It is true that our church year began with the season of Advent, waiting for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem and waiting also for Jesus to return. But I think it is fair to say that we are all ready to say goodbye to the calendar year of 2020. Good riddance! You, the community of Trinity Lutheran, heard me lean into poetry a lot during 2020, during sermons, in devotions I wrote for tvprays.org, even sometimes in business meetings. Plenty of stories, fiction and nonfiction, will be written about 2020, but while we were living that narrative, poetry seemed to be a better fit.
While my father was in residential Hospice in December and following his death, my mom and I listened to a lot of poetry put the music. Mom had turned to the John Prine Pandora Station in 2020, which included his poetry, along with that of John Denver, Willy Nelsen, and Fleetwood Mac. The lyrics washed over us in ways that are hard to explain but they certainly captured our feelings for fleeting moments. Of course, those musicians are storytellers, but their form has bursts and moments of silence instead of the arc of a novel or narrative history or short stories.
All of that is my introduction to John’s prologue to his gospel. Unlike Luke and Matthew with their casts of characters and tension and resolution, the prologue is poetry. John captures our attention with his words and phrases and images. I think like so many big things (years such as 2020, feelings like grief, desperation or exhilaration) John thought, “other people like Matthew and Luke have written about the birth of Jesus in story form, but I am going to do something different.”
John’s prologue does not allow us, and I’m certainly including myself, to be distracted by the shepherds, the magi, the angels, Mary and Joseph. We don’t get to ask questions like, why did those people show up? Why did God in Jesus appear to them first? Why was there no room for baby Jesus in the inn? All of those wonderful and, I would argue elsewhere, details are pruned out of the story and all we have left is God taking on human flesh.
We are given just a moment, as long as it takes to read the prologue, to wonder at God coming and living on earth as a human being. What kind of God does that? What does God in human flesh do here on earth? Are we supposed to be afraid?
The first words of the prologue are “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” These words are meant to remind the early readers of John’s gospel and us of the first words of Genesis, “In the beginning” and the way God used words to create. So, it appears that though God being born in human form was something new, Jesus was with God the creator from the beginning.
It is no mistake that the symbol of John the gospel writer is the eagle. John’s Christmas story begins in the vaulted heavens, though it does not end there. Not only did the Word create life and light from heavenly splendor, but the eagle suddenly dives toward the ground. “Mission Control, the Eagle has landed.” But this is not a gentle glide like present-day space shuttles. In this symphony the violins give way to the sudden thud of the bass drum. Heaven crashes to earth with the startling new: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
And within a few words and phrases we learn more about God’s character. This is a God who brings life and light into the world. The prologue continues, “to all who received him, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” In other words, this is a God who is all for adoption. God’s life and light are available to all people.
Further into the prologue, John writes, “From [Jesus’] fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” God has always wanted abundant life for the creation. God gave laws for order and to live abundant life together in community, but something new is happening with the incarnation, with Jesus. God’s grace and mercy will take on a new form.
All the Christmas Eve and Epiphany characters may be missing from John’s prologue, but even John the gospel writer cannot erase John the baptizer or witness. In verses 15 we read, “(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.’”)
Basking in the love and comfort of Christmas, of the incarnation, of Immanuel, we might be wondering, how do we respond to the life and light received through Jesus? John the Baptist shows us the way. We testify to Jesus. We witness. In Jesus, we have a way to know God and to tell others about the God we worship.
We cannot witness what we do not really know or understand. My nephew Joe joined my mom and I in Mesa on 28th. Joe teaches math at a community college in California. He is whip smart about so much and to listen to him talk is to be reminded of all the things I have no authority witnessing or pointing to, most especially mathematical equations. I am so grateful for his gifts and the way he uses them to better the world.
Thanks be to God that anyone can witness to Jesus, though even that takes practice and a bit of training. Following the example of John, the Baptist and witnessing to the Jesus we read about in the gospels is a far different task than witnessing to Christian values espoused by popular American Civic religion. So, how do we get to know this Jesus we are to point to, to witness?
This being the first Sunday in the new year, many of us might be creating resolutions, thinking about how we will live into the brand-new year. I am going to make a strong suggestion that one of all of our resolutions is not to read more scripture, maybe a worthy endeavor but a little to broad. Read Mark’s Gospel. It is the shortest gospel and it is the one we will spend the most time in as a congregation. Read it during these dreary winter pandemic days. Or read it as part of your journey in Lent. Or save it for a camping trip next summer. But read the Gospel of Mark straight through and reflect on the Jesus you meet in those pages.
The incarnation, God made flesh, opens the door to unimaginable possibilities. God has truly entered the human condition, a human condition that is not all clean and lovely, warm and welcoming. No longer can we say that God cannot understand what it is like to struggle against the cold, to have to flee to another country, to be betrayed by a friend, to grieve the loss of a loved one, to fear suffering and or death, to experience a seeming absence of God the Father. Our God has truly walked our walk. God’s Word of Love has truly taken flesh.
And the words of Jesus took flesh as well. Jesus not only spoke of God’s reign of justice, but he stood in solidarity with the poor and the outcasts. Jesus not only spoke of a God who longs for our wholeness, but he touched a leper to clean skin, a stooped woman to straightness. Jesus not only said, “I love you,” to the hungry crowd, but fed their hungers with truth and with bread. He did not just say, “I love you,” to us, but picked up a cross, suffered, died our deaths, and rose that we might know life eternal.
In gratitude for the Incarnation, for the Word become flesh, we now try to gift others with God’s saving love tangibly expressed. Mother Theresa of Calcutta said, “we believe God loves the world through us. Just as he sent Jesus to be his love, his presence in the world, so today he is sending us.”
We may not be called to embody such love for the poor and dying in the streets of Calcutta, but each of us in our own way are called to embody God’s love in some way to neighbors near and far. We who receive Christ become children of God, bearing witness to the Light who comes with grace for all people. Like luminaries we are illumined from within by the presence of Christ.
A second sort of resolution for 2021 as people of faith might be to reflect on all the bright spots of 2020. It was a remarkable exercise to read Christmas letters in one sitting and hear different friends and family members lament parts of the past year but also lift up what we might call blessings or lessons. We believe that God walks with us through dark valleys and that the Holy Spirit transforms us in those moments.
For all the pain and suffering we witnessed in 2020, let us learn from the year. What do you want to remember and maintain? Small joys with family? New relationships with your neighbors? A deeper awareness of our global connectedness? Supporting local restaurants? Seeing those who grow and distribute food as essential? Don’t let January pass by before jotting down what you want to remember from 2020. And let those lessons shape the love you bear in 2021. Loving one another with the love we first received from God, we declare, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Prayers of Intercession
Joining our voices with the song of the angels, let us pray for the church, the world, and all who are in need.
A brief silence.
Redeeming God, you gather together your people from the farthest parts of the earth. Protect your church from stumbling. Let it not be overcome by sorrow, division, or despair. Make us radiant with goodness, that we might live always to the praise of your glory. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.
You bring together heaven and earth. All creation testifies to your splendor. Hold the ecosystems of this earth in delicate balance, from coastlands to farmlands, forests to wetlands, deserts to rainforests. Show us new ways to live in harmony with the world around us. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.
You overflow with grace upon grace. Expand the imaginations of those who serve in positions of authority. Open their hearts to the needs of their nations and communities. Protect all those in harm’s way and those risking danger for the sake of others. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.
You bring consolation to those who weep. Embrace those who feel far-off, excluded, or defeated. Accompany those living with chronic and invisible illness. Sustain the weak and weary. Refresh those who labor under the weight of pain or sickness (especially). Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.
You come to us in the beauty of darkness and of light. Bring justice and reconciliation to communities divided by oppressions and misuse of power. Guide us to speak holy words of advocacy and truth. Help us to honor your image in one another. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.
You turn our mourning into joy. We give thanks for those who have died in faith (especially). With all the saints, give us our inheritance in Christ. In the fullness of time, gather us all together in your mercy. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.
God of mercy, come quickly to us with grace upon grace as we lift these and all our prayers to you, in the name of Jesus. Amen.