A Crown of Beauty

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

First Sunday in Christmas/B • December 27, 2020

Luke 2:22-40

When I was growing up, basket weaving was my father’s favorite example of something totally useless. I’d take a course in art and he’d ask, “So, what are you studying these days, basket weaving?” Only later did I learn from historians that baskets and basket weaving in fact were critical to ancient communities. Baskets were the basic dry storage container, the Tupperware of their time. Weaving baskets is a complex, community project. Some gather reeds and slim sticks, some soak them while skilled weavers combine them into something useful for the community, something others will fill with beans and corn and food to get them through the winter. Learning about baskets made me realize how much we depend on on our community. Today’s gospel reading is all about community. It was in a community that Jesus was recognized.

The first Christians never saw Jesus alone. Mark doesn’t have a story of his birth, neither does John. Our Christmas story is woven together from a few verses of Luke and a few more in Matthew. Early Christians didn’t look to what we call the Christmas story, they looked to their scripture, what we sometimes call the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, and they saw him as part of God’s continuing coming to the community. 

Early on, a tradition that put Jesus in the picture with Abraham, Moses and Elijah developed; it’s the story of the transfiguration and we read it every year. Most importantly, as we read recently, God promised David eternal presence and the early Christians saw Jesus as the continuation of this promise. It wasn’t Jesus alone; it was Jesus as part of a long line of God coming into lives, historical lives. It was a new explosion of the same God, the God who formed a community through Abraham and Sarah, saved it through Moses, established it through David and then announced forgiveness and recall through the prophets.

Today’s gospel reading is the story of the community present in Jesus’ time recognizing him. You’ve seen this, though you may not recognize it. Every community has a moment, a ritual, by which a new person is recognized and welcomed into the community. We do it as a nation with the process of becoming a citizen. We do it in here when someone owns the church covenant and becomes a member. Most importantly, we do it through baptism. In our tradition, when a child is born, it’s common for the parents and family to bring the child to church where the minister of the church on behalf of the community welcomes the child to the community of all Christians and especially that congregation and the congregation promises to support the child.

Now we know that not everyone does it this way. Baptism has always had a dual identity. Part of it is the involuntary thing God is doing in choosing a child; part of it is the choice we make to choose God. So Christians have emphasized different aspects. But it’s interesting that even so, most have found a way to recognize there are two moments that need a ritual, need a public blessing. One is at the beginning of life. In our tradition, in most Western traditions, we do this by baptizing a child. In some traditions, they introduce and recognize the child. In those traditions, baptism often takes place when the child is 12 or 13. In our tradition, we also know that’s an important time and we have a service where the young person confirms the baptismal vows, the choices, previously made for them.

But what matters isn’t so the specifics of the ritual but the meaning of the moment. You see that same meaning here. Mary and Joseph have brought their child to Jerusalem. We aren’t told exactly how old he is. But the purpose is clear: it’s presentation, a ritual to certify him as a member of the people of God, a Jewish person, part of the Jewish community. But they don’t do this alone. The event has book ends in the reaction of people who are part of the community.

Think of Simeon. We’re not told his role but it seems to be official. Perhaps he’s a rabbi; perhaps he’s a Deacon. He’s looking forward to “the consolation of Israel”—that is for a clear sign of the presence of God. When Jesus is brought and the service is performed, , we’re told that he embraced Jesus, literally “took him into his arms.” He sees in Jesus the continuation of the presence of God and it’s the Holy Spirit that has guided him to this encounter. He’s not an uncle, he’s not a friend of the family, he’s a part of the large community in which Jesus will live and preach and work. And he sees Jesus as a sign of God’s presence. 

At the other end of the story, we have Anna, an 84 year old widow who practically lives in the temple, devoting herself to prayer and worship. Jesus becomes for her a reason to praise god and to encourage those looking for hope and redemption.

Jesus is not alone and neither are you. We live in a vast network of communities and if we fail to see them, it’s our lack of vision, not their lack of presence. We are all coming through a difficult time and a great part of the difficulty is the loneliness so many feel. I wonder how many didn’t feel like Christmas came because no one came to visit. It’s one thing to realize Santa really is not coming down your chimney, another to not have family members or friends come by, not see anyone, not touch anyone. I honestly believe it’s one reason we’re seeing the rise of right wing terrorist groups like the Proud Boys and others. They feed on the loneliness, they feed on feeling left out of community.

But there is a way to reconnect with a sense of community and you can do it as part of your prayer life. We are good at giving thanks for things; we need to pay more attention to giving thanks for people. A. J. Jacobs is a writer who set out to do this by giving thanks for everyone involved in his morning cup of coffee. He started to consciously thank people for some of his food. Jacobs made a point of getting the names of people. He thanked Chung, the barista, and Ed, the coffee taster who selects the coffee, and named and contacted many, many others, all to say thank you. He went on to thank the trucker who brought the coffee to the store. But then there was also the people who built the truck and carved the highway out on which the truck drove. There were the people who bought large sacks of coffee beans and roasted them, there were the people who packaged it. There were the people who grew the coffee of course. He called his project, “Thanks a thousand,’ because he ended up thanking over a thousand people. 

We try to do something like this at our home and we have for a long time. On Christmas, for example, we had roast chicken for dinner. So when Jacquelyn prayed over the meal, she thanked the farmer who raised the chicken and the chicken for giving its life for our dinner. We do this normally; I’ve noticed it sometimes throws guests a little. That’s ok; perhaps it makes them think.

You can try this, you can do this, and it will lift you up. Pick something simple: Jacobs picked coffee, we do it with dinner. Think of the network of people who worked to bring it to you, the community that is upholding your life. It makes you pay attention; it makes you grateful.

Mary Oliver expressed this same feeling of attentive gratitude in her poem, “Invitation”

by Mary Oliver
Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy
and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles
for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,
or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?

Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air
as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine
and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude –
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.

I beg of you,
do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.


Jesus is not alone, neither are we. We are called together as a church community because that’s how God works. It’s significant that when Jesus did set out to preach and heal, he didn’t just preach, he didn’t just heal, he first created a community of disciples. A church is not a building, it’s not a club, it’s an expression of what Jesus was doing when he created that community, a new community of his followers. When we are at out best, we are, as the scripture says, a crown of beauty. When we are a community of Christians, we are an inspiration, as Jesus inspired Anna. 

This week, I hope you will think of the community and give thanks. This week, I hope you will be a reason for someone else to praise God, I hope we all will. For we are meant indeed to be the crown of beauty by which God is seen present in this place, in this community.


Light One Candle

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Christmas Eve • December 24, 2020

One of my favorite Christmas time songs isn’t a Christmas carol at all; it’s a Hanukkah carol called Light One Candle by Peter, Paul and Mary. I love it because lighting candles is so much a part of my Christmas memories and traditions. A menorah is lit during Hanukkah; in the Advent season, we light four candles, candles that remind us to prepare with hope, peace, joy and love. 

The song says, 

Light one candle for the strength that we need
To never become our own foe
And light one candle for those who are suffering
Pain we learned so long ago
Light one candle for all we believe in
That anger not teaser us apart
And light one candle to find us together
With peace as the song in our hearts.

Peter Paul & Mary, Light One Candle

What is the song in your heart this evening?

There’s a funny video on YouTube that imagines Satan using a dating service and matching with a woman named “2020”. Satan says, “I filtered out joy, happiness, toilet paper and reason.” 2020 happily points to herself and says, “Boom!” The video is comic; the time has been tragic. 

We have been in a war against a virus. In the background has been the shelling and lightning of a political war as well. But we are not the only ones to come to Christmas in a time of war. So I thought tonight we should hear the story of the 1914 Christmas truce. That year found German, Belgian, French and British troops exhausted and dug in on a series of trenches that ran from the Channel to the Swiss border. Battles through the fall had shocked everyone with their violence. It was the first time 20th century technology was brought to the business of killing and it was very, very effective.

Yet as Christmas came to the trenches, the terrible, mud filled trenches, where just to let your head be above ground could result in death, a silence came over the battlefield in many places. Captain Robert Miles of the Royal Irish Rifles said ,

We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever. The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen’ to us. Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.

There are many such stories from many places. All begin the same: a few cautious, hopeful souls, lifting their heads, calling out, then soldiers quietly coming together between the lines, often exchanging something: buttons, a bit of tobacco or coffee, in one case a haircut. Many tell of singing Christmas carols. What they were doing, in a way, was lighting a candle for peace. 

Now the first Christmas didn’t take place in a war zone and yet it also is a story of an amazing coming together. Sometimes the baby gets most of the attention, other times his mother, Mary. But if we pull pack and look, the stable seems full to overflowing. There are cows and sheep, so it’s not just human beings, it’s all creation. There are the shepherds, people working who take a break to look in; there are rich wise ones on their way, although they won’t get here for a bit. There are angels to sing, there is a poor peasant couple at the center o it all. Each in their own way is there to light a candle, a candle for Christmas.

Now it’s your turn, now it’s my turn. This is what we’ve come to do tonight: to light a candle, a candle for Christmas. Those soldiers had the courage to crawl out and do it in 1914 but then they went back to killing each other. Few truces were held the following year and none the year after. So the question isn’t just will you light the candle of Christmas tonight, but will you keep it burning?

The song with which I began has this refrain:

Don’t let the light go out,
It’s lasted for so many years
Don’t let the light go out
Let it shine through our hope and our tears.

That’s really the question of Christmas: will you keep the light of love, the candle of Christmas, burning? In a few moments, we’ll all receive a light. In a few days, will it continue to burn? 

Don’t let the light go out.


Prepare for Arrival

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fourth Sunday in Advent/B • December 20, 2020

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16  • Luke 1:26-38

Every journey has a moment when you spy the end. It is not the end but it’s time to make ready for the end. Flight attendants on an airplane say, “Prepare for arrival”. A train slows and announces the station. Driving home, you turn onto a familiar street. This is the end of the Advent Season, the time of preparation; we are almost there; come on, come to the stable. Every sailor knows the ring of the harbor buoy in their home harbor. Every Christian knows the sound of the Christmas bell. It’s ringing; today, it calls us, come to the stable, come to the Lord, come to Christmas. Come so you can say, with angels, with shepherds, with all creation: “Here I am, Lord”. 

Advent is about the arrival of a new way for God to be present, so I want to think about what that means today. I’m not talking about Jesus today because it isn’t Christmas yet, we aren’t there yet. I want to think about arrivals and see what God can show us as we get ready to arrive. I hope you’re ready to come along on this last little bit of the Advent journey, I hope can get ready to arrive.

Did you listen today as the Hebrew scripture was read, that part from Samuel about King David? To understand it, you have to go back a ways. What’s been happening is that God’s people settled down and prospered in the promised land. They looked around, they saw some other people around them who looked like they had it even better and they wanted to be like them. Those people had invented something called a King. So they asked God for a King. God wasn’t too interested in giving them a King but went ahead and they got one, a man named Saul who turned out to be just as bad as God thought he would be. So God sent them a new King, a guy named David, a shepherd boy. 

Now David was a success, he was everything you hope a king would be at first. He had to take over from King Saul after some fighting, some battles. But he won them and he set up a home in Jerusalem. But he didn’t feel he was finished. He didn’t feel he had arrived. Those other people all had big temples for their Gods so David decided he’d build a temple. He emailed the prophet Nathan just to get the approval of the clergy. I don’t think any clergy have ever said no to a building project. So it was on.

But he forgot to do one thing; he forgot to ask God what God thought about this plan. And when God had something to say, it wasn’t what David expected. Because honestly? — God doesn’t care about buildings. God doesn’t care about how nice the altar looks or how clean the carpet is. God cares about God’s purpose.

So there’s David, the great king, ready to arrive at the final step of greatness, the biggest thing he can imagine: a palace for him, a temple for God and God laughs and says, “Did I ever ask for a temple? Are you the one to build me one?” And then God reminded David about the wild, free part of God. “I never lived in a house”. God reminded David where he came from: “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went…” You see? suddenly David is being told that it isn’t David who is arriving, it is God’s purpose being accomplished, God’s purpose is arriving in David. 

I’m not talking about Jesus today, I want you to see that what’s arriving at Christmas isn’t just a baby, it is a purpose that’s been going on a long, long time. This incident with David is about a thousand years before the first Christmas. A thousand years, and God is already looking ahead. Because the next thing God says is, “the LORD will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”

Wow! What a turn around! Remember how this whole story started? David was going to build a temple for God. Now it’s God saying to David, hold on: I’m the one who’s going to build, and I’m going to build your line into a home for everyone. Now it’s God saying to David, hold on: you aren’t thinking big enough, you’re thinking about a temple that’s going to last what, a few hundred years? I’m dealing in the whole of human history. I’m going to build a house, a line of generation, that’s going to last forever. That’s where I’m going. And Christmas is where that purpose is arriving. 

Christmas is coming in a few days, it’s arriving, and I wonder if we’re ready. Do you remember when you were a kid and those last days before Christmas were so painfully long? Do you remember counting down? Do you remember special things you did? We used to go to a big department store every year at one of the country’s first shopping malls. And there, in the middle of the store, in the heart of the store they would have a big beautiful Lionel train running around and I’d watch it and it would run around and around. I’d count the days every day. 

Now if a few days to Christmas can seem like forever to us, what does it seem like to God? A thousand years from David to Christmas. 36,500 and some days, I didn’t account for leap years. That’s how long God had been pursuing that purpose at Christmas. That’s how long God had been faithful to this promise at Christmas because Christmas is the next step in the covenant God made with Dave. David wanted to build a house; God insisted on creating everything and binding together God’s people in love. David wanted a big building; God built something bigger than David ever imagined.

This is the signature thing about God: bigger than you ever imagined. We like to wrap things up, put a box around things, define them, build a house for them. This is what God says about doing that with God: “I’ve never lived in a house.” We often come to Christmas so laden with our customs that we mistake them for Christ. We’re concerned about the wrapping but we miss the most important thing, the thing Mary says: “Nothing is impossible for God.” 

This is why we’re struggling right now. We have big problems, big issues, and a lot of us have given up. We just had the highest turnout election in American history. But 30% of eligible voters didn’t vote, they didn’t think it would make a difference. It’s like the snow plow guy that came over the other night. There was so much snow in our driveway and he did what he knew to do, he backed up his truck with the big yellow plow and he pushed and pushed and the snow mounded up and eventually he got stuck. So he had to spend a half hour unsticking the truck and he looked at the big pile of snow in front of him and said, “There’s nothing I can do about that.” It was too big for him. 

Do you feel that way? Do you feel like you just can’t push anymore? Then stop pushing. Stop pushing! Well, I hear you thinking but then there’s still going to be a pile of snow. That’s true but the answer wasn’t to keep pushing, it was to find another way. The more he pushed, the more stuck he got. He needed to stop and so do we. He needed to back off and so do we. He gave up but of course the snow got moved. But it wasn’t pushed; it had to be pulled back, as it turned out. Just took backing up long enough to figure that out. Sometimes the answer isn’t to do, it’s to be quiet and wait. 

Look at the story of Mary. Mary isn’t a king, like David; she’s a peasant girl. Historians tell us an unmarried young woman like Mary might have been around 14 or so. I’ve raised a couple of 14 year old girls. They care about all kinds of things, some small, some big. Maybe she cared about the inequality in her time, her song talks about the hungry being fed and the rich being empty. At the same time, maybe she cared about the talk at the well, what some pop star you’ve never heard of said on twitter. In the midst of Mary’s day, an angel appeared. What’s an angel look like? Big enough to be scary, I think of angels as like bouncers in a bar. Big thick arms, a black t-shirt, tattoos. Every time one shows up, the first thing they say is, “Don’t be scared.” You only say that if you’re used to frightening people. 

The angel shows up and tells this kid the worst thing that can happen to a 14 year old unmarried girl in a small town is going to happen. And God’s going to do it: she’s going to have a baby. Her life is turning over. She’s going to be a mother and there is a moment where she has to make a decision, This is the biggest pile of snow, the biggest obstacle she’s ever faced. 

What makes Mary so great is that she doesn’t push. Remember what she says? “Let it be to me as you’ve said.” She agrees to be part of God’s purpose, whatever that purpose will be. And she can do that because she believes, “Nothing is impossible for God.” Because she believes that, she can say with her whole life, “Here I am, Lord”. Turns out I have been talking about Jesus all along, after all. Because what we’re preparing for, what’s arriving, what’s coming is the fulfillment of God’s purpose and his name is Jesus. And the way to respond to that isn’t to push, isn’t to say what you can do, it’s to step back and say, “Here I am, Lord.” 

Now you are like David, you are like Mary, we all are. You get to decide: are you preparing for presents or for God? Are you preparing for fun or for God’s future? Are you arriving at the end of advent at Christmas, or at a holiday? Are you building something or ready to appreciate what God is creating? That’s the difference between David and Mary: David says, “Here’s what I’m going to do”; Mary says, “Do whatever you want, God”. What are you saying? What are you ready to say?

That temple David wanted did get built by his son Solomon. It lasted about 400 years and was destroyed by the Babylonians. A century later, a new one was built. That one lasted about 400 years; the Romans destroyed it about 35 years after Jesus. A few hundred years later the ruins became part of mosque. Then the Israelis took over centuries later and it’s now a shrine—for now. David kept pushing but what he was pushing wasn’t God’s purpose. God’s purpose, on the other hand, did get fulfilled and it came about when a young woman said, “Here I am, Lord”. Just that: no push, just, “Here I am Lord,” it came about by waiting for God to accomplish God’s purpose.

Every journey has a moment when you spy the end. It is not the end but it’s time to make ready for the end. Flight attendants on an airplane say, “Prepare for arrival”. A train slows and announces the station. Driving home, you turn onto a familiar street. This is the end of the Advent Season, the time of preparation; we are almost there; come on, come to the stable. Every sailor knows the ring of the harbor buoy in their home harbor. Every Christian knows the sound of the Christmas bell. It’s ringing; today, it calls us, come to the stable, come to the Lord, come to Christmas. But preparing for Christmas is more than wrapping presents and putting out ornaments. Preparing for Christmas is taking the time to say, “Here I am, Lord.” So come to Christmas saying with Mary, with the angels, with all creation: “Here I am, Lord”.

It’s time to prepare for arrival. This is the end of advent and the question of Christmas is, are you just going to say, “Here you are, Jesus,” and go on pushing or “Here I am, Lord” and follow, as his disciple.


This Is The Day

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Third Sunday in Advent/B • December 13, 2020

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-111 Thessalonians 5:16-24John 1:6-8, 19-28

“There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.” I wonder how often we consider the wonder of this simple phrase. We sit down to hear the gospel story; we anticipate with eagerness the whole great song of celebration in which God is recreating the world and us right along with it. This is God at work, the God Archibald MacLeish describes as 

God the Creator of the Universe!
God who hung the world in time!…
God the maker: God Himself!
Remember what he says? —
the hawk Flies by his Wisdom! 

Archibald MacLeish, JB

We come like anyone comes to a familiar comedy: for the Greeks defined a comedy: a play where everything turns out happily. God the Creator the protagonist and then: a person—a man named John. 

What a wonder!— over and over again, the same beginning. If fairy tales start, “once upon a time”, Gospel begins: “there was a person sent from God”. Always someone, always some one person, always some individual endowed with God’s spirit, who cannot contain the laughter of God’s love. So it was then; so it is today: there was a man sent from God, there was a person sent whose heart quickened, whose spirit soared because they could truly say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Say it with me: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”. 

This is the heart of Christmas, and it’s why the details of the creche are so important. Long ago, Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”— at the manger, we meet the shepherds and Mary and Joseph and they are us, they are ordinary people who bear an extraordinary grace because the Spirit of the Lord is upon them. I’m not jumping ahead, but see, look: it’s always the same, it’s ordinary people, shepherds, teachers, young women, old men, a man sent to baptize, you and I and Isaiah over and over: the Spirit of the Lord is upon me. Say it with me: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. It’s what our baptism means; it’s what our presence here means. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. 

What is the result? What is the hope? What is the reason for God’s spirit to come and wash over us like a wave rolling off the Sound when we’re wading? Isaiah says:

 the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor….
…to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor 

Good news to the poor, healing for the brokenhearted, freedom for captives, release for prisoners, these are the reasons God anoints people like us with the Spirit. Isn’t that where joy lives, in doing just these things?

One evangelist described his mother as love personified. He said that once he found her sitting at a table with a poor man, a homeless man, She’d seen him when she was out shopping and invited him home for a meal. He said, “I wish there were more people like you in the world”, and she replied, “Oh there are, but you must look for them”. And he shook his head and said, “Lady, I didn’t need to look for you, you were looking for me.” We spend hours looking for presents; God calls us to look for the lost, as God looked for us, and to be gospel to them.

This is how Gospel begins: there was a person sent from God. Isaiah says, 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion —
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

“The oil of gladness”: that phrase captured me this week. Ancient sailors learned that in a choppy, confused sea, pouring out oil would sometimes calm the sea. Later, in a land like Israel where water was scarce, perfumed oil was rubbed on the skin as preparation for celebration. This passage is imagining a complete transformation of a life. It’s picturing someone wrapped in the black cloths of mourning, taking them off, taking t he black headdress off, and being washed clean with the oil of gladness, ready for a crown, ready for a garment of praise.

How do we learn to do such things? We begin by choosing which Jesus we will follow. It’s Advent season, it’s almost Christmas and we are entranced with the baby Jesus. We sing songs about him; we display an image of him, we talk about him. We are comfortable with babies: they lay in our arms and most of us have figured out some things to do that comfort them. We like baby Jesus; we enjoy his smile, we sing about his laugh and one song even says he doesn’t cry. If the song is wrong, of course, we know we can always stick a pacifier in his mouth and shut him up. Baby Jesus is safe; baby Jesus demands only that we cuddle him before we get on with the real business of life. Like doting aunts and uncles, we can visit baby Jesus at this time of year, ooh and ahh over him, get him something nice and then leave. Baby Jesus is the end. 

But the gospel is not about baby Jesus;. The gospel is about God entering the world and inviting us, anointing us, calling us, through the man Jesus. The man Jesus is the visible symbol of that call and he has this to say: “Follow me”. Baby Jesus lies there waiting for us to come; the man Jesus marches on and hopes we will trail after. We come to baby Jesus at the end of a long journey, like the three kings of the orient in the song; the man Jesus is always starting us over, first as disciples, then as apostles and evangelists.

Baby Jesus is a visit to a stable; the man Jesus is a life in the world, challenged by all the darkness, endlessly lighting the candles of love. Baby Jesus is a moment; the man Jesus is a lifetime, a life lived from the simple word Isaiah said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me.” Jesus is a summons to go out and pour the oil of gladness on the troubled waters of a dark world. Jesus is an invitation to take seriously God’s purpose for you; to live understanding that you are not your own, that you have a Lord and a Creator who made you for something, some purpose that you and only you can fulfill. 

There it is again: the same theme over and over, one person, you, me, anyone, prayerfully living, anointed with God Spirit, becomes the means of comfort, becomes the seed that grows into a great and fierce joy. Here is where Christmas starts; here is where Christ comes in. It is when we realize Christmas is the beginning of the story of the man Jesus. It is  when we prayerfully live day to day, looking for ways to share God’s love, hoping for ways to share God’s grace. It is when we take seriously the single, stunning, surprise that it is not someone else, prophet, priest, or king, not pastor or deacon, not neighbor or stranger alone but ourselves who are anointed, ourselves who are the bearers of God’s spirit. It is when our lives say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”

How do we find that voice? How do we hear it? It comes from the fierce joy of the coming Christmas. It’s the voice with which Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always.” This is a hard time to rejoice. We all I’ve in the shadow of a great threat. Many have friends who are sick, family members who have died. We constantly calculate safety: can I have lunch with a friend? What do we do about gathering for Christmas? The key is what he says next:

Rejoice always,
pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances

1 Thessalonians 5:17ff

Gratitude gives God a way into our heart. 

For weeks, we’ve been hearing Jesus say in one way or another, “Watch!” Now many are suggesting a sort of generalized gratitude as a way of finding peace. But Paul doesn’t have something general in mind, he understands that gratitude needs a recipient. When we give thanks to God, our hearts open to the Spirit of God. Some do this in words; some write a gratitude journal. Sometimes simply being honest when you don’t feel grateful can be liberating. A friend wrote in a memoir about how his father always offered a prayer at beginning  “This is the day that the Lord has made.” One day when he was a boy, he said he looked at dinner, didn’t like it and said out loud, “This is the day that the skunks have made!” This may be the day that the skunks have made but when we look within it, we can find little joys.

Anne Sexton’s poem, “Welcome Morning” expresses this perfectly. She says,

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

 All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds. 

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken. 

The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
dies young.


This is the day: the day for us to say thanks, the day for us to watch for God moving toward us, the day to say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Let us rejoice and give thanks. Let us follow the man Jesus, God’s gift, God’s sign, God’s invitation to live new lives.


Begin the Beginning – Journey to Joy 2

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday in Advent/B • December 6, 2020

Isaiah 40:1-11Mark 1:1-8

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together

Isaiah 40:5

Have you seen the glory of the Lord? Sometimes it isn’t where we expected. Years ago, Jacquelyn and I visited the Louvre Art Museum in Paris. We were so happy; we’d just gotten engaged, we were in love and we were in Paris. Now when you go to the Louvre, everyone goes to see the Mona Lisa because it’s glorious. So we went to see it. Here we were, in the presence of one of the most famous paintings in all Western Culture, seeing something the master Leonardo da Vinci himself created and peering over someone’s shoulder, all I could think was, “It’s so small.” I don’t know what I imagined but the picture is barely as big as a good sized photograph: no inspiration—no glory.

“…the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” [Isaiah 40:5a] Have you seen the glory of the Lord? Have you been inspired? What do you imagine when you hear this? Some great natural event, a shooting star lighting the sky, a dark thunderstorm cracking lightning and shutting out the world with a curtain of rain? Isaiah imagined: a parade.

Just before this, he says,

A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

This prophet lives in a strange and divided time. God’s people had been in exile in Babylon, God’s people had been living among other God’s in another culture with other customs. One of those customs was the big New Years Festival in Babylon.

It worked something like this. Months before, workers, slaves probably, perhaps some of them Israelis, were taken out into the rough country surrounding Babylon. They built a magnificent image of the God Marduke, the patron of the city. Like a float in the Rose Bowl parade or Macy’s Thanksgiving, this float towered up and on its top, the King of Babylon would sit. Now, you can’t move something like that easily so they would clear the area all the way into the city. That way, it could be rolled in on logs. Little dips and valleys were filled in; rises and hills were leveled off, rough places were smoothed out, a road was built, level, safe, smooth so the processional could go forward to the great New Years ceremony where the king would come off the throne and kill a carefully drugged lion.

So when Isaiah speaks about making straight a highway in the desert, he’s not imagining, he’s remembering; he’s thinking about what that processional was like. When he talks about hills leveled and valleys lifted, he’s remembering this great festival and how the people of Babylon, the biggest, greatest place he’s ever been, celebrate their God. But he’s not in Babylon; he’s I Jerusalem. Jerusalem isn’t a big city anymore, it’s a refugee camp. Some time before, Jews had been allowed to return from exiled but what they returned to wasn’t the shining city of David, it was ruins that looked more like Berlin in 1945. Not much glory there.

But if he’s remembering Babylon, he’s also remembering that there was a time when God’s glory was obviously present. That time was when God saved this people in the wilderness, there was a time when God led them on the Exodus in the wilderness, there was a time when God brought them out of the wilderness into a promised land. It’s not an accident that then herald begins, “In the wilderness…” The wilderness is where you have to tell people what’s coming, the wilderness is where you announce the future before someone gets there.

You need that herald in the wilderness because it’s scarey in the wilderness. You may not see God there, you may not see anything familiar, you may not seed anything comforting. You may be alone, you may feel overwhelmed because that’s what the wilderness means: that place where you feel lost.

I had a friend, a mother, once whose little boy was going through one of those moments where he had decided to assert his four year old independence. So every day was a struggle, every day was a fight. He would get mad and tell her she was a bad mommy and he was going to run away. One day, she was so fed up, so tired of it, that when he said that, she said, “No you’re not; I’m running away.” She went up to her room, got out a suitcase, threw clothes in it, came down and said, “I’m running away, goodbye,” and slammed the door behind her. And then she just sat down on the step. She calmed down and she heard her child crying inside. You see, without his mom, his house became a wilderness and he was scared. So, like all good mothers, she sighed and opened the door and went back in, took him in her arms. She comforted him.

That’s just what Isaiah is imagining. He’s sitting in the ruins of Jerusalem and he’s imagining it’s the wilderness and he knows they are in the wilderness because they walked away from God until it felt like God ran away from them. He thinks God ran away and he’s imagining that moment when God comes back, proclaims comfort to Jerusalem.
“Say Comfort, Comfort to Jerusalem.”

He’s remembering the great processional festivals in Babylon and thinking it might look like that: straight road, valleys lifted up, hills pushed down until everyone, all peoples, see the glory of God.

This is a wilderness moment for many. Every day we hear about deaths mounting nd nothing is the same. Simple things like meeting a friend for coffee are off the table. We miss normal, don’t we? We missed the people we didn’t see this year at Thanksgiving and it’s beginning to dawn on us that on Christmas we’re going to miss them again. So what do we do here in the wilderness?

This is what Isaiah says;

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!”

Get up and look for the glory of God. Consider that it might not be where you expected. I expected amazing art when I went to the Mona Lisa but I was distracted by something as silly as size. What do you think the glory of God looks like? It looks like someone proclaiming comfort because God is coming.

The glory of God isn’t fireworks; it’s every time someone acts like the love of God makes a difference, it’s every time someone acts out what Jesus said: “Love your neighbor.” This is a story of one of those moments. Dave, age 16, acting out his frustrations, broke a window of a car a few blocks from his home. He didn’t know Mrs. Weber, the elderly owner, and she had not known any teenagers personally for years. So after years of absorbing society’s negative stereotypes about teenagers, this experience made her acutely fearful.

The typical criminal justice system would have punished Dave and ignored Mrs. Weber. Instead, a restorative justice program enabled the parties to meet with a mediator and address the problem constructively. Their meeting helped Dave recognize for the first time that he had financially and emotionally hurt a real, live human being, and so he sincerely apologized. In turn, Mrs. Weber, whose fears had escalated and generalized to an entire generation, was able to gain a realistic perspective and feel compassion for this one individual.

They agreed that Dave would compensate her loss by mowing her lawn weekly until September and performing a few heavy yard chores. Each day while Dave worked, Mrs. Weber baked cookies which they shared when he finished. They actually came to appreciate each other.

No fireworks; no streaking star. But this is the glory of the Lord.

The glory of the Lord shines forth in the missions of this church because the mittens and the coats and the Christmas presents and the gifts we bring make a real difference, make a loving difference. We’re not saving the world, that’s not our job, that’s God’s job. We’re like the little sparrow in the famous story. A farmer was walking along and saw a sparrow lying on the ground, legs stuck straight up. “What are you doing?” He asked and the sparrow said, I heard the sky was falling, so I’m holding it up. The farmer laughed and said, “Are you strong enough to hold up the whole sky?” And the sparrow replied, “One does what one can.”

When we do what we can, we are the ones proclaiming God’s coming because we’re acting as followers of Jesus Christ. When we do what we can, we are proclaiming the comfort of God, we are saying, here’s a way out of the wilderness, just like Isaiah said. We’re smoothing the path, we’re lifting the valleys, we’re making a way for someone. We are the heralds of good tidings.

That’s what John was doing out baptizing in the wilderness: he was making a way home for people who’d become so burdened by their own sins and failings that their lives had become a wilderness, the geography was just what fit. But he took up the challenge;; he became a herald of good tidings. He proclaimed the coming of the Lord and so can we.

This is not the end; it’s a wilderness time between. The oldest account of Jesus, the first Gospel, starts, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s time to begin the beginning of God’s coming. It’s time to proclaim the good tidings of God’s love. It’s time to do what we can to make a way from the wilderness so that all people can indeed see the glory of God, not hanging on a wall, no up in the sky, not only in the past but coming, coming now, coming here, coming today. Get you up, herald of good tidings, say with your own life, the light and love of God is coming into this place, this time. Begin the beginning of the good news, the gospel, of Jesus Christ.