Little Christs

sermon on Isaiah 61

Isaiah sounds like he could be on a political campaign, a candidate declaring, “I’m gonna build up your ancient ruins and raise up the former devastations. I’ll repair ruined cities.” A big list of infrastructure projects, plus making things fair. We’re familiar with such campaigning and sloganeering, so we’d expect the one who claims to be the right choice won’t come through on it all.

In fact, that’s actually somewhat in the background of this Bible reading. This is 3rd Isaiah, because this long book is actually from three distinct time periods. One was before exile. Another was looking forward to coming home. And this final part is after the return.

It came with lackluster realizations that everything wasn’t instantly hunky-dory, like those returnees waking up Christmas morning and realizing they didn’t get everything on their Christmas list. Or maybe Hanukkah list, since they were Jewish, though Hanukkah wouldn’t come about for another couple hundred years. So we’ll just say their wishlist. They had big dreams of what it would be like to be back, home sweet home, visions it would be just right in their own place. Well, they found there’s still work to do, still renovation and remodeling and reconstruction. Their home remained a fixer upper.

But so that they weren’t too disenchanted, 3rd Isaiah again set their sights high.

Still, aside from a small dose of historical inquisitiveness, you are likely not all that concerned at how long the detours and orange cones had clogged the thoroughfares of ancient Jerusalem, much less the blueprints and budgetary implications and red tape of archaic political process. So we’ll bypass describing what this possibly implied for former ruins.

One interesting pause midpoint in history, though, is that this passage gave title to Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, which practically created the modern field of economics and prompted the rise of capitalist structures. The book introduced the supposed “invisible hand” of the free marketplace. Some may, in this passage, want to equate that invisible hand’s push with the Holy Spirit, making the freedom from captivity into freedom to gain wealth. The improvement in the reading would become development of profitable businesses, expanding neighborhoods and plowing up land and taking advantage.

But I’m not so interested in that narrowly defined economic vision as we encounter this message, nor even transposing in where current devastations are or our failures of expected greatness.

I’m grabbed most by the first phrase: “The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me and has sent me…”

I propose that this phrase isn’t only applicable to 3rd Isaiah, not just of some old-timey prophet who could claim to be the receptacle of the Spirit. It’s more.

My reasoning is in part from Jesus. We’ll hear some of these same words again next month. In his first sermon and first public appearance in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is in the synagogue for weekly worship and opens a scroll to read “The Spirit of the LORD God is upon, because the Lord has anointed me and has sent me” and so on. Jesus then rolls up the scroll and declares to the congregation, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus knew that these weren’t outdated dead words, but still living and moving and claiming. That Spirit was still doing what it wanted to accomplish.

It’s plenty easy today to hear Isaiah’s words applying to Jesus, dropped here in this season of Advent. We know Christmas is coming, and we’ll hear words for Mary that the child conceived in her is “from the Holy Spirit.” Certainly we look to Jesus as the clearest image of God, embodying God’s presence, showing the precise pattern of God’s work.

But this passage means more. Even expecting that the Holy Spirit rested on Jesus and dwelt in him, we heard from the prophet Joel last week of the Spirit poured out on all flesh, on men and women and old and young and slaves and priests, and all children shall be dreamers. That reading also will come back to us, but not until Pentecost, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when that outpouring spreading Spirit cuts loose and begins really racing around.

Still, that’s a little easy. Our Lutheran heritage very valuably recognizes an important difference in how pronouns are used. So last week said the Spirit is poured out on everyone. That might communicate “on them,” as others. Or on us, plural. I want you to hear the singular: the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, yes you the individual. And you can speak Isaiah’s words, “The Spirit is upon ME!” Why don’t you try it: The Spirit is upon ME!

Now you’ve got some skin in the game. Or, for a big action movie tagline we could say: this time it’s personal. This isn’t about God broadly and generically working in the world. Sure, that’s good news. Joel’s words are valuable, that the outpouring of the Spirit isn’t restricted by gender or skin color or by age or anything we would categorically label as ability. We emphasize at Pentecost that Spirit is spreading to all nations, that it doesn’t in the end recognize the confines of locale or even of religion.

But you’re no bystander to this. Because you have the chance to say it again: The Spirit is upon ME!

Now, you may either tremble with trepidation or excitement at these prospects of being put to work. You might ponder your political ambitions, ready to repair ruined cities. You might examine your economic endeavors and inclinations to be moved by the free hand. You might have pious proclivities in thinking that Jesus is an important example for you to try emulating. I don’t quite want to quash those quests.

I’m not saying your work isn’t important or called for. What I’m saying is that your work isn’t your work. When you say The Spirit is upon ME!, that isn’t a vitamin supplement, a Popeye can of spinach, a dose of encouragement or motivating factor. The Spirit doesn’t show up as a little boost for what you already wanted to do.

No, the Spirit claims you for what the Spirit wants to do. And the Spirit does big things, producing the fruits of God’s work in the world. The Spirit is upon you and sends you to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and release to prisoners; to proclaim Jubilee, to comfort all who mourn and rejuvenate faint spirits. That’s certainly more than your task list for the week. It’s more to accomplish than a single political term. It may well be the work of a lifetime or across generations.

It’s similar to Mary’s list in the Magnificat, but notice without reversals, only of gain. There is no casting down or afflicting the comfortable. There is no proclaiming captivity to the liberated or bad news to the oppressors. This is straight all good news. Some may be downer and outer, but we’re all in need of God’s goodness, in need of new life, in need of restoration, longing for gladness and life rising up from the ashes.

So, again, this is a long view. This is God as a gardener, slowly tending and cultivating the soils, waiting for compost, collecting seeds and carrying on with the crop the next year. This is God as landscape restorationist: that you will be called a mighty oak means you take a while to grow. Even more than that, as a seminary classmate of mine and now religion professor points out, this is a new creation narrative, the Spirit that hovered over the waters in Genesis now arriving for you, as you again repeat The Spirit of the Lord is upon ME!* So this looks forward in enormous ways to how God’s kingdom comes on earth.

But it also looks back to your baptism when, with other words from Isaiah, you were given the gift the Holy Spirit: “the spirit of the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord,” the spirit of joy in God’s presence, both now and forever (Isaiah 11:2). Your baptism marked another part of this passage. As you proclaim The Spirit of the Lord is upon ME!, the next line continues, “the Lord has anointed ME.”

That word “anointed” in Hebrew is Messiah. In Greek, it’s Christ. It’s not pushing you to measure up to Jesus as Christ, as Messiah, as God’s Anointed One. This isn’t about that comparative sense. This is saying that you have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever, an oily emblem on your brow that signifies you are chosen by God, you are sent doing this spiritual work, you are a Little Messiah, a Little Christ, as you are able to declare the Spirit of the Lord is upon ME!

 

*https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2255

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Ezekiel: Valley of Dry Bones

sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14
We hear from 2nd Isaiah next week with the Sunday School program, but this is the last preaching on the Narrative Lectionary’s sweep through the Old Testament. Then we’ll be in the Gospel of John from Christmas until Easter, with the life of Jesus.

From the trajectory of this autumn, we remember back to origins, stories of progenitors, sources of family connection, in Abraham and Sarah and Isaac, Jacob and Esau. That family took us ahead several hundred years to the population explosion outnumbering the Egyptians, with stories of Exodus on the way to the Promised Land, and settling to increase their institutions of government and religion. That brought us to prophets who called for reform and justice, and (at least in their suppositions) being conquered as punishment for misbehavior.

We’ve been in exile for three weeks now, and Isaiah next week will see a path toward home and restoration. Though I recount those details as human narrative, with people as the main characters, this is actually God’s story, the account of God’s ongoing goodness, God striving in God’s world.

So once again, with that sweep of history, with today’s reading still more than 500 years before Jesus, we repeat in the story’s plot: these people weren’t waiting those 500 years for the Messiah to show up, twiddling their thumbs until Christmas finally came. There are words of hope, but not with sights set on a Messiah a half millennium later.

Rather, it was simply a longing for home. Indeed, as Isaiah makes rare use of the Hebrew word for “Anointed One,” the term is applied to a foreign leader. That’s good to keep in mind as we’re wrapping up our time with the Old Testament. Isaiah called Cyrus a Messiah—the king of Persia, the next in the line of empires, this time to knock out the Babylonians and allow the Hebrew people to go home (45:1). That was its own moment of salvation.

With that one example, I really, really hope throughout this fall you’ve been hearing God’s striving for the sake of the world, and investment in all circumstances of our existence. It gets it terribly wrong to claim an old god was angry or could care less, so we were waiting for the nice and loving Jesus to bring a divine alternative. There aren’t two different gods. The God embodied by Jesus is thoroughly and absolutely the God encountering us in the faithful probing of these Old Testament accounts.

Yet, just as this God shows up in hidden and surprising ways—like as a baby and on the cross—God tends to work without blatant and apparent showmanship. The promise seems inevitably paired with doubt, the expectancy amid darkness, God’s blessing where we have all but given up hope succumbing to despair.

So as Ezekiel set his eyes toward God’s vision and the hopes of home, he saw only a dead end. A very honest dead ending. A valley of bones. An abandoned cemetery. The entire family tribe, lifeless and piled in a heap. Ezekiel had begun to figure there was no way out of exile, no return to the life they had known, no possibility for the future.

With that, besides the overall trajectory of the Old Testament story, I also notice a smaller trajectory—the arc of your life—in three of four weeks of these readings.

The first was Isaiah declaring hope in the gift of birth: “unto us a child is born.” Whether Hezekiah or baby Jesus or the young ones around us, or yourself in youth, there was a promise of God’s possibilities and blessing simply in that fragile existence, in the imperfection of not knowing what lay ahead, in small capabilities, yet with God’s care and potential with the birth of a baby.

The following week, Jeremiah moved to the middle of life. Even in captivity under a hostile government, when life was far from what people wanted, still the word of the Lord for the exiles was to build houses, to make their gardens grow, to celebrate marriages. You know, the regular sort of stuff that has kept you busy most of the time since you were born. The stuff you’ll go back to doing this afternoon, and maybe more seriously when the alarm clock goes off tomorrow morning. It’s the stuff of sustaining relationships and tending your spot amid creation, which often involves vacuuming it (as we’re stuck with typically un-thrilling aspects of the not-so-showy God). And it means not pretending you can escape to some utopia, but striving in the place where you are, simply since it’s not perfect.

So we had the start of life, the rest of life, and with Ezekiel come to life’s end, or to be precise, beyond the end.

That God’s concern for and potential in a baby would be a surprise may take a little extra pause for us to appreciate, to remember infant mortality rates and the insignificance on a scale where 255 babies are born onto this planet every minute. But in such small ways, God’s work persists.

And continuing for unspectacular daily lives, God sees potential. That doesn’t mean you could really make something of your life, that you could go on to win a Nobel prize or be a volunteer of the year for some organization or have your picture in the news as a hero. Rather, God is invested in your daily life as it already is, at home and at work and in your family and at the grocery store. God isn’t waiting for something to change, but trusts the potential with you right now.

Okay. So it’s fine that God sees what’s possible in the birth of a baby. It may even be realistic that God would find potential in the course of your life, even up to your dying breath.

But once you’re dead, could God really be seeing any potential then? Isn’t it too late? Relationships over? Isn’t death the point where all that’s left is to go through their clothes and look for loose change, as they said in The Princess Bride? Or for science and the conservation of matter, how your elements are recycled, not just as worm food, as Luther liked to point out, but returning to the soil and becoming crops that go on to feed the hungry? Is that all? Could God possibly plan more of you than that?

That hard language may well be considered morbid. Most of our discussion of death doesn’t really look at it, but euphemizes and ignores, and we say we lost someone or they passed and try to whitewash over how terribly terminal and critically fracturing death has been. There is nothing more to say or do about it. It is ultimate. Sad. Final.

Except not for our God. God will be stopped by no dead ends. Hope will not be overcome, ever. Death is not final. These dry bones will live. They have potential and a future. And so will you.

In Ezekiel, this is brought about by a sermon (or actually three sermons, if you like). Ezekiel preaches to those bones, offering them God’s word. Well, God has a word for you, too. Though none of you today are in the exact physical circumstance of Ezekiel’s sermon—none of you are dead, dry bones—you may either factually or figuratively find yourselves at any of these points in life—young, fresh with potential. Amid the flow and mid-stages and regular rhythms. At terminations where things look worse than bleak and all seems lost. Throughout, the sermon is that God is relentlessly filling you with life for God’s purposes.

In what to me is an utterly astonishing faithful declaration, this is an assurance that with every breath, God is renewing and refilling you, recreating goodness in you. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve done any Hebrew, so here’s another good one for you: ruach. It means wind and breath and Spirit. And with this from Ezekiel, as you are filled with each breath, it is God’s Spirit filling you. In respiration you are inspired; you are re-Spirited as the Spirit is put into you over and over. And even when you expire, even when you breathe out and breathe your last, still God will call for breath to fill and renew you yet again.

I started out saying that the prophets weren’t predicting Jesus. But we should still most definitely see their vision of God directly embodied in Jesus. With life to dry bones and the Holy Spirit that will take victory from death, probably our clearest understanding is in Jesus and the empty tomb, that the forces of enemies and powers of death were defeated, not only once, but for all. Even amid the season of Advent, even as we aren’t ourselves today facing death and the grave, even as we may be closer to birth, still this is always an Easter faith, always with its soul in the hope of resurrection, from birth, through life, and beyond death. We don’t need to and we shouldn’t pretend like we can’t talk about that as we’re getting ready for Christmas. That is the overall shape of our story, the fullness. Though it remains so totally unclear and prone to doubt and without visions of grandeur, with our God who shuns glitzy showmanship, still we know the ending. The end, finally, is life.

And though it risks confining that message and not allowing you to live into the full expanse, I want to tag on a word about Israel and Palestine for these days. Ezekiel’s people were captive under empire. Mary and Joseph were captive under empire. Again this week, we were reminded of the violent claims to power by an occupying empire. Even as our siblings at Christmas Lutheran in Bethlehem are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they are left more and more with a reality of the valley of dry bones, as people confined by razor-wired walls and the dead end of life. As our President worsened the obstacles on the path to peace this week by shortsighted and single-minded declarations on Jerusalem, this reminds us that the word out from death, a word of hope and the breath of life still needs to stir in us all, of a God who understands our weakness, who comes to inspire and to break down barricades, who will not be confined. Our God remains against all that would kill or remove life. The point of our story is not just to look back to one who was coming, but to see that the God of Jesus still comes into our midst and our troubled world now, with every breath, for the sake of life.

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An Offensive Highway

sermon for 3rd Sunday of Advent

Isaiah35:1-10; Matthew11:2-11

 

With the unexpected expectations we’re encountering during Advent, the twists and turns and surprises to heighten our hope, today we find ourselves on an offensive highway.

Recall slippy or blocked roads you traversed to get here on this snowy day. Or picture that Beltline with a traffic jam, lanes closed for construction and then you see flashing lights around an accident because a deer ran out. Yet even as those agitate your nerves, they aren’t the offensive highways. Remarkably, that comes with Isaiah envisioning the opposite of those stretches of road, though it will take us another moment to get to why it’s offensive.

Isaiah’s vision of a lovely highway starts with a roadside beautification project, a barren area brought to bloom, a sunbaked desert expanse turned to a lush oasis of crocus flowers, and what had seemed drably lifeless instead filled with abundant joy. Already that scenic highway is a different picture than the monotony of some long car trip on an interstate.

Still, it’s no byway in Isaiah’s vision, not just for those looking for the pleasant diversion of a side trip. No, this road is for everyone. Since we’re accustomed to hopping into a car to take us most anywhere, it has lost some shock, but for ancient people who traveled only by foot, it’s astonishing that the blind would be able to find their way and the lame would have strength for the journey.

For a sense of that promise, I read these verses in the surgical prep room before Dorothea Torstenson’s knee surgery, and you’d better believe she heard this as good news: “make firm the feeble knees, be strong, do not fear! Here is your God who will come to save you. Then the lame shall leap like a deer.” Sure, Dorothea had still been able to get around, but this sense of mobility that might enable her to get back onto a bike and to visit museums and even to stand around to chat after worship, this is exactly the promise she yearned for. She even joked about dancing like a deer in worship today to illustrate it!

That’s a sense of Isaiah’s envisioned highway. To go a step further, he says you don’t need GPS on this trip or even how to read a map. In another of my favorite Bible verses, Isaiah proclaims “no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” There’s no way to get lost, no risk of falling off this route, even fools.

In Isaiah’s time that was extraordinarily good news for a people who had felt abandoned, with no way home for generations. These people had suffered first under the Assyrian Empire until 300 years later in 587 BC they were defeated, destroyed, carried away, and held captive by the Babylonians, with no way to return home, to their temple and their cultural practices and the life that they so longed to have. Dreaming of home wasn’t the good ol’ days but ancient history, receding ever further into the past.

Home. An extraordinarily good word. A release from what imprisons and a return to life. We might have sense of that longing for college students far away and returning for winter break and getting to be back amid familiar and comfortable places. You may long for bygone traditions of a family that has fractured and found other ways of celebrating, wishing for restoration and resuming what you miss. Or it’s in the song “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams,” written from the perspective of soldiers stationed overseas during World War II.

But from that bittersweet tune crooned by Bing Crosby, it’s still a long way to offense, so we need to turn from Isaiah’s proclamation of abundant homecoming, a celebration so joyful that the land itself will excitedly welcome exiles home and so insistent for all that none will miss out on the journey or even need roadside assistance, from there we turn to the offense of the Gospel reading.

John the Baptist had sent messengers to ask about Jesus. Jesus replies his mission has been what Isaiah envisioned: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

But there’s a distinction, as Jesus concludes: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Isn’t this extraordinarily good stuff? Who would take offense? Well, John the Baptist for starters. Last week we heard John’s proclamation in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, making paths straight for the coming Anointed One. He was setting expectations that the Christ would come with a raging fire, burning the chaff, clearing the threshing floor, chopping trees out of the way. Instead Jesus came not to consume and clear but to heal and share freeing good news, for the sick and hurting and poor and outcast. That subverted John’s expectations and maybe caused offense. That wasn’t the Messiah he made way for or the kind of Lord for whom he was preparing.

Jesus then rubs in the offense with a pretty heavy backhanded compliment: “no one is greater than the John the Baptist; yet (!) the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than” John. What does that mean? Well, Jesus started his first sermon with these words: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). So much for John’s greatness; even if you are spiritually inept and lacking in any holiness or one of those fools who would tend to lose the highway, still the kingdom is yours and (ipso facto) you’re greater than John the Baptist.

Jesus ends that first bit of preaching in the Beatitudes reiterating: “blessed are those who are persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10). An obvious fact is that if you’re being persecuted it means someone’s against you, trying to claim you’re undeserving, and certainly not great or holy or blessed by God. So when Jesus stands on behalf of the persecuted, the poor in spirit, or (maybe slightly less apparent to our perspective) the sick and hurting, he is offending the offender. He rejects the persecutor. He upends our expectations.

As Jesus stands on your behalf, in spite of your poverty of spirit, he is causing offense to those who have been striving to enrich their spirits and were feeling proud of their piety. In bringing good news to the poor, he contradicts those who claim that wealth is a blessing from God. In curing disease and healing Dorothea and all who need health care, Jesus stands against those who write us off in our disabilities and our aging or who would claim we need to earn our own strength and wellbeing or say that our weak flesh is corrupt and cursed by God.

As we go with Jesus on this way toward home, toward the will of God, down a beautiful highway lined with celebration and accompanied by those who need the work of seeing, hearing, cleansing, freeing, life out from death and good news amid poverty, this way is bound to offend. That this is God’s highway is offensive to those who don’t want God to do these things, who want it to be their way on the highway. But, as Isaiah saw, God’s promise is uninterruptable.

Now, we may find ourselves on both sides of that message, occasionally resistant to the bounty of blessing, and occasionally overflowing in joyful gratitude that we are the fools who won’t be left lost or manage to go astray from God’s extraordinary goodness.

Two closing examples for that split, that dichotomous pairing where God’s highway goes right through our society: UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank was the keynote speaker at the Wis. Council of Churches annual meeting this week. Amid adverse state budgets, she talked of defending the university and advocating for the faculty, when being hired for “thinking is not always an appreciated activity.” If that seems sadly laughable, she also noted that for every $1 the public invests through taxes, the university returns $24 to the economy of our state. It should be a no-brainer, the obvious way to go, and yet some still find education offensive.

Second example: in preparation for that meeting, I was reading a book by Chancellor Blank. She’s a committed member of the UCC and describes how important her faith is as a framework amid difficult decisions. She helped write the denominational statement on economics back in the 1980’s and the book I’m reading is called Do Justice: Linking Christian Faith and Modern Economic Life. In it she presents another of these offensive conundrums for us, with the words of Mary we’re singing during this Advent season. She writes, “Those who have worked hard to achieve economic security respond very differently to the news that God feeds the hungry without charge and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:53) than do those who are struggling with unemployment or discrimination” (17).

This is God’s broad highway, inviting us all along to make the world more beautiful and filled with celebration. It’s an invitation for when we need it, and also for when we’re part of society’s foolish resistance, which maybe means we need it even more.

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A Thief’s Lessons

(sermon for 1st Sunday of Advent — Isaiah2:1-5; Matthew24:36-44; Psalm122)

 

It’s a pretty common sense that we come here to learn something.

Partly that’s since we spend lots of our lives in school, learning about various subjects and learning how to do things. So in thinking about the value of church, we may picture it as what knowledge it can impart, of what we learn while we’re at church. Two common answers are to learn about God and to learn our values.

That’s a tough measure for church, though. For starters, how can we learn about God? God doesn’t fit the usual patterns of how we learn. God doesn’t submit to cause and effect testing or show up under a microscope. Our best source for learning about God is the Bible, which often is perceived as ancient history or old stories with inconsistencies and inaccuracies. None of that seems to point to much clarity for learning about God.

See, normally we think that truth can be proven once and for all, but the whole category of faith remains unseen and that God must always be mystery. I heard Bishop Mary say the other day that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt; it’s certainty. That’s a helpful lesson, even if doesn’t directly teach us about God. In the end, we can never prove anything about God, but can only trust. Maybe in church we are hoping to learn how to be faithful, by practicing our trust. That’s still pretty indistinct and open-ended, though. We’d like more resolution.

So maybe we turn to the values we hope to impart, of church teaching how we ought to live, for learning “life lessons.” These are rampant in our worship services: we practice extending peace. We are continually nurtured to be reconciling. I’ve mentioned recently praying forgiveness and stretching our gratitude. This is a place to learn joy—since that doesn’t just happen to us circumstantially. We learn sharing, not simply in a preschool siblings way, but the grown-up version as we gather around communal tables and as we bring what we have to offer, in monetary donations or in skills. That ordinary sharing is extraordinarily essential to our life here. And it expands with compassion, that we learn to support each other in times of need and also how to reach out to others, in this city and around the world.

That’s the practical side. Less tangibly is the value learned in a really diverse set of relationships. We’ve been talking about that more with the new shape of youth ministry. It used to be that church served as a place of fun or a social outlet for youth, but now lives are so filled with those kinds of opportunity that we don’t look to church for the dances some of you remember or the pizza parties I knew. Instead, though, that makes us better able to notice the boundary-crossing relationships that youth—with all of us—develop and share here. This is no enclave of homogeneity, no social club, no narrow version of peers who are just like you. Your presence here for each other is remarkable in that you relate equally to each other, not marked by class or income, not in a standard hierarchy as teacher and student, not where age is presumed to be indicative of wisdom. You don’t look alike. You don’t like the same things. You don’t necessarily vote the same way. You don’t even believe the same things about God. You have lots of differences. Yet across all bounds you embrace understanding the fullness of each other’s experience. This community is amazingly unique in that.

We might summarize this by saying what we learn at church is a new worldview, reorienting us and contrasting with so much of how we’ve been socialized. Notice how often we’re ranked and divided into winners and losers and the ways you’re told you don’t measure up and aren’t good enough or pretty enough or strong enough or young enough or healthy enough. When you’re so bombarded by that marketing—including for Christmas presents that allege to be the perfect gifts you or your loved ones want or “need”—it is hard to unlearn that bad news of society’s message. According to some, we spend 35 hours per week watching TV and 11 hours a day paying attention to our electronic gizmos and average less than two hours per week outside. A pretty standard number is that you are the target of 3000 advertisements each day!

That’s enormous and scary, but that’s still only part of it. It’s not just to extract money from your pocket but a cultural message to put fear in your heart. The news constantly is trying to make you feel afraid, appealing to your reptilian brain and your tribal instincts. It’s a message that everyone not like you is bad or dangerous. Besides the news’ attack, it’s also structured into the core functioning of our government, no matter who’s in Washington D.C. as, for example, 44% of our federal budget—nearly 50¢ of every tax dollar—goes to prepare for war and fund violence and militarism.

Contrast all of that with the amazing prophetic word from Isaiah, that we will no longer learn war. Or, as phrased by the old spiritual, “Gonna lay down my sword and shield. I ain’t gonna study war no more!” Beating swords into plowshares for us means our dollars would go to feeding the hungry, to supporting society, into valuing life instead of trying to destroy it. That is what God is trying to teach us, Isaiah says, to stop learning war, to learn peace. God’s grand vision is of all tribes and all nations coming together, nothing less than teaching all humanity and all creation, united for peace and streaming to celebrate together. Those who would claim religion is bad would have to overlook this faithful sense of supporting the needy and welcoming the outcast and moderating the mighty (or, in Mary’s words, casting them down from their thrones). In this way, our world needs religion now maybe more than ever.

It’s a great vision. But we have to ask: how do you unlearn the corrupting consumerist culture and menacing militant message? Notice how little time we spend trying to learn to be nice to each other, to learn the lesson that you are okay, you are loved, you are cherished just as you are. If you need church to re-socialize you for this, it might seem like an uphill struggle when there’s only one hour per week when you’re getting one message and just from my one mouth.

But if we’re worried, we need to expand our expectations. Returning to some of the mystery of God and faith, we stick to the confession that the Holy Spirit works through common means. To say it another way, God is sneaky. God’s messaging is coming to you even with my words, and with your words to each other, and in song, and amid a splash of water, and in bread and wine.

Again, to rephrase this: church isn’t just about learning another set of rules and requirements, not just in studying a better way of living. Sometimes people refer to our Bible readings on Sunday mornings as “lessons” or even call the Bible their instruction manual. I don’t. We aren’t just listening for lessons on how to live. Even less are we hearing ancient history. We listen for a present and active reality breaking in among us.

We’re listening because that sneaky God, that stealthy Spirit, that thieving Jesus is using these words to take over your life, to claim your heart, to renovate your mind, to recreate your very existence in the blink of an eye. Maybe even more remarkable than Isaiah’s amazing vision of peace is the word from Jesus today: He’s coming like a thief in the night. He’s coming to what you own, or what owns you, and taking it, taking over your possessions and passions. He’s taking away your faulty worldview and taking your sins. He’s absconding with your presumptuous pride or your sense of inadequacy, either way leaving you as you should rightly be, with nothing but the image of God. He’s robbing you of your selfishness and pulling the rug out from under your fearful isolations. He’s taking your abilities and quite literally taking your gifts.

So if you think Advent is just a countdown getting you ready for Christmas and the cute little story of a baby Jesus and no crying he makes, well, this thief Jesus is coming more like the Grinch who stole Christmas, taking your gifts, taking away the glitz and schmaltz and crap, coming to rob you away from a culture that too often has you trapped and bound. He takes your false fears and stifled self-image that you may celebrate rightly and fully. You better watch out, ‘cuz Jesus is coming. And that’s good news.

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Expectations & Fulfillments

sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent, (Malachi3:1-4; Luke1:68-79, 3:1-6)
Even though in church, the answer is always supposed to be Jesus, if we ask who the main character is for the season of Advent, we’d be hard-pressed not to answer John the Baptist. So today, it seems worthwhile to do a recap of his life, sort of a brief bio as refresher on this important character.

Starting at the start, in the Gospel of Luke his story actually kicks off the whole saga. Luke alone tells a version where John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary are relatives. We’ll hear more about them in two weeks. But the story began with an old couple who had been unable to have children. Now, that should resonate as a standard biblical theme, going all the way back to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). And, in the Bible, we come to expect that infertility of a barren couple will be met by a miracle from God and will come to bear fruit.

Sarah laughed at the thought of the promise, of her old body knowing pleasure. And that sort of hiccup along the way is typical. So in John’s story the first character we meet is an old guy serving in the temple when suddenly the angel Gabriel showed up and told him the good news that he could expect the birth of a son, to be named John. But this old priest named Zechariah had a hiccup, a moment of doubting the promise and wondering how it could be possible. “I’m an old man,” he said, “and my wife is getting on in years.” (Maybe from that kindly finesse we expect good things from Zechariah; after all, he had sense not to refer to his wife as “old.”)

Yet for that cautious doubt, Gabriel said that he’d be unable to talk until the baby was born. So Zechariah left the temple, suddenly speechless, and Gabriel went off to pay a visit to Mary.
Then about nine months later, along came a baby. Zechariah got a chalkboard and wrote that the baby’s name should be John, just as the angel instructed, and instantly his tongue was freed and he let loose the glorious song we sang as our Psalmody, a song of a Savior sent for rescue and deliverance. This father also set high expectations for his newborn baby, singing: “And you, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

With those enormous expectations, it’s surprising how John responded and grew into—or maybe around—them. That’s probably true for us, as well. There are times expectations make us rise to meet a challenge, and also when you’ve instead felt a strong sense of failure, that you let down the expectations. Some of those may have chased after you from your birth. Some you may have evaded, others you may have been a surprise in how you responded and how it turned out.

So perhaps Zechariah thought John would follow in his footsteps to become a priest, serving in the temple, making offerings for sins. But instead, he wound up out in the wilderness. We’re told elsewhere that he dressed like a wild man and ate bugs (Mark 1:6). Not exactly the sort of thing that makes for a proud parent, one would suspect.

Except out there in the wilderness, he was doing something to prepare the way of the Lord. And he became an immensely popular attraction, for whatever that’s worth. We’ll get more on exactly what he said next week, the strange message that is labeled as “good news” even though his first words were to denounce everybody as “you brood of vipers.”

Among those who didn’t take his firm message of repentance all that kindly is the King, Herod. In demanding moral behavior from his ruler, John was met by corruption, by a crooked way not very interested in being made straight. And so he was put in prison and beheaded on an odd, spiteful technicality.

That could have meant the end of his story–from birth to death–but it stretches beyond that framework and timespan.

For starters, Christians have read that John the Baptist was already being foreshadowed in the Old Testament. We have words from the prophet Isaiah applied to him as the voice crying out in the wilderness, making paths straight for the Lord. And our reading from Malachi hints in his direction, too, as a messenger preparing for the Lord who is coming.

But that also begins to highlight some confusions. See Malachi wasn’t just predicting that John would show up before Jesus. It wasn’t simply a future forecast. Malachi was talking for his own time, about 500 years before Jesus and John. He was calling his own people to be ready for God’s arrival, for God’s work in their midst. Again, it’s confusing even whether Malachi is talking about himself or another prophet or some heavenly being. The name “Malachi,” as your bulletins indicate, in Hebrew means “my messenger.” And our word “angel” is also the Greek word for messenger. So are angels from heaven? Are they other humans we listen to? In one Psalm (104:4), even the wind and fire can be God’s messengers.

The next confusing part is how John and Jesus seem to get mixed up. Evidently John was popular and holy enough that he had to keep reiterating that he was not the Messiah, but was just preparing the way for one who was coming after (John 1:20-23). They even seem to get mixed up with each other; Jesus asked to be baptized by John and John wanted to refuse, to have Jesus baptize him instead (Matthew 3:13-14). And when Herod heard about what Jesus was doing, he thought that John, whom he beheaded, had been raised from the dead (Mark 6:16)!

That may not be what we’d expect or where we’d have confusion arise. You may even wonder why I mention it, why I started this sermon in trying to explain, nice and orderly, John’s biography, only to inject topsy-turvy puzzling into the whole thing.

But I do it for several reasons. First, this isn’t a sermon about John the Baptist. Sermons are for you. So this is a reminder that God’s work wasn’t only in some ancient time and place, not just an isolated event. Malachi spoke to his people, a word that we understand as having value still 500 years later, and a message that we continue reading in worship now because we believe it keeps applying and speaking to us. As we turn toward the baptismal font, we expect that Malachi’s image of refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap is active. We expect God is purging you of evil and cleansing you from sin. It’s not just ancient history, but is renewed and freshly powerful for you week-by-week.

The second reason is to realize that it is, indeed, confusing—but also chock full of blessing—that we get mixed up with Jesus and God. Perhaps most often we do it when bad things happen, wondering why God caused or let it happen to us. We identify our misbehavior or the ripples of sin in our world as being partly God’s fault. But it’s also in the good you do. Do you get credit for loving your neighbor? Does all love come from God? Do you do it naturally, almost by faithful instinct?

Tying this together perhaps attunes you to God’s preparations in your life, the ways God is trying to even out what is crooked and to level out your rough spots. This is vital for our expectations of this Advent season, for how God arrives, coming to work in our midst.

The realization that your life is mixed up with Jesus means you aren’t always waiting for someone else. Malachi wasn’t just predicting that John the Baptist would be helpful 500 years later. He was claiming that mantle of proclamation, letting those words of repentance and cleansing speak to himself and to his people. That message of self-examination continues for us. We’ll get more direct reflection on repentance with John the Baptist’s preaching next week, that it is about sacrifice, about changing your way of life, giving up what you think you’re entitled to so others can live better.

This calls to mind, I expect, the silly hoopla this week about thoughts and prayers and lip-service, that this is actually about what you enact, not just outrage or frustration at others; John could have just complained about that long list of rulers at the start of the Gospel reading. Rather, this is about you and how your life is changed.

Again, then, this is a reminder that we aren’t just waiting for some special moment in history, for the arrival of the next special guardian angel or next savior or superhero or next new whatever. It wasn’t when the stars were aligned just so that John the Baptist could be born, or when exactly the right leaders were in power for his message really to resonate. It was simply at his time and place.

We have a perspective that we need new John the Baptists to fit all kinds of circumstances—that another Martin Luther King will help address ongoing racism, that a woman in power will close the gender gap, that some political leader will solve the crisis of our lives. We’d said that Sandy Hook was supposed to be the moment for gun deaths, and we’ve been saying it through tragedy after tragedy since. We said the Holocaust meant never again, yet allow genocide and senseless death to continue escalating. I was reading an article from Bruce this week about waiting for another Yitzhak Rabin to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yet we aren’t waiting for the environmental hero to fix the climate crisis with some magic bullet (to use an unfortunately violent metaphor). Neither will somebody show up with ready-made solutions to the ways we struggle to get along with each other. This isn’t about some golden age dawning on the horizon.

This is the age. This is the time. This is the place. This is always the confusing miracle of Advent. We are preparing for Jesus’ arrival in a birth that happened 2000 years ago while simultaneously expecting his arrival in the 2nd Coming, but not as if we’re twiddling our thumbs in the meantime. The paradox is that, even as we recall and even as we wait, still Jesus arrives to be with you now, speaking to you, assuring you of forgiveness and grace, of his compassion for you and from you, of love that continues to be embodied with you, of his presence at this table, filling you with his flesh and blood so that all flesh may see salvation.

You have knowledge of salvation, because your sins are forgiven. You have a savior who works constantly to rescue and deliver our hurting, fractured world. And, though it’s not the full or only story, we must believe that Zechariah’s song of hope and full of expectation finds fulfillment in your life.

Speaking of ancient words continuing to have new use and meaning, our Hymn of the Day is the first hymn I wrote here, way back in 2004.

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Carol Stories, week 1

Creator of the Stars of Night (ELW #245, stanzas 1 & 2)

 

With this first one, there’s double trouble in claiming we’ll sing your favorite Christmas carols. A: it’s not in the Christmas section. B: it may not be a favorite. I picked it after reading a passage for staff devotions from this Advent Sourcebook. To start the book, it says, “for many, Advent would not be Advent if introduced by any other” carol. That says something about it being a favorite.

Yet I was surprised it wasn’t even in the Advent section of our old green LBW hymnals. There, in the “Christian Hope” section, it has a totally different translation that goes, “O Lord of light, who made the stars, O Dawn, by whom we see the way, O Christ, redeemer of the world: Come now and listen as we pray.” I think the translation in ELW has more ring.

And speaking of translations, the Sourcebook said that the original Latin word we have as “stars” was actually way more. It also included “sun and moon and planets and all the constellations and comets and meteors, these mysterious heavenly bodies that in some unfathomable way could affect human destiny. The point was not just some lovely nightfall scene studded with gently glimmering stars.”

That huge perspective is helpful in, again, reorienting us as this season starts. We love these quiet nights, and reflecting that Jesus will be born as a baby, because we can wrap our minds (and our arms!) around that. A tiny infant we can handle. But at the same time, this God who created the entire immense universe really is unfathomably big. I started to look up a scale model, of the sort like “if the sun were the size of a basketball, earth would be a grain of sand” and that the nearest star would be hundreds of miles away, which is even more shocking when we remember that our galaxy alone has at least 100 billion stars and there are at least 100 billion more galaxies. Yowser. That quickly becomes more math than I can do. And it can make us and our troubles seem awfully small.

Yet the original version of our carol describes the Savior’s sorrow for a “curse / that should doom to death a universe” and so came to “embrace / our gloomy world, its weary race.” It’s a remarkable understanding, that out of everything—the hugeness of the cosmos, the complexity of existence, the vast stretches beyond comprehension—that God should care for us. It’s like words we’ll hear from Psalm 8 in a bit, “When I consider your universe, what are mere mortals that you should care for us?”

Yet that is exactly what we understand of God and the arrival of Jesus. And, in another (though smaller still) amazingly expansive stretch, Christians have been singing the words of this carol to these same notes since at least the 800s. So let’s join them. Let’s sing.

 

Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295, stanzas 1 & 3)

 

Our second carol is more likely a favorite, at least for me and Brent Ruffridge.

Its sound may parallel the ancient chant plainsong we just sang; indeed, this is another old, old tune that’s been sung for hundreds of years, though it’s not as ancient as the words themselves. The words are by a man who has been called “the original Christian poet.” He was writing at about the same time that our Nicene Creed was composed, and we may sense some similarities between the two. Prudentius was a successful lawyer and judge in northern Spain, appointed to his position by the emperor. But he came to see life as too temporal or temporary, that what we work and strive for and build on all too soon collapses and disappears. So he gave up his position and wealth and moved to a monastery to write Christian poetry.

His words here also try to contain some of the enormous scope of the cosmos and all of history that we encountered in the last carol. Here it includes the term “Alpha and Omega,” again as we heard on Christ the King Sunday, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In a way, it reverses the idea that Jesus was a baby who would fit in our arms; this says that we are entirely in his embrace. So just as we’d say there is nothing before A and nothing after Z, within God’s reach and never outside God’s control is everything we know and have experienced and could ever be. The ancient prophets. The highest angels. The worst thing you’ve ever done. The Big Bang. Death. The things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see—Jesus is holding all of it and working to love and redeem it all. It sure does make our existence now seem temporary by comparison.

Speaking of knowing only in part, the version of this carol in our hymnals includes just five of ten original stanzas. In the full version, there are words about Jesus creating earth and heaven and depths of ocean and all that grows. There’s our frail and feeble bodies, doomed to die and departed souls. From Psalm 148, there’s the praise of elders, youth and maidens, and even infants, plus the praise of all creation—storm and sunshine, stream and forest, night and day. These are different words for what we have portrayed also in nativity scenes, that all come to worship the tiny, fragile, holy infant who is ruler of all times and places, from donkeys to angels, rich and wise kings down to poor ugly shepherds like goofy Gustav. For his sake and along with all creation, let’s sing.

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Searching for a Hidden God?

Sermon for 1st Sun. of Advent, Isaiah64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37; 1Cor1:3-9
My sister and I used to play hide-and-seek when we had babysitters. As the search started, the call was shouted, “ready or not, here I come!” Was that announcement good news, or not? If you hadn’t yet found a hiding place, it could mean you’d quickly get caught and lose. On the other hand, the seeking and finding was the point of the game.

That question might lead us into this Advent season, which announces expectations of God coming. Is that good news, or not?

There are, of course, plenty of times we’d prefer not to have an all-knowing, all-powerful heavenly being show up or be watching. Worse than a Santa who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice, and less preferable than the eavesdropping, email-scanning of a spying government, there is simply no escape from what we imagine to be the repercussions of God’s stern, judgmental view looking down from heaven. It isn’t even that we’d try to get away with being so bad. We just know we fail to live up to our own standards, so our imagined God would have to be frowning down at us, too.

Yet there are other times we indeed long for God to come, to come to our aid, to find us, to be with us. Our first Bible word from the prophet Isaiah starts our Advent with exactly that prayer: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” That’s probably pretty accurate for our expectations of God. On many occasions, it is fitting for our lips, or aching hearts, or hurting lives. Come down, God! O that you would tear open the heavens! Break apart the barriers that are keeping you at bay, that restrain you from helping me, that are giving my enemies a false sense of success! We’re ready! Please come!

This certainly was Isaiah’s setting. His people had been captive in Babylon, exiled in a foreign land. But at this late part in the book of Isaiah, the Persians had beaten the Babylonians and were preparing to let the Israelites return to Jerusalem, to the temple, to go home. Yet this generation was born in the foreign land and had never lived at home. Facing a change of political power and a move on the horizon caused reasonable anxiety.

So they looked up at the sky, yearning for a mighty deliverer to rush to their rescue. They wanted to feel not so helpless, wanted a strong indicator that God was on their side. Tear apart the heavens! Shake the mountains, God! Come like a raging fire that consumes the brush and branches blocking the way!

In longing, they even throw in the melancholy and always-suspect “used-ta.” You used-ta do awesome deeds! You used-ta lead in a pillar of cloud and fire. You used-ta drive back the Red Sea and swallow up Pharaoh’s army. You used-ta make the mountain smoke and shake with thunder when you talked to Moses. You used-ta show up and there was no doubt about it!

For us who can feel like our entire faith is used-tas, that really resonates. We, too, know the old Bible stories that evidently don’t happen anymore. All of the exciting stuff seems to be in the past. We’ve been sitting in the dark, scared and waiting for God to come and find us. Has God forgotten? Why can’t we get an answer? Why are things the way they are? If only we had a sign! If God would just show up in a big, apparent way to straighten out this whole mess. O that you weren’t shut up in heaven, God!

You’ve probably prayed this prayer—hoping, longing, pleading. Casting wishes toward God. Wanting God suddenly to appear, to come be with you. Your reasons for such yearning may be so personal, so fragile and scary and tender, that you can hardly dare to hope for them. Perhaps you dreamed of some supernatural phenomena. Or were you simply asking for a little something to go right, a change in life, to be better?  O that you would come from heaven and be present, God.

Now, if you’re stuck in the used-tas, then you can only figure that it doesn’t happen, that God frustrates you yet again, fails to show up when and where you need it, leaves you to your own devices and dark disappointments. With no shaking mountains or blacked out sun, that kind of expectations go unfulfilled yet again. If we’re waiting for the mighty arm of God and an angelic army to drop out of the sky, that quite plain and obviously hasn’t happened. It doesn’t happen.

So was Isaiah wrong? Was his prayer worthless? Will there be an hour of redemption, a day when God finally is ready to come help us? Or is it just foolish, our prayers whistling in the dark? In our seeking, does God continue hiding, refusing to be revealed?

Let’s reverse the question:  what if God is not the problem? What if God is faithful, but our hopes and expectations are misdirected? It’s not that you’re waiting for something that won’t happen, but that you’re ignoring what does happen, seeking in the wrong sort of places.

There’s a story to start the book of Acts of Jesus ascending into heaven. The disciples are grouped standing around on the ground slack-jawed staring at the clouds, getting kinks in their necks, trying to spot some distant, disappearing speck. It finally takes an angel to show up and say, “hey, what do you bozos think you’re trying to see? Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Well, today I’m your angel, your messenger, with good news that you can stop craning your necks, trying to read signs in the stars. That is not where you’ll spot God, so stop bothering with it.

This Lord of yours is not one for pyrotechnics or loudspeakers, much less trying to communicate through natural disasters.  Instead, he comes as a thief in the night; and what thief in the night loudly announces herself? It is quiet and subtle and surprising. He comes like a leaf slowly unfurling itself on a fig tree.  He comes as the gift that preserves you through the night and rises as each new dawn. Even as your days pass and wither like a dried up leaf, still his breath fills you with life, for today and forever. This one like a careful potter formed you from the dust of the earth and still continues to shape you for his good purposes. His work is so constantly with you that you can’t even begin to be alert to it all, to stay so constantly vigilant. The best you can do is occasionally recognize it.

Still more than that, this is of course the God you know in Jesus.  He doesn’t drop out of the skies, tearing open the heavens. After nine months of waiting, God arrived from a womb, through a birth canal. With that, we have to break apart an old notion:  Advent is about Jesus coming, and we’ve often said that means once at Christmas, and when he will return again. That has ended up sucking us into some impression that two different Jesuses come, that Jesus was humble and meek the first time he came to earth, but when he comes back he’ll be taking numbers and knocking heads, that last time he was killed and next time he’ll be the killer, that last time was the Lamb of God, but next will be the bloodthirsty lion.

That may fit some of our yearning, but that isn’t the most faithful portrayal of God in Scripture. Even Revelation says Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He’s not playing a cosmic millennial game of good cop/bad cop. Rather, he arrived as a baby in a manger, cradled and nursed by his mother, wrapped to stay warm and snug, no room in the inn for the poor family, left out in the cold and surrounded by livestock and lowlifes. Our hope and expectation is in that same Jesus, in his returning to be with us, and also his presence among us still.

This news is earth-shaking and heaven-shattering, but not how we usually envision with action movie melodrama. That birth has changed the course of nations and enlightened history, but not by overwhelming, insistent miracles. It is amazing and revolutionary that God comes to dwell with us, but it’s in a quiet and humble way. All barriers are broken down, but not by violent might. He conquers death for us, but by going through it. It is almost unbelievable that God sees your iniquity but doesn’t let you get swept away by them or just abandon you to keep suffering the repercussions. Here he comes, not because you’re ready but because you need it.

Today, Jesus says his words will not pass away. It’s not that they are so loud they reverberate and echo in sound waves across the rolling spheres. It’s that this song still needs to be sung, because we need to hear this good news, and simply because his promise remains good forever. His word is good and stands firm, even though it comes in the confusing voice of your preacher. It searches you out and finds you. Again and again he shows up to say, your iniquity is forgiven. I’m not keeping score. I’m not waiting to pounce. I’m here for you, sharing all the gifts you need. Still his presence is with you, sneaking into your life, stolen away inside crusty homemade bread and too-sweet cheap wine of communion.

One final word to assist your searching and know where he may be found. Our 1st Corinthians reading says you were called into the fellowship of Jesus. That’s koinonia, like our Koinonia Place. It does mean fellowship or sharing, like cookies and coffee. It is also community and communion, like this supper. It is uniting together, becoming one with each other.  And so it means Jesus gives you all he has, that you share in everything of God’s, even as he takes all that is yours. You lack nothing, even as you wait and yearn and hope for something more. All that he has he gives to you, still giving even his life.

Hymn: As the Dark Awaits the Dawn (ELW #261)

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