Mary, Did You Know?

Luke 1:46-55

In a worship setting, music helps us to focus and can bring a sense of the holy to the time of worship.  It has been said that “those who sing, pray twice.” No, this is not a commercial to drum up more members of the choir, although the choir is always looking for a few new members.  The hymnody of the church is essential, and it helps pass along theological truths that could be missed in sermons and other educational opportunities. Just like there are theologians in the church that attend school for many years honing their craft, there are those that study the science and theology of the music of the church to helps us understand our faith.

There are many beautiful hymns not only in out hymn books but in the hymn books of other churches. Some hymns have stood the test of time, convey solid theological truths, and enhance our understanding. There are old hymns and new ones. Hymns that have come out of the reformation and hymns that have come from other lands and cultures. Some of the greatest works of music have been written around the themes of Christmas and Easter, and there have also been some pretty bad ones.

A hymn, like a sermon, is only useful if it conveys theological understanding. Now, there is nothing wrong with being ambiguous; not long ago, I mentioned that I sometimes craft sermons that leave you with more questions than answers; however, right this type of sermon is when it comes to the understanding of fundamental theological truths we cannot be ambiguous.

In 1984, singer/songwriter Mark Lowery wrote the words that would eventually become the song that asks the question; Mary, did you know? Lowery’s words were put to music in 1991 by Buddy Greene and, that same year, recorded by Michael English. The song would eventually reach the number 6 spot on the Contemporary Christian Music charts that same year. The song has gone on to become a modern Christmas classic but, it is has a lack of spiritual depth and theological understanding.

The Gospel passage we heard this morning is called, in Latin the Magnificat or Mary’s Song, or the Canticle of Mary. It comes to us from the Gospel of Luke, the only Gospel that tells the full story of the birth of Jesus. Mary recites this song when she meets her cousin Elizabeth and the “babe leaps for joy.” She is so filled with excitement and wonder at what God has asked her to do that she cannot contain herself. Mary is the new Eve, and Mary is the one that will usher forth redemption in the life of her Son, Mary is true, in Greek the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

But we need to back up a little.

Tradition will tell us that Mary was a young, very young teenager. As the Gospel tells us, she was betrothed or engaged to Joseph, and they were to be married. One night, the Angel came to Mary and informed her that God had looked upon her with favor and that she was to give birth to a child that was going to change the world. Mary asked the Angel a few questions, but in the end, this teenager, this little girl consented and by her yes, put into motion a series of events that bring us here today.

As much as we like to cite John 3:16 about God’s love for all the world is the reason he sent his Son, if it were not for the yes of Mary, the young, teenage girl it would not have happened. The rift created back in the Garden of Eden had begun its repair the moment another woman said yes. Sin had entered the world with the disobedience of a human, and now, salvation is coming to the world because another human being said yes. This is an essential message of the Christmas story that is often overlooked. The separation of man from God was repaired because a young girl said yes!

We often underestimate what young people can do; in fact, some people will even use the platform of their position to bully young people when they stand up and take action. I can only imagine the same thing that happened to Mary. We read that Joseph tried to put her away quietly so as not to cause a fuss. But the same Angel comes to Joseph and tells him that it will be okay.

But back to the story and the question of what Mary knew and did not know.

Mary comes to see her cousin Elizabeth who is also with child, John the Baptist. She is overjoyed and proclaims her song. Mary says that her soul “glorifies the Lord” and that her spirit “rejoices in God” who is her savior. Mary does not take the glory on herself; she does not boast that God has chosen her in fact; she humbles herself and then points directly to God as her source of joy and excitement. She knows that God is using her as an instrument to bring salvation to the world. Sure, God could have snapped his fingers and made it all so, but he chose the life of a simple girl from an oppressed race to continue his story of salvation.

We need to stop and think about this for a moment. Of all the people in the world, of all the women in the world, of all the people in 1st century Palestine, of all the people in the town of Nazareth, God came to the home of Mary and asked, did not tell her but asked her, to take on this role. Being chosen by God, out of all the women of her day, Mary would have every right to boast about what had happened to her, but she does not. She focuses on the “lowliness of her estate” and that she has been blessed by God, not because of anything that she has done, and that God has done this great thing for her.

God did not choose a king or a queen. God did not select a prince or a princess. God did not want a military leader or a politician. God did not choose a wealthy family of privilege. No, God chose a poor, humble girl, and Mary’s response is precisely why God picked her and honored her in this way.

The simple answer to the question of whether Mary knew is yes, she did know, and she exclaimed her knowledge and understanding when she met her cousin Elizabeth. Mary’s song contains a pure faith and pure understanding of what was going to happen, who God is, and what God’s salvation was going to bring to the world. But she also understands that it is not about her. She and Joseph have the task of raising God’s Son and providing him with an education, but Mary always points towards her Son and never to herself. As Jesus increased, Mary decreased. She was with him at the start, and she was with him at the end, but Mary knew, full well, what was going on.

Mary should be an example to all of us about the power of saying yes, but she should also be an example to all of us about the power of what one person can do to make a difference in the world. God is asking each of us who claim the title of Christian, to follow the way of his Son, Jesus Christ, what will your answer be?

Joy Comes in the Morning

We take a break on the Third Sunday of Advent from the usual theme of repentance and reconciliation to focus on joy. The Third Sunday of Advent is called, in Latin Gaudete Sunday and gets that name from the introit of the day:

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus enim prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione et obsecratione cum gratiarum actione petitiones vestræ innotescant apud Deum. Benedixisti Domine terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob.

Translated as:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.” Philippians 4:4–6; Psalm 85 (84):1

This Sunday, we focus on Joy, joy, that the coming of the Christ Child is close and Joy that we soon will be joined by family and friends as we celebrate the beautiful season of Christmastide. The theologian Henri Nouwen described the difference between joy and happiness. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.”

We will light the rose-colored candle as a reminder that in the bleakness of life, love and joy will shine through in the love that God has for each of us in the sending of his son to show us the path of righteousness.

May you experience this joy this Sunday and every day.

5 Questions to help you manage your stress

Let’s face it; we are all under some form of stress. Stress is your body’s reaction to harmful situations, whether perceived or real. Our bodies are designed to handle small amounts of stress. Still, our bodies are not equipped to handle long-term or chronic stress without consequences that can affect us emotionally, spiritually, physically, and cognitively.

The first step to taking control of the level of stress is to recognize the signs and symptoms.

There are emotional signs, easily agitated, frustrated or moody, feeling overwhelmed, or having difficulty relaxing, and feeling bad about yourself and avoiding others.

There are physical symptoms; low energy, headache, upset stomach, chest pain, insomnia, and dry mouth.

And there are cognitive symptoms; constant worry, inability to focus, and poor judgment.

Reading over this list I have experienced every one of these symptoms in the last few days as part of my routine everyday activity, remember, it is the long-term chronic stress that can become a problem

Rather than getting super stressed out, catch your stress early and take control of it. Each person is different, so knowing how your body reacts to stress will take you a long way in your ability to control it.  Ask yourself these five questions:

1. What are my signs of stress? How do I know when stress is taking me over?

2. How could I learn to spot my signs of stress earlier and earlier?

3. What are some easy things I could do when I notice I am stressed?

4. What are the important things I should do when I notice I am stressed?

5. If there were three things I could develop into healthy habits to reduce my stress, what would they be?

Think about these questions over the days ahead and if you need help dealing with the stress in your life, check out my coaching page at www.peterpreble.net/coaching

Sermon: Vision of Peace

Malachi 3:1-4

Classes in Philosophy dominated my first year in seminary. The study of philosophy opens one’s mind to the ability to ask questions, but not just any question, good questions. Philosophy requires the students to reach past themselves to seek answers to questions about the nature of life and the essence of our very being. For the most part, philosophy is taught using the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method, designed by the great philosopher Socrates uses the question and answer format. The teacher poses a question to the class, calls on a student for the answer, and then poses a series of questions to that student to help them refine their response. The Socratic Method only works if the student is as prepared as the teacher.

There is one particular day that is emblazoned in my memory. Believe it or not, I am, by nature, an introvert. It takes a lot of energy for me to do what I do. This is not, by the way, and uncommon trait in clergy types. I hang in the back of the class and do not usually ask questions or offer answers. This is impossible in a course such as I have just described. But on this particular day, for whatever reason, I came to the attention of the professor. She zeroed in on me like a lioness ready to take down her prey. She started easy enough, although I do not remember the question. I do remember that I answered the question in an unsatisfactory way. She knew that I was not prepared for class, and now, her prey was weak, and she would soon pounce. After 45 minutes of continued questions, and as I was close to tears, the class time ended, and we were dismissed. I had learned my lesson, never be unprepared for class again.

But the idea behind having theological students study philosophy is that it makes the student better at asking questions. Theology and the spiritual life is all about asking questions. In today’s reading from the Prophet, Malachi asks a couple of questions; But who can abide the day of his coming? And, who can stand when he appears?

These are Advent questions and force us to ask other questions like, who will be prepared through repentance and forgiveness? The season of Advent tests our worthiness, readiness, and willingness for Christ’s coming. Advent calls us to a new way of living a new uprightness and integrity, a turning from iniquity, and a renewed reverence for God’s covenant of life and well-being with all of us.

I have been thinking a lot these past few months about the nature of worship and liturgy. This comes partly out of my desire to answer the question, what brings people to church? This is a logical question to ask in these days where people who have no affiliation with the church have surpassed those who do. Don’t get me wrong, I do not foresee an end to the brick and mortar church, but we have to understand what is going on outside the doors of the building.

It seems these days the number one reason folks leave the church is they get nothing out of worship. It is my belief this answer comes from the idea that worship is supposed to entertain. Some of the largest churches in America are a church with great music, fabulous worship bands, light shows, the preacher stands behind a Plexiglas pulpit, and wears jeans and an open-collared shirt. The lights in the sanctuary get turned down, and a spotlight is fixed on the preacher as he, I say he because these churches usually do not allow women to preach, delivers, what can charitably be called a sermon. Sure, it is loosely based on some theme of Scripture but usually ends with we are all sinners in need of repentance and then a call to change your life by coming forward to the altar for prayer. Later in the day, the church will post something on their social media feed about how many “gave their life to Christ.” The problem is, there usually is no follow up.

Worship should not just be about entertainment; it needs to be about change, lasting change. I preach in such a way; I craft messages, I hope anyway, that move people to make a change in their lives not just today but every day. I have told you before that I view my job as preacher and teacher to challenge you, to force you to question not only what you believe but why you believe it. I want you to ask questions, get mad, and challenge me because that is where the growth happens.

This passage from Malachi is featured in one of the signature choral works of the Advent Season, Handel’s Messiah. Malachi’s faithful question about the nature of God’s love is raised in a masterful work. The answer comes in the use of authoritative Scripture. The narrative “The Lord, who ye seek shall suddenly come.” Followed by the bass, “But who may abide the day of his coming?” The chorus “He shall purify the sons of Levi” And the alto answer, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us.”

After the first presentation of the Messiah in London in 1741, Handel wrote to a friend, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.” Handel is challenging me, the preacher, and you to go beyond feeling good to doing good. Worship should move us to action, action in our lives that creates a spiritual change in us and action in our world that makes it a better place for all to live.

Although by 1751, Handel was blind until his death, he conducted Messiah as an annual benefit for the Foundling Hospital in London, which served mostly widows and orphans of the clergy. Handel’s intent was not just to entertain; he hoped to make those listening just a little bit better and in so doing, make the lives of the widows and orphans better.

You get out of worship what you put in. If you come seeking to be changed, you will be changed. If you come seeking only to be entertained, you might leave disappointed. Advent is the season of preparation for the coming of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Just like Handle, I hope to make us a little bit better, so we are genuinely prepared for the “day of his coming.”

Amen.

A Tribute for my Father

The Eulogy delivered at my father’s funeral on December 8, 2019

I want to begin this morning with a word of thanks on behalf of my family. Thank you all for being here this morning and for those who were able to come last night. Thank you to those who reached out to my family in the previous few days and provided words of comfort to us in this our time of sorrow. Each of us grieves in our way, but hearing from friends and family always makes the process just a little easier to get through.

As one would imagine, I spend time in cemeteries. As a minister and a hospice chaplain, I help people prepare for their life to come to an end, and part of that process is something we call a life review. If you take a look at the front cover of today’s program, you will see the dates of my father’s life. He was born on May 11, 1933, and he died on December 1, 2019. In-between those dates are the dash, and the dash is where we live.

The dash represents birthday parties, graduations, the birth of children and grandchildren, and all of the other stuff that happens in our lives. The dash is where life happens. But how can we, in a few short moments, summarize a person’s life? You have before you an obituary that lists the pertinent facts of a person’s life, but that still does not tell the story of the dash.

This may come as a surprise, but I have known my father for my entire life. It’s true. For as long as I can remember he was there. Like most people of his generation he worked hard. Most days, when I woke in the morning, he was already gone to work and many nights, long after I had to sleep, he would come home. But he was always there.

They say parents are the first teachers of their children, and my father instilled some of life’s most essential lessons in me that I have and will carry my entire life. He taught me such things as integrity, honor, service, and that, above all else, the family needs to come first.

My father taught me that a man is nothing if he does not stand by his word. If you say you are going to do something, you better do it. If you commit to someone or something, you still to it. All we have is our reputation, and no matter what we do with our lives, our integrity is everything.

My father taught me that honor is an important life lesson. Like integrity, it seems these that word honor has lost much of its meaning. These days you can say anything you want or do anything you want and, if you get caught you either blame someone else for it or you spin it in such a way that you are the victim, and you say “I did not mean it that way” and all is forgiven. For my father, things were black and white. If you made a mistake, you took ownership of it. If you needed to ask for forgiveness, you did. And that is what brings honor. Honor is found in how we recover and how we hold ourselves after a fall.

At the outbreak of the Korean Conflict, my father joined the United States Air Force and proudly served his country. I followed in those footsteps and continued a long line of military service that my family has provided this nation. He was honored this morning with his casket being draped with the flag of his country. The Honor Guard took great care in folding that piece of cloth and presenting it on behalf of a grateful nation.

But he also served his community. He told a story once of going to the church rectory and asking the priest why there was no Cub Scout Pack in the Church. By the time he left, he was the Scoutmaster, my mother a Den Mother, and all of us boys signed up! Scouting was and is a big part of our family, and my father was able to see two of his grandsons achieve the honor of Eagle Scout because he felt that we needed a program in the Church.

In 1969, believing that no incumbent should run for office unopposed, my father decided to run for Mayor of the City of Quincy. He ran against what was arguably the most powerful political machine in the City. It was a close race, a nail bitter right up to the counting of the last vote. Of the 23,000 votes cast in that election, my father received 4, 480. Not bad, until you look at the votes his opponent received, 18, 317. He only lost by 13,837 votes! He told me he was glad he lost because he was not sure what he would have done if he had won that election. But that was the point, we serve our country, and we serve our community even if we lose.

I mentioned before that my father would often leave for work before I got up and came home after I had gone to bed. My father believed that you do whatever you have to do to support your family. If that means working late into the night and on weekends, you do it. If that means sacrificing what you have so that your children have more, then that is what you do. My father worked hard, but there would be time for family vacations to exotic locations like Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Huntsville, Alabama. We would load up whatever care we had, sometimes taking along an extra kid or two, and we would head off down the road. We did not have a lot, but we sure did have fun. Well, until my brother Mark flipped me over in that little red wagon in Huntsville.  I think I still have the scars from that day. My therapist and I are almost a breakthrough on that one.

One of the gifts that he left us was knowing exactly what he wanted when his time came. Over the last few years, he had conversations with each of us about what he wanted.  Those conversations are not always easy to have but, and this is a little commercial interruption, please have those conversations with someone. When it came time for us to make those decisions, my father had made it easy for us since we all knew exactly what he wanted. Like having those conversations, making those decisions is not easy, but he helped us, but telling us what he wanted and I believe we have fulfilled those wishes.

I do have a few regrets. I could have spent more time with him, talked to him more, done more with him, and for him. But, my biggest regret is that he will not be here to give me advice on raising my soon to be born daughter. I am a little jealous of my brothers because they had the wisdom of both of our parents, also the free babysitting service that comes with being a grandparent. But I know that that advice they gave them will be available to me from them because of the lessons that he taught them. Through his life and the life of my brothers, my parents left wonderful examples, and I thank them for that.

So, they are back together, although I am sure my mother had some words for him about his beard, they are together again, and they continue to watch over us and guide us, and laugh at us a little from time to time.

I want to leave you all with some questions to ponder. What are you doing with your dash? What life lessons are you teaching? What legacy are you leaving, or will you leave?

Amen

The Greatest of These…

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13

As we enter the second week of the Season of Advent, our thoughts and attention turn from hope to love. As you already know, love is central to my preaching and my ministry, as I believe it is central to the Gospel and our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.  For me, the love of others has to flow from our lives as Christians, and it has to move us to care for others, especially the least among us.

In St. Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth that I quoted above, Paul is summarizing the faith that we must have. As Christians, we live in hope, hope for a better tomorrow, but a tomorrow that we have to help usher in. We have to have faith, for if we do not have faith, we have nothing. But, Paul tells the Church that the greatest of all of these is love. Earlier in the 13th Chapter, Paul says this:

“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:2

We can do everything and obtain all the riches and power on earth, but if we do not have love, we are nothing. Love is central to everything that we do, and every action that we take, every decision that we make has to come from a position of love.

Apart from Paul, we have God as the supreme example of what love is all about.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

So deep was God’s love for his creation that he gave up his Son, not to come and pronounce judgment on all of us, but to show us the way to eternal life. And that way is straightforward:

Love God, Love Neighbor, Love our Enemies, Love Each Other, and Love Yourself! Love is the answer.

The Power of Saying No

Saying no is one of the hardest things I have had to learn to do. As someone in ministry, I want to be available to everyone but, that usually leads to overextending, and then bad things start to happen. Harnessing the power of saying no is a lesson we all should learn. When we say yes, we are also saying no to something. Ask yourself these five questions to determine if your priorities are straight.

1. What do I like about saying, yes? When does saying yes, impact me negatively? (Make two lists)

2. What am I afraid of when it comes to saying no? When does it feel wonderful to say no? (Make two lists)

3. Where do I need to say no in my life, and what would that feel like?

4. What gets in the way of me saying no? (Make a list)

5. If I say “No” more, would I be able to…

Think about these questions, make the lists, and begin to harness the power of saying no.

If you need help learning to say no, check out my Coaching Page and let’s begin a conversation.

5 Questions to Inspire a Habit of Gratitude

Gratitude is a wonderful habit that increases our mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  Here are five questions to help you get inspired to create a meaningful habit of gratitude:

1. What stops me from being thankful or grateful?

2. When I feel thankful, how do I feel differently about myself, life, and the world?

3. On bad days, how could I still be tankful?  (think small!)

4. How could I express my gratitude to those around me?

5. How could I begin to cultivate a larger habit of gratitude and thankfulness in my life? (Make a list of ideas.)

This week, ponder these questions and then chose one action to move forward with in the coming weeks.

Advent Scripture Journey

Advent is the time of preparation not just for the family gatherings at Christmas but spiritual preparation for the coming of the Savior of the world Jesus Christ. Taking time to prepare ourselves spiritually is vitally important and is often the most overlooked practice of the Advent Season. I want to help with that.

I recently came across a MEME on Facebook with the title “A New Christmas tradition.” This tradition is a journey through the Gospel of Luke during the 24 days leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. Beginning on December 1st, read one chapter from the Gospel of Luke, and continue for the next 24 days which will bring you to Christmas Eve. In reading these chapters, when you wake on Christmas morning, you will understand Who and Why we celebrate.

I mentioned that I wanted to help. If you send me an email, I will add you to my list of people that I will be posting a chapter a day from the Gospel of Luke starting on December 1st. This daily email will make the process of the journey that much easier to participate in since it will be there in your mailbox each morning. I promise I won’t spam you and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Please join me on this Advent Scripture Journey and let us reclaim Advent as a time of Spiritual Preparation.

Wisdom Wednesday: Dealing With Toxic People

We all have toxic people in our lives. You know them, the ones that drain you or minimize you. They are the ones that deplete and sap your energy, so you have nothing left. Toxic people undermine and consume us – but only when we allow them to have power over us.

Life Coach and New York Times best-selling author Brendan Burchard has this to say about toxic people in our lives:

Toxic people will not be changed by the alchemy of your kindness. Be kind, but move on swiftly and let life be their educator.

We need to surround ourselves with people who lift us and support us. We need to surround ourselves with people who give us energy and not the people who take that energy away.

Here are five questions to ponder over the next few days. After you have thought about the answers to these questions, choose 1-3 actions you might take moving forward to help you deal with the toxic people in your lives.

1. Who energizes me in my life? How could I spend more time with them?

2. Who drains or minimizes me? How could I spend less time or spend time differently with them?

3. How do I allow people who drain me and deplete me?

4. How does it help me to remember that toxic people are in pain themselves?

5. What steps do I need to take with toxic people for my own esteem and peace of mind?

Need help answering any of these questions or what to get on the right path in dealing with the toxic people in your life? Check out my Life Coaching page for more information.