Itís Past Time to Open the Gifts Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 07 January 2018
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — January 7, 2018
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Texts: Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14;  Matthew 2:1-12 — Epiphany Celebration

May all kings fall down before him…  — Psalm 72:11

On entering the house… they fell down and worshipped him.  Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts… — Matthew 2:11

This is the first Sunday of 2018, and although the tree and decorations are still up, the Christmas season is over.  It didn’t end Dec. 26 with after-Christmas sales and people lining up at returns counters.  No, it ended Friday with the Twelfth Day of Christmas.  Then yesterday was the feast day of Epiphany.  “Epiphany” comes from a Greek word that refers to a time when God is revealed.  Whereas Christmas celebrates the coming of Jesus as Emmanuel, meaning God-with-us, Epiphany celebrates this God-with-us being revealed to all peoples as the Wise Men (Magi, Kings, call them what you will) come from the east to worship the Christ child.

Epiphany is actually an older celebration in the church than Christmas.  By the late 2nd-Century, Christians were celebrating Epiphany by retelling three stories of the appearance of God:  (1) to the wise men, (2) at the baptism of Jesus, and (3) to the people at the wedding in Cana when Jesus turned water into wine.  For them, Epiphany was a time to remember God’s gift to us in Jesus as well as ponder how we might respond to that gift by showing our gratitude and love and putting these into action.  Christmas as a celebration of Christ’s birth would not come for another 200 years in the late 4th-Century.  In many countries around the world, Epiphany remains the day when gifts are given.  Imagine that… having to wait to open your gifts until January 6—although the upside would be twelve more shopping days.

I realized this past week that we never sang about the three Wise Men this past Christmas Season—at least, not the most familiar carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”  Most carols seem to end before the Wise Men show up.  And in the few where they do appear, it usually seems more like an afterthought, somewhere in verse three or four where we no longer know the words and have to follow along in the hymnal.  It’s a perfect song for Epiphany, however.  “We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar…”  Bearing gifts.  They came following a star, says the story.  And when they saw the child, they fell down and worshipped him and gave him gifts.  Gift-giving at Christmas and at Epiphany is rooted in this story, and we certainly enjoy the giving and receiving of gifts.  So it’s strange we don’t sing more about these gift givers.

Godís Daring Plan Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 31 December 2017
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — December 31, 2017
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Text:  Luke 2:1-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: — Luke 2:8-10

Every year since I was ordained, I have shared some kind of a story as my sermon on the Sunday after Christmas.  Most years it has been a children’s Christmas story, but this year I want to share a story from a sermon by one of my favorite preachers, the Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor.  It’s a retelling of the familiar story in Luke of angels, shepherds, and the babe in a manger.  Last week I preached on this same story emphasizing how we need to hear it “from below”—that is, from the perspective of people every bit as vulnerable and oppressed as Mary and Joseph.  In the story, they seek refuge for the night in a land occupied by a brutal imperial power that has ordered them from their home near the end of Mary’s pregnancy to travel by foot for days (some 70 miles) so Caesar can get a count of the number of people in his empire so as to ensure they all pay enough taxes to his treasury to fund the legions of soldiers that keep everyone under his thumb.  And I shared a version of the Christmas story “from below” as told by NPR’s Scott Simon.  A couple of you told me afterwards that you would never hear Luke’s story the same again.

Rev. Taylor’s version is not a story “from below,” but rather from a different perspective entirely.  She imagines the story from the point of view of God, beginning it, as Genesis and John do, from the very beginning.  But still it is a story that challenges the self-image of the powerful and the privileged.  Rev. Taylor titled her story “God’s Daring Plan” (From Bread of Angels, Boston: Cowley Pub., 1997, pp. 31-35).
Christmas from Below Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 24 December 2017
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — December 24, 2017
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Texts:  Isaiah 9:2-7;  Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. — Luke 2:1-2

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria” [Luke 2:1-2].  With those words, Luke, sets the scene for one of the most beloved of all New Testament stories.  As you listened to the story, did soft carol music start playing in your mind—“Away in a Manger” or “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child” perhaps?  And did all those mental images come to you of Christmas pageants, nativity sets, shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night,” angels singing “peace on earth,” and a babe in a manger?  Oh such glorious and peaceful songs and images, all of them!  But no, that’s not what we should be hearing or seeing.  At the words “Emperor Augustus” (“Caesar the Great”) we should hear something more like “The Imperial March” from Star Wars, Darth Vader’s theme.  (I had this played over the sound system.)

Luke’s story is not set in a peaceful world.  It’s set in an occupied land, ruled by a tyrant who claims to be the Son of a God, God from very God, and Savior of the World.  Power and might and force and terror hold sway.  Roman legions and crucifixion are just two of the “Evil Empire’s” tools for keeping people in line.  Luke’s audience is living in the aftermath of a crushed rebellion and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Imperial Rome, and they will see right off how Luke’s story is about a poor family seeking refuge in a dangerous world.  Joseph and Mary live in a land where the occupying government can order them to travel by foot for days (some 70 miles) so Caesar can count the number of people under his order to ensure they all pay enough taxes to his treasury.  A census is not benign.  It’s a tool for domination.  And it matters not at all to the powers that be that they are forcing this expectant mother at the peak of her pregnancy to (as one writer puts it) “undergo the single most dangerous experience of a first-century woman’s life not at home, but away in a manger” ( ). 

For us, Luke’s story has become mostly a lovely church story.  We get all sentimental about it.  It tugs at our heartstrings.  But for Luke and his audience this story is connected directly to their lives of oppression and hardship, and it was the start of a much larger story of hope for the hopeless, justice and liberation for the downtrodden and “peace on earth and goodwill among all people.”  The main difference is that we hear and tell this story largely from a relative position of power and privilege in our world.  Our nativity images are sanitized and comfortable and no threat to the status quo.  Christianity is the dominant culture in our nation.  So we lose sight of this as a story of vulnerable people—of a young, middle-eastern, unwed, pregnant woman, forced to travel far from home.  Mary and Joseph find what shelter they can in a dark, musky smelling animal stall, where she gives birth to a child, wraps him in whatever rags she can find, and places him in a dusty, likely flea-infested feeding trough.  Instead we end up with a clean, white-skinned, (probably) European woman in a spotless blue robe, giving birth to a glowing baby wrapped in impossibly white swaddling cloths and laid in a manger that looks more like a crib in a barn that looks better kept than many of our houses.  Then we allow this story to be swept up into our dominant “imperial” culture of mass consumerism, big business profits, and “might makes right.”  And so Luke’s story of hope for justice and liberation and peace and goodwill for all people ends up pushed off to the side.

Las Posadas Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 17 December 2017
by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — December 17, 2017
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Text:  Luke 2:1-7 — Advent 3
…because there was no place for them in the inn. — Luke 2:7b

The Journey Begins
This morning we’re going to embark upon a symbolic pilgrimage called Las Posadas, which means “the inns.”  Las Posadas is a traditional Advent/Christmas celebration in Latin America, particularly Mexico, and in New Mexico and other parts of the American Southwest.  It dates back more than 400 years to 1587 when a Roman Catholic friar named Diego de Soria devised a celebration to reenact and teach the story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and their search for lodging there.  Sometime in the 17th century, Las Posadas began to include a procession, and it moved from being celebrated mainly in the church to in people’s homes.  Today you might find Las Posadas celebrations in homes, churches, and communities.  A Las Posadas procession in Santa Fe, NM, each year brings out more than 3,000 people to the Santa Fe Plaza.

Often, different families in a neighborhood will take turns hosting Las Posadas in their home over the nine nights from Dec. 16th through the 24th.  Neighborhood children and adults act as peregrinos (pilgrims) who are led in procession by two people (often children) dressed as Mary and Joseph.  The people sing songs as they process from house to house, their route marked out by farolitos (little lights) with luminarias at the houses (bonfires for warmth and welcome).  At each house Mary and Joseph knock on the door, and when it is answered the peregrinos divide into two groups. One sings with Mary and Joseph asking for lodging.  The other group joins with those in the house to sing the part of the innkeepers who turn the weary travelers away.  Finally the procession reaches the scheduled house, where the Holy Family is recognized (again in song), and everyone is welcomed in for a party.

We’ll be doing this a bit differently this morning in this space.  We’ll all be processing three times, following Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus around the sanctuary.  Yes, I know there’s no baby yet in the story as Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem, but let the presence of the baby remind us that very shortly the Holy Family will be on the road again, fleeing to Egypt as refugees.  So in our three processions we’ll be following a family who—according to the stories we have—first is forced to travel far from their home by a decree from Caesar Augustus and then must flee for their very lives from King Herod. 
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 10 January 2018 )
The Way in the Wilderness Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 10 December 2017
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — December 10, 2017
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11;  Mark 1:1-8

A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’  — Isaiah 40:3

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ ”. — Mark 1:2-3

Mark is like a little kid, all wound up wanting Christmas to hurry up and get here.  He’s in such a rush to tell his story that it’s like he can’t wait to get Jesus on the scene.  In just eight verses he gets through all the preliminaries before Jesus shows up to be baptized.  Matthew and Luke each take two or more chapters to get to this point, giving detailed genealogies as well as wondrous birth stories filled with angels, shepherds, and magi. 

Mark opens  his story by kicking everything off with a bang using just twelve or thirteen words—seven words in Greek.  “The beginning” (a single word, arché, in Greek)—the very same word that begins the Greek version of Genesis.  Here is a new beginning, a divine new creation.  “Of the good news”—tou euangeliou in Greek.  From euangelion we get words like evangelical and evangelism.  But in Jesus’ day, this word was not some “nice church word” or a label for a particular kind of Christian.  No, euangelion was a word deeply rooted in the cult of the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus.  Throughout the empire a euangelion—a good news proclamation—was circulated upon significant events in the emperor’s life:  his birth, his coming of age, and finally his ascension to the throne as both Caesar and god on earth.  But this good news is very different.  It’s about Iesou Christou huiou théou, “Jesus Christ the Son of God,” four words declaring Jesus to be the “anointed one,” the Christos or Messiah, the long hoped-for savior of the Jewish people as well as the “Son of God,” a common title for Caesar Augustus.  From here, Mark rushes on, telling his story of what this all means.  So we need to “listen a lot faster” to Mark, for every word seems to count double or triple.  And even the punctuation is important.

Punctuation, you ask?  Well, yes, punctuation matters.  Perhaps you've seen those coffee mugs and T-shirts that read: “Let’s eat, (comma) Grandma,” and below it, “Let’s eat Grandma” (without the comma), and below that, “Commas save lives.”  It’s not a comma in Mark, but when he quotes the prophet Isaiah, it’s a colon that matters.  In Isaiah 40, “A voice cries out:”—colon.  And what does that voice cry out?  “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  This isn’t a voice crying out in a wilderness where no one hears—although haven’t we all had that kind of experience where no one seems to be listening?  No, this is a voice—God’s voice perhaps?—issuing a directive:  “Go to the wilderness.  That’s where a way must be made.  And that’s where you’ll find God revealed and with you as a shepherd.”  Admittedly, it’s a hard directive.  We like our comfort and our security too much.  Wildernesses are frightening and insecure places.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 10 January 2018 )
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