Today we hear a promise from the prophet Jeremiah of a day when God will gather God’s people from all over the world, from the north and south and east and west, from the farthest parts of the earth to stand on God’s holy mountain in a holy homecoming together.
And yet I wonder if we hear this promise and we’re conditioned at this point to think:
Wait! With Virginia, Richmond, Henrico and surrounding counties shattering single-day Covid 19 case totals: that doesn’t sound so safe.
Will people at this holy-mountain-jubilee be wearing masks? Can I get a rapid-test before I go? Is there a way we can zoom-in or livestream this gathering?
Because as I reflect over the past year (that most of us, I think, are glad to kiss goodbye), as I think about my own personal life and our congregational life, one utterance comes to mind.
That is, for me, there is one question that summed up 2021.
It’s a question which was always on the tip of my tongue, or someone’s tongue, when planning for any kind of meeting of people, whether it be a ministry team meeting to a birthday party for a friend.
The question was and is: Will it be in-person?
For many people, some of you, work is still not in-person. Our staff meetings are still not in person. Our Winter-Celebration high school youth gathering in a few weeks will be our first in-person gathering in almost 2 years and that’s a huge deal, but there will also be a zoom option for folks who can’t or don’t feel comfortable attending in-person. Our adult Sunday school can be zoomed into.
And I think many of us are grateful to be able to connect with one another by zoom and facetime. It is wonderful that you as a congregation are providing a livestream to members and friends at home. But there is no question: it’s not like being together in-person.
There is something about a hug, a handshake, and being physically with one another that is a goodness and a gladness beyond words.
In Jesus Christ, God has come to be with humanity in-person.
The Word of God (who is truly one with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, divine from before the world existed), was born in the flesh, as a human being, and came to be with us in person.
He was born and had all the emotions and pressures you and I have.
He saw the natural world – sunrises, mountains, and storms – with human eyes.
He had friends, certainly laughed and cried human tears, went to parties and funerals, gathered with his neighbors to celebrate the festivals and seasons, worshipped in the temple and synagogue; he worked and prayed and played with human hands.
In the Word made flesh, God was no longer invisible, but in-person in this world.
The Word made flesh is not an idea, not an apparition, not 0s and 1s bouncing from satellites to digital screens. He is not a philosophy of kindness or forgiveness, but a person like you and me.
And yet, not just a person, Jesus, the Word in-person for us, is still enfleshed at God’s right hand praying for us and making intercession for us and sending his Spirit to guide us,
He was and is the light and life of all people.
Ancient people lived by the light of the sun and moon and fire. Light was necessary for protection, for communication, and for seeing the world as it really is.
Although we have more modern ways of flipping the lights on in the dark, light still means life for us.
Every house on my street has lights on all night – for protection, I think.
At our house we have a night-light to get to the bathroom.
We need light.
The blue light of our phones helps us navigate the world.
It is still understandable to us that John, the Evangelist, chooses to talk about Jesus’ life as light that has come into the world to illumine the dark.
Jesus is God’s light come to life, to bring illumination, protection, and truth, but it can be hard to really fathom the good news of the gospel that this light is so bright it can even banish sin and evil.
In fact, the claim of the Incarnation and God made flesh is so awesome and so shocking that the church knows we need a Christmas season that is not one day but twelve to reflect on this glorious mystery.
The church knows we need four weeks of Advent to prepare to hear he mystery of God’s birth into the world, and the church knows we need Epiphany and Lent and Easter and Pentecost, to tease out the story of what this birth means.
God-with-us means God’s light in Jesus shines in every crevasse of creation – can reach us even in our sickness, our addiction; reaches those who are incarcerated, those in the cell of depression; those who are far from home and away from their families to illumine the truth.
Jesus’ birth and life was so hidden that the world that came into being though him could not recognize him. And to tell the whole truth about Jesus’ is to tell our place in the story.
Just as Desmond Tutu’s peace and reconciliation commission believed the country of South Africa could not move on into true peace without first telling the truth about the atrocities of apartheid, so we cannot hide from the truth of our place in God’s story.
For God to come into this world in-person was as dangerous as every in-person gathering we attend. And yet God was unafraid to risk stepping into our world. God was unafraid to meet our love-of-self and determination-to-do-things-our-own-way in-person.
And our place in the story is that WITH our sin and selfishness and sickness we did crucify Jesus’ flesh and we buried him in the darkness of the cold, dank death of a tomb
— but our place in the story is also that God raised him up with God’s exhaustless, faithful love, and he comes to us still, again, and without reserve with light and life that is for us as a free gift.
Jesus life is God’s light shining in the darkness and the darkness has not put out his light.
Just after the pandemic came into our lives in 2020, our congregation finished construction on our new entrance into our church building.
As you know, the project was called “Brighten Our Light” and the name we chose was our expression of our belief that God welcomes us in, and shines through us; and our prayer that God would make our outreach to new people bright.
That is, we hoped the gathering space here would be a place for people to meet and talk and show and receive hospitality in the light of God’s love.
You may also know, that at the base of our large red cross that is lofted high about the end of Monument Avenue, keeping sentinel watch on the West End, there is a white stone which was once the church’s front yard sign but had been moved to the base of the cross.
Before our project the stone simply read “Epiphany Lutheran Church.” And prior to the awning and ramp that was built to welcome folks during the rain or other inclement weather, many children played on that stone; climbing and jumping.
Near the completion of the “Brighten Our Light” project, the construction workers mistakenly chipped that stone.
They felt bad about that and offered to replace it for free, and we felt like that was an offer too good to refuse and so we agreed.
They said that the stone cutting company they were going to use would carve script into both sides for us, again all free of charge, and asked what we would like reverse-side from Epiphany Lutheran Church to say. We thought “Brighten Our Light,” was a good thing to have carved there and we even wrote it down for them on a piece of paper.
If you go out to that stone, you will see that, in fact, what they carved and what it reads is:
“Brighten Our Life.”
So very close!
And also good!
I like to think the stone cutters were thinking: What has come into being in Jesus was life and the life was the light of all people.
Maybe they know that Jesus – the true light of God – came not just to make the world bright but to make all human life to radiate with God’s love.
Maybe they knew that Jesus was born in the flesh to give his life for us and that the cross that looms over the stone bearing that wonderful phrase, “Brighten our Life,” is God’s declaration and promise to be with us in the light and in the dark, in-person and in our digital gatherings, in our mountaintop gatherings and in the valley of shadows, to bring us into the heart of God.
Perhaps the words “Brighten our Life” are perfect words to describe who God has made us to be as a congregation.
They do describe, perfectly, the way members of our congregation showed up yesterday on the first day of this new year in-person, with the love of Jesus, to Moments of Hope to feed our neighbors, giving out 200 bags of food.
You helped gather these contents of these boxes: mac & cheese, tuna, ravioli, pork and beans, green beans, canned corn and cans of fruit cocktail.
Faye Coppage and the Community Service Team were at the Moments of Hope pantry near the Hanover County Courthouse yesterday IN-PERSON to hand out these bags that contained enough food to prepare six meals for individuals and families.
And so we pray to our in-person God, to Jesus Christ crucified and risen, Brighten our Life.
Brighten the life of our real human flesh with your glory today, as we too come hungry and are fed, with not only food, but food given with the love of God, by you who are close to the Father’s heart, and in whom we live.
Living in Jesus together, we witness today as you, JULIA are claimed in baptism by God, and we rejoice with you as you join us in a life of living with Christ in the heights of God’s city, where God is with us, young and old…at his table of celebration and splendor, at the meal of God’s victory over darkness and death that turns our grief to joy and our sorrow to gladness.
Here grace is lavished on us, at God’s good pleasure.
Here we become part of God’s plan for the fullness of time,
to gather up all things – things in heaven and things on earth – things by zoom and things in-person. God gathers up all things in Christ and holds us in love.
May God’s gracious love give us hope today and all this year to come as God continues to brighten our life.
Thanks be to God.