Helping You Make the Most of the Season: Christmas and Epiphany at Plymouth Church


The blog is about to take a hiatus for a couple of weeks. Here is what you need to know about the schedule here at Plymouth:

On Monday, December 17, join us at 6 pm in Waveland Hall for The Longest Night Service, an opportunity to explore our own yearning for wholeness.

4th Advent worship will happen on Saturday the 22nd (at 5:30) and Sunday the 23rd (9 and 11). And this is the weekend that the Narrative Lectionary launches us into the New Testament, beginning with Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus.

Then, on Monday December 24, you have 4 opportunities for Christmas Eve worship:

  • At 5 pm, we have the Family service in the sanctuary.
  • At 7 pm, we are in Waveland Hall with the Saturday Night Band
  • At 9 pm, are back in the sanctuary with the Chancel Choir
  • And at 11 pm we gather in the sanctuary with the Matins Choir

I attend all 4 services, and let me tell you: every year, I am glad that I do. Christmas Eve worship at Plymouth is something you do not want to miss.

Saturday worship will happen as usual on December 29. On Sunday, December 30, we will have one service at 11 am. I will be preaching.

And then on January 5 and we are back to our normal schedule, just in time for Epiphany.

It promises to be a rich season of worship at Plymouth. Don’t miss it!


What Are We Waiting For? The Service of Lessons and Carols


Note: this is re-run of a post from last December. Consider it my annual commentary on the service of Lessons and Carols. -MML

This blog post will be a little different.

This weekend, our Saturday Night and Sunday morning services will be structured as Services of Lessons and Carols. Instead of a sermon, we will hear readings and music that convey the Big Story of God’s redemptive purpose. (If you really need some preaching to make your week complete, check out our Vespers service at 5:30 on Thursday night!)

The Lessons and Carols format is a relatively new development in Christian worship. It is also at least a little controversial.

Most historians would trace the format to the world-famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the King’s College Chapel of Cambridge University. The service, which debuted in 1918, is now broadcast live every year. (You can hear it in Iowa on Iowa Public Radio, Christmas Eve morning at 9 am). The service was an attempt to tell the Christmas story in a new way.

But some progressive Christians have raised questions the service. A number of years ago, John Shelby Sponge published an article entitled Rethinking the Festival of Lessons and Carols. In that article, he argued that the service is based “on a fundamentally flawed theological concept” and that is “undergirds an attitude toward the Bible that I find uninformed and increasingly distasteful.”

What was the nature of Bishop Spong’s complaint? The service, he said, takes Hebrews Scripture texts as “actual prophecies about Jesus, which were fulfilled in a literal and miraculous way.”   And this, he insisted, “commit[s] us to accept a superstitious interpretation of the Bible.”

It is a fair question to raise –and one that we try to take seriously. A number of years ago, partly in response to the concerns that Spong raised, we changed some of the lessons to downplay any sense of a precise prophecy/fulfillment schema.

I think the service is better with these changes. However, and with all respect to Bishop Spong, I am also afraid that he has a bit of a tin ear when it comes to the Big Story of the Bible.

I certainly agree that the Bible is not a recounting of prophecies fulfilled in a literal and miraculous way.

But I don’t believe the Service of Lessons and Carols actually makes that claim. When we read through the texts, a surprising fact emerges:

Jesus does not fulfill the prophecies at all.

He subverts them.

And that is precisely the point.

To the extent that we can identity a messianic expectation surrounding the birth of Jesus, it tends to focus on the hope of a deliverer of Judah, a shepherd-king in the line of David who (after the fashion of the Maccabees) would rally the people to drive out the hated Roman Empire, restoring the freedom and sovereignty of the nation.  And the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth seem to bear that interpretation out –his Davidic lineage is emphasized; he is seen as a threat to Herod, etc. Christmas prepares us to see Jesus as just such a figure.

And then the rug is yanked out from underneath us.

Jesus was not a military hero in the mold of the Maccabees.  He did not defeat the Romans with righteous violence; he met violence with nonviolence and went down to shameful defeat.  Yet, in a bold act of theological imagination, the New Testament identifies Jesus’ failure as THE great event of salvation.

That is the story conveyed by the Service of Lessons and Carols.

So here is my question: What if the Bible is one story –not of the literal fulfillment of prophecy, but of the great faithfulness of God, working itself out in history through a pattern of paradoxical promise keeping, many unexpected twists and an overabundance of grace?

What if—not to put too fine a point on it—God is still speaking?

That is a story worth telling.


For a Time Such as This: Reading Esther in Advent



In Advent, we wait for God to come near. On the second weekend of Advent, we re-light the candle of Hope and we light the candle of Peace. God’s coming into our world means peace –peace within our own hearts, peace between people, peace for the entire earth.

But what does Peace look like? Will we even recognize it when it arrives?

Enter Esther.

Our text for this weekend is unlike a lot of what we find in the Bible. After a couple of weeks reading the prophets, it may seem a little jarring to find ourselves in the middle of a historical romance novel –but here we are.

Esther is an unusual book –one of only two books in the Bible named for a woman, and one that seems to studiously avoid making many kind of reference to God.  But it paints a portrait of patience and faithfulness in the midst of some very challenging times.

Esther 4:1-17

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; 2he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth.3In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes. 4When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them.

5Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. 6Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, 7and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews.8Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people. 9Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said.10Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, 11“All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” 12When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 15Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16“Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”17Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

The story of Esther may not be a familiar one. If so, you have come to the right place. This is a story worth knowing –the basis for the Jewish festival of Purim.

Esther is set in a particular context: the experience of exile. Five and a half centuries before the birth of Christ, the nation of Israel had been conquered, Jerusalem destroyed and the homeless Jewish people exiled and scattered throughout the known world, forced to live as a tiny minority in hostile foreign nations.

One such nation was the mighty Empire of Persia, stretching from Greece in the west all the way to India in the east.  Esther, the hero of the book that bears her name, was a Jew in exile, living in the Persian Empire.  Her parents had died when she was very young, and she was raised by her uncle Mordecai.  He took her into his home and loved her as a daughter.

One day, a messenger comes to town with exciting news:  The king of the entire Persian Empire is hosting a beauty pageant. Women from throughout the kingdom can compete, and the winner will be crowned queen of all of Persia!

So Esther packs her bags and hops the first bus to Atlantic City. She spends an entire year in training: special diet, cosmetic treatments, workouts with a personal trainer. She practices her posture, balances books on her head, rubs Vaseline on her teeth.  She studies all the esoteric arts of the beauty pageant.

After a year, Esther is more than ready. When she meets the king, he is blown away.  He says, “This contest is over! I have found my Queen.” He places the tiara on her head and strikes up the band and they have a huge party.  Mordecai nearly bursts with pride. Esther is crowned Queen of all of Persia.

But the party will not last for long.

On Mordecai’s advice, Esther has hidden the fact that she is Jewish. Nobody knows. Well, one day, after Esther is crowned queen, the king hires a new prime minister, a wicked, wretched, evil little man named Haman.  Haman loves power and prestige.  Haman loves to have everyone else bow down in front of him.  And everybody does, except Mordecai. Mordecai will not bow down to anyone except Almighty God.

Haman does not care for this.  The more he thinks about it, the angrier he gets. As his anger grows, Haman devises an awful plan. He goes to the king, and requests a royal decree to destroy Mordecai’s entire race. The king issues the edict and the Jewish people are marked for destruction.

Our Scripture reading for this week picks up the story at this point.  Mordecai learns of the king’s edict, and tears his clothes and puts on ashes and sackcloth.  He wails and he weeps for his doomed people.  Mordecai asks Esther to go to the king and intercede for the Jewish people, to plead for their lives.  But Esther is afraid to go.  This king has a temper.  If she goes to him without being invited, under Persian law, the king could have her killed.

Mordecai does not mince words.  He urges Esther to stand up for her people, to do what is right. “Who knows?” he asks. “Maybe you have come to be queen precisely for such a time as this.” Esther knows what she has to do.  She agrees to go before the king, even though it is against the law.   “If I must die for doing it,” she says, “I will die.”

Esther had a lot more to her than beauty and charm.  She found her courage; she faced the king, she delivered her people out of death.  Today the Persian Empire is a dim memory, but the Jewish people are alive and well.

Not bad for a beauty Queen.

Esther’s story is exciting, highly entertaining –but also awfully insightful. What does God’s peace look like? How are we to live in the time of our exile?

Questions worth pondering. See you in church!