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Back in the time of Isaiah, something fantastic had happened. King Cyrus of Persia had conquered the Babylonians. The Babylonians had a generation earlier conquered the Israelites and destroyed Jerusalem, taking many of the people into exile. A few people were deemed as inconsequential and were left behind. These ones guarded over the ruins as best they could since the walls around the city had been utterly destroyed; they intended to keep out those who might further pillage the remnants of the temple.

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The headlines this year read, “Christmas is Cancelled in Bethlehem.” The city of David in our day and age lies within the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and the Palestinian Christian leaders there unanimously decided a month ago to forgo any public celebrations due to the ongoing war in Gaza, a mere 46 miles away. According to NPR, “There’s no Christmas tree or sparkling lights in Manger Square or along the cobble-stone streets that should be bustling with foreign tourists this time of year. There will be no Christmas parade with musicians weaving through the old city’s labyrinth walkways, no Santas on street corners doling out joy to children. Instead, the main square is a simple parking lot, without a hint of holiday decoration to be seen.”  As a friend of mine put it, there is plenty of room at the inn.

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We find ourselves at the beginning of the Jesus story as told from the perspective of John—the Evangelist, by the way, not the one who sets out to baptize. Our writer John describes how the other John was sent by God to bear witness, to testify, to the light. We’re told right from the start that John is not the light, but the one sent to proclaim the coming of that light. We know, of course, that that light is Jesus, and in the section we didn’t read from John’s Prologue this morning—in the bits we skipped over—we hear that the light came into the world but the world didn’t know him. They didn’t recognize him. The could not see him.

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The Jewish holiday Hanukkah began this past Thursday evening. Many of us know that it lasts eight nights with candles being lit each night, but are uncertain of anything else. In 167 BCE, Seleucid king Antiochus IV invaded Judea and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. He sought to Hellenize the Jews, while Jewish father and son Mattathias and Judas Maccabeaus gathered a group who fought to protect their religion. After a three year struggle that ended with a Jewish victory, Judas called for the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, they found only enough oil to light the menorah in the Temple for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days until new oil could be found. Those eight nights are celebrated by the holiday, progressively lighting more candles on the menorah each night, until all eight are lit.

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Ralphie stood in line with his brother Randy waiting. This was it. His last best chance to get his much longed-for Christmas gift. He had tried many ways to tell his parents about his hoped for present, and he eloquently expressed his desire in a theme for his teacher, and at every point he was rebuffed. They didn’t understand why a boy would want a BB gun. And not just any BB gun, mind you, but an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two hundred shot range model air rifle. So he waited in line to tell it to Santa who just so happened to be at the Higbees Department Store.

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So which are you? A sheep? Or a goat? I didn’t notice many of you carefully choosing up sides this morning when you came in, picking instead your regular places. And if you did, I suspect you had to go over in your head a few times as to which side of the church you really wanted to be on. Is it the Son of Man’s left and right? So if he’s standing in front looking at us, then it’s reversed for the crowd, right? Or is it the other way round?

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There’s a book about a West African fable that I share with the confirmation class titled, What Is My Song? In it a boy describes how even before he was born, his mother listened to the wind—or was it to the Spirit—as she sat out under the baobab tree for the song of her desired child. When she picks up the tune and words, she shares it with her spouse. They sang when the young boy was born, and taught to the village community. 

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“Do you want to know what the kingdom of God is like?” Jesus asks his disciples one day. A wedding. Now, friends, whether I like to admit it or not, I’m in the wedding business. Yes, there’s less for me these days as people get friends to either fill out an online ordination application or apply for a one day license from the state, but those are one-offs. For better or worse, I’m a wedding professional and know the ins and outs of marriage licenses and photographers and the like.

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The gospel lesson we just heard from the Sermon on the Mount contains some of the most well known verses in the Bible. Blessed are the meek and the poor and the hungry and the peacemakers. But because we’ve heard them so often, they really don’t have the same gravitas they once did.

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