The Miracle of Grace

The Miracle of Grace

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve

Luke 1:26-38, Luke 2:1-16


In the Letter of Paul to Titus we read, “For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all.” But what is grace? Grace has been defined as the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it. It is an expression of God’s good will and care toward humanity. It is generous—totally unexpected and undeserved—and it takes the form of divine love. Tonight, we celebrate the hidden grace that is now made wonderfully visible—more than that—seeable, hearable, touchable, huggable, adorable—in the form of baby Jesus resting in his mother’s arms.


During the Season of Advent, as a church we examined Jesus’ family tree. The first chapter of Matthew includes names we would expect—like Abraham, Jacob, and David. But then there are unexpected names. Along the way, we learned that Matthew’s genealogy is not just a list of names, though. Instead, it is a way of revealing to us individuals with unique stories and experiences: Tamar, a victim of family injustice; Bathsheba, affected by circumstances over which she had no control; Ruth, a foreigner, who remained loyal to her mother-in-law no matter what their future might hold; Rahab, a harlot, who offered protection to the spies of Yahweh regardless of the danger to herself.


The genealogy of Jesus displays for all to see, how the grace of God works. Amazingly! Unpredictably! Loving, touching, and enriching lives—that’s been God’s work of grace down through the ages. That’s why such unexpected names appear in the Christmas story.

And then…and then…there’s Mary—a young woman of humble birth who is not even married. What in the world could God be thinking to call such a person to INDWELL the child of God Almighty? Not at all what we would expect! But surely no one before or since has experienced Emmanuel, God-with-us, like Mary did. She, who watched the Son of God grow and move inside her own belly. Scholar, Timothy George, in an essay on Mary, reflects, “Mary was a disciple of Christ before she was his mother, for had she not believed, she would not have conceived.”[i] Mary’s faith too is not the achievement of merit, but the gift of divine grace.”


Grace is God’s healing, liberating, ever-present gift. It is not something we find wrapped up with pretty paper and bow, lying beneath the Christmas tree. It cannot be bought by holy prayers or good deeds or “correct” theology, whatever that is! God’s grace or unmerited favor is given—freely. It is available for all people—living and active and immeasurable.


Often people talk about the salvation story as if the grace of God was absent from the world until Jesus died on the cross.[ii] But on this precious, holy night, let me suggest that the grace of God has been with us from the beginning of human history. God has always been with us! God has always been for us! No doubt, God’s grace reached its perfect work on the cross, but it was not a new thing God was doing. The cross became the visible, ultimate accomplishment of something that has always been flowing from the heart of God. Surely, even when God’s works have been hidden from human eyes, God has been active in human souls. Grace recognizes no obstacles and will not be confined to any limits—even those we might deem necessary. But grace is costly—to think otherwise is to embrace a theology of cheap grace.


The unexpected happened that night so long ago in Bethlehem. There in a smelly stable, a young woman of little importance to the world gave birth to a child—the God-child. Now grace has another name. Now we see it, hear it, cuddle it, love it, adore it. Jesus is born!


At Christmas, the miracle of grace is that God comes to ordinary people and gives himself to you and me. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” May the following poem, “In the Know,”[iii] bring you closer to God’s perfect grace on this most blessed night:


From the first day you’ve cared for us,

shaping the soul,

by your Spirit through long ages,

knowing us well,

grieving our sins and sharing our joys,

loving us all.


Now you know us in a new way,

in our flesh cast,

cradled in a young mother’s arms,

suckling her breast,

learning in the hard school of life,

as creatures must.


Now we know you in a new way,

God with no mask,

tasting all of our hopes and fears,

from dawn to dusk,

a weakling in a hard, strong world,

a child at risk.


Of that which human ears have heard,

our carols ring,

for that which eyes have seen and loved,

all joy be sung,

to that which hands have touched and nursed,

we now belong.


In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] “Profile on Mary,” The Life with God Bible, NRSV, 103.


[iii] Inspired by Luke 2:1-20 and 1 John 1:1-4. © B.D. Prewer 1994

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What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Tamar & Bathsheba

What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Tamar & Bathsheba[i]

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 23, 2018

4th Sunday of Advent

Matthew 1:1-6; Genesis 38:1-30; 1 Kings 1:15-31


A while back there was a documentary on television about the British Royal Family. The topics discussed included the risk of losing the “magic and mystique” of the nature of Royalty since now days there’s too much revealed about the everyday lives of the members of the Royal Family. They’ve become too ordinary, too familiar, too much like us. To quote one narrator, “We shouldn’t let too much daylight in on magic.”


These four weeks of Advent have been leading us toward the wonder and magic of the birth of a baby who is called Emmanuel, God-with-us. In some ways, we may wish to preserve the magic of that event, by not knowing too many details of Jesus’ family history. But we really have no choice. The genealogy of Jesus, spotlighted in Matthew and Luke, contains details aplenty—and sometimes, as in the account of Tamar and Judah, there is more revealed than we feel comfortable hearing. I mean, do we really need to hear all the family gossip? Aren’t some things better left unsaid—hidden away in a dark closet? Maybe—for our comfort’s sake! But in this case, the darkness has been exposed and it might benefit us, on our faith journey, if we are brave enough to look into the light.


The story of Tamar and Judah is not a pretty story, but it is part of our salvation history and it reveals something of the “strange righteousness” of a God who uses ordinary people to accomplish God’s purposes. So, let’s lean in for a closer look.


Judah, a son of Jacob, moves away from the family into the land of Canaan. He has three sons. When his first son comes of age, Judah gives him a wife named Tamar—like the gift of an iPad on Christmas morning. In other words, it’s doubtful she has much of a choice in the matter. Tamar finds herself married to a wicked man—but not for long—because God intervenes. According to the Levirate marriage law, the second son becomes Tamar’s husband after the death of his brother. Unfortunately, the second marriage doesn’t work out any better than the first, and again, Tamar is widowed. Probably, Judah blames Tamar for the death of his two sons. Still, Judah promises Tamar his last son, Shelah, when he comes of age. Tamar is sent to her father’s house to remain a widow and to wait. Make no mistake, Judah has no intention of ever bringing Tamar back. Case closed! Good riddance!


The plot thickens when a few years pass, and Tamar realizes she has been deprived of her legal right. You might wonder why she is eager to marry Shelah. After all, the first two brothers were evil. Why bother? But here is a woman whose rights have been disregarded from the beginning. Remember, she is “given” by Judah to her first husband—passed on like a Christmas present under the tree. Then, she is likely blamed for the death of Judah’s two evil sons and, finally, forced to return to her father’s house and spend the rest of her days waiting for a fiancé who will never appear.


No wonder Tamar is driven to desperate measures when she learns that her dishonest and recently widowed father-in-law is visiting nearby. Tamar knows the only way she will ever be properly acknowledged by Judah is to publicly shame him into admitting his wrongful treatment of her. So, she acts as a temple prostitute and waits for Judah to pass by. Apparently, she is a good judge of his character because everything goes according to plan—her plan—not his. Tamar walks away with Judah’s signet ring, cord, and staff—all proof of his actions. Then Tamar returns to her father’s house to wait—just like she has been instructed to do—but this time it is on her terms and this time the waiting will not be in vain. When Judah hears Tamar is pregnant, he pronounces judgment: “Bring her out! Burn her!” But it isn’t Tamar who gets burned. It’s Judah—forced to face his own wrongdoing in broad daylight.


Now if that isn’t enough juicy family history, we have one more person to consider—Bathsheba. The story of David and Bathsheba uncovers the greatest shame of the greatest king of Israel. It is a tale of lust and adultery and murder that goes like this: King David sees a pretty woman, desires her, and with all his power in tow—he takes what he wants. When Bathsheba becomes pregnant and David is unable to trick her husband into thinking the baby is his, David plans a military maneuver to get Uriah killed in battled. All through the story, Bathsheba is a passive participant in her own life, having no power and little influence. Even Matthew underscores her passiveness, listing her not by name, but as “the wife of Uriah.”


With the passing of time, David changes—so does Bathsheba.  By the end of David’s life, it is Bathsheba who takes matters in hand, along with the prophet, Nathan, to make sure that she gets what she has been promised—her son, Solomon, on his father’s throne. David’s oldest son, Adonijah, has thrown himself an “I will be king” party. Little does he know that while his guests are having cocktails and goat cheese on bruschetta, Bathsheba is having a word with King David. David may be old but he’s not dead yet. So, after conferring with his trusted friend, Nathan, David declares to Bathsheba that he will keep his promise and Solomon will sit on his throne beginning that very day.


How do you suppose Bathsheba changes from a passive pawn to a king-maker? What is with her new-found courage? Could it be that David’s feelings for her have changed over the years so that “I want” has become “I love”? Could it be that David’s own love for God has affected Bathsheba so that she now realizes that she, too, is loved by Yahweh? And doesn’t knowing God’s love in your life make you stronger? Doesn’t it empower you to work for justice—to try to make the world a better place?


The stories of Tamar and Bathsheba are flooded with surprising openness to all that’s human—passions, guilt, selfishness, trickery, paternal anxiety, fear, hope, and love—all revealing with shocking clarity just one family’s history. No one earns a spot on the family tree—you just sort of appear like one more apple on the branch. And whether you are exceptionally sweet or rotten to the core—there you are.


Matthew’s genealogy includes some unexpected names—names like Tamar and Bathsheba, and Ruth and Rahab. But Matthew does not simply make a list of faceless names. Instead, he invites us to ponder individuals with unique stories and experiences. Tamar is a victim of family injustice; Bathsheba struggles through circumstances over which she has no control; Ruth, a foreigner, remains caring and loving to her mother-in-law; Rahab, a harlot, offers protection to the spies of Yahweh even though it might cost her life. No, Matthew’s genealogy is not just a list of faceless names. The list displays, for all to see, how the grace of God works. God’s love touches these women and God’s grace transforms their lives. That’s why their names appear in the Christmas story.


At Christmas, the miracle of grace is that God comes to ordinary people and gives himself to you and me. That miracle of grace often begins in the most unlikely circumstances—times when we feel without hope or purpose. But when we are baptized into the family of God, we are grafted into the tree of life. It doesn’t make any difference who our mother or grandfather is. Anyone can get into the family because, one night, long, long, ago, in the little town of Bethlehem, the light came into the world and with it came all the magic and wonder of God’s love! Not at all what we might expect. Thanks be to God!

[i] Modeled after a sermon series written by Dr. Sarah Nave during her doctoral studies. Used by permission.

*Cover Art by Stushie Art; used by subscription, Affirmation of Faith by Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison, Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, Sparks, NV @


What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Rahab & Ruth

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 11, 2018

2nd Sunday of Advent

Matthew 1:1-6; Joshua 2:15-24; Ruth 1:22-2:12


What to expect when you’re expecting—that’s the theme of our Advent sermon series.[i] Again this morning, through the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, we reflect on those included in Jesus’ family tree. Of course, there are people named whom we would expect—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Solomon. But what about Ruth and Rahab, Tamar and Bathsheba? How unexpected! This morning we will focus on two of these women—Rahab and Ruth. How odd to find their names listed—after all, they’re foreigners, pagans, outsiders!


First, let’s turn our attention to Rahab—a most unlikely hero. A retelling of her story may be found in the lines of the following poem entitled simply, “Rahab.” [ii]


Rahab, a scarlet cord

binds you to the Cross

seven centuries before the nails

pierced the Carpenter’s hands.

You, one of the four women

named in His genealogy.

How could this be?


You kept a wayside house

on the Jericho wall,

providing favors for all

before it fell down.

The location known far and wide,

perhaps a rosy string latched the door.

How could this be?


Was life so hard,

reputation so bloodied,

money so short,

pride long lost,

fear for survival,

no hope for tomorrow?

How could this be?


Hearing of the Hebrews’ God,

how the Red Sea had stood aside,

trembling, for His people

were advancing in your land.

Wondering if their God

would protect you too?

How could this be?


Before the gate was shut

two enemy spies came.

Lying, to protect them,

flax-hidden on your roof,

revealing your tender heart

melting in the fiery sun.

How could this be?


Rumors ran rampant

‘round the walls,

of Amorite kings’ crimson robes,

washed in the blood of battle

against Israel’s army.

Would they do the same to you?

How could this be?


Pledging a vow of kindness,

to the Lord of Heaven and Earth.

pleading salvation for the family

gathered beneath your roof,

letting down the scarlet cord

you bid the spies godspeed.

How could this be?


Becoming a woman of faith

before the trumpet blast,

lauded in the book of Hebrews

for courage to believe.

The royal red line included you

by God’s power,

who brings all things to be.


The God who brings all things to be weaves the life of Rahab into the story of Joshua—the one chosen by God to lead God’s people into the Promised Land, after the death of Moses. When Joshua leads the Israelites across the Jordan River, they find the territory held by powerful kings, over cities large and small. According to God’s instruction, Joshua sends spies to survey the city of Jericho. Once the two spies arrive, they are welcomed into the home of Rahab—who just so happens to be a prostitute. She’s heard of the previous successes of God’s people. She shares how her own people are frightened beyond belief. Not only does she assure the spies, she risks her own life to protect them. When the king’s soldiers come looking for them, Rahab hides her visitors on the roof, sends the authorities on a wild goose chase, strikes a deal with the spies securing the safety of her family and herself, and lays out a plan for the spy’s safe escape.


Most assuredly, something happens to Rahab when she hears the stories of Yahweh. “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below,” she proclaims.[iii] Rahab comes to believe in the power of God to deliver—even her—and her faith is rewarded. Because when Israel comes to destroy Jericho, Rahab and those in her family are spared. Furthermore, Rahab is given the unexpected honor of becoming an ancestor of Christ.


God chooses an unlikely hero, a harlot in Jericho, to help the invading Israelites. Through her, God demonstrates, once again, that a person’s past has no bearing on what God can do in her future—once she surrenders her heart and soul to the Living God. Hiding enemy spies, lying to government officials, making a deal with the enemy, using a scarlet cord to insure her escape—it sounds more like the script of a James Bond movie than a Bible story. Especially since the hero of the story isn’t our idea of a model biblical character.


Nevertheless, here Rahab is, right in the middle of the Bible story about Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land. It’s worth noting that Rahab is mentioned not only in the book of Joshua. She is praised for her faith in the Book of Hebrews. She is commended for her works in The Letter of James. Ultimately, the inclusion of Rahab in our gospel reading supports Matthew’s view that Jesus came to bring all nations—not just Israel—under his reign. Rahab is a witness to the truth that salvation is an act of God’s grace—not dependent upon merit. And, it’s fitting for Matthew to include her in his gospel, because there but for the grace of God goes every sinner—including you—including me.


The God who brings all things to be, works mightily in the life of Rahab. God works mightily in the life of Ruth, as well. Nowadays, when someone says, “Let me tell you about my mother-in-law” we know what’s coming—a joke in which a mother-in-law gets nailed! But the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi is quite the opposite. Ruth is a Moabite woman, who marries into an Israelite family after they move to Moab because of a famine in Israel. Her young husband and his brother die. With their father already deceased, Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, decides to return home to Israel. She urges Ruth to stay put and remarry, but Ruth refuses, telling Naomi, “Where you go I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God.”


Ruth faces an unpromising future as she journeys to Bethlehem with Naomi. But through Naomi, God works a miracle in Ruth’s life, putting her in the right place at the right time so that she becomes the wife of Boaz. And her son, Obed, becomes the grandfather of King David, another ancestor of Christ.


The story of Ruth and Naomi is one that is held together by the strong cord of commitment and the willingness to care deeply. Their story is one of love and loyalty—despite the cost, which makes their story a wonderful part of the story of salvation, don’t you think?  Ultimately, God’s faithfulness to Ruth and Naomi, a pair of destitute widows, results in great blessing for the whole world. For just as Ruth and Naomi are committed to one another, God cares and commits God’s self to us, by giving us a Savior, Jesus, Emmanuel—God-with-us!


As Christians, it might behoove us to take a good, long look at Rahab and Ruth. Because you see, God has a way of acting in unexpected ways, accepting those we might refuse, loving those we might turn away—including outsiders and foreigners. Time and time again, God reaches out to those on the fringe of society with Good News—something God invites us to continue! Whether we like it or not, God doesn’t play by our rules—a manger instead of a motel, a God of soldiers, a God of prostitutes, and kings, and spies. A God of all people—even us. Not at all what we would expect! Thanks be to God!

[i] Modeled after a sermon series written by Dr. Sarah Nave during her doctoral studies. Used by permission.

[ii] Joyce Carr Stedelbauer @

[iii] Joshua 2:11 (NRSV).

*Cover Art by Stushie Art; used by subscription, Affirmation of Faith by Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison, Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, Sparks, NV @


What to Expect When You’re Expecting

What to Expect When You’re Expecting[i]

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 2, 2018

First Sunday of Advent

Matthew 1:1-6, Luke 1:26-35


In case you haven’t noticed, Advent has arrived. Advent, which literally means “coming” is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. While we wait, we listen intently for this story of Christmas to unfold. But Advent is not so much THE story as the preview for coming attractions. It is the time when everyone leans forward in their seats, eager to hear what happens next. But with this most familiar of all biblical stories, how can we possibly hear it afresh?  This is a question Dr. Sarah Nave, my clergy friend from Virginia, and I were discussing one day. While we were chatting, she happened to mention a project from her doctoral work entitled “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” Don’t you just love that title? I do—so much so—it will provide the framework for this Advent’s sermon series. So, I want to thank my friend for her early Christmas gift.


Indeed, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” is an interesting title, and we know, titles matter! They’re meant to grab our attention and coax us closer so that our hearts and minds might be opened to a good story. Good stories bear up even when they’re repeated. Ken Burns, famous film-maker and producer, says that the best stories are about “One plus one equals three.” A good story is more than simply a sum of its parts; more than words and data.[ii]


Over the years, Kinney and I have had the opportunity to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in all its glory. TSO is an American rock band that is known for stretching the boundaries of rock music. They are also known for their wondrous Christmas productions. The last concert we attended was entitled “Lost Christmas Eve.”[iii] It was a musical tale of loss and redemption, with a rundown hotel, an old toy store, a blues bar, a gothic cathedral, and the people who inhabit them on a particular, enchanted evening in New York City. The storyteller, Brian Hicks, with his deep, booming voice, came upon the stage and held the audience in the palm of his hand from beginning to end. But there were many stops along the way. Mr. Hicks would tell a portion of the story, then walk away while incredible music was performed and then re-enter the limelight again. Each time he put thousands of people on the edge of their seats—eager to hear what happened next.


The story started with a teardrop of infinite sorrow falling from the heavens toward a business man whose heart was frozen by grief. God’s youngest angel, sent to earth on a mission, traveled from place to place, and finally stopped by a blues club where the jazz music turned people’s sorrow around. But the brokenhearted man, who happened to be there, left the yule tide cheer behind to drop along the snow-covered streets, a trail of unwept tears that only an angel could see.


The angel learned that the man had not always been like this. He had grown up in a good Christian home where he was taught that all people are created in God’s image. But, during the birth of his child, things went terribly wrong and he was left without a wife. More than that, his newborn son would likely never grow up to function fully. Enraged, the man, unable to recognize anything of God in his child’s image, screamed toward the heavens. Then, he left the child with the nurse; left the child to be put in a state-run facility.


But on this winter night, an encounter with a little girl left him wondering about his son. Eventually, he arrived at the hospital, of all places, where he found his son, now grown. And what was his son doing? He was busy doing what he did most of the time—rocking to sleep babies born to addicted mothers. When the man asked if his son could talk, the nurse said, “No, but he’s a good listener.” After so many years, father and son were reunited.


Truly, good stories fascinate us. They hold us in their power until we reach their end. And Christians hold a treasury of them inside the sacred book we call our Bible. There was a young woman, for example, whose name was Mary, and God sent an angel to her. And what did the angel say? And how did she respond? And what happened next? And how did it all end?


Why do stories capture our imagination so? Because good stories give us a glimpse of life in its fullness. They remind us that life has meaning. Good stories draw us in to see if maybe, just maybe, we can catch a glimpse of ourselves in them. We listen, and we watch for clues.


The story of Christianity claims to provide us more than clues. This story claims to hold the very meaning of life—the meaning of God and God’s enduring love for those God created. In one sense, the story is so simple Hallmark can easily get the whole thing on a Christmas card. In another sense, though, the story is so complex and wonderfully rich, the whole Bible only gets us started.


From the Gospel of Luke, we hear the story of Mary, a young woman, chosen to do a most important task. She will give birth to the Son of God. Mary’s story is our story—it is God’s story of salvation that God planned way back even before, “Once upon a time…”


From the Gospel of Matthew, through a genealogy of Jesus’ family, we are given not so much a story as its background. And what I want us to pay attention to is who is named in the family roll call. Are these folks we would expect to be included?  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob? Absolutely! David and Solomon? Of course! But Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba? How unexpected! There must be something more going on here—and in the coming weeks, we will investigate our Sacred Book for clues. But for now, we return to the story of Mary visited by an angel, who tells her about God’s plan. Although Mary is startled at first, once she catches her breath, she gives herself fully to God’s intentions. Then she heads to her cousin Elizabeth’s house to share her news. Elizabeth is glad for the company because it has been awfully quiet around the house since Zachariah had his meeting with Gabriel in the Temple.


A few months later, in the middle of a long, cold journey, the story continues with Mary giving birth to a baby boy. She and Joseph name him Jesus because that is what the angel told them to do. So, Jesus was born, and they all lived happily ever after. Right? Well, we all know that’s not the way the story ends. In fact, Jesus being born isn’t the end of the story at all. It brings us only to the beginning because the good news, that God sent Gabriel to tell Mary, wasn’t just that she would have a baby but that her child was to be the long-expected Messiah. “Once upon a time in Bethlehem,” is where the story begins, but we must never forget, it ends on the cross. Or does it?


Right about now, you may be thinking, “Oh, come on Glenda, don’t be a Grinch! Let us enjoy Christmas. Why talk about the cross now? Can’t that wait until Easter?” But you see, it is the cross that makes Mary’s story our story. Without the cross, the story of Jesus’ birth is just something lovely we look at from afar—like a nativity scene on our neighbor’s lawn. It remains something that happened long, long ago. But when we find the storyteller, Luke, doesn’t stop at the story of Gabriel and Mary—but moves ahead with how Jesus grew up, loved people, died and rose again—then we glimpse the meaning of Jesus’ life, the purpose of his death, and what all that means for us.


Advent is upon us and it is time to reflect on the birth of Jesus once more. It’s no story of fantasy or make-believe. This story of God’s love coming to the earth is more real than anything else we will ever discover. “Once upon a time in the life of a young girl in Nazareth” continues to this day. Because when the angel told Mary of God’s plans, it became her story. When God’s Spirit reveals to us the good news of salvation made possible through Jesus, the Bread of Life, and we accept the offer, it becomes our story.


During this season of preparation, as you lean forward in your seat, eager to hear what happens next, may you be filled with joy knowing that when Christmas comes, it is not the end. It is only the beginning! Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Inspired by a sermon series written by Dr. Sarah Nave during her doctoral studies. Used by permission.


[iii] Details of the storyline adapted from


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