The Humanity of God – Christmas Eve Sermon on Luke 2.1-7

Luke 2.1-7

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. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

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Christmas Eve! No matter how old or jaded we may be, no matter what kind of year precedes this night, Christmas Eve never fails to brighten our spirits. I look forward to Christmas Eve with a kind of painful excitement: I know there are people here tonight who will not be here the rest of the year, I know this holiday carries with it more meaning than can be contained in a 15 minute sermon, and yet to share the story of salvation is one of my greatest privileges.

But then the question must be asked: Why are you here tonight? Some of you were raised in this church and can’t imagine being anywhere else. Some of you have come alone; others are with large families taking up an entire pew. Some of you have been planning to come here for weeks and some of you decided on a last-minute impulse. Some of you have been dragged here against your will, out of loyalty and guilt. And some of you are here for the first time in a very long time.

Some of you are young and are full of hope and anticipation; most of your Christmases are still in front of you. Some of you who are older are filled with memories of Christmases past that will never come again. Some of you are looking forward to getting back home to the fireplace and the presents and the tree; others dread going home. Whoever you are, and whatever you’re feeling, I’m glad you’re here tonight.

 

On April 26th, I woke up to the sounds of my excited wife declaring, “I think it’s happening.” The due date for our son had come and gone and each day we waited with anticipation of his coming arrival. So, being the incredible husband that I am, I started offering Lindsey all kinds of things: “Do you want me to make you breakfast? Can I massage your feet? Would you want me to call the doctor?”

She, however, was distracted from my offers by the pain she was starting to experience.

As the day progressed I must’ve checked our hospital bag no less than 42 times, I made sure we had enough clothes and snacks, I went through the 3 birthing playlists (one for calm, one for happy, one for pushing), and I asked Lindsey how she was feeling every fifteen minutes. While I was frantically going through my list over and over, Lindsey was on the couch trying to find a comfortable position to sit in until things really got going.

Mary and Joseph spent the day before their son’s birth traveling over harsh terrain while Joseph led the donkey that was carrying his pregnant fiancé. With every bump and slip, the pain Mary experienced increased and she hoped against hope they would find a place to stay in Bethlehem.

When my wife’s contractions started coming at a regular interval we called the doctor’s office and they told us to come in. Under the caring gaze of the nurses and medical staff Lindsey went through a number of tests before they told her, as kindly as they could, that it was still too early to go to the hospital, so we went home instead.

Mary’s contractions must’ve started to really ramp up as they arrived in the sleepy little town of Bethlehem. All the people they encountered were busily talking about the census that the emperor had required, how they all had to be there in Bethlehem without a choice. To the degree that no one even noticed the man escorting the pregnant woman on a donkey as they passed through the outskirts of the town.

We waited all day and finally at 9pm, the contractions we regularly occurring at such intensity that we knew the time had come. Being the good husband that I am, the car had been packed with our hospital bags for hours and all I had to do was gingerly walk Lindsey to the car and drive to the hospital with care and focus. When we were given a room time seemed to increase in speed dramatically. With every passing minute the contractions were intensifying and the nurses came in at a higher frequency to check on Lindsey and the baby.

Mary and Joseph wandered through the town at a snail’s pace hoping to find somewhere to stay, or a relative to encroach upon. But the farther they walked, the less hope they had of finding a place for the night.

At some point, my beloved wife was breathing strongly through a particularly rough contraction when the nurse said, “Honey, I think it’s time to talk about pain management.” I, watching her go through this thought to myself, “Gee, I think its time for me to have some pain management.” But, being the good husband that I am, I knew not to speak that thought out loud.

Joseph guided the donkey to their last hope, the inn, while his wife was breathing heavily through a particularly rough contraction. The innkeeper saw them walking up and went to the door to announce: “We’re full.” Being the good man that he was, Joseph then led the donkey and Mary to a stable, the only place left and helped her down into some crinkly hay.

At 7am on April 27th, Lindsey started to push. She was surrounded by a team of medical staff, machines monitoring every heartbeat and contraction, and by me trying to figure out what I could to do help.

When Mary could tell that the time had arrived, she started to push. She was surrounded by dirty animals huddled together for warmth, hay that was covered in dirt and hair from the animals, and a man who was trying to figure out what he could do to help.

And with a final push, a son was born into the world. The baby was quickly placed into his mother’s arms and for a fleeting moment nothing happened. In our hospital room the medical team waited with blankets and devices, in the stable the animals watched as the miracle of life came to fruition.

And then, with what sounded like a rush of wind, the baby sucked and breathed in air for the very first time.

From a dirty barn house to an immaculately clean hospital delivery room, the first breath of Jesus and my son Elijah highlights the fragility of this thing we call life. And don’t we take it for granted? All of us have been breathing throughout this sermon without even thinking about it, but we can only live because we can breathe.

In the beginning God’s breathed the breath of life into Adam, God breathed life into Jesus, God breathed life into my son Elijah, God breathed life into every one of you.

It is something worth celebrating because it is a miracle.

But this service, what we’re doing here tonight, is not a mere celebration of a mother and her newborn child’s arrival into the world. It is about more than the miracle of life. This is the unique story of God in the flesh. The baby placed in the manger is not us and we are not Him. He is totally other.

And yet – and this is the real mystery of Christmas – Jesus is the incarnation of the living God, but at the same time, though he is entirely other than us, he has become one of us. Nothing less than God himself has become Emmanuel, God with us.

In Jesus’ birth, God entered history in a new and strange way with the promise that in the kingdom that has no end, sadness will be turned into joy, sin will be destroyed by righteousness, and death will be defeated by resurrection.

But it all started in a tiny little stable with a couple all-alone in the world. That is the true miracle of Christmas – the fragility and humanity of God in a breath. For it is in our breathing that we constantly encounter the one thing we have to do to survive and the one thing we have from the beginning to the end of our days. And that is where God is; with every single breath we inhale the Spirit of the Lord who first breathed life into us. And in our breathing we connect with the one who breathed for the first time in the manger long ago…

And through that first breath, God emptied himself of all power and reign and might and majesty, leaving it all behind to enter our corrupted, polluted, and tragic world. Gone were the days of abandonment, gone were the times of uncertainty, and gone was the power of death. For God came into the world through a baby in a manger to save us from ourselves; to be with us in every single breath; to offer us the true gift of Christmas: God with us.

Merry Christmas. Amen.

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Too Busy To Welcome – Advent Homily on Romans 15.7

Romans 15.7

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

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When Bob Sharp was sent to Marquis Memorial, I know that he was welcomed because it didn’t take long for the church to paint his office burgundy and gold in honor of his dedicated devotion to the Washington Redskins.

When Courtney Joyner started at St. Paul’s, I know she was welcomed because she is a triple-threat: She can sing, she can jam, and she can preach.

When John Benson first preached at Augusta Street, I know he was welcomed because his people haven’t stopped shouting “Amen!” since his first sermon.

When Won Un showed up at Central, I know he was welcomed because their entire church community has developed an affinity for Kimchi and they know that if they can’t find Won on a nice day, it’s because he’s out riding his bike.

When Janet Knott arrived at Jollivue, I know she was welcomed because she preaches with gifts, and who doesn’t love presents?

When Clayton Payne began at Cherryvale, I know he was welcomed because people keep showing up week after week even though he keeps preaching the same sermon over and over again.

When Bryson Smith was appointed to St. Paul’s, I know he was welcomed because they know if the sermon falls flat, he can always sing a solo and get the people to shout “Praise the Lord!” and “Mercy!”

When Sarah Locke was sent to Christ, I know she was welcomed because people started showing up in her kitchen while she was still unpacking boxes. I know that because I was there!

I know the United Methodist churches of Staunton are a welcoming bunch because you have so warmly welcomed your pastors. But I wonder, do we welcome everyone to our churches in the same way we welcome the pastor when he or she first arrives? Do you really welcome one another just as Christ welcomed us?

When I arrived in Staunton, Won and I got together and thought it seemed about time to resurrect the Lenten and Advent luncheons. We were not here when they used to happen and so we were able to tweak the schedule and the organization a little bit. Important for us was the shifting of host churches and guest speakers so that everyone got a chance to welcome, and every preacher got a chance to preach.

Fun fact: As of Christmas day, I will have preached in every single United Methodist Church in Staunton. And it only took me three and a half years!

Anyway, we got the Lenten luncheons started again, and the first time I was invited to preach we were gathering at Central UMC. At the time, I was young and naive, and I thought it would be a good idea to wear my Carharrt Overalls when I preached from the pulpit in order to really drive home the message. Maybe you were there. Maybe you even remember some of the things I said.

I poured out my heart and soul from the pulpit at Central UMC and I did my best to make the people of St. John’s as proud as possible. Afterwards, during lunch, after the tenth or so person made a comment about my attire, an older woman came up to me and asked if we could talk (I won’t say which church she was from).

So we moved to the corner of the social hall, and she gingerly placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “I understand that you’re new to town you might be looking for a church home, so we’d love to have you join us for worship on Sunday.”

I remember just standing there stunned. I mean, it was a kind gesture for her to invite me to church (particular when the average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 33 years). But going to another church on Sunday is impossible.

She welcomed me, but she didn’t listen to me. I suspect that she was more concerned with having people in the pews, than with knowing who the people are in the pews.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.

How did Jesus welcome? Well, he certainly didn’t wait for people to just show up because he was having a service on a Wednesday afternoon, or a Sunday morning, or even on Christmas Eve. Jesus welcomed others by showing up in their lives, he met them where they were and ministered to them in terms and in ways they could understand. He told stories that connected with their daily living, stories about the soil and the birds of the air. He welcomed them in the midst of their suffering and isolation. He welcomed the very people who would abandon him to a table without cost.

At St. John’s we have a Preschool and I spend time every week leading the kids in what we call chapel time. I’ll take a lesson from scripture and try to rework it in ways that can understand and apply to their life.

Last week, after practicing the Christmas pageant for what felt like the thousandth time, I set up a small table near the altar and I invited the kids to come sit and listen. The thirty minutes prior to chapel time were filled with pushing and tripping and laughter and debauchery, but when they sat down around the table I started speaking in a soft voice, and they all started to listen.

I said, “My friends, I have something I want to share with you. This is bread and grape juice, but it is about to me much more than that. For this is a gift that Jesus gives to us. Some of you might do this in your church on Sundays, and whenever we sit at the table we are remembering Christ’s love for us. At this table, all of us are welcome no matter what. So let’s pray… God thank you for loving us so much that you welcome us no matter what we’ve done and no matter who we are. I pray that you would pour out your Spirit on us and make us more like Jesus so we can love others. Amen.”

And then one by one I called them by name, I gave each of them a piece of the bread, they dipped it into the cup, and the received communion.

Unlike us, the preschoolers have the benefit of not rushing around through this season of Advent endlessly crossing items off our to-do lists. Unlike us, the preschoolers don’t feel burdened by the tyranny of things and can sit quietly for a moment to receive a gift better than anything under the tree.

It often happens around this time of year that we feel too busy to welcome. We become more concerned with the wrapping paper and the ornaments and appearance of things than with the welcoming love of the Lord who was born into an unwelcoming town. When our sanctuaries fill up with more people than usual on Christmas Eve we are more often burdened by making sure everything is in the right place, than we are by making sure we are in the right place to welcome and be welcomed by the Lord.

And it is at the meal, the Lord’s Supper, the thing that most of us do on the first Sunday of the month, where we learn what it really means to welcome like Jesus. For Jesus is the one inviting you to the table, not merely hoping that you will show up to fill an empty place in a pew, but earnestly and truly yearning for your presence. You are invited because you are unique, you are wonderful, and you are a child of God. There is a place for you at the table no matter what.

Can you imagine what our churches would really look like if we welcomed others as Christ welcomed us?

Amen.

The Tyranny of Titles – A Christmas Pageant Homily

Matthew 18.1-5

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

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A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a kid’s bible and read to her every night. She loved it.

They read the stories of his birth and his teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about how Jesus teaches us to treat people the way we want to be treated. They read and they read and at some point the daughter said, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure that was nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

He realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how it was Jesus, and how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, and they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the Preschool his daughter attended had the day off in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The father decided to take the day off as well and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. And while they were sitting at the table for lunch, they saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

And she said, “for Jesus?!”

The father said, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl was silent again for a brief moment, and they she looked up at her dad and said, “Did they kill him too?”

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Kids get it. They make the connections that we’re supposed to make. And even though 2016 has been a rough year with the political rhetoric and partisanship at its worst, and all the culturally significant individuals we lost (David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Gene Wilder, John Glenn, etc.), and with the migration of refugees from the Middle East to Europe at the highest levels since the Second World War… our preschoolers have had a tremendous year.

Today, we adults live under the tyranny of titles. We want to label individuals based on a crazy assortment of criterion. He’s a Republican, she’s a Democrat, that family is poor, that family is rich, that woman is black, that man is Hispanic, that couple is gay, that couple is straight.

But the Preschoolers who gather in our basement don’t see the world and one another the way we see the world and one another.

Instead they see each other as Cruz, and Hadley, and Charlie, and Ellie Rose, and Owen, and Maddie, and Graham, and Henry. They, unlike us, do not view the world through the cynical lens that so many of us have adopted over the years. They, unlike us, see the world like Jesus.

Like that little girl with her father, they understand the cost of discipleship in a way that few us can.

I’ve been here long enough to have spent a lot of time thinking about what the Preschool should be teaching the children. I’ve had consultations with the teachers about curricula and paradigms. I’ve even met with some of you to discuss the growth and transformation of your children in response to the nurture and education they receive in the basement.

I’m guilty of the same cynicism that treats young people like objects to be molded in a factory to come out prepared for the world. When Jesus is the one who calls us not to make children into adults, but to change adults into children.

This Christmas, I have a challenge for you. Instead of being consumed by the desire to transform your little ones to fit into one of the labels of society, try to let them transform you. Try to look at the world the way they do. Try to love one another the way they do.

For it is on Christmas that we celebrate the birth of God in the flesh, born as a baby in a manger to a young couple all alone in the world. God did not come to change the world through political power or through economic wealth or through militaristic might. God changed the world through a baby, not unlike the ones we are celebrating with tonight. Amen.

Let’s Talk About Doubt – Sermon on Isaiah 7.10-16

Isaiah 7.10-16

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

 

What a strange promise. The Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. The promise sounds nice and sweet, after all its part of a lot of the hymns we sign during this time of year. We read these verses and our minds immediately jump to the manger scene with Mary and Joseph carefully cradling the baby Jesus with the animals remaining perfectly quiet and still. But this promise is made to a particular person in a particular moment, and that’s what makes it strange.

At the time of Isaiah’s proclamation, forces were gathering and attempting to attack and invade Jerusalem. The King, Ahaz, is deeply afraid. And it is in the midst of his fear that God offers the King a sign, any sign that he wants, let it deep as hell or high as heaven. God offers Ahaz any sign he wants so that the king will remember to trust the Lord. Ahaz, appearing quite faithful, says he will not put the Lord to the test (the same thing Jesus says during the temptations in the wilderness), but the Lord ignores Ahaz and proclaims the coming sign nonetheless.

So it is while King Ahaz is shaking in his boots, while troops are gathering at the gates, that he receives a sign of God’s promised presence: A young woman will bear a son named Emmanuel.

Now, let’s be real for a moment: God’s promise of a baby is weird. And it’s rather ambiguous. God does not say, “I will destroy the invading forces with terrible violence” nor does the Lord promise that Ahaz will survive. Instead, God says that a baby is coming to save the world.

I don’t know about you, but Christmas, to me, always seems full of happy go lucky faith without any doubt or questions. Lights are hung up on all the houses, people tune their radios to the Christmas stations, and parents want their children to behave themselves in the Christmas pageants.

But doubts and questions are there, perhaps just barely below the surface of the façade we wear around during these weeks we call Advent.

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Do we doubt? Are we allowed to? What happens to us if we do? More than a few of us will be sitting in the pews on Christmas Eve singing Joy to World and celebrating the Christ-child while we’re really wondering what it means to believe.

King Ahaz doubted. While surrounded by enemies, and offered a miracle by God, he insists on not putting God to the test. This might sound really faithful, but God offers something incredible and Ahaz turns it down. His pious response is more a dismissal of the Lord being able to actually help.

Moses doubted. When the Lord asked him to go and deliver the people from the tyranny of Egypt, Moses quickly listed off the excuses for why he shouldn’t be the one to go.

Jeremiah doubted. When the Lord called him to be a prophet to God’s people his response was quick, “I am only a boy! Surely I can’t speak on your behalf”

Jonah doubted. When the Lord commanded him to travel to Nineveh he traveled in the opposite direction in order to avoid what he had been asked to do.

Zechariah doubted. When the Lord spoke to him and told him that his wife was going to become pregnant he did not believe the Lord could perform such a miracle.

John Wesley doubted. You know, the guy in the stained glass window right there. He was asked to go travel to a strange place called Georgia and preach the Good News but he did not have faith. And when he told his superiors about it, they said, “Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

Even Jesus doubted, though only for a moment. When he found himself all alone and nailed to the hard wood of the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Sometimes we feel like if we have doubts it is the complete opposite of having faith. In fact, many leave the church whenever that first doubt starts to creep in and they begin to wonder about the truth and promises of God’s Word.

I know more people than I can count who, at some point, were devout and faithful followers of Jesus Christ. And all it took was a little dose of the dirty word for their faithfulness to crumble. Was there really a virgin birth? Did Jesus really walk on water and feed the 5,000 and bring sight to the blind? Does God really care about our individual lives? Did God really raise Jesus from the dead?

Their entire discipleship hinged on the answer to one of those questions, and when they could not find an answer that was satisfying, they left.

I have friends from seminary who felt called to the ministry but have since left the church because a professor told them something like, “Moses didn’t write the first five books of the bible.” Or “Paul did not write the epistle to the Hebrews.” Or “Some of the psalms attributed to David were not written by David.”

            Doubt is such a dirty word. For a long time it has been shunned from the church and treated like a mortal sin. It has been seen as a weakness. But doubting is often a sign that our faith has a pulse, that it is alive and well and exploring and searching.

            Doubt and faith are not opposites.

            You can’t really have one without the other.

We’re now going to try something a little different, something a little strange, and frankly it might not work. But I’m going to leave this pulpit and come down to you and we’re going to talk about our doubts. Now the point of this is not for you to say something like, “I have trouble believing the virgin birth” and then have me completely remove your doubts with some sort of speech. No, the point of this is for us to be vulnerable and intentional with one another, for us to connect as a community of faith around the fact that we have doubts, but that God is big enough to handle our doubts.

So, what are your doubts?

This week, as I was scrolling through the seemingly endless cycle of news from around the world, I read about Russia’s apparent involvement in the democratic election cycle of the United States, and I read about Apple’s struggle to provide Bluetooth compatible headphones in time for Christmas consumers, and I read and read and read.

But then I saw a picture that still haunts me. In the image, a man and a woman are walking through the city Aleppo, Syria. The woman’s face is covered and her husband is cradling their baby in his arms, while holding up an IV bag that’s running down into the bundle of swaddling clothes.

            I’ll admit that what I should have been struck by most was the violence in the background and the terror in their posture, but what struck me the most was how much it reminded me of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus.

A man carries a child with an IV drip as he flees deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Over 250,000 people have died in Syria as a result of their civil war, most of them innocent civilians. And while we fret over the incoming president-elect and whether or not consumer goods will arrive on time, modern Marys and jaded Josephs are doing everything they can to protect their babies.

And it makes me doubt. I read the statistics, I see the photos, and I want to know where God is in the midst of all this. How can the God who knows us by name and has counted the hairs on our heads rest easy while innocent men, women, and children are dying at a rate we can barely fathom?

And while this is happening across the world, Christians in our country are worried about Muslims and are seriously considering instituting a registration of all Muslims. And do you know what’s happening in Aleppo? Christians and Muslims are serving shoulder to shoulder pulling children from rubble, consolidating food and resources to share with as many as possible, and are the remaining sources of light in a city under the shadow of death.

I doubt God’s presence in the midst of something as terrible as what’s happening in Aleppo, but then I have hope when I read about Christians and Muslims working together to bring joy to people who feel no joy.

And so I live in this tension between faith and doubt. We all do. We vacillate between the two like a frenetic sphere in a pinball machine. We doubt and we trust. We break down under the tyranny of violence and are built back up by the very nature of love. We weep for the world and its destructive desires, and are comforted by the God who came down to take on our flesh. We lift up our clenched fists in frustration to the sky, and we hear God speak in the still small voice: “Lo, I am with you always.”

Faith and doubt; you can’t have one without the over. Amen.

 

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Devotional – Psalm 80.3

Devotional:

Psalm 80.3

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

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On Sunday mornings I drive to church hours before worship so that I can properly prepare. I always begin in the sanctuary by praying by the altar and then I pray over every single pew. After I feel like have spent enough time with the Lord I will make sure the doors are unlocked and the heat is working before I step up into the pulpit to preach my sermon to an empty sanctuary. I will go through the sermon line by line and make any changes necessary before printing off the final version.

Yesterday morning I was standing in the pulpit and preaching to an empty sanctuary when I heard a soft voice say, “Hello?” My first instinct was to look up in case God was telling me to make a change to the sermon, but it was actually someone who walked into the church through the main office door. When I went to shake his hand in the hallway it was clear that he had been outside for a long time because he had very red cheeks and he kept bringing his hands up to his mouth to blow on his fingers. He explained that he was homeless and was walking down the street when he felt the need to walk into the church. He told me about various life situations that led him to where he currently is and then I invited him in the sanctuary so that we could sit down and talk some more.

I motioned for him to join me in one of the front pews and asked him to continue. But he didn’t. Instead, his eyes rapidly filled with tears and he wept. I sat stunned and unsure if I had said something wrong, and then asked him if everything was okay. He said, “I can’t remember the last time I saw a Christmas tree.”

Colorful holiday lights background, defocused

What I had neglected to think about was the overwhelming sense of joy that was radiating through our seemingly countless poinsettias and our perfectly adorned and lit Christmas trees; a sense of joy that was in sharp dissonance with what the man has experienced recently.

We talked some more and I learned all about his life, and when it felt like the conversation was coming to an end I asked how I could help him, or how the church could help him. To which he responded, “Honestly, I was just cold and lonely. All I wanted was to warm up and have some company. Thank you.” After that, we prayed together, shook hands, and he left.

This strange season of Advent is one that often leaves us filled with joy, but it can also be a time of deep sorrow. Instead of fondly remembering presents under the tree, we might remember our parents fighting and yelling at one another. Instead of recalling the smells of a delicious Christmas dinner, we might feel suffocated by the sadness of another Christmas without someone we love. Instead of humming the familiar hymns with a twinkle in our eyes, we might not even remember the last time we saw a Christmas tree.

The psalmist cries out: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” O that the Lord would make his face to shine upon all of us through the lights of a Christmas tree, and give us the hope and the joy and the peace we so desperately need this time of year.

Ridiculous Renewal – Sermon on Isaiah 35.1-10

Isaiah 35.1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a dear, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunts of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

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On Christ the King Sunday, the sermon was titled “Not My President.” And before we even started worshipping, more than a few of you made sure I knew your concerns about the impending proclamation. After all, Donald Trump had just procured the necessary electoral college votes to be labeled as president-elect, and people across the country were (and still are) protesting his election with signs saying, “Not My President.” If you were here on Christ the King Sunday, you know that the sermon had very little to do with Mr. Trump, and in fact was all about how grateful we should be that Jesus is not our President.

However, like the good Methodists we are, the sermon was not the pinnacle of our worship that Sunday. You might remember a few lines that I proclaimed from the pulpit, you might even remember one of the hymns we used, but if you sat in the front half of the congregation, I bet the thing you remember most from that service happened during communion.

As always I stood behind the table and I prepared to pray over the bread and the cup. Together we confessed our sins and asked for God to forgive us. We stood up from our pews and shared signs of Christ’s peace with one another. And then I asked God to pour out the Spirit on us gathered together and on the gifts of bread and the cup.

One by one each of you came forward to the front of this sanctuary with hands outstretched to receive the body and the blood of Jesus Christ. One by one I looked each of you in the eye as I tore off a piece of the bread and placed it into your hands. Some of you came up with tears in your eyes. Some of you came up with your eyes focused on the ground, perhaps out of reverence for the precious thing you were about to receive. And some of you came forward with eyebrows askew as if to say, “Who thinks of preaching a sermon about Jesus not being our president?”

The last family to come up for communion sat in the very last pew during worship, and they are connected to the church through our Preschool. Their son is here in the building every week learning about what it means to grow in knowledge, in wisdom, and in love of God. So when his father came up with his hands outstretched I asked if I could offer the bread to his son. The father smiled and said, “Of course.” With his blessing, I knelt down onto the floor and looked at my young friend in the eye and I said, “Owen, this is Jesus.”

To which he smiled, titled his head back slightly, opened his mouth, and waited for me to drop the bread right in.

Without really thinking about it, I took the piece and put it in his mouth, and in response he started chewing while smiling and trying to say, “Thank You Pastor Taylor.”

And I lost it. For whatever reason, I could not contain the laughter that was brewing inside me and I started cracking up. I laughed so hard that I actually snorted. Perhaps it was the seriousness of our service getting flipped upside down by a two year old receiving communion like a little bird from his mother, or maybe it was the smile he offered me while pieces of barely chewed bread were falling out onto the floor, or perhaps it was the little skip in his step while his cheeks were filled like a chipmunk preparing for winter, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

            In that simple and yet profound moment, the desert of our ritualistic liturgy was transformed with blossoms of laughter as other people laughed in response to my snort. In that brief and beautiful moment, God brought this church some much-needed joy.

You see, after spending the better part of two months confronting controversies facing the church and addressing the deep seeded political anger felt in this congregation and across the country, we needed to laugh.

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Isaiah says the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom. The prophet looks to the future and shares the ridiculousness of the renewal that is waiting for God’s people. Like a desert blooming in the middle of a drought, like old and worn out people finding strength in their knees, like tongues of the speechless being filled with words, so will the glory of the Lord transform the world.

In this vision everything is made new from the farthest reaches of creation, to the deepest aspects of our souls. The deserts shall rejoice and blossom, flowers will grow abundantly in the forgotten places, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and waters will break forth in the wilderness.

God promises transformation and joy. Though not necessarily the transformations and joys we pray for, but ridiculous and redemptive reversals nonetheless. Isaiah sings of liberation, joyful homecomings, and the end of all sorrow and sighing.

Signs of this future of joy will be made manifest in the weak being strengthened, those with feeble knees will stand firm, the fearful will be strong. Those who have long been isolated to the powers of loneliness will be grafted in and never forgotten.

Isaiah sings about the Holy Highway cutting through the wilderness, a way for God’s travelers to move without threat or fear, a place where the people of God’s can sing on their way home.

It sounds a lot like the Garden of Eden, and it sounds a lot like heaven.

But just like last week, Isaiah’s song about the promises of God are not just things that will happen in the distant future; they are part of God’s wonderful and creative reality here and now.

Yet, there are things in this world that hold us back, accidents on the highway of God’s grace, that prevent us from traveling the way to God’s promised salvation. There are chains and bumps that derail us from the pathway to glory: economic fears, political disappointments, spiritual droughts, emotional baggage, relational frustration, and seasonal depression, to name a few. And yet over and over again, whether it’s through a child walking back to his pew with bits of saliva soaked bread falling out of his mouth, or a host of other means, God transforms this world and fills us with joy.

I love to tell stories. From the time we are young children we learn important lessons more through stories and less through object lessons. That’s why scripture is so powerful, and it’s why Jesus used parables to relate the immensity of God to his disciples. This week, in anticipation of this sermon, I emailed a number of you to ask for stories of how God has transformed your life. I wanted to hear about the times that God’s living water broke forth in the midst of an otherwise desert-like existence.

And you did not disappoint.

One of you came to church for years without it really meaning much. It was just the thing you were supposed to do. And on one particular occasion, you were sitting in these pews listening to the choir sing an anthem. There wasn’t anything particularly moving about the words or even the melody, but you found yourself watching the individuals as they were singing and you could tell they meant it. Though you had seen and heard the choir many times, God spoke to you through their faithfulness that fateful day, and since then you have known and experienced the power of God through the music of our church, and through those who provide it.

One of you expressed how narrow-minded and intolerant you used to be. Whether it had to do with politics, or religion, or social status, you judged others unfairly. And then a pastor came to this church named Zig Volskis and he changed everything for you. His spiritual presence and demeanor taught you the importance of asking the right questions, and the importance of being content with answers that pushed you into a new direction. Instead of treating you like a student who needed to be lectured, Zig encouraged you with amazing insights and discernment. And through God working in him, you began to see the Bible not as a book to be consumed, but a life-giving witness to the reality of God.

One of you wrote about recent event whereby you attended a funeral for a man out of guilt because you were afraid that very few people would be in attendance. And yet, when you arrived, there was a line out the door and across the street full of people trying to get into the chapel. You described the experience as a moment through which God made you aware of one of your many sins, your judgment of others based on accomplishments you deemed as worthy, and through it you were transformed to know and believe that everyone has worth, and everyone is sacred.

God transformed the world through the advent of Jesus Christ, and God continues to transform our lives in ways we cannot even anticipate or imagine. The devastated deserts of our souls will once again blossom through a crowded funeral, a faithful pastor, a passionate choir, or a child-receiving communion. God uses people in our lives to change our lives so that we might change other lives.

Isaiah’s song is all about the ridiculous renewal awaiting us, God’s people. That through God’s transformative work, joy will rain down from the skies, and all the scattered promises of the bible will be fulfilled like a dance – the earth will spring forth new life, bodies will be remade, freedoms will be conferred, the city will be reclaimed, joys will erupt from unexpected places, and sorrow and sighing will be banished from the earth.

Isaiah’s song ends with the happy and joyful homecoming of those who have been liberated from the bondage that keeps them from traveling on the Holy Highway. For there is a new way that cuts through desolate deserts and turns them into beautifully blooming fields. God’s people will travel on this path without threat or fear, they will sing with joyful hearts, because the Lord is doing a new thing.

God is not done.

            God is not done with creation and God is not done with us.

            God breaks the chains of our slavery to sin and death.

            God delivers us to places yet unknown.

            God transforms our hopes and dreams into real and tangible experiences.

            God fills the deserts of our souls with living water.

            God blossoms and brings forth new life and opportunities in ways we cannot even imagine.

            God offers unending joy to the redeemed.

            God makes a way where there is no way. Amen.

 

Devotional – James 5.8

Devotional:

James 5.8

You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

Weekly Devotional Image

Christmas pageants require patience. Christmas pageants for preschoolers require particularly profound patience. Every year the students of St. John’s Preschool spend time each day during the season of Advent practicing and rehearsing their lines for their annual Christmas pageant. We always have a Mary and a Joseph who carefully hold a baby doll in their hands as they sit patiently toward the front. We always have a couple Wisemen who are forever beating each other with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And we have an assorted collection of barnyard animals including mice, sheep, cows, and at least one donkey.

Today I gathered with the children in the sanctuary and, as the defacto narrator, I led them through the pageant from beginning to end. When our shyer students walked up to the microphone I was ready to feed them their line and when our gregarious students walked up to the microphone I covered my ears in anticipation of them belting out their one line proclamation.

Meanwhile, a father of one of our students was in the preschool preparing Christmas trees for each of the classrooms. The hope was that after practicing, the children would return to their rooms with the surprise of cheer waiting for them in the form of a tree and then they could decorate each tree as they saw fit.

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When we finished the pageant, I walked with the children to their rooms and as soon as they saw the Christmas trees they went berserk. Our pretend shepherds were jumping up and down while our animals were spinning around in circles and even Mary and Joseph were screaming with joy. I did my best to calm them and then we sat on the floor to talk about the trees and how the relate to the Christmas story. I began with what I thought was a rather innocuous question: “Why do we celebrate Christmas?” To which one of our three year olds shouted out, “TO GET PRESENTS!!!”

Advent is a season of patience. While others want to jump straight to Christmas morning, while our preschoolers salivate over wrapped boxes under the tree, we strive to patiently wait for the coming of the Lord. This is the season of strengthening our hearts so that we might be prepared to receive the gift of the Christ-child with unadulterated joy (like the preschoolers) while also remembering the real present is God’s presence with us.