We Start With The End

Luke 1.46-55

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

There’s a grocery right around the corner from my house and I go there way too often. I’d like to blame it on the strange hours of church work, or my incredible cooking skills that sends me off looking for strange and rare ingredients, but honestly having a toddler requires visiting the grocery store with regularity.

I go enough to know when not to go. For instance: Sunday afternoons are the absolute worst. They are the worst because people like me remember all the things they forget to pick up earlier in the week and decide to go at the exact same time as everyone else.

And during the holiday season, it’s all the worse.

So, of course, it was on Sunday afternoon that I found myself at the grocery store with the always wonderful assortment of necessary items in my basket: baby wipes, chocolate morsels, and deodorant.

And I was not alone: every aisle was filled with families and individuals frantically seeking out all the items on their list. Some moved at a snail’s pace checking all of the nutritional values for every single item, while others were just swiping items into their carts indiscriminately. Like all stores around this season, there were older couples smiling at babies, young couples avoiding the babies, and babies crying at everyone.

I held my requisite items and dashed as quickly as I could to the “10 Items or Less” aisle which, of course, was filled with many people with way more than 10 items. And so, I practiced my Christian virtue, and I tried being patient and non-judgmental.

And that’s when the fight broke out.

Four people up from me in the line stood a young woman having just shoved the cashier across the conveyer belt. From my vantage point I could only make out brief words and lots of loud noises. There was some disagreement about payment, and then insults started flying, and then arms started moving, and the rest of us in line just stood there doing what we do best when we go to the grocery store: we distracted ourselves with the trite headlines on bad magazines, we glanced at our watches, and rechecked our email inboxes on our phones for the third time in a row.

Eventually, after the items had been sorted and the argument came to its conclusion with the manager stepping in, the young woman began weeping. “I’m just so hungry,” she said, “please let me take something.” And the cashier politely responded, “Ma’am, if we gave you something for free we’d have to give something to everybody.” And with that, they told her to leave or they’d call the police.

And we all stood there, doing nothing.

Today is the 4th, and final, Sunday of Advent. Some of you are here because you’re eagerly awaiting tonight and tomorrow morning, some of you are probably thinking more about what’s under the tree than what’s in store for worship, some of you are waiting in deep grief thinking about how all the best Christmases are behind you, and still yet some of you are here with the hope that you will receive a little more hope.

This is the day when the pre-Christmas frenzy is at its zenith. Many of you will rush out of church this morning to take care of all the remaining items on your list because Christmas hits us like a brick wall tomorrow. And it is at this precise moment, with all the fear and fervor, that we are treated to the voice of a poor young Jewish girl with a song of praise.

Mary sings her song in declaration of the new arrival of God made manifest in her womb. She not only accepts her call to bear God in the flesh, but also marvels at God’s amazing grace that will, and perhaps already has, come to fruition in the promise in her womb.

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Mary’s song, her Magnificat, begins by celebrating the greatness of God: among the entirety of the world, God chose to bestow God’s favor on Mary, a lowly servant of God. Then she proclaims God’s liberating compassion for the poor. She declares that God will flip the expectations of the world upside down, and that nothing will ever be the same. Mary identifies the God growing in her womb as the God who identifies with the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.

And, at its best, Mary’s song is just another verse in God’s great song to humanity. A song that begins with “Let there be light” that transitions to “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” and finds its chorus in, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

But the tense has changed.

            In God’s initial covenant it is all about what will come to pass, but in Mary’s song, God has already acted and changed the cosmos, prior to Jesus’ birth.

Mary sings amidst a world suffering under oppression, and even though we are far removed from the days of Mary, things can look pretty grim these days as well.

I’ve come to find that because we know the story of Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem, the angels and shepherds, all of it so well, that it no longer shakes us the way that it once did. Instead of being rocked by the fulfilled promises of Mary’s Magnificat, we imagine Christmas as portrayed by little children wearing bed sheets and pipe cleaner angel wings.

But the story is as real as the person sitting next to you, and it demands our attention and reaction.

On the front of your bulletin you’ll find a modern Mary and Joseph.

I am almost positive that the image will offend most of us in church this morning. But, to be frank, if you’re here in worship on a Sunday morning that also falls on Christmas Eve, you’re probably the kind of Christian who can handle the offense.

The image shows Mary and Joseph as if they were waiting outside the 7-11 down the street from our church. And the attention to detail is what shakes me when I see the image: Mary wears a Nazareth High School hoodie, reminding us that she was truly a young woman. She wears an engagement ring around her finger, given to her by Jose, otherwise known as Joseph. There’s no vacancy at Dave’s City Motel (The city of David: Bethlehem). And Mary even rests under the star, though this one is neon and serves as an advertisement for an adult beverage.

This image might come across as upsetting, and if it does, it’s only because we’ve lost sight of how offensive the Christmas story really is: God chose these people to bring the incarnation into the world. God chose these people to right all the wrongs committed by the world. God chose Mary’s womb to start the story that ends with an empty tomb.

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I am not proud to admit that we all kept standing there while the woman in the grocery store ran away out of shame, fear, embarrassment, and hunger; a hunger that I will probably never know; a hunger that most of you will probably never experience. But I’m positive it’s a hunger that Mary knew.

Mary was the “least of these,” a phrase we throw around far too often without contemplation. She, in the midst of a frightening life, perhaps among the pangs of hunger, declared that in her womb was the coming change that would reverse the doom.

She, as the favored one, saw what would be accomplished by God’s promise before it even happened. She, like us, knew the end of the story. God’s story in Christ, in Mary, is offensive simply because it is so contrary to the world’s expectations, and even our own.

If we encountered the couple on the front of our bulletin, there’s a good chance that we would treat them the same way that others and I treated that woman at the grocery store: with indifference.

We’ve got our own problems to worry about: children to feed, presents to wrap, in-laws to impress. We haven’t got time to feed the hungry when we’ve got bills to pay. It’s hard to think about bringing down the mighty when we feel so powerless.

And you know what? That’s okay. It’s okay because this transformative work is God’s business. We get to participate in this work with God for sure, but in Mary’s song she rightly points away from herself to the one who is, was, and is to come:

            God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

            God has demonstrated his incredible strength.

            God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

            God has brought down the powerful from their thrones.

            God has lifted up the lowly.

            God has filled the hungry with good things.

            God has sent the rich away empty.

            And God did, and does, all of this in Christ Jesus, his Son, our Lord.

Like Mary, we start at the end. We read the Magnificat in the knowledge that the tomb will be empty. We hear Mary’s song as a triumphant declaration about how God changed, and changes, the world in the incarnation and the resurrection. In these words we experience the past, present, and future of God’s reign.

The great challenge of following Jesus is cultivating the ability, like Mary, to see God’s promises as already having come to pass. Such that, instead of ignoring the woman at the store, or the couple on the corner, we see them as intimately involved in God’s toppling of the powers and principalities; that, instead of accepting the status quo, we recognize how all of us are works in progress; that instead of passively accepting this song, we hear it for the controversy that it truly is.

Our God is scandalous. Our God chooses an old couple in Abraham and Sarah to mark the covenant between God and humanity, a couple we might relegate to a retirement home. Our God chooses a little shepherd boy named David to bring down the mighty Goliath, a boy we might chastise in church for being too loud. Our God chooses an unwed pregnant teenager to bring about the one who will lift up the lowly and bring down the mighty, a girl that we might judge from afar without offering assistance.

We are so steeped in the world of our own making that we forget how scandalous our God truly is. This season in particular has the capacity to bring out the very best, and the very worst in us. But Mary, in her remarkable song, reminds us that wealth and power have no ultimate influence in the realm of God’s kingdom. In fact, they are used to serve the lowly.

            That’s not a popular message to bear during Christmas, but it wasn’t popular during the time of Mary either. In fact, that’s the message that got Jesus killed. But, thanks be to God, we know that what started in the womb was also there in the empty tomb. Amen.

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Devotional – Acts 2.2

Devotional:

Acts 2.2

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

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By the time we arrived at the hospital at 10 pm, my wife had been experiencing contractions for more than 12 hours and they encouraged her to walk around the unit in order to speed up labor. We walked in a circle around the labor and delivery unit at the hospital, taking breaks every few minutes to let a contraction pass, when it started to really sink in that we were about to have a baby. Perhaps it was the professional photographs of newborns adorned on every conceivable wall, or maybe it was the audible hum of all the medical machinery, or maybe it was the cry of babies from the nursery, but the time had definitely come for us to enter into the strange arena of parenthood.

When 7am rolled around, it was time for Lindsey to start pushing. With every breath and grimace the last nine months of preparation flew through my mind. I thought about finding out she was pregnant and the joy of sharing the news with our families. I remembered standing in front of the entire congregation and announcing that we would be adding another member to our flock. I thought about all the items we purchased for the nursery. I thought about the well-worn and earmarked edition of What To Expect When You’re Expecting sitting on the table next to our bed. I remembered all of the tips and tools we were taught in our birthing class (and promptly forgot all of them). And before I knew it, Lindsey had given birth to our son Elijah Wolf and the doctor placed him on her chest.

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The moment will forever remain etched in my memory as I watched Lindsey wrap her arms around Elijah and spoke the first words he ever heard: “We love you.” Like the disciples sitting together on the day of Pentecost, it felt like a gust of wind swept through the delivery room and filled the entire area. The sounds of the doctor and nurses disappeared, the anxiety had evaporated, and it felt like the Holy Spirit was circling our son and us. While my eyes filled with tears, Lindsey continued to nurture Elijah with her sweet voice when he opened his eyes for the first time, stared deep into his mother’s gaze, lifted out his arms, and placed his fingertips on her lips.

The Holy Spirit is with us always: In our delivery rooms and at our dinner tables, in our conversations and with our prayers, in our relationships and in our churches. I have experienced the Spirit’s presence over the last nine months in your willingness to surround Lindsey and I in your prayers. Thank you.

During the next few weeks, as Lindsey and I settle into parental rhythms with Elijah, I will continue to keep all of you in my thoughts and prayers. Until we are reunited in worship, I encourage you to look for those sacred moments when the Spirit shows up, and give thanks.

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Christmas Eve – Extra(Ordinary)

Luke 2.1-14

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. In that region there were shepherds living in their fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

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Merry Christmas! O what a time to be gathered together. Christmas is just special. The way we decorate our homes with lights and manger scenes. The presents all piled up under the trees. The advent calendars filled with mediocre pieces of chocolate.

It’s hard not to get nostalgic and reminiscent during the holidays. When you pull out the favorite ornament, you remember your grandmother who crafted it with care. When you see the cracked serving platter you remember the uncle who had a little too much nog that one year and dropped it. When you finally plug in the lights on the front of the house, you remember all the years your father mumbled under his breath as he struggled to untangle all the cords.

Christmas is the best. Among the decorations, and the songs, and the gifts, we are reminded of the great story of Jesus’ birth. This is a story we have told again and again to the point that I bet you know all the details….

Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to the city of David called ­­­Bethlehem. He went there to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and was expecting a 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.

What a story, but it could have gone like this…

Mary sat in the uncomfortable airport lounge and could not believe that she could actually no longer see her feet. Everyday her body was changing with new movements, sounds, and smells. She found herself wishing for an easier pregnancy, feet that would stop swelling, and a baby that would stop kicking her in the side every time she fell asleep.

Mary was thankful for Joseph, how much he doted on her over the last 9 months, but if he made one more comment about how beautiful she looked she was going to punch him in the face. “I know I look like a cow!” she would say, “stop pretending that I’m something that I’m not.” Mary blamed the outbursts on the hormones, but sometimes it just felt nice to speak her mind.

She sat in the airport lounge, and couldn’t believe she had agreed to travel while pregnant. Joseph had been initially suspicious of the pregnancy, but he was a good man and stuck by her side. And here they were, waiting to get on the plane, and it felt like people’s eyes were magnetized to her belly.

Is it a boy or a girl?” someone asked for the thousandth time. Mary turned to her right and tried to return the smile, but her sarcasm got the better or her, and she said, “We’re just hoping it’s a human!

Are you going to try natural child birth?” someone asked for the thousandth time. Mary turned to her left and tried to return the smile, but declared, “That’s frankly none of your business!

Finally, a woman from the airline announced that anyone with medical needs could begin boarding the plane. “One of the rare perks…” thought Mary as she pushed herself up from the seat. She wobbled over to the gate like a penguin when an older woman walked up with her hand outstretched to rub Mary’s belly. Joseph quickly jumped in front to stop the arm from making contact and instead put out his arm to on a direct course to the woman’s abdomen and said, “How would you feel if a stranger tried to rub your belly?

Mary’s seat on the airplane felt smaller than usual and, try as she might, she couldn’t sleep. Joseph sat next to her with his earmarked copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting open to the section on child-birth. And Mary cringed when she thought about what her body would be doing in the not too distant future.

By the time they finally landed, stood in line for the rental car, and finally made it out of the airport, Mary was exhausted. Her feet felt like flippers, and she was starting to feel what she thought were contractions, but she was determined to believe it was something else.

As they drove through the empty city streets late that night, the feeling grew worse and more regular until it came with such suddenness that Mary yelled at Joseph to pull the car over. In the dimly lit alley with cats meowing behind cardboard boxes and passersby ignoring the scene right in front of them, Mary gave birth to a baby boy, wrapped him in her fiancés sweater, and grinned from ear to ear.

All the pain she had felt, all the fear of how much her life would change, all the frustrations with strangers and inappropriate comments started to fade away into the darkness. Instead she saw her little baby as the light of the world. In him she saw a better and brighter future. In him she knew the world would be turned upside down. And she named him Jesus.

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We know the story. We hear it year after year. We see it portrayed by children in church productions, and on the front lawns of countless homes. Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem because the emperor believed that everyone needed to be registered. When they arrived there was no room at the inn, so Mary had her baby and placed him in a manger.

The text from Luke, rather than romanticizing the poverty of Mary and Joseph, invites us to see them as people much like us. The details are lacking and the narrative flows in a way that feels rather ordinary. Mary and Joseph were just two people trying to make their way in the world, like a couple traveling during the holidays. They were normal people; people who felt the pressures of the world and the judgments of others; people who were squeezed by rising taxes and governmental expectations; people who were weary from a variety of struggles including the fear of childbirth; people who were badly in need of hope.

And, as God would have it, the hope they so desperately needed came to them that night as a baby. In the ordinary ways of the world, something extraordinary happened. Jesus, the light of the world, was born to that struggling couple surrounded by the most ordinary of circumstances and changed the world forever.

The baby was extraordinary, God incarnate, capable of miracles and filled with Messianic hope. The baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, God in the flesh, was born to guide the world in the ways that lead to life.

We are like Mary and Joseph and Jesus was born to us and for us. The story takes places in the ordinary but makes our lives extraordinary. So often we hear about how Jesus’ birth changed the cosmos and the very history of the world that we forget about how this wonderful and precious moment actually changed our individual lives as well. It changed us, people who are trying to understand our ordinary lives in light of the extraordinary news that God came as a baby for us.

If you haven’t spent much time in the Bible, this is how it works. If you haven’t experienced much of God’s presence, this is how God works. The extraordinary arises within the ordinary. The heavens break forth in the middle of a moment here on earth. What we usually see as normal and commonplace is often the realm of God’s marvelous work among us.

If you want to know God, you don’t have to go off on some high mountaintop, you don’t have to sink deep into the recesses of your ego. You just have to be in a place like Bethlehem, or an airport, or a rental car, or a church. You just need to be in the midst of trying to make your way in the world, getting along as best you can with what you’ve got. That’s when God loves to show up and change our lives forever.

When Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph the ordinary became extraordinary. In that tiny baby they would come to discover what it means to love God and neighbor in new and radical ways. In that tiny baby they would have their sins forgiven and salvation presented. In that tiny baby they would finally understand how much God loved them.

God loves to show up in the ordinary things of life. God shows up in the bread and juice offered to us at the table without cost. God shows up in the flicker of a flame as we sing silent night together. God shows up in the cry of a baby who came to change the world.

God shows up and makes our ordinary lives extraordinary. What a gift.

Merry Christmas.

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Devotional – Isaiah 9.2

Devotional

Isaiah 9.2

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.
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When I was preparing my Christmas Eve sermon last year, I was struck by the importance of God’s light shining in the darkness. During the weeks leading up to Christmas I read over the differing texts, and explored different hymns, but the image of God’s light stayed at the forefront of my mind. So when it came time to conclude my thoughts on God’s greatest gift from the pulpit, this is what I said:

“For me, Christmas is at it’s realest when we light our candles as we sing Silent Night. Some of my earliest memories are standing in a dark sanctuary on Christmas Eve while people around me are singing. In mere minutes the darkness is replaced by a brilliant light, made remarkable by the God who took on our flesh to dwell among us, to be God with us.

Jesus is the light of the world who shines in the darkness. Whatever that darkness might look like for you, whether it be an uncertain future, fears about your children, frustrating family members, the loss of a loved one, a heavy diagnosis, or the lack of love in your life, Jesus stands in stark contrast as the one who brings the light into our lives.

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Christmas Eves always mean the most and convey the most when we feel the depth of the darkness. Because new life always starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.

At the end of our service we will turn out all the lights, from the one candle, the Christ candle, we will light all others as we sing Silent Night. As we do so let us open our eyes the different forms of darkness in our lives and give thanks to the light of the world who shines in the darkness.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we hear the familiar words that have been sung for centuries exclaiming the great joy of the newborn king.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we gather as God’s table to feast on the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we see the light of Christ shining in one another.”

It is my hope and prayer that no matter where you are, or who you’re with, God’s light will shine in your lives. Merry Christmas.

Christmas In The Room – Christmas Eve Sermon on John 1.1-5

John 1.1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

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Merry Christmas! To me, there are few things as wonderful as gathering together to celebrate the birth of Christ. This is what church is all about; a community coming together to rejoice in our Savior.

Have you noticed all the lights around the neighborhoods? The different decorations throughout Staunton? Have you seen all the wonderful manger scenes displayed in front yards and on coffee tables?

One of the things I love most about Christmas is that every year we try new things to make Christmas real again. Many of us are very familiar with the story; we can imagine the angel Gabriel appearing before Mary, we can picture the manger scene with all the animals gathering close to baby Jesus, we can almost hear the angelic host proclaiming the Good News to the shepherds. This story has so captivated our hearts, minds, and imaginations that every year we gather to remember it in new and exciting ways.

This year our Preschool chose to remember the story by putting on a Christmas pageant. Now this wasn’t your simple and typical pageant; almost every one of our students had a line to perform in the microphone in front of a packed sanctuary. We practiced for weeks in the chancel area, rehearsing our lines, standing in our spots, and getting the story exactly right. On the morning of the big show, the kids and I were all here going through every bit one last time. However, this was the first time that they were all in costume.

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Some of our precious three years olds were sheep, though they looked more like pillows as they walked to the microphone and quietly whispered: “I shared my wool with baby Jesus.” We had a manger mouse with big ears and a tail who said with a smile: “I peeked at baby Jesus!” We even had an angel choir of two-year olds who started from the back and walked all the way down carrying electric candles to guide the wisemen.

When it came time for Mary and Joseph to appear I was so pleased with how well everything was going. This was going to be a great performance for all of the friends and family. Our little Mary came up to the microphone to sweetly say, “A baby will soon be born.” And then Joseph, one of our most precocious four year olds, said with loud emphasis: “I MUST FIND A PLACE FOR US TO STAY!

Everything was perfect. The kids were sitting quietly in place, they had all nailed their lines, and I could just imagine all of the tears that would be spilt watching these precious lambs of Jesus Christ. I even found myself getting emotional. I remember thinking: “this is what Christmas is all about.” Look at these children retelling the story centuries later. They embody the sweetness that just have been felt in the manger. Their child-like innocence is why God came into the world for us. Those little kids made Christmas real for me.

That was, until I noticed our little Mary fidgeting around by the crib. We continued with the pageant but Mary was far more focused on the little baby-doll Jesus than anything else. “Well,” I thought, “she’s just being attentive like any good mother would be” when all of the sudden she picked up Jesus by his ankle, dangled him back and forth and then dropped him on his plastic head!

The realness of Christmas was quickly replaced with the reality of Preschoolers being dressed up like animals and adults acting out the story.

Every Christmas we strive to reimagine the story so that we can reconnect with it’s incredible message.

There is a church somewhere in the midwest that REALLY believes in retelling the story. On Christmas Eve they invite people from the community into their sanctuary, but they don’t just listen to a pastor in the pulpit, they don’t just pray in their pews, they bring in all sorts of animals and actors to make it come alive.

Animal trainers help guide the donkeys and sheep into the space and lead them up to the altar near a newborn baby being cradled by his mother. The church has a full orchestra and light show to go along with the actors and animals; they have no limitations when it comes to fully immersing the people in the story.

However, a few years ago the church became responsible for a viral video that made its way across the internet. At the height of the production, as the human-angels were hung by wires to sing Hallelujah, as the majestic magi were making their way up to the altar, as people were completely captivated by the story, a camel was being led down the center aisle.

It was at that precise moment, at the paramount of the Christmas production, the camel decided that he no longer wanted to be part of the story. The video shows the trainer in the middle of the church struggling to guide the camel forward, the camel ignoring his suggestive movements, and deciding that he should take a break on top of all of the people sitting on the right hand side. Like a tree falling in the woods, the camel fell to his side and quickly buried a few people under his girth.

The realness of Christmas was quickly replaced with the reality of what happens when you bring the zoo into a church.

Every Christmas we strive to reimagine the story so that we can reconnect with it’s incredible message.

Years ago I went to church on Christmas Eve and experienced a service unlike any other. Instead of a typical sermon, the pastor decided to make it into a drama with particular characters acting out the story.

Mary and Joseph stood on opposite sides of the altar, wearing robes from the days of old. The gazed off into the distance pondering the incredible messages the the angel Gabriel had shared with each of them.

While the pastor described the man named Joseph, he began to remove his robes, shedding the costume from the past, and revealed a middle age man wearing a business suit. The pastor was attempting to make the story real again by showing what it would look like if it happened today. Joseph was a respected man and much older than Mary. Can you imagine how he would have reacted when he found out that she was pregnant? Can you picture how embarrassed he must have been by her?

While the pastor described the woman named Mary, she began to remove her robes, shedding the costume from the past, and revealed a teenage girl wearing a cheerleading uniform. Mary was a young woman with future full of potential. She was much younger than Joseph, and was told by the angel that she would conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit while still a virgin. Do you think she believed this was Good News? Can you imagine how her family would have regarded her for becoming pregnant before getting married?

There stood Mary and Joseph, not the couple from the manger scenes kneeling quietly over the new born king, but a business man and a cheerleader who would be ridiculed by the community.

The realness of Christmas was quickly replaced by the reality of social relations that develop when an unwed teenage girl becomes pregnant.

Every Christmas we strive to reimagine the story so that we can reconnect with it’s incredible message.

I always look forward to this season because it affords me the opportunity to ask others what they love about Christmas. I often hear about the joy of opening gifts, the wonder of putting up all the decorations, and even the changed behavior of children in response to the elf on the shelf. Yet all of those things don’t make Christmas real. Yes they make it feel like Christmas, but they do not fully convey the depth of what it means for God to have come into the world as a baby in Bethlehem.

For me, Christmas is at it’s realest when we light our candles as we sing Silent Night. Some of my earliest memories are standing in a dark sanctuary on Christmas Eve while people around me are singing. In mere minutes the darkness is replaced by a brilliant light, made remarkable by the God who took on our flesh to dwell among us, to be God with us.

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Jesus is the light of the world who shines in the darkness. Whatever that darkness might look like for you, whether it be an uncertain future, fears about your children, frustrating family members, the loss of a loved one, a heavy diagnosis, or the lack of love in your life, Jesus stands in stark contrast as the one who brings the light into our lives.

Christmas Eves always mean the most and convey the most when we feel the depth of the  darkness. Because new life always starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark. 

At the end of our service we will turn out all the lights, from the one candle, the Christ candle, we will light all others as we sing Silent Night. As we do so let us open our eyes the different forms of darkness in our lives and give thanks to the light of the world who shines in the darkness.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we hear the familiar words that have been sung for centuries exclaiming the great joy of the newborn king.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we gather as God’s table to feast on the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we see the light of Christ shining in one another.

Merry Christmas. Amen.

In Those Days… – Christmas Eve Sermon on Luke 2.1-20

Luke 2.1-20

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. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in the manger, because there was no place from them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord stood before them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

 

Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

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In those days Augustus ruled over everything. The emperor of the powerful Roman empire had true and frightening power. His authority was known from the British Isles to Asia and into Africa. His very name meant wealth, rule, and power. His face and title was printed on currency, his decrees spread throughout the lands, and he was known by all. So, in those days, in the days of Augustus, our story begins.

And then one night in a tiny and seemingly obsolete town, part of Rome’s conquest, a baby was born. It was a tucked away village of little consequence to which the mother and her soon-to-be husband were traveling, not by choice, but because Augustus wanted the world to be registered. Both of them were poor, and when they arrived in the town no one took notice of their coming, no one offered to help them find a place to stay, no one even spoke to them. They went looking for space at the Inn, but there was no room, so the only place they could find to stay was a stable; that was where their child was born, a child named Jesus.

We learn then that within the region there were shepherds living in the fields who were confronted by an angel of the Lord. The angel brought great tidings of this new child’s birth, calling him a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. And so these unnamed shepherds traveled into the city of Bethlehem to meet this child face to face, coming into contact with the incarnate God almighty. They shared their story with anyone who would listen and continuously glorified and praised God for all they had seen.

In those days, when everyone knew and feared the power of Augustus, a baby was born. And somehow, that tiny child born in the most unlikely of places and circumstances transformed the world forever. Augustus is only remembered in history books and lecture halls, whereas that baby grew into the man that embodied hope for the world from the day he was born to this very night. Augustus had all the power and money and influence to do whatever he wanted, yet Rome still fell. But of God’s kingdom there will be no end. Why? Because the power of Christ lives on, his light and love reaches into our very hearts and changes us into something new, different, and wonderful.

This story has been told for millennia. Gatherings of the faithful have taken place over and over again to remember this particular story, this radical moment that changed the fate of the world forever. It has been dramatized in countless films, books, songs, and plays. We, whether we come to church or not, hear this story as children and again and again as we grow older.

When you think of the manger, what do you see? Do you picture the animals lying silently with adoring eyes at the baby comfortably resting in the hay? Do you envision the wise men bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Do you imagine the warmth and the glow from the angelic presence as the incarnate God was brought into the world?

I know this might not be the Christmas message you want to hear, but Luke would have us imagine a very different scene.

Nativity

The story, as was read for us, is remarkably simple. Besides the appearance of the angels in the fields there is no great miracle or display of God’s power. The manger scene is quite stark, empty, and even frightening. Mary and Joseph were completely alone after traveling to Bethlehem while Mary was pregnant. They had to retreat to a stable at the back of, or underneath, the house (perhaps even in a small cave). When Jesus was finally born he was placed inside of a feeding trough, not the comfortable and clean version we often seen depicted on the mantle. There is a bare and frightening emptiness at Jesus’ birth, while two adults crouched in a cave feeling more alone than ever before.

Luke keeps the story clean of any decorations that would remove it from the lowly, the poor, and the marginalized — the people just like Mary and Joseph.

Sadly, in many Christmas celebrations we have not resisted the temptation to run to Matthew’s gospel where the royal visitors arrived with their gifts, or imagine a soft glow coming from the manger straw, and with the air filled with cherubs and angels. Luke has a glow in the story, but it is shining somewhere else.

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So where does the story move? To shepherds who are living in the fields in order to watch over their flock at night. Shepherding was a despised occupation during the time of Jesus’ life. They were a homeless group of ragtag sheep watchers, worse off than even Mary and Joseph in their difficult manger. And for whatever reason the angel of the Lord appears to them in the wilderness — Not Augustus in his palace in Rome, not the chief scribes and the temple priest in Jerusalem, but the lowly shepherds in a field.

“Do not be afraid,” The angel bellowed. “for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger.” And without warning a multitude of the heavenly host appeared praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

And so the homeless shepherds traveled to Bethlehem to see this Savior, Messiah, and Lord waiting for them in a feeding trough born to an unwed couple.

So you see, Mary and Joseph were left alone that night — it was from the shepherds that they learned of the angel and the heavenly host. The two new parents, busy with the chores of childbirth in the most inhospitable of places under the most difficult of circumstances, did not get to experience heaven’s visit but instead heard about it from a group of homeless and wandering sheep watchers.

This is an unusual story, but it is precisely because of its strangeness, that it has made all the difference.

“I am bringing good news of great joy for all the people: for you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

For whom is the child born? Not Augustus with all of his power, not the priests and the scribes who ruled the religious practices, not the super elite and fabulously powerful, but for those shepherds in the field, for all of you. For YOU this child has been born.

In that tiny dark manger God was born of the flesh in the baby Jesus. God became incarnate, took on our humanness. Jesus was both human and divine. Born into two worlds, from above and below, Jesus came as a new being in order to reconcile the world back to God. Though he carried the glories of God with him everywhere that he would eventually travel, he never ceased to care for our most basic needs: food, water, relationships. Wherever he went he ate with his friends and the marginalized, all of the shepherd types within the community, nurtured relationships so that all would come to know more about the love of God.

He knew that we could not truly live by earthly things alone… Do you have a Christmas tree at home filled with presents underneath but you cannot find pure joy in your life? Have you raised the perfect family with 2.5 children, a dog, a cat, and a white picket fence, but you feel like something is missing in your life? Do you find yourself searching for meaning, and even when you fill your life with all of the things that the world tells us we need, you never feel completely satisfied? Christ knows our emptiness, God came in the form of flesh to bear our emptiness, so that he could help fill us in a way that we never could on our own.

Haven’t we all had a Bethlehem moment in our lives? A time where it felt that no one knew us, no one understood what we were going through, no one reached out to help us? A period where we carried the weight of the world on our shoulders unable to share the burden with anyone else. A moment where it felt as if the darkness was too powerful for any light to shine forth. In many different ways, we have all traveled to our own Bethlehem.

How perfect is it then, that Bethlehem means “town of bread”? From a tiny manger, from an unwed couple, from the town of bread comes the incarnate God who is the bread of life. It is in this meal he came to bring us the bread of life that can and will sustain us in all things.

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Because at this table, at Christ’s holy banquet, we are all invited into that tiny unlit manger, into the darkness and loneliness that Mary and Joseph must have felt. We are incorporated into this story because Jesus has welcomed us in. We are there, but more importantly Jesus is with us here. Christ is with us in all of our brokenness, in all the failed attempts to live perfect lives, in our fears and our frustrations, he is here because God came to be like us to help transform us.

That is Christmas! That is hope! That is grace!

That is the story worth telling over and over again, because the greatest thing to ever be, came to be with us.

Amen.