Devotional – Psalm 29.2

Devotional:

Psalm 29.2

Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.

Weekly Devotional Image

It is rare for me to face the altar during worship. Unlike lay people, I spend most of my Sunday mornings staring into the faces of a bunch of people rather than at just one person in a robe. Worship, therefore, becomes a time when I try to guide people along a path that leads all of us to discover more about what it means to love God and neighbor, though I do it from a slightly different vantage point than everyone else in the sanctuary.

However, on Christmas Eve, we all joined together for at least one moment as we held our candles and the words of “Silent Night” filled the sanctuary.

Because the moment only comes once a year, I do whatever I can to savor it. After lighting the ushers’ candles so that they can spread the light throughout the sanctuary, I quickly made my way over to my wife and son and we all sang together. At some point I stopped signing and just listened to the harmonies wash over me. At some point I glanced around the room to rest in the glow of candlelight reflecting off the faces of the young and old alike. Christmas Eve, and in particular when we sing silent night, is one of the moments where it really feels like we worship the Lord in holy splendor.

I think it feels so special because it is so different from everything else we do. Usually, we do whatever we can to avoid the darkness of life by surrounding ourselves with devices that shine brighter than any flame – we stream music all the time to the degree that it becomes difficult to appreciate a single song for what it can convey – we move so quickly through this world that we don’t enjoy the presence of strangers, nor do we appreciate the beautiful complexity of humanity all around us.

But on Christmas Eve, it’s a little different.

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I am grateful for the experience I had on Christmas Eve, but I also want to find ways to experience that same feeling of difference regardless of the holiday. I want to live and move in this world such that I can truly appreciate my God and my neighbor without taking them for granted. I want to ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name each and every day so that I can remember how blessed I really am.

God has been so good to us, and I hope all of us can appreciate what God has done more than once a year.

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An Old-Fashioned Christmas

Isaiah 9.2-7

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. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

           Merry Christmas! There’s just something different about Christmas. No matter how young or old we may be, no matter what kind of year precedes this night, Christmas Eve never fails to brighten our spirits. I look forward to this night unlike any other night with a kind of joyful anxiety: I know this holiday carries with it more meaning than can be contained in any sermon, and yet to share the story of the incarnation is one of my greatest privileges.

But there is a question I must ask: 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, and others are with large families taking up an entire pew. Some of you have been planning to be in this place at this time for weeks, and some of you decided to come on a last minute impulse. Some of you have been dragged here against your will, out of loyalty or guilt. And some of you are here perhaps for the very first time.

Some of you are young and 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 to the presents and the trees, and some of you dread going home. So hear this: whoever you are, and whatever you’re feeling, I’m glad you’re here.

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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I ask a lot of questions, it comes with the job. But around this time of year I tend to ask the same question over and over: “What’s the best Christmas present you’ve ever received?” And the funny thing is, people have the hardest time answering. And not because they have so many gifts with which that have to weigh out and evaluate their answer, but because they just can’t remember.

For instance, can any of you remember what you opened three years ago on Christmas morning? What about last year?

Of course, there’s a better question to ask: “What’s one of your most beloved Christmas memories?” People can answer that one, and the response is almost always about spending time with a particular person; a beloved spouse, or child, or grandmother, or friend.

That’s what we remember most about Christmases past, the people we spend time with. It’s all we have to give to another, it’s all we really want to receive, and it’s what God gives to us.

Not a present under a tree, not a trite response to a prayerful need. God gives himself to us at Christmas.

There’s just something about Christmas that’s different. And there’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned Christmas. Do you know what I mean? A Christmas where all the kids actually showed up, all the presents were wrapped in time, there were no iPhones to distract us from conversations, no drones to charge before their first flight. Old-fashioned Christmases were all about the family, and the singing of carols, and feeling the warmth of the fire.

My father grew up in Germany, and his most vivid memories of old Christmases were waiting to see what would happen to the Christmas tree. Because unlike our contemporary trees filled with pre-lit LED lights that can do more than a stage production, his Christmas trees were covered in real candles. And on every Christmas Eve every candle would be painstakingly lit, and my father would sit there, like any young child would, waiting for the whole thing to catch on fire.

An old-fashioned Christmas.

There’s a church in our community that worships in a new building, but they still have the original sanctuary on the property. And all year long it just stands there off in the corner like the forgotten island of misfit toys, until Christmas Eve when they open the doors, brush off the dust, light the kerosene lanterns and have an old-fashioned Christmas service. That was the case, until a few years ago when they forgot to open a window, and the kerosene lamps sucked up all the oxygen and parishioners started passing out left and right.

But a real old-fashioned Christmas, which is to say a biblical Christmas, is altogether different. The strange new world of scripture opens up for us a scene where kings rage and wickedness rules the day, where the threat of taxation forces young couples to retreat to the comfort of their parents’ homes, and countries who think of themselves as the very best have forgotten the very least.

            You know, completely unlike today.

It’s strange how Christmas, at least the version we encounter at the mall, becomes a dream. We escape into the Christmases of the past, falsely assuming they held a tinge of perfection. But in the bible, Christmas is no dream; it is reality. And it is one that begins in the dark.

The darkness – evil, sin, suffering, distress, destruction – they are very much part of the world, even if we’re made to believe they are absent during Christmas. We live in a time of war, violence, anger, and wrongful use of power. And the darkness is not just out there, beyond the comfort of the sanctuary, it is very much here as well. The darkness of family fights, disease and death, aging parents, rebellious children, fear and guilt, loneliness, and shame.

And we have to take the darkness seriously, even when we’d rather not. We take the darkness seriously because Isaiah certainly did, because darkness is very much part of our experience, and because darkness is what the light of Christ makes it’s way into.

This time of year challenges us to search for meaning. I mean, every bad Hallmark channel movie struggles to define the reason for this season, but the closest we can get to the meaning of Christmas is right here in Isaiah: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

Light is how we experience the presence of God, the arrival of grace, mercy, and peace. Light shines in the darkness.

That’s why we always end Christmas Eve worship with the lighting of candles. It is a strange and beautiful thing because it begins in the dark!

Our candles, as a witness to the one Christ candle, burn as a promise, a pledge, and perhaps as an act of defiance. Our flickering candles are what the life of faith look like as it resists the evil temptations of the world.

It looks like our faith because it is fragile.

Our flames are as fragile as a new baby born into the worst circumstances.

opt-the-day-after-christmas from Life Magazine Jamie Wyeth

But new life always starts in the dark, whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.

It is a strange, subversive, and dynamic way to change the world. It runs counter to all our assumptions of what it means to hold power. It is fragile like a flame, like a baby born in a manger, and like our faith can be at times.

But one flame, one baby, one faithful hope can be all that it takes to spark a rebellion that changes everything.

An old-fashioned Christmas is challenging because it is truer than all of the perfect manger scenes on our mantles and inflated on our front lawns. The incarnation of God is not some spiritual and mythical concept; it is very much the totality of God taking on flesh to enter this world of ours with all its agonies and joys, sorrows and splendor.

For a fleeting moment, we might experience a time where all is calm and all is bright while we are in this place holding our candles high. But we do so with the knowledge that the world still marvels at the darkness. So come to feast at this, Christ’s table, greet one another in the love that Christ offers us, and declare your defiance of the world’s expectations through the fragile flickering flame.

Because tonight, a night unlike any other night, we join together to wonder at the mystery of God’s power embodied in the fragile flesh of a newborn baby. Tonight, we join together as God’s light that shines in the darkness. Tonight we remember what an old-fashioned Christmas really looks like. Amen.

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.

Colorful holiday lights background, defocused

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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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.
Weekly Devotional Image

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.