Devotional – Psalm 85.9

Devotional:

Psalm 85.9

Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

Weekly Devotional Image

I spent a lot of time last week considering how I might impress upon the congregation the need for darkness in order to appreciate the light. I weighed the options of telling stories from my life when I was particularly afraid of the dark and therefore grateful for the light when it arrived, I pondered the possibility of asking the congregation to announce their fears until someone said something about darkness, but I ultimately decided to shut off all the lights in the sanctuary for the majority of the service.

We therefore were guided by candlelight (which made singing from the hymnal particularly challenging!) but my hope was in the fact that we would all consider the darkness in our own lives in a new and different way. Additionally, while using Isaiah’s language about our righteous deeds being nothing more than a filthy cloth, I challenged the congregation to confront the truth of their sinfulness in a way often missing from the mainline church these days. And finally, I even talked about nuclear weapons to drive home to point about admitting our recklessness with the power we’ve been given and the need to repent.

After worship ended, I stood by the narthex doors shaking hands with everyone on their way out and someone said, “Pastor, I don’t know if I’ve ever been afraid in church before, but I was today. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

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Fear, perhaps more than any other emotion, is the typical response and reaction from those who encounter God in scripture. Again and again we read the same words from the angels, or from God, “Do not be afraid.” But there are also many times in scripture when fearing the Lord is exactly what we are told to do.

Fearing God has less to do with being spooked when the sanctuary is dark and more to do with recognizing that God is God and we are not. When we perceive the great gulf between God and humanity, we are forced to consider our sinful souls and the need for God’s grace. Therefore fearing God might be just what we need this season.

Whereas the world worries about whether or not all the right gifts are under the tree, Christians worry about whether we’re living into the reality of God’s kingdom here on earth. While families hang lights on gutters, we wonder whether or not we have really clothed ourselves with Christ’s righteousness. And as individuals assume that the reason for the season is some plump red-dressed man, or remembering the names of all the reindeer, we know that God, whom we fear, has come near.

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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.

Devotional – Ephesians 5.10-14

Devotional:

Ephesians 5.10-14

Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Weekly Devotional Image

As I sat here this morning typing the devotional scripture out on my computer, 5006 customers lost power in Staunton, including St. John’s UMC; a particularly fitting moment for reflection on a scripture that discusses visibility, light, and darkness! Everything in my office, the hallway, and the entire church shut off except for my laptop computer (on battery power). Though light was coming in the window, the only thing illuminated within the office was God’s Word staring back at me on the screen: “everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.”

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Instead of staying in my office to write out some narratival reflection on light and darkness, I made my way down the halls to the other part of the building in order to check on our secretary, our teachers, and students in the Pre-School. 

The 4 year-olds thought the power outage was the funniest thing in the world (thats because they think anything can become the funniest thing in the world) and I was greeted with a uproar of laughter when I opened the door to their room. Sensing that my presence was not needed, I went across the hallway to the 2 year-old room; they were having a very different experience. 

The room was silent and dark with the students all huddled together with their teacher in the middle of the room. Because the blinds were drawn, a very limited amount of light was streaming through and it was clear that some of the kids were on the verge of fear. “Pastor Taylor,” one of them began, “Is there a storm outside?” 

Darkness can be a frightening thing. Even though those students had been outside only minutes before, walking in with their parents, the darkness that entered the room brought forth a sense of fear for them. Darkness can envelop us. Darkness can pierce through the deepest core of our souls, because darkness is the unknown.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he cautioned the gathered body to expose the darkness, and do what is pleasing to the Lord. For you, the darkness might not be as obvious as it was to the 2 year-olds this morning, your darkness might be entirely different and difficult to discover, but the darkness is something that waits for each of us. The unknown can instill in us a sense of fear, often appearing insurmountable; the loss of a job or loved one, the inability to communicate with your children, the loss of independence as you grow older, falling short of parental expectations, etc. 

But friends, Christ’s light shines in the darkness. When the power came back on in the building, the lights in the Pre-School shined brilliantly, bringing a sense of calm back to the students. In the same way, Christ’s light brings brilliance to our lives, reminding us of who we are and whose we are.

So, as you go forth into the world today, I encourage you to try and discover what is pleasing to the Lord, pray for God to deliver from any darkness in your life, and know that Christ’s light shines on, and through, you.

Weekly Devotional – 12/16/13

Devotional:

Psalm 80.19:

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

 

I used to love making fun of my pastors who complained about how much busier they became during advent. It’s not as if they had more on their plates than any other month during the year, but they nevertheless felt overwhelmed by this particular liturgical season.

I now regret making jokes at their expense.

I’m not sure how its possible, because we are not doing more than the ordinary during this time, but I am busier than I have been since I started working at St. John’s in June. I like to think that my newfound busyness stems from the different holiday concerts and Christmas pageants or the shifts for selling Christmas trees or the added time spent decorating the house… but I think it really comes from somewhere else.

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This season carries with it tremendous joy but also remarkable sadness. Advent helps to prepare us for the coming of the Lord, but often times we fail to prepare ourselves for the onslaught of emotions and old memories that are triggered by this time of anticipation. In the last few weeks I have noticed more tears and tissues in the pews that are the result of the welling up of suppressed emotions that this season breaks forth. For as much as we can be excited about opening gifts together under the tree with a fire roaring in the fire place, for many of us Christmas embodies tremendous pain that is often difficult to ignore.

At the end of the 80th psalm, the psalmist writes, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” I believe that this psalm is one that we need during this season, perhaps more than any other. We need to feel restored in our lives during this time when old and difficult memories flood our perspective. We need to be reminded of God’s glory that outshines all of the darkness in our lives. We need to sing those familiar hymns, let the tears flow, and remember that God came in the form of our brokenness to dwell and walk with us.

So, as we all make it through this last week of advent, preparing for the great coming of our Lord on Christmas, let us all take the time to live into the brokenness in our lives. Do not ignore the pain that this season often brings. Let it be. But remember that it does not have the final word. God has triumphantly declared that He will make all things new, that we are not defined by our pasts, but instead by the love that God has for each and every single one of us.