The Hopes And Fears Of All The Years

“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 shone around them, and they were terrified.” 

I waited until the last second to buy our communion bread for tonight, which was a mistake. I foolishly made the assumption that NO ONE would be at the grocery store on Christmas Eve and when I arrived at Giant, there was not a single available spot in the parking lot – I had to park in front of a Long John Silvers. And then, when I finally got inside, I discovered the fact that they had run out of bread!

So I had to drive to the next grocery store, Safeway. Thankfully, they had some available parking but the inside of the store was packed. But I trudged my way though to the back, procured a few loaves of bread, and then waited in line for an eternity to make my purchase.

Now, to be clear, I was wearing my clergy collar and florescently bright plaid pants, but somehow no one noticed me. Perhaps everyone else was fretting just like me. 

At least, that’s what it felt like until I felt the tap on my shoulder.

I turned around and saw an older woman with a few items in her hands staring down at the floor, and she said,“This is my first Christmas without my husband. He died a few months ago.”

I just stood there balancing the bread, and asked if she was okay.

She said, “Not really. I just needed to tell someone, because no one else has asked.”

And then I asked if I could pray with her.

I dropped the bread to the ground and we took each other’s hands while waiting in line, and we prayed.

And at the end, when I said, “Amen,” the six closest people said, “Amen,” as well.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

The hopes AND fears of all the years.

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Sometimes, throughout the hustle and bustle of this season, I miss the subtle details. I gloss over a profound detail in the scriptural story, or I overlook the miracles in my midst, or I sing words countless times without thinking about what I’m saying.

The hopes and fears.

On Christmas Eve, when we’re singing praises to baby Jesus, and lighting the candles, and enjoying one another, we also encounter the strange truth of our fears being met in the one born in the manger. 

While Mary and Joseph were there in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary 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 the 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, “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.”

There is an understated wealth in the titles attributed to the baby by the angel out in the fields – Savior, Messiah, Lord. 

How can this baby, a tiny and weak and vulnerable thing, be the Savior, Messiah, and Lord?

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus Christ because something new has begun – a newness that contains a reorienting of all things where we are no longer in control of everything we wish to control.

No. A tiny and weak and vulnerable baby will change the world. 

Only a God like ours would see if fit to transform the very fabric of reality with something tiny, weak, vulnerable. Gone are the days when militaristic might would reign supreme, no longer would economic prosperity dictate the terms of existence. God brings forth a wholeness of life in the life of God’s only Son through whom God ordains a restoring of balance to all the forces of creation and all the the things that have influence over our lives.

Luke begins this story with Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius, but that’s not where the story ends. The birth of Jesus into the world establishes a new order in which the last will be first and the first will be last. The arrival of the Savior, Messiah, and Lord upsets all of the expectations and assumptions that we’ve foolishly made about this world.

Today we assume we know where Jesus is or, at the very least, where Jesus should be. We elevate particular politicians because we think they are on Jesus’ side, or we dismiss entire populations of people because we think Jesus is on our side. We relegate the incarnate Lord to our perfect manger scenes only to pack him away in a few days.

But the story of Christmas is that God cannot, and will not, be stopped. 

Hope and fear are brought near to us in Jesus because this is the beginning of a story that finds its greatest triumph not in a manger scene, not even in the angels singing out in the fields, but in an empty tomb.

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Christmas isn’t just about the warm and fuzzy feelings of warm fires and delicious eggnog. We can rip open the presents tomorrow morning with reckless abandon all we want. But if we take Christmas and the announcement of God as seriously as the shepherds did out in the fields then maybe our proper response is fear.

Not because God will punish us, and not because God is inherently terrifying, but simply because if God gets God’s way, then that means we might not get ours.

The God of scripture is one who finds life, hope, and promise from the margins rather than from the elite and powerful. God consistently uses the least likely of people in the least likely places to achieve the most extraordinary things. The incarnation of God in Jesus is a witness to the fact that we cannot remain as we are.

And that can be a rather terrifying prospect. 

The fears of our years are made evident by the many things we cling to that do not provide us life. For some of us it will be the presents we open tonight and tomorrow morning, for others its the paycheck that comes in ever 2 weeks, and for others its a broken relationship or a fractured family.

We put our trust and our hope in so many things these days and we are so regularly disappointed. 

We vote for the politician of change only to experience the same bureaucratic bumbling as before.

We seek out new employment opportunities only to still feel exhausted at the end of every day.

We even try out different churches hoping they will fix the problems we’re experiencing.

We might like to imagine that Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year, but it can be equally frightening.

Particularly if its the first one without someone we love. 

And yet, as wonderfully weird as is befitting the faith, the angel declares, “Do not be afraid! I am bringing you news great joy!”

To you is born the Savior, Messiah, and Lord.

You need not be responsible for saving yourself and transforming yourself. 

You are not alone.

God is already working on you and in you through Jesus Christ! The sign is a child wrapped in swaddling clothes laying in a feeding trough. God has and will transform the very fabric of the cosmos through that baby.

God saw and sees the disparities of this world and makes a way where there was and is no way. God knows better than us about what is best for us. And the Lord, the one who can terrify us even at this time of year, arrives as Jesus Christ, perfectly vulnerable and weak to transform everything.

Because that very same baby, the one with teeny tiny toes and the one resting in the feeding trough, is the same person who walked through Galilee, who was transfigured magnificently, who feed the people abundantly, who walked on water miraculously, who suffered on the cross tragically, and rose from the grave majestically.

The womb and the tomb could not and cannot contain the grace of God. Even in the darkest moments of our lives there is an everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus tonight. Amen. 

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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Life After Christmas – Sermon on Matthew 2.13-23

Matthew 2.13-23

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord though the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

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A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

After the magi had spent time with the baby Jesus, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they left. The new parents were now alone with their relatively unexplained child, forced to fend for themselves with this baby Messiah. Christmas had come and gone in that tiny village of Bethlehem and life after Christmas was starting to settle in.

One night an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and called him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt, because Herod was after the child. And so, following the commands of the Lord yet again, Joseph took his family and went to the land that God had called him to travel to. There he waited until Herod died.

The wise men, on their way to meet and greet the baby Jesus had shared the news of this newborn king with Herod, who asked to learn of his location and identity after they found him. Because of a dream telling them not to return, they withheld the information regarding the baby Messiah to which Herod was infuriated. He gathered together hordes of soldiers and commanded them to travel to Bethlehem in order to kill any child under the age of two in and around the village.

Later, after the death of Herod, Joseph brought his family back to the land that had been promised to his ancestors, but traveled to the area of Galilee and settled in Nazareth, which would become the boyhood home of Jesus.

When I was 17 years old, I spent a lot of time at my home church. If I wasn’t practicing drums with the worship band, then I was at a boy scout meeting, or helping with youth group, or immersed in a bible study, or running the sound system for worship services, funerals, and weddings. Every Christmas Eve the church would hold multiple services and I would sign up for multiple shifts in order to have the sound system function properly for one of the highest attended services of the year. When I was 17 I was blessed, and I mean that ironically, to run the system for the 3pm and the 11pm services.

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The 3 o’clock service went as well as could have been expected. It was the family friendly service with a cacophony of children all running around and climbing over their pews while their parents attempted to listen to the sermon and not lose their place while singing the hymns. The sermon was spot on about the depth of Christmas and the graceful coming of God into the world in the form of a baby in a manger.

The 11 o’clock service was the complete opposite.

Instead of families with young children, the sanctuary was filled with older adults sitting scattered throughout the dozens of pews. Instead of children climbing over pews and dropping pencils everywhere, there was a profound silence within the worshipping body; a completely different sense of reverence. The sermon was the same, though it felt a little dull with the patterns of repetition throughout the afternoon and evening, however, you could feel a sense of wonder and awe flowing throughout the people that night, as they gathered together to celebrate God’s coming into the world.

By the time I was able to leave, it was already past midnight and I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was drive home, get in my bed, wake up, and open presents. As I drove back to my house I made my way down the George Washington Parkway with the Potomac River on my right thankful for the end of another Christmas Eve.

Right after I turned off the parkway to head up my street I saw flashing red and blue lights underneath the bridge that went over the road I had just drove on. I’m not sure why, (maybe it was the eagle scout in me) but I immediately pulled my car over and ran down to the road to see if I could help.

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The details of what I saw there on the road that night will stay with me for the rest of my life, and there were things that I should never describe from the pulpit. Suffice it to say that, before I arrived, a terribly sad man had been standing on the edge of the bridge for sometime. The drop was nothing to speak of, maybe 13 feet, so he just kept standing there, waiting. He waited until he saw a large SUV coming toward the bridge, and when he felt that it was just the right moment, he jumped.

The SUV was carrying a family on their way home from an 11 o’clock mass from one of the Catholic churches in Old Town Alexandria, a family excited for the prospect of heading home after a wonderful service to get the milk and cookies ready for santa, a family ready to go to bed in order to wake up for Christmas morning, a family whose lives would be forever changed.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but one of the police officers made his way over to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Go home, and try to forget ever seeing this.”

Life after Christmas can be one of the best, and one of the worst, times of the year. Its that strange time that often never meets our expectations. After weeks of preparation, hanging all the lights, decorating the house, wrapping all the presents, planning the meals, sending all the Christmas cards, Christmas comes and goes. We wake up and before we know it the holiday has arrived and departed. And for all the prep that we do, our expectations can almost never be met perfectly. We never receive all the gifts we want, we never have the perfect interaction with our family without fights and arguments, we never get to experience God and faith exactly the way we expect and hope for.

Life after Christmas can be a real shock if we’re not ready for it. We build up this wonderful holiday moment through the songs on the radio, through the worship services of Advent, and even with the sales promotions at all of our favorite stores.

Its no wonder therefore why there are more incidents of hospitalizations for depression, and attempts at suicide during the next few weeks, than any other time during the year. For all the joy that we muster together on Christmas Eve, life after Christmas can hit hard and low.

Life after Christmas for Jesus was filled with trial and tribulation as well. In the wake of his birth in one of the most inhospitable of places, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had to flee to Egypt in order to avoid the wrath of Herod. It is curious that we receive little detail regarding Herod’s desire to kill all of the children in Bethlehem, only that he was infuriated by the deception of the wise men. It would seem that Herod feared for the loss of his position of power and control and he then decided to eradicate any remnant of this supposed “Messiah king” that could usurp his power.

If we only read this story on the surface, hearing about the new family’s retreat to Egypt, their patient waiting for Herod’s death, and their inevitable return, then we will be stuck with the devastating imagery of Rachel weeping for the children, the imagery of Herod killing innocents babies in Jerusalem, and a family’s terrifying experience of fear and isolation. But the story contains so much more.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus comes to be understood as the new Moses. He will deliver a sermon on the mount with his commands for the ways we are to live our lives, just as Moses stood on the mountaintop to deliver the ten commandments to the wandering Hebrews. It is important for Jesus to be understood through a Mosaic lens because he will also deliver the people out of slavery – not slavery in Egypt to foreign pharaohs, but out of slavery to sin and death.

Here, in this story, we get the beginnings of Jesus’ connections with Moses.

During the time of Moses’ birth, the Pharaoh in Egypt had all of the young males murdered in order to maintain the reigns over the Hebrew slaves. It was during this child massacre that Moses was saved by his mother. In a similar way, Jesus was saved from Herod’s massacre of the children because of the warning from God. Just as Moses would come to lead the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt toward the Promised Land, Jesus would eventually return to Galilee from Egypt in order to begin his ministry.

I wonder what it must have felt like for Mary and Joseph to raise that baby under such circumstances; to be told to leave all that was familiar, to enter a foreign land, because a ruler wanted to see your baby murdered. I wonder what could’ve sustained them through the days, weeks, months, and years of unknowing, the periods of fear and isolation.

I wonder what it must still feel like for that family that hit the man on their way home from church. What kind of emotional roller coaster does Christmas bring for them each year? What sustains them through that time of year when joy is so intertwined with fear?

Christmas, for us, is the reflection of that great event where God came to be with us. That time of year where we attempt to set aside all of our disappointments from the past, and look forward to that new beginning that we can hopefully emulate in our own lives.

Why is life after Christmas less ecstatic than the weeks leading up to it? Why do we let ourselves fall into states of sadness and the blues when we were just singing Joy to the World, and Angels We Have Heard On High? What is it about this time that makes it so much harder to get out of bed every morning, and get back into the routines of life?

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

Life after Christmas is almost never easy; not for us now, not for that family driving home, and it certainly wasn’t easy for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. As we continue to step forward into this uncertain time let us not hold fast to the decorations, and the pomp and circumstance, and the presents, and the meals, and all the other elements that make Christmas what it appears to be, but instead let us hold fast to the hymns we sang together as a church, let us hold fast to the fact that Christ is the light of the world that shines in the darkness, let us hold fast to the faith that we have in Jesus Christ as the Lord of all.

When you really get down to it, Christmas isn’t just a day, or even a time of year that we celebrate. As a faithful community, Christmas happens every single time we gather together. Every worship service, every bible study, every quilt for a cause, every Men’s club meeting, every UMW gathering, every youth activity, every thing we do reimagines the Christmas message for us. To be the church, to be the body of Christ for the world, means that we are continuously celebrating the fact that the greatest thing that ever came to be, came to be with us.

The fact that God humbled himself to be like us, for us, and with us, surmounts everything else in the world. For all the disappointments that we might face, for all of the ways we have fallen short of God’s glory, nothing will ever compare to the love of God in Jesus Christ manifested in a man’s life who changed the world.

It is okay to feel hurt and sad during life after Christmas. It is okay to feel the emotional tide that comes and goes while we rest in the awkward time after celebration. But we must never forget that though death, and suffering, and fear are real, they do not have the final word. God’s glory and grace surpasses all things. God’s love for you is eternal, it extends beyond all things, and is present in the ways that we love one another. Jesus, our Moses, came to deliver us from the bonds of the world, to help transform the way we live, and to share with us life eternal.

And so, If we take seriously the faith that we confess in Christ, then life after Christmas should really be the most wonderful time of the year.

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.

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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.