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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Advent Begins In The Dark

Isaiah 64.1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. These is no one who calls on your name, or attempters to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Advent begins in the dark. And, of course, it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around this strange beginning, not only to a season, but also to a new year in the life of the church. After all, our sanctuary has changed. Gone are the white sheets of Christ the King Sunday, tucked away are the green banners from Ordinary Time. Today is a new day in the life of the church and in each of our lives. Today is a day of purple and blue, of royalty and repentance; today we begin in the dark.

For many churches in many places, Advent is filled with joy and hope. Pastors sprinkle their sermons with tidings of good cheer, and wishes of merry Christmases. The sentiment of the season is one of smiles, laughter, and bright light.

            But Isaiah speaks a different word.

From ages past, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.

Although the life and time of Isaiah differs from ours in tremendous ways, there are similarities. We know, like Isaiah, that our reliance on a massive political accumulation of power, rather than a pursuit of love and divine justice, has brought us everlasting turmoil. We know, like Isaiah, that our culture has less to do with the peace of God and more to do with individual hopes and ambitions. We know, like Isaiah, the temptation to throw everything into violent forms of power while ignoring the people tasked with doing such.

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From the dark place of reflection, we read Isaiah’s words about God tearing open the heavens and shaking the foundations of the earth, but when we try to imagine it in our minds we don’t think of the new heaven and the new earth of revelation. Instead, we have visions of devastating destruction like floods, earthquakes, and perhaps even nuclear war.

During Advent we might want our God to look and act more like the chubby man who slides down the chimney with gifts, but Isaiah presents us with an image of God as angry and silent.

And that is the tension of this season. The words from the prophet are even harder to swallow for those of us who have already put up the tree, who have hung all the lights, who have turned our radio stations to the never-ending array of Christmas tunes. But Advent has always held the tension of God’s judgment with God’s promise.

            We have all become like one who is unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We have sinned, and God has moved away from us.

Last week, in our Sunday School class, we wrestled with the always difficult subject of forgiveness. We talked about actions that feel unforgiveable and how difficult it is for us to wrap our heads around the fact that God’s love is for all people, no matter what. And in the midst of the discussion, someone from our church mentioned that beyond individual forgiveness, it might be even harder to forgive entire groups of people for terrible atrocities. He probed us to think about Germany and Japan, to ponder the devastation waded against nation by nation. How can we forgive those kinds of things?

Perhaps, the only way to get to a place of offering forgiveness, the only way to take steps out of the darkness that marks the beginning of Advent, is recognizing our wrongs as well.

A couple weeks ago I heard a story on the radio that has haunted me ever since. As a teenager in 1955, Paul Zimmer was assigned by the military to serve at Camp Desert Rock, Nevada. He was there to witness the testing of atomic bombs. He thought it might be a cool assignment, or at the very least, it would produce stories that might be a good way to pick up girls in the future. He spent a lot of time smoking cigarettes and chumming it up with the other young men, but every couple days he and the others would be convoyed in the middle of the night and marched into the desert.

There they would find long thin trenches dug into the earth like scars from a giant. They wore steel helmets, with little else, and they would wait.

And now I’ll use his words: “I never became fearful until I heard the countdown over the loud speaker. And I only became terrified when I saw the flash. It was bright enough, that even with my eyes closed, I could still see the bones in my hands over my eyes. The shockwave crashed over the trenches and we were then told to open our eyes and watch. We saw the mushroom cloud, with strange purples and blues billowing into the sky above.”

“I saw 8 atomic blasts in total, each of different sizes and deployments. Sometimes the shockwave was so powerful that the walls of the trench would cave in and we struggled to climb out of the grave dug into the earth. And, again and again, we were given the all clear and marched forward into the blast area to wear witness. Bearing witness seemed to be the entire reason we were there.”

“One bomb was three times the size of the one we dropped on Hiroshima, and when we walked forward the air was filled with the stench of ozone, small bushes and trees had evaporated into thin air, and small animals were scattered on the edge of the blast radius whimpering in pain. We walked forward and we passed crumpled vehicles and turrets, mannequins with melted faces, and mangled test animals. No one ever asked us to write a report, nor did anyone ever ask what we saw, because (it turns out) they were watching us. They wanted to see how young men responded to an atomic blast.”

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Over the years I’ve begun to realize that I am one of the last living people in America to have actually experienced close-up explosions of atomic bombs. And now, in my late years, when I think about my experience, I feel it is my responsibility to witness to the sights and the sounds that still ring in my head even today. I feel it is my duty to remember the reckless absurdity of it all, the being buried alive, the walking past death and decay, and the waking up to do it all over again.

We live in a world still shrinking under the threat of nuclear war. Tweets and temptations to push the button ring out across the globe. And while we want our Advent season to be nice and pretty and light, there is a real risk to maintaining the lives that we have grown so comfortable with.

Zimmer ended his story by saying this: “We keep threatening to release these bombs, and I suspect that one day we will. Most of us have forgotten what we are capable of, but I have not.”

(For more on Zimmer’s story: Secret Information)

Advent jolts us out of Ordinary time, where we’ve gone all over the map (so to speak). Isaiah speaks to us on this day with invasive news that it’s time to repent, and to think about fresh possibilities. That’s a tough thing to swallow these days, particularly when we are more moved by feeling good than by being good.

Right? I mean how many of us will fill that empty space under the tree with presents in hopes that those gifts will fill the holes we feel in our souls? How many of us are so consumed by a desire to judge that we forget the need to reflect? How many of us are actually stuck in the darkness of Advent without any of the light of Christ?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t want to hear about nuclear explosions at this, the most wonderful time of the year. We want something pretty and something happy. But I think Paul Zimmer’s witness is as prophetic as Isaiah’s. The hope of Christmas has not looked away from the darkness but straight into it. That, after all, is the message of the incarnation. God comes to us in flesh, in the brokenness of the world, to redeem the world.

But we’re not there yet.

As Christians, though we move through the liturgical calendar every year, we are stuck in Advent. We live in the darkness of Advent, between the first arrival of God’s Son in Bethlehem and the final arrival of God’s Son in the New Heaven and the New Earth. We’re stuck in the tension between the ways things are and the way they ought to be, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

But there is hope in this strange Advent time and it comes from an unexpected place. If we put our trust in princes, or politicians, or even plutonium, we will be disappointed. We cannot receive lasting comfort from this broken world of ours where it feels like the end is always a buttonbush away. Our hope and comfort must come from another place, a place beyond our ability to grasp and comprehend, a place of ultimate divine humiliation and divine exultation, a place that is both beginning and end, a place that isn’t even a place: God.

Hope in God is a strange, vexing, and transformative thing. Hope in God is what comes with a broken heart willing to be mended. Hope in God comes when we are able to look in the mirror, and say from the depth of our being, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am a sinner.” Hope in God comes when we realize that God is always the light in the darkness, but without the darkness we cannot see the light.

The good news we anticipate on Christmas will come, it will be brighter than any atomic blast and it will fundamentally change everything about the world. God will come again and tear open the heavens. God will reorient the world in such a way that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. God’s justice will rain down like waters. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. God will destroy evil forever.

As Christians, yes, we sit in the shadow of the cross and in the darkness of Advent. But we also know the end of the story, we know that greater things are still to come. We know that only God can shake the foundations of the earth. We know that hope in God is unlike anything else in existence. We know all of this because we know that the promise in Mary’s womb comes to fruition in the empty tomb. Amen.

Advent

The Cross in Creation – Karl Barth and Genesis 1.1-2

Genesis 1.1-2

In the beginning when God created the heavens and earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

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While I was in seminary I spent one of my summers helping Bryson City UMC in Bryson City, North Carolina. Bryson City is surround by the Great Smokey Mountains and is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was an incredible experience that directly shaped the way I do ministry today.

During my time at the church I was invited to participate in a weekly lectionary group with local clergy. Every Monday morning the pastors and priests of Bryson City would get together to talk about the scripture readings for the following Sunday. We met at the large Baptist Church, ordered breakfast to be delivered, and then we would take turns reading from the bible and shared what we thought we would preach about on Sunday.

Week after week I heard from clergy of all different denominations (Presbyterian, Baptists, Catholic, Methodist, etc.) as they wrestled with God’s Word and how to proclaim it from very different pulpits to very different people.

On one hot morning in the middle of July I found myself surrounded by those familiar pastors and priests as we read the texts aloud. The lectionary always had four prepared readings for each Sunday on a three-year cycle: a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel. I don’t remember what the other readings were that morning, but I do remember that I was asked to read Genesis 1: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…

When I finished, as was our custom, we waited for individuals to speak up about what they planned to do with the test during worship. Silence filled the room. So I decided to ask the obvious question, “I anyone planning to preach on Genesis 1?” The silence remained. I remember thinking to myself, “How strange is this? We’re talking about the first lines of scripture in the bible and no one is preaching on it in Bryson City this week.” It was obvious that most of the clergy wanted to move on to a different reading, but I felt compelled to ask another question: “Have any of you every preaching on Genesis 1?” One by one they confirmed my suspicion; not one of those pastors, priests, ministers, or preachers had ever proclaimed a sermon on the beginning of creation.

While they moved on to a different reading and a different conversation, I silently began calculating from my chair: In that room we had over 100 years of preaching represented. Over 100 years of preaching, more than 5,200 sermons, and not one of them had ever preached from Genesis 1.

Why do we ignore Genesis 1? What is it about the text that makes us afraid to bring it up in worship or in bible study?

On some level I think it is good to be afraid of God’s Word; that fear reminds us that God is God and we are not. But Genesis 1 is not something to be ignored or forgotten.

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Of all the writing I’ve read on Genesis 1, it is Karl Barth’s exegesis of the text that gives me hope for its return to the pulpits and congregations of our churches.

Barth, unlike so many modern theologians and pastors, rejects the fear and presumption that there is dissonance between creation as recorded in scripture and the scientific method. Instead of attempting to rationalize the theory of the Big Bang with the details of Genesis 1, and instead of struggling to line up Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection with the order of creation in scripture, Barth rejoices in the knowledge that the earth was in a hopeless situation of chaos and utter darkness and God chose to transform reality through the Word. The “how?” and “why?” of creation is simply answered with “Word” and “love.”

Writing and reflecting from this vantage point gives Barth the ability to freely respond to the words contained in Genesis 1 with a freshness that is often lost in the church today; his exegesis of Genesis 1 is a worthy read for clergy and laity alike.

In §41.2 “Creation As The External Basis Of The Covenant” (III.1 The Doctrine of Creation in Church Dogmatics) Barth begins his exegesis with the very first words of God from the Word of God.

The first word in the Hebrew Bible is bereshith, which roughly translates to “start” or “beginning.” In English we render this as “In the beginning…” but for Barth the distinction is important. To begin with “beginning” tells us “that this history, and with it the existence and being of the world, had a beginning, i.e., that unlike God Himself it was not without a beginning, but that with this beginning it also looks to an end.”[1] There is no other word that can quite compare with the one that inaugurates God’s holy scripture. From the beginning of all things God created a beginning to have an end. The Lord did not create the world like a watchmaker and then step back to see how it would run. God was intimately involved in the creative act knowing full and well that there was a necessary end, or conclusion, to the creative act. Unlike an author who begins a story without knowing how it will come to close, God created from beginning with an ending.

For years I’ve read the creation account from Genesis 1 and thought of it just like that: an account of creation. The words were there on the page, though they hardly jumped out at me. Like those pastors in Bryson City, Genesis 1 is one of those chapters in the bible that I have not so subtly avoided because of the difficulty of rationalizing it with modern science. And yet Barth writes about the first two verses of scripture with such conviction that it challenges me to re-engage with the text and see the beauty of what God did, and is doing.

Verse 2 (the earth was a formless void…) has been similarly read with haste and overlooked for the richness it holds. Everything else, which is to say everything neutral or against God’s will, ceased to exist when time began with God’s action and accomplishment. The whole of creation was worked into being and order by God in time. In God’s freedom to create was the earth brought into meaning through God’s action and through God’s word to create.

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The challenge of verse 2 has vexed theologians and Christians alike for centuries regarding the chaos, whether or not God created it, and if God willed a reality of chaos into existence. This, I think, has factored into the disappearance of Genesis 1 from pulpits because we are unsure of how to speak about evil in the world, and whether or not God ordained it.

The question of God’s role in the creative act resulting in, or presupposing evil, is usually limited to two answers: God either did create the darkness and evil, or God did not.

Barth totally rejects this dualistic presumption.

Instead, Barth begins by confronting what is actually stated: “In verse 2 there is absolutely nothing as God willed and created and ordained it according to verse 1 and the continuation. There is only “chaos.” … that which is absolutely without basis or future, utter darkness… According to this phrase the situation in which the earth finds itself is the very opposite of promising. It is quite hopeless.”[2]

For Barth the question over evil and whether or not the violent and chaotic state of the world is self-originated or willed by God pales in comparison to the fact the earth was in a hopeless situation of utter darkness and God chose to transform reality through the Word. Verse 2 therefore posits a world in which the Word of God had not been uttered. The “nothingness” of creation is utterly destroyed and rendered impossible by the possibility of God in the creative act.

The ugliness of the existence prior to the Word of God did exist almost like a shadow of the actual creative act of God. And because it was like a shadow, in the freedom of humanity we can look back and return to that past and bring forth the shadow of verse 2. In so doing, by rejecting the Word of God, the past defies its own nature and becomes present and future. However, God totally and utterly rejected and rejects the shadow and speaks forth the Word to shine in the darkness.

The temptation of humanity to return to the shadow is ever present. Whenever we deny mercy to God’s creatures, we are retreating to the moment precisely before the Word of God. It is in our broken and sinful nature that we reject God’s Word and substitute our own. The shadow of darkness is around us whenever we encounter death and destruction. But no shadow can compare with the one of the cross: “This – this moment of darkness in which His own creative Word, His only begotten Son, will cry on the cross of Calvary: ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’ – will be ‘the small moment’ of His wrath in which all that is indicated in Genesis 1.2 will become real. For all the analogy to other kinds of darkness, there is no other moment such as this.”[3]

In the death of Jesus Christ, in the shadow of the cross, humanity encounters the true and total darkness prior to God’s Word. But it is through Jesus Christ (as the Word) that God will reconcile creation to God’s self. In the one incarnate creature, at that particular moment and time in the cosmos, the Word will again become the Light over all creation. The brilliance of the empty tomb shines like the first light hovering over the darkness in Genesis 1.2.

The “old things” of creation prior to the Word have radically passed away in a dynamic and divine act of the Lord speaking the Word and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The first two verses of scriptures contain the fullness of all God’s scripture. In beginning we see the ending. In the darkness we see the cross. In the light we see the empty tomb and resurrection. What Barth does with scripture is like what a Jazz musician does with the form of a tune; Barth improvises over the lines and draws connections to melodies that we have scarcely imagined.

To reclaim the brilliance of Genesis 1, to jump into the strange new world of the bible like Barth, will give us the strength to encounter creation and believe that it is worthy to be preached and proclaimed. But more than anything, it will give us the vision to see creation and declare, like the Lord, “it is good.”

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.1 (Peabody, Massachusets: Hendrickson Publishers), 99.

[2] Ibid., 104.

[3] Ibid., 110.

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.

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.