Terms And Conditions May Apply

Luke 9.28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not know what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. 

I think honesty is a pretty good thing to strive for in the church.

While we are steeped in a world of deception, when we never quite know who or what to trust, surely in the church we could do for some transparency.

So I’ll start with this: It’s been a long and difficult week.

I traveled to St. Louis with two of my closest friends, who happen to be clergy in the UMC, and with whom I host and produce a number of podcasts. 

We weren’t really sure what to expect. We sat high above the arena in the press section and were witnesses to every moment of the conference. We tried to write about what we saw and what we felt, and we also reached out to people of all sides of LGBTQIA inclusion or exclusion debate so that we could share, as well as we could, what was going on and what was at stake.

We put out a conversation we had with a pastor who was fired without trial for presiding over a same-sex union. We talked with a man who leads a conservative lobbying group who was strongly advocating for the Traditional Plan. We interviewed a retired bishop about his experiences throughout his career and how they led to a moment like this one. We spoke with a gay pastor and his partner. And we reached out to a lot of people who simply said they didn’t want to talk.

And all the while we waited. We watched the legislative angling in which people from every side of the spectrum argued for their vision to become reality. We watched as protestors stood up to sing hymns in order to drown out people from an opposing view-point. We watched as bishops struggled to keep the room in order as different proposals were brought to the floor.

And then on Tuesday afternoon, after all the fighting and debating, THE vote came before the delegates of the general conference. They were simply running out of time and needed to get everything settled. 

Incidentally, we were on a time crunch to leave the arena promptly because they needed to dumps tons of dirt on the floor in preparation for the Monster Truck Rally that was scheduled for the evening.

It took exactly 60 seconds for all of the delegates to cast their votes through their electronic devices. And for 60 seconds most of the people in the room were wondering the same things:

Would the global United Methodist Church adopt the Traditional Plan that continues to ban LGBTQIA persons from ordained ministry? Would the church double down on punishments for clergy who preside over same sex weddings? Would the language of incompatibility be reinforced and therefore resonate strongly across the globe?

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God does a lot of ungodly things in the Bible, and in particular through the person of Jesus. 

We could expect that God in the flesh would sit tight in a particular region, waiting for the people to gather, but Jesus goes walking all over the place. 

We might expect that God would share a clear and cogent vision for what it means to live a faithful life, but Jesus tells these strange and bizarre parables that leave people scratching their heads. 

We might imagine that God would command people to tell everyone about the Messiah being in their midst, but Jesus usually order people to keep their mouths shut.

So it comes to pass that Jesus calls Peter, John, and James to go up onto the mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, his face changed, his clothes became dazzling white, and suddenly two men were standing next to him, Moses and Elijah.

Peter and the others don’t know what to make of it. Scripture doesn’t even tell us how they knew it was Moses and Elijah. But ever eager Peter makes the bold claim that they should stay up on the mountain even though the two figures were talking with Jesus about his departure in Jerusalem. In many ways, Peter wanted everything to stay the way it was, he wanted to build houses on top of the mountain, perhaps to avoid the reality of what might happen down in the valley.

And in that precise moment of Peter’s rambling, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified.

I’ve always loved the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. It stands as a high point, both literally and figuratively, in the gospel stories. Whatever the disciples think they know about Jesus takes on a whole new meaning of power and majesty and might, when two of the greatest figures from Israel’s history are flanking him on his left and right. 

Moreover, in these two particular persons, it’s as if the whole of the Old Testament is conferring with Jesus.

Moses is the Law.

Elijah is the Prophets. 

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It’s a great moment for preaching and teaching because everything changes after this divine declaration – all eyes are now aimed toward Jerusalem. The team has huddled together on the mountaintop and there’s no turning back from the cross.

And then the cloud overshadows all of them, and the disciples were terrified.

I imagine that the waiting in that moment was akin to the breathless waiting in the convention center at General Conference. So much would hang one whatever happened next, and yet in that moment of darkness the mind wanders all over the places and through every possibility.

Throughout the arena there were a number of screens that would display the occasional votes, and after the requisite 60 seconds, the results were made available to everyone with eyes to see.

The Traditional Plan passed.

438 to 384

53% to 47%

What happened next was a strange thing to behold. 

At first the room was truly silent, completely unlike it had been in the previous days. And suddenly a group of delegates began to gather in the very center of the room, they embraced one another as the tears began flowing down their faces, and they started to sing. 

This is my story.

This is my song.

Praising my Savior all the day long…

In their singing and in their weeping, the dreams of a different future for the UMC were brought to a halt.

And then something else began to take place. Other delegates rose from their seats, and they made their own circle off to the side, and they started dancing, and clapping, and celebrating the results.

Never in my life have I been witness to such tremendous suffering and such exalted joy only an arm’s length away from each other.

And we call ourselves the church. 

When the disciples cowered in fear as the cloud overshadowed them, they waited for whatever would come next.

Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And the disciples kept silent in those days and told no one about what they had seen,.

There were a lot of people at the Special General Conference last week. There was plenty of talking and fighting and arguing. There were quite a few moments where the Bible was weaponized to knock down someone else for trying to make a theological argument.

And though we started the whole thing in prayer, and though we had a cross up at the front of the room, there was one person who was conspicuously absent from the proceedings: Jesus.

Sure, I heard a lot about what it says in Leviticus. I heard a lot about Paul. I heard people quote precisely from John Wesley. But Jesus? 

I honestly don’t know where Jesus was while we were trying to figure out the future of his church. 

In fairness to our Lord, it felt like he had better things to do than witness the devolution of an institution whose motto is “Do No Harm.”

It seems like we’ve spent so much time listening to ourselves, that we’ve forgotten what the voice cried out from the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration.

I don’t know what the future holds for the UMC. I’m not even sure what it means to be a United Methodist right now. Open hearts, open minds, open doors right?

But from the time that Peter quaked in fear on top of the mountain, Christians have always known that what we’ve always been taught and what God is saying today aren’t always exactly the same thing. 

Christians have known since that horrific moment where the crowds chose to save Barabbas instead of Jesus that voting and democratic decision making have plenty of flaws.

Christians have known since that first Easter morning, that resurrection is only possible on the path that includes the cross.

In a few minutes we will gather at the table, as countless Christians have done so before us. We do so as a United Methodist Church, whatever that means, but more importantly we do so as disciples of Jesus. Despite what a Book of Discipline might say, there are no terms and conditions on this moment. Nothing can preclude us from the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.

So when we come to the table, when we cling to the cross, listen for the voice crying out from the overshadowing cloud. 

“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Amen.

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. 

The Abyss of Christmas

Devotional:

Psalm 80.3

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

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There are few things I look forward to more than the moment when everyone is singing “Silent Night” while holding tiny candles on Christmas Eve. For most of my life I stood in solidarity among those in the pews and I hosted my candle up high like a banner for Jesus. And then when I became a pastor I noticed something during Christmas Eve worship that I missed from the pews: all of the glowing faces.

From the vantage point of the altar, the sharing of the flame begins in the darkness but it ends with the entire sanctuary basked in a glowing light that began in Jesus. It is a rather profound thing to witness from the front of the church, all of the glowing faces, and it is something that I hold dear each year.

In that moment we are witnessing to the once-and-for-all-ness of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. And yet, I have tried to imagine different ways that we can hold on to that beauty even after we leave the sanctuary. Because, as we all know, we go from worship back to our homes, back to our trees, back to our presents, back to our in-laws, back to our problems, and very soon the glow from the flame has all but disappeared.

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Karl Barth, the great theologian, puts it this way:

“The Savior no longer needs to be born. He was born once for all time. But he would like to come stay with us. The place where the Savior would like to come stay with us has in common with the stall of Bethlehem that it too is not at all beautiful but looks rather desolate, not at all cozy but downright sinister, not worthy of human beings but quite close to the animals. Our inns, proud or modest, and we as their residents – that is only the surface of our life. Hidden underneath there is a depth, a bottom – indeed, an abyss. And there below are we human beings, each in our way, only poor beggars, only lost sinners, only sighing and dying creatures, only people who are not at their witness end. And at this very time Jesus Christ comes to stay with us, and what’s more: he has already come to stay with us. Yes, thanks be to God for this dark place, for this manger, for this stall also in our life! There below we need him, and eve there he can also need us, each one of us. There we are just the right ones. There he only waits for us to see him, to know him, to believe in him, to love him. There he greets us. There we can do nothing other than greet him again and bid him welcome. Let us not be ashamed to be down there right beside the ox and the ass! Right there is where he holds fast to us all.” (Barth, Insights. 28)

So may we enter into this final week before Christmas knowing that Christ is with us both in the light, and in the darkness. 

Ending With A Promise

Devotional:

Isaiah 12.2

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 

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Today, thanks to Tommie Marshell’s excellent devotional for the Advent Begins In The Dark series, I was reminded of some words from the phenomenal preacher Fleming Rutledge:

“The sermon should end with a promise because God’s purposes cannot be defeated; that’s God’s promise. So that if we have received the gift of faith, we need to know that God is present in that gift of faith and even when we think we are losing our faith, God is still there.”

God is still there…

Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I used to run the sound system at my home church. Every Sunday I could be found in the back of the sanctuary tinkering away with all the knobs and slides so that everyone could hear whatever it was the preacher was saying. And, on Christmas Eve, I would do the same.

On one particular Christmas Eve I drew the short straw and was asked to run the board for the 11pm service. The preacher that night was exhausted by that point, having already preached at 3, 5, 7, and 9pm services, and the sanctuary was not as filled as it had been earlier in the evening. But nevertheless a faithful remnant stood vigil and offered the hymns with gusto. To be honest, I don’t remember much from the service that night except that the sermon ended with a promise: “God is born in Jesus for you.”

After we blew out the final candle and turned off all the lights, I got in my car and drove home to my parents’ house. Longing for the warmth of my bed, and the hopeful joy of presents in the morning, I drove with anticipation. 

Until I saw the fleshing red and blue lights ahead of me.

My home was down the street from an old stone bridge that runs across the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria, VA and as I pulled up to the bridge I went into Boy Scout mode without really thinking about what I was doing. And before I knew it I had parked the car and ran down to the road offering to help in any way that I could to the first police officer I encountered.

He looked up from the road and said, “Son, go home and forget that you saw any of this. Merry Christmas.”

And I wish that I could forget what I saw.

But I can’t.

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Because that night, shortly before I arrived in my car, a man from our community had been standing on the edge of the bridge for a long time waiting and waiting. He waited until he saw a large SUV coming down the road, and when he felt that it was the right moment, he jumped.

The SUV was carrying a family on their way home from their own Christmas Eve service, a family ready for the warmth of their beds, and the hopeful joy of presents in the morning, a family that would be forever changed.

In the many years since that night I have tried my best to forget what I saw on the road. I’ve tried to fill that memory with the light and the glow of the sanctuary instead of the red and blue lights. 

But I can’t. 

And that’s okay; this world of ours is broken and flawed and people are hurting. It doesn’t do any of us any good to sugar-coat this season like the candy-canes we have displayed in our homes. But we mustn’t forget the promise: “God is born in Jesus for you.”

For me.

For the man who jumped.

For the family in the car.

And for you.

Like A Whore In Church: Advent Begins In The Dark

Devotional:

Isaiah 1.21-31

How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers!

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Many of you know that I am part of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast team. Every week we put out 2-3 episodes ranging from interviews with theologians, to unpacking stained glass language, to reflecting on all of the Lectionary texts for the following Sunday. The team is made up of 3 United Methodist Clergy and 2 lay people and we originally started the conversations to keep our theological juices flowing but it has grown far beyond what we could’ve ever imagined. For instance: this year we had our 300,000th download.

A few months ago we decided to produce a daily Advent devotional with contributions from some of our favorite guests, and from the team itself. I drew the unlucky straw of writing our second devotional, following the first by Bishop Will Willimon. If you would like to subscribe to the Advent devotional (receiving each one by email every day) or simply read them as they come out you can do so here: www.AdventBeginsInTheDark.com 

Below is my attempt at approaching the unenviable text from Isaiah 1.21-31…

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There’s a reason that we don’t read Isaiah 1.21-31 out loud at church.

When we think of Advent we conjure up in our minds the Chrismon trees and the lights surrounding the altar. We remember the purple and pink advents candles and the red plumage of the poinsettias. We consider the plight of Mary and Jospeh to the small town of bread knowing not at all what their future would hold.

We like our religious observances to be orderly and helpful and we don’t even mind a sermon that steps lightly on our toes because we know that everyone has room for improvement. But then when we hear these words from the 5th gospel, we experience some painful theological whiplash.

The faithful city has become a whore!

She was once full of justice but now she is full of murderers!

Who wants to hear about that kind of stuff in church?

In her book Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge writes, “For many years, I thought that, during Advent, one was supposed to pretend that Jesus hadn’t been born, so that we would be more excited when Christmas came. Needless to say, this stratagem didn’t work. For me, it was a revelation years later to learn that the last weeks of Pentecost and the first weeks of Advent look forward to the second coming of Christ… In Advent, we don’t pretend, as I once thought, that we are in the darkness before the birth of Christ. Rather, we take a good hard look at the darkness we are in right now, facing and defining it honestly, so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great hope and only joy is in Jesus’ final victorious coming.” (Advent: The Once & Future Coming Of Jesus Christ, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2018), 58.

It is far too easy, today, to take passages like this one from Isaiah and read it through a somewhat anti-semitic lens as if Jesus is the wrath of God being poured upon God’s people. Preachers will foolishly wax-lyrical about the idolatry of God’s people from the past all while giving God the glory for arriving as the baby in Bethlehem

But that kind of reading leaves us imagining that Advent is all about pretending that Jesus hasn’t been born, and it prevents us, to use Fleming’s words, from taking a good hard look at the darkness we are in right now.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are still the faithful city that has become a whore. The people we look to for guidance and leadership, in politics/business/churches, are rebels and companions of thieves. We worship them and ourselves thinking they/we can provide our salvation when we know how quick we all are to run after those things that cannot give us life. 

We are all coming of age in a world where it is far too easy and far too convenient to ignore the plight of the marginalized while strangely finding comfort in the words of a hymn like Away In A Manger. There was “no crib for a bed” because people like you and I are so consumed by our own needs and desires that the cause of other does not come before us!

But that’s not the kind of message we want to hear during the season of Advent. No, we want to hear about how Jesus’ birth will warm our hearts. We’d rather imagine the animals snuggled closely providing comfort for the King of kings and Lord of lords.

But what if we are the darkness that needs to be blotted out by Jesus’ light?

Throughout the history of the church, Christians have had a remarkable propensity to read themselves into a biblical story. When we hear about the two on the road to Emmaus we imagine ourselves as one of those two listening to, and breaking bread with, Jesus. When we hear about Prodigal Son we imagine God welcoming us back with open arms after going down the wrong path.

And yet when we read about God destroying the rebels and the sinners, we inexplicably reject the notion that we could be the rebels and sinners that need destroying!

What a time to be God’s church! Advent is the season we conjure up the darkness among us and in us and proclaim the bitter and strange truth: We cannot save ourselves.

No amount of Christmas lights, no number of presents under the tree, no perfectly arranged dinner table can rectify the wrongs we have perpetuated in this world. We have become whores to our own desires and dreams at the expense of the orphan, and the widow, and the sojourner, and the marginalized.

Just consider a headline from the newspaper this morning: “America’s ‘War on Terror’ has cost the US nearly $6 trillion and killed roughly half a million people with no end in sight.”

What would the rest of this strange and bewildering season look like if we insisted on facing and defining the darkness honestly rather than sugar-coating it with chocolate calendars? 

How might our steps toward Christmas change if we admitted the challenging truth of our own sinfulness before calling it out in someone else?

What habits and practices will we need to crucify before God’s church can experience a new resurrection?

Isaiah’s declaration about the inherent failures of the whoring city doesn’t preach easily. Few pastors are dumb enough, or brave enough, to proclaim these words from the pulpit. They run the risk of running off those who came with expectations of the warm manger scene rather than the destruction of all things.

But today, here in the midst of Advent, we are like oaks whose leaves wither, and we are like gardens without water. We might look around and see families with perfectly behaved children, or individuals who appear perfectly put together, but all of us are perpetuating a world in which our own righteousness has somehow become more important than God’s righteousness.

Advent, therefore, is the right time to look into the heart of our own darkness with the understanding that our greatest hope, and our only joy is in the once and future coming of Jesus Christ. 

Devotional – Psalm 29.2

Devotional:

Psalm 29.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.