The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Isaiah 60.1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold, and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

“A banana phone?”

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

My family was sprawled out around my parents living room, all in matching pajamas, as we patiently awaited the first gift of Christmas.

My mother, having her progeny surrounding her, ripped the wrapping paper with precision, and inside… was a banana phone.

It was yellow and curved, as you’d expect, and it just sat there in her hand as she looked across the room at my father.

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

“It connects via bluetooth,” he said, with just the hint of self-justification in his voice. “It’s for those times that you can find your cell phone in your purse, you can just grab the banana and bring it to your ear and have a normal conversation.”

“There’s nothing normal about talking into a banana.”

And in the brief moment of awkward silence as all of us took in the scene of not only the first gift of Christmas, but the first strange gift of Christmas, my toddler promptly jumped up and, diffusing the situation, he declared, “I play with the banana phone.”

We didn’t see him for the next ten minutes as he walked around the house having a pretend conversation about who knows what.

I love asking questions, particularly those that even out the playing field and those that give everyone a chance to respond.

What’s one of your favorite Christmas presents of all time? 

That’s a great question, because it immediately gets people thinking nostalgically about the past and inevitably it draws people closer to one another as they share collective memories from the past about toys long forgotten, or no longer created.

But there’s an even better question than the best Christmas present… What’s one of the strangest Christmas presents you’ve ever received?

People will normally furrow their brows in response as they think deeply about an out of left-field gift from days long ago, but usually somebody will start laughing before they even start the story.

I know that for the rest of her life, my mother will consider the banana phone one of the strangest gifts she’s ever received. 

It’s certainly practical, to some degree, thought it’s not something she needs and, more importantly, it’s not something she will ever use.

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Sometime after Jesus was born, though we’ve not entirely sure when, magi or wisemen or astrologers from the east came to visit the newborn Messiah. They conspired with King Herod to discover Jesus’ location but when they discerned his fear and/or jealously, they set out ahead of him until they arrived in Bethlehem. 

They were overwhelmed with joy and entered the house where the little family was huddled together and they opened up their treasure chests: gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Scripture doesn’t tell us a whole lot more than that. We don’t read about Mary and Jospeh’s conversation with the magi, or even if they picked the little baby up in their arms, or even what their names were!

And yet, over the years, I’ve found myself wondering about this particular scene from scripture. 

What did Mary and Joseph think about the gift? 

Where were the magi with the diapers, and pacifiers, and formula? 

Did anyone offer to give the new parents a night out on the town without baby duty? 

Who brought the casserole to put in the refrigerator for late night meals?

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh – Are they the gifts that keep on giving?

Today is Epiphany, an often overlooked moment on the liturgical calendar. It marks the conclusion of the season of Christmas and it celebrates the extension of the gospel to the gentiles. 

In the magis’ moment at the manger we witness the great scope of God’s mission in and through Jesus Christ insofar as it will not be limited to a particular people in a particular place, but will indeed fulfill the words from the prophet Isaiah.

Arise, shine; for the light has come! Darkness cover the earth and all of her people, but the Lord has arisen, and his glory has appeared.

Nations will come to the light, and even kings will be beckoned to the brightness of God’s new dawn. 

Just open your eyes and look around, all have gathered together, and in the seeing we rejoice with radiance because the gifts have arrived.

There is a strange temptation in the season of Christmastide, better known as the time after Christmas, in which we still faintly revel in the music and the lights and even the presents that once sat under our tree. But now, 12 days later, the luster is starting to diminish as the real world catches back up with us. 

Some of the things we opened have already been returned, others have been regifted, and some have been placed in a box never to see the light of day!

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Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh were, and are, gifts that go far above and beyond the recipients. Mary and Joseph were of a certain way of life such that that was probably the first, and only time, they ever saw, let alone held, those kinds of items. They demonstrate the paradoxical subversion of the status quo.

Up until this manger moment, it was the poor and the marginalized who were expected to present presents to those in power – people like the magi.

But now, in Jesus, the first are becoming last and the last are becoming first. That’s the power of the light that shines in the darkness, it draws us in like flies on a hot summer night to a florescent neon glow, and we can’t help ourselves.

The gifts of the wisemen were not particularly helpful to a pair of new parents – they weren’t going to make Jesus fall asleep or quit his crying or even pacify his hunger, but they do point to one of the things that’s right with the church.

The church is the place where the power of the light that shines in the darkness is made intelligible through practices like being the church in worship!

When we gather to sing and praise, when we hear the good news of the gospel, we are living into the drama of the multitudes that Isaiah is describing.

Here in this place at this time we are in the great company of people from all nations and all ages.

And to be abundantly clear, our church lives into this in a way that many others do not. If you take a look around our sanctuary we are not nearly as monolithic as other places of worship are. Thanks to the hard work of those who came before us we are one of the more diverse churches in the area and we are therefore a foretaste of the vision Isaiah describes.

But, lest we walk out of here with heads too big to fit through the door – we certainly have room for improvement. 

The light of Christ shines among us so that we can see ourselves as we truly are, but the light also shows us a glimpse of what can be.

Isaiah’s powerful words about the light made possible in Jesus remind us that the healing and solace we find in a place like the church is not the ultimate reason the church exists. Otherwise we would be just another self-help group among the many others that exist. Instead, God restores us to a newness and a wholeness in and with the church so that we can take our place among the people of God while making room for more to join us.

One of the things that’s right with the church is the fact that it is the powerful place in which we are uplifted in the recognition that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, and that we belong to something different than ourselves.

I’ve said it many times before but the church seems to be the only place left where people willfully gather together with others with whom they fundamentally disagree on a number of issues except for the fact that Jesus is Lord.

We, as the church, are part of a multitude that includes the magi, and the saints, and the martyrs, and the sinners, and everyone in between. There is no other place that can quite build us up while also pointing toward the difficult truths we’d otherwise ignore.

In Jesus we are made perfect, but we are still the fallible sinners in need of Jesus’ saving grace. The church is indeed the better place God has made in the world and God is still not quite done with us yet!

The beginning of Isaiah’s proclamation, Arise and Shine!, is not a suggestion, and it’s not even an invitation – it is a command. Get up! Shine! Go!

Here, on the day of Epiphany, as we celebrate the total scope of the gospel extending to the gentiles, we are challenged by Isaiah’s words to move out of the waiting of Advent darkness, and beyond the mystery of the Christmas incarnation, toward the brilliance of the brightness in Christ the Lord.

But the brilliant brightness is only necessary because of the thick darkness that covers the people. During the time of Isaiah the darkness was nothing new to the people Israel. They truly knew what it means to dwell in thick darkness while exiled in Babylon. And today, we too dwell in our own version of exilic darkness.

We are far more persuaded by the talking heads on television than we are by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We are regularly fearful of the other and anything that appears strange and yet Jesus Christ is the strange incarnation of God in the flesh.

We are more likely to turn our heads away from the suffering in the world around us even though Jesus regularly walked into it again and again.

So what’s right with the church? 

If we are broken people in need of grace, if we routinely make the wrong choices or avoid making the right choices, if we perpetuate the thick darkness that Jesus came to destroy can we really say there is anything right with the church?

Jesus is what is right with the church, not us. Jesus is the one great gift that really keeps on giving. But he does not bring us prosperity and peace and preferential treatment. 

The great gift of Christ, the light that shines and never fades, is nothing but the cross upon which he was killed.

As I said on Christmas Eve, the same baby in the manger is the one who was hung for the sins of the world. The same child to which the magi brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is the same one who broke free from the chains of death. 

Jesus Christ will forever be the gift that keeps on giving because he gives himself for you and me, knowing full and well who we are who and who we are meant to be. Amen. 

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Bad Baby Gifts

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for Epiphany Sunday (Isaiah 60.1-6, Psalm 72, Ephesians 3.1-12, Matthew 2.1-12). Teer is the associate pastor of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA, and is part of the Crackers & Grape Juice Team. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the star of the podcast team, epiphanic moments, keeping the magi out of the manger, prevenient grace, prayers from the Buddha, God’s judgment on the ungodly, the mediation of Christ, and weird gifts. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Bad Baby Gifts

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Missing From The Manger

“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.”

It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this: Christmas Eve! 

No matter how old or jaded we may be, regardless of whether we deserve coal in our stockings or not, Christmas Eve never fails to work its magic. 

The lights are hung in the sanctuary, the candles are burning, the poinsettias are blooming. 

And we are here! Some of us were raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. Others made plans weeks ago and are here for the very first time. Some of us are here with questions, and others are just waiting to get home to finish everything else. Some of us made a last minute decision and are still wondering if we made the right choice, and others were dragged here against our will!

There are some here tonight with more Christmases ahead than behind, young parents with children, kids with long wish lists. And of course there are some for whom there are only a few Christmases left, and with each passing season we feel more nostalgic about the past.

Whoever you are, and whatever feelings, and thoughts, and questions you’ve brought tonight, it is my hope and prayer that you encounter the light of the world in Jesus Christ.

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I am beside myself.

It’s one of my grandmother’s favorite things to say. And, to be honest, I’m not sure what it means. I don’t even know if she knows what it means.

And yet she says it all the time.

It can be used in both exhilarating and terrifying ways. Like when she gets a card from someone in the mail with whom she has not conversed with in years. She will pick up the phone and tell me about it, and to describe the feeling she says, “I am beside myself!”

Or like when she turns on the news and learns of yet another senseless tragedy taking place somewhere in the world, she will pick up the phone and tell me about it, and to describe the feeling she says, “I am beside myself!”

I love my grandmother with every fiber of my being, and I will contend that she decorates for holidays better than anyone on the planet. 

Who else has 76 Easter bunnies that she hides in the house for her grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren to discover every spring? 

But the greatest decoration of all, her pride and joy, is her manger scene.

Every year she sets aside the time to pull out the box with every individual character wrapped in their own paper to place them perfectly in their pre-ordained spot. The camels are so life-like they look as if they could spit on the bureau where they are situated during December. The magi are so majestic I am convinced that if you opened up their tiny gift boxes you would indeed discover gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The detail in the faces of Mary and Joseph are so incredible that you can see both their excitement and their terror about the new baby boy in their lives.

But one year, when the whole family gathered at her house, she greeted us at the front door with her preferred expression from both sides of the emotional spectrum: “I am beside myself!”

I had hoped that she was beside herself in joy that her entire family was waiting by the door, but I was wrong. No, she was beside herself because baby Jesus was missing – and you can’t have Christmas without baby Jesus.

The manger appeared as perfect as planned, except there, right in the middle was the tiny feeding trough without a Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. 

So we looked, and we looked, and we looked looked looked looked. We checked the box where the manger scene spent the other 11 months of the year, we checked under the bureau, we even found ourselves looking in the refrigerator.

But the longer we looked the more beside herself my grandmother became.

Jesus was indeed missing.

Only later, having gone through every sock drawer, and basement box, and even the trash, did we find him.

When my grandmother set up the manger that year, she put the trough in upside down. It looked like it was empty, when in fact if you looked close enough you could see baby Jesus’ little hands and feet sticking out of the bottom, crushed under the weight of his make-shift crib, and all we had to do was flip it around.

Jesus was there the entire time.

These days the season of Christmas is filled with lots of stuff. And rather than bemoaning the commercialization and the commodification of the holiday, we can just focus on the church herself. We’ve got all sorts of decorations, we’ve got some of the best songs from the hymnal, we will even end this service under the beauty of candlelight. 

But contrary to what we see or even hear this time of year, the biblical story itself is strikingly simple, brief, and straightforward.

Jesus’ birth barely gets one verse.

According to Luke all of the clutter that might distract people like us from the profound truth of the incarnation of God in the flesh is pushed to the side. 

There are no magi in the manger, we don’t even hear about any animals nuzzled in close for warmth.

It’s just Mary, Joseph, and a baby.

However, Luke does share with us this incredibly powerful moment where the heavenly host proclaims the arrival of someone and something new to the shepherds out in the fields.

It would be one thing to expect the divine declaration about the in-breaking of the kingdom arriving in front of the emperor back in Rome, or even in the governor’s palace in Jerusalem. 

But God does something incredibly different and contrary to the systems and expectations of the world. 

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While people even today focus on the people and the places of worldly power, Luke draws our attention toward the margins.

There’s a reason the shepherds lived out in the fields – it wasn’t just the place where their livestock lived, but also because they were seen as a sub-class, not fit to even be in the cities, towns, and villages.

And that’s where the glory of the Lord shined the brightest! 

This is the sign for you – you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger – he is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.

Most of us have heard this story enough time that the weight of that particular proclamation no longer carries the weight it once did. The angel of the Lord announces the triumphant entry of God into the world to the least likely people – and even more outrageous is the fact that God chooses to enter through Jesus. 

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

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 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.

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 often missing from the manger scenes of our lives, 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, and no matter whether or not we think Jesus is missing, he is there, he is here, and he always will be. 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. 

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.

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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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Palms Beneath My Feet – Sermon on Mark 11.1-11

Mark 11.1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately.’ “ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

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Weekly Chapel Time requires a willing and humble spirit. What we do here on Sunday mornings carries an air of sophisticated and focused liturgy. But when I bring the Preschoolers in during the week… there are no rules. When we worship together most of us have fairly decent attention spans, but the 2, 3, and 4 year-olds need to be consistently bombarded with images and ideas in order to stay focused.

I’ll freely admit that I treat our preschoolers the same way that I treat our worshippers (I’ll let you decide whether or not that is a good thing) because we are all working toward the same goal: a greater awareness of God’s love and mercy in the world.

Anyway, this week, in preparation for Palm Sunday, we gathered the children in the sanctuary for their lesson. They sat in the pews up here in the choir loft, with their little legs dangling in the air, excited and nervous to keep learning about this guy named Jesus. I love quizzing them on previous stories because they are fascinated by scripture. For instance: If I could get all of us to be as excited about Zacchaeus, the wee-little man, climbing up a sycamore tree, just imagine how faithful we would become.

I shared with the children that Jesus needed to get to a strange place called Jerusalem to do something incredible for his friends. They gathered together outside the city and Jesus sent two men to find a donkey for him to ride on. The closer the came to the gates, more and more people gathered palms from the surrounding area and waved them in the air, and placed them on the ground all while shouting “Hosanna!” which means “save us!”

I then had all the children line up with their own palm branches in the center aisle and we were going to recreate the story. I found a young boy to be Jesus and when I asked who they thought the donkey should be they all emphatically yelled, “You Pastor Taylor!” I’m not sure how I felt about them so quickly identifying me with that particular animal, but I let it go.

So there I was on my hands and knees with a child saddled across my back making our way into Jerusalem. I had instructed all the children to either wave their palms or place them on the ground and shout “save us!” to the boy on my back. The entire journey down the center aisle took longer than I thought because I did not want to drop the Jesus on my back, but as I walked forward and saw the palms beneath my feet I was struck by the Holy Spirit.

The children continued to scream and beg for their salvation, the Jesus on my back kept kicking into my rib cage to make me go faster, but all I could think about was what the donkey must have experienced when he carried Jesus into Jerusalem, what it must have been like to deliver the Lord to his death.

The following is an imaginative retelling of the story from the donkey’s perspective…

Palm-Sunday

With palms beneath my feet, Jesus, there are so many things I wish I could tell you. Carrying you while the crowds scream on our sides, I wish I could share all the things I have seen and heard. This might be the only chance I’ll get, and it already feels too late.

I was there Jesus. I was there in the manger when you were born. Your parents had come into the tiny room and your mother looked like she was about to burst. I was but a young foal back then, but I remember. They were so afraid and alone when they cuddled together holding you close. While they were filled with fear, I was filled with joy. I knew from the moment I saw you that you were special, that you were the Son of God. The other animals could feel it too, and while your family fell into the familiar rhythm of sleep, we gathered around you to share our warmth. I watched you sleep all night and I could feel that our lives were connected, and I knew that I would see you again one day.

You left from Bethlehem but as the years passed I heard stories about your life. I would be in the marketplace, or moving about the village and rumors would fall upon my ears.

When you were a child they said that you stood apart. Other children would spend their days running around and getting into mischief, but you would sit in the synagogue and teach the elders. Your command of the scriptures spread before you even started your ministry. I would watch the people while they talked about you and they were filled with such hope. Words like “messiah, lord, and savior” were used to describe you and I could tell that the Lord was among us.

Then it came to pass that you were baptized by your cousin John in the Jordan river. Witnesses said they saw the sky open up and they heard the voice of God. While others denied the claims, I knew it was true, I could feel that your ministry was about to begin and that everything would change.

You traveled throughout Galilee proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. You healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and restored the outcasts to their families. Everywhere you went stories about your love and mercy traveled ahead and the crowds grew larger and larger. You fed the multitudes by the sea, you walked on water, and you brought Lazarus back from the dead. You spoke of mustard seeds, prodigal sons, and good samaritans. You ate with sinners, worked on the sabbath, and argued with the Pharisees. Some say that even just a few weeks ago you were on the mountaintop when Moses and Elijah appeared and you were transfigured.

This morning I was tied up near the door when two of your disciples came close. One of them spoke to my owner and said, “The Lord needs him” and they brought me to you. I knew the time had come when we would be reunited, but the joy I expected to feel has been mixed with trepidation.

Jesus, how I wish you could hear me, how I wish I could tell you all I have seen and heard. We departed early this morning and the crowds gathered around us. It feels as if the closer we get to Jerusalem the people grow louder and more eager to cry out. Do they know what they mean when they say, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”?

I’m beginning to worry Jesus. I don’t think they know who you really are. The people sound more like an angry mob waiting for you to overthrow the Romans than a faithful group waiting for the kingdom of God. They want another Moses to lead them out of physical bondage, they want another David who can lead them into battle, they want another Solomon to build a giant temple.

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These people have suffered but they believe in you. Did you see them take off their cloaks and place them in the road? I have been walking over garments for hours. Did you see them rush into the fields for palm branches to wave them in the air and create a royal pathway? The palms beneath my feet are a sign of how much these people believe in you.

What are you going to do Jesus? I can hear people murmuring about your coming mission, some are saying that you are going to the temple and you are going to overthrow the tables. Some are saying that you are going to lead the rebellion and kill the chief priests and scribes. Some are saying that you are going to destroy the temple and then build a new one.

Jesus I’m afraid for your life! These people don’t know who you really are and what you’ve come to do. They shout “Hosanna, Hosanna!” but I fear their shouts will soon turn to “Crucify, Crucify!” They are only concerned about themselves. Even your disciples on either side of us, I can smell their fear.

Jesus, I was there when you were born. I felt God’s presence in you and I knew you would save the world. But please Jesus, let me take you away from this place. Jerusalem can only bring about your death. We still have a chance to turn around and head home.

Or is it too late? 

The crowds are starting to thin Jesus. The people are beginning to head home. We are stepping through the gate and the palms are no longer beneath my feet. I want to believe in you and what you are doing. I want to believe this is God’s will. But I’m so afraid.

Jesus, I am an old donkey and I don’t know how much further I can carry you.

It’s just us now and the sun is beginning to set.

What will happen? What are you going to do?

If this is the last time I will see you, I wish I could talk to you. I wish I could warn you about what is to come. I wish I could stop you.

You swing your legs around and are standing right before me. Your eyes contain the same hope they did the day you were born in the humble manger. As you pet my old matted fur I can feel all the people you have already touched and healed. I can feel the sick children and parents, I can feel the blind and the lame, the last, least and lost.

What a privilege it was to carry you today my Lord. I knew that we would meet again, I only wish I could do something to warn you.

You’re now leaning in close to whisper in my ear. Is this goodbye? Is this the end?

You said, “No my old friend. I know exactly what I am doing. And this is only the beginning.” 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.

Nativity

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.