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. 

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Devotional – Isaiah 9.2

Devotional

Isaiah 9.2

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.
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When I was preparing my Christmas Eve sermon last year, I was struck by the importance of God’s light shining in the darkness. During the weeks leading up to Christmas I read over the differing texts, and explored different hymns, but the image of God’s light stayed at the forefront of my mind. So when it came time to conclude my thoughts on God’s greatest gift from the pulpit, this is what I said:

“For me, Christmas is at it’s realest when we light our candles as we sing Silent Night. Some of my earliest memories are standing in a dark sanctuary on Christmas Eve while people around me are singing. In mere minutes the darkness is replaced by a brilliant light, made remarkable by the God who took on our flesh to dwell among us, to be God with us.

Jesus is the light of the world who shines in the darkness. Whatever that darkness might look like for you, whether it be an uncertain future, fears about your children, frustrating family members, the loss of a loved one, a heavy diagnosis, or the lack of love in your life, Jesus stands in stark contrast as the one who brings the light into our lives.

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Christmas Eves always mean the most and convey the most when we feel the depth of the darkness. Because new life always starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.

At the end of our service we will turn out all the lights, from the one candle, the Christ candle, we will light all others as we sing Silent Night. As we do so let us open our eyes the different forms of darkness in our lives and give thanks to the light of the world who shines in the darkness.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we hear the familiar words that have been sung for centuries exclaiming the great joy of the newborn king.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we gather as God’s table to feast on the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we see the light of Christ shining in one another.”

It is my hope and prayer that no matter where you are, or who you’re with, God’s light will shine in your lives. Merry Christmas.

Devotional – Ephesians 5.10-14

Devotional:

Ephesians 5.10-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly Devotional – 2/3/14

Devotional:

Matthew 5.14:

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”

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For years this verse has served to defend the example that Christians are to make for the world to follow. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says, “a city built on a hill cannot be hid.” Which is to say, you are shining as a light for others to see the error of their ways. Just as a city on a hill can be seen by all, so will your discipleship shine gloriously in order to transform the world.

But what if we’ve been reading it wrong? Or at least, what if there is a different way to read that verse?

Christians are almost always under the proverbial magnifying glass within the local community and at large. Just turn on the news and you will hear of scandals in Catholic and Protestant churches. The smallest bit of controversial news can take on a completely different manner once it is revealed that a Christian is part of the spectacle. Whether we recognize it or not, the world has expectations of us regarding our behavior and commitment to the gospel; we are held to a standard of excellence by those within, and those outside of, the church.

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In many ways the verse from Matthew could be read as, “You must be like a city on a hill, like a lamp in full view.” The desire to appear perfect as an example for all others is worthy of consideration and application, however, we need to remember that we will continue to fall short of God’s glory; we are not perfect beings. We are under the microscope of the community because of our commitment to be God’s people for the world.

So, instead of self-righteously proclaiming that we are the perfect example for the world to follow, perhaps we should instead recognize how visible we are to the world. Our faithful discipleship should be driven by our love of God, rather than wanting to the world to see how great and wonderful we are. Let us all strive to be the light of the world, not for our own glory, but for the glory of God to shine through us.

 

Weekly Devotional – 12/16/13

Devotional:

Psalm 80.19:

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

 

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

I now regret making jokes at their expense.

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

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

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

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