Lectionary Readings: Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7
Over the Christmas break a young schoolboy is tasked with writing a paper on childbirth. But without any knowledge on the subject, he is stumped on where to begin. So he goes into the kitchen and asks his parents, "How was I born?" His mom and dad look nervously at one another before his mom awkwardly answers, "The stork brought you."
The boy still seems a bit confused so he asks, "Well, how were you and Daddy born?" "The stork brought us, too, and Grandpa and Grandma as well" his father confidently replies. The boy leaves the kitchen without asking any more questions. He settles down at his bedroom desk and begins to write the first sentence: "This report will be very difficult to write due to the fact that there hasn't been a natural childbirth in my family for at least three generations."
Well, as you may know, Mary has a childbirth story of her own. And her last month of pregnancy has been frantic and uncomfortable, both for her and for us who relive it with her year-after-year. The labor and the delivery have proven, yet again, to be both endless and instantaneous. Since the bible gives us only scant details, we fill in Jesus nativity with songs and stories that overlook the truth of what childbirth must have been like in a time where there was no room at the inn or no epidural to dull the pain. And that leads us to where we are today.
The first Sunday after Christmas is commonly called “low Sunday” because it is often a time when church attendance is lower than usual, the church staff and volunteers are in need of a recharge, and it seems like the euphoria of Christ’s birth has turned to postpartum exhaustion. But now the baby is asleep at home in his crib. And in the afterglow and wonder of the celebration, we may begin to catch our breath, and reflect on the gift of hope and peace that God has given to us to all. It might be a low energy day, but Paul's letter to the Galatian church might be just what we need to be lifted up high.
The Gospel reading from today's lectionary has the baby Jesus being presented to the Temple. This is an important Jewish rite that was required by law. While it's an interesting story, I believe Paul’s letter might be just the boost we need today. Paul who was very familiar with Jewish law, now removes the chains that have restricted his people from fully comprehending the Spirit of the law. His letter frees us to contemplate a little more theologically about this wondrous story called Christmas that we read about in the Gospels. Did you know that Paul's epistles were written before the four Gospels? In these four short verses, Paul packs a punch.
He describes the doctrinal theology of the birth story, before addressing the law, slavery, freedom, and our divine inheritance that was born on Christmas Day. As a scholar, I'd say this is a densely compacted and highly complicated piece of Pauline theology that injects us with the life giving Spirit of God’s Son. But as your minister, I’d say this this is perfect summation of the hope that Christ and Christmas offer; the very hope that lifts us out of our own cold, dark and dirty manger and places us in the warm, loving arms of God.
If we listen closely, we hear a new, extra heartbeat within us, faintly echoing the cry of a baby’s first words: “Abba, Abba, Abba.” Each heartbeat is a reminder of Jesus’ birth, a reminder that through him we are reborn. Our blood is now mingled with his blood. We are no longer slaves (to the law, to others, or to ourselves). We are no longer second-class strangers to salvation. We are now children, adopted into God’s family and heirs to God through Jesus Christ. If you ask me, this is what redemption and salvation is all about. This is the real hope of the true Christmas story.
Many years ago, my friend and I wrote a screenplay called “Jewish Christmas.” It’s a Christmas story about a young man who discovers he is the last surviving heir of Santa Clause and all the special magic that comes with it. The main character, Chris, lived in a Catholic orphanage from the day of his birth until he was eventually adopted into Jewish family as a young boy. He has spent his entire adulthood struggling with trying to figure out who he is, where he’s from and why he is here. Chris has no real identity of his own. He has no clue that he is special. He only sees himself as a failure, unwanted by both his real and his adopted parents. Everything quickly changes when Chris finds himself caught in a war between Santa and a malicious renegade elf who has set out to create his own toy empire. He wants to capitalize on Chris’ ability to know which toys kids really want. Chris takes the bait. And before he knows it, he is an orphan again; enslaved to a world of corporate greed.
In many ways I sympathized with the movie’s hero. I was lost in the business world struggling to find my true calling. I knew I had a bigger purpose in life, but didn’t know what it was. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever wondered where you belong in the larger picture of life? I looked in all the wrong places, before I found myself in the arms of God. Both Paul and the Gospel writers tell us that we either belong to God or we don’t. We are either orphans in life or children of God. We are either free or enslaved.
The hope of Christmas is this: through Jesus Christ we are adopted as children of God. Both Jesus and Paul use the endearing Aramaic name “Abba,” for God. We too are directed to see God as the parental figure who redeems and blesses all children, no matter what we have done or where we are in life. God’s gracious and inclusive redemption is the great equalizer. We are no longer slaves but freed children of God. As children, we are heirs to God’s Spirit and power and glory through the Christmas gift of the Son.
Quite unlike the story of prodigal who takes the inheritance of his father and wastes it on himself-Jesus divested himself of his own inheritance to make other’s wealthy, joint heirs with him, in obedience to God’s will. This filial devotion, an act of radical freedom, takes strangers and aliens, orphans and slaves, rich and poor alike, and exalts us to the status of family members. Neither distance nor anger nor rebellion nor death will separate us from our heavenly family. Yet like the prodigal child, we find our assurance that we too are always welcomed home thanks to God’s love and grace. In the days after Christmas, on this "low" Sunday, we are lifted up because God’s hope is for all the world. Wherever we stand, we have standing because God is willing to adopt us. Not merely students, nor even friends, we are reborn as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
In my screenplay Chris breaks free of the chains of his past. He gets a new family and a new shot at a new life. He is redeemed and of course Christmas is saved. It’s a perfect Hollywood ending for a fun-filled holiday movie. On the first Sunday after Christmas, as the church looks at the year behind us and the year ahead, we too find a happy ending to whatever story we have written.
But the good news is: We are surrounded by a Parent’s love that will not let us go. God sent his Son into the world, and the Spirit into our hearts, by which we experience the birth and rebirth within us every time we gather. But it’s in our birth and rebirth that I am reminded of the thought-provoking words of Meister Eckhart, the 12th century mystic who said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God always needs to be born.” As you quietly ponder that thought, I hope you hear that the extra heartbeat, faintly echoing the cry of a baby’s first words: “Abba, Abba, Abba.”
Let us pray: Abba, our Divine and gracious parent, we are forever thankful for the gift of the Christ child through whom we have been reborn and redeemed back to you. We cannot think of a better present to open and reopen, year after year, day after day. It is in his name we pray, Amen
Readings: Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26:35; Luke 2:1-7; Luke 2:8-20; Matthew 2:1-11
Since becoming a father, Christmas has made its way to the top of my favorite holidays. You see, a few years ago, Kathleen and I decided to rethink Christmas. We’ve turned it into a day that we call “Yes Day.” Yes Day is the one time of the year where we say yes to everything. As long as the kids don’t ask to burn down the house or want to practice throwing knives at one another, then “No” is not an option.
Of course, the kids also have to say yes to what ever we ask of them; like taking a few more pictures by the Christmas tree or washing their hands before they eat another bag of potato chips. By saying ‘yes’ to the fun and the not so fun stuff, the household is soon filled with the perfect Christmas spirit. There are no fights over toys. There is no complaining over who gets to do what. And there is no resentment or anger, simply because we chose to say “Yes” instead of “No.” For one day in our house, there is truly Peace on Earth.
This time of year it’s always good to remember the words of Jesus who said “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Giving does have its rewards. We see it on a child’s face as he opens a special gift he’d been hoping for. But in order for that child to experience such joy…requires him to first receive the gift that is being offered. He has to say “yes, I will take it!” before he can open it.
Tonight we have come to celebrate the giving of God’s greatest gift, the Incarnate Christ. Such a gracious gift would be meaningless if we did not receive it freely… and accept it willingly. And so I would like to invite you to rethink Christmas Day as a day to say “Yes” to God’s most perfect gift of love. I don’t know about you, but when someone gives me gift I feel so obligated to give one in return. This seems to be the normal practice in a world of proper etiquette.
The question to ponder tonight is this: Where does one even go to find the perfect present for the One who gave the world eternal salvation? The Mall? I think not. I have not stepped foot in a mall, in December, since I discovered Amazon Prime four years ago. So naturally I went online.
I began with baby items. Rock Star themed outfits are still trending, but it’s hard to imagine little baby Jesus in a black onesie with AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell” logo printed across his chest. Since the Magi brought gold to the newborn king, I thought jewelry might be a nice touch. While browsing for religious necklaces, it dawned on me that I was not going to be the one who gives Jesus a golden cross to wear. My son suggested a gift card, but I remembered my wife once told me, “Why do I need a gift card when I have your credit card.” On so many levels she’s right. God already has everything at his disposal. And so I kept searching, looking for that one thing that God doesn’t already have.
Believe it or not, I found it at Meijer. (You really can find everything there) It was in the check out line, next to trashy magazines and various flavors of chewing gum, that I saw an abandoned box of Christmas cards with the words, “Peace on Earth.” My eyes lit up and my heart started to pound. You would have thought I had just met that angel who came to Joseph, and Mary, and the shepherds. I stared at that lonely little box. “Peace on Earth.” As I read it, I realized what God wants from us is for us to receive the very thing that God gives. God wants us to say ‘yes’ to the gift of Peace that flows from God’s everlasting love. The peace that comes with knowing we are saved through God’s grace in Christ Jesus, the one and only Prince of Peace.
Sadly, not all will accept this amazing present. Not everyone will say yes to God’s love. And so the world continues to exist in chaos, without true peace. Maybe it’s you. Or someone close to you. Perhaps you know someone like Herod, who fears God’s peace and will try to control it or even go out of their way to destroy it. But God’s love is greater than any hatred or pain or suffering they can dish out. They don’t want to believe that even when the world looks as if it is coming to an end, God’s love endures forever. It is in this everlasting love that God places peace in our hearts, in our homes, in our communities, and into the entire created order. And so Christmas is a day of receiving God’s peace by simply saying, “Yes.”
By saying yes, we give God what God desires the most. Joseph said yes. Mary said yes. They might not have asked for it, or even understood completely what was given to them, but they received the gift faithfully.
Like the shepherds, the Magi were going about their business when they found themselves startled by what they saw in the heavens. A star so amazing that they would pack up a caravan and follow it into a foreign country. It is doubtful they would have known about the ancient promises of Israel’s prophets or could comprehend the concept of a Messiah born to save the world. They were simply drawn to a star and understood it as the sign of something monumental. And so these wise men said, “Yes” and followed the light to Bethlehem. If you were to ask me, I’d say the bright star in the night sky is the real rock star in our Bible story. It is more than just a remote incandescent body of light. It is God’s imprint in the night sky that guided the Magi to the Christ. And it’s in this light that we are drawn closer to God, who illuminates a path of peace in a dark and often scary world.
What if the Magi had said, “No?” What if they remained in the safety and security of their own country instead of facing a jealous and fearsome ruler like Herod? They could have easily studied the movements of the star from their far away land. But instead they followed this brilliant and mysterious light. They said yes, even when they did not fully comprehend why they were doing what they were doing. The Bible suggests they had been traveling for some time, and when they found the Christ child he was living in a simple home, not in King’s palace. There were no servants, only tired parents to care for their infant son. Bowing before the child, they offer their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; each one highly symbolic to the joyful and resounding “Yes” that Jesus said to God.
Let’s look at those gifts they brought. The gift of gold, that precious commodity that is still desired today, is the gift of a king. As the King of all Creation, Jesus will rule not by force, but by love. He will rule over our hearts, not from a throne but from a cross. Jesus said, “Yes” to becoming the precious commodity of all life; he is the gold, which we desire. Frankincense is the gift of priesthood. As our divine priest, Jesus is the bridge for the entire world to enter into God’s heavenly kingdom. In saying, “Yes” Jesus becomes a servant King who prepares our way back to God’s faithful righteousness. And then there was Myrrh; an ointment used in preparing the body for burial. It is the gift of one who is to die. Jesus came into this world to live for us,… and in the end, to die for us; to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
Jesus said “Yes” to God without condition. “Yes,” knowing he would suffer under Pontius Pilot. “Yes,” knowing he would be crucified and buried. And yes he would rise again, transforming death into eternal life. God gives us this gift of eternal life without condition. So then why would we say anything less than “Yes” and joyfully accept this amazing present? The gift of peace that each person receives…brings us that much closer to the Peace on Earth that God desires most. If you want it, simply say, “Yes” and it’s yours. Merry Christmas and Happy Yes Day to you all.
You might already know that the Fitbit has dominated the personal health market over the last five years. This year, it continues to trend as one of the must have holiday gifts to give. If you are not familiar with this small, rubbery wristband then here’s the concept in a nutshell.
FitBit is a little bracelet you wear that tracks your heart rate, counts the number of steps you take, measures how many calories you have burned through physical activity, and can even determine how well you sleep. All the data collected that is amassed is then downloaded to your computer or phone to help you stay physically fit.
The company boasts those who wear Fitbit take 43% more steps than they did before they started wearing the gadget. This is good. Exercise in any form is good for you as long as you don’t over do it. Right? If FitBit is anything, it is a high-tech product that helps low-tech people understand and take control of their personal health.
But what if we took a different direction and reworked the basic operating system of FitBit to measure not only our physical health but our spiritual as well? Imagine if we had such a device that recorded how much time we spent reading Scripture, counts the number of prayers we offered, or determined how many kind deeds we did for others throughout the day.
With over a billion self-defined Christians in the world, a product that boosts spiritual health could be an overnight success. Add in all other world religions and those who believe they are “spiritual but not religious” and this new product has the potential to be the greatest selling product since sliced bread or even the Gorge Forman Grill!
There are some who believe God is keeping score of all this for us; that there is a large, Heavenly warehouse that stores records of all our spiritual activity, or the lack thereof. I cannot say for sure if such a place exists. What I do know is when we clothe ourselves in the Armor of God (Eph. 6:10-18), when we give our prayers and concerns over to Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:13), and when we take the time to quietly listen for the Spirit (Mt. 12:18), we become more spiritually awake and alert. And even more in sync with our Creator God.
As the Advent season comes to an end and the celebration of Christmas draws near, we continue to hold to the truth that Jesus has called us to always be spiritually awake and alert, to keep our faith active and healthy, and to constantly strive for peace; knowing the love and grace of God has been given to us through our blessed savior.
There is no better gift than the One lying in a manger, gift wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11 Mark 1:1-8
"The Nativity of God"
I always said if my mom were to cheat on my dad it would be with Santa Clause. I know having said that I might be encouraging you to break a few commandments, but that is not my intention this morning. Yet that’s my mom for you. She’s in love with Christmas. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized our summer vacations were always cleverly mapped out around Christmas outlet stores. More often than not, we would just so happen to stay were there was always a “Santa’s Workshop” nearby. Even my father dare not pack clothes he liked because there was always the chance that someone’s suitcase would have to be sacrificed if Mom found a killer deal on Christmas decorations.
Many years ago, Kathleen and I went on a vacation to Costa Rica with my parents. We spent a week on a beautiful sandy beach. After that we took another week to visit rain forests, volcano craters, coffee farms, and yes Christmas shops. And so here we were, in a small, remote town with only one restaurant and one hotel whose rooms made the Bethlehem stable look luxurious…but by golly…they had a place to buy Christmas ornaments. This particular one however, specialized in hand-carved decorations from exotic woods. The place was just as much as an art gallery as it was a store. Almost instantly Kathleen and I found this beautiful nativity scene, carved out of an old coffee root.
This is not your typical holiday ornament. There’s no glitter, or glue. No fancy bows. And its not painted the traditional colors of Christmas. With a quick glance you might not even recognize it as a nativity scene. It is often mistaken for a piece of art. Suffice it to say it never felt right to simply pack it up with the blinking Christmas lights and plastic garland. Instead it is always on displayed in our living room. Like “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” this nativity is an unusual reminder for me to keep my path straight…to stay focused on the Nativity of God.
In a Christmas sermon given on December 2, 1928, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger.” Advent reminds us of what we are waiting for in December. Why we celebrate the 25th day with great joy.
My question to you this morning is this: what do we have in our lives that reminds us
that we are also actively waiting in October and February and June? The story of the Nativity, though beautiful and familiar, is as easily put out of our minds as Christmas decorations are put in boxes. On certain sides of the calendar, a carved Nativity scene looks amiss. Sitting on my mantle in the fall or the spring, it seems somehow far away from home, far from the blinking lights and greenery, longing for the Christmas fanfare. But looking at it with thoughts of Advent near, our longing hangs on the hope, love, joy, peace and light of Christ Jesus.
Shouldn't every day be like Advent? I'm sure if my mom had her way, Christmas would come 365 days a year. But I think she'd be missing something important. The waiting and longing of Advent. She might not see the reminder that we are all troubled in soul, looking for something greater; the nativity of God reminds us that we are poor and imperfect; we long for our God to come down to us and gives a gentle knock at the door. To call us out into the world as we are inviting him in.
Mark begins his story of Jesus looking back at the Prophecy of Isaiah, who said, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” You see, God needs our help as we need God's. To prepare the way of the Lord requires us to do something. In the last two weeks you may recall how we are to be active in this world if we are to see the face of God in others, and to stay awake for Christ. Today, we are called to be active yet again, in preparing our hearts and minds in love as God prepares the way for our salvation. (Remember, our salvation does not rest solely on God’s grace, but requires us to be active and give God’s grace freely to the world and all that dwells in it.) To quote the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
Let us prepare the path of righteousness, by humbly practicing righteousness with each other. This idea of walking humbly with God reminds me of a story... of sorts. It was the first Sunday after Christmas, and we were taking down the decorations around the church. I was put in charge of the oversized nativity set. As I was carefully boxing up the sheep and the lambs I notice the baby Jesus was missing. As I was walking back to the Church office to report the theft, I notice this kid with a little red wagon walking around the church campus. He could not have been any older than 6. As he walked I noticed there in the wagon was the figure of the little infant Jesus. I approached the kid with both anger and puzzlement. I asked him, “Son, where did you get the little infant?” He smiled and replied honestly, “I took him for the church.” “And why did you take him from the church?” With a sheepish smile, the boy said, “Well, about a week before Christmas I prayed to baby Jesus. I told him if he would bring me a red wagon for Christmas I would give him a ride in it.”
Advent is about actively waiting for the one who embraced our human sorrow and bodily pain. The Christ child who called out to us, and to walk the path of righteousness beside us. It is not December that reminds us we are longing for God to come nearer, but the Nativity of God, the Incarnation of the Christ in the baby Jesus. As we prepare the way, may we never lose sight that each day is touched by the promise that Jesus has already prepared the path for us, and that he will again come breaking through, into our world, into our longing, into our sin and death to bring us back home. Until then, Jesus left us with this meal as a reminder of his promise to be with us. Dearly beloved, this is the joyful feast of the people of God.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”