"Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood." Pope Francis, speaking to the U.S. Congress.
"If you want to know if somebody is Christian just ask them to complete this sentence: Jesus said, 'I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you...' And if they don't say 'welcomed me in,' they are either a terrorist, or they are running for president. Steven Colbert, host of The Late Show.
"It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves." Anthony Kennedy, Supreme Court justice, in the opinion declaring bans on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of the sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free..." Jesus of Nazareth, (Luke 4:18)
Happy New Year.
Yesterday, in this sanctuary, I officiated a funeral of one of our members who passed away unexpectedly. Scott was a guy who was just a few months younger than me. He was my fifth death in five days, and was the second funeral I had to get through before I could begin thinking about tonight’s message.
Is it me or does it seem like there are more deaths just before Christmas than at any other time of the year. Is that it? Or is it just our awareness of death is heightened because it’s Christmas? If you’re like me, you’ve probably wondered why God would interrupt our season of peace and joy, with the sadness of death?
It wasn’t until I interviewed Scott’s family for the funeral service that I began to notice God has a way of interrupting our lives. Christmas marks one of God’s greatest interruptions of all time: the birth of the Christ child. Ironically, we don’t actually see this gift in its fullness, until months after all the blinking lights and handmade ornaments have been put away.
(Holding up a wrapped gift) Do you know what this is? The Christmas present is the universal sign that the holiday season is upon us. In most houses, the present is wrapped and put under the tree to be opened on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. In our house, we wait until Christmas morning to tear through all that pretty wrapping paper to see if we got that new PlayStation or…in my case a fresh supply of socks.
We can’t blame Sony or Fruit-of-the-Loom for our forgetting what Christmas is all about. We are the ones who have replaced the real present with consumables and credit card debt. In all the excitement of tearing and ripping open the gifts, we forget the reason why these gifts are given in the first place. Is it any wonder then why God feels the need to interrupt our world?
Sometimes it takes the loss of a life to help us remember that God pushes his way into our world…a world of sin and death...for a very important reason.
The selections we read tonight from Luke’s gospel tell us there is more to Christmas than just a baby sleeping in a manger. There is also a man, dying on the cross.
Christmas is about life and death. They are one in the same gift from God. You can’t accept one present without facing the reality of the other.
Years ago, Scott asked his father if he ever got tired of hearing the same old Christmas story. His father’s response would be one of the greatest gifts Scott would ever receive. His father Bud boldly shot back, “Heck no, I don’t get tired of hearing it!Without that Christmas story there’d be no Easter story. Without Easter, well then, what’s the point?” Bud, understood Christmas is just half of the gift.
As a father myself, I can’t imagine what it's like to bury a child.I imagine God had some mixed emotions at that Nativity. Here is the world’s most holy child, the Word made flesh, the Incarnate image of God, now living and breathing among us, as one of us; helpless, weak, and vulnerable.
I wonder what God was feeling. Seeing his greatest gift to the world, simply lying there,His promise yet unrealized. Did God cry, like I did when I first held my daughter, Fiona? I remember standing in the hospital room, blubbering and bawling my eyes out.It was the first time in my life I really understood unconditional love.
Life, all of a sudden, felt very real. And yet, there with my greatest joy wrapped in my arms, the real threat that something bad could happen to this precious gift loomed beside us. I held onto her and never wanted to let her go.
I imagine that is what God’s love for us is like. He never wants to let us go. So when sin and death started to pull us away from God, a little baby was sent to interrupt our world of war and violence, to bring peace and justice to all of humanity. In the darkness of death, the bright light of hope, love, joy and peace burst through; blinding us all.
The Christ child came to reconcile us back to God, who like a loving parent weeps with great joy when he holds us in his arms! His tears, flowing upon us like angels whose chorus of praise light up the night sky, filling the world with God’s glory. There is no safer place to be.
If God cried in that stable then those tears were shed because God knew what that birth would bring. Christmas is just half of the gift. The other half would come at Easter.
In our house we get Easter baskets filled with candy. Perhaps instead it would be more appropriate to honor the day with gifts like we do at Christmas. Just like the first Christmas gift was gently placed in a manger, our Easter present was gently placed in a grave. But when we open this gift, we don’t find a PlayStation or socks. Instead we only find an empty tomb. This is the real gift. As Bud pointed out to his son Scott, because this box is empty, Christmas can be celebrated everyday.
Christmas and Easter, might be two separate presents, but they are one gift. We can’t receive one and not the other. It’s Christmas that makes Easter inevitable. And Easter is what makes Christmas meaningful.
The gift of the empty tomb frees us to live as God has called us to live. That is like Christ, who when he emptied himself on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins emptied us all of our flaws, fears and phobias, our addictions, anger and aggressiveness, and of all the things that keep us from loving one another, and working to bring peace on Earth and good will to every human being.
Jesus Christ is the gift. And the real story of Christmas is an empty tomb, and it’s made possible…because of one little baby who came and interrupted our world.
I remember the day Kathleen told me the good news that I was going to be a father. To be honest, that’s all I really remember. It was in the day. You'll have to ask Kathleen to fill in the rest of the details. It’s not that I have forgotten them, but I think in the initial shock those particular memories didn't stick.
I do however remember the pregnancy. Ten long, painful months of nausea, aches and pains, emotional instability that slowly became irrational irritability, and of course there was all the extra weight gain! And that was just me!
Again, Kathleen can tell you her side of the story. While I clearly developed all the symptoms of a sympathetic pregnancy I still have no clue of what women go through to bring life into God’s world. It’s impossible for me a man to truly speak of pregnancy.
Equally as challenging is trying to make sense of why the lectionary puts Mary’s song of joy in the week we celebrate the Advent of Peace.I am not sure if there is anything peaceful about the birth process. Or so I have been told on at least three occasions in my life.
However, like pregnancy, Advent is a time of waiting.And a time to prepare for your world that is about to be turned on its head. Nothing will be the same once the baby comes.
I know some of you have been waiting anxiously for this season to pass, while others are waiting expectantly to celebrate the coming birth of Christ.
It’s not always a happy holiday. This can be the time when all our sadness and grief weighs us down, making it difficult to move, or do anything. We wait and wait for the season to pass, but each day feels like it never ends.
Then there are some of us who...in spite of all the advertising, decorations and the multiple warnings by the church secretary,...are still surprised that the Christmas Eve service is only a few days away! And there is so much left to do. As the big day rapidly approaches...it's typical of me to panic, and lose focus. I often stand around... as nothing gets done...much like I did the ten long months my wife was pregnant.
Unlike Christmas, Fiona did not come on the day that we had marked on the calendar. No, she was two weeks late. By then, the Magi had come and gone, ...as did most of my hair. But that's my story.
Then there’s Mary's. I can’t imagine a less peaceful thing to happen to a person than to find out that they are pregnant, when the laws of nature and science would suggest otherwise. Her story is a mystery. It makes as much sense as the Stork in “Dumbo” who struggles to deliver a baby elephant to his mother on a moving train, in the rain, while drunk.
Our Christmas pageants always make Mary’s story out to be this beautiful, calm scene. In our consumer driven society, it’s easy for us to give this divine mystery a Disney makeover. Mary is not some carefree teenager from a royal family. She is a poor underage girl, who is unintentionally pregnant. She's living in a poverty stricken, military occupied country. By all accounts, she is without hope of a better life. And yet God chose her, the hopeless, to be Theotokos, my favorite Greek word, which means “God bearer.”
It's a shame that Protestants are so quick to dismiss her importance. Mary is the one figure who is with Jesus at nearly every pivotal moment of his life. How blessed is she who was chosen to carry God in utero. And thanks be to God that there was at least one person worthy of this calling.
In spite of how she is often depicted in paintings, Mary was probably between the ages of 10-12 years old. Given the customs of her day, the fact that she was still unmarried suggests she was most likely premenstrual. This makes the mystery that surrounds her calling that much more powerful.
Joseph was no knight in shining armor either. He too was probably a kid himself. He didn’t choose her any more than she chose him. There is a strong chance their relationship had been arranged at the time of their births. It is doubtful that there was any love, or physical attraction, just business as usual. Thus making it easier for Joseph to postpone the wedding until God’s work had been complete.
You may have noticed we skipped over verses 36-47. And in doing so we overlook how Luke carefully connects Mary’s pregnancy with that of her much older cousin, Elizabeth. As the two women visit one another, we realize that neither is good...for what the world says women are good for: having babies. One is too young, the other too old.
“And yet here they are a preteen and a matriarch in the maternity ward. And no man was necessary for this. Here at the greatest meeting of all time,...two women...counted worthless in most cultures...have their wombs honored and blessed by God’s presence. And so is it any wonder the scripture breaks into song?”
Perhaps this is a song we should all be singing with Mary. Through her, and through us, God is changing the world. And what a change God brings!
God triumphantly breaks through the birth canal, takes his first breath ... and begins to turn everything that we think we know, upside down. Our world will never be the same again.
Through the Incarnate birth God brings a kind of peace that still puzzles us today. It doesn’t favor one person or one country over another. It’s total shalom that is meant for all of creation to receive and give. This is what makes Mary’s song perfect for our Advent waiting. Especially as we celebrate Peace.
Mary sings of hope, especially to the poor and downtrodden, of how God’s purpose upsets the status quo. She sings with love to God who she embraces with all her faith. She sings because there’s new life in her. And new life for all of humanity.
Mary joyfully declares God’s reign over the world. Her song is a song of victory. A song of revolution. The only question we are faced with is are we ready to join this choir of faith? Are we ready to be God’s mother, to carry the peace of Christ within us?
Mary's song calls us all to be God’s mother, and to give birth to God’s perfect shalom through Jesus Christ. He is our perfect peace and wellbeing; making us spiritually alive and socially active.
We are all called to be God's mother, because God needs to be born everyday...in the way we care for one another, offering shelter, food, medicine, warmth, and love. Jesus is all we need to live as God intended since the beginning of time.
When Christ is in us, fear and darkness leave us; our hope and love collide with joy; and peace fills the Earth. Mary's song, the Magnificant, invites us to say yes to God, to sing, even if we are afraid...or don't know the words.
As we leave here today, as we move closer and closer towards the Christmas birth, let us all sing and dance like a teenager. For the King is here! “O Come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord!"
When we walk with Christ, we are walking with God. When we walk with God there will always be peace around us, joy within us, and love and hope exploding from us.
(This sermon comes in the middle of the Children’s Christmas pageant that debates what Christmas really means)
Hey, kids I’ve been enjoying to your play but it seems like you still are a bit confused about what Christmas really is. You know it’s more than singing and having a good time? And more than presents, lights and trees. Christmas is about hope, and love, and joy, and peace, and of course God’s great gift given to us through Jesus Christ. Here, let me explain it this way. This is our Advent wreath. Each week leading up to Christmas we light a candle to remind us of what Christmas is all about.
The first candle is about Hope. Hope is a feeling we get when we expect something to happen. It’s more than wishful thinking, like “I hope I get a new X-Box for Christmas,” or “I hope Michigan State wins the Cotton Bowl.” Our hope is with God. It’s about patiently waiting; knowing God is making something happen.
The Bible tells us our hope is tied to God through faith. Which means we have to think about it as we wait for it to happen. So I guess you could say hope dwells up here in our head. Of course, as we wait it begins then spreads down here towards our heart. And its in our were we find love.
Which is our second candle. Love is an inward feeling that ties us to God and to others. It’s not easy to describe or think about up here in our head. Instead, love is something we feel down here in our heart. We understood it by the things it makes us to do – like acts of kindness, being generous and giving of ourselves to others. It’s like having the Spirit of Christmas with you every day; except it’s God’s Spirit that is given to us. The Bible tells us that God gives us all his love so that we can have joy in our life.
Joy is the candle we lit today. It’s like a kind of special happiness inside us that happens when the hope in our head collides with the love in our heart. Joy is an overwhelming sensation that we feel throughout our whole body. It tells us the Spirit of God is fully alive inside us. It tickles us and makes us feel happy and secure. When God’s Spirit is in control of our joy, we know everything will be all right. The Bible tells us that having the joy of the Spirit is what gives us peace, because God is in control of our life.
Next week we will light the Peace candle to remind us of God’s peace that comes to us through Jesus Christ. Jesus called it “shalom.” Shalom is a Hebrew word for peace. But it’s much bigger than that. It’s not just comfort and tranquility or a freedom from distress or trouble. Instead, shalom is complete wholeness in every part of our being. And if that weren’t enough, it also extends into everything and everyone around us. The peace that God gives us through our relationship with Jesus is also impossible to keep to ourselves. It needs to be shared because God wants shalom to spread around the world. That’s why God gave us the Christ, the Prince of Peace.
So you see, Christ is the real reason we celebrate Christmas. That’s why we light the Christ candle last, on Christmas Eve. It reminds us that Christ is the true light of God shinning on us and through us. The Bible tells us that following Jesus is all that we need to get through our darkest moments, and to live a godly and good life. Jesus is the fullness of God’s love, God’s shalom. He is the Incarnate, our Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Jesus is the great Christmas gift; our peace, our joy, our love, our hope.
When we walk with Christ, we are walking with God. When we walk with God there will always be peace around us, joy within us, and love and hope exploding from us. And so Christmas is a time to honor God’s great gift to us. That gift, of course, is Jesus.
And do you know what, kids? The best part about this gift is we can open it up every day and still be surprised by what we find.
It was 1984. I was in my freshman year of college. I spent Thanksgiving with a bunch of strangers in a small town outside Atlanta. We ate McDonald’s cheeseburgers at the home of a guy named TK, who had transformed his backyard to host a Pro-Am skateboarding contest.
It was there in the Georgia wilderness, I met Mike McGill, a pro skater who had traveled all the way from southern California for the competition. As a novice skater, I loved watching pros like Mike push himself to new heights and limits. That weekend I was not disappointed.
In his final run of the contest, Mike did the unimaginable. With enough speed under his wheels, he shot up into the heavens. And for a brief second, gravity no longer existed. As he floated 25 feet in the air, Mike grabbed his board and began to flip his body upside down. If this wasn’t crazy enough, he threw in a 540-degree rotation into the mix. With the grace of an Olympic diver, he landed his move with effortless perfection, winning the contest hands down. Mike McGill was a pioneer. His signature move, the McTwist, has gone down in the history books, as Mike has forever change the world of extreme sports.
Pioneers change the way we do things. They stretch and bend and break boundaries. They defy and dismantle reality. John the Baptist was a pioneer. Part rebel, part unpredictable wild man, John defies the status quo, breaks the barriers of religion and ritual, and paves the way for the coming of the Christ.
With wild eyes and tangled hair, his brow furled and finger pointed, he is, as Rachel Held Evens aptly describes, “the guy you’d avoid bumping into in the Walmart parking lot.” Pioneers push the limits. They make us uncomfortable. And change us in the process. John did it when he screamed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The son of a temple priest, John is a good Jewish boy who follows his father’s footsteps. But eventually John abandons the temple for the wilderness. He forgoes the ceremonial purification pools for the wild, flowing rivers. He lives on only what God gives him, wild honey and locusts. “He calls people to a single, dramatic baptism to symbolize a reoriented heart.” He is a voice crying in the wilderness; telling us “God was on the move. Everything was about to change.”
John the Baptist was a pioneer who ushered in the advent of a new relationship between God and humanity.
Like a skater launching into the air, John knew the walls and rituals of the Temple could no longer contain God’s movement. God isn’t just going to sit around and wait for us to come to him. Instead, God is coming to us. “And God, in God’s relentless love, would allow no mountain or hill, no ideology or ritual, or no requirement or law, to obstruct the way.” Everyone will see the salvation of the Lord.
John tells us this salvation comes from a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance! Sin! Isn’t this message usually saved for our Lent? Advent is supposed to be a time to look forward to the coming of the Christ with hopeful anticipation, right? So why does John want us to weight ourselves down with the realization of how screwed up we are? It’s important to remember that the good news of repentance is the good news of salvation for all of us.
For you who are suffering or living with guilt, those who have made poor life choices or squandered opportunities to make it right, you who have fallen off the wagon, or don’t feel worthy enough or too tainted to be redeemed…repentance is the good news.
It’s more than a call to stop sinning. It’s a way to be freed from it, a way to give our pain and hurt over to God’s love. John paved that way. But Jesus perfected it.
The second Advent candle is lit to remind us that as we wait for Christ to come, and come again, God’s love surrounds us. When we watch the flame flicker we see that God’s love is always moving. God’s Kingdom isn’t up there somewhere. It’s right here in our midst, moving through the wind of the wilderness and flowing in the wild water of the rivers. It burst through the air and moves in the most unpredictable, surprising, and transformative ways.
Through God’s love and with God’s love, we are able to be more trusting, more loving, more faithful, and more able to soar to new heights. God gives us all we need to live godly lives, and to be pioneers in a world in dire need of God’s redeeming love.
In a dirty, filthy stable, God give us the gift of love in the fragile and vulnerable babe. On the violent and brutal cross, God gives us the gift of love in the fragile and vulnerable man. Just as Christ leads us through life, he also takes us through death, to be with God forever. All will see the salvation of God. The Incarnation would be meaningless without the Easter resurrection. They are one in the same groundbreaking and earthshattering action. Likewise, Advent and Lent are a time wait and purification, a time of renewal and preparation to receive God’s love.
At his birth, Jesus taught us the way of righteousness. By his resurrection, he gives us the assurance that no matter how far we stray from doing what God has called us to do, we are never beyond the boundaries of God’s love. Jesus left us this meal as a reminder of God’s ultimate act of love. So come and partake in the one feast that breaks all boundaries and moves among us always.
Many have come from the East and the West, the North and the South to receive the love that is shared at this table. This church welcomes all to meet God here. No matter where you are in your faith journey or your lack of faith, we invite you to eat of this bread and drink from this cup; to savor, delight, and feast on God’s love.
God’s love has freed us from our sins and empowered us with the spirit to live without prejudice, to give without fear, and to have faith that can move large mountains and straighten crooked paths. Come not because you have to, but because you want to.
(Prayer of Consecration)
John was a pioneer. He came and fulfilled the prophecy by preparing the way of our Lord Jesus Christ, who on the night that he was betrayed and handed over to his death, sat with his disciples to celebrate the Passover meal.
He took the bread, and when he had blessed it he broke it saying...
“As often as you eat of this bread and drink of this cup, you show my death until I come again.”
Works CitedBible, NRSV. Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:2-6, 15-18.
Anderson, T. Denise. "Living by the Word." Christian Century 132, no. 24 (Nov 2015).
Charles, Gary. Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion. Edited by David Barlett and Kimberly Bracken Long Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.
Evens, Rachel Held. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nashville: Nelson, 2015.
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.”