Christmas children’s message

Do you know what I was doing this morning?

 

I was trimming my nose hair. My pocket knife has this little scissors, and I was thinking I needed to do it to look prettier and more like I should.
But then I stopped. Because it’s Christmas. And Jesus being born means that God loves our human bodies in all their shapes and forms and there isn’t something that I need to do to look different.

 

Know what else this morning?

 

It snowed. I heard the plow go by really early, while I was still in bed. And I was really excited. So I ran to look outside and saw that it was really pretty, but only a little bit of snow. I wanted more, for having fun outside and just for being the amount I think our world needs right now.

 

But it’s Christmas, and Jesus was born to set things right, including our winter climate and how we people think and live on the planet.
And so I was thinking about things that don’t quite go right and things on Christmas that we wish were different. Maybe you can think of some of those this morning, too.

 

Maybe you didn’t get all the presents you wanted.
Or maybe you got even more presents than you wanted.
But Jesus was born so that people can have the right amount of what we need.

 

And I was also feeling some sad this morning. I miss my dog who died this year, who isn’t around for Christmas. And maybe in your families, you’re missing some people or things aren’t always exactly right.
But Jesus was born to bring us new life, to hold us in God’s love when we’re sad, and to give us “great joy” as we’ll hear next in the story from angels.

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No Year’s Resolutions

sermon on John 1:19-34

 

Last week it was angels and shepherds. This week it’s John the Baptist.

Last week, angels were directing our attention toward a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And then shepherds brought us along for a visit as they shared the news.

This week, John the Baptist is out in the wilderness, with a similar role of pointing to Jesus.

I don’t want to spend all our time this morning on Bible study comparisons of the gospels and on recounts explaining history, but will say that for a while, we understand John to have been more popular and attractive, to have more of a following than Jesus. The other gospels say crowds were going out from Jerusalem and the surrounding country to hear him. Somewhat like Jesus, John was arrested and killed for being seen as dangerously revolutionary. That level of acclaim and influence seems to have persisted even after his death.

The other gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—give more of a portrait, with descriptions of John’s curious wardrobe and peculiar diet, and his message with baptism of repentance drawing the masses out to the wilderness.

With that message about sins and calling for radical reorientation in our life, I’d note that we usually hear these passages about John the Baptist in the middle of Advent. They can be awfully demanding and dour words in a season when we want to focus on cheer and all being merry and bright. With odd disjunctions in how our usual lectionary and liturgical year fit together, if we think about Advent as preparation for Christmas, remember that John wasn’t pointing toward a Messiah by getting ready for a birth; this is already when Jesus is an adult. And John’s preparing the way of the Lord isn’t the adornment and accumulation of the holidays, but is about clearing things away.

So maybe it actually feels more appropriate and fits better today, as you’ve cleared away some of the Christmas detritus and perhaps begun to clean up and pack away the ornamentation. Maybe that makes you feel ready to address straightening things out.

Indeed, that version of John the Baptist from other gospels may seem especially timely for us starting a new year, in these days that cause us to look back in reflection, to assess our lives, to take stock and resolve what needs to change. This transition to the new year can be a repentance moment.

And that may be some of the reason for John’s enduring popularity. He’s the self-help sort of figure. Evidently it’s not just us, but those ancient crowds also that like self-improvement projects and find them to be an endless diversion. There’s always something about ourselves we’d change, that we wish were different, that we feel to our core is a little rotten, is not quite right. Those ancient crowds could head out for a retreat of wilderness renewal, for the washing of water to give a sense of a fresh start, with assistance and direction from a guru instructing them exactly what they needed to do and how to practice being better.

The thing is, though, that’s not why we mark the enduring legacy of John the Baptist. And the Gospel of John focuses more directly on his importance for us as a secondary sort of character. In the Gospel of John, the main point isn’t his background baptizing or his potential in preaching repentance and radical reorientation of our lives and values. His central identity here is as John the Testifier or John the Witness. He is sent by God so that everyone might believe through him, it says. Which is saying something pretty big.

And yet for the huge importance of that role, he spends his time pointing away from himself. It’s emphasized and reiterated in our reading today: “he confessed and did not deny it, but confessed.” I am not! He said he was not the Messiah, not the anointed and chosen one.

He said he was not Elijah, the prophet we met this fall in conversation with the still, small voice of God, who was taken up into heaven and expected to return. That’s an interesting one, since the other gospels specifically try to associate him with Elijah, including as the reason he’s wearing that curious wardrobe. It’s so strongly connected that our Old Testament is arranged to end with the book of Malachi with the final words, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” which leads into the appearance of John the Baptist at the start of the New Testament in Matthew.

But here John says he’s not Elijah. And he says he is not the prophet. Even though he was out at the Jordan River to guide people back into the Promised Land, he distances himself from being identified with the prophet Moses said would follow in his footsteps as a leader. So there could be reason to see John in those roles, enacting those expectations.

But he says he’s not. He’s just a pointer to Jesus. That is his central role and identity, as a witness to the light. A billboard, and advertisement, as Linda said. John the Testifier. A penultimate, secondary character, who ranks lower.

The point of all of this is Jesus.

Well…so you may not be entirely surprised by that, at least until you stop to consider it. I think there is a fair amount of presumption that church and the practice of faith is really about making you a better person, that we think primarily of our self-improvement projects and resolving that we’ll be a little nicer and more helpful and holier in the coming year.

But that is pretty hopelessly self-centered, and with fairly bleak prospects. The reason we keep making new new year’s resolutions is because we keep failing. The reason there are always new diets and new workouts and new tips for healthy living is because we remain so unsuccessful, frustrated even at convincing ourselves we’re doing fine.

And I suspect a fair amount of our prayers and ponderings as we gather here weekly to confess are reflecting on the parts of ourselves we’d like to improve, and that there’s a broad sense of sermons as encouraging little pep-talks to send you back into life motivated to try again, with some notion that maybe by the end you’ll be able to sneak by as good enough to make it in to heaven.

But that’s not the point. That’s not the central message or why we’re here. That’s not why John is important to us. He points, points away from ourselves, points to Jesus. And as we continue in the weeks ahead with this fourth gospel, we’ll have the benefit of having our gaze continually refocused on Jesus. He himself is our core, the reason we’re here, the point of it all.

But that keeps coming with surprise. Last week those angels and shepherds pointed to the surprise of a baby in a barn, which pointed directly away from the usual expectations. The proclamation about the birth of a savior, the lord, and the son of god were words that usually indicated Caesar, the leader of the Roman Empire, the absolute ultimate central pinnacle of power. So an outcast baby in a backwater barn at the edge of the Empire, visited not by wealthy aristocrats and fierce generals and influential politicians, but attended only by shepherds, well, that would’ve been the opposite of any indicator of prestige or power or potential.

The Messiah who will come to save us, and the sign is a baby?! That’s certainly not the mighty new King David that the people were anticipating and yearning for. We get it wrong not only in thinking that it’s about us and how well we’re doing by society’s standards or God’s measurements, but also wrong in what we hope for or expect when God shows up for us.

So in a similar surprising way today, we get the same reversal of expectations with John’s pointing personality. We have the sense of what the people are looking for in their questions to John—they want a Messiah, probably meaning one to come and drive out the bad guys. They want an Elijah, a mystical undying miracle worker who drops down out of heaven to bring about God’s final vision. They want a prophet like a new Moses to guide them out of wilderness wanderings and lead them into a Promised Land. That’s what the people want, and we probably could agree with wanting a messiah to straighten out society and get things running right again, or somebody to show up with all the answers, to save us from our troubles, to be a great leader, with some sort of moral revolution, with panache and power and in whom we can be proud.

But not only does John the Baptist reject the claim to be any of those things, he won’t point to Jesus as fulfilling them either. He sees Jesus walking by and points his long bony finger and says, “There’s the one. Jesus. He’s the lamb.”

The lamb?!

Lambs aren’t especially known for their military might. They’re weaklings. They’re not known for their leadership capabilities, since they’re mostly apt to roam astray. They’re common, regular livestock not known as much of anything special. What they are known for is dying, for offering blood for a Passover marker and serving as dinner. With our ongoing surprise, John points to Jesus and says that that’s him, and that’s what this is all about.

As I was visiting family and friends in Eau Claire this past week, almost every conversation turned to assess the state of our lives and world through this past year and deeply asking what we can change or do about it. I know this congregation holds those concerns dearly, too.

But the pointing of John the Testifier doesn’t give us much resolution. This doesn’t come with a step-by-step how-to manual. It’s not explanation but proclamation, pointing to Jesus: Lo, unto you is born a savior, a tiny left-out baby who will die. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

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Christmas Continuing

a newsletter article — slightly belated

Keep celebrating, because it’s still Christmas!
As I write this on December 30, it’s still Christmas. As you read this in early January, it will still be Christmas. Even if you get around to it in late January, there’s still a sense it could be Christmas.

 

I’m whatever it would be called for a Scrooge who is grumpy when people don’t celebrate Christmas enough. After months of holiday lights in stores and of songs on the radio, it all vanished on December 26. Symbols of joy were cleared away as detritus, bagged up and kicked to the curb with the tree, disposed of as if life could and should return to “normal.”

 

But we miss out by shortchanging the official 12 days of this season, from December 25 to January 5. We need more carols and candlelight, and probably would do well to keep giving gifts (though I’m not asking for lords a-leaping). In the darkness, in the cold, amid the bleak midwinter, huddled under our worries, we’d benefit from more celebration, more practice at joy, more brightness of outlook and demeanor.

 

Back to the 4th Century the Church celebrated Christmas all the way until Candlemas on February 2, following the timeline of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple from Luke 2:22. That made it a full 40-day season. (After all, why should the repentance of Lent take all the fun of 40 days?!)

 

What’s more, our sense of Christmas as the biggest festival of the year (followed now by Halloween, as our Confirmation class reminded me, based on commercial capabilities) is also a newer trend. Originally the big three were Easter, Pentecost, and Epiphany. Christmas was a minor prelude!

I’d be in favor of not bypassing Epiphany. For our current calendars, the liturgical schedule of Christmas concludes with the celebration of Epiphany on January 6. We celebrate that as the visit of the wise men (see Matthew 2 for your at-home festivities). We also celebrate the arrival of the light and ponder what this means for us at the shared Epiphany choral service on Sunday, January 8.

 

This is a bit different in Easter Orthodoxy, where the focus of Epiphany is the Baptism of Jesus, a festival that the west typically celebrates on the Sunday after Epiphany. An internet search for “orthodox epiphany” will show some of the fun they have with the occasion.

 

Amid too much date-keeping and liturgical minutiae, the main thing worth knowing (and which I mentioned in this space a couple months ago) is how they reflect on Jesus’ baptism. We typically think of the waters of baptism as blessing us and connecting us to God. Since we’d say Jesus was already blessed and connected to God, the Orthodox view is that Jesus blessed and connected the waters to God. It’s a great transposition. Jesus entered the Jordan River and hallowed those molecules, and through the logic of the hydrologic cycle—as waters flow downstream and evaporate and fall elsewhere as rain—now all waters have been blessed by Jesus.

 

That also serves for continuing our celebrations of Christmas. As Jesus is born into our world, into our flesh, breathing our air, then there is nothing outside of the touch of the sacred, outside of God’s presence. Our lives and this world are imbued with holiness. That means Christmas cannot be boxed up or put to the curb, because even the landfills and basement shelves—and yes, I have to admit, even the non-Christmas songs on the radio and the unadorned stores—are born with God’s presence.

 

So keep celebrating—that’s our new normal!
+ nick

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Christmas Day sermon

Today we celebrate Christmas. Why we celebrate Christ is clarified by another name for the day: the Nativity of our Lord. That at least clarifies the reason we’re celebrating Christ is for his birthday!

Yet that still requires clarification. Mostly birthdays are about a ticking clock and a mark of getting older, as I myself notched ahead to 38 years on Thursday. Rarely from birth could we claim someone is destined for greatness or be able to predict the shape of their life much at all; observing Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, for example, is retrospective, for what he went on to accomplish and not because on the day of his birth even his family could’ve expected the Civil Rights movement or that this newborn son would lead a nonviolent revolution against racism, militarism, and extreme materialism.

Yet with Jesus, our stories proclaim huge expectations from this moment of nativity or even before: that he is a Savior bringing great joy to all people (Luke 2:10-11), a light to the nations (2:32), that he will be called great and will reign forever (1:32-33), that he will save his people from sins (Matthew 1:21), and fulfill what prophets had proclaimed of old (1:22). That’s predicting an awful lot for a baby.

But I guess the rest of us don’t have angelic messengers or a heavenly chorus heralding our arrival in the world. We get a doctor’s a-ok on 10 fingers and toes and friends and family to cradle us and say, “Isn’t he cute? She looks just like her father.”

That ordinariness, though, points to another term characterizing and best embodying this day: incarnation. It comes from the Gospel of John’s proclamation: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Incarnation is a word for en-fleshing, for God’s presence amid the meatiness and carnality and very real, bodily parts of our existence in this world. So today—with God’s presence in a flesh-and-blood birth—is a feastly celebration, a day for, indeed, meat, plus cookies and wine and tables spread, for treats from stockings, and extra goodies.

Besides feasting, incarnation means this is a day for extravagant presents wrapped with pretty paper and for enjoying companionship and great music. It’s a day for a walk to wonder at snow and birdsong. Or—given the rainyness—to curl up with a warm blanket and a book. There are so many possible delights, and Christmas—this incarnational, earthy day—is about all of them, declaring nothing is profane or secular or separated from God. All we experience is holy and blessed and touched by God.

On the other side—which we must not forget—this incarnation wasn’t only in the enjoyments of life. This birthday, this baby born into our flesh, came into life with a worn out and exhausted mother, surrounded by sheep poop (as a recent Saturday Night Live sketch portrayed so theologically accurately), with lowlife shepherds, and oppressive systems and political disappointments and the homelessness of “no room in the inn.”

Lest we missed that point on his birthday, Jesus grew up not for royal palaces and posh easy life, but to hang out with the hungry and hurting, the sinners and prostitutes, telling people they were forgiven, that their faith made illness well, that God had come near to them.

So as we hold the celebration today, the feast, the special birthday party with the richest treats and brightest lights and company, we also hold the sorrows and sadnesses of life, the suffering and longing, like our reflections did—of prison and isolation, of divisions and wars and insecurities, of disasters both natural and unnatural. These are where Christ most wants to be identified, and for whom God’s arrival in the world is most transformatively hopeful. Nothing and no one is left out.

It is with this broadest sense of life, the good and the bad, the celebrated feast and the needful holding fast that we have the full image of observing Christmas, of incarnation, of God with us.

 

Christmas from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Viewed from a Christian perspective, Christmas from a prison cell can, of course, hardly be viewed as particularly problematic. Most likely many of those here in prison will celebrate a more meaningful and authentic Christmas than in places where all that survives of the celebration is the feast in name only. That misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment;, that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—a prisoner grasps this better than others.  For the prisoner the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense. And to the extent that he [or she] believes it, a prisoner has been placed in Christian community and is a part in the communion of saints, a fellowship transcending the bounds of time and space and reducing the months of confinement here in prison walls to insignificance.

On Christmas I shall be thinking of you all very much, and I want you to believe that I too shall have a few hours of real joy and that I am not allowing my troubles to get the better of me….When one thinks of the horrors that have overcome so many recently, then one becomes aware anew of how much we still have to be grateful for. Presumably … the children will think back on [this Christmas] for many years to come. But perhaps precisely this will reveal to some for the first time, the true meaning of Christmas. May God protect us all.

with great gratitude and love,

your Dietrich

 

Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem, Maya Angelou

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes

And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.

What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.

Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.

The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.

Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Peace.

Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.

On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.

At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.

Peace, My Sister.

Peace, My Soul.

 

Room for Christ, by Dorothy Day                          (Watch for the Light, p179)

It is no use saying that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. …Christ is always with us, … But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers, and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers, and suburban housewives that he gives. It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that he walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that he longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.

We can do now what those who knew him in the days of his flesh did. I am sure that the shepherds did not adore and then go away to leave Mary and her Child in the stable, but somehow found them room …

If we hadn’t got Christ’s own words for it, it would seem raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality to some man or woman or child, and that my guest is Christ. There is nothing to show it, perhaps. There are no halos already glowing round their heads – at least none that human eyes can see. …

It would be foolish to pretend that it is always easy to remember this. If everyone were holy and handsome, with … neon lighting [shining] from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone.

If Mary had appeared in Bethlehem clothed with the sun [and] a crown [as the book of Revelation says] … then people would have fought to make room for her.But that was not God’s way for her, nor is it Christ’s way for himself, now when he is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth. …

In Christ’s human life, there were always a few who made up for the neglect of the crowd. The shepherds did it; their hurrying to the crib atoned for the people who would flee from Christ. The wise men did it; their journey across the world made up for those who refused to stir one hand’s breadth from the routine of their lives. …

[Yet] It is not a duty to help Christ, it is a privilege. … And that is the way [hospitality] should still be given. Not for the sake of humanity. Not because it might be Christ who stays with us, comes to see us, takes up our time. Not because these people remind us of Christ, … but because they are Christ, asking us to find room for him, exactly as he did at the first Christmas.

 

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A Sermon about Sermons and the Word

2nd Sunday of Christmas — John 1:1-18
Six years ago, I was preaching on this Sunday, on these Bible readings, and started off with a Bob Dylan song. I only remember it because that was my last sermon before you sent me out on 10 weeks of sabbatical.

Recalling that, and being one week away from my last sermon before you send me out, I’ve been thinking of some of the sweep of my sermons and our lives together. As I’ve been here, serving as your pastor for 11 years and a bit, there are some things that you might’ve gotten used to hearing me talk about. Caring for God’s creation amid climate change, for example: pretty big themes. Love, likewise, widespread and fairly constant.

A more specific type of detail, you may recall I get a kick out of sharing the Greek word skubala, a word for waste, destined for the landfill or the sewer. It comes from Philippians by Paul, which you may also have realized I cherish and find important for our shared faith, because he emphasizes Christ’s devotion to you and how everything else by comparison is rightly called “crap” (also highlighting that I don’t shy away from us addressing coarse or difficult things).

Noticing that, you almost certainly also know that I talk lots…an awful lot…almost continually about Jesus. Maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to have a next pastor who doesn’t need to blather on so constantly with “Jesus this, Jesus that, Jesus is for you, Jesus loves you” all the time. I guess you could be praying about that.

But in the meantime, for eight days more, you’re still stuck with me and my Jesus talk, today with this start of the Gospel of John. This is also among my favorite Bible passages; it says so much, and says it so well. That has to make us think about how we try to share our faith, how I preach to you, or how we put words to what we believe. This reading talks about testifying, to be witnesses, categories for which it sets a pretty darn high standard.

Think about it this way: if I’ve been testifying to you and trying to bear witness and tell you about Jesus for the last 136 months, it could seem fairly disappointing that I haven’t managed to accomplish very much that’s explicitly memorable, unless by explicit you mean teaching a Greek cuss word. Of sermons I recall, I mentioned that Bob Dylan one. In another, I talked about making pumpkin pie. There are highlights in pieces of Bible studies and trying to peel back confusing layers and dig in to texts. But mostly from this pulpit, nothing resilient or glamorous. So little so, in fact, that perhaps you’ve even been asked on a Monday, if not at brunch after worship, “so, what did Nick have to say in his sermon?” And you’d have to reply with a shrug, “I dunno.” Quite frankly, there are plenty of weeks that would be my own reply.

If we’re trying to explain this in the kindest way possible, you may compare it to the meals you eat, that you can’t necessarily recall what you’ve had for each meal this past week much less over the years, but that those have nonetheless sustained you, the food has inexplicably given you what you needed to survive. Maybe sermons are like that, vital but entirely transitory and fleeting, working through that inexplicable Holy Spirit.

I mentioned recently that I’ve never re-preached a sermon. Partly that may be because they’re not all that great to begin with. But it’s also that the words don’t apply the same way in new times, when our lives are in different places, when the world is not the same.

Along those lines, with one more pre-Jesus detour along the way, let’s stop past old Christmas cards. Acacia and I were cleaning some stacks on shelves in the basement this week, which included sorting old Christmas cards. Those are nice words to pull out, to find former greetings and old tidings of cheer from another time and place. Among them were family and friends in photos, including watching new family members be added and then those babies changing year by year. Wide-eyed infants became cute toddlers who then took on poses and personalities. The transformations come so fast. My youngest nephew is 10 weeks old today, and every time I’ve seen him he has looked immensely different.

I’m eager to be done talking about me and turn our attention instead to—you guessed it—Jesus. So if we’re marking time since Jesus’ birth, this is day 10. Even at a week and a half old, that baby Jesus would’ve been different than when he was born. We’re past the point where he was named and circumcised at 8 days old. His family was already experiencing changes. The shepherds and angel choirs were gone and they were going on with life. Some of the news of this baby, some understanding of him was maybe beginning to sink in.

And, even though we celebrate his birthday with a very specific remembrance each year, though we look back on it and re-live it, after that nativity, Jesus was never a newborn again. (Unless you try to work it on a technicality with Bible verses about him being the firstborn from the dead, or by claiming that he’s present in and with each and every newborn. But still, you know what I mean.) Jesus continued to grow and change. Last week, almost as an out-of-place disjunction, we heard of him as a tween, almost a teenager, complete with testing boundaries and the attitudes still expected from adolescents.

Since he’s growing and changing and aging, that also would have to mean one way or another that Jesus was going to die. It ended up being on a cross on account of you, but even if we imagined him dying of old age, that still is a remarkable thing when we have identified Jesus with and as God. It completely fouls up any traditional concept of God, of divinity, of a supreme supernatural Being. As eternal, God wouldn’t be constrained by time. Being infinite is a term trying to define that God shouldn’t be bound by or even located in space. If almighty or supernatural—literally as above nature—God shouldn’t be governed by laws of physics or biology. We like those images, like to imagine God as bigger than any of those laws or boundaries, transcending everything that continues to confine us.

But if Jesus is God, we can’t say that. He is in time. He is in a particular place. He either couldn’t or didn’t fly away, disobeying gravity, or stop death from draining away life. Jesus undoes so much of that classic notion of God and gives us something new, totally different. This is a God who changes.

Again, it’s so nicely and enduringly said by this passage from the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and this Word speaks all things into being, history we can accept and believe. Yet what happens next is that this Word of God is so invested in creation that when it has gone astray, when it stops listening to the Word, God continues striving to call it back, to speak again of love, to offer new beginnings. The Word that dictated, that set a plan and order for the universe also responds when things don’t follow that, don’t go according to plan. The Word is responsive. Those verses are about living, and struggling. And becoming, one of the richest ideas of our faith for our world, that what we might be or will be, we aren’t yet.

This, of course, isn’t just an innovative idea from the Gospel of John. All through our Old Testaments is a God who continues responding to our errors, our shortfalls, our forgetfulness, our rebellion. This is a God who continues to try new things, new approaches. This God is described on occasion with the surprising possibility of “changing his mind.” For our old, standard notions of God, that’d be impossible. God would have already known the future, and planned the future, and ruled out any other realities. But the God of the Bible is open and responsive, and so God can change God’s mind and meet you in a new way.

So our message as Christians and the good news we have to share is not static. This news is always new. While our faith may have some strong messages or timeless truths, they don’t stand once and for all but remain always changing as they engage again with fresh relevance for each moment in your life. The angel’s song at Christmas that “unto you a child is born, a savior” is a message we keep repeating, but what he has come to save you from or save you for is as new as each original sin and every individual moment of suffering. The ethic of our faith, to love our neighbors as ourselves, is reiterated and even identified as the “golden rule.” But what exactly it means to love your neighbor can’t be codified in some ancient rulebook. It’s new with every fresh work week, has its own meaning as school resumes tomorrow, and requires constant figuring in our families. More, it is different in our world of discerning what it means to love terrorists or prisoners or new basketball coaches or oil executives, just as it was a different set of boundaries and barriers and difficulties with your last set of neighbors, and for the previous generation, and back when God was walking around in the flesh.

Tim used to envision for us this as a Monty Hall kind of God, who let you pick what’s behind door number three and let you make a deal. This morning, we can simply identify this God as one who lets you make decisions and poor choices and yet won’t give up on you no matter how much of a bonehead you are. God is with you anew in a new year, is with me as I embark on a new thing (whether or not that was a good decision), is most certainly with you even when I won’t be.

I’m grateful at least for this moment that this isn’t my final sermon for you, because I don’t have any mighty or enduring or timeless “last words of wisdom.” All I have is the foolish word that God’s Word, the eternal Logos, the Sophia from on high, has come into our world, has become flesh to dwell with you, has come to reconcile you and redeem you and forgive you and love you. I don’t fully have any idea what that means for tomorrow, or even for the rest of today, or really even know what it means for you right this instant. But that’s the Word we have to proclaim and share, the Word who abides with you and lives in you.

Hymn: Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295)

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Christmas sermon #2

(Eve, 10:30pm)
In this service, with so much beautiful music of darkness and light, there’s one that didn’t get included. Here are a few of these words anyway:
To us, to all in sorrow and fear
In darkest night his coming shall be,
when all the world is despairing
Though a line claiming that winter is “dark and cheerless” may be an overstatement—indeed, we are likely still to find plenty of cheer these days—nevertheless we probably relate strongly to words of sorrow, fear, and a desperate world.
 
The part about being in darkest night has been particularly on my mind for this service, because this has to seem peculiar. Most obviously, this isn’t when we’d usually be at church. Indeed, it’s the sort of schedule when most of us are not likely to be anywhere except at home, and maybe nestled in bed.
 
Those who are at work now tend to have the disparaged title of “3rd shift,” seeming to indicate it’s not a first choice, that they’re not first rate or first class. That’s not to say those roles aren’t extremely important, for the nurses caring ‘round the clock, and firefighters ready at a moment’s notice, and those maintaining systems or security of buildings. Yet that those are extraordinary roles highlights again that it is unusual to be here in the dark middle of the night.
 
Venturing homeward in a bit, it’s the hour we might expect the only others driving are heading home from the bar or are long-haul truckers still making their way ‘cross country.
 
The unusual fact, though, is that even our being out now is not as strange or scary as it had been. We’ve got well-lit roads and reliable vehicles. But looking back in history, night was not a time to be out and about. Thieves and marauders lurked to attack travelers under the cover of darkness. It’s unsurprising in our Christmas story that shepherds were the only ones to show up to welcome the newborn baby; either they were tough enough to fight off the unsavory characters, or they themselves were the unsavory characters, rugged, stinky and unsociable, probably a bit uncouth.
 
So here you are, gathered in the middle of the night, repeating the pattern of those sketchy characters, the unsavory shepherds. You’ve left comforts of warmth and enjoyment behind to wander through the darkness to be here at this service.
 
Which begs the question: why? Why stay up late? Why adjust schedules? Why put off other types of celebration? Why venture to be here?
 
I know some of you’d answer that it’s your tradition, this is what your family has done. You may find it beautiful, the quiet and peacefulness of night. Again, we know that the line about winter being “dark and cheerless” is wrong because we long for that iconic scene of the “moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow.” We enjoy the notion of the “o holy night” with brightly shining stars. Ken Koscik would say that we still have enough of our ancestral genes in us that we are drawn to gather around the warmth of fires, even of small candle flames.
 
But I suspect there’s another, true explanation for being here and being here now. That is hope. Because of sorrow and fear in a despairing world. We are people who get scared. Of things that go bump in the night, sure, but not afraid only of the dark as afraid in the dark. In quiet seclusion of sleepless nights is when our minds are troubled, when our thoughts fret through details. Those worries can almost be overwhelming because the night can be so isolating.
 
Quiet moments of reflection can also intimidate since there really is much too much wrong with our world and the existence that surrounds us. We stare into the void of not knowing what to do about bad news—about violence and conflicts, about those with whom we disagree and whose opinion threatens to overpower us, about the collapse of things we’ve held dear, about deaths in big planetary ways and also the deaths and losses and longings we confront in an emptier holiday, and even just the no-big-deal but still-accumulating frustrations. Those become terrifying things to hold onto.
 
But this here isn’t just for distraction, not just sweet lights and pretty songs to take our attention away from being bombarded by things we’d prefer to ignore. No, actually we come to church to face those things more directly, and to be met by the good news that confronts the worst and changes it, transforms us, that saves. Our songs and lights aren’t diversions but are how we face the darkness of despair. And on this night, we don’t abandon each other to lonely worry, but gather together, united to face our troubles as community, joined by hearts and hands.
 
We come out into the darkness—into the middle of the night—partly because we long to hear this message. We need the proclamation that a savior has come. Our hope is desperate, is tenacious, is so very fragile. Our hope is so fragile that we can even cling to this baby born tonight, devoting ourselves wholeheartedly in him. We’re so eager to receive good news that we’ll cradle this one in our arms and in our souls.
 
While we wouldn’t just say that life is dark and cheerless, that we are wholly fearsome and worried folk, still we should notice a detail in this story: the shepherds feared and trembled. When the angel showed up, they were sore afraid. Is it that the darkness hides our rough edges, that we’re not really ready for change from the devil we know? Does any bit of blessing or actual good news catch us off guard? Or did those shepherds stop being scared as soon as they heard the amazing message, “Do not be afraid.” Don’t fear the angel chorus. Don’t fear this news. Don’t fear anything at all anymore—Jesus is born.
 
We venture into the darkness quite possibly as a bunch of raggedy shepherds who are now ready for this message, eager to hear the news. We’d probably also feel like saying we’re here because we yearn not just to receive but to embody this for others. We want to share and to practice this peace that has come to earth. We are filled by the Holy Spirit, blessed to be the blessing, offering compassion and love. That is the kingdom task we’re brought to by this newborn king.
 
And we’re people of joy. Our songs ring out into the darkness and candles keep shining against it. Together we have the confidence that, in spite of all that is wrong or we wish would be different, for all the precarious moments of life seeming at risk and even when it’s too late, still we celebrate. Our lives and our world have been entrusted into the arms of a savior, a redeemer. Be not afraid; Jesus is born!
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Christmas sermon #1

(Christmas Eve, 3:30pm)

 

“Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.”

Those may be familiar words. You might use them gathered around a table for a feast on this day. Maybe you pray this in your home every day; it’s great as a simple and regular way to share faith in your families and attune your lives in gratitude toward God.

Yet for how good and how common those words can be, still they strike me as odd. Even Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol is labeled at one point as the “founder of the feast.” Even that stingy bugger gets credit for being a provider at the table, but when we pray—to Jesus, to God our Creator, who gives us all that we have and are—for some reason we don’t return credit where it’s due. Instead of recognizing this preeminent and most fundamental of hosts, we say, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.”

Besides that backwardness, I’ve been pondering that prayer for our Christmas celebrations. Think about this: what do you normally do in preparing to receive guests? At my house, I clear away stacks of old mail, and sweep the fluffy clumps of cat hair out of the corners, scrub the grime off the bathroom, and turn up the heat above my eco-conscious high of 62°. Acacia is better at making bedrooms look congenial, turning on lights and thinking where suitcases will go, cutting flowers or setting out photos, plus shopping for ample foods and drinks. Maybe your house, too, has lately involved preparations of vacuuming and dusting, decorating and baking, rearranging and wrapping.

And then, finally, welcoming. I love that moment when the car pulls up outside our house, and our dog is excited, and we go out to meet our guests and invite them into the house.

So, I’ve been wondering if that’s how God is welcomed. We may pause to pray “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,” but even that seems like mild preparation or expectation. I mean, Santa Claus gets notes and milk and cookies. In Jewish families at Passover, Elijah has an empty chair waiting with a glass of wine. So what about Jesus?

That seems exactly the issue as we hear Christmas story from Luke, recounting the details of a young woman’s pregnancy. She and her fiancé were forced by those in power to travel far from home, perhaps on a bumpy donkey ride, over mountains, and past the haunts of roadside bandits. They got to Bethlehem and found no place. No friends or relatives. No room for rent, no hospitable stranger. Not even a homeless shelter. They ended up hunkered down with the livestock.

And that’s when the moment came for them who were expecting—another, special moment of arrival. Even if a trip to the hospital, with medical staff, antiseptics and anesthesia are benefits of childbirth in our modern time, still this came with no a bed, no blankets, no assistance or care from others.

And then this baby was laid in a manger, in the feedtrough where the sheep kept looking to munch hay. That was the only place to receive him, as those in homes and inns went about life, enjoying supper and company, savoring warmth and comfort. Baby Jesus was not welcomed as a guest to be cared for. His coming was pretty much ignored.

His arrival was neglected and unvalued…except by some shepherds. Yet, for that, just imagine what you’d think if some guys who’d been camping out in the wilderness surrounded by barnyard animals and their poop suddenly wandered in to join your holiday gathering, much less to meet you in the labor and delivery room. The one upside was that their odor, rather than being a distraction or annoyance, would’ve fit right in at a cattle stall.

Poor baby Jesus deserved so much but hardly had a birthday party. That may make us feel sorry or maybe ashamed. We may ask ourselves what we would’ve done, had we been around Bethlehem in the year zero. Or we feel we need to do more now, really to celebrate well, as if we’re proving to Jesus that we can do better.

In that way, we could easily turn this into a morality lesson: realizing Jesus was left out in the cold, and by analogy seeing Jesus in our neighbors, we try caring for the suffering. That might mean we especially ought not leave other babies out in the cold. I feel I should’ve had a more useful solution for Chrissy, who came a week ago looking for help because she and her four children are sleeping in a parked car.

Or, reminded that Jesus arrived as an unwanted outcast, displaced from his home, needing a safe place while a violent military was controlling his homeland, we might have reason to follow social media memes that highlighted for us how we’re treating refugees, to imagine those displaced people in Jesus’ boat. We might also harbor disappointment at how quickly that unresolved crisis has been fading from the news and our minds. Those may be honest and kind embodiments of our faith and may even have life-saving importance.

But we also have to recognize that Christmas isn’t about shoulds and oughts. If this were assessed by what we’re supposed to do, how well we’re prepared, what it means to welcome outsiders and whole-heartedly pray “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,” then partly at least we’re fooling ourselves, because we missed it.

This isn’t about preparing a cozy nursery for Jesus or only guilt and shame at failing to make progress or what’s necessary and right to do next. Because Jesus came. He came without a baby shower or a nurse’s specialty care or a society that valued him or even a bed. Yet he came just the same.

So rather than this being a lecture, trying to tell you what to do or what you did wrong, this story is telling us about God. It’s an amazing thing to keep repeating year-after-year through the generations, to tell that our God would come this way. God does not wait for you to tidy up, to get your house in order, to make things ready and pretty, to be all Martha Stewart-y. God doesn’t wait for the plate of cookies or the door to be opened, or the to-do list to be completely checked off.

This disregarded God who was born in a barn, this God who goes on to be found on a cross, this God is the God who would still be with you in your life. See, God doesn’t wait for all to be merry and bright, for the table to be set and the stockings hung with care, for those who are nice and not naughty.

Jesus comes exactly because our world is hurting, because our lives are messy, because you need him. Unnoticed, even as an uninvited guest, still he comes to your life, and the angel’s song is again the message for you: Jesus, your Savior is born! He comes to establish peace, to set you free, to give you life, to fill you up with joy. He’s making room for all that in you! That’s a lot! You’re welcome.

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