Christmas Eve Sermon: Don’t Be Afraid (Matthew 2:1-12) (7 p.m. Wesley)

Sometimes, Christmas can be less than God intended it to be. Sometimes, we fail to see the beauty of Jesus’ birth, God with flesh on incarnate in our world. Sometimes, all the stuff of Christmas can get in the way of actually celebrating Christmas.

In 2008, Jdimytai Damour was assigned to work the Black Friday morning shift. He was a part-time seasonal worker in Long Island, NY, whose job was to man the front door when the store opened in on that morning at 2008 at 4:55 a.m. But that morning, the door malfunctioned, the crowd become incensed,the people surged, and the door crashed down on Damour. While the majority of the crowd went over or around him, pinning him down, three of those nearly two thousand people tried to form a barricade around him. How many of them were good people? How many of them were Christians? Only three of them could see that their Christmas activities didn’t trump their Christian beliefs that day.

Hundreds of people missed the point, which is ironic, isn’t it?

In the Greek of the New Testament, the most frequent word used for sin is “hamartia,” which literally means “to miss the mark.” Like an archer setting out to shoot a target who fails to hit the bullseye, hamartia means that we have failed to follow what we should, that we have failed to follow the marks laid out before us by Jesus’ example and teaching. But sin isn’t just something we can put on someone else – we must recognize that sin is something we must wrestle with ourselves and together.

As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Following the path matters, but we must first identify the way.

In our Scripture today from Matthew 2:1-12, it says that Magi – or wise men, astrologers, or kings – showed up seeking a king they had heard about and pursued from the East. They naturally go to the resident king and ask about the new king – a bit too proactively, maybe. But they followed the star and they pursued the vision for the king they were seeking.

Herod sees the Magi’s arrival as the chance to smell out and destroy a would-be usurper, a potential rival. He thinks he can set these Magi up to do his dirty work, to get rid of an enemy. So the Magi keep following the star – and they come to a house with a child inside. While this is part of our Christmas story, we understand that it would truly have been several years after that first Christmas, as the Christmas story rolled into the experience of people even after the fact.

These wise men – three, thirty, three hundred? – come and present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These wise men celebrate the birth of a miracle child, of a king honored by the arrival of a star – not the typical happenings for a typical day. But having been warned in a dream – they avoid Herod and go home a different way.

Here, our three kings have an interaction similar to those individuals in the stories we’ve studied in our Do Not Be Afraid Series – Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. The voice of God – here, called in a dream, while before it was via an angel – showed up and told the wise men to avoid the things which society (and maybe common sense) would have pushed for: to be afraid of Herod.

Instead, the wise men were inspired by God to move differently, to not be afraid. They were expected to do one thing, to succumb to power and privilege and fear, and instead, they obeyed God and went home by another way.

While the wise men went home having been moved by what they saw – and we assume, forever changed – the world around them wasn’t immediately different. Caesar Augustus still led the Roman infestation of Israel and Judah, the poor were still poor, the abandoned  didn’t even know that the God of the universe had come down as a newborn baby.

Fear still existed and evil still appeared to have the upper hand. And yet, we will sing, with candles lit,

“Silent night! Holy night!

All is calm, all is bright,

Round yon Virgin Mother and Child!

Holy Infant, so tender and mild,

Sleep in heavenly peace!

Sleep in heavenly peace!”

But all is not calm; all is not bright … yet.

Mary births the Son of God; Joseph accepts this son as his own; the angels pursue the good news that is delivered to them in the field that night. The wise men witness this Son of God and go home with the good news to tell others that Jesus has come.

It’s still dark out there, right? But something changed that night.

That first Christmas, people who were afraid stopped being afraid. People who were poor and powerless and struggling with their place in the world found that God cared, that there was purpose, that the future was bright.

This Christmas, all is still not calm – it is not bright for everyone. In the midst of this service, we will celebrate candlelight – the fact that it is dark around us but that we, the people of faith, represent millions of tiny points of light.

By ourselves, our single candles do not seem to do much to break into the darkness, to break apart the darkness, but together …

Together, our candles are strong. Together, our candles illuminate our own faces with light left over to shine onto the next person, to help them see a little better, to push back some of their darkness.

Together, we illuminate by community through the life of Christ.

Together, we are called to stand as one.

For peace.

For love.

For community.

Against the darkness, with our little bit of light.

Together, we can choose not to be afraid. Together, we can choose to seek God’s will above the will of the world, and the powers that threaten to derail us from being who God calls us to be.

We can be more. We can choose to live without fear. We can still follow the star.

We can do more than shake our hands and pray; we can move.

If we’re going to learn from the wise men’s search, we’re going to have to dig deep and remember that what we expect isn’t the same thing as what God’s looking for. We need to recognize that God is playing from a different set of rules; God is focused on different things.

When God sent Jesus to be born in a manger, to an unwed mother and a homeless carpenter, he set up for all of time that Jesus lived in the real world, not a fantasized picture of what life looked like.

When God sent Jesus, he reminded us that Immanuel, which means “God with us,” isn’t just a cute bumper sticker, it’s the reminder that God made himself like us and with us to understand what life is really like for us.

God wasn’t willing to let people say, “well, you don’t know what it’s like!”

God sent Jesus into a world of people who were seeking something, anything, to hold onto to show us that we are not alone, that God is here, and that God wants to be with us. Littered through the Scriptures are reminders:

The times that Jesus asks his audience, whether it’s an individual or a group, “what do you want me to do for you?”

The offering up of his body and blood on the cross, after sharing the Last Supper, when he says, “this is my body which is given for you” (Luke 22:19).

The reminders from the apostle Paul that “if God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)”

Too often, we come to church and Christmas, and we’re expecting the wrong thing. We’re seeking temporary happiness or immediate financial security that seem to wear off before the Super Bowl; we’re looking for love and peace of mind in all the wrong places, like failed relationships and jobs we don’t really like. We’re not changing the things that matter but pursuing a difference by running after the wrong things.

And then the wise men show up, strangers in a strange land, who realize there’s something different here.

Sometimes, we have to recognize that what we’ve been looking for isn’t what we’ll find, but that it’s better. That the unexpected is actually exactly what we need.

We can either be the wise men or we can be Herods, we can be Scrooge or Bob Cratchit. We can be full of wonder and pursuit and purpose, or we can be stuck on ourselves, and our fears, lusts, and expectations. We can strive for the sacred or be stuck in the mundane. It’s not a pretty contrast, is it?

I encourage you to reflect on the story of Jesus’ birth. Maybe you’ve heard it a million times and it feels like the same old trite story. Maybe tonight is the first time you’ve heard about the baby Jesus in context. Either way, hear the good news:

The God who created the world, created a unique you for a unique purpose. Because we don’t always do what we should, we find ourselves separated from God and from who we are meant to be. Because God loves us so much, he sent his one and only Son to live our life, to teach us a better way, and to die on the cross so that all the things we shouldn’t have done are dead and gone. And we can be who we were meant to be, uniquely, as a blessing to others in relationship with God.

Somehow, the wise men figured out that their lives were different, that they met the sacred in the life of this young child. And they worshipped. We worship a lot of things, like money, and power, and beauty, and fame. We worship ourselves and put what we need high above everyone else. We worship getting by and getting ahead, instead of recognizing that the great God of the universe wants us to see ourselves as we really are.

Like a child. Like his child.

And he wants us to love him like a child loves a parent or grandparent, and knows that it is loved in return.

You matter to God. You are loved, redeemed, cleaned up, turned around, picked up, tested, saved, made whole, put right, and FORGIVEN.

All because of the sacred in the little child that the wise men went searching for. All because God wanted love to grow between you and him.

I don’t know what you came seeking tonight, but I hope you find more than you expected. I hope that you recognize, like the folks on the Westjet flight, that there’s more in store for you than you can imagine. That God wants to love you and make you whole, and give you what you need, right now.

This Christmas, I hope you recognize the path that God has called you to, the stars God puts in your life to follow. I hope that you can see in the midst of the turmoil you find yourself in, in whatever darkness you see in the world, that the light still shines.

That God still shows up in expected places.

That people who are wise still seek.

That the angel still shows up, with the voice of God whispering,

“Do not be afraid.”

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Christmas Eve Sermon (DNBA): Do You Wonder? (Matthew 2:1-12) (5 p.m. Wesley)

Do you wander? Do you wonder?

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that “not all who wander are lost.” Think about that for a minute. Are you willing to wander or are you someone who has to know exactly where you’re going and exactly how to get there?

I admit that personally, I am most interested in the route from point A to point B. I don’t wander enough – and I think (unfortunately) it impacts my wondering.But – and this may surprise you coming from the pastor – I am still seeking. I still want to understand better what Christmas and Christianity are all about.

U2 wrote the following, and it speaks to my search for what is true, for where God is, in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”:

 

I have climbed highest mountain; I have run through the fields, only to be with you.

 

I have run, I have crawled, I have scaled these city walls. Only to be with you.

 

I believe in the kingdom come, then all the colors will bleed into one. Well, yes, I’m still running.

You broke the bonds, and you loosed the chains, carried the cross, of my shame. You know I believed it.

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…

Consider the wise men with me. Think about their importance to our story – what they add to the otherwise short birth narratives included – just narrowly – in the gospel story. Think about their wandering – and their wondering.

To be clear, I don’t mean what we popularly believe, that there were three of them because of the number of gifts (and because they’re commemorated in We Three Kings of Orient Are) or that they arrived at the same time as the shepherds. Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but we’re always getting our translations mixed up, aren’t we?

Reminds me of this story:

In a small southern town there was a “Nativity Scene” that showed great skill and talent had gone into creating it. One small feature bothered me. The three wise men were wearing fireman’s helmets.

Totally unable to come up with a reason or explanation, I left. At a “Quick Stop” on the edge of town, I asked the lady behind the counter about the helmets. She exploded into a rage, yelling at me. “You Yankees never do read The Bible!”

I assured her that I did, but simply couldn’t recall anything about firemen in The Bible. She jerked her Bible from behind the counter and ruffled through some pages, and finally jabbed her finger at a passage. Sticking it in my face, she said, “See, it says right here, ‘The three wise men came from afar.

Who or what occupationally they were isn’t as important to me. Maybe they were astrologers, or mystics, or some kind of combination of science and religion. Whatever their occupation was, they had seen a star that was of epic proportions and they knew that whoever the star shone for was important.

These were the best of the best of the East: the smartest, the brightest, the most intelligent, the most forward-thinking. Maybe they were traveling by camel, maybe not– we know the Cadillac hadn’t been invented yet, so what else could a bunch of wise guys be driving around in?

Speaking of wise-guys, A mafioso’s son sits at his desk writing a Christmas list to Jesus. He first writes, ‘Dear baby Jesus, I have been a good boy the whole year, so I want a new…’ He looks at it, then crumples it up into a ball and throws it away. He gets out a new piece of paper and writes again, ‘Dear baby Jesus, I have been a good boy for most of the year, so I want a new…’ He again looks at it with disgust and throws it away. He then gets an idea. He goes into his mother’s room, takes a statue of the Virgin Mary, puts it in the closet, and locks the door. He takes another piece of paper and writes, ‘Dear baby Jesus. If you ever want to see your mother again…’

Okay, let me stick to the script here. We know the wise men were looking, and we know they were willing to go. But what else?

We know that these men were not Jewish, not God-worshipping in the way that we or the Jews would’ve expected, and their travel was totally based on the signs they had seen and the star they had followed. They were scientifically, practically, searching, not out of religious fervor. Worship for them was human-to-human, honor and gift-giving, not holy religious wonder. These men were practical – not necessarily religious

The wise men travelled many miles from the east to track down this “king of the Jews,” to come and worship him. Many miles… to worship.

We can only definitively know that the wise men were:

1- Not Jewish because they didn’t know that Bethlehem was the place to look

2-From far away because they were from ‘the east.’

3-Not satisfied with the life they lived…

because if they had been, they would not have come. If they had everything they needed, everything they knew to be important, then why would they have travelled to Bethlehem to find this king of the Jews? If all of their questions could be answered where they were, then why would they go?

What were they missing in their lives that made them go searching, to go follow a star, to a place they’d never been with people they didn’t know?

While we bounce that question around for awhile, consider that they also say they’ve come to worship a king. Up until they arrive, we have an understanding that God has divinely caused Mary to be pregnant with a baby who will be full of the Holy Spirit, and we know from Joseph’s vision that he will save his people from their sins. But the wise men understood that this person, this Messiah, wasn’t just a prophet; he was a ruler.

Now, we might get it mixed all together, this Messiah-savior-king-prophet bit, but for a bunch of out-of-towners to show up in Jerusalem and ask where the “king of the Jews” was going to be, that was taking it to a whole new level. Because there had been heroes, and prophets, and miracles before, and the wise men would’ve heard of those people, maybe even met them. There was something different going on here.

So, these wise men show up and tell King Herod, the puppet king the Romans had in place, that there was a threat to his kingdom. But there wasn’t just a threat to Herod, there was a threat to the status quo. Because the people in Jerusalem are upset by this news, too. They don’t need another Messiah, they don’t need another king. Every person who steps up out of line causes the Romans to get angry, and kill some Jews. The people of Jerusalem would just as soon lie low. They are satisfied.

The people are satisfied with how things are– they have settled for oppression and less than. They have figured out how to survive, how to live the way they do, and the habits they have developed have gotten them this far. So why change? (Isn’t that how we are sometimes, settling for okay or mediocre rather than “the best”?)

Herod needs to figure out what the 411, the truth, the information, about this child-who-would-be-king is, because it’s a threat to his applecart, and he knows he could be dethroned and killed if the Romans get upset. Herod is challenged by a prophecy; he’s a Jew who should’ve known what was going on with the prophecy, but instead of being excited about galactic change, he’s worried about how it will affect him right now. So he puts the wise men up to being his spies, and tells them to track down the baby, and says he wants to go worship it, too.

We can see that the wise men keep going until they find the house where the child is, and that they are overjoyed. Their journey in searching is over. They have followed the directions to the end of the treasure map. They proceed to worship Jesus, and to present gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The wise men have been seeking something that they couldn’t find anywhere else. They have been pursuing the truth and the sacred, and they find it here with Mary and with baby Jesus. And they recognize that they are not supposed to report back to Herod, and they go home without going back through Jerusalem.

They came from the east, and they followed the star, and they found the sacred in a place unexpected.

I believe the wise men came seeking the amazing, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that they knew would be unlike anything that they’d seen before. I believe they brought their best: the gold, frankincense, and myrrh were not cheap, Dollar Store gifts, but the best of the best. And I believe that what they experienced that night was so amazing that it caused a group of men who were trained to seek the kings and kingdoms of the world, to change their direction and defy King Herod.

I believe they encountered the sacred, and their worship came from commonplace gift exchange and status seeking, to a mind-blown, wonderful eye-opening experience of the divine.

I think that these wise men thought they were pursuing a king who would need some advisors, that they thought they were headed to a royal court. The wise men didn’t know exactly what they were looking for but when they found it, they knew it. I’m sure they were looking for a palace, something impressive, something spectacular, powerful, and intense.

And they found a baby. I don’t know what made them recognize that this was it but they knew it when they found it.

When they discovered Jesus and worshipped him, they knew that their previous expectations of Herod were faulty, and they literally changed direction. Their attitude and behavior was altered by the seeking and finding of the sacred.

The wise men wondered. Then they wandered. But as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Not all who wander are lost.”

These wise men had purpose. They knew who they were. They didn’t let the evil king control them. They didn’t let their fears stop them. They let God transform them.

They joined a host of people who were changed by the arrival of Jesus. Mary, Jesus’ mother, who found out she was pregnant before she was married. Joseph, who discovered his fiancee was pregnant, but who was called to be her caregiver and the father of her child. The shepherds, who were called out of the fields to be the sharers of this good news (which we’ll get to next Sunday). And finally the wise men who came the farthest, sight unseen, to worship at the feet of this homeless king.

So, I’ll ask you, why did you come here tonight?

“What did you come here looking for?” “What are you looking for in life?” How will you know when you find it?

There’s no star hanging over the church to light the way. In fact, the parking lot isn’t even that well-lit! But you came because you thought you should be here or someone who is cooking your dinner brought you here, right?

I wonder what happens if when we go seeking, whether it’s money, or pleasure, or happiness, or fame, if we found Jesus instead, if that would make a difference. The world says that we should go looking for bigger and better and more impressive, and when the wise men came seeking the once-in-a-lifetime ruler to end all rulers, they found a poor carpenter’s son, a young child with nothing to his name.

I pray that you will engage your sense of Christmas wonder, of childlike desire, of spirit-filled generosity, and fully-engaged participation. I pray that you will seek God with all your heart because the great God of the universe wants to have a relationship with you.

And when you realize that, I hope you’ll choose to “go home a different way.”

I hope it will change what you think about, what you focus on, what you want for your life…

I pray that it will change the things you worry about and what you fear…

I challenge you to let it change how you face today and tomorrow.

I pray that you will take heart, in the words of the angels who came to Zechariah, to Mary, to Joseph, to the shepherds, and to the wise men, and now come to you and me, that you’ll embrace the best that God wants for your life.

Wonder. Have faith. Move forward in God’s love and purpose. Seek the truth. Make changes, be change. Love one another.

Even in the darkness – do not be afraid. Instead, wonder.

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Sunday’s Sermon Today (DNBA – Advent 4): No Longer in the Dark (Luke 2:8-20)

This is the fourth sermon in the DNBA Advent series

Think about the worst job you’ve ever had. The dirtiest, nastiest job. I’ll give you my top 2.

The first summer after my freshman year, I worked at McDonald’s. I wasn’t considered quick enough to work the register (that’s saying something, right?) so I was a cook. Cooks prepare your food, swab the floor, scrape the grill, clean the bathrooms, take out the trash. Ah, the life of a McDonald’s cook.

The second worst job I ever had was working for water & sewer in the small town where I went to seminary. Ever wonder how pastors pay for their education? It stinks! …. When we weren’t digging ditches, warding off water moccasins or brown recluses inside of water meter holes, we were processing waste. I will spare you MOST of the details, but one day, I threw out a whole outfit, from hat to shoes, after we shoveled … stuff … into the back of a dump truck.

Turn to your neighbor and tell them about your worst job.

Now, let me tell you about first century shepherds.

Check out Luke 2:8-20. Here are some brave folks. Folks who probably can’t get other jobs, because they settle for taking care of the livestock in the middle of a great open pasture outside of the walls of Bethlehem. Folks who were considered unclean in the eyes of the Jewish law, folks who couldn’t interact with their families because being with them would make them unclean, too.

But they’re brave. They have to be. It’s just a few men and boys, out in the middle of this wide open field with no protection from the wind and rain, and nothing, except each other, to defend themselves against wild animals and thieves.

And let’s face it, who’s not at least a little afraid of the dark? You don’t have to admit it if you’re a lot afraid, either.

So these shepherds, who are not just caring for the sheep that aren’t theirs, they are living out in the barrenness are staying up all night to watch these sheep. Seriously, can any of you relate? You work all day and all night, caring for someone else’s stuff, getting paid pennies on the dollar, and you’re still kept in the dark.

This is your life. This is your “deal.” There is no passing Go! and collecting $200. It’s minimum wage and communal ostracization with no hope of parole.

These are the ultimate outsiders. The least, the last, and the lost. And they are about to get a very big “but” that changes their projection of life worth, value, and joy. Not an immediate “but” because we have do the whole scary, crazy, shiny angels and terrified audience thing first:

“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

And the angel said, “Do not be afraid.” (A personal favorite.) But then he dives in. Sure, the angel has already told Mary that her son will reign on a throne forever; Joseph has been told they’re having a child who will save the people from their sins.

But this angel message is broader. The good news he delivers will bring great joy to everyone, and he tells these shepherds, these bottom of the barrel, “why should we listen to them”-types, that the baby is Savior, Messiah, and Lord. This baby will fulfill a bunch of prophecies that the shepherds have heard as kids but probably haven’t had rehashed much because of that whole, not being allowed in the synagogue thing.

Kick in the Transiberian Orchestra heavenly host, because, sorry, this isn’t the choirboy, don’t rock-it-too-hard choir, this is the blazing glory, light-it-up choir. The concert ends, and the shepherds, antisocial by occupation and religious stature, say, “Let’s go check it out!”

The shepherds could have been afraid that God’s message didn’t include them, that all of the things others had told them about themselves were true. Instead, they chose to recognize God’s love and purpose for them. 

There’s no hesitation. They hurry to find the family, placing them in fine company with people like the father in the Prodigal Son parable who runs, rather unceremoniously, to meet his long lost son who has disowned him. They run to the Messiah, leaving their sheep, their livelihood, their charges behind. Their old life has been shelved, and they’re ready to see what happens next.

It can’t get any worse, right?

The shepherds see the baby and immediately begin to spread word about a) what the angel said and b) what they’ve seen. The people who hear from them are amazed at what the shepherds say and certainly at the fact that it’s the shepherds who are telling them.

Kind of like finding out that Jesus’ team of crack disciples are is made up of fisherman, tax collectors, and terrorists. Not exactly the team we’d put together to lead the church, is it?

But, there’s the but we’ve been waiting for, Luke tells us that “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”

It says that the shepherds returned. Returned from what? The manger? Bethlehem? Traveling around town telling people about Jesus?

Returned to what? Certainly not the 12 to 12 shift with no pay, someone else’s menial slave labor. Certainly not isolation and darkness.

There’s absolutely no way that the shepherds “saw the light,” were touched by the light, received the good news and then turned around and went back to the mundane.

No, their whole world had been reframed. Refocused.

Every year I go to the ophthalmologist and get the “is this better? what about this?” eye test. Seriously, I’m blind without my contacts so it’s basically a real mean test by a devious little man. But I digress…

The beauty of the test is that they can figure out exactly what focus the lenses need to be so that my vision is correct when they put the contacts in. But without the reframing, I’d be blind. In the dark. Isolated by my lack of vision. (You see where this is going, right?)

The shepherds are in the dark, alone, and ostracized. They are outsiders who have been outside for so long that they think it’s the only way to be. And then the angels bring the light to them, and they experience the light fully. And they are no longer in the dark.

And even though they’re outsiders, they recognize that what they have is so spectacular that it would be criminal not to share it. No matter what they cost.

They are like Scrooge after the visions of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. He saw something that didn’t just change Christmas, but that changed his life! He was different, passionate, even idiotic to the people he interacted with that morning because he knew that there was good news to share and generosity to be applied. He could not keep it all in!

Are we that liberated? Are we that motivated? Have we been so touched by the light, so washed by grace that we have to share?

Or are we willing to settle for 25 days and out for another year?

Reflect on the last month. What did you do differently? Who did you make time for? What did you value less? Did your spending change, your habits, your focus?

Most of us can’t keep eating the way that we ate over Christmas, but what if we’re supposed to spend the kind of percentages on helping others that we have for December? What if we’re supposed to drink in grace and sweat out patience for our kids, our spouses, our fellow Walmart shoppers, the crazy neighbor two doors down?

What if we have received the good news for all people and there’s someone in our lives who won’t hear it unless they hear it from us? I’m not into a gospel that shames but where does our responsibility come into play? When do we recognize that we were outside of the will and grace of God, and that Jesus brought us in through his birth, life, and death, and that it’s our purpose to share the good news?

want to tell people about Jesus, but I hate that they might not meet him if I’m their best shot. I want people to meet Jesus but I hate that others have done and said things that are detrimental, and sometimes outright false, to the good news of Jesus Christ. But I recognize that the grace of Christmas makes them more open to seeing Jesus and hearing the good news…

So why don’t I act and speak with boldness like I do in Christmas from now until Epiphany, and see what that changes?

There are many people outside our community who need to hear the good news. Their darkness is great, in the brokenness of their relationships, their addictions, their financial struggles, their shame. They have resorted to living in the dark like that is what they were meant for. They have assumed that the darkness is more comfortable, more like what they need than the light.

What could possibly change that?

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I might add that hopelessness and despair cannot drive out each other; only hope can do that. That isolation cannot be driven out by more alone time, but only by community. That violence cannot be driven out by more violence, but by peace breaking the cycle of violence.

We can’t expect our own lives to change if we keep going back to the “normal,” back to the dark. And we can hope and pray and wish on a star for those we know and love that they would be changed and saved by the forces that hold them back, but until they experience the love and light of the Christ child, their darkness remains.

The darkness is intimidating, but that’s why we have night lights. That’s why we have candles, flashlights, spelunking helmets, torches, and electricity. But the dark of our souls is even worse when we fail to purge the darkness with the light.

You, friends, are the light. You have experienced it, and seen it, and felt it. And it now shines from you, and grows with you. It’s up to you to share it, to serve others that they might hear the good news and see the risen Christ in your caring for them.

The darkness can be deep – and seemingly endless – but the shepherds remind us that we can make a choice to be boldly proclaim the good news. We can run passionately, without abandon into the night, and gather souls to Christ. God’s plan includes you. Even in the face of the night, do not be afraid.

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Sunday’s Sermon Today (DNBA – Advent 3): The Other Important Yes (Matthew 1:18-25)

This is the third sermon in the DNBA Advent series.

Every year during Advent, I find myself wishing we could unlock the personal journal of Joseph. Not the coat-of-many-colors guy, but the one who became the earthly father of Jesus.

Joseph intrigues me because he was a man who became a father – a man who potentially had the same questions about fatherhood I did but going into his marriage, he knew his wife would have a kid who wasn’t his! Let’s be honest – if you’ve had a child, and you have no apprehensions about being a dad or a mum, well, let’s just say I won’t hook you up to a lie detector.

Joseph has to deal with the ‘normal’ concerns – like how will he provide, what will change about his schedule, can he really get to know his wife while waking up at 2 a.m. to change a diaper … and what will the world his son grow up in look like, thanks to Roman oppression?

Some of these questions we might relate to – and some we might not. Just like the set up between Mary and Joseph.

See, Joseph and Mary are not married yet but they are contractually joined. They don’t live in the same house, they aren’t joined together yet, but they might as well be married.

Matthew tells us that Mary was “found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” We don’t know exactly how, but the news got to Joseph somehow, the way that spectacular (or dangerous!) gossip travels through small towns. So, Joseph found out.

Think about that for a minute – on top of Jesus not being Joseph’s, it wasn’t even Mary he told him!

But it says that Joseph was “faithful to the law,” that is, he obeyed the Ten Commandments, he followed the rules. By law, Joseph could’ve exposed Mary’s pregnancy, and she would’ve been stoned in the streets per the laws of the Old Testament.

But it says that Joseph “did not want to expose her to public grace,” and intended to quietly divorce her. While everyone else seems to be abuzz about her pregnancy, Joseph uses his own soul, his own innate goodness, to absorb the criticism for Mary. He doesn’t yet understand what is going on but he still wants what is best for Mary. Joseph puts Mary first.

What is going through Joseph’s mind?

I can’t imagine having been in Joseph’s situation. You are about to get married, and suddenly, the gossip around town is that your fiancee is having someone else’s baby. And it’s your fiancee by an arranged marriage, so it’s not like you and this woman can just fall back on your longstanding courtship, or your mutual admiration for each other. No, this stranger you are supposed to love and cherish as your very own appears to have betrayed your trust, your contract.

And the letter of the law says that Mary has to die because it’s what your society does, and frankly, it’s the only way for you to save face.

But on top of that, Mary, you’ve heard, has told her closest friends that God appeared to her, and that the baby is actually God’s, and that he will be the Messiah who will save his people from their sins.

Seriously, where does she get the idea that spinning that wild tale makes it better?

Still, you’re a classy guy. You follow the law, but you were raised in a home that emphasized grace. You know what you can do, but you don’t want to live with the truth that you condemned a woman to death. So you decide to tell her father that the wedding is off, and move on with your life, even if that brings you more ridicule, even if you never get engaged again. Because that’s the kind of guy you are.

But, and it’s a big but, Matthew 1:20 says that when Joseph had considered all of these things, that an angel of the Lord also appeared to him. The angel quickly connects the dots: Joseph is called “son of David,” highlighting the historical line from Israel’s highest king to the king who was to come. He tells Joseph “don’t be afraid,” which seems to potentially care a different type of weight to it here, like “don’t be offended.” And he tells Joseph, as Zechariah was told, what they will name their baby, breaking the historical pattern of a father choosing the name. (Or actually letting the Father choose the name…)

And the angel tells Joseph that he (Joseph) carries a higher purpose: he will now raise up a young man who will “save [God’s] people from their sins.” No pressure, right? Joseph just went from a “what was Mary thinking?” moment to a “what was God thinking?” moment. And the author of Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Which the God-fearing, rule-abiding, Old Testament-literate Joseph would have known.

For Joseph to be the kind of guy who knew what should happen to Mary and be the kind of guy who chose not to fulfill the letter of the law, Joseph was just the kind of man God wanted teaching his/His son Jesus what it meant to be human. What it meant to be a man.

Joseph could have been afraid of how things might look or what people might say, but he chose to trust God. 

Because when Joseph woke up from his dream, he did what God had told him to, implying that he immediately went and claimed Mary. That he immediately went and took responsibility from her parents for caring for her. That he did not consummate their marriage, but that from a public perception situation, he claimed her as his wife. No more gossip. No more rumors. End of story.

I wonder if God would find us to be “that kind of guy” or “that kind of gal” who would answer the call. We still have “what was God thinking?” kinds of moments, right? But do we respond the way that Joseph did? Are we obedient?

I recently asked my Facebook world to answer the question, “what rule or law do you have the most trouble following?” The answers ranged from forgiveness to abstinence to the speed limit. My best friend from high school highlighted the rule that governed the “Holy Lawn” outside of the school’s Catholic church that stated we must not walk on the grass. But most of the responses centered around forgiveness and “loving one another.”

For me, as I explore Advent, I recognize that there’s no Nativity Scene without Joseph. That there’s no holy family without Joseph saying yes, too, that Jesus couldn’t have been raised by a single mother in those days, and that while Mary did the heavy lifting (and she was obedient, too!), that Mary and Jesus needed Joseph to be “that kind of guy.”

Joseph was the man. He was the husband Mary needed, the father Jesus needed. He was faithful to the laws God had given his people, but he understood that grace overrode the letter of the law. He chose, even before the angel, to put his own desire and his own status and reputation below Mary’s; he chose to take the brunt of the community’s gossip on himself by claiming Mary obediently after the message from the angel.

So, after we’ve recognized that God is speaking to us, we must choose whether or not we will obey. Whether we will obey the Ten Commandments, like the one that instructs us to only worship God and nothing else before him; whether we will obey the greatest commandment to “love the Lord our God and love our neighbor as ourselves”; whether we will follow the instruction of Jesus based on both his teaching and his self-sacrificial example, to “lay our lives down for our friends.”

That would make us “that kind of person.”

From hearing or experiencing, to obeying. Somehow, this seems tougher, doesn’t it?

If we struggle to keep our speed under control on the road, how can we change our deeper psyche, our deeper love of self and instead put others first?

Will you obey this year? Will you hear the voices of the angels speaking to you… and be the angel this year for someone else? Will you recognize that what seems crazy to you is beautiful to God, that God continues to move?

It doesn’t matter what you think you have. Someone else has less. Less confidence, less faith, less time, less money. How will you obey God’s command to love, to give, to be like a brother or a sister to someone in need?

I wonder what Joseph was thinking. Michael Card put it this way in “Joseph’s Song”:

How could it be this baby in my arms
Sleeping now, so peacefully
The Son of God, the angel said
How could it be?

Lord, I know He’s not my own
Not of my flesh, not of my bone
Still Father let this baby be
The son of my love

Father show me where I fit into this plan of yours
How can a man be father to the Son of God
Lord for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter
How can I raise a king, how can I raise a king?

He looks so small, His face and hands so fair
And when He cries the sun just seems to disappear
But when He laughs it shines again
How could it be?

Father show me where I fit into this plan of yours
How can a man be father to the Son of God
Lord for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter
How can I raise a king, how can I raise a king?

How could it be this baby in my arms
Sleeping now, so peacefully
The Son of God, the angel said
How could it be? How could it be?

Joseph knew Jesus wasn’t his son, but he still was. God knew what Jesus needed to be when he grew up, and he knew that Joseph was the kind of person who could teach Jesus how to be a man.

Sounds mysterious, ridiculous, and otherworldly. With God, it often is.

How will you be “that kind of person”… right now?

Step up – follow Jesus unabashedly. Say yes. Do not be afraid. 

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Sunday’s Sermon Today (DNBA- Advent 2): God Chooses You (Luke 1:26-37)

This is the second sermon in the DNBA Advent series.

It’s often assumed that I’m a technophile. Based on my age, and the fact that I use a lot of technology compared to many of the people who know me, most people assume that I have this compulsion to explore and understand every new thing that comes across the wire instantaneously. But consider these arguments to the contrary:

-One of my college students set up a Facebook account for me, and I let it sit vacant for eighteen months before I ever logged in.

-My mother-in-law bought me a Kindle for Christmas, knowing how much I loved reading, and I didn’t take it out of the box for…three months.

Fastforward several years, and those two pieces of technology are necessities I can’t live, or don’t want to live, without. But I couldn’t see their benefits because I wasn’t willing to receive them. They were, to coin an Ebay phrase, “new in box.”

Never opened. Never explored. Never received.

How many of us live lives of faith that are potentially “new in box”? How many of us check out the shiny paper, appreciate the bow, even pick it up and shake it like a cat pawing at the shiny thing, and never unwrap it and open it up?

Or, consider it this way: what if when the angel had shown up with this news for Mary, that she had said “no?”

What if when the angel had shown up with the news that she was about to be impregnated by the Holy Spirit, Mary had said, “Um, no thanks. Maybe someone else with more experience, or more knowledge of the Scripture, or someone older, or someone younger, or someone from that family, will do it”?

What if Jesus hadn’t been born in Bethlehem? What if God had met resistance in the first dozen virgins he contacted, and decided that maybe it wasn’t worth it to send his son to die for a bunch of people hung up on -isms, and -phobias, and themselves?

What if Jesus hadn’t come at all?

What if Mary had chosen not to unwrap the gift? What if she had not been receptive to the angel of God, Gabriel, who showed up to speak this gift into her life?

The truth is, we don’t have to play the what if game for long. Mary said yes.

Mary, a teenage virgin engaged to a significantly older man named Joseph, who was descended from David (a man after God’s own heart), said “yes.”

Now, to be fair, it says that when the angel named Gabriel – which means “hero of God” -appeared, the angel called her “highly favored,” or “full of grace,” both from the same Greek word which means “grace.” Words – and names matter here – because they show how one woman could so exemplify those things which we know God is all about. This word for grace in the Greek is used seventy-seven times in the New Testament, not least of when grace describes the heart of Mary.

Mary was full of grace but that didn’t mean she saw this coming. 

Mary -or the Theotokos or “God bearer” – was “greatly troubled” and wondered why he’d talk to her that way. The Message translation says that the angel called her “beautiful with God’s beauty, beautiful inside and out!” The angel again urges Mary onward, saying, “Do not be afraid.”

Beautiful inside and out. God knew Mary. He knew her in a way that meant his angel recognized she wasn’t just a “pretty face,” but that she was a woman after God’s own heart. She was faithful, she was true to herself, she was the kind of woman that God wanted raising his son on Earth. Mary could have been afraid that she couldn’t be used by God. But she chose trust.

We know a little bit about what Mary was like because she questioned why the angel would address her that way! She responded humbly, showing her courage under fire. But, it says, the angel proceeds to lay out that she will give birth to a son named Jesus, who will be great, and who will ascend to a throne, ruling a kingdom that will never end. The Message takes it a step further and says that God has a “surprise” for her. [SURRRRR-PRISE!]

In the movie, Harvey, the character Elwood Dowd tells the story: “I started to walk down the street when I heard a voice saying: ‘Good evening, Mr. Dowd.’ I turned, and there was this big white rabbit leaning against a lamp-post. Well, I thought nothing of that, because when you’ve lived in a town as long as I’ve lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name.” Mary has that kind of reaction to what the angel has just said!

Mary doesn’t ask about being descended from David (she would’ve known her family line didn’t work that way); she didn’t ask about a kingdom that would never end. Both of them would’ve been about the end result, the glory and the honor.

No, commonsense-filled Mary, humble yet brave Mary, asked: “How can that happen because I’m a virgin?” Mary is engaged in faithfulness through her heart, her soul, AND her mind. She’s not doubting that God can make it so, but she wants to understand what’s going on underneath the hood. She wants to know.

In one of the few times in the narrative that a person asks a question of an angel and no sarcasm or rebuke is given, Gabriel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and that she will immaculately conceive. And Gabriel tells her that she can check with her much older cousin Elizabeth who (surprise, again!) the angel reveals is pregnant herself.

And the angel closes with potentially the most powerful of pep talks: “For no word from God will ever fail” or “nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary is satisfied, and says, “I am God’s servant, may it be so.”

Every year we look at this Scripture, and I find myself in awe. Sure, I’m in awe of the power and miraculous way that God moves. But I’m in awe of a kid, a young girl, a teenager, and her willingness to receive from God what was the greatest gift and the biggest responsibility.

Seriously, at about thirteen or fourteen years old, Mary agreed to be Jesus’ mom! She said YES! Mary was willing to embrace the gift… even when some of us aren’t.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the young man who wanted a new car for graduation.

For many months he had admired a beautiful sports car in a dealer’s showroom, and knowing his father could well afford it, he told him that was all he wanted. As Graduation Day approached, the young man awaited signs that his father had purchased the car. Finally, on the morning of his graduation, his father called him into his private study. His father told him how proud he was to have such a fine son, and told him how much he loved him. He handed his son a beautiful wrapped gift box.

Curious, but somewhat disappointed, the young man opened the box and found a lovely, leather-bound Bible, with the young man’s name embossed in gold. Angrily, he raised his voice to his father and said, “With all your money you give me a Bible?” And stormed out of the house, leaving the Bible. Many years passed and the young man was very successful in business. He had a beautiful home and wonderful family, but realized his father was very old, and thought perhaps he should go visit him. He had not seen him since that graduation day.

Before he could make arrangements, he received a telegram telling him his father had passed away, and willed all of his possessions to his son. When he arrived at his father’s house, sudden sadness and regret filled his heart. He began to search through his father’s important papers and saw the still new Bible, just as he had left it years ago. With tears, he opened the Bible and began to turn the pages. His father had carefully underlined a verse, As he read those words, a car key dropped from the back of the Bible. It had a tag with the dealer’s name, the same dealer who had the sports car he had desired. On the tag was the date of his graduation, and the words… PAID IN FULL.

Okay, so maybe that story is true or maybe it’s not. But the view is still the same, isn’t it? God wants to give us something but our arms aren’t always open to receive it. Sometimes we have too much stuff in our hands. Sometimes we’re too busy. Sometimes we can’t believe anyone would love us enough to do what God did, to give us grace for free.

I remember as a campus minister for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the University of Richmond, that we decided to have an event called “Paid in Full” (not to be confused with the movie of the same name!) We advertised, we raised funds, and for one two-hour period on a Thursday night, we paid the tabs of everyone who entered The Cellar, a non-cafeteria eating establishment on campus. We had people read poetry, play music, share their thoughts, in a way that was faith-based but not “churchy.” And we paid for everyone’s food.

But not everyone could believe it. “What’s the catch?” “But I didn’t know about it upfront.” “I’m not in FCA, or even a Christian.”

And every time, the answer was the same, “it doesn’t matter. It’s paid in full.”

We have a hard time with that, don’t we? There’s always a catch… or some fine print. But then we realize that if we receive grace like Mary did, that our world can change in an instant. That God actually has a plan for our good and our future… if we’d just open up our hearts.

(Now, the next time the pastor asks you to serve on a committee or plan VBS, think about Mary and the gift she received willingly. I’m just kidding. No, I’m not…)

But the skeptics out there say, “well, sure, she had to say that with the angel in the room. Maybe she got it later on, but I mean, she couldn’t have really been that faithful…”

Consider what some people call “The Magnificat,” from Luke 1:46-56:

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.

Mary opened the gift! She didn’t just check out the tag or explore the outside of the package. She tore it open and embraced the gift, and in the process, embraced the giver.

Mary had a heart to receive what God was offering her. And in the receiving, she became part of the giving, part of the process, part of the transformative power of God’s love in the world. Mary got “it.”

I hope that you will wrestle this week with the experience of Mary. Ask yourself how you would respond if God appeared to you and gave you a gift. Ask yourself whether you would focus on the pressure teenage Mary surely endured as an unmarried pregnant woman, or if you would be like Mary and focus on the way that God had chosen to make you part of his good news shared with all.

Take it a step further: what is God offering you today? Is God offering you the gift of salvation, the good news for all people even you who has done [ ….] that only you know and hold onto and devalue yourself for? Or is God offering you the opportunity to get off the sidelines of faith, to get in the game and to make a difference in the lives of someone else? Is God offering you the chance of a lifetime, an eternal lifetime, and are you politely accepting it but not really opening it up?

What gift is the hardest one for you to receive? Is it forgiveness? Is it membership in a family because your experience of family was so negative? Is it purpose or calling in a way that feels strange and life changing? What questions do you have about receiving the gift?

Today, or the next time you take communion by intinction, think about the way that we say that we “take communion” but that it’s really that we’re given communion. We open up our hands and the server places the bread into our palm. We’re served at Christ’s table where we receive God’s gift of the body of Christ that was given for you, and you, and you.

God gave this gift to Mary, and she chose to unwrap it and participate. To be used by God for the glory of God’s kingdom, that is present and yet to come.

At the end of my life, I hope you are surrounded by thousands of opened boxes, broken bows, and scattered scraps of wrapping paper. I hope you have lived a life that recognized it was “paid in full.”

Because it would be a real shame to leave God’s gift “new in box,” under the cross. Open it up – do not be afraid.

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Sunday’s Sermon Today (DNBA – Advent 1): Don’t Miss Christmas (Luke 1:5-22)

This is the first sermon in the DNBA Advent series. 

Do you ever miss the point? Maybe it’s the punchline of a joke, the purpose of a story, the content of the conversation that the other person really wants you to understand. Whatever it is, do you find yourself scratching your head, and going “wait, what just happened there?” (I’ll admit that it happens to me more often than I like.)

Too often, we’re not really celebrating Jesus’ birth as the coming Messiah who would change the world, and our future. We’re celebrating that our spouse is healthy, or that our child has returned home, or that we’ve survived another year of the grind. We haven’t gotten to a point where we can recognize what it is that God is giving us.

Maybe we’ve lived our whole lives as consumers, as “takers,” rather than givers or stewards. Maybe we’re too much like Uncle Scrooge pre-Carol, or we’re like the Grinch, and think all of the hubbub is foolish and a great time waste. Maybe we believe that Christmas and God’s purpose for us can’t really make a difference, that transformations are just stories. Maybe we’ve been worn down by the way that life works or that our family has worked, and we think Christmas is just about what we get (a BB gun) or the break from Christmas work like Christmas vacation.

Either way, Christmas can seem like an adventure in missing the point. But we’re not alone. Sometimes, we are afraid that change is unexpected or might actually affect us and we miss the point.

In our scripture today, the aged priest Zechariah is taking his turn in the temple. Now, we should note a few things about Zechariah and the world he lived in. First, the Jews are predominantly able to settle their own accounts politically and religiously, but they are currently under the rule of the Romans, who have appointed Herod the Great to rule Judea. These are an oppressed people.

Second, Zechariah and his wife are descendants of Aaron, the first priest that God chose to intercede between his people and God. They are the purest line of God’s holy relationship with his people. They have a double-portion of the priestly role – they both should have expected that God would speak through them to God’s people.

Third, while Zechariah and his wife are by all accounts just, righteous, God-fearing people, they are now old and grey and they have no descendants. Not only do they not have children, but they don’t have anyone to pass the priestly responsibilities to. It’s a personal, familial problem, but it also shows that the priestly line is in danger of dying out. They have reached the point in their family, in their synagogue (or church), where the way they’ve always done it has run its course. They need something to happen – but as we’re about to see, Zechariah neither expects God to move nor does he have any frame of reference where it could matter.

So, Zechariah finds himself in the temple one day, taking his turn as the burner of incense in the holy place. Zechariah, we understand, was in this big, cavernous room, with the ark of the covenant and some incense, and no one else, because the people had to stay outside the temple while the priest prayed for them. This is typical – this is how it would have worked all of the time. It has become commonplace because the conversation was never world shattering. This is not a special situation, but the mundane: the priest addresses God, the people wait to hear from the priest.

But today, the mundane will be anything but ordinary. On this day, God himself will show up and give something to Zechariah.

The first thing the angel of the Lord gives to Zechariah is a good scare. Now, I don’t think it was intentionally scary like a haunted hayride or like kids waiting for each other in the dark. But imagine for a moment what it would be like for you, going about your daily work, humming to yourself, focused on the task at hand or completely wrapped up in your own thoughts, and BAM! There’s the angel of the Lord standing to the right of you.

Pretty startling, right?

Every year, my family got a Christmas tree from the same little Christmas tree farm. We’d bundle up the day before Thanksgiving (because my parents wanted it precut so that the dead needles would fall off… we’d decorate it the day after Thanksgiving), and drive to the farm. One year, after selecting and cutting the tree, my dad and I loaded it onto the roof of our minivan. My dad turned to get in to drive home but he saw the farmer loading wood into a chipper and shouted out, “Thanks! See you next year!”

Pretty common, right? Pretty mundane interaction…

The farmer half-turned, half-fell, so startled was he by my dad’s greeting. It’s still one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen (maybe you had to be there) but it reminds me that just because it’s ordinary, doesn’t mean it can’t be startling….

So Zechariah is surrounded by the incense, moving through his normal operations as the priest, and suddenly, an angel stands before him. If that happened regularly, do you think Zechariah would’ve been startled? If he was expecting that God would show up, do you think he would have been “gripped by fear?” The Message said he was “paralyzed” by the fear.

Now, remember, he’s in the temple to communicate with God on behalf of the people. It’s his job, his responsibility, to be present so that whatever message that God would give his people, whatever forgiveness might be bestowed, that Zechariah is the one God will give it to.

And Zechariah isn’t ready. Zechariah is so unprepared for this development that I imagine he found himself thinking, “why did this have to happen on my shift?” Zechariah is so caught up in his own fear that he can’t immediately recognize that if the angel is there than that means God wants to give his people something! But this is a message that God is giving that actually begins with Zechariah first.

Before we move forward through the incense and consider the words of the angel, let’s stop and ask ourselves: how often does God show up in our lives, ready to give us something, and we’re not ready? How often do we miss the markers, the road signs, the grace-filled moments because we’ve failed to see God in the every day? What if, as we pray that God would be revealed in our world, God is actually already revealed in our world and we just can’t see it because we assume it’s going to be a normal “get the church clothes on, put the offering in the plate, sing a couple of songs” kind of day? What if we came to church, went to our Bible study, picked up the Bible at home and expected that God intended to give us something every time? Would that change anything?

What if we expected that God would move in and through us to change the world?

Remember, Zechariah is paralyzed by this truth. The angel has to free him up, like the angel will free Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, from fear.

Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard.”

Wow. God shows up in the middle of Zechariah’s day, and says, “I hear ya, buddy.” He shows up and tells him that all of the mundane moments leading up to that moment mattered, that even in all of the times that Zechariah and everyone else thought God was out to lunch and didn’t care, that God was paying attention and had a response. The angel first tells him not to be afraid and then he tells Zechariah that all of the prayers, all the crying out, all of the incense burned that has seemed mundane, and poured down into a dark well with no bottom, that the God of the universe received all of it, gathered it in, that God cares.

And then God gives Zechariah the kind of news that is mind-blowing. “Yes, in your old age, with your wife who can’t conceive, you’re going to have a baby.”

Obviously, a baby in a long-awaited situation would be well-received, right? But the angel takes it a step further: Zechariah’s son will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring his people back to God. The godlessness, the rule-following but heart-breaking, Zechariah’s son is part of God’s solution.

And naturally, Zechariah has gotten over his fear and asks the same question that you or I would be asking, “Um, so, like, ok, how is that going to work?”  (Notice, he says he’s old and his wife has a lot of mileage on her. Smart man, not calling his wife old, too.)

You can almost see the angel Gabriel straighten up. I see the wings going from folded to fully extended, fire-glowing, eyes-blazing glory: “I AM GABRIEL AND I STAND IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD. I have given you good news and because you didn’t believe, you will not be able to talk until your son is born. Because God’s word is always good in God’s time.”

And then BAM! the angel disappears. Or he teleports. Or he sneaks out the back door. (We never hear how angels leave.)

And Zechariah is left to unpack, unwind, devour, digest the news that the angel of God has given him. But when he leaves the temple, he can’t say a word about it. He literally can’t share the good news just yet. Zechariah’s fear of change, fear of what could be, had rendered him speechless when he had the opportunity to embrace the angel’s good news, so God gave Zechariah an “opportunity” to sort of percolate or marinate in his news.

Zechariah and the Jewish people had been missing the point. They had put the rules and the mundane, the incense and the sacrifice, ahead of being in a relationship with God. So God set a series of events in motion that result in Jesus- but that’s for Christmas Eve, and this is Advent.

We’ll see over the next few weeks, a few more people who missed out on Christmas. The innkeeper who couldn’t see that love and compassion should’ve trumped “no room in the inn” for a pregnant woman; King Herod who was so threatened by the Wise Mens’ arrival that he wanted Jesus the baby dead. (Again, that’s just cold.)

But Zechariah almost missed it. Zechariah doubted and God used him anyway. Zechariah knew the biology of childbirth; he knew he’d been burning incense once a month for years and nothing special ever happened. And God showed up in the midst of it. God showed up and said, “It doesn’t have to be pointless anymore. It doesn’t have to feel like no one’s listening. It doesn’t have to feel like your job or your marriage or your life don’t matter.”

God showed up in Zechariah’s life and gave him a gift that was personal, that was needed, that showed that God knew Zechariah.

I asked some folks what their favorite gift was that they’d ever given to someone else.

1. I gave my mom a set of hand made Protestant prayer beads just last weekend… Her favorite colors, with the breast cancer ribbon on them. Every 7th spacer was a heart. I guess because I made them for her specifically. I picked the beads, the cross, and the breast cancer ribbon. She called me crying, thanking me.

2. Every year we have a tradition of having father-daughter dinner and shopping for my mom’s Christmas presents. One year dad had decided he wanted to get mom a Methodist cross necklace and we found one. That same year mom wanted to get dad a Methodist cross lapel pin and we found one. So, Christmas morning we were opening gifts and the hand surprised each other not so much with the gift but they were thinking the same thing. It didn’t end there though because my sister and I each had a Methodist cross necklace in our stockings too!

3. The best gift was being told I would never have children… And God blessed me with my son (who is a senior in high school now)….

4. I called my parents on Christmas Day one year and asked them if they could pick me up at the airport. They live in a different state and didn’t know I was coming.

5. My most memorable Christmas gift was in the 1980’s. Ronnie decided to add a bit of excitement to the morning. He gave me a hint as to where to look for my gift but each time I found the hint, there was another hint. We were all running around the house and laughing so hard and then, there was my gift In the Christmas Tree. A new ring. That is My best Christmas memory, except in 1966 when he finally gave me My engagement ring. that he had had since September!

6. The very best gift I ever received was not a thing. Tom had been in the hospital for weeks, and we spent the day there. We had insisted that everyone go on with festivities without us, and we celebrated the birth of Christ quietly and alone. The next day, Tom had a treatment early, and I stayed home for a bit. I was sitting at my kitchen table. I admit I was in a sad, dark place. Self-pity, sadness, and hopelessness overwhelmed me. Unmotivated, I had not even dressed or showered. All of a sudden, there was caroling on my front porch. I said to myself, I cannot open the door, looking like this. I tried to ignore the songs. Then the door was unlocked from the outside. My entire family…..father, brothers, sister, in-laws, ALL my nieces, nephews, their friends came rushing in. They had caravaned from Roanoke, bringing Christmas with them. Food and presents and even a tree flooded our home. We exchanged gifts. (Mine still unwrapped in bags!). Then, we went to the hospital to surprise Tom. If only I had a picture of his face when he received this gift of love and sacrifice. That morning we hugged and laughed and cried and felt the love of family. It made us aware of the Hope the birth of Christ brought to the world, and I believe in my heart that that visit gave Tom the will to fight harder. It was God’s gift. We were blessed. 

All of these gifts reflect the knowledge of the person they gave gifts to. All of them reflect a grace based on their understanding of what God gave them. All of them reflect hope.

See, the greatest gift the angel of God gave Zechariah that day, it was HOPE.

Hope that two old people who’d longed for a child would finally have one.

Hope that the prayers of people were heard by God.

Hope that God wasn’t done with the Temple, or the priests, or his people.

Hope that a Messiah was coming.

Do you need that hope today? Are you missing Christmas? Do you feel like your prayers go unheard because you don’t know what exactly to pray or because they’re not answered at a time you think they should be? Have you gotten caught up in trying to “be good” rather than accepting that God loves you and forgives you? Have you missed the forest for the Christmas trees? Do you need to make room in the mundane so that you can see God show up?

And here’s the question that follows: once you recognize what God gave you, what are you giving God this Christmas?

Now, I don’t believe we “work” to gain salvation- God’s gracious gift through Jesus Christ was just that, a gift. But there’s a response that should naturally follow. We don’t give back out of fear or of rule-abiding but out of a response in love to what God did for us.

Maybe you don’t know what to give. It’s a situation more and more people find themselves in every year. But I heard the phrase, “empty pockets or not, we’ve all got something to give,” and it’s stuck with me.

It matters more whether your heart is full than if your pockets are!

Check out this story about a woman who had her wallet stolen, and how she handled it, how she gave even while she was losing. See, this man stole Jessica Eaves’ wallet out of her shopping cart while she was buying groceries, but she tracked him down and she gave him two options.

Consider for a minute, which woman do you compare him to? Who do you have in mind: is it your wife? your daughter? your grandmother? What options do you think that Jessica Eaves gave the pickpocket?

Do you think he expected this: “Listen, mister, ‘I think you have something of mine. I’m gonna give you a choice. You can either give me my wallet and I’ll forgive you right now, and I’ll even take you to the front and pay for your groceries.'”

“Otherwise, I’m going to have to call the police.”

My friend, the Reverend Bill McClung, said this was the equivalent of the priest who frees Jean Valjean from prison, right after Valjean had stolen the church’s fine silver! The priest says, “Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”

Here’s a real-life moment, where Mrs. Eaves could’ve let the man well-enough alone, much more safely, I might add, but instead, she boldly offers grace.

The man breaks down sobbing, follows her to the cash register where she pays for $27 in groceries, apologizing profusely. He tells her that he’s broke, that he has kids, that he got laid off, that he would never have done that if he wasn’t desperate.

And in that moment, Mrs. Eaves gave this man his dignity, a second chance, and GRACE.

Will you give grace to others as you have received it? None of us stands here on our own efforts alone, but by the grace of God and the help of others. Will you give grace in an unexpected, underserved, BAM! sort of way this week?

Will you give back? Will you pay it forward?

Will you give financially to help someone else have enough this Christmas? Or make enough food to feed a shut-in neighbor at Christmas?

Will you give of your time by serving through church or elsewhere?

Will you give by sacrificing your concern for safety and pride and ask others to join you in celebrating Jesus’s birth?

Will you give of your mind by studying the stories of Jesus’ birth at home or joining in a Bible study?

The good news to Zechariah was only the beginning. This was the first of “not fearing” and it freed Zechariah up to be part of the giving. 

So as you hear these words, consider the giver and your own giving:

Hear the good news of Jesus Christ: God sent his Son to restore us to a right relationship, to give us grace and love. God sent Jesus even if no one would’ve accepted him. God sent the angel to Zechariah even though Zechariah wasn’t ready. God sent hope so that we could really live.

Do not be afraid. Amen.

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Sunday’s Sermon Today: Social Principles- The Christmas Jar

I’ll admit it. I love books. I enjoy diving into a world I’ve never experienced before, learning about a place or a person I would never meet otherwise. I’ll read a few books a week during the year, even twice as many in the summer or on vacation. But periodically, I’ll come across a book and be transformed.

The week of Thanksgiving 2009, my mother-in-law gave me her copy of Jason Wright’s The Christmas Jars to read. I’ll admit that I was skeptical at first, because her book group was reading it –  and I’d ignored the previous year’s worth of selections. But something about the way she spoke about the book made me open to the first page, and a few hours later, I’d finished a book that is one of just a few books I’d say changed my life.

In the original story, written by the Shenandoah native in 2005, a poor, young family collects money in a jar all year for its gift giving to each other. On the night they decide to go Christmas shopping, their young daughter sees a woman sitting alone and heartbroken on a bench. She reacts immediately out of kindness and mercy to give the woman their Christmas jar. The family has no money for gifts that year, but the impact of her decision reverberates for decades. A tradition of giving a jar of coins and cash to people, secretly, without receiving credit is born in the little town. While the gift is financial, the amount is never too much – it fits in  jar – but the impact of the jars on the life of each character is exponential.

The giver and the receiver in each ‘transaction’ recognizes that there is something in giving, in passing it on, in paying it forward. Each person recognizes the beauty and truth of Micah 6:8:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Justice. Mercy. Humility. Earmarks of the disciple, right? Earmarks of what we are called to be when Jesus calls us out of the lives we live without him into the life of the kingdom of God.

Here, on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, I am left wondering what it would look like if we embraced that holy triumvirate of virtues, if we sought to live out our lives with the life of love and grace that the prophet Micah spoke of.

But how can we? What qualifications or marks might we look to when determining how to direct our work, our home lives, our church, our community? Consider these words contained in the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline.

The Social Creed of the United Methodist Church

We believe in God, Creator of the world; and in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of creation. We believe in the Holy Spirit, through whom we acknowledge God’s gifts, and we repent of our sin in misusing these gifts to idolatrous ends.

We affirm the natural world as God’s handiwork and dedicate ourselves to its preservation, enhancement, and faithful use by humankind.

We joyfully receive for ourselves and others the blessings of community, sexuality, marriage, and the family.

We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of all persons.

We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.

We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world.

We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s Word in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to manifest the life of the gospel in the world. Amen.

Are we the living embodiment of these things? Are we pursuing the kingdom of God in a holy way? I must admit that some days I don’t know how to start.

I wonder if serving in the community, whether it be coaching a little league team or volunteering at a school makes a difference.

I wonder if giving financial help to one person makes a difference in the life of the community.

I wonder if one word spoken can make a difference in the day of a person or group.

I wonder if taking a stand on an issue in one corner of the world can make a difference in another.

And then I remember the Christmas Jars, how one book challenged me and changed our church.

See, the Sunday after I read Jason’s book, I preached on it. I talked about what it would look like if we stopped seeing missions as a way to give money away over there to people we didn’t know, to people we didn’t have to interact with, to people we didn’t have to be empathetic to, only compassionate for.

I talked about what it would take for us to do good even if we couldn’t get credit for it because Christmas Jars are supposed to be anonymous. Christmas Jars were an abundant outpouring, a connection with someone else, that we wouldn’t ever get the satisfaction of their thanks.

Christmas Jars were about our Thanksgiving, not the recipient’s.

And then, that Sunday, I shared about some real-life Christmas jars, because Jason’s story isn’t just a story, it’s a movement. Jason’s website, www.christmasjars.com, has story after story about people who received jars, and people who gave them. It has stories of people who were going to commit suicide the day they received a jar, and of people who thought they had lost everyone and everything before receiving a jar and realized they were not alone.

Stories like these:

I was diagnosed w/a brain condition called Cadisal in 2010. It is a really rare neurological disorder that can cause loss of some functions in a persons body and/or memory loss, both long and short term. It is a calsification of brain matter and most people are born w/it and are diagnosed until they are about 50. Many of the symptoms are just assumed to be normal physical manifistations everyone goes thru as we grow up/age. Until one is diagnosed you have no clue these things are actual symptoms of a disorder!!

Anyway, because of this I had occasional auras and seizures as well. Finally, in November 2015 I had a grand mall seizure and hit the basement floor, causing a concussion and a broken left arm. That put me out of commission. My friends and family all over here and across the country sent me cards and letters, as well as in this case a copy of the book and a jar filled w/coins.

One day we found several boxes of groceries that had been left by someone in our garage w/o a note or any way of knowing who to thank for such a generous gift. W/i the next week a ziplock baggie was found on our back porch with a Christmas card, unsigned; a copy of the book by Jason Wright and a jar filled w/coins. We opened this jar and dumped it into a bowl, with the coins were two little balls of green paper. We unfolded the balls and they turned out to be $100 bills!!!! Yep, two $100 bills. Again, no signature on the book, card or in the baggie to let us know who did such a generous thing for us and just after I had the seizure and got my las paycheck from my demo job at Walmart. This was like winning the lotto to us. WOW.

Or from Purcellville, Virginia:

I received a jar this Christmas while I was at physical therapy for my daughter. She’s eleven with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, to name a few. I also have an eight-year-old son. Their father has passed on so I’m a single parent. This jar has changed my life. I too said that surely there had to be a more needy person than myself! The message behind it has moved me deeply. They gave it to her therapist to give me. Whoever my angel is, we thank you and God bless.

There are hundreds of stories like these, spread around the country. But I know from firsthand experience – from giving and receiving Christmas Jars – that the jars will change you.

See, within a week of that first sermon, I had ordered dozens of copies of the book for people who wanted to read it. Within the first month, there were jars flying around the church, to those in need throughout the community. People were making change just to fill jars!

By the end of the first year, the church’s mission had grown, to include annual Christmas jars, to include Christmas and Thanksgiving baskets for the country, to include an ongoing benevolence fund for those who visited the church in need.

All because of one little book. All because of one fictional little girl who was thankful for what she had. All because of one man’s faithful imagination. All because of one Christmas jar.

Today, I invite you to start filling a jar, to begin finding a tangible way to express your thanksgiving for what God has given you abundantly. And I encourage you to start praying for the person in your life who you’re supposed to bless.

Each coin, each prayer, will change you.

It’s the thought that counts, put into action, that can change your world.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Amen.

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