December 2014 Sermons:
I’m never good at social chitchat, but I find December especially challenging. People aren’t sure what to say to pastors, so they start conversations by asking: “Have you decorated your Christmas tree yet? Have you mailed your Christmas cards? Have you started your Christmas shopping?” At the moment these are my least favorite subjects. Pastors are always a week or two behind everyone else.
We are the stage managers of Christmas, so we’re preoccupied with Christmas Eve sermons and Advent candles and purple paraments and poinsettias. (By the way, I looked it up, and the flowers can be pronounced “poinsett-UHS” or “poinsettEEAHS.”) The good news of the prophet Isaiah comforts me: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a pathway for our God!” His words remind us of what Advent is really all about. We Christians know there’s more to the holiday season than buying stocking stuffers and addressing cards…. or we wouldn’t be here. Christmas means Jesus Christ. Compared to His arrival, the shopping, decorating, and partying and baking perfect candy cane cookies don’t mean much. I’m all too aware that Christians have a spiritual duty during Advent: to repent.
Wait a minute. Isn’t that bad news? How can a call to repentance be good news? Here’s a surprise. The Greek word for “repent” doesn’t mean to admit the ways we have sinned. It signifies a complete change of heart and mind. Isaiah’s prophecy tells us that God is setting us free! The prophet is urging His people to shake off the burdens of their captivity in Babylon. Let’s go forward in a new direction, he says. Return with me to Jerusalem! When Isaiah says, “Comfort ye, my people,” he’s talking about God’s plan to carry them to safety. He’s announcing rest and relief.
The liturgical color for Advent is purple—the color of preparation and repentance. That’s why we have purple altar cloths and candles. Our day of rejoicing is still eighteen days away. Christmas will be our first encounter with the Christ Child. We heard from John the Baptist this morning, when you might have preferred to hear about angels and shepherds and wise men. Meeting Jesus can’t help but challenge our priorities. John isn’t full of Christmas cheer, but he brings the poor folks of Palestine, hope for their liberation. John asks us an important question: “Will you be spiritually ready?” That’s a question I like better than, “Did you mail your Christmas cards yet?”
Pastors aren’t the only ones who get stressed about our calendars. Timing is a huge concern in December. Where will time for prayer come from, when the cookies have to come out of the oven in ten minutes? How can we reflect quietly, when our home is full of relatives? How do we focus on spiritual life, when there’s so much to do? Are we willing to let the eighty percent of the population of Whitehall who aren’t practicing Christians, set our agenda for this month? Would Jesus be crossing stuff off His holiday “to do” list if He were here? Not a chance! He would be reading and preaching the Word of God.
I can remember clearly when I decided not to bake or decorate Christmas cookies. That was the first year of my adult life when I actually enjoyed December, because I had energy to spare. My mother had baked shortbread for our entire family all the years I was growing up. I am not my mother. Would Jesus feel obligated to bake shortbread? Martha would, Jesus and Mary wouldn’t. I can picture Him reprimanding Martha for slaving in the kitchen and grumbling about it, and praising his sister Mary for taking the better part—listening to the Word. If we are too busy for God in December, then we are simply too busy to be good Christians. This year, I will be sending cards after New Year’s Day. Don’t feel hurt if you don’t get a Christmas card from us in December.
For various reasons, the holiday season often inflicts guilt. Whoever we have our Christmas dinner with, we feel at least a twinge of remorse over who we didn’t have it with. We feel guilty if we spent less on Aunt Mary’s Christmas present than she spent the one she gave us last year. If we get a Christmas card from a couple on the West Coast, from whom we haven’t heard in years, we feel bad and scramble to mail a card to them quickly. We feel we have to write a thank you within ten days to everyone who sends a gift. That custom isn’t Biblical. It’s my dear mother again.
I had a life-changing Advent experience last week. I tend to feel guilty, all year round, because I take so little time to sit down and read scripture devotionally. Instead, I take short cuts. I cut and paste Bible passages from the Internet and photocopy them in big print to read and mark up with a red pen, prior to writing a sermon. I don’t stop to just savor the words. The Bible is like my fast food. But, last Thursday night I couldn’t connect to the Internet in my office. I had to print out Luke 1: verses 26 to 38 for a shut-in visit. I opened my large print Bible, found the passage, on which I am also preaching on next Sunday, and typed it!!!!!!! Just typed all eighteen verses! I am a “hunt and peck” typist, so it took a long time. I typed all the quotation marks, and there are a lot of quotation marks. I had to take the time to get the quotation marks going in the right direction. A wonderful thing happened. The dialogue between the Angel Gabriel and Mary took on more meaning for me. The beautiful words warmed my soul. Changing direction, means letting go of unhealthy holiday baggage. We can’t be two places at once, with two families at the same time. Why should anyone feel bad about that? We can’t spend more money than we have. Irrational thinking is not repentance.
Repentance helps us tell the difference between the things which are important, and trivia. Being able to distinguish between our problems, and other people’s problems, is the key to happiness during the holiday season. In today’s readings, the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist are calling us to bear the light to a world in darkness. Isaiah says, “All flesh shall see it together!” He’s talking about the glory of the Lord.
Advent is not about wrapping presents. It’s not about your “to-do” list. It’s about God wrapping us in holiness so our lives can move in a new direction. It calls us to ask ourselves, “What is it I should be doing right now, to help Christ be born into the world again?”
If the holidays are challenging for us, imagine what a visit from an angel of the Lord must have been like for Mary! God had chosen a peasant girl to be the mother of Jesus. Mary wasn’t a queen or even a princess. She was a Jewish child of thirteen, from a tiny village. She had little experience with men or the world. She had no experience at all with angels. God calls ordinary people to do extraordinary deeds. Mary’s obedience to God is a beautiful thing.
According to church tradition, Mary’s visit from the Angel Gabriel took place in late March, not in December. Think about it, and it makes sense---exactly nine months before December 25! Picture early spring in ancient Israel. Their so-called rainy season (with only four or five inches of rain!) has come and gone. The wildflowers are beginning to bloom. Mary goes about her chores, as a pot boils over a cooking fire. Without warning, a light appears in her home. It gets bigger and bigger. We always associate a light with the appearance of an angel, don’t we? What sounds do you think Mary might have heard when the angel appeared? Bells? Choirs? Trumpets? Thunder? Or complete silence?
Gabriel announced that she would be the mother of the Son of God. Her son would sit on the throne of David. The child would be conceived through the work of the Holy Spirit. Mary would have no choice. God had spoken.
Angels appear in the Bible, bringing announcements from God. They’re always statements, never questions. God doesn’t ask favors. God never negotiates with humans. Mary gets this. She responds in a positive way. She wonders, of course, how this could be possible. But there is no trace of unbelief in her—just confusion. She agrees to be the mother of Jesus, without hesitating, though doesn’t understand what will be required of her. She hasn’t had time to consider the dangers yet. Just for starters, she’s already engaged to Joseph. How will he react?
Had you ever wondered what might have happened just before this story took place? What if Gabriel had approached other young women first, before Mary, and they had all said to him, “No thank you?” But no, I don’t think Mary was God’s last-ditch choice. Mary was confident enough not to be afraid, and sure enough of herself to ask the right question: “How is this possible, since I am a virgin?”
I think God chose her because she had an open and intelligent mind. I think the real power of this story comes with Mary’s response to what God seeks to do in her life. I think what she says, and promises to do, is remarkable. She is shocked to be singled out in this way, but she accepts the challenge, responding to the angel by saying, “let it be, according to your Word.”
The angel tells her, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary says yes to what God wants her to do with her life. She puts her complete trust in God. She calls herself “the servant of the Lord.” In so doing, she becomes a model for the rest of us.
Mary responds with puzzlement, misunderstanding, questions, and eventually, with faith. Luke’s story we have heard before many times throughout biblical history. It’s a call story—like the call of Moses, the call of Isaiah, the call of Samuel, the call of David. Luke retells the ongoing unfolding of God’s salvation history with the world. Yet, Luke tells it with high drama and with simplicity. Heroes of the Bible are encouraged to listen, question, seek understanding, and dialogue. They ask questions. Ultimately, they respond with trust and faith to what God is seeking to do.
As the church makes its dramatic journey to the manger, this story invites us to respond to God’s call once again. As Gabriel appeared to Mary we realize how God comes to us. Intrusions into our ordinary lives catch us off guard. Still such intrusions always demand a response from us.
When was the last time you were surprised? I remember the day my parents called a family meeting to tell us we were moving across the country to Richland, Washington. We had lived in our community in upstate New York for my entire life, and were settled. What a shock! The news came out of nowhere and caught my brothers and me completely by surprise. Ultimately, we didn’t move. I think we have my mother to thank for that. Such is the drama of Mary’s new life, altered forever in a moment. No choice in the matter. Isn’t that the way life is? Isn’t that the way God works?
The real power of this story, however, we find in Mary’s response to what God seeks to do in her life. Despite the surprise, Mary finally comes to that powerful place of acceptance as she responds saying, “Let it be.” She provides us an example of how we too might respond to God’s surprises in our own life. Often, we need to know and be in control. Can we simply just let it be? Without seeking to control or glamorize or add or overanalyze, can we just let the story be what it is this Christmas? Can we allow God to say what needs to be said through this simple birth? Can we step back in awe and wonder of a child and just ponder these things in our hearts and allow God to do what God needs to do with us, in us, and through us?
I get calls at church all the time, from needy people asking for food or transportation or shelter. The one I got on Thursday came from Fogelsville. A single woman with five little girls was in need of food for her family. They had been living on her mother’s income, and her mom had just died of cancer. She had no car. The Session had provided two big bags of kid-friendly foods for such an occasion. I live in her area of Lehigh County, so I dropped the food off at their home. They were very happy! A much less demanding request than bearing the son of God—but God does call us to bear our gifts to others, when we least expect it.
Americans put a high value on being “pro-active,” tending to look down on passive, helpless people. Mary was obedient and—yes—she was passive. That is a good way to be, when God speaks to us. If we are going to follow Jesus, we each need to be a servant of the Lord. This means finding the Lord’s favor through faith, believing that God is always with us, trusting Jesus to save us, and showing obedience to God.
All of us, as Christians, hear the same call as Mary. We all receive the same promise. Jesus comes, over and over, to reign forever, a day at a time, in specific places like Northampton and Hokendauqua and Fogelsville. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the most High will overshadow you, and you will bear the Son of God in your flesh. Can we do as Mary did when we hear this announcement from God? Can we step back, in awe and wonder of a child, and just ponder these things in our hearts and let God do what God needs to do, with us, in us, and through us?
One of the challenges of Christmas is trying to figure out what to give people who seem to have "everything." Everyone knows people who have supposedly been there, done that, seen every movie, read every book, and bought the t-shirt. Just buying a gift card seems a simple solution to the problem, but it’s so impersonal. So, what do you give a person who doesn’t need, or even want, a store-bought gift?
The truth is --- even in a prosperous society like ours, nobody has everything. We'll never be able to own everything, or read everything, or watch every movie. Did you see Time Magazine’s “Best of the Year” lists for 2014? I haven’t used any of their best gadgets or seen any of their best movies. I read only one of their best books and didn’t like it at all. It’s impossible to keep up with all that’s being published and released. The good news, though, is that even if we miss the trendy new books, or have to wait ‘til the hot new movies are on sale in DVD at Target, we can still catch the really good news of Christmas.
Most of us know what we don’t want to miss at Christmas. For many people, the most important part of celebrating Christmas is family. Remembering loved ones past, sharing a meal around the table, greeting the grandkids, nd opening presents under the tree -- that's what Christmas is about. With family members living far away from each other geographically, it’s even more important to get together for the holidays. Ask a child, and presents are probably the things he or she doesn’t want to miss at Christmas. What would Christmas be without gifts under the tree? Our Sunday School children have been counting the days until Santa comes.
For many people who aren’t practicing Christians, it's the "feeling" of Christmas that matters. Many folks who don’t attend church still decorate a tree, buy and wrap gifts, and sing carols. The "Spirit of Christmas," for many people, means a sense of happiness during the season—whether they believe Jesus is the Messiah or not.
In Luke’s familiar Christmas story, and in the story of the wise men in Matthew, we find all the things we like about Christmas: The holy family huddles together in a stable, and the angels sing. The wise men bring gifts to the child Jesus. The Spirit of God makes things happen.
But God offers us something else at Christmas, and we all need it. In this world, too many people are unemployed. Terrorism lights up our television screens. The Ebola virus and school shootings are at the forefront of the news. In the gospel of Luke, one phrase jumps out to us: "DO NOT BE AFRAID." Luke puts this sentence in the mouth of the Angel Gabriel, three times in the Christmas story. It's because of the newborn King that the people of Israel need no longer fear. And because of Jesus, WE don’t need to be afraid, either. We don't want to miss out on family, or presents, or carols, or the "feeling of joy." But Christmas is an opportunity not to miss out on something else we need so much---to feel secure and protected, to feel unafraid. Let’s face it –we are afraid, and for good reason. Life is hard.
The first time Gabriel appears, in Luke’s Christmas story, the angel speaks to the old priest Zechariah. The angel says to the old man, "Do not be afraid! Your prayers have been answered.” Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, both ‘way beyond the age of parenting, were going to have a son who would become John the Baptist. Also, God was going to do something about the plight of His people, who had lived in fear for generations. Wouldn't we all like to hear that our prayers have been answered? We'd like the Angel Gabriel to tell us that our business is going to be prosperous again, that our grief will go away, that our children will be safe walking home from school, or that a cure will be found for cancer before it's too late.
But God's way of answering our prayers is often by doing something we don’t expect, something that is part of God’s plan for us. God works to give us what we really NEED when we need it—even if it’s not what we had originally prayed for. In Israel's case, God's Messiah comes as a tiny, helpless baby instead of a conquering hero. Instead of taking on the Roman oppressors with military might, Jesus suffers and dies at the hands of the Empire. This is how God chooses to save the whole world -- by participating in our suffering and taking it on. Our prayers are answered by the God who walks beside us--- no matter where we find ourselves.
The second time Gabriel shows up, it's in a visit to Mary. "Do not be afraid," he says to her, "for you have found favor with God." Mary isn’t perfect. Why does God pick this ordinary young girl to be the mother of Jesus? God chooses to favor the unlikely, the innocent and even the mistake-prone to do His work. Like so many others in the Bible, Mary is offered an opportunity. She will be blessed in bringing God into the world. However, as always seems to be the case, that blessing will have a cost. As Simeon will tell her when she brings the baby Jesus to be dedicated in the temple -- "a sword will pierce your own soul." She will remember those words when she sees her boy, God's Son, hanging on a Roman cross.
Do not be afraid for YOU HAVE FOUND FAVOR WITH GOD! That's the second message we don't want to miss at Christmas. God loves us with an everlasting love---- enough to come to earth, to live as one of us, die for us, live with us and in us. It's not favor that we earn. Instead, it is the ultimate gift -- better than all the presents under the tree. We call that gift "grace," and God offers it to us lavishly. God doesn't promise us a pain-free life, but He does promise to be with us every step of the way.
The third angel announcement takes place out there in the fields beyond Bethlehem. Shepherds, the poorest of the poor, are watching over their flocks when the angel appears and, as the King James Bible says, they were "sore afraid." "Do not be afraid," says the angel a third time, "for I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” Not despair, not fear. Good news of great joy!
Jesus would grow up to preach that the kingdom of God is at hand. No matter what happens in the present, in Christ, God promises to set the world right! In the meantime we hear the angel voice: "Do not be afraid." Money will come and go, yet still God is with us. Our health may fail, yet still God is with us. Our lives may have been broken by past mistakes. But still God is with us.
That is the assurance that none of us want to miss. Our failures are not final! Our death will not be the last word. All the books ever written, all the movies ever made, will never amount to this timeless truth: God said not to be afraid. When we get this good news at Christmas, it matters more than any new gadgets or new movie releases or best-selling books or hot children’s toys. Let's not miss out on the chance to be unafraid. It’s the perfect gift for those who think they have everything!
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday Worship Service 10:00 a.m. | Sunday School 9:00-9:45 a.m.
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