December 2011 Sermons:
The most popular song ever written is "White Christmas." It has been recorded more, sung and played more, and listened to more, than any song ever, even more than “Silent Night,” or “Jesus Loves Me.” I’ll bet if I started to sing it now, our whole congregation could join in and sing the whole thing right up to the end.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
It’s that second line that really takes us back in time, to the best Christmases of our lives. Irving Berlin wrote "White Christmas," in 1941 for a movie soundtrack. He knew right away that he had created a very special song. In fact, when he met with his songwriter friends the morning after he had written it, he said, "Fellas, I think I just wrote the best song in the history of the world."
"White Christmas" was on the hit parade during World War II when many young Americans were separated from their families to fight in enemy territory, far from home. Even if you don’t remember white Christmases from your childhood, I’m sure the lyrics, "I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know" bring back memories of bubbling tree lights and Cabbage Patch dolls and hula hoops and Davy Crockett’s Alamo fort and cocoa with marshmallows—memories of home. It’s amazing how much of our childhood homes we carry in our memories. We want to go back and see places where we once lived, as we saw them then. Have you ever waited until your childhood home was for sale? Did you pose as a prospective buyer so you could check out your old bedroom or your rec room or climb up into your tree house? The people who bought our old house have lived there for more than forty years, so I’ve never been able to “go home again.”
The reading from Isaiah that Tom read so beautifully today, was spoken by the great prophet of the Jewish people, when they were living in exile and longed for home. Around the year 587 B.C., the Babylonian army had swarmed in from the east, conquered Jerusalem, burned it to the ground, and then captured its people to live as prisoners in Babylon. The Jews of Isaiah’s day could recall how good things had been, before their homes and their lives were destroyed. But as they looked around them in Babylon, they saw no hope, and felt they were as good as dead. They longed to go home and end their enslavement.
But in the midst of their misery, Isaiah had spoken tidings of great joy from God. Isaiah said, in effect, “God knows the burdens that are weighing you down. So call to God. See what God is about to do." And sure enough, in time God did something for those people that they had figured to be impossible. God brought their exile to an end and allowed them to go home to Jerusalem. A new king came to the throne, King Cyrus, and he said that the Jewish people had been held prisoners long enough in Babylon. Cyrus told them they could pack up their belongings and go home again. And when the king gave that order, the people just couldn’t believe it. But Isaiah said to the people, "Believe it! During our darkest hours, during those times when we think all is lost, put your trust in God, and in time God will save you."
I guess the question is: in our times of need, do we have the kind of faith where, in the midst of whatever crisis we’re facing, we can call out to God, and trust that He will bring us home? Faith is nothing more than a willingness to take a deep breath and leap into God’s hands, trusting that God won’t let us down.
But as Isaiah reminds us, when God does act in our lives and saves us from whatever problems we’ve been facing by bringing us the comfort that we have searched for – that’s not where faith ends. Instead, when we find ourselves carrying heavy burdens, and God comes to us, we are called to share that good news He brings. The good news that what God did for us is what God can do for everyone.
And so that’s what Isaiah means when he says, "Get up to a high mountain, O Zion; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem. Lift up your voice, do not fear; say to all the people, ‘Here is your God! See, the Lord God comes with might!’" In other words, when the time of suffering came to an end for the Jewish people and they headed home to Jerusalem, Isaiah called out to them, with the voice of God Himself, to shout to the world what God had done.
The Second World War, as I’ve said, was a time when many young people were in foreign lands and longed to go home. The song, “White Christmas,” spoke to their longings. I recently read a story about soldiers in that war, getting news of great joy! When Dr. Murdo McDonald was a prisoner of war in 1944, he was interned in Germany. The camp was divided down the middle, with Americans on one side, and British soldiers on the other. Once a day, the ranking officers of each group were allowed to meet together at the fence and exchange a few words. The British had managed to build a crystal radio set, from parts they had smuggled into the camp. One day when McDonald met a British officer named McNeil, at the fence, McNeil spoke to him in Gaelic. It was the only language they could use without the Germans knowing what they said. McNeil told McDonald they had picked up a broadcast of the BBC. They had heard that the Allies had launched a successful landing at Normandy. The tide of the war had turned. In a short time, the prisoners of war would be able to go home! Stiffly, without showing any emotion, McDonald received that good news and walked back to his comrades. Quietly he told them, and a shout of celebration roared over the camp. But the German guards knew nothing of these events. For six more months, McDonald and his friends ate prison food, wore prison uniforms and slept in prison cells. Yet, in their hearts, they knew they were free. The word was out. They were going home!
I think of those prisoners of war in Germany as having been in exile, something like the shepherds in the Christmas story were. We picture those shepherds as young and handsome and clean, just like the ones on Christmas cards. But in Jesus’ time, shepherds lived out their days in a sort of exile, too. They had very little social contact. Shepherds were banished to the fields to live far away from people of the villages, with only the sheep to keep them company. They were social outcasts because they tended to be shabby and smelly. But when Jesus was born, it was to those exiled shepherds that God first announced the good news. The shepherds didn’t keep that news to themselves. No, once they got to Bethlehem and found the child, they spoke, far and wide, about what had happened. Into the darkness of those shepherds’ lives God had shone a great light. They gave thanks and shared the good news of Jesus’ birth.
Our faith is not just about what God can do for us, how God can help us in our times of need. But our faith is also about how, once we experience God’s love in our lives, we are responsible for passing on that love to people who need it.
Isaiah promises, “And all flesh shall see the glory of the Lord, together!” If you listen, there are people in the world all around us crying out for help. When we find ourselves in dark times, we can trust that God can and will deliver us, that God can and will raise us up. When God does that for you, don’t forget to share the good news. We must share the good news of Jesus Christ through what we do, as well.
For even when our lives seem as dry as deserts, Christ, our shepherd, will release us and let us go home, with the same mighty arm that freed the Jews from Babylon. That miraculous highway home, wasn’t only for them. It’s for us, too.
Almighty God, in these busiest of days, when some of us are happy and others are lonely, we come here to our church home,to be together and to be with you, you who are our safe haven. Startle us with the truth of the old story of your surprising love: in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Gary Giddins, A Pocketful of Dreams: Bing Crosby, the Early Years (Boston: Little, Brown, 2001), 618.
There’s a story of a little girl who drew a picture of a nativity scene for her dad. Her father looked at the drawing. He asked her, “Why is one of Joseph’s legs so much longer than the other?” The little girl looked up at her father and explained, “Joseph is stomping his foot. He wanted a girl!”
Do YOU think Joseph was stomping his foot because he wanted a girl? Somehow, I doubt it! Having a girl was not exactly good news for a Jewish couple in those days. But Joseph probably DID feel like stomping his foot, when he heard that Mary was expecting a baby. For him, this was terrible news.
All Joseph had wanted was a normal life. He wanted to marry the woman he loved, and settle down and have a family. I would imagine Joseph did plenty of foot stomping as he paced around the dirt floor of his house, feeling betrayed and hurt. Someone had gotten his fiancée pregnant. And it wasn’t him.
Today’s gospel reading is Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus. It’s only eight verses long, and it’s from the father’s perspective. This is a darker story than the one we hear, from Luke’s gospel, every Christmas Eve. In Joseph’s version of the greatest story ever told, we learn a lesson about how to stand tall, in the midst of shock and shame. If we want to understand how radically obedient to God Joseph was, we need to know more about first-century marriage customs.
Matthew tells us that Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph. She was between twelve and fifteen years old. That was the usual age when Jewish families arranged marriages for their daughters.
Does this mean they were engaged? Well, no. It wasn’t that simple then. It was harder to call off an arranged marriage than it is to break and engagement today. Back then, if a Jewish couple was pledged to one another, their relationship could be broken only by death or divorce. Joseph knew he was not the father of Mary’s baby. So, he had a difficult decision to make. If he obeyed the Jewish law, he would have to make a public spectacle of Mary, by having her charged with adultery. The law said an adulteress would have to be stoned to death.
Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. It seemed that he didn’t want to embarrass Mary or his family, or subject her to disgrace in the community. So Joseph decided that the most loving thing he could do was to quietly divorce her. He could do this with two witnesses, giving her a paper of divorce without pressing formal charges.
But, just in the nick of time, an angel appeared to him in a dream. And that’s how God gave him an astonishing message—that Mary had not been unfaithful to Joseph. The child she carried was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel told Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.
And if that weren’t enough to shake him up and rattle his world, the angel commanded him to accept Mary’s child as his own. Joseph was told to name the baby Jesus, because this baby would save the people from their sins. That’s what “Jesus” means. It was as common a name in ancient Palestine as “Robert” is today. It’s the Greek form of the Hebrew word, “yeshua” which means “God saves.”
In naming the baby, “Jesus,” Joseph officially became its father, because fathers were the ones who named babies then. Joseph just happened to be a descendant of the great King David. So he and his baby son were fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, delivered seven hundred years before. The angel made Joseph realize that his decision to marry Mary was more than a personal one. It was a decision to carry out God’s plan in his life. Joseph did the right thing. He stood tall.
Can you imagine how stressed this poor father-to-be must have felt? Joseph had decided on a quiet divorce, and that was that. Then he had a dream. He woke up a few hours later, knowing he was going to adopt the savior of the world, as if he were his very own son. What decision would you have made?
By following God’s command, and marrying Mary, Joseph opened himself up to public ridicule. This was a shame-based society. This community felt they had the right to know and pass judgment on everything that happened in it. People would notice that Jesus was born a few months too early, and they would talk. But Joseph didn’t worry about saving face or being snickered at, behind his back. He obeyed God. He stood tall.
The story of Jesus’ birth, in the gospel of Matthew, depends on Joseph’s decision, not on Mary’s. We are called to welcome the baby Jesus with courage, just as he did. The Christ child is with us during all the painful experiences of our lives. God gave Joseph a plan for his life that took him far beyond the pain he was feeling at the moment. That kind of plan may be set out for us, too. We’re human partners with God. We’re never alone, no matter what shocking surprises hit us, out of the blue. Let’s listen to the angels that speak for God in our dreams.
Can we be like Joseph or like Mary? They were ordinary people, and so are we. And yet, God works through the most ordinary people in the Bible and in the world today. They stood tall, and so can we. For God’s YES depends on our own YES.
Let us pray. Come, Lord Jesus, and make your home among us. May we welcome you into our midst, even if you cause us discomfort or embarrassment. May we give birth to you, despite our doubts and fears. Help us to change the world, we pray, with the beauty of your love. AMEN
Readers’ Digest, December 1991.
Christmas Eve— and what a relief! Our work is done. I’m assuming none of you have to stand in line at Macy’s or Best Buy after you leave here. The worst of the holiday rush is over, and the best is yet to come. Yes, we’ve finished shopping, card-addressing, baking, and wrapping. We can spare an hour to praise God. Here in our church, all is calm, and all is bright. Then, home to celebrate!
Christmas Eve was a lot more stressful for the people in that stable in Bethlehem, than it is today. Think about Jesus’ parents that night. We know that Joseph and Mary had a rough journey through Judea. But we tend to shrug our shoulders and say to ourselves, “that happened more than two thousand years ago!” Put all the beautiful manger scenes out of your mind now. Try to picture yourself trudging along the dirt roads of ancient Palestine. It wasn’t Christmas-card pretty. They were refugees! Women, imagine being nine months pregnant and riding a hundred miles on a donkey. Men, imagine being Joseph, bringing your family to an unfamiliar town out in the middle of nowhere. Imagine walking the dark streets for hours, not finding an empty room and having to settle for a smelly barn. Imagine being laden with luggage without wheels! Travelers in those days had to carry everything with them – their own food, bedding, and pots to cook with – so Mary and Joseph would be exhausted from carrying their belongings on their shoulders for miles. It’s easy to romanticize the story. We forget how difficult that first Christmas Eve really was—not only for Jesus’s parents, but also for those shepherds abiding in the fields.
Those shepherds were out on the hillside, minding their own business, when the glory of the Lord shone around them, and nighttime became daytime. The night became as day! That doesn’t sound like a big deal to us. But think about it. There were no floodlights or fireworks. Nothing ever lit up the night—until this multitude of the heavenly host appeared on that mountain. It was a shock, to those shepherds. The night became as day. Then, a skyful of angels appeared, and scared them out of their wits. A voice shouted, “Do not be afraid!” The angels began to sing. It was not an average night on the hillside.
The shepherds were terrified. Not just puzzled, not just shocked, but absolutely TERRIFIED. The New English Bible says “they were terror-stricken.” The Contemporary English Version says “they were frightened.” The Living Bible says “they were badly frightened.” Today’s English Version says “they were terribly afraid.” The King James Version says “they were sore afraid.” You get the point.
The angels told the shepherds what they were supposed to do—to go and see, and then make it known, that a baby had been born in a manger stall. The baby was God’s sign to them, and to all people. So these rough laborers pulled themselves together. They did what the angel of God told them to do. I’m hoping they had enough presence of mind to put out their campfire. They must have had to leave the flocks untended—hundreds of sheep, all wandering around on the hillside—so they could hurry to Bethlehem. Imagine their excitement. They were so energized, so hyped-up, that not a single shepherd wanted to wait, to finish his shift. This was the most important event in human history and God had chosen them to be witnesses. The shepherds got the message. Our jobs will have to wait, they thought. Our savior is born!
Yes, the Messiah is born tonight, and we’ve put everything on hold to be here. Opening presents can wait. The turkey dinner can wait. Our worries and debts can wait. Answering text messages and email can wait. Finishing the last-minute shopping and wrapping, can wait. The babe who was, and is, Christ the Lord is all-important.
Jesus is our promise of heaven on earth. He’s more beautiful than the most dazzling Christmas tree. He’s more valuable than any Christmas gift. He’s more satisfying than the most delicious foods. He’s more exquisite than the harmonies of any choir, more inspiring than any Christmas carol or Bible reading.
Do the angels say that MARY and JOSEPH have been given this child? No, they say, “to YOU has been born this day a child who is Christ the Lord!” God’s gift is given for shepherds, kings, tax collectors, Pharisees, innkeepers, soldiers, the broken, the poor, the young and the old … and for you and for me. God sent a sign to the shepherds, and tonight God sends the same sign to us—to make known that God is with us all day, every day, forever more. Alleluia, AMEN.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
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