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A Sermon for Christmas Day: Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1:1-14
December 31, 2013, 10:22 am
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Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ!

Merry Christmas!

Today we celebrate one of the great, central mysteries of our faith: the God who created the universe, who wields cosmic power, is the same God who grows in an ordinary woman and is birthed: a tiny, dependent, fragile infant, breathing the same air that is recycled into our lungs today. 

Even those of us who know this story of Christmas so well can find ourselves tripping over this startling statement: the very same Jesus Christ we know as the baby in the manger and the forsaken man on the cross is the one through whom all things came into being- he is the source of all life. 

Hebrews declares: He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.

For many of us, Jesus has become so familiar that we have separated him from our image of God. God has become amorphous, powerful, and distant. Loving and good- but far beyond our grasp. To have an image of Jesus that enables you to pray, to experience God’s life-giving comfort and salvation, is a good thing. But it can be that holding that image and hearing today’s readings leaves you startled and confused. What does this cosmic, powerful Word of God have to do with Jesus? 

This is the great mystery- the one who is as close to us as a friend is the one who left great power to become that one who is so close. He is the one who returned to this position of power after his resurrection, and is now both as near to you and understanding as a best friend, and has the power to create and give life. 

On Christmas, we do things to reflect the joy of the season. We give gifts as a reflection of the greatest gift God has given us- the gift of his Son. Think of the gifts under your tree, or those gifts you have wrapped for others. Imagine them before they are opened. They are covered, their shape is obscured by boxes or bags. For the one receiving the gift, what the package contains is a mystery. It is a mystery that is shortly to be revealed.

 

Even though it is short-lived, the element of unknown, of revelation, of joyful surprise, is one of the most faith-reflective aspects of our Christmas celebration. Each gift is a little re-enactment of what God is doing in our midst. You know the gift is given in love for you, but what it is, or the process it took for someone to get it for you, is unknown. Each shake of the package or tear of the paper reveals a little bit more about what is inside. 

In the Bible, we hear the witness of thousands of generations pointing to the God who has entered their lives in love. We hear how God is faithful despite their unfaithfulness. We hear how God creates, how God protects, how God provides, and how God saves. Each witness reveals a tiny corner of the package of who God is. 

 

When Jesus comes, we find that we may have thought we had seen most of the shape of who God is. But we had only felt a part of it. Jesus rips open our guessed at images to reveal a God who loves even more deeply than we expected. Jesus shows us a God who acts beyond all human imagination in his lavish work of love. 

 

It is out of incredible love for you that the holy creator of the universe left power, put on human flesh, and entered our existence. It is out of abundant love for you that the source of all life was crucified and died. It is out of steadfast love for you that Jesus was raised from the dead and unites you with himself, so that even death will not separate you from the life-giving God. 

 

There is much about Jesus’ incarnation that remains a mystery. What has been clearly revealed is God’s love for you. Love has brought the life and light of God into your life. Jesus Christ has been born today for you. This is the most unexpected and wonderful gift we will ever receive. 

 

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A Sermon for Christmas Eve: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

We gathered to the proclamation of the birth of Christ. If you’ve never heard this announcement before, it may have felt odd to be told “so many centuries after this, or in the so manyith year of that.” Don’t be caught up in wondering how we have such accurate historical information. Be caught up in the wonder that it proclaims: Jesus Christ, the very God who created all that is, who exists outside of the constraints of time, beyond all human power, –chose to come into our time, into our world, into our state of life.

The active presence of God was witnessed by generations whose stories are recorded in the Bible: Moses and Ruth, Judges and Prophets. Their witness points to the hope that Jesus fulfills – a hope that God will act decisively for the good of all people. In answer to their hope, Jesus Christ has come! Jesus enters our world, at a time and place where the Roman Empire was strong, when the emperor was declared the Lord, and when peace had a heavy price for those who were occupied and had their freedoms constrained.

Jesus enters our world as a different kind of Lord, with a different kind of peace. This king is born outside the comforts of home or palace, and laid in an animal’s manger. His birth is announced first to the outsiders of society when angels appear to shepherds. Word of his identity as savior and messiah spread to the common folk attending Mary’s delivery. This good news is first proclaimed to the ordinary people of the world. It is good news most especially for those who have long been disappointed in their hopes for a better life. This newborn king is not meant for a life of court-centered political intrigue or the comforts of a sheltered and served lifestyle. In a great reversal of what it means to be born Lord, Jesus will serve the people, most especially the outsiders, the poor, and the powerless.

The peace he brings will not be won with bloody battles, nor will it be only for those at the top of society. Isaiah’s vision, that “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire” is a vision of the end of warfare, an end to the type of peace-keeping that comes through violence. The only violence that ushers in the peace of Christ is the violence that Jesus accepts onto himself.  On the cross, as Jesus dies, it is as if Jesus draws all violence and hatred onto himself, leeching it out of humanity. Jesus accepts on to himself all this evil we carry: violence, hatred, and the need to blame others, and under its weight, he dies. But this is not his defeat. Through the power of God, Jesus is victorious over death. Jesus is raised to life. All the power of evil, all the violence that was placed onto him, is destroyed. It is no longer a part of what it means to be human. We have been united with Jesus into a new life: a life of peace and peaceful living today and forever.

The peace the angels declare is meant for all people. Titus writes, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” Jesus is the loving presence of God. All of God’s faithfulness, compassion, love, and hope for creation is born into our world in Jesus. The salvation Jesus brings is healing for all the earth. It is light for our darkness.

On this holy night, we celebrate Jesus’ birth. We celebrate Jesus’ life, and the new life he has won for us in his victory over evil, violence, and death. Yet even as we look back to his incarnation, we also look forward into time with anticipation of God’s final act of restoration and healing. We look for Jesus to come again. We look for all creation to be healed. We look for a time when darkness will be no more.

Titus writes words that might be our own, “We wait for the blessed hope and manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” We know that in Jesus Christ, God has acted to change our world and our lives. God has made our ordinary existence holy by Jesus’ presence. God has ushered in a new kingdom, in which the poor are prized and welcomed just as much as the rich. God has crushed the power of death, and brought us into life through Jesus forever. In Jesus Christ, all these things have been accomplished. Still, the reality of our world and the difficulties of our lives declare that all these great changes haven’t yet taken place. We live in a time of process. Of God’s work already being accomplished, and also being not yet completed.

 

The joy of this season is a fragile joy. It is fragile because it depends on faith- on our hopeful trust that God’s promise is true, that God’s power will accomplish what it has set out to do. May your joy be strengthened, because it is dependent on Jesus. Jesus Christ, God who comes to us as a fragile infant, who dies for us on the cross, is the one whose faithfulness is proven in his life, death, and resurrection. May Jesus create faith in you, so that you would believe the proclamation of this night: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord… Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace…!”  May you receive this life-changing Word with joy. Amen.

 



The Light Shines in the Darkness: A Sermon for Longest Night on John 1:1-5
December 20, 2013, 12:35 pm
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The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

With these words John announces what Jesus has done for you. Jesus has entered this world- this human life- with all its dark days, to bring you life and light.

We’ve come together at the peak of the longest hours of darkness. We’ve come to acknowledge that sometimes in this season of joy, we experience sadness, grief, pain, and regret.

Whether those feelings of darkness last for a moment or a longer season, they can make us feel disconnected- out of sync- with the world around us. Everyone else seems joyfully distracted with holiday plans and drenched in joy- busy with loved ones. Some of us feel alone, or sad, afraid, or overwhelmed. We feel like the world has dimmed into darkness.

Tonight, you are welcome here- welcome to bring your feelings, your memories, your hopes, your self.

Jesus comes to enter the darkness. Jesus is not only present in the joy of life, but also is with you in the difficult times. Jesus came just for those who are stuck in darkness.

Jesus enters the darkness- to change it.

Jesus brings the unfailing light of God. This light may seem to us the slightest glimmer or a warming spark. It is the breath of hope, the fragile possibility that all will be well. Maybe in this life, and certainly in the life to come.

Jesus entered the darkest spots of the human condition. He was rejected by his friends and his people, he was killed in ridicule and buried into death. Jesus goes ahead of you into darkness, so that you would never be alone, even in your darkest days.

Jesus is the light and life of God. This light and life could not be destroyed by the power of death. Jesus rose from the dead. He broke the power of darkness to hold us forever.

Jesus gives this light and life of God to you, and to all the world.

Tonight, you are invited to meet this giver of life and light. Jesus has come to be present with you, to speak words of comfort and promise, to place his Holy Spirit within you, to wash you with the water of new birth, and to feed you with his very life, his body and blood. Whether or not you leave your seat to participate in prayer and communion, if you lift your voice in song or if you remain quiet, if you feel the power of the light or if you continue to feel dimmed in darkness, Jesus’ promise to you is certain and true. Jesus loves you. Jesus will never leave you. Jesus places his life and light inside you, and the darkness will not overcome it. 



Prepare the Way: A Sermon for Advent 2: Matthew 3:1-12, Romans 15:4-13, Isaiah 11:1-10

Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

Today we gather with John the Baptist’s words ringing in our ears: “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

Does anyone know how many days are left until Christmas? Maybe some of the kids among us? There are 16 days and 14 hours until Christmas. Not too long at all. Because of this countdown, the word “Prepare” starts my heart racing and my head pounding. There’s too much left on my list to do before Christmas! Thinking of preparations fills me with anxiety and a sinking feeling that this year, like so many before it, will be another one in which I’m up past midnight finishing presents, and even so, many things will be left undone.

So when I hear John the Baptist echoing Isaiah’s call through the centuries all the way to us here today, I feel more than a little overwhelmed. More preparations? This time for Jesus? What does that even look like?

John calls the people before him to prepare for the Lord by repenting and being baptized. For them, this is a call to a new way of life, signified by the washing and drowning in the water. That leaves me wondering- what more does God want us to do? What in my life needs to be remade? And it leaves me exhausted—what power do I have to make my heart – my life- perfect enough to be anything like a straight path for the Lord to enter?

At this point of frustration and even despair, I find myself thinking that maybe I’m doing this Advent thing all wrong. So often we talk about Advent as a season of preparation. And we know it is that- preparation for Christmas, preparation for welcoming baby Jesus to the manger. But it’s important not to be confused about the worth of our preparations. It’s not my preparation- or your preparation- that makes Jesus come to us or not. Just like we don’t go through Lent and Holy Week wondering whether or not Jesus will really be risen on Easter Sunday, we don’t go through Advent wondering whether or not Jesus will choose to be born a human baby. Jesus has already come- entering that stable, entering First Century Palestine, entering our day and our lives.

John the Baptist quotes Isaiah as it was written in Greek, but in the original Hebrew the word order might be a little different. So Isaiah   reads: The voice of one crying out, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” Maybe that doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but if I think of my life, I think it’s often closer to the wilderness, with ups and downs, false starts, broken hopes, and best intentions never coming to fruition, than it is to a perfectly straight and groomed road, sparkling with welcome and good works for God. Our lives might be more or less wild, rather than perfectly constructed, but Isaiah says that it’s in that wilderness, in us broken people that God will make a way to be present.

Advent is not so much a time of preparing for Baby Jesus to come but of celebrating that Jesus has come and is transforming us so that we might be part of the way- the path- the people of God.

As an example of what this straight way, this coming of Jesus into our world, looks like, we need to turn to our reading from Romans 15. There we see a reflection on how Jesus is making a way in the midst of the newly emerging Christian communities. Most of the New Testament is really about how Christians relate to each other. It’s all about the struggle of making one community in Christ out of diverse people- rich and poor, women and men, employed and unemployed, married and unmarried, sick, disabled, healthy, full or hungry. One other division, the primarily expressed division is between two ethnic groups: Jews and Gentiles (Gentiles are everyone who isn’t Jewish).

Verses 5-7 are key here. Paul writes, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ as welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

The way of the Lord that Jesus is preparing in our midst is the community Jesus forms- it is all of us, with no one left out and everyone welcomed in.

Professor Valerie Nicolet-Anderson writes an insightful reflection on what this means for us:

 

Unity according to Christ also means that differences are not erased. Members do not have to conform to one particular pattern of behavior, but they do have to realize that the essential and defining character of their identity is now Christ.

 

Our churches too are called to this hospitality. This hospitality is not a lukewarm sort of welcome that would translate in letting anyone come in as long as they adapt to what is considered the “strong” position in the church (Romans 15:1), conform to the customs of the established church, or follow the agenda established by the ones in charge inside the community.

Rather, the welcome Paul has in mind threatens the ones who offer it. It pushes them to the threshold of the community and forces them to accept those who come as they are, without seeking to first transform them so that they adapt to the dominant practice. The criterion is the ethos of Christ, and this criterion is one that does not seek to change those who come to Christ.

Professor Nicolet Anderson’s words hit right at what we typically envision as helping people into the church. I look at the way we teach children to be, how we teach newcomers to be in church. I think of how often the refrain “This is how we do it” can be heard coming from well-meaning church folk. And I think of how hard it can be to welcome new ideas and ways of doing things.

When we struggle with inclusion in our own congregation, we join a struggle that has been part of the church since the beginning. It’s a struggle that Jesus helps us with— a straight path that Jesus is leveling out of the mixed desires we carry into this community.

Jesus comes as the one promised to the Jews, but for the benefit of the Gentiles as well. He comes for all people- to form among all of us collectively a way for God to work in this world. Maybe John the Baptist’s words for us would be – prepare to be prepared! And prepare to be surprised- the work of God through Jesus doesn’t always match our expectations or perceived needs.

The big thing to remember this Advent is that the best preparation you can do is to set aside all expectations other than that God is coming into your life and is going to shake things up! Your vision and your expectations aren’t likely to match God’s. But God’s is so much better.

As we prepare for Christmas in our homes, we often carry a vision of what it will be like, or what it should be like: smiling family and friends, all getting along; a table spread with delicious food; perfect presents; and decorations that look like your house belongs in Martha Stewart or Country Living or any number of blogs you’ve found through Pinterest.

It’s this expectation that causes so much stress over the holidays. We think we know what will make us happy. So we set unrealistic expectations on ourselves – and even try to control our guests and family members- to achieve this vision of Christmas perfection.

God invites you to let go of the expectation that it’s up to you to create the best Christmas or even the best Christian community. Let go of the stress that comes from trying to control the outcome of your work and the way other people will be. Live in the joy and freedom that Jesus is building in our midst. The way Jesus is leveling among us is a path that rejoices in God’s presence.

 

 



Darkness and Decorations: A Sermon for Advent 1

Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

 

I’ve been thinking about fear lately. More specifically, about when we learn to fear and how we come to decide what is scary and what is not. Helping a two-year old navigate her world brings up these kinds of questions. As evening falls, her little, insistent voice is just beginning to say things like, “It’s dark, Mommy, I’m scared.”

 

There is something within us and something perfectly rational about being afraid of the dark. Shadows obscure the reality of things. Darkness prevents us from seeing and avoiding dangers. What would otherwise be useful tools: knives, scissors, garden hoes, even coffee tables, can all become quite harmful when we blindly stumble into them. If we can’t see or know what’s right in front of us, we have reason to fear, because approaching them improperly could be dangerous.

 

We’ve been traveling deeper into a season of fewer and fewer hours of natural daylight. Without the help of street, yard, or car lights, it can feel blinding to be out in the dark. We might wonder what dangers are out there, just beyond our sight.

 

We put lights around our homes and towns to keep us safe. I think of those automatic motion detector lights, designed to scare away intruders. They work not only to protect against things outside me. They also help illumine the way from my car to the door as I try to balance bags of Christmas goodies.

 

During hours of darkness, we keep lights lit as we live our days vigilant, looking out, for the things we fear. This is the kind of vigilance Jesus seems to speak of at the end of our reading from Matthew. Keep awake! The homeowner wouldn’t have broken vigilance and gone to bed if he knew a thief was coming to rob him. So keep the security lights on! Lock your doors! Don’t leave your car running unlocked as you try to defrost it before heading to work or school! Look out for danger!

 

I think many of us know the vigilance that comes from fear. As I think of parents sending their children off to college, I remember my own mother’s forwarded emails of the various things to be afraid of- scams and kidnappers and other dangers. Smart phones and social networking make sharing these warnings even easier today. With a simple click, we can share another’s advice to look out for the next danger.

 

Our gospel has some scary and confusing images: a reminder of the deadly flood, a vision of people being swept away, a thief coming in the night. These images are juxtaposed with the sense that God is doing something really big and unexpected in sending the messiah. Jesus wants us to be on the alert for this action — but I don’t think we need to fear this work of God. Instead, Jesus is inviting us to transfer our state of high alert and our willingness to share warnings of danger into a way of anticipating and proclaiming God’s life-giving action.

 

What would it be like if we were vigilant for works of joy? How would our lives, our community, be different if we were always on the lookout to spot the first signs of joy- or of love- or of life-giving transformation breaking into our world? What would it be like if we spent half as much time sharing news of God working in our lives and communities as we spend sharing news of fear?

 

On Thanksgiving morning, I took a little drive to get out of a house consumed with last minute packing, toddler bathing, and general house scrubbing, as I prepared for a time of worship. Sometimes I like silence in the car when I’m alone, but that morning I flipped on Wisconsin Public Radio. The call in program asked people to share about the best gifts they’ve received or given. People shared amazing stories of generosity and relational turning points. Some shared of organs donated or received in life-giving surgeries. One woman spoke of an unexpected embrace from a brother who rarely showed his love, and his offer to do the family’s dishes so she could play a game with her niece. For a whole hour, people called in to share news of joy, love, and generosity– selfless acts that I believe God makes possible in our lives. This was broadcast all over the state and available online.

 

It made me wonder- where and how are we sharing news of the ways we reflect and experience reflections of God’s love? Jesus came into our world, into human life, to declare God’s love and welcome for all people. Jesus makes possible a change of heart, an act of selfless generosity, and hope even in the face of despair.

 

With Thanksgiving over and Advent begun, many people are starting to transform their homes for Christmas. The mini transformations that are occurring are a sign to point us towards the transformation God is working in our world. God has come to us as Jesus, the incarnate one, the baby in the manger. But Jesus’ coming is not the only work of God we celebrate during Advent. This is a time to expect that God is still at work to break into our lives and bring a life-giving change.

 

In this season of increased darkness, we use lights to push back the darkness and reveal what is in front of us. The lights of candles and Christmas lights remind us to look into the darkness with hope.

 

One of my favorite things to do in this season is to drive around neighborhoods to see everyone’s decorations. It gives me the sense of the whole community becoming aware of the joy of this season. In a way, it reminds me of our reading from Isaiah.

 

Isaiah speaks the word that God shows to him. God offers a vision of a changed world, in which all the nations will recognize God’s presence and wisdom. The world will be so changed that war and weapons will no longer be useful. Isaiah offers this vision after acknowledging the destruction that is a part of his world. We know that destruction and danger are a part of our world today, but God invites us to also look forward with hope- hope and trust- for a new future of peace and joy for all peoples and nations.

 

Among all the choices for decorations, from inflatable santas to elegant wreaths, the one thing featured in most homes will be lights.  Instead of serving as increased security, they are meant for increased awareness of joy and hope- a celebration of God’s coming into our lives. The next time you notice Christmas lights, I pray that you also take a moment to notice one way God is working in your life and our world. Use the opening this season provides in conversation to share your own experience of God’s coming- God’s Advent. Invite someone else into this joy.

 

God has come to exchange your fear for joy. Rejoice! Share the good news.