Keeping It Real at Christmas

keeping-it-realMatthew 2:10-18

There were several wonderful things about our service on Christmas Eve, the night that we celebrated the coming of God into this world through the gift of Jesus Christ:

The number of people that chose to worship here on that night—of course!

Our soloist, Allison Bonner—most certainly!

Sharing Holy Communion with our loved ones—definitely!

The singing of familiar carols and the lighting of our candles—absolutely!

However, whether we realized it or not, I believe the very best thing about our worship on Christmas Eve was the large number of babies and small children present, and especially all of the noise and fuss that they were making.

On the night that we gathered to worship the gift of a new-born baby, born for our salvation, we were reminded of the sheer, untamed, undecorated reality of that gift as babies were crying, children were restless and some adults grew anxious.

As we very sentimentally turned off the lights, lit out candles and sang the sweet verses of Silent Night, the light in the Church Street Narthex continued to burn brightly while a stressed mother bounced her fussy infant in her arms, pacing back and forth.

And while there were anxious parents and grandparents here in this place, there was even more anxiousness, worry and even fear beyond these walls.

As we were listening to the angelic voice of Allison Bonner sing O Holy Night, Joe and Cass Santapolo were with their daughter, Caroline and her sick son Jackson in the children’s hospital at Duke University awaiting surgery.

While we were sharing the bread and the cup, Cora Aycock had just arrived in the emergency room at Vidant with her son James who had a bacterial infection.

While we were listening to the story of Christmas and singing carols, countless other children were suffering—some from all kinds of sickness, from ear infections and stomach viruses to seizures and cancer—some from abuse, others from hunger.

This is Christmas unfiltered. This is real Christmas. This is Christmas reality.

But every year we try to cover it up. We wrap it with colorful paper and tie a bow around it. We string it with artificial lights and decorate it. We try to romanticize it, sentimentalize it. But no matter how hard try, no matter how much energy we expend or how much money we spend, we cannot conceal the real harshness of it, the harsh realness of it.

But every year, for whatever reason, we try. Maybe it is because the story fills us with so much hope and so much peace, we can’t help but to glamourize the scene of that first Noel.

In our minds, the scene is majestic. It is glorious. Angels flying in the night sky singing a heavenly chorus. A brilliant star rising in the East.  A baby worshipped by Shepherds and Kings and even animals.

In our Nativity scene, there is no crying, no fussing, no colic, no ear infections, no stomach viruses, no disease, no restlessness, no dirty diapers, no spit up, no anxiety, no fear.  Our Nativity is a serene, sweet, sanitized scene. It never rains in our Bethlehem.

And then we tend to romanticize the rest of the story.

A glorious baptismal scene with John the Baptist and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. Jesus calling faithful disciples who drop everything to follow him. Even the cross has become sentimental—a perfect, pretty piece of jewelry to adorn the neck. It looks nice upright or sideways. In our minds, the whole story is a beautiful, perfect fairytale.

But the truth is that was not the reality of Christmas. Christmas reality was not beautiful.  Christmas reality was far from perfect.

Christmas reality, says the prophet Isaiah is “Like, a root out of dry ground,” Jesus was born among animals in a cattle stall and placed in a feeding troth with the stench of wet straw and animal waste in the air.

Yes, Kings, Magi or Wise Men came to worship the baby, but we forget that King Herod was using those eastern visitors to locate the baby so he could run a sword through him. And we forget the holocaust in Ramah, the innocent babies slaughtered, the desperate cries of anguish and despair from parents because there children were “no more.” We forget the escape to Egypt like homeless refugees.

This is Christmas. This is the Christmas reality.

And the rest of the story?

We forget that John Baptist argued with Jesus trying to prevent his baptism. We forget Jesus was tempted by Satan not only in the desert for forty days but his entire life by disciples who never seemed to understand him. We forget he made just a few precious friends, but a mob of enemies. And in the end, those enemies got him.  And his best friends betrayed, denied and abandoned him. And we forget that it was in the most god-forsaken of ways, God, the creator of all that is, was tortured to death.[i]

This is the reality of it. And this is the good news of it!  This is why the story fills us with such hope and peace. The reality, the good news of Christmas is that there is nothing glamorous, glitzy sentimental, or romantic about it. God came into the real world, encountered real evil in the most real of ways, experienced real suffering and pain and died a very real death.

Dr. Ernie White was one of my professors who was stricken with cancer while I was a student at Southern Seminary. I’ll never forget something he shared with us in class one day.  He said, “Although I cannot explain it, somehow, the sicker I am, the more pain I experience, the more hopeful I become, because in the moments of my most immense suffering, God has been and is the most real to me.”

Because of Christmas, through the coming of God in Christ into a very real and broken world, we know that God knows something about real human suffering and real human misery. God knows what it feels like to feel forsaken by God. God is therefore able to relate to us in the most intimate of ways in those moments when life is the most real, the most broken.

This is what made our Christmas Eve service so wonderful, so miraculous. As we lit the Christ candle with fussy children in the background, we were reminded that God is truly Emmanuel. God is intimately and empathetically with us in our broken reality. God was not looking down on our worship from glorious streets of gold, but God was right here in these worn, wooden pews beside us.

Beside the one who broke her leg… Beside the one who lost his job… Beside the one whose marriage is ending… Beside the one undergoing treatments for cancer…  Beside the ones whose children are sick… Beside the ones whose children have died.

On this First Sunday after Christmas we bless these sweet children, we promise to surround them with a community of love; however, we also realize that truly loving them means that we cannot always protect them from the broken reality that is this world. However, with faith in Christmas, with faith in the God who knows the reality of this broken world, we know that God will always truly and authentically be Emmanuel, God with them.

Therefore, when we bless James Alexander Aycock and David Grimes Lewis this morning, when we touch them saying to them, “The peace of Christ be with you always,” we are not merely whistling in the dark. We are not simply being sentimental and in no way are we being artificial. But we are being as authentic, as genuine and as true as we can possibly be.

As people with the faith in Christmas, we are keeping it real—as real as that untamed night in an undecorated stable in Bethlehem.

And baby James, who has a tube in one of his kidneys, awaiting surgery on that kidney in a couple of weeks, deserves nothing less.

And baby Grimes, who has been on antibiotics and a nubulizer this week, who has just started teething, who promises, like all babies, that the one thing we can all expect in this world is the unexpected, demands that we keep it real this day!

Let us pray together: O God, we thank you for coming into the real world as a real little baby, thank you for encountering real evil, for experiencing real suffering and pain, for dying a very real death. And we praise you, dear Lord, for resurrecting it all and for giving us a peace that is beyond understanding and a hope that is abundant and eternal. Amen.

 

PRAYERS AND OTHER ELEMENTS OF WORSHIP  FOR THE DEDICATION OF CHILDREN, PARENTS AND CONGREGATION

INVOCATION

Emmanuel, God with us, show us where you may be found today. In each human birth, in the joys of parenthood and in tragedy and loss—in loving homes and in broken homes.

Emmanuel, we rejoice that you are with us—in everything, through everything.

Lord Christ, be born in us today.

Word of God, become flesh in us that we might live your gospel in hope.

Light of the world, shine on us and in us and through us for our sakes and for the sake of your world.

Loving God, help us to see your grace, hear your voice, and follow in your way through Jesus Christ our Savior who taught us to pray…

PASTORAL PRAYER

O God, as we continue to celebrate the good news of Christmas, as we continue to light candles and sing carols, even as we gather around a beautiful tree aglow with lights and Chrismons, we acknowledge the real pain and the real sadness of this broken world.

While we rejoice in hope, we know of others who cry in despair.

While we experience peace, others know strife and injustice.

While we are surrounded by love, others are enveloped by hatred.

While we are filled with joy, others are overcome with grief and fear.

Thank you for being Emmanuel, God with us. Thank you for coming into this world as it is, fragmented, fragile and forlorn. Thank you for knowing what it feels like to be human in the real world—to be tempted, lonely, betrayed, afraid, to die, and to even feel forsaken by God.

And thank you for always working in our world to transform it all, to redeem it all, to resurrect it all, to work all things together for the good.

Come now and work on us, work in us, and work through us, to help us share this good news with all people, especially to the children with which we have been entrusted. Help us to prepare them for the world ahead of them by showing them faith in Christ and teaching them to follow the way of the gospel.

Forgive us when we fall in love with Christmas but neglect to share it with others. But continue to be Emmanuel as we continue to strive to be the church that you are calling us to be in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

 

INVITATION TO COMMUNION[ii]

This is the table of the Lord.

Come, not because you are strong, but because you are weak.

Come, not because you deserve to come or you have done something to earn the right to come, but because you need mercy and you need grace.

Come because you love the Lord a little, but you like to love him more.

Come, because the Lord loves you and understands what it is like to be you. Come because the Lord has become flesh to dwell among us.

Let this bread and this cup be for you the token and pledge of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

 

OFFERTORY SENTENCE (Adapted from Worship Reources #518 Chalice Worship, p.392.)

The amazing gift of God who emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out into the real world to become one of us prompts us to make a grateful response. In Christ we have known a love that will not let us go. Through an offering, let us share this love in our community and to the ends of the earth.

OFFERTORY PRAYER

Gracious God, we now give these offerings that they might herald the good news of Christmas. Accept them as expressions of our response to the gift of your Son and the salvation he brought us.

 

DEDICATION OF CHILDREN[iii]

Hear these words from Deuteronomy 6:4-7

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.* 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.

Charge to Parents

You parents are now to recall your own faith journeys and give yourselves in covenant to lead your children toward full discipleship in Christ.

With gratitude to God;

Josh and Cora, do you receive James Alexander; Billy and Jessica, do you receive David Grimes, as a precious gift of God, and seek God’s grace and this community’s support in nurturing and caring for your child?

Do you covenant to remain faithful in love to your child, whatever the future may bring?

Do you promise before God and this community so to fashion your lives that your child may come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?

If so, please say, “I do.”

Charge to the Church

The church, as a family of God, gladly joins you in holy covenant for the care and the nurture of these children.

Congregation, will you please stand.

Do you promise as a community of faith:

To surround these families with your love for the strengthening of their life together;

To be for these parents and children a family in Christ whose love for them cannot be broken;

To accept these children into your loving care for shared responsibility in their growth toward fullness in the life of Christ.

To keep it real with these children, by telling they the good news of Christ, to help them learn the ways of Christ and to lead them in service to God and neighbor?

If so, please indicate so, by saying “We do.”

James Alexander Aycock, I am not merely whistling in the dark when I say to you, “May the peace of Christ always be with you.”

David Grimes Lewis, I am not glibly gushing when I say to you, “May the peace of Christ always be with you.”

Prayer of Dedication

Great and gracious God,

We celebrate these young lives that you have given us, and ask your  blessing upon them.

Lay upon them your hands of love, that they may always know how precious they are to you—and to us.

Lay upon them your hands of grace, so that when they fall for falter, they will know that you are there to help pick them up again.

Lay upon them your hands of hope, that they will grow up to dream bold dreams, and lay upon them your hands of courage so that they might bring those dreams to life.

Lay upon them your hands of Light, so that your light might shine through them.

Lay upon them your hands of joy, so that their lives might be filled with laughter.

Bless these children, O God, for we dedicate them to you. And in so doing, we renew our own dedication to you so that your lives might be a word of blessing upon the lives of our children. As family and friends, as their family of faith, help us to be good stewards of the lives with which we have been entrusted. In the name of Jesus Christ, who welcomed the children, we pray. Amen.[iv]

COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION

Go now into the real world and keep it real.

Go into the real world and share your faith in a real God who became a real little baby, who encountered real evil, experienced real suffering and pain, and died a very real death.

As you have blessed James and Grimes this day, go and in a very real way, share the peace of Christ with all people.

And may the real love of God, the real grace of Jesus Christ and the real communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all.


[i] Inspired from a sermon by Frederick Buechner entitled “Two Stories,” from Secrets in the Dark  (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 86-87.

[ii] Adapted from Colbert S. Cartwright, O.I. Cricken Harrison, eds. Chalice Worship (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1997), 21, 22.

[iii] Adapted from Chalice Worship, 21, 22.

[iv] Haymes, Peggy. Be Thou Present: Prayers, Litanies, and Hymns for Christian Worship (Macon, Georgia: Smyth and Helwys Pubishing, 1994), 69.

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We Do Not Light Our Candles on Christmas Eve with Optimism

candlelight-services

I was listening to MPR a while back and heard an interview with a psychologist who said that, according to her research, the single, biggest key to living a healthy life is staying optimistic.   In one of those voices that was so pleasant and friendly and sugary sweet that it got on your nerves, she said:

“Optimists have less stress, better marriages, and healthier diets. They tend to have a sunnier outlook on the world, which translates to positive self-esteem and self-confidence. Optimists generally believe that things are getting better, that humanity is improving, the world’s problems are being solved.”

And then, to clinch her point, she said: “We also discovered that optimists live longer than other people.”

As a Christian minister I thought: “If that statement about optimists is really true, then there is no way that Jesus could have been an optimist.  For he was dead at 33.”

While some Christians are always  a delight to be around, always cheerful and positive, Christmas hope is fundamentally different from optimism.

Christian hope has very wide and focused eyes on the devastation of the world, and Christmas hope readily acknowledges that things may not get better.  Christmas hope does not bury its head in yuletide cheer and artificial lights, but like an Advent wreath glowing stronger and brighter each week, Christmas hope pushes its way into the brokenness of this world, clearing a path in the darkness so that the true light might shine.

Christian hope has the courage to work for the Biblical vision of justice, healing and liberation, trusting that such working is a testimony, a witness to the Light: The light that came through Jesus to teach us that God loves us and God is with us and God will never leave us and never forsake us;  The Light that reveals God will stay by our side and resurrect all of our sorrow into joy, our despair into hope and our deaths into life.

Tom Long tells a story about rabbi Hugo Grynn who was sent to Aushwitz as a little boy.  In the concentration camp, in the midst of death and immense suffering, many Jews held on to whatever shreds of religious observance they could without drawing the attention of the guards.  One cold winter’s evening, Hugo’s father gathered the family in the barracks.  It was the first night of Chanukah, the Feast of Lights.  The young child watched in horror as his father took the family’s last stick of butter and made a makeshift candle using a string from his ragged clothes.  He then took a match and lit the candle.

“Father, no!” Hugo cried.  “That butter is our last bit of food!  How will we survive?”

“We can live for many days without food,” his father said. “But we cannot live a single minute without hope.  This is the fire of hope.  Never let it go out.   Not here.  Not anywhere.”

It is Christmas Eve.  These days are darker, both literally and figuratively.  We are surrounded by never-ending questions of pain and sadness—a world groaning for salvation. Tonight we light our candles, hear the Christmas story and say our prayers, and wait for the coming Christ.  We wait for the Light that will never go out.

We are not being merely optimistic.  But in Christ, we possess an abundance of faith, trust and confidence that God is Emmanuel, God with us and God for us, and the day is coming when God’s Light will come and rid this world of darkness forever bringing forth a new and glorious creation!

What Is Christmas All About?

meaning_of_christmas

If Christmas is all about the exchanging of gifts…Then it will mean a lot of shopping which will lead to a lot of stress, debt and depression.

If Christmas is all about children…Then it will be especially painful for those who have lost children, for those who have never been able to have children, and for those whose children are estranged. Christmas will mean lost dreams which will lead to anguish, regret and depression.

If Christmas is all about family… Then it will be especially painful for those of us, including me, who have lost loved ones this past year.  Christmas will mean empty chairs at the table which will lead to grief, sorrow and depression.

No wonder Christmas is the most depressing time of the year for so many people.  No wonder suicide rates are at their highest this time of the year.

However, if Christmas is all about the Holy gift of God’s self to us through a little baby named Jesus, then Christmas will mean hope.  If Christmas is all about Emmanuel, God with us, then Christmas will mean peace.  If Christmas is all about God who came to earth to heal and forgive, then Christmas will mean love.  If Christmas is all about God, who through Jesus the Christ came to earth and died and who was resurrected, then Christmas will mean joy which will lead to abundant and eternal life.

I want to encourage all of you to avoid depression by making the worship of the God of our Lord Jesus Christ a priority this Christmas season so we can receive true life, and together, share it with others.

Christmas in the Weeds

nativity

Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43 NRSV  A sermon delivered to Broadmoor Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, LA, July 13, 2008

Have you ever noticed that whenever we romanticize, glamorize, sentimentalize life, even faith itself, whenever our expectations are too great, we are usually greatly disappointed?

Our family vacation was coming to an end.  It was our last day at the beach.  I had looked forward to spending the entire day on the beach, swimming in the crystal, Caribbean-blue water with my children.  In my mind, it was going to be the perfect day.

But on our last day, the Caribbean-blue water was not so Caribbean-blue.  It was seaweed green.  Sometime during the night, the weediest seaweed you’d ever seen had drifted into the waters in front of our condo.  The water was green, the beach was green, and if you swam in it, you’d be green too.  I had never seen so many weeds.

So, I spent the rest of that day that came with such expectation working on this sermon—which ironically happens to be about Jesus’ parable of the weeds.   No matter what kind of expectations we may have for our garden, weeds are always bound to appear.  Allow me to give you another example.

The previous day, I was reading a book on the beach when my eye caught notice of a young family playing in the surf.  A father was helping his eight-year old boy ride a wave on his boogie board.  A mother was holding the hands of her six-year old daughter who was standing in front of her, lifting her up to hop over the incoming waves.  In spite of a little envy and jealousy, I managed to smile as I watched them, for it was a beautiful picture of a perfect family vacation.

But as they came out of the water to take their seats next to me, something happened—you might say that these weeds began to appear.

“Daddy, a jelly fish stung me,” whined the little boy.  “Mommy, I’m hungry,” moaned the daughter.    “Son, stop shaking that towel, you’re getting sand all over everybody!” griped the father.  Exasperated, the mother yelled:  “Why can’t we just have one day on our vacation without all this fussin’?”

And as I watched them, I smiled once more, but this time, even bigger than before, because this time, this Norman Rockwelian family looked more real, like, say the Banks’ family on vacation—because regardless of my high expectations for a perfect vacation, somehow, someway these weeds would always appear.

It’s not so different from the expectations I had before moving to Baton Rouge.  Whatever I had envisioned about my transition—answering the call of God, following my savior on a wondrous adventure into the deep, antebellum South, embarking on a brand new journey with the Lord—No, whatever my expectations were, I can assure you that it had nothing to do with what actually transpired.  Lori becoming ill.  Our health insurance denied.  My car vandalized in the night.  Throwing out my back while moving a garden hose.  A constant battle with seasonal allergies.  No, no matter what my great expectations may have been, weeds were bound to appear.

And the weeds on my beach, in my garden, have been and are a lot more manageable than some of your weeds.  Thus far, my weeds have been merely a nuisance.  Other weeds have been bent on entangling and even strangling all that is good.

An unforeseen accident tragically claims the life of the innocent.  Someone falls and fatally breaks a hip.  The doctor says the tumor is malignant.  A mother dies very unexpectedly.  One faces two surgeries in a month; both are unsuccessful.   Chemotherapy treatments make some deathly sick.  And that’s just scratching the surface here in our family of faith.  Elsewhere, a  U. S. consulate is attacked by terrorists.   Tornados ravage entire communities.  Wildfires continue to destroy homes.   And the Mississippi River continues to rise; levees continue to break.

No, as much as we try to romanticize, glamorize or sentimentalize our vacations, our families, our lives, despite all of our high expectations for the perfect day on the beach, the perfect family, the perfect vocation, the perfect life—the weediest weeds always appear.

So the slaves complain to the householder:  “Where did all of these weeds come from?”  This is not what we were expecting. “What are we to do with them?  Do you want us to pull them up, try our best to get rid of them ourselves?”

“No, says the Master.  But have hope.   In the meantime, we have to live  alongside the weeds, but the time is coming, at the end of the age, when the weeds will be collected and destroyed forever.  And there will be no more mourning.  No more crying and pain.  Death will be no more.”

This is, of course, the hope all of us have in what we call the second coming of Christ.  It is the hope we have that Christ will somehow, someway, someday come again and defeat evil and destroy the weeds that entangle us, that have sought and that may even prevail to strangle the very life out of us on this earth. It is the hope that one day we will reside in the Kingdom of Heaven where weeds simply do not exist.

But wait a minute.  Notice that this parable begins with the customary parabolic prefix, “’The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to…’  Someone who sowed good seed; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is not only that eternal weed-free place that is part of our future.  The Kingdom of Heaven is something we can also experience in the present, among the weeds.  It is not something  that we only  look forward to after the second coming of Christ, it is something we can somewhat experience today as a result of the first coming of Christ.

I believe one of the reasons we often miss this truth is because of our aforementioned propensity to romanticize, glamorize and sentimentalize life.  And I’m afraid we have a tendency to do this even with the incarnation, the first coming of Christ.

Angels flying in the night sky singing a heavenly chorus.  A brilliant star rising in the East.  A baby worshipped by Shepherds and Kings and even animals.  A glorious baptismal scene with the Holy Spirit descending like a dove.   Jesus calling faithful disciples who drop everything to follow.  Even the cross has become sentimental—a perfect, pretty piece of jewelry to adorn the neck.  In our minds, the whole story is a beautiful, perfect garden completely devoid of weeds.

But the truth is and the good news is that it was not that beautiful.  It was not that perfect.  It is the story of God being born into the weedy existence of humankind.

We forget “Like, a root out of dry ground,” says the prophet Isaiah” he was born among weeds in a stable and placed in a feeding troth with the stench of wet straw and animal waste in the air.  We forget that John Baptist argued with Jesus trying to prevent his baptism.  We forget he was tempted by Satan not only in the desert for forty days but his entire life by disciples who never seemed to understand him.   He made just a few precious friends, but a mob of enemies.  And in the end, those enemies got him.  His best friends betrayed, denied and abandoned him.   And in the most god-forsaken of ways, God, the creator of all that is, was tortured to death.[1]

There is nothing glamorous, sentimental, or romantic about it.  God came into the real world, encountered real evil in the most real of ways, experienced real suffering and died a very real death.   And the irony is: we call this story good news.

Dr. Ernie White was one of my professors who was stricken with cancer while I was a student at Southern Seminary.  I’ll never forget something he shared with us in class one day.  He said, “Although I can not explain it, somehow, the sicker I am, the more pain I experience, the more hopeful I become, because in the moments of my most immense suffering, God has been and is the most real to me.”

I believe that is because through the first coming of God through Christ into a very real and broken world, God knows something about real human suffering and real human misery.  God is therefore able to relate to us in the most intimate of ways in those moments in life when the weeds are the thickest.

The good news is somehow, someway, someday, Christ will return and defeat evil and destroy the weeds of this world forever.  However, the really good news is that we do not have to wait.  We can experience a taste of the kingdom of heaven even among the weeds, maybe especially among the weeds of this world today.

This is how, although I know things are not going to be perfect, although I realize that my family, my vocation, and my life, my path ahead of me, will be strewn with weeds, this is how I still manage to have some great expectations.  And I know I will never be disappointed.  Let us pray together.

O God, thank you for the hope that we have that one day there will be an eternal life in a garden completely devoid of weeds.  However, until that day comes, thank you for the hope we have that today we can experience life abundant even among the weed, maybe especially among the weeds, because we know you are with us in the most real and intimate of ways.


[1]Inspired from a sermon by Frederick Buechner entitled “Two Stories,” from Secrets in the Dark  (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 86-87.

Christmas for the Average Joe

st-joseph-infant-jesus-344x400Matthew 1:18-25 NRSV

This past week, I went to the post office to purchase some Christmas stamps for our Christmas cards.  And this year, like every year, I am asked the same question from the postal clerk that goes something like this:  “Do you want the gingerbread house, or do you want the religious stamps?”  Last year, it was either “the snowman or the religious stamps?”

Of course I want the religious stamps! It’s Christmas, and I’m a preacher, and I’m supposed to be religious!

“What kind of religious stamps to you have?” I asked.

And every year it’s always the same. In the Christmas religious category, you always have the same number of choices—one.  Said the clerk: “It’s the Madonna and child, you know, the portrait of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus.”

Have you ever wondered why there are no stamps of Joseph holding the baby Jesus?  In all of your born days, have you ever seen such a stamp?  Have you ever even heard of such a stamp?

Now, I understand that way back then, in a male dominated society, men probably didn’t do a lot of baby holding.  That was the woman’s job.  But why hasn’t there ever been a postage stamp of Jesus and Joseph hard at work in Joseph’s workshop building something together?  Why can’t we find a postage stamp of Jesus and his carpenter father building a new pew or a pulpit for the local synagogue?

And along the same lines, how many Christmas carols or a Christmas hymns have you ever heard that are about Joseph?  If you look through any traditional hymn book, you’ll find, “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child Lowly in a Manger;” “That Boy-Child of Mary.” “What Child is this, Who, Laid to Rest on Mary’s Lap;” “Child in the Manger, Infant of Mary.”  Then of course there’s “Silent night, Holy Night, All Is Calm All is Bright Round Yon Virgin Mother and Child!”  Why isn’t it “round yon father, mother and child?” Why is it never “Child in the Manger, Infant of Mary and Joseph?”  The truth is: you’ve got to look high and low, do a lot of googling, to even find one mention of Joseph’s name in any Christmas carol or Christian hymn!

Now, I realize that Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus.  Yet, without him there would be no nativity.  Have you ever seen a nativity scene without Joseph?  Even the very small ones, the ones without all of the animals and the shepherds and wise men, have Mary, the baby Jesus and Joseph!

His role in the Christmas story is so important that he, like Mary is also visited by an angel. He is told that his wife, Mary, is going to have a baby, but he is not the father. However, he must accept the baby as his own.  And then, although he is asked to claim the child, raise the child, and provide for the child, Joseph will not even have the privilege of naming him, as he is told by the angel call him “Jesus.”

He must shoulder the demands of fatherhood. He must support Mary in her awkward situation before the child is delivered. And then, when the child is delivered, he must be born in a barn! Then, soon after, he must be protected from the horrors of King Herod. He must save the child’s life by fleeing to Egypt until it is safe to come back home. But still, Joseph has no postage stamp, no hymn, no carol.

They belong to Mary. Maybe it is because the church has traditionally called Mary “the first disciple.”  And well we should, for she was the first one to be visited by an angel, the first one to hear the call of God on her life, and she is the first one to faithfully say: “yes!”  When the angel told her that she was going to have a baby, she replied with obedient, grateful confidence with the beautiful words: “Let it be to me according to your will.”

Amen, Sister Mary! That will preach!

But what is there about our brother Joseph that will preach? Yes, he does go through extraordinary lengths to care for and protect the baby Jesus. But, really, who wouldn’t? When it comes to innocent babies, no matter who they are, most of us have a soft spot.

So what is it about Joseph that preaches, that speaks to us, that reveals something about who God is, how God acts, and who God is calling us to be?

Mary was the first to receive the good news, the first to be called by God to participate in the movement of God, and Mary was the first to say “yes,” but Joseph is the second to the get the news:  The good news, the gospel, the word that God was pouring God’s self out, emptying God’s self and becoming flesh to save all people through a child to be named Jesus. Joseph is the second to be called by God, which kind of makes Joseph the second disciple. And, Joseph was the second to say “yes!” Maybe that is what preaches about Joseph!

Well, actually, typical of Joseph, he did not say anything, at least nothing that we know of.  In all of our encounters with Joseph in the gospel of Matthew, we do not hear him utter one word.  Did you know that?  Maybe that is the reason the postmaster told me that yet again this year, that if I did not want the Gingerbread House, and wanted something in the religious department, I only had one choice.

But you know something?  Most of us are a lot like Joseph, aren’t we?  No one is going to find a postage stamp with any of our faces on it either. Most of us are a lot like Joseph in that all the news we have about Jesus is really second-hand news. We were not the first to get it.  Mary’s first-hand news was dramatic, causing her to become involved in the movements of God in the world in the most profound of ways, literally with her body and soul.

It’s just not quite the same with Joseph, and it is not quite the same with us.

And, like Joseph, most of us are not big talkers. We are ordinary, quiet folks. When Mary was visited by the angel, she burst into song, singing one of the most beloved songs in all of scripture and the church: her lovely and powerful Magnificat. But Joseph, he never sang. And as far as we know, he never even said anything.  He was a simple man, a quiet man, a rather ordinary man, an average Joe.

Now, I’m a big talker, but you have to pay me to do it! Most of you would be very uncomfortable up here doing what I do in this pulpit this morning. You have faith, but you don’t like to make a big show of it. You believe in Christ wholeheartedly, and you have committed yourselves to follow Christ faithfully, but you don’t have a lot to say about it. You are a faithful disciple, but you are a quiet disciple.

You go about serving your Lord every day, faithfully answering his call, courageously following Christ wherever he leads, albeit quietly.

And like Joseph, sometimes the call of God leads you to do things that you do not want to do. Sometimes it calls you to go to places that you do not want to go. Sometimes it calls you to accept and love people that you would rather not accept and love.

And every ordinary Joe who strives to live as a disciple for the sake of others sacrifices and suffers.  And you do it because something or someone who is greater than yourself is constantly persuading you, encouraging you, leading you. And you follow. You persevere faithfully and courageously, albeit quietly and ordinarily.

You are just an average Joe, minding your own mundane, everyday business, when suddenly your life is caught up in the extraordinary purposes of God. You wake up one day realizing that you need to serve God more by serving others more selflessly—forgive those who have wronged you, care more earnestly, love more deeply, follow Christ more closely.

You wake up with a desire to bake cookies and deliver them to the oncology floor at the hospital on Christmas Day. You awake and feel led to make a donation to the food pantry, serve a meal in the soup kitchen, drive someone to a doctor’s appointment, and purchase a coat or a toy for a child.

And you don’t talk about it. You just very faithfully and quietly act.

The Bible is full of stories of average Joes minding his or her own business, and then, out of nowhere, comes a call. And usually the person being called is speechless.

Do you remember the call of Abraham?  When God called Abraham in the middle of the night, he was too dumbfounded to speak!  Do you remember the call of his wife Sarah?  When she was called, she could not talk either. All she could do was laugh!

When Moses was called, he spoke, but all he said was that he was not a very good speaker. We learn throughout the Bible, that this is simply the way God works. God specializes in calling ordinary people, average Joes, to become caught up in the unexpected and extraordinary movements of God in our world.

Therefore, we remember Joseph on this Sunday before Christmas.  And although we will not sing one carol this day about him, we thank God for him nonetheless. Because in Joseph we can see ourselves:  ordinary, average Joes.

Like him, we mind our own business. But then, into our ordinary lives, God intrudes. God comes to us, and God comes upon us. God calls us.  And even if we are not good with words, even we couldn’t burst into a hymn if we had to, even though we will never be on a postage stamp, if we will at least whisper, “yes,” then like Joseph, we will be faithful disciples, a people willing to follow the movements of God in Jesus Christ wherever it takes us.

And the good news is: that will preach!

PS: I found this poem after I wrote and delivered the sermon:

The hardest task
The most difficult role of all
That of just being there
And Joseph, dearest Joseph, stands for that.
Don’t you see? 

It is important,
crucially important,
that he stand there by that manger,
as he does,
In all his silent misery
Of doubt concern and fear.
If Joseph were not there
There might be no place for us,


Let us be there,
Simply be there just as Joseph was,
With nothing we can do now,
Nothing we can bring-
It’s far too late for that-
Nothing even to be said
Except, ‘Behold- be blessed,
Be silent, be at peace.


The hardest task
The most difficult role of all
That of just being there
And Joseph, dearest Joseph, stands for that.
Don’t you see?[1]

[1] Shepherd, J. Barrie. Faces at the Manger. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1992.

Because of Christmas Day!

 

John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

This past week, a lot of people have asked me: “Are you having church on Christmas day?”

My response was that Christmas Day should be so important to the life of the Christian, we should be in church every year on this holy day, and not just when it happens to fall on Sunday once every seven years!

The reason we lead worship which begins with Advent and ends with Christ the King Sunday, is because we believe the life of the Christian should be governed, directed and guided by the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our lives as Christians begin and end on this earth with this birth that we celebrate on Christmas Day.

The words of one of my favorite Christmas carols go like this: “Long time ago in Bethlehem, so the Holy Bible say, Mary ‘s boy child Jesus Christ was born on Christmas Day. Hark, now hear the angels sing, a king was born today. And we will live forevermore, because of Christmas Day.”  Because of Christmas Day.

The good, glorious news of this holy morning is that we know who our God is, how our God acts and what our God desires; we know who we are, how we should act and what we should desire, because of Christmas day.

Left to our own devises, we could not get close to God, so on Christmas Day God came close to us. Our God who was thought to be distant became as close as God could possibly be to us—becoming one of us—becoming flesh to dwell among us, giving us the best gift that God had to give, the gift of God’s self. Thus, as Christians we know how to live.  And we know how to die. Because of Christmas Day.

Just think about it! When we lose a loved one to death or encounter evil in this world, we grieve, but how can we grieve with hope and assurance? How do we grieve with a peace that is truly beyond understanding? How do we know that God is always a giver and never a taker?  Because of Christmas Day!

Because on this day, God proved to the world how far God is willing to go to give us life! God loves us so much that God emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out to us and for us through a vulnerable little baby born in a stable who grew into a man show us the way to life, abundant and eternal. And although we rejected not only this way, but also him; although spat upon him, tortured him and killed him by nailing him to a tree, God brought him back to life for the very ones who crucified him—revealing in a real and powerful way that God will never give up on us. God will never forsake us. God will always be there for us, forgiving us, loving us, transforming our despair into hope and our deaths into life.

One day, someone asked me why I don’t preach more about the judgment of God, the wrath of God, and preach less about the love and the grace of God. How can I preach with confidence that God is never using the pain of this world to punish us for our sins, but God is always here with us loving us and forgiving us and doing whatever God can do to work all things together for the good? Because of Christmas Day!

Because God came into the world in Jesus to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, eat and drink with sinners, forgive the adulterer, and promise a thief paradise.

Why is our invitation to communion wide-open to all people every Sunday morning? Why are we compelled to love others and share with others so freely and so unconditionally?

To others—to those others who do not deserve our love and have not and will not earn our love—to those others who may reject our love and even abuse our love. Why do we keep on sharing with and keep on loving those who may never share with us and love us?  Because of Christmas Day.

Because God was born to an underserving woman named Mary, was worshipped first by undeserving shepherds, called undeserving fishermen to be his disciples and died for undeserving people like me and you.  Because we have received grace, we are compelled to extend grace.  Because we have been forgiven, we are compelled to forgive. Because of Christmas Day.

“Long time ago in Bethlehem, so the Holy Bible say, Mary ‘s boy child Jesus Christ was born on Christmas Day. Hark, now hear the angels sing, a king was born today. And we will live forevermore, because of Christmas Day.”

Because of Christmas Day.

Whom God Favors

dirtyshepherds

The very first ones on earth to hear the pronouncement of Christmas were shepherds.  Who were these shepherds?   It is accurate to say that they were folks that the popular religious people knew would never “inherit the kingdom of God.”

This is not easy for most of us to hear.  For most of us have a tendency to romanticize the shepherds.  After all, we have been raised in the church with our innocent children depicting shepherds wearing bathrobes in adorable Christmas plays.  And for most of us church folk, shepherding evokes a very positive and pastoral image.  We think about the Old Testament images of the shepherd king David.  We think about the beautiful green pastures and still waters and the protection of the rod and staff of the twenty-third Psalm.  And, of course, we think about Jesus Himself as being the “good shepherd.”

However,  the reality is that shepherding was a most despised occupation.  Mercer New Testament Professor Alan Culpepper writes:  “In the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others’ lands.”  Therefore, it would not be too great of a stretch to give shepherds the current degrading designation: “illegal aliens.”

And why were these people involved in such a despised occupation?  The theology of the day would say, “because of sin, of course.”  They were who they were because of either their own sin or the sins of their parents.  In the eyes of popular religion, the shepherds were poor, immoral sinners.

Fred Craddock writes that the shepherds belong to the Christmas story “not only because they serve to tie Jesus to the shepherd king, David (2 Sam 14:23, 21) but because they belong on Luke’s guest list for the kingdom of God: the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame (Luke 14:13, 21).

The very first people in history to receive the birth announcement of the messiah, the very first ones on earth to celebrate Christmas are sinners; they are the despised, the lowly, the immoral and the outcast.

This is why the angels pronounce the good news of Christmas is great joy for ALL the people.  Culpepper writes:  “The familiarity of these words should not prevent us from hearing that, first and foremost, the birth of Jesus was a sign of God’s abundant grace.”  The birth is a sign that God is on the side of ALL people—even the most despised, the most lowly, the most immoral, the most outcast, the most alien, and the most illegal .  Jesus came even for those who find themselves standing on the outside of the community or church.

And in what form does this sign appear?   The savior was coming into the world through a poor peasant woman to lay in a manger, a feeding trough made for animals.  And it is this humble scene that sets the stage for his entire life on earth.  Jesus, the savior of the world was born and lived and even died on the fringes, on the margins of society—underscoring the truth that the good news has come into the world for ALL—maybe especially to the marginalized.

Page Kelly, my Old Testament professor at Southern Seminary, used to love to say that the biblical symbol for God’s justice on this earth was not a blind woman holding a set of scales.  “It was one of the Old Testament prophets holding a set of scales with his eyes bugged out and his long bony finger mashing down on the side of the poor.”  –Favoring those who have always been despised and marginalized by society.

Sounds a little like the Angels’ song:  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

“But God does not have favorites!” we say.  Arguing that God’s grace is all-inclusive, some ancient manuscripts even omit, “among those whom he favors.”   Fred Craddock says that interpreting this passage all depends on where you put the comma.  The original Greek was without punctuation.  Thus, one could read:  And on earth peace among those (comma), all those who inhabit the earth, whom God favors—making it the song all-inclusive.

But then we have the Song of Mary.  In the Magnificat, Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”  And this favoritism does not appear to be all-inclusive for “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and set the rich away empty” (Luke 1:46-48, 52-53).

So, maybe just maybe, those folks, who for whatever reason, cause people to judge as unworthy of “inheriting the Kingdom of God,” are not the ones who have the problem.

Now, here’s the good news.   And it just so happens that I heard it while visiting an Alzheimer’s patient in the nursing home who does not remember who I am.  There are some days when she does not know who her husband is, but amazingly, she has never forgotten who her Lord and Savior is.  As soon as I entered her room, she read me the front of Christmas card that she was holding in her hand.  “Jesus—in the incarnation, God showed us mercy.”

The good news is that when we realize that we stand in desperate need of God’s mercy, when we realize that apart from the grace of Christ, we are all outsiders, we are all poor, alien, sinful, immoral, when we realize that the shepherds are our brothers, then the joy and peace that is Christmas, that is salvation, is ours.

Wake Forest theologian Frank Tupper commented on Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan stating, “We are all half-dead men or women lying in a ditch somewhere east of Eden—beaten so badly by the sin and evil of this world that no one can tell if we are rich or poor, slave or free, male or female.”

And the news even gets better.  When we realize that we are sisters and brothers to the shepherds, the outsiders, the lowly and despised, the poor and the weak, when we reach out and offer them our bread, our drink, our clothing, our presence, our touch, our love, when we reach out and take in, then the Song of the Angels still fill the skies singing with the comma in just the right place—“Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, among all who inhabit it, whom God favors.”